Santa Maria in Campo Marzio is a 17th century former monastic church at Piazza in Campo Marzio 45 in the rione Campo Marzio. This is the Syrian national church, and the liturgy is celebrated in the Syrian-Antiochene rite. Picture of the church on Wikimedia Commons here.
(Also see the page on San Gregorio Nazianzeno.)
Byzantine rite nunnery
The exact date of the first church on this site is uncertain. Tradition claims that the monastery it belonged to was founded some time after 750 by Byzantine-rite nuns of the convent of St Anastasia in Constantinople, who had fled from the East to avoid the iconoclastpersecutions. Pope Zacharias (741-752) is said to have built a convent for them, probably on the Vicolo Valdina to the north where the original conventual church of San Gregorio Nazianzeno still stands. They had brought his relics with them from Constantinople, and the nunnery was originally dedicated to Our Lady and St Gregory Nazianzen.
The convent had became Benedictine before the first documentary evidence for it in 937, and starting in the late 11th century the nuns rebuilt their convent on a grander scale with an arcaded cloister next to St Gregory's church.
At some stage they also built a second church at the south-west angle of this cloister, dedicated to Our Lady (this might have replaced an earlier chapel of the original foundation). This was enlarged by Giacomo della Porta in 1564 with financial support from Caterina Colonna. The nunnery had become, by then, the senior one in the city and had a high level of prestige.
In 1580 the relics of St Gregory Nazianzen were transferred to St Peter's, and the old church was downgraded to a chapel. Our Lady's church thus became the conventual church, and it and the monastery were dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Hence, the church was named Santa Maria della Concezione in Campo Marzio.
The nuns employed Giovanni Antonio de' Rossi to rebuild the church in 1675, under the patronage of Pope Innocent XI. The work took ten years, and resulted in the present Baroqueedifice. The same project involved the restoration and rebuilding of some of the convent buildings
The monastery prospered, and during the construction of an extension in 1767 a large ancient column in cipollino marble was found which now stands in the Piazza di Spagna, appropriately with a statue of Our Lady Immaculate on top of it. The architect of the extension was Domenico Gregorini.
During the French occupation the nuns were expelled, the church desecrated and the complex used as the offices of the city lottery. The sisters returned in 1816, but were again expelled for a year in 1848 by the Roman Republic to make way for a military headquarters.
The nuns restored the complex in 1853.
The final suppression of the nunnery was in 1873 by the Italian government. Very unfortunately, the argument was not accepted that a community aged over 1100 years old amounted to a human ancient monument worthy of preservation. The nuns moved to join their sisters at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, where a Benedictine nunnery remains.
The complex became the central state archives, and the church was deconsecrated for a period. However it was reopened for the use of expatriate Syrians in 1920, and is now officially known simply as Santa Maria in Campo Marzio.
In the 1960's the old monastic complex was purchased by the Camera dei Deputati for office accommodation. (This is the second old monastery that it now occupies, as well as Santissima Trinità della Missione.)
At the start of the 21st century, a major restoration and conservation project was entered into after the church had fallen into serious disrepair.
The Camera dei Deputati published a book on the monastery in April 2011; see "External links" below.
The church is built on a Greek cross plan, with a central dome. The entrance bay, the two main side chapels and the sanctuary bay are of equal length. Off both the entrance and sanctuary bay on each side is a smaller side chapel, a total of four giving a grand total of six side chapels.
The sanctuary has a large semi-circular external apse.
The church is surrounded by convent buildings on all sides, and so only the upper part of the fabric is visible from the street. This has a strongly molded projecting cornice running along the roofline, above which is a very narrow tiled pitch followed by an odd balustrade formed of railings on blocks. The roof of the church is flat -did the nuns use it as an open-air terrace?
The external dome is a tiled saucer of eight sectors on an octagonal drum, which has a rectangular window in every other side. There is a lantern on the plan of a chamfered square with bowed sides. A rectangular window is in each side, bounded by a pair of little Corintihan columns, and the chamfers have large curlicues. Above is a low trumpet cupola in lead on an entablature, having a ball finial.
The fabric is in brick, rendered in a pale blue with details in white. The piazza frontage of the convent matches this.
The attached apse has a conch or semi-dome, roofed in lead. The street presence of the church is created by this apse, which faces down the Via della Maddalena and which has a vertical elliptical window in a projecting frame put in by the architect as a deliberate eye-catcher. This has a floating archivolt cornice like an eyebrow. The roofline cornices of the lower domestic conventual buildings on each side are continued across the apse to stop just short of the window, adding to the emphasis.
Curving around the apse below the window is a curious structure cantilvered out on corbels, which looks like a walled-off balcony. This is actually what it is; if you look carefully, you can see peep-holes through which the nuns could look down the street without being seen (they kept enclosure, and so were not allowed ouside the nunnery).
The church has no campanile, because the nuns thought that the campanile of their other church of San Gregorio Nazianzeno would do.
The nunnery was a large one, and occupied the entire triangular city block between the piazza and the Vicolo Valdina. There is a fairly small arcaded main cloister north of the church near the latter street, and two courtyards. The smaller is to the north-west of the church, and the larger (the kitchen court) to the east.
The subsidiary church of San Gregorio Nazianzeno is at the north-east corner of the main cloister.
There was a small recreational garden within a second cloister, arcaded on three sides, to the north-east and a vegetable garden in the north-west corner of the city block. For an enclosed order of nuns, this was a very limited area of open-air space compared to other nunneries in the city.
Unusually for a Roman church, there is no separate façade and the public architectural statement of the nunnery's existence is provided by the main convent entrance on the piazza. This has two pairs of gigantic Composite pilasters on high plinths, connecting with the dentillated roofline cornice via a pair of posts.
The main entrance has a pair of small ancient cipollino marble Ionic columns in stone box frames, echoing the larger design by supporting a similar cornice via a pair of posts. A blank tablet is in between the posts. Above the cornice is a narrow horizontal framed sunken tablet, also blank, and above this in turn is an interesting large lunette niche. This looks as if it was meant to have contained some sculpture, but old depictions show that it contained an icon of Our Lady in the early 19th century.
To get to the church, you go through this entrance and emerge into a small narrow courtyard. The church frontage is to the right, with a cross-vaulted loggia entered through three large archways separated by a pair of ancient granite Ionic columns and with Ionic pilasters end. Above the porch is a small block of accommodation for the chaplain, which hides the actual frontage of the church behind.
The courtyard is shaped like a T, and opposite the church loggia the stem of the T runs to another three-arched loggia which is the entrance to the main cloister. It accesses the south-west corner of the cloister arcade.
The interior has an overall simple decorative scheme in white and light grey. It is dominated by the central dome, which is slightly oval on the minor axis and which rests on an entablature with an architrave embellished with shallow strap corbels. The dome itself is divided into four light grey sectors separated by wide white ribs, and each sector has an oval window crowned by stucco fronds and putti. The oval oculus has an encircling stucco flower garland.
The pendentives of the dome are also in light grey.
The pendentives are created by four large arches springing from an entablature supported by two ribbed Corinthian pilasters at the inner angles of the Greek cross. This entablature has modillions on its cornice, and runs around the entire church except for the counterfaçade.
The side arms of the cross are large side chapels, the back arm is the sanctuary bay and the front arm is the entrance bay. The four side chapels in the inner corners of the cross are entered through smaller arches leading off the sanctuary bay or entrance bay.
Note the enclosed and grilled galleries for the nuns above the entrance and the chapels, the latter being tucked in between the arches and the entablature.
The nave extends into the sanctuary arm as far as the apse. The sanctuary itself is confined to the apse, and its decoration is more colourful.
The triumphal arch is supported on two projecting posts in the entablature, which in turn rest on two massive Corinthian pilasters revetted in pink marble. On front of these are two massive gilded bronze candlesticks on polychrome marble plinths. Two columns and posts in the same style as the plinths are within the apse framing the altar, and have a pair of stucco angels on top.
The conch of the apse is divided into three sectors by ribs embellished with rosettes in gilded stucco, and these sectors contain frescoes of Our Lady Immaculate with angels. They are by Placido Costanzi, 1730. The thing under her looking like an elephant's tusk is meant to be the moon.
The intrados of the triumphal arch of the apse also has gilded stucco work containing putti.
Over the high altar is an icon of Our Lady, the Madonna Advocata, in a gilded glory. This is dated from between 1200 and 1224, and is the right hand leaf of a triptych. You can see that Our Lady is meant to be gesturing to a lost image of Christ, which would have occupied the central panel of the triptych (with St John the Baptist most likely on the left hand one).
The sanctuary is set off by a horizontal wooden beam on four wooden Ionic columns, rather like the ghost of an iconostasis.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, starting at the right of the entrance.
Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows
Chapel of St John the Baptist
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St John the Baptist, and the pictures therein are by Andrea Pasqualino Marini. The altarpiece, simply hung again, shows The Baptism of Christ. The right hand wall shows The Decapitation of St John the Baptist, and the left hand wall has The Birth of Our Lady, with Saints. Among the crowd on onlookers is St Benedict, writing his rule.
There is a little picture of St Joseph on the altar.
Chapel of St Gregory Nazianzen
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Gregory Nazianzen, and the altarpiece by Garzi depicting him conquering heresy is the church's former main altarpiece. Here there is a pedimented aedicule with two Ionic pilasters in alabaster. The same mineral is used in the altar frontal.
Chapel of the Crucifix
The third chapel to the left is dedicated to the Crucifix, and has one within a white stucco glory as an altarpiece. The altar has a pair of Corinthian columns in an odd-looking marble in bright white with pale grey veins (is this real?), and these support a triangular pediment with modillions but no cornice. The altar frontal is in alabaster, with a central tondo in lapis lazuli with the Name of Jesus: IHS (from the Greek IHΣYΣ).
The side walls have a pair of paintings featuring St Mary Magdalen thought to be by Angelo Soccorsi, 18th century. The left hand one shows Noli me tangere, and the right hand one shows The Penitent Magdalen in the Desert.
Chapel of St Benedict
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to St Benedict. The altarpiece showing The Death of St Benedict is by Lazzaro Baldi, 1685. This altarpiece is also simply hung on the wall above the altar. The pictures on the side walls are also by Baldi, and show St Benedict Compiling His Rule to the left, and The Madonna and Child with Benedictine Saints to the right. The nun kissing the Child's hand is St Gertrude the Great.
Chapel of the Nativity
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Nativity, and contains 17th century paintings of the Roman school.
Owing to a long programme of restoration the church has not been accessible in recent years, but individual interested visitors had the opportunity to look in (if not to wander around) if the door was open.
However, since the restoration was finished the church has apparently been kept locked up except for liturgical events. The tourist website 060608 (June 2018) claims that group visits can be arranged in advance and gives a contact number: 331 6787420.
Mass is celebrated according to the Syrian-Antiochene rite, but the church is in full communion with the Holy Father.
There are five Eastern rites of the Catholic church in Syria and Lebanon, and they are often listed as the Armenian, Chaldean (both for immigrants), Maronite (in Lebanon), Melkite (Byzantine) and Syrian (Jacobite).
This church belongs to the last-named, which is used by the descendents of those members of the Syrian Orthodox Church who accepted the authority of the Pope in the 19th century. This church in turn is descended from those Syrian christians who rejected the authority of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, and who used to be called Monophysites. The term Jacobite derives from the 6th century bishop who first organized their hierarchy. The liturgy they use is descended from that in use at Antioch in patristic times.
Mass is celebrated (Centro Storico database, accessed May 2019):
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 8:00.