Santa Rita da Cascia alle Vergini is a 17th century Baroque confraternity church, formerly conventual, with a postal address at Via dell’Umiltà 83/B which is south of the Trevi Fountain in the rione Trevi. The church entrance is on the Via delle Vergini.
This church belongs to the Archconfraternity of St Rita of Cascia (Arciconfraternita di Santa Rita da Cascia), and is a centre for devotion to the saint in Rome.
The dedication is to St Rita of Cascia, since the church was re-consecrated in her honour. However when it was conventual the name was Santa Maria delle Vergini, and so this name is common in the written sources. It is still being used in modern publications in error.
The former name is in honour of an old Augustininian nunnery at Venice, founded in 1177 and suppressed in 1808. The site there is now the Giardino delle Vergini, next to the Arsenal on its east side.
Foundation of conventEdit
The convent here was founded by an Oratorian called Pompeo Paterio in 1595, although the initial impetus came from three noble ladies called Felice and Ortensia Colonna, and Giulia Orsini the Marchesa Rangona. They had been inspired by St Philip Neri to set up a refuge for poor girls in danger of finding a living through prostitution, and had obtained a foundation charter from Pope Clement VIII in 1593.
The original site for this was in a house on the south side of the Piazza del Quirinale, which was smaller then. The institution was originally called Santa Maria del Rifugio, and was next to the lost church of San Salvatore de Cornutis which belonged to a Jesuate convent.
The Marchesa Rangona was counted as the main foundress, since the other two died before the convent actually opened. This jinx was also to affect the architects.
The Piazza del Quirinale was enlarged under the supervision of Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1615, and both convents were demolished to make way for the courtyard of the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi. The Jesuates ended up in Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Fontana di Trevi nearby, and the little community of sisters were installed in a palazzo on the present site which was obtained from Cardinal Ferdinando Taverna in 1613.
The idea of a house of refuge mutated at this stage into that of a convent of enclosed Augustinian nuns, dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady and with a continued interest in the welfare of poor young women. A convent chapel dedicated to Our Lady was consecrated in 1615.
The sisters obtained enough funding to start building a new convent in 1634. The plans included a new church, designed by Francesco Peparelli and finished two years later. Luigi Arrigucci was involved in the convent itself, but he died in 1647.
After a pause, work on the convent continued under Domenico Castelli from 1656, apparently with the advice of Bernini. Since Castelli died himself in 1657, presumably Bernini or someone else oversaw completion of the project which was in 1660. (There has been some confusion about whether these two were involved in the church. The latest opinion is that they were not.)
The finished convent consisted of two long wings in an L, along the Via delle Vergini and the Via dell’Umiltà, with both having arcaded back façades facing on a large garden. The church is in the angle, and is very small for the size of the convent. This was because, being enclosed, the nuns did not actually go into it.
The façade was the result of a later project. It was designed by Mattia de Rossi , and was finished in 1696 -the year after he, too, died!
The convent was sequestered by the Italian state in 1873, and the church was deconsecrated. Fortunately, the interior was not gutted but was left alone for the next thirty years.
Meanwhile, in 1658, the old church of San Biagio in Mercatello at the foot of the Aventine had became the headquarters of a confraternity of expatriates from Cascia known as the Confraternita della Corona di Spine. They were promulgating the devotion to their compatriot Rita of Cascia, who had been beatified in 1627.
On this confraternity's orders, this church of San Biagio was rebuilt by Carlo Fontana, the façade being completed in 1665. It was henceforward known as San Biagio e Beata Rita. The devotion to the latter became extremely popular, as she became the patron of hopeless causes and of abused wives. (Many Roman churches have a statue of her, in a black habit and looking at a crucifix which she is holding.)
As a result, she was canonized in 1900 and the church was re-dedicated to her in the same year. By this time plans to demolish it, in order to excavate the ancient Roman remains incorporated into the structure, had already been proposed for over a decade. In 1904 the Arciconfraternita di Santa Rita da Cascia (as the confraternity had become) lost its headquarters when that was demolished, and it was offered a new home at Santa Maria delle Vergini. However, popular devotion to St Rita managed to preserve the former church of St Rita for another quarter of a century until it was finally demolished in 1928.
So, the old convent church was reconsecrated and renamed, and has been in the possession of the confraternity ever since.
The old convent buildings have been massively altered since the Finance Ministry took over in 1873, with major work being done in 1950. The old convent garden is now a private car park.
Layout and fabricEdit
This is an unobstrusive little brick building. Because the street corner is acute, the site is actually not rectangular but trapezoidal. The roof is pitched and tiled, with no external dome, and is substantially lower than the top of the façade. The simple octagonal lantern, with a rectangular window on each face, has a conical tiled cap with projecting eaves.
There is a small campanile or bellcote over the far side wall of the left hand chapel, but this is invisible from the street. It was added in 1689.
The façade is two-storey, rendered in orange ochre with architectural details in white. The first storey has two pairs of Composite pilasters, the pair flanking the doorway being tripletted and those at the outer corners, doubletted. These support a dividing entablature with posts in shallow relief over the pilasters and a blank frieze.
Apart from a thin string course continuing the line set by the bottoms of the pilaster capitals, the walls of this storey are undecorated. The single entrance has a molded doorcase flanked by thin conjoined pilasters, which end in charmingly executed curlicues incorporating nuns' heads. Over the lintel is an entablature and triangular pediment containing a winged putto's head, with a re-cut inscription on the frieze: Ecclesia S. Ritae.
The second storey also has two pairs of pilasters. The inner two match those below, in being Composite and tripletted. They flank a large rectangular window with a projecting cornice, and support a little triangular pediment. The outer two are doubletted Doric stumps with their capitals extended as cornices to join the triplet pilasters. On these cornices are two little sweeps flanking the central part of this storey, and at the ends of the sweeps are two well-separated halves broken segmental pediment. The junctions between sweeps and segment halves are marked by a pair of little volutes.
Layout and fabricEdit
The interior is on the plan of a Greek cross, with a central dome. One arm contains the entrance, the side arms comprise two chapels and the far arm is the sanctuary and is twice as long as the other three. These side arms are roofed by short barrel vaults.
To fit the cross plan into the available trapezoidal site, four little rooms are inserted into the corners. The bottom right hand one is the custodian's room, the bottom left hand one a third chapel, the top right hand one is the way through to the former convent and the top left hand one is the sacristy.
The interior decoration is rich, with stucco ornament and what looks like polychrome marble revetting on the walls (is it real?). The stucco work is by Filippo Carcani, 1683.
The floor area under the dome is in the shape of a chamfered square, and the doors into these four rooms are on the chamfers. These have frames in red marble, and above them on the piers are large panels with grotesquery.
An entablature with a wide frieze decorated with winged putto's heads, flowers and foliage runs all round the church, supported by ribbed Composite pilasters. The identically sized archivolts of the side arm arches spring from this, and are decorated on their intradoses with floral festoons in stucco. The roof space bounded by these four archivolts comprises the dome and its pendentives, which form one surface on which is a fresco depicting The Glory of Heaven. This work, attributed to Michelangelo Ricciolini 1695, is populated by many saints and angels. There is a central lantern.
Over the entrance is a gallery or cantoria for the organ, with finely carved woodwork. The supporting brackets have nuns' heads, matching those on the doorcase outside.
The sumptuous altar aedicule has four Corinthian columns in what looks like red and yellow Sicilian jasper, set on high plinths. The front pair supports a segmental pediment with the central section missing, and on top of the two fragments frolic angels and putti in stucco. Between the pediment fragments is the Dove of the Holy Spirit in a gilded glory.
The altar is attributed to the designer of the façade outside, Mattia De Rossi.
The altarpiece shows The Death of St Rita, 1911 by one Ferretti. It replaced a painting of Our Lady of Lourdes described as "ugly" (una brutta immagine), which in 1904 replaced a work by Ludovico Gimignani, 1681 depicting The Assumption of Our Lady. After the church was closed in 1873 this latter work had been taken to Santa Pudenziana, where it is to be found in the Chapel of St Augustine.
The vault has a fresco of The Trinity in Glory by Gimignani. Actually it only shows the Father and the Son, since the Holy Spirit is in the glory below. There are two more lively stucco angels just inside the triumphal arch.
Chapel of St AugustineEdit
The chapel on the right is dedicated to St Augustine. It has an aedicule with a pair of Composite columns in red jasper, supporting a triangular pediment with a pair of friendly putti on top.
The altarpiece is by Pietro Lucatelli, and depicts SS Augustine and Monica. Monica is shown as a nun, which she certainly was not. However, this oddity was indulged in by other artists from the late Middle Ages (the lack of any early Augustinian nun saints might have had something to do with it).
The ceiling vault is frescoed by Ricciolini with angels and putti to match the dome, as is those of the chapel opposite and of the entrance bay.
Chapel of St Mary MagdalenEdit
The chapel on the left is dedicated to St Mary Magdalen. The aedicule has a pair of Corinthian columns in black marble, in effective contrast to that in the chapel opposite. There is no pediment, but instead an arrangement in the form of a funerary cist with a winged putto's head and three little cubical plinths, one on top with a cross and the others to each side with flaming urn finials.
The altarpiece, depicting Noli Me Tangere, is by Giovanni Battista Mercati.
For some reason, De Rossi did not provide windows in the first storey of his entrance façade. This means that the corner room at the bottom left is windowless, and hence of little use. Somebody had the idea in 1912 of converting it into a Lourdes grotto,
According to the church's website (May 2019), the church is open:
Mondays to Fridays 7:00 to 18:00;
Saturdays 17:00 to 19:30;
Sundays and Solemnities 10:30 to 12:30, 17:30 to 19:30.
Mass is celebrated (church's website, May 2019);
Mondays to Fridays 8:00;
Saturdays and Eves of Solemnities 18:30;
Sundays and Solemnities 11:30 and 18:30.