She specified that the nuns were to be claustral oblates, so that they could include widows as well as virgins. Back then, a nun who took solemn vows had to be a virgin. Oblates did not make vows, but renewable promises instead when they began religious life. However, this community had a strict rule and lived in seclusion, so was indistinguishable in their lifestyle from "proper" nuns.
Unfortunately, after twelve years in 1655 the Duchess lost her patrimony in the vicissitudes suffered by the Farnese family, the money ran out and the church was never finished as Borromini intended. Francesco Contini attended to finishing the interior from 1659 to 1665.
The foundress, as a widow herself, lived the rest of her life in poverty in a small room next to the church which is now the sacristy.
The convent lost its rental income when its property was expropriated during the Napoleonic period at the end of the 18th century, and as a result it sold most of its artworks. However, it arranged a restoration by Gaspare Salvi in 1845 which resulted in the present polychrome interior -it was originally in white, like Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza.
During the Roman Republic of 1849 the convent buildings were confiscated and used as a military hospital, and they were seriously damaged in a bombardment when Rome was conquered by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
Unlike most other monasteries in Rome subsequently, this one was not confiscated by the government in 1873. The law allowed confiscation of all monasteries occupied by monks and nuns who had taken life vows, but the sisters here successfully argued that they did not take such vows and were allowed to stay in possession.
One oddity during the life of the community was that the church was within the enclosure. This meant that only women were allowed to visit it -no men. This prohibition apparently persisted until the later 20th century.
In 1929 there was a major restoration.
In the later 20th century the nunnery suffered a lack of vocations, and so leased most of their convent to form a hotel, the Hotel Donna Camilla Savelli. This presents itself (possibly correctly) as the best hotel in Trastevere.
In 2007 there was another major restoration of the church wing, at the instigation of the municipality because the sisters had allowed the fabric to run down.
The community was down to five by 2006, but has now finally dispersed. The church is now in the care of the Suore Oblate del Santo Bambino Gesù who are based at the church of Bambin Gesù all'Esquilino. They have one sister here in 2014, Sr Gina Pascalizi.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church is an integral part of the convent buildings, which occupy the city block between the Via Garibaldi and the Via dei Panieri, and are rather irregularly laid out in three separate wings. There is a large entrance courtyard, with the church and the main convent entrances in a large L-shaped wing on two sides of the courtyard. Behind the church is a large main courtyard or cloister, which has never been arcaded and which has a second wing down its south-west (Via Garibaldi) side. To the south-east of this is a third block which is a rather messy set of buildings around two small courtyards.
The church itself is on the ground floor of the entrance block, with its axis perpendicular to the entrance. Thus, you have to turn left in the vestibule after entering. There is a range of domestic accommodation over the church ceiling.
The present main courtyard now includes what used to be the garden of the sisters, on the Via dei Panieri side. Given that the nuns were never allowed out, this garden was very small.
The entrance gateway has a Baroque doorframe supporting a segmental pediment over a short dedicatory inscription. The ironwork in the gates themselves repays attention, and the diapered part might have been designed by Borromini himself.
There is no obvious campanile.
The entrance façade of the church was not completed, and as a result is in unadorned brick. One has to imagine the stucco and marble decorations that Borromini would have intended.
The geometrical plan is that of a coved arc inserted into a flat plane, and according to architectural historians Borromini took the idea from the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli. The façade has six gigantic Doric pilasters rising to the roofline, the outer pair of which contain the coved curve only in the lower half. The upper half of the façade has this curve confined to the inner pair of pilasters, with the walls between the inner and outer pilasters sweeping back.
The only stonework in the façade is the entrance doorcase. This has a large Baroque trapezoidal transom window, over which is an arc cornice with a head of Our Lady. This cornice is supported by two stylized lilies, symbols of the Farnese.
The doorway to the right leads directly into the convent.
Layout and fabricEdit
This relatively unknown church, not mentioned in any of the most common guidebooks, has a beautiful interior.
The entrance façade does not actually attach to the church, but to an octagonal entrance vestibule. The church itself has its entrance on the left side of the octagon, while the hotel reception is straight ahead. The church layout consists of a long rectangle, with two side chapels and a separate rectangular apse for the sanctuary.
The vestibule has a plan based on an irregular octagon, with the short sides having little apses and incurved long sides for doorways. There is a small saucer dome on pendentives and with stucco decoration, having the Dove of the Holy Spirit in a glory on a cloud and within a wreath. The pendentives display the emblems of the Evangelists. The stucco is not gilded or coloured.
Chapel of the AssumptionEdit
The bottom left hand short side is extended into a little barrel-vaulted dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. This has a Baroque altar with a polychrome marble frontal and a pretty statue of Our Lady being lifted into heaven by putti. This has a round-headed gilded frame, and a blue background.
The nave is a long, narrow rectangular space with rounded corners. Tall, regularly spaced Corinthian columns in pink marble are embedded in the walls, with two flanking the entrance, side chapels and triumphal arch and two in each length of wall in between. Hence there are a total of sixteen of these.
These columns carry an entablature, which masterfully follows the lines of the semicircular arches over the little rectangular apse and the two side chapels, and so form their archivolts. However, over the entrance the cornice forms a arch, but the architrave rears up on either side to cut off the frieze and to touch the cornice with a pair of curlicues. In the gap thus created is a window in the shape of an inverted funnel. Between this and the door is a large tablet with an inscription commemorating the 1929 restoration.
The frieze of the entablature is in green marble, and the walls in between the columns are revetted in coloured stone including alabaster. This is not Borromini, but 19th century. In between the columns flanking the entrance and triumphal arch are four depictions of angels holding instruments of the Passion, and executed to resemble statues standing in round-headed niches.
The shallow barrel-vaulted ceiling does not spring from the main entablature, but from a super-cornice running at the level of the tops of the arches. This also runs over four rectangular windows in the side walls which give natural light, and four round-headed windows in the corners which look into convent premises. The vault is coffered in squares arranged in a diaper pattern, with a large rectangular central panel which was intended for a fresco but which is blank. There is a stucco floral decoration over the triumphal arch.
The far end of the nave is occupied by the wooden choir stalls of the nuns. Since the church was within the enclosure, the nuns could worship here and not in a hidden-away choir behind a grille as in other enclosed nunneries in Rome.
The sanctuary is a transverse rectangle. There is no altar aedicule, but two further columns in the same style as those in the nave occupy the far corners. The barrel vault is richly decorated, including 19th century frescoes depicting putti and gilded stucco work. Interestingly, the lunette above the altarpiece is executed in a trompe-l'oeil or optical illusion so as to resemble a curved apse conch.
The altar is in bronze and rich polychrome stonework, with a bronze frontal grille bordered by pietra dura work and a bronze tabernacle backed by an alabaster panel bordered with verde antic. The altarpiece featuring the Deposition is hung above, in a gilded frame. Behind the grille are the relics of a martyr called St Caesarius.
The side walls have relics displayed in wall-cases.
Chapel of St AugustineEdit
The two side chapels are shallow barrel-vaulted niches with curved corners. The vaults are richly decorated and the walls revetted in polychrome, but there are no aedicules. The matching frontals are made of alabaster and verde antico.
The left hand chapel is dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo, and the altarpiece depicts Tolle, Lege. This an early work by Carlo Maratta, and shows the saint as a monk contemplating an infant. (Usually, St Augustine is depicted as a bishop.) The scene depicts an event which the saint recorded in his autobiography, whereby he heard a child chanting tolle, lege ("take, read") while in a garden. He picked up the Scriptures, and what he read converted him to a fully Christian life.
Chapel of the AnnunciationEdit
The right hand chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation , and has a copy of a 15th century Florentine altarpiece.
Other items of interestEdit
The rose-marble wall sarcophagus of the foundress is to the left in the nave, just before the sanctuary. It is an attractive piece, with yellow marble trim and bearing a miniature portrait of her, giving the impression of a very strong-willed lady. The floor slab informs you that she was buried here with her husband.
A depiction of The Death of St Joseph is in a rectangular niche in the wall opposite.
There is a crypt by Borromini, which is apparently being used as a wine-cellar by the hotel.
The church is in a rather remote corner of Trastevere, at the top end of the lower part of the Via Garibaldi as it climbs from the Porta Settimiana (the house number is 27). This section of the road used to be called the Via delle Fornaci, and the church is hidden away in a courtyard next to the junction with the Via dei Panieri.
At the end of the 20th century, the church was only open for Mass.
However, when the complex became a hotel it seemed that individual visitors were welcome to come and look at the church during working hours when the reception was open (groups, especially guided ones, needed to make previous arrangements).
Unfortunately, there are hints in 2018 that this civilised arrangement has been overtaken by security considerations -even so, if you are in the vicinity it is worth giving it a try.
The website of the local parish, Santa Dorotea, does not include the church among its Mass centres.
However, in 2017 it seems that there was a weekday Mass at 7:15 and a Sunday one at 8:00.