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Santa Bibiana is a very heavily restored 5th century church, formerly monastic and now parochial, at Via Giovanni Giolitti 154 in the rione Esquilino. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Bibiana, a female martyr of uncertain date. (This is Vivienne in older English -not Vivian, who was a French bishop.)

The parish is adminstered by the congregation of the Sons of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.



The first church was built by Pope Simplicius (468-483) in a locality that used to be the Horti Liciniani, and consecrated in 467. This was recorded in a biography of the pope written by Anastasius Bibliothecarius. The locality had little status in Republican times and was a burial place for poor people, but by Imperial times had improved its standing. The Horti Liciniani were named after a villa that the emperor Licinius Gallienus had owned here.

A building beneath the church, dating from the 4th century, might have been used as an earlier chapel or may simply have been an ancient domestic edifice. The surmise is that there might have been an ancient house church here which gave rise to the legend of St Bibiana, but no archaeological proof of this exists.

According to the received legend, the site originally belonged to St Bibiana's family -so she was buried here after her martyrdom, which was allegedly in 361-363. Then a chapel was built here by the matron Olympina (or Olympia) Faustina, a Christian relative of Bibiana, soon afterwards. However, this legend is considered to have been forged in early medieval times and to have no historical value. The details are anachronistic, since there were no martyrs in the period claimed, and the then pagan emperor Julian actually prohibited violence against Christians in order not to encourage them. The revised Roman martyrology only refers to her martyrdom, and has deleted her status as a virgin.

The legend provided her with a father Flavian, a mother Dafrosa and a sister Demetria, and these feature in the artworks in the church.

Ursus Pileatus[]

According to a medieval tradition, 10,000 Christian martyrs were buried in a cemetery on this site, but this also seems to have no basis in fact. The surmise identifies the location with that described in ancient sources as ad Ursum Pileatum ("the bear with a cap on"), but this is false -although the sources are confused, and some forgery has not helped.

The remote source of this idea lies in a reference in the biography of Pope Leo II (682-4) which reads: Fecit ecclesiam iuxta Sanctam Vibianam, ubi et corpora sanctorum Simplicii, Faustini, Beatricis atque aliorum martyrum condidit, atque nomen beati Pauli dedicavit ("He built a church near St Bibiana, where he buried the bodies of the saints Simplicius, Faustinus and Beatrice as well as of other martyrs, and to which he gave the name of the blessed Paul"). This event was part of the removal of martyrs' relics from the suburban catacombs to within the city walls under the  pressure of barbarian incursions, prior to the abandonment of these catacombs. 

The church of San Paolo iuxta Sanctam Bibianam is thought to have been in ruins by the start of the 12th century, although Armellini writing in 1891 claimed that traces of it were still visible in his time. He thought that it was identical to a monastery called San Leone also in the area, hence he listed it as Santi Leone e Paolo.

The saints concerned were originally enshrined in catacombs on the Via Portuense, under the Basilica di Generosa. There was another set of catacombs on the same road, now called the Catacomba di Ponziano, which used to be called ad Ursum Pileatum, and it seems that the name was transferred to the locality of the church of San Paolo. Antonio Bosio, writing at the end of the 16th century, claimed to have found an inscription in the ruins of San Paolo which read: Anno Domini [...], mense Octobris, dedicationem huius ecclesiae sanctorum martirum Simplicii, Faustini et Beatricis ad cimiterium Ursi Pileati, Leo Papa maxima devotione..., which is ambigiuous and may have been the source of the mediaeval tradition that Ursus Pileatus was hereabouts.

At the canon's residence at Santa Maria Maggiore is what is apparently the 7th century marble urn which used to contain the relics. This has an inscription on the side, under a chi-rho symbol, which reads: Martyres Simplicius et Faustinus, qui pass[i] sunt in flumen Tibere et positi sunt in cimiterium Generoses super Philippi. ("The martyrs Simplicius and Faustinus, who suffered [by being drowned] in the river Tiber, and were put in the cemetery of the [Generosa family] above that of Philip"). This urn used to be at Santa Bibiana, and was presumably moved when San Paolo fell into ruins. It indicates that St Beatrice was only included later with the two saints mentioned, to make a trio.

There is a 12th century epigraph preserved in the portico, which claims the site of ad Ursum Pileatum was on the road on which Santa Bibiana was situated; it may have been carved when the relics were moved to this church.

A epigraph lost in the 17th century restoration mentioned a 13th century abbess called Euphrosine, who embellished an altar in the church dedicated to St Simplicius: Ad honorem Sancti Simplici, ego Eufrosina humilis abbatissa hoc opus fieri iussi ("To the honour of St Simplicius, myself Euphrosine the humble(!) abbess ordered this work to be done").

There is a story that, in the Bernini restoration, a carving of a bear with a cap on was dug up but immediately fell to pieces. A contemporary (stucco?) copy was made allegedly incorporating some of the bits, and this was apparently still in the church garden at the start of the 20th century.

Middle ages[]

The church appears in the Dark Ages as attached to a convent of nuns, firstly in a survey of 806 and then again in 981.  These nuns would have been Benedictine by the latter date.

Three nuns from the community are recorded as having joined the new convent of San Sisto Vecchio when it was founded around 1210 (the exact year is uncertain).

The church was restored by Pope Honorius III in 1224. At the same time, a new convent was built adjacent to the church for the community of nuns (a surprisingly late restoration, as Benedictine monasticism in the city was in the process of collapse). This convent apparently stood opposite the church façade. Epitaphs of abbesses of the monastery survive in the church.

The convent failed and was suppressed by Pope Eugene IV in 1439, although the convent building survived until destroyed in the Bernini restoration. The motivation for the suppression was stated as being the immoral behaviour of certain of the nuns. As well as the obvious problem of nuns becoming pregnant, one abuse that could lead to the suppression of a nunnery was the practice of black magic -which certainly went on among religious at Rome at the time.

The church was made the responsibility of the Chapter of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Bernini restoration[]

The present church is the result of a 17th century remodelling, which was ordered by Pope Urban VIII as part of the preparations for the Holy Year of 1625. The complex had apparently stood empty for almost a century when Bernini was commissioned to turn it into a Baroque church, and the work was in progress in the years 1624 to 1626. This was the first architectural project that he undertook in his distinguished career, and the consensus among architectural historians is that he gave little indication of his future talents in the field by his work here. 

The original little basilica was apparently left substantially intact. Bernini rebuilt the apse to contain his gigantic statue of St Bibiana, and also added chapels at the ends of the aisles. Most importantly he demolished the convent (which must have been ruinous by then), and added an entrance loggia to the front of the church with a priest's house above to replace it.

The mediaeval Romanesque brick tower-campanile was also demolished, and replaced by a little roof-campanile. The tower used to be by the near end of the left hand aisle.

The project also included the construction of a carriage road from a junction at Trofei di Mario (now in the garden of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II). This was called the "Via di Santa Bibiana" (nothing to do with the present road tunnel under the railway).

At some stage, apparently later than Bernini (but when?), suites of three rooms were added to the outer side of each apse. The middle ones of these rooms were funerary chapels patronized by private patrons.

Country setting[]

It is very difficult now to imagine the setting of the church as it was right up to 1870. It was lost in the countryside, with the extensive gardens of the Villa Sacripanti to the north. A narrow vicolo ran from the little piazza in front of the church, around the eastern boundary wall of the villa to the Porta San Lorenzo (itself moved). The main access road ran in a straight line from the Trofei di Mario through vineyards, belonging to the nearby Celestine monastery at Sant'Eusebio all'Esquilino, to the church, and a narrow track continued through more vineyards to the Tempio di Minerva Medica. Tourists visiting the latter were in risk of being mugged in such a lonely location. 

The façade before the 19th century used to face down the old access road with a little church garden down the left hand side, and a larger one just by the right hand corner of the portico. The church was surrounded by a vineyard on its right hand and back sides, where the street now is. The larger garden had a house in it, and this looks as if it was where the priest and his domestic servants lived. The old entrance piazza is the present church garden.


The country setting began to vanish in 1863, when Pope Pius IX opened the new Termini station for all the railways entering the city. The approach line for this cut through the grounds of the Villa Sacripanti with its avenues of trees, and ran on the surface to what was basically a shed. A more substantial station building was begun, but only finished in 1873 after the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. 

It took just three decades after this for the church's bucolic setting to be completely destroyed. Firstly, the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II suburban development laid down a grid of streets which destroyed the old Via di Santa Bibiana. Secondly, the enormous extension and elevation of the railway station pressed right against the church, especially after the Second World War when the present station was completed. The elevation of the approach tracks to the new station entailed the building of a road tunnel under it, which is now confusingly called Via di Santa Bibiana.

Interurban railway[]

Finally, the street adjacent was used as the terminal approach for an electric interurban railway, the tracks of which cut the church off from the carriageway. Railways of this type were lightly built (primarily for passenger use) and were run on electricity, as a supplement or competition to the heavy-rail steam railways, and were most familiar in North America. Belgium had an extensive system. This one was built by the Società per le Ferrovie Vicinali, and was opened from a separate terminus next to Termini on the Via Cavour to Frosinone in 1917, with a branch to Frascati. The church had its own station on the line, which was the first after the terminus -Santa Bibiana.

The line became known as the Ferrovia Roma-Fiuggi-Alatri-Frosinone (although Alatri to Frosinone closed in 1935). In 1950 it lost its terminal station, and terminated at a very inconvenient Roma Laziali station a short distance up the street from the church. Traffic started to fail in the 1970's, and most of the line was abandoned in stages from 1978 to 1984. A suburban stub was left from Roma Laziali to Pantano Borghese, and this was known as the Ferrovia Roma-Pantano.

Work to convert much of the surviving route to part of the new Linea C metropolitan line began in 2007, and the line from Giardinetti to Pantano closed in 2008. The metro project has been cut back somewhat, however, and the new line is now due to be completed to San Giovanni in 2016. The conversion means that the route down the side of Termini station past the church was proposed for abandonment, but it has been given a reprieve and the trains were still running in 2016.


Armellini writing in 1891 described the church as "semi-abandoned". At this time priest in charge was still being appointed by the Chapter of Santa Maria Maggiore, which didn't seem to care very much about the church. 

Some repair work on the roof and floor was carried out on the orders of Pope Pius X (1903-14), and in 1920 the church was granted to the Sons of the Holy Family (Figli della Sacra Famiglia di Gesù, Maria e Giuseppe). The convent block to the north of the church looks as if it was built about this time.

Meanwhile urban development had brought resident worshippers, and so the church had a pastoral function for the first time in its history. It was made parochial in 1953. 

The Figli converted a sacristy into a chapel of the Holy Family in 1957, and established their Roman headquarters at the church.

From 1961 to 1965 a restoration and conservation of the fabric and artworks took place. However in 1982 part of the ceiling collapsed, and this was blamed on the vibration set up by passing trains (rather than on shoddy work in one of the previous restorations). As a result the church had to close for three years, and repair work was only finished in 1987. Another restoration of the façade and frescoes was completed in 1999.

The parish published a useful pamphlet describing the church in 2000, and copies may still be available.


Layout and fabric[]

The five-bay nave with aisles is short for its width, almost square. A further bay is provided by the Bernini loggia, which architecturally is an add-on to the original ancient little basilica. On either side is a range of three rooms as long as the nave, and as wide as the aisles. The central apse is rectangular, and at the ends of the aisles is the pair of side chapels added by Bernini. All these external additions mean that the ancient fabric cannot be seen anywhere from the outside.

The present street frontage is the right side of the church, and it is ugly. However, it was not meant to be seen -in 

2011 Balbina, side elevation

Side elevation.

Bernini's time there was a vineyard here, and the entrance piazza was on the site of the present garden. From the street you can see how the entrance block is much higher than the church behind it, and has its own pitched and tiled roof. The central nave has its own roof, similarly pitched and tiled. The side aisle and ancillary rooms on the church's right hand side have rather complex roofing; the main area is a single cat-slide pitch covering both aisle and far right hand room, while the near right hand room has its own pitch and the central chapel its own double-pitched roof on a transverse axis. The large lunette window belongs to this chapel.

The fabric is brick, rendered in a rather dirty-looking ochre colour. The Bernini loggia and façade have architectural details in travertine limestone.

The campanile sits on the roof of the near right-hand room, next to the loggia block. It has two storeys, each with an arched void for a bell and with the upper void being smaller. The second storey is flanked by a pair of incurved volutes, and has a little triangular pediment. The two bells are the 17th century originals, and the larger one has a relief of St Bibiana and a dedicatory inscription mentioning Pope Urban VIII.

The convent block has its own little single-bell campanile on its eastern roofline, overlooking the convent courtyard. (The latter is entered through a metal gate to the right of the church when looking from the street.) This was provided with its own bell in 1927.


The architecturally separate frontage was completed in 1625 by Bernini. It is an early Baroque work, and is rather severe with a lack of decoration. Nowadays it looks over the little church garden but used to face a piazza, so it is rather difficult to appreciate unless you go into the garden (which is inaccessible when the church is closed).

However, it is worth studying as a pointer to how later Baroque façades could embellish (sometimes to a fantastic degree) a set of basic design principles.


There are two storeys, the bottom one comprising an entrance loggia. This has three equal sized large entrance archways taking up the entire width, together with one on each side around the corner. The archivolts of the arches spring from Doric imposts. The three are separated by a pair of triplet bunches of Ionic pilasters, with the central pilaster of each triplet proud of the other two, and the inner one prouder than the outer one. This design feature informs the appearance of the entire façade. Another pair of single Ionic pilasters occupies the outer corners, and these are doubletted round the corners onto the side elevations. The complement of pilasters support an entablature with a blank frieze, a slightly protruding cornice and proud sections corresponding to the capitals of the pilasters below.

Note that over the archivolt of the central arch is a little marble tablet reading SMM. This stand for Santa Maria Maggiore, the chapter of which used to be responsible for the church.

The second storey has pilasters in the Doric order, matching the Ionic ones of the first storey. It is as wide as the first storey. The 1 (central) -2(inner) -3 -(outer) arrangement in the vertical placement of the central pair of pilaster triplets is continued here. The outer pair of each triplet has its capital under a flat roofline with a balustrade, which itself has a flaming urn finial on the outer corner of the façade. The central and inner pilasters rise higher, to support a small segmental pediment which has two vertical steps outwards to accomodate them.

A pair of vertical rectangular windows flanks the central section of the second storey, each with raised horizontal cornices. The central zone of this storey is actually recessed beneath the pediment, and has a smaller rectangular window with a raised triangular pediment. In front of this is a balustraded balcony.

Note how the entablature under the rooflines of the outer zones of this storey is continued across the central, higher zone, ducking behind the central pilasters and also behind the apex of the window pediment. 

In conclusion -this is a fairly boring piece of architectural design at first glance, but should be appreciated as a first trial by the youthful Bernini of a style which was going to produce glorious results in subsequent decades.


The interior of the loggia has a vaulted ceiling, the vault springing from Ionic pilasters with swagged capitals.

The central entrance has an elaborate doorcase, with an intricately framed heraldic shield inserted into the top of the broken triangular pediment. The shield itself is now blank, and presumably was once painted. Over the door is a short epigraph recording the restoration ordered by Pope Urban VIII.

To the left of the door is the 12th century inscription mentioning ad Ursum Pileatum, which reads: + Haec est via qua it[ur] ad locum quod vocatur antiquo te[m]pore Ursi Pileati, et moderno te[m]pore monasterium Sanct[a]e Bibian[a]e, in quo loco fuer[un]t  sepellita quinque milia ducenta sexaginta et sex milia corpora sanctorum martyrum, absque pu[er]is et mulieribus, et ibidem e[st] indulgentia maxima apud in sacro nitis v(?)eratit enarratur. St etiam sectem milia an[n]i in festo Omnium Sanctorum usque ad octava. ("This is the way which goes to the place which was called in ancient times the Bear with a Cap, and in modern times is the monastery of St Bibiana, in which place were buried five thousand, two hundred and sixty [plus another] six thousand corpses of holy martyrs, not including women and children." The last bit, which is not very clear in the Latin, seems to prescribe an indulgence of six thousand years off one's time in purgatory if these saints were venerated on All Saints Day or during its octave. 

To the right of the door is another inscription, unusual in being in Italian. It reads: In questa chiesa di S. Bibiana V. e M., unita da Eugenio PP IIII alla sacros patrarchale basilica Liberiana di S. Maria Maggiore l'anno MCCCC XXXIX, e nel suo cimiterio chiamato di S. Anastasio PP I ad Ursum Pileatum, ove riposano undeci mila ducento sessanta sei corpori dei martyri senza fanciulli e donne, con quello del medemo s. pontifice e del sucessore S. Innocenzo I  havendolo ampliato e ristaurato vi e l'indulgenza massima, cioe plenaria principalmente la festa di tutti li santi, sino all'ottava de morti. This repeats the information on the previous tablet, while recording the transfer of the former convent church to Santa Maria Maggiore.


Nave fabric[]

The small but charming interior has a four-bay nave, aisles on both sides and a rectangular apse beyond a triumphal arch. There are no arcades, but instead the aisles are separated by antique columns (four on each side) supporting horizontal architraves. This arrangement is called a trabeation. The Sixties restoration revealed that the wall above each pair of columns contained a brick relieving arch; for some reason, the architect of the original church wished to hark back to a Greek ideal of architecture, rather than using visible arches in the ancient Roman style. Nobody seems to have suggested as to why this should have been.  

The trabeation columns are mismatched, three being in pink granite but the far pair being in white marble. This pair exhibit spiral fluting, indicating that they came from a very high-status building (try to imagine the task of fluting a marble column spirally, with only hammers and chisels to work with). The odd one out is the third on the left, which is of grey granite. These granite columns would have been considered as precious in ancient times. The pink ones came from Aswan in Egypt, a very long way up the Nile. The grey one is also from Egypt, from the quarry of Mons Claudianus in the desert east of the river.

The Corinthian and Composite capitals of the columns also differ, and they were obviously looted from more than one ancient building. They have been repaired with stucco.

The counterfaçade bears a tablet with an inscription recording the 17th century restoration, and over this is a window leading into a room over the loggia.

The present grey marble floor is early 20th century, and the ceiling dates to 1987. The latter is undecorated, and very boring. In the 17th century restoration, Ciampelli apparently executed a spectacular ceiling fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Bibiana, but for some reason this work immediately vanished. There must have been a disaster. Before the 17th century ceiling collapsed in the late 20th century, it was coffered with rosettes but with no frescoes.

Column and herb of St Bibiana[]

An ancient red marble column in a corner on the left near the entrance is said to be the one St Bibiana was tied to when she was flogged to death in the (mythical) persecution by the emperor Julian the Apostate.

Until the 18th century, dust scraped off from this column was mixed with a plant that grew on the saint's alleged original grave in the church's garden, and used as a remedy against epilepsy. The column is protected by a diapered grating of bronze designed by Bernini, with gilding on the exaggerated joints.

The herb concerned features in the Bernini sculpture on the high altar, and was known as "St Bibiana's herb". It was actually hemp agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum), which is common enough in waste places. It has been used in herbal medicine, although not for epilepsy, but is now regarded with suspicion because it contains chemicals which damage the liver. (Note for recreational drug users: This plant is not related to cannabis!)

Memorials of abbesses[]

On the aisle walls, there are epitaphs which used to mark the tombs of several abbesses and patrons of the former adjacent convent. They were moved here from the floor of the nave when the church was restored in the 17th century. Notable are those of abbess Donna Lucia, 1310, abbess Donna Maria 1424 and Crispoldo de' Mattei, 1420 on the left hand side; on the right hand side, of the abbess Onesta Maria, 1423, and the abbess Viviana de Salvectis, 1435.

Nave frescoes[]

The nave walls above the trabeations, the spandrels above the apse arch and the counterfaçade are frescoed in a cycle executed in the 17th century restoration. To prepare the surfaces, the former windows above the trabeations were blocked up.

The paintings on the walls of the central nave, by Pietro da Cortona (left side) and Agostino Ciampelli and his school (right side), show scenes from the Life of St Bibiana. Executed in 1624, they were commissioned after Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Pope Urban VIII's nephew, had discovered da Cortona's talent. The patronage of the Barberini family explains why their heraldic shield is so prominent, with its three bees.

The cycle begins at the far left hand side, continues on the left hand nave wall to the façade then picks up at the near right hand side to the triumphal arch. On the left are The Condemnation and Death of St Demetria, Rufina Trying to Persuade St Bibiana to Apostatize and St Bibiana Being Flogged While Tied to a Column. The two figures in between are St Flavian and St Demetria. On the right are The Corpse of St Bibiana Dumped in the Forum Taurii, The Burial of St Bibiana and The Erection of the Church by Olimpina. The two figures in between are St Olimpina and St Dafrosa.

The entrance door is flanked by still-lifes of torture instruments by Ciampelli, a horrible reminder of the sufferings of the martyrs. The counterfaçade inscription above is flanked by a pair of angels playing musical instruments -a harp and a lute.

The two sisters Bibiana and Demetria feature again, reclining on the archivolt of the triumphal arch.

Side chapel layout[]

The church has five side chapels, treated in clockwise order from the near left hand side.

The aisles have identical layouts. There is a chapel at the far end of each, and three rooms off each. The first and third rooms each have an ordinary doorway surmounted by an oeil de boeuf (horizontal elliptical) window, but the central room is a large chapel entered through a substantial archway flanked by a pair of Ionic pilasters. All these openings were created by smashing through the ancient aisle walls. The other rooms were originally sacristies, but the far right hand one has been converted into a chapel.

Cappella Pacetti[]

The large chapel off the middle of the left hand aisle is the early 18th century Cappella Pacetti, and is dedicated to St Gertrude the Great. The reason for this dedication was that she was a Benedicine nun (or Cistercian, according to the revised Roman martyrology).

The altar has a pair of red and white breccia Corinthian columns supporting two halves of a split and separated segmental pediment, with a large lunette window above. The altarpiece is in a frame of the same stone, and shows St Gertrude in Ecstasy by Giacomo Verona. She is dressed as a Benedictine abbess, with a putto helpfully holding her crozier for her. 

On the left hand wall is a memorial to Vincenzo Pacetti, a canon of Santa Maria Maggiore who paid for the chapel and was responsible for the Cappella Paolina.

On the altar is a rather oversized statue of St Pius of Pietrelcina, still often referred to in English as St Padre Pio by those unaware that Padre simply means "Father" in Italian.

Chapel of St Demetria[]

At the end of the left hand aisle is a chapel dedicated to St Demetria. This has an identical design to its twin at the end of the other aisle, and features a rather stark monochrome altar with an oeil-de-boeuf window inserted into its broken segmental pediment.

The altarpiece shows the saint being crowned as a martyr by two putti, and holding a lily and a palm branch (symbols of virginity and martyrdom respectively). It is by Ciampelli.

There is a statue of the Sacred Heart here.

Chapel of St Dafrosa[]

The chapel at the end of the right hand aisle is dedicated to St Dafrosa. The altar has been removed, but the altarpiece by da Cortona remains and depicts the saint at prayer.

A wooden crucifix is here, with a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows in attendance.

Chapel of the Holy Family[]

The far room off the right hand aisle used to be one of the sacristies, but the Figli della Sacra Famiglia have converted it into a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Family. The decoration is by Bruno Mastacchi, of 1957, and the altarpiece showing The Holy Family is by Gian Battista Conti of 1953. This is in a realistic style; the numinous halos are a nice touch.

Cappella Petroni[]

The large chapel off the middle of the right hand aisle is the Cappella Petroni, dedicated to Our Lady and St Flavian (the putative father of St Bibiana). It has Spanish interest, because it was founded in 1702 by a Spanish priest called Francesco di San Giovanni e Bernardo (a Carmelite?). He might have been from the former Kingdom of Navarre , because he specified that the trust fund set up to pay for a priest's salary was for a "native of Navarre or the kingdom of Castille". The priest was to make intercession for the king of Spain and his kingdom.

On the archivolt of the entrance archway is the coat-of-arms of the Petroni family, later patrons. The chapel itself has stucco work by Bertoni, and an altar with polychrome marble work. The pair of columns framing the altarpiece mimic the spirally fluted ones in the nave trabeations.

The paintings here are by Girolamo Troppa. The altarpiece shows Saints Venerating an Icon of Our Lady, an odd composition (a meta-icon?). The icon depicted is meant to be that of Salus Populi Romani in the Cappella Paolina at Santa Maria Maggiore.

The painting on the right hand wall shows SS Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri and Francis Xaviergreat saints of the Counter-Reformation. A putto is holding a portrait of King Charles II of Spain (1665-1700). He was the last of the Spanish House of Habsburg, and generations of cousins breeding with each other had caused him to have serious genetic problems which the portrait hints at.

The painting on the left hand wall shows SS John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and James the Great, and includes a portrait of Leopold I, Emperor of Austria.

There is a statue of St Anthony of Padua in the chapel.


The sanctuary is a shallow barrel-vaulted rectangular apse, the triumphal arch to which is supported by a pair of Doric pilasters. There is a lunette window in clear glass in the apse above the altar, containing a stained glass representation of the Barberini coat-of-arms with its famous bees.

The vault has a fresco representation of God the Father, accompanied by putti. Note that the right hand side panel has a fresco of an angelic musical duo, but that the equivalent place on the left hand side of the vault has a window instead. When Bernini blocked the nave windows, he left the church in danger of being rather dark and so introduced this arrangement into the apse to compensate.

The altar is monochrome, in white marble. A pair of Ionic columns with swagged capitals support a little triangular pediment A proclamation of an indulgence attached to the altar is on a curlicued scroll on the entablature. On either side is a recessed pair of pilasters in the same side, supporting continuations of the entablature below the pediment. The fresco work here is by Giovanni Domenico Marziani.

The altarpiece is Bernini's statue of St Bibiana. It is set in a round-headed niche with scallop decoration in its conch, and shows the saint standing next to her pillar. She is holding a gilded bronze palm branch in one hand, giving you a wave in greeting with the other and has her herb growing at her feet. The statue is a first for Bernini - it is the first fully clothed statue he sculpted. He was to become a master in carving marble draperies.

The six bronze candlesticks on the altar are originals from the Bernini restoration. The tabernacle is modern, but of high quality and is in the form of a little Ionic temple.

Below the altar is a 4th century alabaster basin behind a grille in the same style as that protecting the miraculous column. It has lions' feet, and is decorated with a leopard's head. An extremely prestigious item when made, it is thought to have been part of the bathroom arrangements of a luxurious private villa. It was found in the Bernini restoration in 1624 buried beneath the sanctuary floor, and was then used to enshrine the relics of SS Bibiana, Dafrosa and Demetria which remain in it. 

The relics of the first two were found in the same place, at a shallower depth. Those of St Bibiana were in a box, and those of St Dafrosa in some sort of marble urn. The identity of the relics was indicated by an inscription on a piece of metal buried with them.


Visitors who have read that the church is down the side of Termini station, may need to be warned that it is a long, noisy and boring walk from the front of Termini. People don't realize how gigantic the rail station is. Look at a map.

The church is served by bus route number 71, which starts at Piazza San Silvestro and passes Santa Maria Maggiore. This is the best way to visit it.

The opening hours are: 7:30 to 10:00, 16:30 to 19:30.


As this is a parish church, there are regular Masses held here. The schedule is (as at 2016):

Weekdays 8:00 and 18:00 (19:00 in summer);  

Sundays and Solemnities 8:30, 10:30 and 18:00 (19:00 in summer). 

This is after a recent change in the Mass schedule, in which the number of Sunday Masses was reduced by one.

Please do not visit the church during a Mass, unless you wish to attend the celebration. On the other hand, the locality is a long way away from the more feral tourist haunts, and so you may find the locals very welcoming if you say how much you like their church.

External links[]

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Parish website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

Interactive Nolli Map Website

Info.roma web-page

"Roma Segreta" web-page

"Romeartlover" web-page

Falda's etching of 1669