Santa Maria in Via is a late 16th century parish and titular church founded in the Dark Ages, with a postal address at Via del Mortaro 24. However the main entrance is on the Largo Chigi, at the west end of the Via del Tritone in the rione Trevi. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary under a special title of Our Lady of the Well (Madonna del Pozzo).
It is very easy to confuse this church with the nearby one of Santa Maria in Via Lata, both nowadays and in historical documents.
The origins of the church are entirely unknown. However a bull of Pope John XII in 962, apparently confirming a lost earlier one of 955 by Pope Agapetus II listing the assets of the monastery of San Silvestro in Capite, has this to say:
Duae ecclesiae, una maiore at alia minore, que dicitur S. Maria namque site ante portam suprascripti monasterii ("Two churches, one big and one little, called St Mary and situated in front of the gate of the abovementioned monastery".)
It is thought that one of these is the present Santa Maria in Trivio, and the other Santa Maria in Via. However, educated guesses like this one based on old documents are unprovable.
In 1042 the church has its first fairly unambiguous documentary reference, in the archives of the nearby Santa Maria in Via Lata. There, it is already recorded under the name Santa Maria in Via.
This is a strange name, considering that most city churches are on or fairly close to a street, and there are three threories:-
Firstly, because of the church's proximity to the Via Lata, the city end of the Via Flaminia, which was the main road in the area and is now the Corso. The problem with this is that Santa Maria in Via Lata is actually on this street, and is the older church. Why would the church's founders duplicate its name?
Secondly, that the word Via is a corruption of the Latin vinea, or vine.
Thirdly, that the church was actually first built in the middle of a street (in Via literally means "in the street") in the same way that Santa Maria dell'Archetto later was.
In summary, nobody knows the origin of this name and guesses are now futile.
The church was parochial from early times. In 1205 it was formally established as a parish church dependent on San Marcello al Corso, which was the ancient titulus for the area.
In the 13th century, Cardinal Pietro Capocci had a house here, and there was a well in his stable yard. On the night of 26 September 1256, it overflowed. The horses were frightened, and when the domestics rushed out they found an icon of the Blessed Virgin, painted on a terracotta tablet, floating on the water.
Pope Alexander IV declared this event to have been a miracle, and ordered the construction of a chapel dedicated to the icon. The new chapel was erected over the well, as an annexe of the older church.
The church was rebuilt "from the foundations" between 1491 and 1513, on the orders of Pope Innocent VIII. When it was finished, in 1513, it was granted to the Servite Order by Pope Leo X (1513-1521), and they still serve the church and parish.
The Servites decided to rebuild, but took some time as firstly they built a convent from 1585 to 1590. Then they started on the church, and employed Giacomo della Porta for the year after 1592, and then Francesco da Volterra to 1596. He left the church with the nave unroofed, and after a pause Carlo Francesco Lambardi (who was a parishioner) finished the edifice, did the basic internal decoration and installed the altars by 1609. This work was patronised by Cardinal St Robert Bellarmine, titular of the church.
However the façade took much longer, and it was only completed in 1681 by Carlo Rainaldi. Simultaneously with this completion of the church, the Archconfraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Sacramento) of the parish built a nearby oratory for itself -amounting to a separate church. This is now the Oratorio dell'Angelo Custode.
The church has been the home of a prosperous parish ever since its rebuilding.
The interior was restored in the mid 19th century by Virginio Vespignani, who added much polychrome marble decoration.
The western part of the present Via del Tritone was built as a completely new street at the end of the 19th century, and this entailed the demolition of the buildings abutting the church on its north side. A side frontage was provided as a result in 1897, the architect being one Mazzolini.
The 16th century Servite convent, which was south of the church and had a rectangular cloister arcaded on all four sides, was demolished in about 1930.
A major restoration of the fabric was completed in 2006.
The church had been made titular in 1551, by Pope Julius III. The first titular priest was Cardinal Fulvio Giulio della Corgna. Among other titulars we find, as mentioned above, St Robert Bellarmine S.J. (1599-1620), who was a Jesuit and one of the foremost champions of the Catholic cause during the Counter-Reformation.
Plan and elevation
The plan of the church is straightforward, there being a nave with two structural aisles, a short presbyterium and a segmental apse. The aisles are divided by blocking walls to create four chapels on either side, the bottom right hand one (where the well is) being twice as deep as the others and hence protruding beyond the external wall on that side. On the left hand side of the presbyterium is a room containing a crib, and on the right hand side is the sacristy.
The roofs are pitched and tiled, with the one over the presbyterium slightly lower than that on the nave. There is no campanile, but a bellcote with spaces for two bells is placed over the far right hand corner of the sacristy. Unusually, this is at an acute angle to the major axis of the church.
The 19th century side frontage on the Via del Tritone features six Corinthian limestone pilasters, the pair on the corners being doubletted. They support a roofline entablature which is a continuation of the dividing one in the façade. In between each pair of pilasters is naked brickwork with a large recessed frame, below a large lunette window.
The travertine limestone façade was designed by Giacomo della Porta and completed by Carlo Rainaldi, who made some alterations to the upper of the two storeys. A quick glance round the corner will reveal that this second storey is false, being much higher than the nave roof behind.
The first storey has four Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief, doubled in profile, and these support a deep entablature with a projecting dentillate corniceand a dedicatory inscription on the frieze. The inscription reads, in Latin, Deo in hon[orem] Mariae virginis matris Dei, d[e]d[icata] a[nno] MCCLVI ("Dedicated to God in honour of Mary the virgin mother of God, 1256"). In between the pilaster capitals are panels richly decorated with swags, ribbons and heads of putti. The plaque in the middle of this records a restoration of 1900.
Because the aisles were used for chapels, there is only one entrance door. It is flanked by Corinthian columns in the round supporting a raised triangular pediment containing a bust in a wreath. To either side is a rectangular window with a raised segmental pediment, and below this a blank tablet with a Baroque raised border.
The second storey has a pair of pilasters in the same style as those below, and these support an entablature and compound pediment formed by inserting a segmental one into a triangular one. In the centre is a large rectangular window flanked by Corinthian columns supporting a pediment with an ogee curve. This window has a balustrade, and the pediment contains a scallop shell. A pair of gigantic incurved double volutes frames this storey, and on the corners at either end is a pair of flaming torch finials.
The single nave has four chapels on each side, entered through arches with molded archivolts springing from Doric impost pilasters embellished with polychrome marble work. These arches form two arcades, and are separated by gigantic Corinthian pilasters in dark grey marble. The pilasters support an entablature which runs round the church, and which has a prominent cornice embellished with modillions (little brackets).
On the entablature is a barrel-vaulted ceiling, which has horizontal rectangular windows inserted without lunettes (in other words, cut-outs). The vault has an 18th century fresco by Giovanni Domenico Piastrini from Pistoia, and features The First Mass of St Philip Benizi who was one of the founders of the Servites.
Much of the polychrome marble decoration is of the 19th century, but the marble floor was relaid in 1933. It features the monogram of the Servites: SM for Servi Mariae.
The organ is on a little balustraded gallery over the entrance, closely flanked by a pair of pilasters. It has an attractive Baroque case.
The nave ceiling vault ends in the triumphal arch, which springs from the entablature over a pair of clustered pilasters. The sanctuary beyond has two bays, and then an apse with a conch containing a circular window. The vault of the first bay has a pair of windows, and unlike those in the nave these have vault lunettes.
The circular window has stained glass with the Servite monogram again.
The spectacular polychrome marble high altar is against the apse wall, and is from 1758. The aedicule is flanked by a pair of pilasters revetted in pink marble, and contains a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows by Ferdinando Raggi of 1763. The Servites have a special devotion to her, and were instrumental in spreading the devotion of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady.
Flanking the altar is a pair of doorways, above which are two large rectangular curtained apertures with segmental pediments. Beyond these is the conventual choir, fitted out by St Robert Bellarmine.
The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
The first chapel on the right is the Cappella della Madonna del Pozzo, constructed by Monsignor Giovanni Battista Canobi whose memorial is on the left. To the right is the holy well, which was there first so the chapel is built around it. The 13th century icon is the altarpiece. It is painted on a tile (or slate) fragment, which is why the way it floated on the water in the well was regarded as miraculous. In 1646 it was crowned by Papal decree, and framed in polychrome marble and alabaster pietra dura work (the jewelled crown has since been removed).
The chapel is also decorated with paintings of The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Magi and The Nativity by Cavalier d'Arpino, who was patronized by by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini. The painting to the right showing Cardinal Capocci receiving the icon is of the school of Carravagio, about 1606. The vault frescoes showing The Coronation of the Virgin in the centre are by Michelangelo Bedini, 1946.
The holy well is still taken very seriously by believers, and is one of the few in the Centro Storico (see San Lorenzo in Fonte for another one, now disused). It used to be the case until recently that a Servite friar would always be present in the church during opening hours, and would serve you fresh water on request from the well. Unfortunately, the friars nowadays may have other calls on their time. If one is not available, there are prayer cards of the miraculous icon to be had.
If you are not a Christian believer, be careful about drinking from the well just for the "experience". The water comes from the ground not an aqueduct, and has filtered through several thousand years of history. The water is to be drunk with faith, and may not be healthy otherwise.
Chapel of St Philip Benizi
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Philip Benizi, one of the founders of the Servite Order. The altarpiece depicting him in ecstasy is by Antonio Circignani, Il Pomarancio. The side wall paintings are by Tommaso Luini; the left wall shows the saint's funeral, and the right one has him giving his habit to a poor man.
In the ceiling vault are three fresco panels also by Circignani, showing scenes from the life of the saint.
Chapel of the Annunciation
The third chapel on the right is the Cappella Aldobrandini, and is dedicated to the Annunciation to Our Lady. Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini had it fitted out in 1596, and there was a re-ordering in 1750. The family coat-of-arms is inlaid in marble in the floor.
There have been serious problems of damp penetration in this chapel, with restorations effected to the paintings in 1971 and 1990. Unfortunately, damage has been serious.
The altarpiece depicting The Annunciation is by the Cavalier d'Arpino, but was restored in the 19th century by Francesco Coghetti and again in 1971.
The wall frescoes are by the Cavalier d'Arpino again, with The Nativity on the right and The Adoration of the Magi on the left. In the latter, the figure looking at the viewer is thought to be a self-portrait by the artist.
The frescoes in the vault are by the Zucchi brothers from Florence. They date from 1596, and depict The Eternal Father in an elliptical tondo in the middle. To the sides are four panels showing Noli Me Tangere, Transfiguration, Pentecost and Assumption.
Chapel of the Holy Trinity
The altarpiece depicting The Most Holy Trinity is a composite work, with a 16th century wooden crucifix superimposed. The backing painting shows SS John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Mary Magdalene and another saint thought to be St John the Evangelist. The artist was Cristoforo Casolani.
The small picture on the altar is of Our Lady as a little girl, with her mother St Anne.
Carlo Francesco Lombardi painted the fresco on the right hand wall himself, which depicts The Apparition to Abraham of Three Angels. Cherubino Alberti's fresco to the left depicts The Ark of the Covenant. The archivolt has little Biblical scenes by Casolani and his school.
Chapel of St Andrew
The first chapel on the left, opposite the well, is the Cappella del Bufalo Cancellieri and is dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle. The altarpiece depicting the saint is by Giuseppe Franco, nicknamed delle Lodole. If you look carefully at the work you will see a little bird, which is a lark and which the artist used as a signature.
To the left there is a memorial to Francesco Maria Campello, 1759 and a 15th century fresco fragment depicting the Blessed Virgin. This icon is known as Our Lady of the Fire. To the right is a memorial to Cardinal Innocenzo del Bufalo-Cancellieri, 1610.
Chapel of the Sacred Heart
The second chapel on the left is dedicated to The Sacred Heart of Jesus. It has an altarpiece from 1961 by Tarsicio Bendini.
Chapel of the Seven Holy Founders
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order. The altarpiece showing them with Our Lady is by Giovanni Bigatti.
Chapel of St Pellegrino
The fourth chapel on the left is dedicated to St Pellegrino Laziosi, who is a patron of cancer sufferers. The altarpiece, a mid 18th century work by Giuseppe Montesanti, shows the saint having a vision of the crucified Christ curing him of a cancer in his leg. The nun also depicted in the work is St Juliana Falconieri, foundress of the Servite Tertiary nuns.
The crib in the room in the top left hand corner is from Naples, and is of the 18th century.
The sacristy contains a very good painted wooden statue of Our Lady of Sorrows by Raimondo Gaggi of 1725. In a room over the sacristy is kept a chair used by St Robert Bellarmine when he preached here as the church's cardinal.
The church is open (parish website, June 2018):
Weekdays 07.15 to 20.00;
Sundays 8:00 to 22:00.
The street that it is in, the Via di Santa Maria in Via, is parallel to the Corso south of the Largo Chigi, and is a short walk from the San Silvestro bus station.
Only worshippers are allowed in the church during Mass.
This is an active parish church, and has a full schedule of Masses (parish website, June 2018):
Weekdays 7:30, 11:00 (not July or August in past years), 19:00; there is an extra Mass on Saturday at 20:00.
The Saturday 7:30 Mass may be celebrated in the Well Chapel in honour of Our Lady.
Sundays and Solemnities: 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 19:00, 20:00, 21:00;
The 10:00 Mass is the Parish Mass.
A 17:00 Sunday Mass for Spanish speakers is no longer advertised.
The parish support a good choir, the Cappella Musicale di Santa Maria in Via, and they give their repertoire at the 12:00 Mass.
There is a feast of the Madonna of the Holy Well on 8 September, which is Our Lady's Birthday , and a night vigil on 26 September, the anniversary of the miracle of the well.
The feast of the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order is celebrated as a solemnity on 17 February, and the feast of St Pellegrino Laziosi on 1 May.