Santi Giovanni e Paolo is a heavily restored 5th century minor basilica, conventual and titular church at Piazza Santi Giovanni e Paulo 13 in the rione Celio (the historic rione Campitelli). Pictures on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to SS John and Paul.
The site of the basilica was immediately adjacent to the southern corner of the enormous temenos enclosure of the temple of Divus Claudius, the deified emperor Claudius who died in the year AD 54. His wife Agrippina founded the temple, but the mature complex was built by the emperor Vespasian. It would have dominated the neighbourhood in ancient times.
The present campanile is built on part of the series of ancillary rooms inside the enclosure wall of the portico, and further remains are within the convent. The actual temple, of which nothing survives, was to the north-east in the present Parco del Celio.
The actual site of the church was occupied by several private residences of the Imperial age, in which a process of gentrification can be observed. Archaeologists have investigated a sequence of these beneath the church, which have been well conserved and can be visited. The entrance to the ancient remains is on the Clivus Scauri, one of the few streets in Rome which has kept both its ancient route and name.
The developed legend attached to the site in the early Middle Ages was that the patron saints of the church were two Christian brothers who were officials at the court of the emperor Constantine. They bought a house here for their retirement, but on the accession of emperor Julian the Apostate they were summoned back to court and ordered to renounce their faith. On their refusal, they were martyred secretly at home and their bodies buried here in 362. A further group of local Christians, Crispus a priest with his deacon Crispinus and one Benedicta, were described as also martyred after they tried to collect the bodies for burial.
This story was presented as originally written by Terentian, the executor who subsequently converted, but it is no longer regarded as historical and has been deleted from the revised Roman martyrology. A major problem is that the emperor Julian was very aware of the cult of martyrdom among Christians, and forbade any martyrdoms during his reign.
Given that, there are some unusual details in the legend. One is that the brothers were buried secretly within the walls of the city, but such burials were against the law and the inference is that the origin of the story might have been a case of murder. (However, a recent review of the archaeological evidence has proved that burial inside the city walls was not as absolutely forbidden in ancient times as previously believed.) Also, there is a detail in the story that described the brothers as eunuchs originally attached to the court of Constantina the daughter of Constantine. They had been entrusted with some property belonging to her, and the legend continues with the assertion that the emperor Julian wished this to be given to him. This, rather than the faith of the brothers, might have been the motivation for their original murder -if there is any kernel of truth in the legend.
However, it should be noted that there is a scholarly consensus that the entire legend was a fictional re-writing of the story of two martyrs of Antioch in Syria, SS Juventinus and Maximinus. This was first hypothesized by the Bollandists in the late 19th century. Further, it has been suggested that the original "John and Paul" were merely SS John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle. This further hypothesis depends on the cult of the martyred brothers being maliciously fabricated in the 6th century, by those associated with the pre-existing church -perhaps for financial gain from visits by pilgrims. (The Church does not accept this radical version of the scepticism concerning the existence of the two martyrs. They remain in the Roman canon of the Mass, and are listed in the Roman martyrology as patrons of the basilica.)
There has been much scholarly controversy about the origins of the church, and about the interpretation of the archaeological remains under it.
The consensus is that a Christian place of worship was established here at the start of the 5th century, called the Titulus Byzantis or the Titulus Pammachi. The former name is first mentioned in an epigraph found in the catacombs of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, and dated to the pontificate of Innocent I (401-17). This reads: Temporibus sancti Inocentii episcopi, Proclinus et Ursus presb[yteri] tituli Bizantis, sancto martyri Sebastiano ex voto fecerunt. ("During the time of holy Innocent the bishop, Proclinus and Ursus priests of the Bizant title, made a vow to the holy martyr Sebastian").
In the acts of a synod of 499, the name Byzantis is coupled with that of the Titulus Pammachi, which seems to be the only example of a titulus having two names at once. The Titulus Byzantis ceases to be mentioned after the first decades of the 6th century. The Titulus Pammachi is then solely used, together with the new titulus name of sanctorum Ioannes et Pauli. The change of name to the latter seems to have occurred between the 499 synod and the 530s, when the dedication to SS John and Paul begins to occur in the Liber Pontificalis. The synod of 595 lists the church under the names of the saints only.
The actual foundation of the church seems to have been the result of a pious benefaction at the end of the 4th century by someone called Pammachius, allied perhaps with one Byzans or Byzantis. It is tempting to identify the former with the historical St Pammachius who was a senator, a friend of St Jerome and a prominent member of the Roman church. But this depends solely on the congruence of names, and an obscure reference in a letter written by St Jerome in the year 398.
According to the later legend, the church was begun by Byzantis in honour of the martyred brothers, and completed after his death by this Pammachius who was his son.
The archaeological interpretation of the ancient remains under the church has been controversial. Serious criticism has been levelled at the original scholarly analysis of the 19th century excavation, which claimed that a titulus or house-church existed here from the middle of the 3rd century. What was actually found was evidence that pre-existing buildings had been converted into a luxurious residence then, which in the second half of the 4th century was decorated in one place with frescoes containing explicitly Christian themes. This so-called confessio, with its frescoes of martyrs, seems to have been a small private chapel for the residents. The revisionist consensus is that nothing was found to suggest a public Christian cult here, before the building of the church at the beginning of the 5th century.
Underneath the confessio, in the natural bedrock, three pits were found which were identified by the original excavators as tombs. The confessio itself seemed to be marked by the traditional location of the saints' burials indicated by a 16th century marker in the floor of the basilica above, although it is actually a little to one side.
Construction of the church must have begun around the first decade of the 5th century, and utilized the earlier buildings on the site. The house fronting the Clivus Scauri was demolished to half the height of its second storey, and the doors and windows filled in to create the left hand nave side wall. Most of the ground floor rooms of the house were filled in to create a platform on which to erect the main edifice. It is known, however, that at least the rooms fronting the street at the ancient level were left accessible since one of them was a chapel in the early Middle Ages.
The primitive basilica had a central nave with side aisles, the nave being 44.3 metres long and 14.7 wide. The aisles were each 7.4 metres wide, and were separated by thirteen arches on twelve re-used columns. There was no transept, but a semi-circular apse with four large windows. The foundations rested on the walls of the ancient structures below -this evidently caused problems rather quickly. The façade had five large arched openings above an entrance loggia.
The present fabric shows evidence of early damage, especially noted in the façade arches mentioned above. Traditionally this has been ascribed to the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, but this cannot be correct. The church was probably still under construction. Rather, the damage probably occurred in an earthquake later that century, necessitating a restoration by Pope Leo I (440-461). There were obviously worries about the church shifting on its re-cycled foundations, since the first of the supporting arches spanning the Clivus Scauri was erected about then (the rest came much later).
Pope Adrian I (772-95) restored the roof. At this time the church was attached to a monastery of monks from the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps of the Byzantine rite. This possibly came into existence in the late 7th century and survived until the early 10th, although nothing is known about it. His successor, Pope Leo III, also instigated repairs to the fabric.
A separate little chapel entered from the Clivus Scauri, near the present museum entrance and below the church, was also fitted out or restored in the 8th century as the earliest frescoes discovered there date from this period. This is the Cappella del Santissimo Salvatore.
In 1084, the complex was apparently sacked by Norman raiders under Robert Guiscard. Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) authorized its restoration, initially under the supervision of Cardinal Theobaldo Boccapecora. This project took a long time, apparently. The campanile was completed in about 1150, and the portico was erected in 1158 by Cardinal Giovanni da Sutri who became titular here in 1152. The present monastery with its attached campanile dates from this campaign -the former since much altered, although an attempt was made to return it to its original appearance in the 20th century.
In 1216, Cardinal Cencio Savelli (the future Pope Honorius III) effected another major restoration. To him is due the form of the present portico with a gallery above, the Cosmatesque pavement within the church and the arcade around the top of the exterior of the apse. He also provided a Gothic baldacchino for the high altar (destroyed in 1725) and an altar over the traditional location of the tombs of the martyrs (removed in the 17th century and replaced with a floor marker). Six further support arches were provided for the left hand side wall, spanning the Clivus Scauri -the church edifice actually curves slightly in that direction, so must have been threatening again to dump itself into the street.
One result of this was that the little chapel off the Clivus Scauri, in the in the ancient layer below the church, was shut down and filled in.
In the mediaeval period the church was served by a college of secular priests, noted in the 15th century as eight in number.
Four religious orders
In 1448, the complex was granted to the Order of the Jesuates (Gesuati). This little religious order had originated at Siena in 1360, the founder being Giovanni Colombini. In Rome, it also possessed the convent at Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Fontana di Trevi. Here, it supervised a restoration completed in 1598 which involved the provision of the existing nave ceiling. At this stage the entrance loggia had two bays on either side walled up to create custodians' chambers.
Unfortunately, the Order became degenerate and in 1668 it was suppressed by Pope Clement IX.
The convent was then at first handed over to the Oratorians, but these had been founded for the active ministry and the church here was surrounded by vineyards, not inhabitants. So in 1677 it was passed on to a community of Irish Dominicans, refugees from Protestant persecution in Ireland. These moved to San Clemente in 1697, and were replaced by Lazarists from France who established their Roman headquarters and a noviciate here.
The church was heavily restored between 1715 and 1718 under the Lazarists, sponsored by Cardinal Fabrizio Paolucci and with Antonio Canevari and Andrea Garagni as architects. The baldacchino over the high altar was demolished, the nave arcade columns were replaced by piers and the side altars were remodelled. Also, much of the Cosmatesque floor was re-laid with marble tiling. The result was an interior in the late Baroque style.
In 1773, Pope Clement XIV granted the complex to the Passionists who established a "retreat" here (the Order refers to their convents by this term). Their founder was St Paul of the Cross, who moved here just in time to die in 1775. Initially he was buried at the altar at the far end of the right hand aisle.
Blessed Dominic Barberi, an apostle to England in the early 19th century, lived here for some time. He established the Passionist order in England, and is famous as the first male consecrated religious to wear the habit in public in England in modern times (those religious on the English mission before then, such as the Jesuits or Benedictines, wore lay dress).
Paul of the Cross was beatified in 1852, and in anticipation of his canonization in 1867 the brethren began an enormous new domed shrine-chapel for him in 1857. The architect was Filippo Martinucci, who died before it was completed in 1880. Meanwhile the freehold of the complex was sequestered by the Italian government in 1873, but unusually the brethren seemed to have arrived at an arrangement to enable them to remain here.
The brethren were impressed by what the Dominicans found under San Clemente, and so decided to have a dig under their own church. Work on excavation was begun by Germano di San Stanislao, the rector of the retreat, in 1887. He was one of the most notable archaeologists in the city at the end of the 19th century, at a time when the discipline was in its infancy. Excavation here was to continue intermittently until 1958.
The conclusion of the initial phase of excavation left a set of ancient rooms under the church which were fitted out as a pilgrimage destination, with altars provided. Access was by a new set of stairs off the right hand aisle, just beyond the Chapel of St Paul of the Cross.
In 1911, there was a restoration of the interior during which wall surfaces formerly painted in pastel monochrome were repainted so as to resemble polychrome marble revetting. This was a very surprising thing to do at this date, and already unfashionable. Criticism was consequently rather sharp. The floor was also restored.
The last major restoration of the church fabric took place in the mid 20th century, when Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, titular of the church from 1946 to 1967, obtained financial support from Joseph Kennedy to restore the façade and to carry out new excavations. This work took place from 1948 to 1952, with further excavations under the church continuing until 1958. The chambers in the entrance loggia, with their blocking walls, were removed, the windows above were remodelled to what was considered to have been their original appearance and the same was done to the frontage of the convent facing the piazza. At the north side of the convent, through the large gate, a well-preserved row of tabernae or ancient Roman shops was exposed.
Concerns over conservation at the end of the 20th century led to the brethren handing over responsibility for the underground area to the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministero dell'Intero -Fondo Edifici di Culto). The ministyr contracted the restoration work to the city, and after fourteen years the restored set of rooms with a small museum was re-opened to the public in 2002 as the Case Romane del Celio. There is an admission charge.
It should be realized that, unlike at nearby San Clemente, the underground area now has nothing to do with the church or its administrators. It is no longer part of the sacred space.
The church has absolutely no pastoral justification nowadays. Fortunately it is one of the most popular and prestigious marriage venues on the Centro Storico wedding circuit, which means that you may well find a wedding going on here -especially on Saturdays. Sour comments have been made concerning the effect on the Cosmatesque floor of the spiked (stiletto) heels worn by the women at these celebrations, but these are certain to have no result.
Despite being an ancient title, a coherent list of cardinals only begins at the start of the 14th century. The list is here.
A great cardinal patron of the church was Edward Michael Egan, Archbishop of New York, USA. He was appointed on 21 February 2001 and died on 5 March 2015. The title was granted to Jozef De Kesel in 2016.
Layout and fabric
The church is basilical, having a central nave of six bays with side aisles. There is no transept, but the nave leads directly into a large semi-circular sanctuary apse. The former has a normal pitched and tiled roof, but the latter has a rather unusual radially tiled roof instead of the usual tiling in sectors to be found on external apses. The left hand aisle has a normal single-pitched tiled roof divided into three sections by a pair of buttresses supporting the upper nave wall, and the outer wall of the aisle here is itself supported by seven arches that span the street -flying buttresses, basically.
The church's fabric is in red brick, which is mostly now visible.
Off the right hand aisle of the church is the enormous domed Chapel of St Paul of the Cross, which has a floor area about a third of that of the central nave of the basilica. It is on an almost square external plan, with a chamfered north-eastern corner. The right hand aisle roof has the normal single tiled pitch on the far side of this chapel, but the stretch on the near side is now flat.
In front of the church, and stretching for its entire width, is the portico with an enclosed gallery above. This, since the mid 20th century restoration, also has a flat roof. It joins onto the restored mediaeval entrance frontage of the convent to the right, and tucked away in the angle behind the junction is an octagonal sacristy. The monastery's original frontage is in between the church and the campanile. The corner of the subsequent ranges around the cloister is to the right again of the latter, and then comes the contemporary main entrance of the monastery which is at an elevation and is hence approached by steps.
The loggia occupies the entire width of the church's façade, with only the upper frontage of the central nave peeping over.
When the church was first built in the 5th century, the façade had five arched portals separated by Corinthian columns. The central one was slightly larger. This arcade was duplicated by a further one above, which also used to be open to the outside (keeping candles lit in the church in windy weather must have been a problem). The upper arcade was damaged in an earthquake perhaps in the mid 5th century, and was walled up. The lower arcade was also walled up when the loggia was provided, leaving a single entrance.
By the early 20th century, the upper arches were invisible beneath a coat of render. The 20th century restoration removed this, leaving naked brick which was "renewed", and the blocking was cut back to reveal the four ancient Corinthian columns which support brick archivolts. Traces of original fresco decoration were found on the intradoses of the arches.
A cardinal's coat-of-arms was affixed just under the gable.
The portico was put up in 1158, and the second-storey gallery added in 1216. The latter had a normal single-pitched tiled roof for most of its life, but between 1948 and 1952 the roof was removed and the top of the frontage knocked down so as to give a view of the 5th century arcade behind. Further, the windows were replaced with what was claimed to have been the original 13th century layout. What this means is that the gallery frontage is 20th century, re-using 13th fabric. The roof is now flat, and anyone with experience of maintaining mid 20th century flat roofs will cringe.
The 12th century portico has eight re-used ancient columns supporting a horizontal entablature. The end columns are Corinthian, while the others are Ionic; three are in pink granite from Aswan in Egypt, three are in grey granite and two are in the so-called marmo tasio which is from the island of Thasos in Greece. The columns are not quite equally spaced, and the composition as a whole is slightly skew in relation to the church itself by the original presence of a tiny custodian's kiosk at the right hand end. This has left a wall with a window having two narrow round-headed lights separated by a thin marble colonnette with an impost. To the left above the window is a faded fresco representation of the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Matteo Orsini, who was titular here from 1327 to 1338.
Before the 20th century restoration, the two bays at either end of the loggia were occupied by custodians' chambers with the portals between the columns walled up. This seems to have been done by the Jesuates in the late 15th century. The work has been removed so that all the portals are now open.
The columns support an entablature which also runs over the kiosk at the right hand end. The architrave of this is in re-used ancient marble revetting slabs cut to size, with an inscription reading: Presbiter ecclesi[a]e roman[a]e rite Johannes h[a]ec animi voto dona vovenda dedit martyribus Christi, Paulo pariterque lo[h]anni passio quos eadem contulit esse pares. ("John, a priest of the church of the Roman rite, by a willed vow gave gifts promised to the martyrs of Christ, Paul and with him John, those who shared the same suffering"). The centre of the archivolt over the entrance is marked by a porphyry disc. The frieze above now shows a row of extremely shallow relieving arches in brick, but these would have been rendered over until the 20th century. There is a small relief coat-of-arms of a cardinal in the middle of the frieze. The cornice is dentillated, and has a row of tiling marking the original roofline of the portico before the gallery was added.
The wrought iron railings in the three central portals were installed in 1704 and bear a cardinal's coat-of-arms in bronze. The rest of the railings are 20th century, made to match.
To the left of the loggia is attached a fragment of ruin with the ends of two arch archivolts, one above the other and with double curves in brick. These must have spanned the street at one time, and seem to match the 5th century arch further down the hill (see below).
The rather bare interior of the loggia has a single entrance. At either end is an ancient column in the inner wall, survivors of the 5th century entrance arcade. This wall also has three niches with scanty traces of frescoes, dating from the middle of the 13th century.
The single entrance has a large 13th century molded marble doorcase, on the lintel of which is carved an eagle holding a rabbit. The molding includes a strip of Cosmatesque inlay. Flanking the door is a pair of marble stops in the form of lions with their lunches, which look as if they were ancient but were badly re-carved in the Middle Ages.
The Clivus Scauri running down the left hand side of the church is spanned by a famous series of seven relieving arches holding up the left hand side wall. The furthest one is thought to be mid 5th century, and has a double brick archivolt. The other six form a set, with single brick archivolts, and were installed in the 13th century. The entrance to the case or ancient remains under the church is on the right just before the last arch.
The side wall of the church here is actually itself ancient, and used to be the street frontage of an insula or apartment block converted into a house. The ground floor arches used to lead into tavernae or little shops, while above you can see blocked windows for two more storeys. This is a very unusual survival of the fabric of an ancient multi-occupancy residential edifice in the city.
The exterior of the church's apse is very impressive. The fabric is original, 5th century, but the present appearance is owing to the 13th century restoration. Below the roofline is an arcade of arches with brick archivolts, springing from rectangular stone imposts supported by free-standing columns. These stand on bases matching the imposts, both of which protrude beyond the apse wall. The bases stand on a thin stone platform with double roll-molding. The arcaded arrangement is known as a Lombard band.
The roofline has a decorative cornice, with dentillation between two lines of barley-sugar molding. The red brick wall of the apse is now naked, but would have been plastered or covered with render in the Middle Ages. The holes in the wall are so-called putlog holes, which are for the insertion of scaffolding poles. Formerly, each hole would have had a loose brick or stone put in it and covered with render, which would have been easy to remove if scaffolding needed to be erected again.
What is going on here structurally is, that the arches open onto the outside of the brick conch or semi-dome of the interior sanctuary. You can see the curve of this if you look into an arch at an angle.
This decorative apse is unique in Rome. Its purpose was to impress those ascending the Clivus Scauri, which in the Middle Ages was part of an important arterial route connecting the Tiber quays and the west of the city with the Lateran. This ran along the side of the Circus Maximus, and was the quickest way to the Lateran from Trastevere and anywhere near the river, as well as those pilgrims and merchants arriving by boat.
The dome of the Chapel of St Paul of the Cross is prominent in views from the Palentine, as it was meant to be. There seems to be some imitation of the Cappella Bandini at San Silvestro al Quirinale. The architect was Filippo Martinucci. The dignified design features a tall cylindrical drum with eight large rectangular windows having floating horizontal cornices. Each window is in a shallow rectangular recess, and a thin rectangular recessed panel is between each pair of these giving the impression of double pilasters.
The actual dome is hemispherical on a projecting molded cornice, and is covered in fish-scale tiles. The lantern has eight narrow round-headed windows, a hemispherical metal cupola and a cross-and-ball finial in bronze.
The tall Romanesque red brick campanile or bell tower, forty-five metres in height, was completed about 1150. It is in an odd position, but this is because it re-used the ancient masonry of the southernmost corner of the porticoed temenos enclosure of the Temple of the Divine Claudius. Hence, the first storey consists of large, weathered ashlar blocks of travertine of monumental appearance. A fragment of cornice is preserved. The surviving facing blocks look as if they are seriously eroded -the were originally carved to give that impression, a style that is known as rustication.
There are seven further storeys, separated by decorative cornices featuring two rows of dentillations sandwiching a row of stone modillions or little corbels. The second storey is tall and blank, except for one small window (and putlog holes). The third storey has two blocked arches with narrow window-slits, the ends of the archivolts being connected by a string-course. The fourth storey has two open arches in the same style, and in between this is a very interesting little gabled aedicule or shrine on a pair of small stone columns, which must have contained a statue long ago. The upper storeys are identical, each having two double arches with stone colonnettes.
The brickwork is decorated with inset roundels and crosses in porphyry and serpentine (purple and green stones), and also with ceramic dishes. The ones there now are copies, the originals having been removed in 1951 (they are now on show in the museum of the Case). These were apparently sourced from Málaga in Spain in the 11th century, when that was a Muslim city; the fact that they survived the weather for eight hundred years, stuck into the outside of the campanile, is a tribute to the skill of the Muslim potters. Bizarrely, certain of the dishes have Arabic lettering extolling Allah -it is certain that whoever used them for decoration could not read this.
The archaeological report on these Islamic bacini can be purchased online here.
The original monks here in the late 7th century squatted in the southern corner of the enormous ruinous colonnaded temenos enclosure of the Temple of Claudius. As a result, much ancient fabric survives in the present complex.
The mediaeval monastery survives as a terrace of three structurally distinct edifices attached to the right hand side of the church's portico. It is thought that the original entrance to the church's presbytery was in the very narrow one on the left, now blocked up. The middle edifice contains a wide portal which was the original entrance of the monastery, and has 20th century arcaded windows, allegedly replicating old ones for which evidence was found in the fabric. The fourth storey here has a single window of two round-headed lights separated by a colonnette, and this lights the room of St Paul of the Cross, the 18th century founder of the Passionists. (This room used to be shown on application to interested visitors, but not any more it seems).
If you find the wide gate here open, it may be possible (if security concerns allow) for you to go through to look at a well-preserved arcade of ancient Roman shops occupying the outer side of the temenos enclosure wall of the temple. The rusticated masonry and crowning entablature are better preserved than the section under the campanile. These remains were exposed in the 20th century, unfortunately by demolishing mediaeval fabric.
The third old monastic edifice is perched on the elevation next to the campanile on the right, and has been massively re-modelled to contain the monastery's main entrance. As a result, only the wall next to the campanile now has a mediaeval appearance. This block fronted the end of the main range of the monastery.
When the Lazarists took over in the 17th century, they expanded the monastic buildings around a large rectangular cloister to the east. The third edifice mentioned above occupies a corner of this, and so the original main range formed the west side of the cloister with another large wing being built to the north. A smaller wing returned on the east side, and a separate L-shaped block (now demolished) occupied the south side with its long wing fronting the monastery's entrance stairs.
The temenos enclosure of the temple was entirely turned over to vegetable gardens.
The Passionists, in turn, executed a massive project of expansion. The original cloister was extended to the east, with new south and north wings (the east end was left open). Four new cloisters or courtyards were erected to the north, in the original vegetable garden. What was left of the latter is now a public open space known as the Parco del Celio.
The interior was transformed about 1718, and is basically Baroque.
There is a central nave of six bays with side aisles, and then the sanctuary apse. Attached to the left of the latter is a little room containing an important mediaeval fresco. The last two bays of both aisles are side chapels. The left hand aisle has a side altar in each remaining bay, four in total. The first bay of the right hand aisle is the sacristy vestibule, then comes two side altars. The fourth bay of this aisle is the vestibule to the external Chapel of St Paul of the Cross. Next to this is the original staircase leading down to the scavi or excavations when these were under the authority of the Passionists, but this entrance is now disused.
Before the 18th century remodelling, the central nave had colonnaded arcades separating it from the aisles. A surviving 17th century description mentions twenty-one columns with two others removed to make way for a cantoria, so it seems that there were originally twelve on each side with one of them (by the entrance?) immured in a wall.
The arcades were dismantled, and sixteen of the columns kept. These are a matching set in grey granite, looted from some prestigious ancient building. Then piers were installed, two very wide ones on each side and a narrower central one. The wide ones have a pair of Composite pilasters at the corners, while the narrower ones have one tripletted pilaster in the same style. These pilasters support an interior entablature which runs round the church. The four arches on each side have their archivolts supported by the ancient granite columns with mediaeval Composite capitals. Above each arch is a large rectangular window with a triangular pediment, and above these in turn is the ceiling cornice.
The wall surfaces look as if they are clad in polychrome marbles, but they were actually painted this way in 1911. Beforehand, the walls were in a pastel shade -as they still are down the hill at San Gregorio Magno al Celio which had a similar late Baroque structural makeover.
The 13th century Cosmatesque pavement is sometimes described as intact. It is not -the 18th century restorers replaced much of it with marble tiles in grey and red. The area near the entrance is the most extensive survival, with a large grey granite roundel sawn from an ancient column and another one of porphyry.
In the floor at the right side of the central nave is a little railed enclosure containing a floor-slab reading Locus martyrii SS Ioannis et Pauli in aedibus propriis. This was installed in 1677 when the mediaeval altar that used to be here was removed. On the far side of the enclosure is a glass disc in the floor, through which you can look down into the so-called confessio in the Case beneath, claimed by the original excavators as the place where the martyrs were buried.
The deeply coffered flat wooden ceiling is in three sections, separated by two floating arches which spring from strapwork corbels in the side walls. These are structural features, as they are transmitting the load of the roof to external buttresses of the side walls. The ceiling was installed in 1589, and has elaborate gilded rosettes in the coffers. There is a central octagonal panel containing gilded wooden relief sculptures of SS John and Paul, with a text saying vere germani, "truly twins". The corresponding octagonal panels in the near and far sections contain heraldry. There was a restoration in 1904.
Needless to say, the impressive set of hanging chandeliers are primarily there for the weddings.
The aisles are covered by cross-vaults in front of the altars, and barrel-vaults behind the wide pilasters. The fresco decoration of these is 18th century.
Because of the lack of a transept, the last bay of the nave is included in the sanctuary which is delineated by a low marble balustrade. The polychrome marble high altar is free-standing, without a baldacchino, and was designed by Francesco Ferrari. It incorporates a porphyry urn containing the relics of SS John and Paul. Before the 18th century there used to be a baldacchino, and in front an open devotional crypt or confessio (not to be confused with the ancient chapel in the Case just mentioned) which was to be filled in.
Behind it in the apse are the choir stalls of the Passionist brethren fitted into the curve of the wall. The far end of the apse contains an enormous round-headed altarpiece of The Martyrdom of SS John and Paul, by Giacomo Triga 1726. One of the brothers is shown rebuking the judge while the other is about to be beheaded. The ornate frame of this intrudes into the entablature, and on top are two stucco angels by Pietro Bracci.
The altarpiece is flanked by two more enormous 18th century paintings occupying the apse wall. To the left, Gian Domenico Piastrini depicted SS John and Paul Give Their Goods to the Poor , and to the right Pietro Antonio Barbieri shows The Conversion of Terentian. He was the executor of the brothers, and is depicted having a supernatural revelation at their porphyry sarcophagus after his son had been healed at their intercession.
The conch of the apse is occupied by a fresco of Christ the Redeemer in Glory with the Heavenly Host, by Niccolò Circignani Il Pomarancio 1588. The artist tried to portray the denizens of heaven stretching away to infinity behind Christ, but he didn't quite get the perspective right. The angels playing instruments in the forefront on either side are interesting musicologically as typical of the period.
13th century fresco
In a little room to the left of the high altar is a fresco of Christ with Apostles in a Byzantine style, which has been dated to 1255. It shows Christ with six apostles, standing in a portico. This work is especially interesting to art scholars, since it is a rare example of a fresco surviving from this period in Rome. The room is inaccessible to visitors, and those wishing to view the fresco are advised to make prior arrangements with the administrators of the church.
The side chapels are described anticlockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
The church's sacristy occupies an unusual position, off the bottom end of the right hand aisle. Its shape is also unusual, as it is octagonal. These two facts hint that it replaced an ancient baptistry.
At its entrance are memorials to Cardinal Roberto Giovanni Roberti 1867 (a fine neo-Classical work with a bust and a bas-relief showing four weepers), Francesco Sturbinetti 1865, Gustaf von Stackelberg from Vienna 1847 (another good neo-Classical composition with a free-standing bust) and Aleksander von Stackelberg 1856.
Also in the vestibule is a picture of SS Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal and Vincent de Paul by Aureliano Milani 1716. This was part of a commission for several pictures given to this artist by the Lazarists, who were a French order. St Vincent de Paul was their founder.
The sacristy itself has an altarpiece of The Madonna and Child with SS John the Baptist, Jerome, John and Paul. According to a notice in the sacristy (seen by this author in March 2019) this work was traditionally attributed to Antoniazzo Romano or to his workshop, but that recent scholarship prefers an attribution to an unknown Umbrian master and suggests that the painting was commissioned for the church in the late 15th or early 16th century. The sacristy altar is set into a niche with paintings of The Conversion of St Paul on the left and St Charles Borromeo on the right. The ceiling of the sacristy depicts the Apotheosis of St Paul of the Cross.
Chapel of St Saturninus
The bays of the aisles not in use for access to somewhere else were fitted out as side chapels in the 18th century. There are a total of six of these, two on the right and four on the left. They have very similar layouts, each having a round-headed altarpiece without an aedicule and with an arc fanlight above. There was a re-shuffling of dedications in the 20th century -BEWARE OF ONLINE TEXTS REGURGITATING OLDER DESCRIPTIONS!
The first altar on the right is dedicated to St Saturninus, an obscure mid 3rd century martyr originally enshrined at the Catacomba di Trasone on the Via Salaria. His relics are enshrined here. The altarpiece is by Marco Benefial 1716.
This altar was originally dedicated to St Francis de Sales by the Lazarists, with an altarpiece by a French artist called Barbault.
Chapel of St Pammachius
The second altar on the right is dedicated to St Pammachius, a Roman senator and one of the alleged founders of the church. The altarpiece is by Milani, who depicted the saint with a plan of the basilica as originally built.
Chapel of St Paul of the Cross
The third bay of the right hand aisle is the vestibule of a large external chapel, built to house the relics of St Paul of the Cross who had originally been buried in the chapel at the end of this aisle. He was beatified in 1852, and in anticipation of his canonization in 1867 the brethren began raising funds for an enormous new domed shrine-chapel for him in 1857. The architect chosen was Filippo Martinucci, who drew up plans but died in 1862 before much work had been accomplished. It was left to his son, Vincenzo Martinucci, to complete it by 1880 with decorative elements continuing for another two years.
The saint's relics are enshrined in a glass box under the altar, enclosed within a recumbent mannequin. The altarpiece above is by Francesco Coghetti, and shows St Paul of the Cross Embracing the Crucified (a depiction of a vision experienced by the saint). The two Corinthian columns of the aedicule are in Egyptian alabaster, part of a set of such columns given by Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, to Pope Pius IX. Several others are to be found in San Paolo fuori le Mura. The altar was designed by Raffaele Ingami, and has above it a window with stained glass depicting the emblem of the Passionists. This is being venerated by stucco angels.
The layout of the chapel is on the plan of a Greek cross with very short arms. These arms are covered by semi-circular vaults, on which are frescoes also by Coghetti depicting scenes from the life of the saint. Above the altar he is shown on his deathbed, which occurred in the adjacent convent. The side walls have frescoes of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and a Pietà by Francesco Grandi 1879. These are flanked by depictions of female allegorical Virtues by Coghetti.
The dome drum has eight large windows separated by pairs of ribbed Corinthian pilasters, and the dome itself has one large fresco by Coghetti, The Apotheosis of St Paul of the Cross. The lantern oculus contains the Dove of the Holy Spirit, and the dome pendentives have angels bearing Instruments of the Passion.
Chapel of St Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows
The fourth bay of the right hand aisle used to have an altar dedicated to the Scillitan Martyrs (see below), and a memorial to Cardinal Lorenzo Litta 1820. However, the altar was removed to make way for the stairs down to the scavi in the late 19th century. These are now closed off.
The chapel at the far end of this aisle used to be dedicated to St Saturninus, but he has been moved as mentioned above. It is now dedicated to St Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, a holy young Passionist who died at Isola aged only twenty-four. He was especially remembered for "heroic self-denial in small things", and was canonized in 1920. His portrait here, painted for the occasion, is by Giovanni Battista Conti.
Chapel of the Assumption
The matching chapel at the end of the left hand aisle is now the church's Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. The altarpiece depicting this event is by Giovanni Torelli, 1716. However, this altarpiece used to belong to the fourth altar on the left and, under the Lazarists, this chapel was dedicated to St Vincent de Paul their founder. It used to have an altarpiece of him by Simone De Rovita.
Chapel of the Crucifixion
Obviously, the central theme of the charism of the Passionists is the Passion of Christ. Hence, they have fitted out a chapel here to that end which is the fourth on the left hand side. The altarpiece depicting Calvary is by Tommaso Conca, with St Mary Magdalen as the formulaic bionda.
Chapel of St Joseph
The third chapel on the left is dedicated to St Joseph (it used to be the second). The altarpiece showing him with the Christ-child is by Aureliano Milani 1720, and the former altarpiece The Conversion of St Paul was by him also.
In the aisle is a monument to Cardinal Giuseppe Garampi 1829 with a portrait medallion by Cristoforo Prosperi.
Chapel of the Scillitan Martyrs
The second chapel on the left hand side enshrines the relics of the twelve Scillitan martyrs from Scillium in Roman Africa, which place is now thought to be Kasserine south-west of Tunis in Tunisia. They were martyred at Carthage in the year 180, after refusing to worship the tutelary spirit of the Emperor. The record of the martyrdom is a precious early witness to the Christian church in Roman Africa, the origins of which we know absolutely nothing. The names of the martyrs, whose relics are enshrined here, are known: Speratus, Nartzales, Cittinus, Veturius, Felix, Aquilinus, Laetantius, Januarius, Generosa, Vestia, Donata and Secunda -eight men and four women. Beware of ignorant references to these as the "Sicilian Martyrs" -they were not from Sicily.
The altarpiece is by Milani.
Chapel of St Gemma Galgani
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Gemma Galgani. This young woman (she died in 1905, aged twenty-seven) lived at Lucca as a devotee of the Passionist retreat there, since her physical and mental illnesses prevented her from becoming a Passionist nun. She was a stigmatic and underwent extraordinary spiritual experiences, of a kind that persuaded many at the time that she was a malignant fraud or in the grip of demons. Her canonization took place under the patronage of the Passionists in 1940, in the face of much opposition.
The brethren immediately erected an altar here to her honour, and unusually provided a stained glass window in place of an altarpiece. This shows St Gemma Receiving the Stigmata from the Crucified, and is by Giulio Cesare Giuliani 1942. Beneath it on the altar is a picture showing the saint writing down her experiences, under the direction of her guardian angel.
Hereabouts are (or were) memorials to Olimpiade Pesenzini 1836, Cardinal Vincenzo Macchi 1860, Giovanni Fajella 1830, Teresa Saracinelli 1855, Anna Pieri 1862 and Giovanni Battista Bonti 1862.
Case Romane del Celio
The ancient houses beneath the church, now known as the Case Romane, were excavated from 1887 to 1958. The entrance to the excavations used to be in the church, in the right hand aisle just after the chapel of St Paul of the Cross. This is so no longer, and the set of stairs has not been used by visitors since 1989.
In 2002 the Case were re-opened to the public under the aegis of the Fondo Edifici di Culto of the Ministero dell'Interno, who had contracted the city government (Comune di Roma) to perform a thorough restoration and conservation over the previous fourteen years. The rooms are now run as a museum, entered off the Clivus Scauri running down the left hand side of the church. They contain a number of paintings, both Christian and pagan, including frescoes of the 3rd and 4th century. There is also an early medieval oratory, and an Antiquarium which displays many artefacts found during the excavations as well as the Muslim pottery dishes removed from the campanile.
Layout of ancient neighbourhood
In ancient times the area was built over, and in the late imperial period was a wealthy residential neighbourhood occupying the shoulder of the Caelian hill between the vast enclosure of the Temple of the Divine Claudius and the east end of the Circus Maximus. The latter site marked the beginning of the Appian Way at the Porta Capena. A street ran up the west side of the temple enclosure (the wide monastery gate on the piazza marks the route of this "Temple Street"), and a parallel street north of the Clivus Scauri made the city block. The said Clivus Scauri was itself a street that ran west to east from near the end of the Circus up the hill to the Porta Caelimontana, and is one of the few streets in Rome that has kept both its ancient name and its route. It is thought to have been laid out and developed by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, who was censor in 109 BC. The archaeologists found evidence for the first buildings erected in this development, below the two houses which later replaced them and which are below the church.
The church actually covers parts of three subsequent ancient buildings, labelled by the excavators A, B and C. House B was to the west of the far wall of the church nave, with the apse intruding into it. Substantial remains of this house are visible, including a high 2nd century wall, but it is not part of the Case Romane excavations. Walls belonging to a predecessor edifice were found under the apse, and are dated to the 1st century AD. Apart from the scant remains of Republican structures already referred to, these are the oldest structures on the site.
House A was built in the early 2nd century, with frontages on Temple Street and Parallel Street and its rooms aligned slightly west of north -this means the main façade was on Temple Street. It is thought that the area under the church portico also belonged to it, but this area is un-investigated and what was on the corner of the Clivus Scauri and Temple Street, in the present piazza, is unknown. House A was built on a hill-slope falling away to the north, and so had a cellar range including a little bath-house which is under the right hand aisle of the church. Only a small part of this house features in the Case Romane, including this bathroom. This house was high-status from the beginning, and was decorated with stuccoes, frescoes and coloured wall mosaics. Like House B, it replaced an earlier edifice of the early 1st century.
When it was first built, House A was separated from House C by a dead-end alleyway running north-west to south-east from the top of the right hand aisle to the location of the confessio. This was obviously originally a service route for both buildings. House C started life about the beginning of the 3rd century, and was originally an insula or apartment block for people of much lower status than House A. Because its main Clivus Scauri frontage was re-used for the church, it survives to a height of three storeys, behind the mediaeval buttress arches. There was originally an open portico supported on an arcade with square piers, and two entrances side by side in the middle of this. One led into the first storey, the other to the stairs to the upper storeys. The surviving upper storeys have well-made blocked windows, thirteen in the second storey and twelve in the third. The portico opened into tabernae or ground-floor shops either side of the entrances.
In the middle of the 3rd century, the two houses A and C were converted into one notably high-status property, the latter having its ground floor lowered so as to make the rooms (former shops) higher. The alleyway was converted into a luxurious nymphaeum or chill-out space with fountains, a tessellated polychrome marble floor and impressive frescoes on the walls. The surviving ground-floor rooms were also lavishly frescoed.
The original excavators claimed that this conversion resulted in a "house church". This hypothesis cannot be sustained, especially since the original frescoes had pagan themes. What was found was that an alcove at the south-east end of the nymphaeum, under a set of stairs, was decorated with frescoes in the second half of the 4th century that seem to depict a martyrdom. If this is correct, it is the oldest such fresco cycle known. This little alcove is the so-called confessio, since it corresponds (almost) with the traditional location of the saints' tombs in the floor of the church above. The original excavators found three niches cut into the rock below, which they claimed (on no archaeological evidence) to have been tombs.
Also, two rooms were frescoed in the earlier 4th century. One of these, the so-called Aula dell'orante, was claimed to show Christian themes -especially a figure in the orans position of prayer. This claim has rightly been criticized as fanciful.
The modern consensus is that the house was a private residence of a rich Christian by the late 4th century, not a public place of worship.
In 1901, human remains were found in the north-west end of the nymphaeum which were originally hailed as being of the companion martyrs mentioned in the legend -Crispus, Crispianus and Benedicta. The actual identity of these people is controverted -they might have been murder victims, or casual burials from the 4th or 5th century.
After the basilica
The house was chopped down in order to build the basilica on top of it in the early 5th century, and so most of the ground floor rooms were either filled in or cut through to provide wall and colonnade foundations. Crude blocking walls were inserted to fill in the portico arches, and one bay of the former portico was converted into a little chapel. This in turn was filled in in the late Middle Ages as problems with the stability of the church surfaced again. This chapel had been frescoed, and can now be visited as part of the Case.
Layout of Case
The present entrance is at the west end of the former portico of House C, and leads into a room (Portico sul clivo) where you buy your ticket. The mediaeval chapel comprises the further of two other rooms of the portico, to the east (your right on entry).
Straight ahead, you pass into a block of six rooms, two rows of three (west to east), with the south-eastern room sub-divided into two smaller ones. The far western room is the Stanza dei geni, and the near middle one is the so-called Stanza dell'decorazione a finto marmo. The far eastern one is the famous Aula dell'Orante, and the western of the two little subdivided rooms to the south of this is the Stanza dei Bue Api e Saltatrices. Two further large rooms are to the east of these six rooms, and the confessio is off the furthest east of this pair. Then comes a set of interconnected chambers called the cella vinaria.
You can enter the cavity under the apse from the two westernmost rooms, and if you do you will be in House B. To the far side of the Stanza dei geni is the famous Nymphaeum, then there is a small part of House A before you reach the Antiquarium. This museum chamber is actually the furthest north of the complex, and is modern. It is situated outside the plan of the church.
Cappella di Santissimo Salvatore
The little mediaeval chapel dedicated to Christ the Saviour was created when the original arcaded portico facing the street was walled off. It is a small square room with fragmentary frescoes, the earliest being 8th century and the latest, 12th. An important fragment of the latter period was detached by the conservators and is now viewable in the Antiquarium. It shows Christ the King between the archangels Gabriel and Michael, with presumably the martyr St Paul (missing his head) standing to one side. It is surmised that the latter was balanced by his brother St John on the other side.
Also discernible in the chapel are scenes of the Entombment of Christ and the Resurrection. In a niche is an interesting 8th century Crucifixion, where Christ is shown wearing a tunic instead of being naked (this was an ancient iconographic tradition soon to be lost). Next to this is a Division of Christ's Garments. Other fresco fragments are too small to allow identification of scenes.
Stanza dei Geni
The room straight ahead from the entrance foyer used to be a taberna or shop opening into the portico, before the conversion of the insula into part of a luxurious house. Beyond that in turn is the richly frescoed "Chamber of the Genii", which features naked youths holding up richly coloured floral swags on a white background and accompanied by birds. Above these, vines scroll about on the damaged barrel vault, inhabited by erotes (cherubs) and more birds. The latter are well represented, and the various species can be distinguished. One pheasant is shown having caught a mouse.
This room had polychrome marble paving, looted before the church was built.
Beyond this chamber in turn is the famous nymphaeum, which used to be an alleyway before the house conversion. When this took place, the walls were equipped with stone plinths having alternating square and hemicylindrical niches, some containing fountains. The floor was in a polychrome marble mosaic with large tesserae, and in the middle of this was a large well. The walls were richly frescoed, and remains of a scheme featuring erotes on sea-monsters can be discerned.
The most famous item here is the well-preserved fresco on the short wall at the north-west end, actually next to the stairs formerly leading down from the church. This wall was part of the neighbouring house B. The work is five metres long and three metres high, and features a marine scene with boats on a dark blue (now greyish) background. The boats contain erotes, and others are swimming. The three central figures feature a man standing over two reclining women, the central one being nude. It is thought that this depiction is of The Return of Proserpina from Hades, but this is not certain.
The remains of (apparently) three people were found interred here in 1901, and these are now thought to have been opportunistic burials just before the basilica was built in about 410. It is impossible to draw any conclusions as to their identity.
When this room was filled in to build the church, the well was kept and its shaft extended upwards to emerge in the floor of the primitive basilica.
Stanza della decorazione a finto marmo
From the nymphaeum you can pass through the far central room of the block of six, and so reach the near central room which is the "room decorated in false marble". That is, the walls are frescoed to resemble polychrome marble revetting. There was a lot of this sort of thing in ancient Rome, and it was also popular in Baroque Roman churches. The example of the genre here seems to have persuaded the brethren to paint the nave walls of the church in a similar style in 1911 -an odd thing to do.
Stanza del Bue Api e saltatrices
From this room you can pass into the near right hand room, the "room of the Apis bull and leapers" after a pagan fresco theme here. The fresco work is attributable to the first half of the 4th century, in other words the same period as the more famous frescoes in the far right hand room beyond.
The original excavators described this room as the house-church of the original congregation that worshipped here. However, revisionist scholars at the end of the 20th century rightly pointed out that there is nothing here to support that conclusion. The brethren imagined that they were seeing what they expected to find. In fact, the fresco decoration alludes more to the worship of Pan than that of Christ.
Above more fake marble work (not very well done) are depicted vine-scrolls, sprays of vegetation and capricorns (sea-goats). The fragmentary vault fresco features goats. The orante is a rather small figure up in one corner, a woman in a tunic with her arms outspread in the orans position. Unfortunately for the original interpreters, pagans used this gesture of religious supplication as well as Christians.
Persuasive evidence of a Christian presence here in ancient times is limited to the so-called confessio, which is an alcove or little room under what used to be a set of stairs to the storey above. Below the base of the stairs the excavators found three cavities cut into the natural bedrock (tuff), which they interpreted as tombs.
The alcove has three frescoed walls, showing a total of seven scenes in two registers:
Bottom left, two standing male figures. Top left, a deer to the left and what looks like two men and a woman in front of two soldiers to the right.
Straight ahead at the top is a large rectangular niche, flanked by a pair of (now headless) standing figures in tunic and cloak. At the bottom is a standing figure of a young man in the orans position with curtain hangings depicted behind him, being venerated by two figures crouched down on either side.
Bottom right, two standing female figures. Top right, three figures kneeling down and with their hands tied behind their backs, apparently blindfolded and with the legs of a standing figure behind them.
Abandoning any attempt to match these frescoes to the foundation legend of the church, what we have here is a late 4th century Christian fresco cycle which seems to depict the arrest of three martyrs (two men and a woman) to the top left, and their martyrdom by beheading with a sword to the top right. If this is correct, then this is the earliest depiction extant of any martyrdom. The young man straight ahead is possibly a depiction of the resurrected Christ as the New Adam (see Michelangelo's take on this very ancient iconographic tradition at the Cappella Sistina). The identity of his worshippers, and of the other six figures depicted, cannot be deduced from what is depicted.
It is now thought that this little space was a private devotional shrine fitted out for the owner of the house. The suggestion that the relics of three martyrs were enshrined for him in the rock-cut recesses below depends on how well developed the cult of martyrs was by the late 4th century.
Any revisionist analysis of this alcove must give some coherent suggestion as to the reason why the builders of the church thought it important to mark its location in the floor of the church above.
The underground exhibition area, which is modern, is at the far end of the case. It displays items found in excavation, and also importantly the 12th century Islamic pottery removed from the campanile.
The church is open (unofficial source) daily, 8:30 to 12:00 (or after Mass) and 15:30 to 18:00.
You may find a wedding going on. As in other Roman churches, discreet and well-dressed individual visitors are tolerated while preparations for, and celebrations after, a wedding are underway. Here, there seems to be no objection to individual pilgrims entering to venerate the shrine of St Paul of the Cross during a wedding.
Organized groups wishing to visit are advised to contact the church's administrators beforehand to avoid a clash.
The scavi have different opening arrangements: Thursday to Monday, 10:00 to 13:00, 15:00 to 18:00. There is an admission charge of six euros.
Mass is celebrated on Sundays and Solemnities at 10:45 and 11:45, according to the Diocese (the church has no website).
The feast day of SS John and Paul is on 26 June, and that of St Paul of the Cross on October 19. Both of these are Solemnities here.
This is the Station Church for the Friday after Ash Wednesday in Lent.
Youtube video of the wedding of Alessandro and Alessandra (good shots of church)