Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli is a 16th and 17th century national and titular church, named after the abbey of Montserrat in Spain. Its postal address is at Via Giulia 151 in the rione Regola (actually the back door), but the entrance is on the Via di Montserrat. Picture of the church at Wikimedia Commons is here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
This is the national church for expatriates from the Kingdom of Spain. However, its history derives from what is now Catalonia -and those who know anything the difficulties of defining nationality in modern Spain will recognize a problem.
The source of the church's name is the venerated image of Our Lady of Montserrat, nicknamed the Black Virgin, which is very popular in Spain. By tradition this was first enshrined on a site on the multi-peaked mountain of Montserrat near Barcelona in the 8th century, during the Muslim conquest of Spain. A monastery was founded there, and this became a great abbey which has continued to the present day.
The name Montserrat means "saw mountain" in Catalan, and the church's façade contains a sculpture punning on this.
The West Indian island of Montserrat was named by a monk of the abbey accompanying Columbus on the expedition that discovered it.
It should be noted that the abbey has nothing to do with this church, which has never been monastic or conventual.
Sant'Andrea de' Azanesi
The present church descends from a small old parish church called Sant'Andrea de' Azanesi, which used to stand on the corner of the present Via di Monserrato (then called Via Arenula) and the Via della Barchetta. This dated from the massive but poorly documented campaign to provide lots of small churches for the built-up area of the city, as it was in the 10th and early 11th centuries. It was first mentioned in a list of churches under the authority of San Lorenzo in Damaso in 1186.
The "small parish" policy (less than 100 families per church) proved untenable, and many of these churches became redundant in the Middle Ages. Some were demolished, and others taken over by special interest groups such as guilds or organizations for expatriates -as here.
Alternative names were Nazareno and a Corte Savella.
Foundation of hospice
The County of Barcelona, which was first constitutued as part of the Frankish Empire, is recognized as the historical antecedant of modern Catalonia. It united with the Kingdom of Aragon to the west in 1164, and the resultant political entity took the senior title even though the old kingdom was the less important area (and has never spoken Catalan). Historians tend to label it as the Crown of Aragon. The present church was founded by Catalan expatriates from this.
The first hospice on the site was established in an existing house by a lady from Barcelona called Jacoba Ferrándiz, who took over the old church in 1354 with the approval of Pope Innocent VI (1352-1362). She dedicated the institution to St Nicholas, hence it was called San Niccolò dei Catalani, and the church was re-dedicated to the same saint apparently. Later in the century she was helped by another lady called Margarita Pau who was from Mallorca.
The Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united under one government in 1469. The expatriates of the latter had their own church and hospice in Rome, San Giacomo dei Spagnoli which is now Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore in the Piazza Navona.
The new united kingdom of Spain favoured San Giacomo, but expatriates from the old Kingdom of Aragon, who had formed a confraternity to run their hospice, were not interested. Rather, they determined to build a fine new church dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat.
Construction started with the laying of the foundation stone in 1518, the architect being Antonio Sangallo the Younger and Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) giving his support. The pope was from a town near Valencia in the Kingdom of Aragon, which helped; his surname was Borja, to become notorious in its Italian form of Borgia.
The church took a very long time to finish. Pope Alexander VI was hugely unpopular, and after him there were political conflicts between the papal government and Spain. This led to problems for the confraternity in raising funds.
Sangallo died in 1546, but his successors as architects respected his plan. Bernardino Valperga took over, and Francesco Capriani da Volterra provided the first storey of the façade. Even the latter project was a struggle to complete, the right half being done in 1584 and the left half nine years later. Then work stopped here, with the façade unfinished. The high altar was only consecrated in 1594 and the nave vault installed in 1598. The confraternity then abandoned further work for three-quarters of a century.
After he had his conversion experience when convalescing as a wounded soldier St Ignatius of Loyola hung up his sword at the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat in Catalonia in 1522. Hence, he had a devotion to this church and preached and catechized here as Master General of the Jesuits before his death in 1556. He was highly regarded, despite having a poor grasp of Italian.
The confraternity were not satisfied with the sanctuary arrangements, and their next project in the church was the rebuilding of the apse and the provision of a new high altar in 1675, which was done by Giovan Battista Contini.
The confraternity was able to attract funds to furnish the six side chapels by granting them to rich private benefactors as funerary chapels.
As soon as the French took control in Rome in 1798, the confraternity was dispossessed and the church closed together with San Giacomo degli Spagnoli. In 1807, during a period between French occupations, the pope united the two churches under one national administration. Then the French shut them again, and after the Papal government returned in 1815 the Spanish had two churches in bad repair.
For some reason, they decided to concentrate on this one. San Giacomo was stripped and abandoned, some of its artworks being brought here and others shipped to Spain. This church was given a thorough restoration from 1818 to 1821, and a new high altar was consecrated in 1822. The architect was Pietro Camporese the Younger.
The confraternity's headquarters was rebuilt in the same campaign, to become the Palazzo del Collegio Spagnola, and a cloister or courtyard was provided behind the church for the purpose of displaying some of the transferred artworks.
In 1926, the façade was finally given its second storey by Salvatore Rebecchini.
The church remains the Chiesa Nazionale Spagna. Some more radical Catalan nationalists consider that it had been stolen from Catalonia, and want it back. This won't happen, but proposals to have Masses in Catalan seem more reasonable.
After years during which the church was hardly used on weekdays, recently its accessibility has been much improved.
There was a recent restoration of the roof.
The church was only made a cardinalitial title on 21 October 2003. The first titular was Cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo O.F.M., created cardinal on the same day, and he remains the only one so far.
Layout and fabric
The plan consists of a single nave, with three external chapels of identical layout on each side. The presbyterium has a square plan, with a large semicircular apse appended.
The fabric is in brick. Because there are buildings on all sides except the street frontage, only the façade is visible.
The campanile is a simple gabled slab over the far right hand side wall of the central nave, parallel to the wall.
The façade has two storeys, the bottom one being 16th century and the top one 20th century. This is easily spotted, as the travertine stonework is of different colours owing to the amount of weathering it has had. Unfortunately, the street is narrow and a good view of the whole façade is impossible to obtain.
The first storey fronts the first pair of side chapels as well as the central nave. The latter has four Corinthian pilasters supporting an ornate entablature. This has a blank frieze, but the architrave is embellished with a little line of zig-zag and the cornice has both dentillations and foliated modillions interspersed with rosettes. The frieze has iron hooks, indicating that some sort of wooden board (with name of church?) used to hang here.
The large single doorway is flanked by a pair of Composite columns, supporting a pair of posts set diagonally. In between these is a large and impressive sculpture representing some rocky crags among which the Madonna and Child sits. The Christ-Child is holding a fret-saw (a real one, in iron), and he is using it on one of the rocks. This is a pun on the name of the church Montserrat means "Saw-mountain".
The doorway is an addition to the original design, being designed by Tommaso de Marchis in 1726. The sculpture was by Carlo Mondaldi, 1731.
The entablature continues across the two chapel frontages, which are slightly recessed. Below on these frontages, and in between the pilasters on the main façade, are six identical empty round-headed niches with scalloped conchs. These have little triangular pediments containing winged putto's heads.
The second storey is boring. An attic is provided, running on top of the first storey's entablature, and over this are four Composite pilasters supporting the crowning triangular pediment which has modillions and rosettes like those on the cornice of the first storey. In the centre is a large rectangular window. The areas delineated by the pilasters and attic cornice have large shallow rectangular recesses.
This storey was completed in 1926 by Rebecchini, but the project to provide it was begun in 1855 by Giuseppe Sarti.
Layout and fabric
The interior layout is simple. A single nave of three and a half bays is continued as a presbyterium of one bay, and then comes the apse with a conch. The vaulting of these are all at the same height, but the nave, presbyterium and apse are divided from one another by two large transverse archivolts.
There are three side chapels on each side, entered through large arches. In between these are gigantic Composite pilasters in shallow relief, which supports an entablature which runs around the whole interior. The modillions on the cornice of this are prominent. The apse has four such pilasters, slightly more pround, and at the entrance of the presbyterium is a pair of double engaged pillars in the same style.
The nave and presbyterium have barrel vaults, with lunettes for windows -one pair for the presbyterium, three for the nave.
The decoration of the vaults and interior walls is based on gilded stucco scrollwork, executed in the 19th century restoration.
Many of the works of art to be found here were moved here from Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore when that church ceased to function as the Spanish national church in the 17th century.
The white marble floor of the nave was allegedly once at San Giacomo, and if this is true it shows how thorough the Spanish were at looting that edifice when they abandoned it.
There is a pair of frescoes over the arches into the central side chapels. On the right, the Assumption of Our Lady is by Francesco Nappi, and on the left the Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven is by Giovanni Battista Ricci da Novara.
The half bay beyond the chapels, before the sanctuary, has a doorway on each side. Above these are a pair of statues in round-headed niches by Juan Adán, who died in 1816. They seem to be his only work in Rome, and presumably were installed in the 19th century restoration. The saints represented are St Elizabeth of Portugal and St Peter de Arbués. Both of them were Catalans.
The presbyterium has a large arch on each side, echoing those of the side chapels, and into each is inserted a cantiora or raised balcony for singers and musicians. They are supported on marble columns, and were installed in 1829. A century later the church's organ was installed here, in two sections.
The present fittings of the sanctuary are all early 19th century. The large altarpiece, showing a Crucifixion, is by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta. This high quality painting does not deserve its stupid little red velvet canopy.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, starting from the bottom right. They are identical in architectural design, each having a little dome with pendentives. However, the decoration varies very interestingly.
Chapel of St Diego of Alcalá
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Diego of Alcalá, although it was dedicated to SS Nicholas and Philip before the 19th century and had an anonymous 17th century altarpiece featuring them. Now, it has another item from San Girolamo as an altarpiece, featuring the Spanish Franciscan saint and which is by Annibale Carracci.
The remains of the two Borgia popes, Callixtus III (1455-1458) and Alexander VI (1492-1503), are buried here on the right after being moved from St Peter's. The monument to the two popes was erected as late as 1889, and is by Felipe Moratilla. As a piece of neo-Baroque it is not at all bad. Below is the memorial to King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who died in exile at Rome in 1941 after abdicating. His remains were interred here, until being transferred to join the other deceased Spanish royalty at El Escorial in 1980. The monument is a very simple slab of marble.
On the left there is a monument to the Catalan sculptor Antonio Solá, 1861 by José Vilches Llevada and, below, one to Francisco-de-Paola Mora de Lugros who died in 1842.
Note on the name Diego
Scholars who aren't Spanish sometimes have trouble with the name Diego. It actually derives from St James the Great, patron of Spain who is Iacobus in Latin. The mutation was:
Yaqov (Hebrew) → Iacobus → Iago → Santiago → Tiago → Diego.
An erroneous back-formation into Latin has occurred, resulting in Didacus. The use of this is better avoided, and English derivations from it simply don't work.
Chapel of the Annunciation
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Annunciation to Our Lady. It was paid for by a bequest from Gabriel Ferrer, whose tomb slab dated 1607 is in the floor and his shield is in the dome as with the previous chapel. The fitting out was done in 1624, with the pictures all being done by Francesco Nappi.
The altarpiece shows the Annunciation, and the side walls have the Birth of Our Lady and the Assumption. The pilasters and archivolt of the entrance arch show prophets and Marian symbols -the Tower of David is in the keystone. The pendentives have putti holding further Marian symbols, and in the dome is St Cecila.
The two memorials in the side walls are of Spanish ambassadors who died at Rome in the 19th century, Julián de Villalba 1843 and Salvador de Zea Bermúdez, 1852.
Chapel of the Virgin of the Pillar
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar , an ancient devotion based at Zaragoza in Aragon and very popular in Spanish-speaking countries. This is appropriate here, because the chapel was sponsored by two canons of Zaragoza at the end of the 17th century and was finished in the next. The polychrome marble decoration is very rich. The altarpiece is by Francisco Preciado de la Vega, and features the Virgin of the Pillar being venerated by SS James the Great and Vincent Ferrer.
The painting on the left wall is The Triumph of the Immaculate Conception by Louis Cousin, 1663, and that on the right hand one is the Assumption by Francesco di Città di Castello. Both came from San Giacomo.
Chapel of St James the Great
The third chapel on the left was dedicated to the Crucifixion when it was fitted out by Francisco Robuster, who died in 1570. However it was re-dedicated in the 19th century restoration to the apostle of Spain, and the former dedication applied to the high altar.
The large statue of the saint over the altar is by Jacopo Sansovino, and was installed in in 1882 after having been at San Giacomo.
Antonio Solá sculpted the monument to Félix Aguirre, 1832, and José Alvarez Bougel was responsible for that to Antonio Vargas Laguna, 1824. Below these are two Renaissance memorials attributed to Andrea Bregno; Alfonso de Paradinas 1485 on the left, and Juan de Fuensalida 1498 on the right.
Chapel of Our Lady of Montserrat
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat. It a riot of gilded stucco work, which is attributed to Carlo Francesco Bizzaccheri who died about 1720. However, the original patron was a Catalan bishop of Malta named Tomás Gargall who died in 1614 so the chapel was re-fitted subsequently.
The wooden statue on the altar is a modern copy of the famous one at the Abbey of Montserrat, and was donated by the abbey in 1950. It is by Manuel Martí Cabrer, and was one of his last works. The fresco panels are all by Giovanni Battista Ricci da Novara; the principal ones on the side walls are of The Journey of St Raymund of Peñafort to the left, and The Holy Mountain of Montserrat on the right. Don't forget to look up into the dome. The pendentives have the Evangelists, the four dome panels feature prophets and sybils with Christ in Glory in the oculus and the archivolt of the entrance arch have charming little scenes from the life of Our Lady.
Chapel of St Anne
The first chapel on the left used to be dedicated to St Eulalia, patron of Barcelona, and had an altarpiece of her by Vicente Palmaroli. This was replaced in 1821 by a marble sculptural relief of The Madonna and Child with St Anne, executed by Tommaso Boscoli in 1544 and brought here from San Giacomo.
That church was also the origin of the aumbry or holy-oil cupboard on the right hand pilaster, attributed to Luigi Capponi.
The right hand wall has an anonymous monument to José Narciso Aparici Soler, 1845.
The sacristy is not accessible to visitors, but apparently contains more pictures taken from San Giacomo. Noteworthy among these was a 17th century Spanish depiction of Isaac.
There used to be three busts executed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini here:
The bust of Cardinal Pedro Foix de Montoya, a benefactor of the church, is from 1621 and so is one of his early works. It is part of a monument not by him, which is now apparently in the dining hall of the college after being taken from the sacristy and replaced by a plaster copy (is the latter still there?). Here's a picture.
The Blessed Soul (here) and the Damned Soul (here) were commissioned from Bernini by Montoya in 1619. They were appropriated from the sacristy by the Spanish government, who put them in the Spanish embassy to the Holy See on the Piazza di Spagna.
The courtyard is also called a cloister, even though it has never been part of a convent. It was designed to be the new home of many funerary monuments brought from San Giacomo. An early 20th century list, starting from the right of the exit from the church, gives:
Giovanni de Mella, 1467; anonymous, 15th century; a bishop called Giacomo, 1484; Francesco da Toledo, 1479; Roderico Sanchez, 1551; Gabriele Gienn, early 16th century; Diego Valdes, 1506; Ferdinando da Cordova, 1486; Peter Suarez, 16th century; Alvaro Guzma, ditto and (the only modern one) Maria del Carmine Gutirrez del los Rios y Zapata, 1855.
On the right at the far end of the cloister is the entrance to a vestibule, and this had four stucco angels by the same Moratilla who did the monument to the Borgia popes. Also here were coats-of-arms of the 17th century and the monuments to Pietro Giaconi, 1581 and Giuseppe de Vides, 1665.
Canonically the church is dependent on the parish of San Lorenzo in Damaso, but has its own clergy supplied by the hierarchy of the Church in Spain.
The priest in charge (rettore) in May 2018 was Don Mariano Sanz González of the Segovia diocese, assisted by Mons. José Jaime Brosel Gavilá of the Valencia diocese.
After a long period during which finding the church open on weekdays was an event, the access arrangements are now (May 2018) much more accommodating.
According to the Diocese (May 2019), the church is open:
Weekdays 8:30 to 13:00, 15:00 to 17:00;
Sundays and Solemnities 10:00 to 12:30, 17:30 to 19:30.
The church is closed in August, except for the Sunday Mass (see below).
Groups can visit the church after giving prior notice:
Tel (+39) 06689651
Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 8:00 (not August);
Sundays and Solemnities 12:30.
The language used is not advertised, but expect it to be Spanish. The weekday Mass is a welcome recent innovation, but the single Sunday Mass contrasts with a previous total of four one of which was in Italian. There has been long-standing unease among the Roman parish clergy concerning the over-supply of public Masses in the Centro Storico, and the change seems to be a response to this.
You are not allowed to walk around the church during Mass.
The feast-day of Our Lady of Montserrat is celebrated with solemnity on 27 April.
Church website ("under construction")
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