Santa Maria della Concezione delle Farnesiane was the 17th century church of a Poor Clare nunnery, the site of which is in the roadway of Via Cavour just west of the junction with Via dei Serpenti. This is in the rione Monti.
The church should not be confused with the nearby oratory of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Sacconi Turchini, which was originally the convent's extern chapel.
The name Santa Maria della Concezione delle Cappuccine is often found in publications. This is erroneous, as the nuns here were not Capuchinesses. However, ordinary Romans often thought that they were. The error was perhaps understandable, since the nunnery shared a dedication with the Capuchin friary of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini which is not far away.
The community was affiliated to the Alcantarene Franciscans, and were also known as the Farnesiane after their foundress, Mother Francesca Farnese. The reform was originally instigated by St Peter of Alcántara, and the female branch of this was called officially "Poor Clares of the Strictest Observance".
She was of the highest Italian nobility, but had a very unhappy childhood made worse by being disfigured by smallpox. She had initially been dumped on the nuns at San Lorenzo in Panisperna by her father when aged only nine in 1602, but entered as a nun in 1607 and eventually proved to have a very strong vocation to the religious life. She drew up a new set of constitutions for a reform of the Poor Clares in 1625, and founded nunneries at Albano and Palestrina before establishing one at Rome in 1641. She was helped in the cost of the reform project by Marchioness Felice Rondanini and the Barberini family. She died at the Rome convent in 1651.
Before 1870 the nunnery was famous as the strictest in Rome. The nuns initially never went out of the enclosure, always went barefoot, did not eat meat and (most seriously) did not receive visitors, not even family. For this reason they were nicknamed Le Sepolte Vive ("Buried Alive")
The architect of the convent and church was Domenico Castelli (1582-1657).
The community was dispossessed when their convent was sequestered in 1875 but, according to Augustus Hare ("Walks in Rome", p 323), the nuns were allowed to remain resident until 1885 when the convent was entirely demolished.
However, the convent at Palestrina survived and the sisters seem to have ended up there. At present, there is one extant covent of the Farnese Poor Clares and that is near Viterbo.
The site is now under the Via Cavour, with the apse in the westbound lane and the nave running under the building with two columns flanking its entrance, just to the west of Via dei Serpenti and to the right of that entrance.
Layout and appearanceEdit
Access to the convent was by a narrow alleyway, the entrance of which was in the Via della Madonna dei Monti on the other side of the street from Santa Maria dei Monti. There is a building just to the left of the church which stands back from the main street frontage, and the alleyway had its entrance opposite its left hand ground floor window.
The convent was invisible from the street, being shielded by domestic buildings. However, the extern chapel mentioned was just to the right of its entrance alleyway.
At this end of this alleyway was the entrance gate guarded by an extern sister. A painting of 1833 by Achille Pinelli is on Flickr (see link below), and this shows her sitting by the gate while some of her sisters take a stroll outside the enclosure with a priest (note that they were wearing flip-flops rather than having bare feet by then). The early Baroque gateway was in blue with yellow architectural detailing. A molded archway with a wrought iron gate had a triangular pediment above it containing a painted stucco representation of God the Father holding an orb and giving a blessing.
From the antechamber behind the iron gate, a staircase to the left ascended to the church which had no separate architectural identity. This had a tiny square courtyard in front, and the church was oriented north to south. The basically rectangular plan was divided into four bays separated by pilasters, three for the nave and one for the presbyterium beyond a triumphal arch. The second nave bay had an external side chapel on each side, one dedicated to St Francis of Assisi and the other to St Clare.
The convent building stretched in one block from the gate south to the Via Frangipani, with another block running west into the gardens from halfway down. It features as the background of another painting by Pinelli, of San Francesco da Paola nearby. In that painting, the church is on the upper floor of the block with the triangular pediment supported by four Doric pilasters; it was to the right hand side. The campanile was a tall and slim structure (if Pinelli is accurate here -he liked etiolating the buildings he painted), with a single round-headed soundhole on each face and a pyramidal cap in lead with an upsweeping curve. (The garden in the picture, in front of the convent, did not belong to the nuns.)