Santo Spirito in Sassia is a 16th century titular and former hospital church at Via dei Penitenzieri 12 in the rione Borgo. The main entrance is on the Borgo Santo Spirito. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to the Holy Spirit.

Status[edit | edit source]

Historically, the church has been part of the complex of the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia. This is no longer the case, and it is now the Italian shrine of the devotion to Divine Mercy. This devotion arose from revelations given to St Faustina Kowalska.

There is a strong Polish presence here.

Also, it may be noted that the old hospital buildings are no longer used for health-care purposes. The modern hospital, with a walk-in clinic, is to the south on the triangular site (with an address at Lungotevere in Saxia 1) but the older part on the Borgo Santo Spirito is now a conference centre under the title of Complesso Monumentale Santo Spirito in Sassia.

History[edit | edit source]

Scholae[edit | edit source]

By the 8th century, colonies of expatriates had settled around Old St Peter's. The first of these included Greek, Syrian and Armenian monks in several monasteries, whose presence was maliciously airbrushed from Rome's historical awareness in the early Middle Ages. (As a result, you may come across modern publications claiming that St Peter's was on its own outside the city walls until the 8th century -this is false.)

Four kinds of Germanic barbarians established colonies also, the Schola Langobardorum for the Lombards at the lost church of San Giustino to the north (the site is under the north colonnade of the piazza of the basilica); the Schola Frisonum for the Frisians to the east, at what is now Santi Michele e Magno, and the Schola Francorum for the Franks. (It is thought, unprovably, that the present church of San Pietro in Borgo originally served the last-named.) The last of these Scholae was the Schola Saxonum for the Saxons, further to the east.

The Scholae served as hospices for pilgrims visting Rome. Interestingly, back then the languages of the four nations were sufficiently similar for them to be able to talk to each other after a fashion. One word in common use was burghmeaning "fortified settlement", which gave the modern borgo.

Schola Saxonum[edit | edit source]

The Schola Saxonum was not for the Saxons of Germany, but for those who had migrated to settle in Britain. It was actually founded in 727 by King Ine of Wessex, one of the new Germanic kingdoms of Britain, who had abdicated the previous year in order to make a pilgrimage to Rome. He endowed a pilgrim hospice, with a little church attached called Sanctae Mariae Saxonum which is the predecessor of the present edifice. It was later known as Santa Maria in Saxia (the spelling Saxia is sometimes used for the present church).

Oddly, at the time the various Germanic tribes in Britain were developing a common identity as "English", taking the name of the Angles and not the Saxons. Rather, the Celtic enemies of the English in Britain used the latter name as an epithet -and so the Welsh call the English the Sais, and the Scots call them Sassenachs. It is not clear why the name was attached to the institution at Rome, unless the name of the originating kingdom ("Wessex" means "West Saxons") was partly preserved.

The hospice and church were gutted by fire in 817, were sacked by Muslim raiders in 846 (they also pillaged St Peter's), and were again burned in 852. They were rebuilt by Pope Leo IV, as part of his project to create the walled Leonine City.

The complex went into decline after the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. In 1073, Emperor Henry IV seized and fortified it as part of his campaign against Pope Gregory VII. The end of the functioning institution seems to have been in 1167, when Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa made use of the premises during his fourth Italian campaign.

Foundation of hospital[edit | edit source]

According to the legend, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) had a nightmare concerning the number of unwanted new-born babies ending up in the Tiber. As a result, he ordered the foundation of the Hospital of Holy Mary in 1198, and put Guy de Montpellier from France in charge. This was an example of many similar institutions being founded in western Europe at the time, and was initially more like an alms-house for poor and infirm people. Because of the dream, proietti were taken in -unwanted babies who had been abandoned in the streets. The church was rebuilt as part of this project, and put under the charge of the Vatican chapter (the priests running St Peter's).

King John of England conceded the alienation of the property from the crown of England.

The name was changed from Santa Maria to Santo Sprito in 1208. As a result of many donations and interest shown by wealthy people, the institutution was able to expand and prosper over the next century, and became known for medical treatment as well (such as it was at the time).

Pope Innocent III instituted a station for the first Sunday after the octave of the Epiphany in this church. A procession carried the Veil of Veronica from San Pietro in Vaticano, and the Holy Father celebrated Mass in the church. Indulgences were granted to those that took part, and money was given to the poor.

Collapse[edit | edit source]

The Avignon captivity from 1309 to 1377, when the popes lived in France, was an absolute disaster for the hospital as well as the rest of the city. The latter was taken over by the local nobility who terrorized the population, plundered public institutions and engaged in vendettas with one another. The patients and residents at the hospital were "cleansed", and the buildings turned into an armed camp.

The decay remained after the popes returned, for almost a century. A serious fire in 1471 destroyed the remaining usable buildings.

Rebuilding[edit | edit source]

In 1475, Pope Sixtus IV visited the derelict hospital, and was disgusted enough to order a complete rebuilding. The new complex that resulted constituted the present so-called Corsia Sistina, two very long halls on the Borto Santo Spirito separated by a chapel surmounted by an octagonal dome. The architect was Baccio Pontelli, who also apparently rebuilt the church (he was responsible for the present campanile). The Corsia was given a very important series of frescoes in 1478 illustrating the history of the hospital; there were over fifty of these, and forty-two scenes survive.

In the same campaign the pope provided two arcaded cloisters for the hospital workers, one for the men and the other for the women. These are to the south of the wards. Also, a third arcaded cloister was put next to the church which is the Palazzo del Commendatore or the residence of the executive director.

The hospital workers were counted as consecrated religious. The men in charge became ordained hospitaller canons, and the women were regarded as religious sisters. The latter were later given their own place of worship within the complex, Santa Tecla.

When Rome was sacked in 1527, the church was devastated and it was decided to rebuild again. The work began under Baldassare Peruzzi in 1536, and continued under Antonio da Sangallo the Younger from 1538 to 1545. The façade was added under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), perhaps by Guido Guidetti to a design by Ottaviano NonniIl Mascarino (the latter was certainly responsible for the entrance stairs).

The result was the present edifice, which had its interior decoration completed about 1595 and has not been altered much since.

The external lay helpers of the hospital had a confraternity which built its own little church or oratory, Santa Maria Annunziata in Borgo.

The church was parochial.

Ruota degli Esposti[edit | edit source]

The hospital became the main one for the city, and took over the administration of most other hospitals in Rome. It concentrated on medical matters in the 18th century, and responsibility for social care was passed on to the institutions at San Michele a Ripa.

However, the department for unwanted babies was kept going. In the hospital frontage you will find a marble hatch with a little tiled roof, which is the Ruota degli Esposti (roughly translating as "The thing that goes round for the exposed ones"). This is a revolving cupboard, and the idea was that a mother (or whoever) could put a baby in it and deliver it into the care of the hospital anonymously. The feared alternative was that the baby might be dropped into the Tiber instead. The babies so collected were checked for disease before being farmed out to peasants in the Campagna, the hospital having the ultimate responsibility for care until they grew up.

Too many babies were turning up in the early 18th century, so from 1759 only illegitimate ones were accepted -in theory. (It is hard to understand how the legitimacy or otherwise was going to be discerned.)

Modern times[edit | edit source]

When Italy conquered Rome in 1870, the hospital was nationalized and the formal link with the church broken. The church remained parochial, and continued to be responsible for spiritual matters in the hospital.

The Via della Conciliazione scheme of 1940 seriously reduced the population of the Borgo. However, the parish was kept up until 1984 when it was suppressed and the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina was put in charge of one parish for the entire rione. This included the transfer of the remaining hospital chaplaincy responsibilities as well.

In 1991, the church finally found a new function when it became the Italian sanctuary of the devotion to Divine Mercy.

Meanwhile, advances in medical standards meant that the hospital had no further use for its Renaissance edifices and they were converted into a conference centre in 2000.

Cardinalate[edit | edit source]

In 1991 the church was made titular, with Fiorenzo Angelini the first cardinal deacon. He died in 2014, and was replaced by Dominique Mamberti in 2015.

Exterior[edit | edit source]

Layout[edit | edit source]

The church is parallel to the Via dei Penitenzieri, and so faces the Borgo Santo Spirito at an angle. It is quite large, but is a single five-bay nave without aisles. The nave side walls are very thick, in brick, and each contains five apses in its thickness. Nine of these are side chapels, but the middle one on the right is a side entrance.

There is a separate apsidal sanctuary. This and the nave are separately roofed. A tower campanile is attached to the far right hand side of the apse.

Campanile[edit | edit source]

The attractively designed brick campanile is older than the church, having been built under Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) together with the hospital. It is at an angle to the major axis of the present church, and this hints that the previous edifice to which it belonged was on a different alignment.

There are three storeys in naked brick above the entablature of the side wall roofline. The first is blank and quite short, but the other two are tall. They are separated by full entablatures with projecting stone cornices. Each storey has four brick Doric pilasters at the corners and one more in the centre of each face, supporting the entablature.

Also, each face of these two storeys has four identical apertures, in the form of two round-headed soundholes separated by a limestone Doric column with impost, enclosed in an arch with Doric imposts in brick and with a circle in sunk relief in the tympanum. Below each of these apertures is a row of circle-lozenge-circle in sunk relief as well.

Façade[edit | edit source]

The façade was added under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), perhaps by Guido Guidetti to a design by Ottaviano NonniIl Mascarino (the latter was certainly responsible for the entrance stairs). It is a typical example of Renaissance architecture.

That's St Faustina on the poster on the façade.

It has two storeys, rendered in a creamy white. The first storey has six Composite pilasters with limestone capitals, supporting an entablature with a blank frieze. Each of the four zones flanking the entrance in between the pilasters has an empty apsidal niche, with a scallop shell in its conch. Above and below this is a square raised frame, enclosing a blank tablet with incurved corners.

The single entrance has a large molded doorcase with a triangular pediment on raised strap corbels. It is approached by a contemporary set of stairs in two flights, which has an attractive curve.

The second storey has four pilasters in the same style, supporting another entablature and a crowning triangular pediment. In between the two pairs of pilasters are niches and panels identical to those below, but the central zone is dominated by an enormous oculus (round window) with a molded and dished frame. Above this is an ornate coat-of-arms of Pope Sixtus V.

Interior[edit | edit source]

Layout[edit | edit source]

The church has a single nave of five bays, with nine apsidal chapels along the sides. Five of these are to the left, and four of these to the right. The latter flank an apse containing a side entrance which is in the third bay.

The actual nave ends in a triumphal arch. However, the sanctuary proper starts after a shallow bay beyond this arch, which has the doorway to the sacristy on the right and that to the hospital on the left. The sanctuary itself has two further bays, followed by a large apse with conch of the same width.

The interior is covered in frescoes by several 16th and 17th century painters.

Nave[edit | edit source]

Santo Spirito in Sassia.png

The arches leading into the side chapels amount to two arcades. The arches are separated by ribbed Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief, which support an entablature running round the entire interior including the apse. The architrave and cornice of this are both molded. Above each arch is a large window.

The impressive flat wooden ceiling is geometrically coffered, and painted in red, blue and gold. It was installed in the reign of Pope Paul III (1534-49).

The carved wooden pulpit on the left hand pier between the third and fourth bays is by Alessandro Castaldo.

There is an impressive polychrome marble floor memorial to Giovanni Maria Lancisi, 1740.

The counterfaçade has a pair of paintings in wall-aedicules, each of which has a pair of ribbed Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment and standing on wide strap corbels. The one to the right shows The Conversion of St Paul by Pedro de Rubiales, Il Roviale Spagnolo, and the one on the left shows The Visitation by Marco Pino Da Siena. These were done in 1545. (These attributions are up-to-date.)

Sanctuary[edit | edit source]

The apse has a fresco cycle which has been ascribed to the brothers Jacopo and Francesco Zucchi of Florence, but apparently there is some doubt about the contribution of Francesco. The theme is The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, presented in a Trinitarian manner. The vault of the far sanctuary bay contains a tondo of God the Father, and the apse conch has Christ in Glory Sending the Holy Spirit. The apse wall has Our Lady and the Disciples Await the Holy Spirit (there is further doubt as to whether this part of the cycle is by either of the Zucchi).

The vault and side walls of the sanctuary have rich fresco detailing covering all surfaces, which is by Guido Ubaldo Abbatini

The high altar has no aedicule, but there is an impressive 17th century tabernacle with adoring angels in gilded wood.

The entrance bay into the sanctuary is flanked by doorways, over which are two cantorie or opera-boxes for solo musicians. These are very familiar in Baroque churches, but the Renaissance ones here are unusual. Each has a wooden balustrade, and a back entrance through a miniature pedimented triumphal arch. The cantoria on the left has an organ first installed in 1547, which was of very good quality for its time. The case is richly carved and gilded.

There are two good funerary monuments flanking the sanctuary. The one to the left is to Antonio Vargas y Lacuna, 1827 in the style of Canova. The left hand one is to a surgeon called Pietro Giavina from Domodossola, and is by Raffaele Secini 1782.

The chapels are described in anticlockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.

Chapel of Pentecost[edit | edit source]

The first chapel on the right is dedicated to Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit on Our Lady and the disciples, and was fitted out by Il Mascarino. The altarpiece is flanked by a pair of ancient multi-coloured (pavonazzetto) marble Corinthian columns sourced from Africa.

The fresco work is by Jacopo Zucchi, 1583. The altarpiece depicts Pentecost, and the side frescoes show Joel the Prophet and St John the Baptist. The conch vault shows God the Father with Christ and the Heavenly Host. Hence, this chapel replicates the iconography of the sanctuary apse.

The tablet in between the entablature posts above the column capitals reads Repentino sonitu Spiritus Sanctus venit ("With a sudden noise the Holy Spirit came"), which is not a Biblical quotation.

​Chapel of the Assumption[edit | edit source]

The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. It was fitted out by Livio Agresti, but he died in 1579 before the job was finished. The altarpiece showing The Assumption is by him, and is in an aedicule fitted into the curve of the apse. This has a pair of twisted Solomonic columns supporting a triangular pediment, the columns imitating those accompanying the shrine of St Peter in the basilica of Old St Peter's.

The stucco decoration is rich, including angels sitting on the pediment and caryatids flanking the columns.

To the left is The Birth of Our Lady, and to the right The Circumcision of Christ. Agresti did not get to finish these; the former was completed by Giovanni Battista Lombardelli, and the latter by Paris Nogari.

Side entrance[edit | edit source]

The side entrance (not nowadays used) has a cantoria supported by four Ionic columns in grey granite, which has a balustrade with a bow-fronted section. This cantoria contains the main organ, the case of which is richly decorated and gilded.

​Chapel of the Divine Mercy and St Faustina[edit | edit source]

The third chapel on the right was originally dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. However, it has been re-dedicated to the Divine Mercy and St Faustina, and some relics of the latter are enshrined here.

The stucco decoration here is also very rich.

The altarpiece was The Sacred Heart by Raffaele Gagliardi, but in recent years this has been covered by a modern representation of Christ Bestowing Divine Mercy. The flanking frescoes show The Healing of the Paralytic and The Healing of the Man Born Blind, and are by Agresti.

The frescoed tondi in the conch vault showing prophets and doctors of the Church have also been attributed to Agresti in the past.

One pier has a memorial to Bernardino Cirillo, who ran the hospital before his death in 1575.

​Chapel of the Ascension[edit | edit source]

The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to the Ascension. The altarpiece is by Giuseppe Valeriani, who also executed the other frescoes here. The conch vault differs from the other chapels in having a single fresco depicting saints and angels in heaven. 

Sacristy[edit | edit source]

The sacristy is entered through a doorway to the right of the sanctuary balustrade rail. The elegant set of wardrobes are in walnut, 1650.

The altarpiece depicting Pentecost has been dubiously attributed to Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta. Here also is a series of frescoes depicting the history of the Schola Saxonum and hospital attributed to Guido Ubaldo Abbatini.

​Chapel of Our Lady and St John the Evangelist[edit | edit source]

The fifth chapel on the left is dedicated jointly to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. The aedicule has a pair of rather thin Ionic columns in grey marble which looks like bigio antico and, if so, are ancient spolia.

There are two altarpieces, one above the other. The lower depicts St John and is by Andrea Giorgini 1835, while the one above is a 19th century copy of an old icon that was the altarpiece of the church before its 16th century rebuilding. By tradition it was donated by King Ine of Wessex, hence is called La Madonna del Re Ina.

The vault frescoes showing scenes from the life of St John are by Perin del Vaga (it is thought). The flanking frescoes show the saint's traditional attempted martyrdom (he was allegedly boiled in oil at Rome -see San Giovanni in Oleo), and are by Venusti.

​Chapel of Pope St John Paul II[edit | edit source]

The fourth chapel on the left is now dedicated to Pope St John Paul II , and the modern altarpiece depicting him was donated by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz in 2006. It is flanked by a a pair of allegorical female figures in stucco.

The former altarpiece depicted The Deposition from the Cross, and was attributed to Pomepeo Cesura. The flanking frescoes depict The Nativity and The Resurrection. Each has a pair of stucco heavenly beings sitting rather charmingly on its frame, with two more on the altar aedicule.

The vault frescoes include two scenes of The Fall from Paradise of Adam and Eve, as well as saints and prophets.

It is now thought that all the fresco work, including the former altarpiece, was by Cesare Nebbia.

​Chapel of the Crucifix[edit | edit source]

The third chapel on the left is dedicated to the Crucifix, with a 17th century painted wooden example as the altarpiece. The fresco work includes scenes from the Passion set within grotesquery, and there is delicate stucco work in the vault.

The chapel is flanked by two memorials. One is to Antonio Foderato 1548, with a Pietà in the style of Michelangelo. The other was set up to St Agostina Pietrantoni, who was a religious sister killed by an anti-clerical patient in 1895 while working as a nurse in the hospital. She was canonized in 1999, and has a church in Rome dedicated to her -Sant'Agostina Pietrantoni.

​Chapel of the Coronation of Our Lady[edit | edit source]

The second chapel on the left is dedicated to the Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven. The altarpiece is by Cesare Nebbia, and the depictions of the Evangelists on the piers are by Andrea Lilio. The frescoes flanking the altar are by Pompeo Cesura.

​Chapel of Our St Aloysius Gonzaga[edit | edit source]

The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St Aloysius Gonzaga, and was re-fitted in 1880. The aedicule has two impressive Corinthian columns in a red and grey marble, described as portasanta (really?).

The altarpiece is a very late sculpture of the saint by Ignazio Iacometti (1809-83). The frescoes on the walls and piers and in the conch vault are by Cesare Nebbia again.

Access[edit | edit source]

The church is open (sanctuary website, July 2018):

Weekdays 7:15 to 12:00, 14:50 to 18:30.

Sundays 9:00 to 13:00, 14:50 to 18:30.

Only those attending are permitted in the church during Mass and other liturgical celebrations. Check the times below, as these celebrations can be lengthy.

Liturgy[edit | edit source]

Mass is celebrated, according to the sanctuary website (July 2018):

Weekdays 7:30 and 18:30.

Sundays 10:00 (in English), 11:00, 12:30, 16:00 (in Polish), 18:30.

There is a Holy Hour in honour of Divine Mercy every day at 15:00.

Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is every day at 17:30. This is followed by Rosary at 18:00, then the evening Mass at 18:30.

External links[edit | edit source]

Official diocesan web-page 

Italian Wikipedia page

Interactive Nolli Map Website

Sanctuary website

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

"Romeartlover" web-page

Website of the Complesso Monumentale

Roman Despatches blog with gallery

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