I always visit the Aventine Hill when I am in Rome, if only because of the marvellous view of the city, and especially of Trastevere, from the Giardino degli Aranci. The immense fifth church of Santa Sabina is next to this orange garden, and this is an attraction I keep coming back to as well. Just a little bit further up the hill is another interesting church, that of Santi Bonifacio e Alessio. For some reason, I had always ignored this church. Sure, I had walked by several times. A few years ago, someone on his way to a wedding in this church even asked me for directions. Since my Italian was exceptionally bad at that time, all I could do was point. So I definitely knew the church was there and it was about time I paid a visit to it. That time came on a lovely Sunday afternoon in January of this year.
The church of Santi Bonifacio e Alessio may be as old as its neighbour, the Santa Sabina, but its early history is not well documented. The church is dedicated to two saints, Bonifatius of Tarsus and Alexis of Rome, who seemingly have nothing to do with each other. The only thing they have in common is the fact that their historicity is dubious, and that is putting it very mildly. Initially, the church was only dedicated to Saint Bonifatius. A popular legend claims that he was a slave in the household of a rich Roman matron known as Aglaida or Aglae. The two engaged in rather un-Christian debauchery and may have had a sexual relationship. They later repented, and Bonifatius went off to the eastern part of the Roman Empire to collect the relics of martyrs and bring them back to Rome. However, he was martyred himself in the early fourth century and Aglaida brought back his body to her house on the Aventine, where she enshrined his relics in a church built on or near the spot where she lived.
It is a good story, but certainly a fabrication. The name Bonifatius was nevertheless popular in Rome. It was given to subsequent Popes for almost a thousand years – between 418 and 1404 there were nine Popes named Bonifatius – and a Saxon from England named Winfrid was renamed Bonifatius by Pope Gregorius II (715-731) and became the Apostle of the Germans. The church dedicated to Bonifatius of Tarsus seems to have thrived especially in the late tenth century. In 977, Pope Benedictus VII (974-983) gave the church and adjacent monastery to an elderly refugee from the East, the former metropolitan Sergius of Damascus. What exactly caused Sergius and his followers to flee from Syria is unknown. Then, like now, the Middle East was in turmoil. Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) emperors such as Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and his successor John I Tzimiskes (969-976) had gone on the offensive against the Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate and their allies. Arabs were fighting Turks, Sunnis were fighting Shias, local rulers were fighting each other. Sergius of Damascus may have been fleeing persecutions by Muslims or other Christians, or he may have just been fleeing the violence in the region. In any case, he and his entourage were given a warm welcome in Rome.
When Sergius died just four years later, in 981, he had established a flourishing community on the Aventine. What is special about this monastic community is that it comprised both monks who followed the Greek rule of Saint Basil and monks who followed the Latin rite of Saint Benedictus. The church and monastery of Saint Bonifatius quickly became a centre from which missionaries were sent out all over Europe, and especially to East-Central Europe, the territories of the Slavs. One of the most famous missionaries who set out from this centre was Saint Adalbert of Prague, martyred in 997 (see Rome: San Bartolomeo all’Isola). Church and monastery received financial support from the Holy Roman emperor Otto II (973-983), his Greek wife Theophanu and their son, Otto III (996-1002).
Sergius and his monks from the East may very well have been responsible for the introduction of the legend of Saint Alexis to Rome. Although his name – Alexis of Rome – suggests otherwise, his legend actually has roots in Edessa, in what is now the city of Urfa in Turkey. Alexis was said to have been a young man from an affluent Roman family who ran away from home to live as a beggar in the East, with some versions of the story claiming he was trying to avoid an arranged marriage. Many years later, Alexis returned to his parents, who did not recognise him. As Christians, they gave him shelter anyway and allowed him to live under a staircase outside their house, much like Harry Potter was allowed to live in the cupboard under the stairs at his uncle’s place (the difference of course being that uncle Dursley was a horrible man). Alexis died under his staircase seventeen years later, and it was only then that a document was discovered on his body in which he explained who he was and what he had done. The story is of dubious historicity, but it was certainly popular in Rome. Eleventh century frescoes telling this story can be found in the remains of the previous church beneath the San Clemente elsewhere in Rome.
We do not know whether the dedication to Alexis was added in the tenth century, or somewhat later, in the thirteenth century. In any case, by the time Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) ordered a thorough restoration of the complex in 1217, the Greek-rite monks had long since left. They had first been replaced by Benedictines from Cluny Abbey in France, who were in turn replaced by members of the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré or Premonstratensians in 1231. These had to make way for followers of the Order of Saint Jerome in 1426, an order with roots in Spain (see this post for one of their famous monasteries in Portugal). Since 1846, the Somascan Fathers have been in charge of the complex. They are still here today. The chapel to the left of the sanctuary is dedicated to their founder, Saint Gerolamo Emiliani (1486-1537).
Over the course of the centuries, many changes have been made to Honorius’ medieval basilica. The thirteenth century campanile has fortunately survived. The church is entered through a courtyard, which no doubt replaced an atrium of the type that can still be found at churches such as the San Clemente and the San Paolo fuori le Mura. The church has a seventeenth century narthex that was perhaps inspired by that of the Santi Apostoli church elsewhere in Rome. Here we find two candleholders in the shape of deacons, attributed to the school of Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1300/10). These were apparently once part of a monument for Pope Honorius IV (1285-1287). Like the third Honorius, he was a member of the influential Savelli family, who had a stronghold on the Aventine. Whether there is any connection between the candleholders and the remains of Honorius IV’s tomb in the Santa Maria in Aracoeli I do not know. Topping the facade of the church is a very old crucifix, and it has been claimed that it is from the tenth century.
The many Cosmatesque decorations are the most prized possession of the Santi Bonifacio e Alessio. Running around three sides of the entrance are strips of Cosmatesque artwork, and once inside, we are pleasantly surprised by the beautiful Cosmatesque floor. The floor is original, but was obviously restored in the past, in this case in the eighteenth century. More Cosmatesque decorations can be found in the apse, where two intricately decorated columns flank a slab with a medieval inscription in Latin in honour of Saint Alexis. The columns were originally in the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola. They are signed by their maker, one Giacomo di Lorenzo (IACOBVS LAVRENTII), and are truly gorgeous. There used to be many more of them, nineteen in total, but French soldiers serving under Napoleon reportedly stole all of them save these two.
From my description of the church in the previous paragraphs, one might easily get the idea that the Santi Bonifacio e Alessio has retained its medieval appearance. This is, however, far from the truth. With the Jubilee of 1750 approaching, the Hieronymites who were then in charge of the complex decided to give the church a Baroque makeover. This was a huge project, and it basically resulted in the church we see today. The designs were made by Giovanni Battista Nolli (1701-1756), perhaps best known for his plan of Rome, the Nolli Map of 1748. Nolli was later replaced with Tommaso de Marchis (1693-1759), who completed the remodelling in 1755. More changes were made in the nineteenth century when the Somascan Fathers had taken over. One Michele Ottaviani from the Marche decorated the nave, while Carlo Gavardini from Pesaro (1811-1869) was responsible for the decoration of the apse and the cross vault. These changes can be dated to 1852-1860. As a result, the church today has a rather modern appearance, with a few lovely medieval elements here and there. Among these medieval elements is the Romanesque-style crypt, which is unfortunately kept closed for visitors.
More things to see
The first chapel on the left of the church is dedicated to Saint Alexis. Above the altar, we can admire a statue of the dying saint under his staircase. The statue is the work of the eighteenth century sculptor Andrea Bergondi (died 1789). Not much is known about his life apart from the fact that he was active in Rome in the 1760s and 1770s. The staircase is a rather curious relic, placed inside a container made of glass and gilded wood.
To the right of the sanctuary we find a small external chapel dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament. The chapel dates to 1674 and was subsequently remodelled and restored. Inside the chapel is an icon of the Virgin Mary. It is certainly old, but the theory that it was brought to Rome by the aforementioned Sergius of Damascus cannot be true, as the icon is too young for that. It was made in either the twelfth or the thirteenth century. Similar icons of the Virgin can be found in churches such as the Santa Maria in Aracoeli and the San Lorenzo in Damaso. The icon may have been part of a Deesis once, a representation of Christ flanked by the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist with their hands raised in supplication (which is what the word ‘deesis’ means). The icon was retouched in the seventeenth century, perhaps in 1645, and was faithfully restored in 1952.
- Brochure about the church;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 204;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 27-28;
- Philipp Winterhager;
- Sant’Alessio all’Aventino on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 The full text on one of the two surviving columns reads: IACOBVS LAVRENTII FECIT HAS DECEM ET NOVEM COLVMPNAS CVM CAPITELLIS SVIS, which translates as “Giacomo di Lorenzo has made these nineteen columns with their capitals”.