Santa Maria di Grottapinta is a deconsecrated 16th century church at Via di Grotta Pinta 21, just to the south-west of Sant’Andrea della Valle on the site of the Theatre of Pompey. This is in the rione Parione.
The church is customarily referred to as Grottapinta, but the street is listed as Via di Grotta Pinta and so you can find the church name so rendered as well.
The church is of obscure early mediaeval origin, and only has its first documentary reference in 1186 in a list of churches dependent on San Lorenzo in Damaso (this list is also the first mention of several of the little former parish churches hereabouts). The name given is S. Mariae in picta grotta.
The street it is on, the Via di Grotta Pinta, follows the inner curve of the ancient theatre. The church may well have been established in the Dark Ages, when the theatre was being occupied by squatters who created the street. In ancient times, this part of the city was taken up mainly by public institutions and monuments, rather than by residential districts. However, when the aqueducts failed the inhabitants on the hills moved next to the river in order to have a ready supply of water and by the 11th century the centre of the remaining built-up area was in the meander of the Tiber.
This movement of population, and how it was organised, is wholly undocumented. Even the century in which the theatre became inhabited is wholly unknown -suggestions range from the 10th to the early 12th centuries.
However, in the case of the church there is an interesting hint in its position in the ancient theatre. It is almost exactly in the middle of the curve of the theatre proper, in front of the original Temple of Venus Victrix (now under the Palazzo Pio Righetti). The siting seems to have been a symbolic cancelling of the temple's pagan power, and if so then the church was founded when the theatre was squatted. Another church was founded in the southern end of the temple's curve, Santa Barbara dei Librai.
The name Grottapinta is a mystery. It means "painted cave", and may refer to a now lost decorated underground void in the theatre complex. The latest analyses of the theatre's layout indicate that the church was built over one of the underground access passages to the spectator seating, and this might have been the original grotta. Nobody has excavated under the church to find out.
An alternative suggestion is that the name derived from a vaulted ground-level passageway next to the church with frescoes on its walls, built in early mediaeval times when the church was founded. Such a passage still exists on the right hand side of the church, the Passetto del Biscione, but the present frescoes there are 18th century (see "Madonna del Latte" below).
Nobody can now be sure as to which of these two suggestions is right.
The later tradition is that a famous icon, associated with the church, was found in a cistern nearby. This was then called the Grotta del Dipinto ("cave of the painting"). The document mentioning this dates from 1575. The story is false, because the name is much older than the alleged discovery of the icon.
Two other mediaeval names are on record: in Fornice and in Arco which also seem to allude to the passageway next door. However, the identification of this church with one called San Salvatore ad Arcum is dubious -the icon mentioned above used to be in San Salvatore.
The long association with the church of the Orsini family began when an ancestor bought the site of the theatre in 1150. An unprovable hypothesis equates this with the foundation of the church. The family created a fortified enclave here, which in 1242 was referred to by the very odd name Arpacaca.
The church was restored by them in 1291.
In 1296 a tall tower was added to the complex, which became a local landmark because it had a clock on it. Hence it was called the Torre dell'Orologio, and the residence by extension the Palazzo dell'Orologio.
Madonna di Grottapinta Edit
In 1343 the church was again restored by the Orsini, and re-consecrated to the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. Soon after, administration was entrusted to a Marian confraternity attached to the parish of San Lorenzo in Damaso, which had the same name -Arciconfraternita della Santissima Concezione della Beata Vergine Maria.
Here arises a confusion about the miraculous icon of the Madonna di Grottapinta, venerated at San Lorenzo in Damaso since its enshrinement there some time between 1465 and 1494 by the Confraternity. This was in the lost church of San Salvatore ad Arcum by the end of the 13th century, and it has been thought by historians that this church was identical to Santa Maria di Grottapinta.
However, a 1561 source lists both churches and describes San Salvatore as in arco unito alla fabrica di San Lorenzo in Damaso. This is good evidence that these two latter churches were in the same city block. What then happened to San Salvatore is entirely unknown.
A 1575 source, already mentioned, alleged that the icon was found in a "painted underground chamber" under the Grottapinta church in 1468 and then enshrined in the Damaso church. It is just possible that the icon had been taken to a cellar at the former for storage after San Salvatore was shut down, and then forgotten about.
The icon was restored in 1968. It is late 12th century, although by tradition it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. Very interestingly, it shares a peculiarity with other icons in Rome sharing the same tradition -it is actually a fragment of a Deesis. Our Lady is pictured gesturing towards a lost figure of Christ (see a website here for more on this point). The restorers discovered that the icon had a little round cavity on the left breast of Our Lady, with the depiction of a golden plaque embossed with an image of Christ next to it. The cavity once contained relics, which a unique border epigraph states to have belonged to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, Pope St Felix I and SS Marcellinus and Peter.
Parish church Edit
The church was listed as parochial in 1566, and its parish was strengthened by the annexation of the territory of the suppressed parish of Santa Barbara dei Librai nearby in 1599.
The church was rebuilt in 1599 by Virginio Orsini, who ordered a reversal of the orientation and put his coat of arms in the pediment of the new façade. Before then, the frontage of the church abutted the Orsini palazzo to the west (now called the Palazzo Pio Righetti).
The Orsini decided to sell this adjacent palazzo to the Pio di Savoia family at the start of the 17th century, and in 1667 the architect Camillo Arcucci completed a remodelling. This is basically the present building on the Piazza del Biscione behind the church.
There was another restoration of the church in 1725, when the interior was re-ordered and the main altar re-consecrated. This was by the Orsini who retained the right to nominate the parish priest, but the rector (priest in charge) then had two new side altars provided at his own cost in 1728.
In the mid 18th century the Pio di Savoia family sold the palazzo to a consortium.
Madonna del Latte Edit
The 1599 rebuilding of the church entailed the reworking of the adjacent tunnel-vaulted passage, the Passetto del Biscione. This was originally open at both ends, and the Orsini family put a Madonnella or street icon of Our Lady over the Grottapinta entrance at some stage.
This icon was painted on a board, and depicted Our Lady suckling the Child Jesus. This is actually an ancient iconographic tradition, that of Maria Lactans.
In 1796, a miracle was alleged when the image was seen by many people to move its eyes. Several madonnelle in Rome were reported doing this at the time. In response, the icon was temporarily taken into the church while the passageway was turned into a shrine. The Biscione end was blocked with a railing gate, and the Grottapinta end had a wall inserted with a pair of twin doors. The interior of the passage, including the vault, was provided with fresco decoration. The icon was then re-hung on the inside of the entrance wall, above the two doors.
Another street archway where a similar thing happened was actually converted into a church -Santa Maria dell'Archetto. However, here no altar was provided (despite which, the passageway was listed as a chapel at the end of the 19th century). For security, the doors and gate were locked at night despite the passage being a public right of way.
A prayer card showing the original icon is here.
A major re-ordering of the parishes of the Centro Storico took place in 1824, under the bull Super Universam issued by Pope Leo XII. This suppressed the parish attached to the church. There were too many of them, and the parish priests were often in penury. After this, the church was often referred to as the Cappella Orsini since the family kept it up until the latter part of the century. There was a restoration of the fabric in 1834.
In the mid 19th century the palazzo was acquired by the Righetti family of bankers, hence its present name. However, they only stayed there a few years and in 1866 it became the headquarters of the city lottery. This moved out in favour of the city prefect after 1870.
In 1887, the church and palazzo were both acquired by the Ospizio di Tata Giovanni. This had been founded in 1784 by Giovanni Borgi, a native Roman mason who had been struck by the number of abandoned street boys sleeping rough around Santa Maria ad Martyres (the Pantheon). After several moves, a permanent home was found for the orphanage at Sant'Anna dei Falegnami. However this convent was sequestered and demolished in 1887 for the Via Arenula, and so the orphanage had to move again.
The Ospizio restored the church at the start of the 20th century, which was the only renovation it was to receive in that century. This work seemed to involve the building of the huge seven-storey block which follows the curve of the street to the south (left hand side), because the church and apartment block share a party wall.
Around this time, the miraculous icon of the Madonna del Latte was removed and its present whereabouts seem to be unknown. Its identity was mistakenly transferred to another madonnella in the Piazza del Biscione.
The palazzo was not suitable as an orphanage for boys, because there was a complete lack of outside space or facilities for sport. So, in 1926 the Ospizio moved to large purpose-built premises at Viale di Porta Ardeatina 109, just outside the city walls in Ostiense.
In recent years this combined with two other educational institutions to result in a private school with the clunky name of Istituto Santissima Assunta Detto Tata Giovanni e Opera Pia De Angelis. Rumours in 2016 suggested that it was not doing too well.
Meanwhile, the church failed to find another role after the move. Sadly it was friendless, fell into disrepair and was simply abandoned after a period as a casual storage depot. It almost had to be demolished as the walls began to crack, and the only consideration preventing this was the serious issue of how to secure adjacent premises in such a demolition project.
Worse befell the vaulted passage which once contained the Madonna del Latte icon. It became a casual public toilet -a cesso, as the locals say (the word was used in a newspaper article about the problem).
In past centuries, in fact until the Papal government was overthrown by Italy in 1870, Rome had no sewage system or public toilets (visitors will notice that the latter fact has not changed). So, the natives were happy to use the streets for excretion of both kinds -but would not do so within sight of a madonnella. This was a powerful incentive for property-owners to fix one on their street frontages, although of course (!) piety was the main motivation for the enormous number of madonnelle that the city used to have.
The universal native Roman belief, that relieving one's bladder or bowels in the presence of Our Lady would cause a serious impairment of the offending organ, unfortunately did not survive the nineteenth century -and so the Madonna della Divino Provvidenza was granted homage in the form of cut flowers but little sanitary authority.
See a description and photos here.
Rescue for the church came in 1986, when the building was finally deconsecrated and turned into an innovative school for the decorative arts called the Accademia del Superfluo. This involved inserting two floors to create three interior storeys. However, the painted barrel ceiling vault was preserved and can be examined.
In 2005 the founder of the academy, artist Roberto Lucifero, turned the ground floor into the Cappella Orsini Cultural Centre and the Accademia is now one of the group of institutions under this umbrella title.
The premises have been open from 10:00 to 18:00, and serious visitors should find a welcome.
Recent restoration Edit
Lucifero campaigned to have something done about the Passaggio and the smell of piss wafting about the locality. He and a crew of fellow artists offered to do the work of restoration themselves if the city put up the funds, which it did in 2014. A proviso was that the public right of way was to be extinguished. Completion was in 2016.
The photograph of the Madonna della Divino Provvidenza was replaced by a proper painting by Raffaele Curti, on the same theme.
A newspaper article on the result is here.
Work then focused on the façade of the former church, which was literally falling off with passers-by being protected by a temporary fascia (see photo). Restoration began in 2016, and hopefully should be finished in 2017.
Layout and fabric Edit
This was a small church, having a simple rectangular plan with a sanctuary divided from the nave by a triumphal arch. The fabric is in brick.
Buildings abut the church on all sides except the middle right hand side wall and the façade. In fact, the enormous seven-storey block attached to the left hand side is more than twice the height. What cannot be seen from the street is that the main roof of the church is a pentise, with a single pitch sloping up to the party wall. The first bay of the nave, however, juts out in front of the church's enormous neighbour -you can see here that the left hand side wall is actually a party wall. This bay has a standard gable pitch but, in a further complication, it is substantially lower than the gable of the façade.
The exposed side wall on the left hand side, just mentioned, bears the church's campanile. To create this the wall is continued upwards beyond the gutter line of the roof of the first bay, forming a slab in brick which is pierced by two round-headed apertures side by side. (The church only ever hand two bells.) Above this is a circular aperture, and the composition is topped by a tiled gable.
Bulging from the lower part of the left hand side wall is an odd apsidal structure in the form of a semi-cylinder with a small window in front, a cornice and a flat saucer semi-dome. This is the church's baptistery, a reminder that it was parochial before 1824. It seems to have been added in the 18th century, when the church received a font (it was dependent on San Lorenzo in Damaso for baptisms and funerals before then, and only four people seem to have been buried here).
Over the baptistery is a large vertical rectangular window.
The façade used to be rendered in orange with the architectural details in white, but before the recent restoration the rendering had peeled in places, and was filthy in others. It seems that the 2016 restoration will leave the frontage in a creamy colour.
Both storeys have their central sections brought forward slightly. For the first storey this zone has a pair of swagged Ionic pilasters on its corners with doubletting strips along their outer edges. Hence the capitals each have three volutes. Another pair of pilasters occupy the outer corners of the storey. These pilasters support an entablature with a projecting cornice. The doorway, with a projecting cornice over-lintel, has a fine but cracked Baroque marble door-case with a strip of moulding having a little bend through two right angles near the top on each side.
The second storey is much lower than the first one. It has four corresponding pilasters with plinths, but these are thinner and without capitals. In lieu, they have unusual posts within the crowning entablature decorated with stylised tassels. The outer pair of pilasters and posts are each tripletted with strips along each edge, but the inner pair is sextupletted with a strip along each inner edge and a stack of five along the outer one.
There is a crowning triangular pediment, with the coat-of-arms of the Orsini family in the tympanum. This storey has a large semi-circular lunette window sitting on the lower entablature, fitted in between the inner pair of pilasters, and above this a stone dedication tablet.
There used to be three altars inside, although the church lacked proper side chapels.
The main altar had a copy of the venerated icon of the Madonna di Grottapinta, to be found at the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso.
The left hand altar was dedicated to the Crucifix, with an altarpiece by Giovanni Antonio Valtellina. The right hand one was dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the altarpiece was by Francesco Alessandrini.
Madonna del Latte Edit
The Passetto next to the right hand side of the church is now an attractive and unusual space, and is worth a visit. You go round the corner of the church to find two thin doorways accessed by a flight of stairs, beyond these is a rendered and frescoed brick tunnel leading to the Piazza del Biscione.
The old frescoes were almost all destroyed by time, damp and urine by the time of the restoration in 2016, but the work in the latter is a faithful copy. Two concave molded cornices in yellow run down the top of each side wall, enclosing a vault fresco featuring putti playing with flower garlands on a sky-blue background. Each of the walls below these cornices has its lower register painted to resemble rectangular panels of coloured marble, and its upper register to resemble a row of pairs of Corinthian pilasters holding up an architrave below the cornice and the sky appearing between them. The overall blue ambience is attractive.
Inside the two doors, on the tympanum above them is a free copy of the Madonna della Divina Provvidenza by Raffaele Curti, and this has been provided with a pair of painted putti in veneration.
Annas Rom Guide (in Danish -thanks to her for point about San Salvatore ad Arcum)