Santa Maria ai Monti is a late 16th and early 17th century parish and titular church at Via della Madonna dei Monti 41, just north of the west end of Via Cavour in the rione Monti. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The official name of the church is Santa Maria ai Monti, but it is also familiarly known as Madonna dei Monti and also as Santa Maria dei Monti. All three names are used by published sources.
Venerated icon Edit
This convent was founded in 1223, during the lifetime of St Francis, but in 1308 the nuns moved to San Lorenzo in Panisperna nearby which was a properly built monastery instead of a large house. The dwelling that they left behind was turned into a barn, but an icon of Our Lady painted on a wall in the hayloft allegedly managed to survive for 350 years (actually, it looks 16th century so it must have been repainted). The story is that in April 1579 some workmen engaged in demolishing the derelict structure heard a voice saying "Don't harm the child". Looking at the wall, they found the painted-over icon which immediately became a focus of veneration by locals. After a blind old woman called Anastasia recovered her sight while praying before it, so much money was donated in the same year (1579) that a new church could be built immediately from scratch.
This was designed by Giacomo della Porta, who was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. The foundation stone was laid on 23 June, and the pope entrusted the icon and the building project to the Arciconfraternita dei Catecumeni e Neofiti, founded in 1543 for the education in the Christian way of life of converts from Judaism and Islam -the so-called "Neophytes" or "Catechumens". Their patron was Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto, who hence became the overseer of the project also.
Unfortunately he died in 1603, and the project had to be completed by Carlo Lombardi and Flaminio Ponzio jointly over the following year. This period of 23 years marks the end of the Mannerist style and the beginning of Baroque in Rome.
The church was initially entirely devotional in character. It was put under the charge of the Collegio dei Neofiti, which moved to a purpose-built complex between this church and San Salvatore ai Monti in 1634. The latter church was the old parish church for the locality, which the Collegio also took over and used as the place of worship for male converts. Female ones used Santa Maria Addolorata dei Neofiti, on a third corner of the same city block as the other two churches.
The institution functioned as originally intended until 1713, which in retrospect is surprising since converts from these two faiths to Christianity have always been uncommon. In that year, the three churches became the responsibility of the Pia Opera dei Catacumene e dei Neofiti, which had as its justification the performance of various charitable activities rather than the conversion of Jews. Also, the church here was restored on the orders of Pope Clement XI.
The high altar was refitted and re-consecrated in 1728.
In 1824 there was a massive shake-up of the parish churches in the Centro Storico. There were too many small parish churches in poor repair, with parishes comprising less than two hundred adults. Several parishes were suppressed. A few large churches were newly made parochial, and this was one of them -it took over the territory of San Salvatore ai Monti.
Pope Pius IX ordered a restoration in the mid 19th century, and many of the frescoes were touched up in 1899.
The parish is served by diocesan clergy, but the edifice is still owned by the Pia Opera. It is now the centre of Church life in the Suburra neighbourhood.
Layout and fabric Edit
The plan is based on a Latin cross, inserted within a rectangular plot. There is a short nave of three bays which has structural aisles, although these are divided into side chapels by screen walls inside. Then comes a deep transept, with a dome over the crossing. Finally there is a semi-circular sanctuary apse.
The dome has an octagonal drum, with a rectangular window having a triangular pediment in every other side. There is a projecting cornice with modillions (little brackets), and this cornice has a lead covering. The actual dome is on a very low attic plinth, and is also in lead with eight ellipsoidal sectors meeting at a tall lantern. The latter has narrow window-slots separated by volute buttresses, and a lead cupola terminating in a ball finial.
The apse is internal, not structural, as the end of the church beyond the dome has the priests' house above the sanctuary and so the back wall is straight and rises to two storeys.
In the far left hand corner is the campanile, which is in brick with a single round-headed sound-hole in the end faces and two such sound-holes in the side faces. There is a tiled pyramidal cap.
The façade, which was renovated in the year to 1992, was inspired by the church of the Gesù. It has two storeys, and the first storey has six Corinthian pilasters supporting an entablature the frieze of which bears a dedicatory inscription to Our Lady. The doorcase has a triangular pediment supported by a pair of volute corbels, and above this is a tablet bearing a long inscription describing the church's foundation. There is a winged cherub's head above this, and a round-headed niche between the first and second pilasters on each side.The second storey has four Composite pilasters with exaggerated Ionic volutes in their capitals, and in between each pair is again a round-headed niche. The central window has a segmental pediment supported by half-round Composite columns, and a balustraded rail. The crowning triangular pediment contains a Papal coat-of-arms in its tympanum which looks too small, as if it had been obtained "from stock". The second storey storey is framed by a pair of large double volutes, and interestingly the right hand side wall of the nave is buttressed by an identical row of volutes. This makes an agreeable architectural study.
The nave is high for its length of three bays, giving a feeling of spaciousness. It has an arcade of three arches on each side, leading into the side chapels. These are separated by piers each of which has an applied ribbed Corinthan pilaster in what looks like yellow Siena marble, which support an entablature which runs round the church. The frieze of this displays the text of the Ave Maria on a gold background, beginning above the high altar. The entablature is posted above the capitals of the pilasters, and has a strongly projecting cornice embellished with modillions and rosettes.
When the church was constructed the chapels were factored out to noble families who then paid for their decoration and received funerary privileges in return. This was standard practice at the time. On the keystones of the arcade arches are the heraldic shields of these families. The spandrels of the arches each have a stucco angel -note that the pairs over the middle arches have gilded garments. These angels have been attributed to Ambrogio Buonvicino 1588, but serious doubt has been thrown on this recently.
In between the capitals are large rectangular panels. The central two have grilles giving onto hidden gallery walkways, but the near and far arches on each side are topped by fresco panels. That on the bottom right is regarded as anonymous, and represents The Call of St Peter (St Andrew is presenting him to Christ). This panel has an old attribution to Giovanni Manozzi. The top right one is The Resurrection by Giovanni Battista Lombardelli, although a revisionist attribution is to Antonio Viviani who painted the altarpiece in the chapel below. The top left hand one is The Coronation of Our Lady by Cesare Nebbia, although substantially touched-up in 1899. The bottom left hand one is The Marriage at Cana, which is now regarded as anonymous although there is an old attribution to Paolo Guidotti.
The ceiling is barrel-vaulted, with a triangular lunette sheltering a window over each arch. Each lunette contains an angel, and the four panels in between depict the four Latin Doctors of the Church. Bottom right St Jerome (with his lion), top right St Ambrose, top left St Gregory with the Dove of the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear, and bottom left St Augustine. There has been some doubt expressed as to which panel is St Ambrose and which St Augustine, but the latter is actually writing (he was a voluminous author) and the former pointing out a text (he was a noted biblical exegete). The large central panel features The Ascension of Christ. All this vault fresco work is by Cristoforo Casolani, and was well restored in 2000. The stucco angels in the top corners of the doctor panels have also been attributed (dubiously) to Buonvicino.
The counterfaçade has a floating gallery on fronded corbels, which was installed in the late 19th century to house the organ. The latter was built by the firm of Alessandro Collino e Figli in 1871. Above, two half-lunette frescoes flank the large central window, featuring the prophet Isaiah to the left (the viewer's right) and the prophet Daniel to the right. The former bears a tablet bearing the text (63:1): Quis est iste qui venit de Edom, iste formosus in stola sua? ("Who is this who comes from Edom, beautiful in his robe?"), which is taken here to refer to Our Lady. These two frescoes are by Casolani also.
The nave floor has a large hexagonal panel containing the monogram of Our Lady, in polychrome marble inlay.
The triumphal arch, which is one of the pendentive arches of the dome, springs from above the interior entablature. It is supported on tripletted piers in the same style as the nave pilasters.
The dome is very beautiful, especially if you happen to get just the right light. Unfortunately, the frescoes that it contains have decayed.
The pendentive arches include the triumphal arches of the transept and apse, which are as wide as the vault arches of the shallow ends of the transepts. The intradoses of these four form a matching set in white with gilding, each with a single row of square coffers having rosettes. Flanking each row of these on the inside is a row of rectangular coffers bearing little gilded stucco representations of angels, some with musical instruments. This exquisite stucco work is anonymous.
The pendentives themselves have frescoes of the four Evangelists, painted by Casolani. The pendentive cornice is embellished with rosettes and modillions, and above this the drum has four windows interspersed with niches. In the niches are statues of the four major prophets of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, David and Daniel), executed in 1599 by "Giovanni Anguilla" who is described as French, so presumably his real name was Jean Anguille.
In each of the eight sectors of the dome there is a depiction of a scene from the life of Our Lady, the sequence of which is: The Visitation, The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Adoration of the Magi, The Ascension, Pentecost, The Dormition, The Assumption and The Coronation as Queen of Heaven. All of these except the last are attributed to Paolo Guidotti, with The Coronation by Baldassare Croce. The angels above the tondi containing these scenes are by Cesare Nebbia or Orazio Gentileschi. The lantern oculus contains The Eternal Father by Guidotti.
The floor under the dome has a roundel containing the monogram of Our Lady, matching the design of the nave floor.
The sanctuary is an apse, with the aedicule of the high altar against the far wall. It is not curved to fit, as later Baroque altar aedicules often were. Two red granite Corinthian columns support a triangular pediment posted over the capitals and fitted into a slightly larger segmental pediment broken at the top. The latter has no columns or pilasters, but is supported by two panels on the outer sides of the columns which are embellished with geometric pietra dura decoration. This segmental pediment bears a central statue of The Risen Christ, flanked by two adoring angels designed by Giacomo della Porta. The aedicule in its present form, however, dates from 1728.
The venerated 14th century icon of Our Lady is enshrined within a frame of gilded wood with grotesque decoration and a pair of putti holding a crown. (This is an ex-voto of 1849.) It is the one allegedly found in the desecrated shell of a 13th century convent of the Poor Clares formerly on the site, but it has obviously been much repainted. However, it is identifiable as being of the Sienese school. The two larger figures of saints are the holy deacons SS Stephen (to the right) and Lawrence. The smaller kneeling figures are identified as St Francis and an unknown monk saint (St Bernard has been suggested). Apparently the stars on Our Lady's mantle are also ex-votos.
The apse wall has five frescoes, below which the wall is painted to resemble cloth hangings (this is a very old feature of church decoration, and several palaeochristian churches in Rome have evidence of such a decorative scheme). The frescoes are by Giacinto Gimignani, and depict (left to right): St Michael Defeating Satan, The Crucifixion, The Baptism of SS Processus and Martinian by St Peter (mostly concealed by aedicule), The Resurrected Christ Appears to Our Lady and The Baptism of Christ. Below the first and last panels are tondo portraits of the pair of saints mentioned.
The conch of the apse is frescoed by Cristoforo Casolani again. The three panels are in chronological order right to left, and depict events in Our Lady's early life. To the right is The Birth of Our Lady, in the middle is The Presentation of Our Lady and to the left is The Marriage of Our Lady and St Joseph.
The description of the side chapels is anticlockwise from the right of the entrance.
Chapel of St Charles Borromeo Edit
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, and is the Cappella Baccini. It was sponsored by Andrea Baccini, a rich merchant from Florence.
The decoration is in rich polychrome marble inlay, and the aedicule has a pair of Composite columns in a pinkish marble with red inclusions, supporting the split and separated halves of a triangular pediment on which angels sit and hold wreaths. In the split is inserted a tablet bearing the saint's motto Humilitas ("humility"). The altarpiece shows The Vision of Our Lady to St Charles, and is by Innocenzo Tacconi who was of the school of Annibale Carracci. (This is a revisionist attribution.)
The fresco panels are by Giovanni Mannozzi da San Giovanni, but the altarpiece is no longer attributed to him. The lower side wall panels show St Charles Giving Holy Communion to Plague Sufferers on the left, and The Attempted Assassination of St Charles on the right. The latter event was sponsored by a corrupt religious order called the Umiliati whom the saint had been commissioned to reform, and which was forcibly suppressed in 1571 as a result. The upper panels show St Charles Cures a Demoniac to the left, and St Charles Aids Poor People on the right.
The piers flanking the chapel have small memorial tablets, one commemorating Andrea Baccini 1614 and the other the consecration of the chapel 1623. Above these are frescoes of SS Peter and Paul.
Chapel of the Sacred Heart Edit
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The fittings are modern, but are a credible imitation of a neo-Baroque design in polychrome stonework (except perhaps that the alabaster Corinthian columns of the aedicule are proportionally rather thin). The chapel was created in 1949 out of the lobby of a side entrance, which in turn was created out of a chapel dedicated to St Francis.
Most larger churches had at least one side entrance in former times, although many of these are now disused. These were not just for convenience. Builders of churches were aware of the need to evacuate a congregation quickly in the event of an earthquake or fire, and it is odd that modern people are not so aware.
The altarpiece of The Sacred Heart is by Enrico Tarenghi, described as executed in 1940 which would have been miraculous because he died in 1938. In the vault lunette above the aedicule is a fresco from the old chapel by Guidotti, showing St Francis Receives the Stigmata. There are two modern ex-voto pictures of Our Lady on the side walls, one of them being in a Filipino style in memory of Cardinal Jaime Sin who had been the titular here.
Chapel of the Pietà Edit
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and is in a similar style to that of St Charles. It is the Cappella Falconi, having been commissioned by a nobleman of Portuguese descent called Giulio Pietro Falconi. It was consecrated in 1588. The interior is the most intact original set of 16th century fittings among the church's chapels, with richly gilded stucco work.
The altarpiece is a Pietà by Antonio Viviani, Il Sordo di Urbino. Above is a tablet with a quotation from the Gospel of Luke: Tuam ipsius animam pertransibit gladius ("Its sword will pass through your soul"), addressed to Our Lady.
The left hand side wall has The Flagellation of Christ by Viviani, and the right hand wall has Christ Falls on the Road to Calvary, the latter being tentatively attributed to Paris Nogari. The same artist also executed the vault frescoes, which have perished badly and so have suffered repainting. The central panel featured Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and has almost completely decayed. To the left is The Betrayal of Judas, and to the right Christ Before Pilate.
The piers bear frescoes by Viviani of the Prophet Isaiah to the left, and King David to the right. The intrados of the arch has angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion.
Chapel of St Vincent de Paul Edit
The right arm of the transept is occupied by a chapel dedicated to St Vincent de Paul and was fitted out in 1830 by a parish confraternity dedicated to works of charity under his patronage. The neo-Classical aedicule has a triangular pediment with modillions, which is supported by a pair of Corinthian columns in red and white marble. The altarpiece of the saint is by Andrea Pozzi.
The vault lunette contains a large window, flanked by a pair of frescoes by Casolani featuring the legend of SS Joachim and Anne, parents of Our Lady. To the left is An Angel Announces the Birth of Our Lady to St Joachim, and to the right is The Conception of Our Lady.
To the right is a late Baroque polychrome marble memorial to Tommaso Sergio, 1752. It is of an unusual form, and has a strikingly lifelike bust in an elliptical tondo.
To the left is an anonymous fresco of The Resurrection of Christ, within an aedicule designed by Giacomo della Porta which has a segmental pediment. Here also is a tablet commemorating the re-consecration of the high altar in 1728, and a memorial to Vincenzo Pecci 1856 who was a patron of the confraternity.
Chapel of St Benedict Joseph Labre Edit
In the left arm of the transept, beneath an altar, is the shrine and effigy of St Benedict Joseph Labre, who died in a house nearby in 1783. The effigy of the dying saint was executed by Achille Albacini in 1892 (a native Roman sculptor). The altar aedicule matches that opposite, and contains an anonymous oil-painting depicting the saint distributing food that he had begged to his fellow beggars in the Colosseum.
To the right is another little wall-aedicule by Giacomo della Porta, which contains a 14th century Calvary. Here also is a tablet, installed in 1962, to commemorate the residence at the Collegio dei Neofiti next door of St Alphonsus de' Liguori in 1762. Another tablet installed in 1988 records that St Vincent Pallotti opened a local centre for charitable activities in 1838 at a time when the neighbourhood was suffering a cholera epidemic. Back then, the Suburra was a slum and the inhabitants who could not afford wine were drinking well water polluted by raw sewage.
To the left is a memorial to Ferdinando Maria von Platner 1894, a tablet recording that Guglielmo Giaquinta was assistant parish priest here from 1943 to 1948, and one recording a visit by Pope St John Paul II in 1987.
The two lunette frescoes by Casolani depict The Annunciation.
Chapel of the Nativity Edit
The second nave chapel on the left (there are only two) is dedicated to the Nativity of Christ, and is the Cappella Sabatini. Marcantonio Sabatini was the patron, and the consecration was in 1585. Because he was in charge of the private household of Pope Gregory XIII, the pope's heraldry appears on the keystone of the arch above.
The chapel is richly decorated with grotesque ornamentation. The aedicule is in red and yellow marbles, with a pair of Corinthian columns in what looks like verde antico (but is not). The altarpiece depicts The Adoration of the Shepherds, and is by Girolamo Muziano who also executed the saints and prophets on the arch piers.
The side wall frescoes depict The Dream of St Joseph to the right and The Adoration of the Magi to the left, and are by Cesare Nebbia. The vault has three damaged frescoes attributed to Paris Nogari, (left to right) The Visitation, The Annunciation and The Presentation.
The central arch on the left hand side does not lead into a chapel, but is the vestibule of the sacristy. Here there is a memorial to Luca Cappelli 1682, with a good cameo medallion portrait. He had been priest-in-charge of the church, and chaplain to the Collegio. The lunette over the doorway has a damaged fresco that looks like The Birth of Our Lady.
The sacristy has a collection of paintings, including an 18th century Calvary centred on a painted wooden crucifix. This is part of a devotional set, and separate paintings of The Garden of Gethsemane and Christ Meets His Mother on the Way to Calvary are adjacent. There is also what looks like a 17th century Christ Falls on the Way to Calvary, and an 18th century Assumption of Our Lady.
The most interesting thing in the sacristy is the sink, which is a marble affair with the basin resting on a black marble amphora and a little relief of an ancient bath-tub above the taps. This was allegedly designed by Onorio Longhi.
Chapel of the Annunciation Edit
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Annunciation to Our Lady. It is the Cappella Del Monte, and had a very interesting patron. Josef Zarfatì was a Sephardi Jewish rabbi from Fez in Morocco, whose surname means "French" (it is usually rendered as Sarfati). He was one of the few Jewish converts in 16th century Rome, having been inspired by St Philip Neri. His patron was Pope Julius III, hence he took the pope's surname and became known as Andrea Del Monte after he was baptized in 1552. He died in 1589, and was buried in this chapel.
The aedicule has a split segmental pediment supported by a pair of Corinthian columns in black and white marble. Inserted into the split is a tablet with a relief portrait of Christ, accompanied by the text Vide et inclina, obliviscere populum tuum ("See and pay attention, forget your people"), which is a quotation from Psalm 45 and a very apt text for Zarfatì (the local Roman Jews apparently hated him). The frieze of the aedicule's entablature bears an epigraph in Hebrew, which is a translation of Our Lady's utterance during the Annunciation: "Behold the servant of the Lord, let it be it done to me according to what you say".
The relief of Christ is thought to come from the demolished nearby church of San Salvatore ad Tres Images.
The altarpiece depicting The Annunciation is by Durante Alberti. The side walls depict apostles; to the right, St Andrew (with a fish, as he had been a fisherman) and St Bartholomew. To the left are SS Peter and Paul. The vault has three panels depicting The Immaculate Conception, The Last Supper and The Escape to Egypt. These are thought to be by Alberti as well, although they have been heavily repainted. The piers have frescoes of saints; SS Francis and Dominic to the right, and SS Lucy and Bernardine to the left. In the top of intrados of the arch is St Margaret; the other four intrados panels show anonymous martyrs and angels.
On the right hand wall is a memorial to Ugo Boncompagni, who was a fellow convert of Zarfatì and had been a rich Jewish banker called Samuele Corcos beforehand.
A pair of binoculars is a great help in appreciating the superb frescoes in this church.
The opening times have been made much more generous recently. Pope Francis has expressed the hope that Roman churches with mainstream pastoral responsibilities could start to lose their old-fashioned restricted opening hours, involving a long siesta break. This church is one of the unfortunately fairly limited number that have taken notice.
According to the Diocese (June 2018), the church is now open daily from 7:00 to 22:00, and on Fridays and Saturdays it stays open until midnight.
It is near both San Pietro in Vincoli and the Cavour metro station.
According to the Diocese (June 2018), Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 9:00, 13:15 19:00 (the lunchtime Mass is an innovation in Rome);
Sundays 9:00, 10:30, 12:00, 19:00, 21:00 (the late Mass is also unusual in Rome, and is appreciated).
The icon has its own feast-day, which is 26 April. Each year, a copy of the icon of the Blessed Virgin is carried in procession through the nearby streets on that day (or the nearest available day, after if the date falls between Palm Sunday and the octave day of Easter inclusive).
The feast of St Benedict Joseph Labre is celebrated with a Solemnity on 16 April, as his shrine is in this church. He has a little chapel nearby, San Benedetto Giuseppe Labre ai Monti, where the filthy rags he was wearing at his death are preserved together with other relics. This shrine is well worth visiting.
Nolli map (look for 137)
Church website (offline, June 2018)
Guide by Corrubolo (pdf)