Yes, Rome has her own church of San Vitale. It is nowhere near as famous nor as fascinating as its namesake in Ravenna, but if you happen to be in the vicinity, make sure you check it out. The church is located on the busy Via Nazionale and can hardly be missed: much of it is several metres below street level. The San Vitale dates back to Late Antiquity and can be counted among Rome’s oldest churches. Sadly, not much of its original appearance has survived. Part of its exterior is more or less as it may have looked in the fifth century, but its Baroque interior is fairly modern.
The church is dedicated to the martyrs Saint Vitalis, his wife Valeria and his sons Gervasius and Protasius. All are fairly obscure saints, but Vitalis – perhaps martyred in the first or second century – managed to become a revered saint in Ravenna, while both his sons ended up as patron saints of Milan. Saint Ambrosius of Milan claimed to have discovered their relics in 386 (or a little earlier) and the original church at this location in Rome, presumably somewhat smaller than the current structure, seems to have been dedicated to the two brothers. It is not impossible that the first church was used by citizens of Milan who lived in Rome (coincidentally, the street around the corner is the Via Milano). A new and larger church was built in 400 and consecrated by Pope Innocentius I (401-417) in 402. It became known as the titulus Vestinae, after a Roman lady who sponsored the church.
We do not know when the church was (co-)dedicated to Saint Vitalis. This dedication must have occurred in 595 at the latest, because it is in that year that the name first appears in the records. Ravenna’s San Vitale was completed and consecrated in 547. This makes Rome’s San Vitale a much older church, although we simply do not know which church was dedicated to Saint Vitalis first, and whether there was a connection between the dedications. We do know that a shrine or chapel (sacellum) of Saint Vitalis existed in Ravenna since the fifth century, so it is certainly possible that the church in Rome received a primary dedication to this saint in the fifth century as well. The problem with ancient history is unfortunately that we can seldom get all the information we need to draw firm conclusions.
The most striking feature of the church is its portico. It is more or less original and it is some five metres below street level. In the Middle Ages, the San Vitale was in a dell in the countryside. When the Via Nazionale was constructed in the 1880s it was left in its original location. The result is that it can only be reached by descending a set of stairs. The church is hemmed in between more modern buildings, such as the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, built in 1883, to the south. Although the portico bears resemblance to the original fifth century portico, it was altered on quite a few occasions. The most drastic changes were made by the Jesuits, who acquired the San Vitale in 1595. They blocked up four of the five arches of the portico, leaving only the central one open. This change was reversed in 1937-1938. The portico we see today is completely undecorated. The original fifth century version would at the very least have been plastered.
Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), the pope that built the Sistine Chapel, was responsible for important changes to San Vitale’s interior around the year 1475. Up until then, the church had been a typical basilica, with a nave and two aisles. Sixtus had the aisles demolished and the arches in the nave blocked up. As a result, the church now has only a single, very deep and narrow nave. The San Vitale has no side chapels.
The Jesuits also made important changes to the church interior. They had the walls frescoed by the relatively unknown painter Tarquinio Ligustri (ca. 1564-1621). Ligustri painted beautiful landscapes which appear to be peaceful and serene until you take a closer look and notice that several martyrdoms are depicted. The work, completed in 1603, is not of exceptional quality but interesting nonetheless. It is certainly less gruesome than the frescoes of martyrdoms that we can find in other churches in Rome, such as the Santo Stefano Rotondo.
Andrea Commodi (1560-1638) provided the church with an apse fresco showing the Ascent to Calvary. He was also responsible for the altarpiece and the wall paintings flanking the high altar. The altarpiece shows Saints Vitalis, Valeria, Gervasius and Protasius while the wall paintings have the martyrdoms of the brothers Gervasius and Protasius as their main theme. Commodi’s work, like that of Ligustri, is of decent, but certainly not extraordinary quality.
I think it is fair to conclude that the San Vitale is a church without highlights. But if you happen to be in the neighbourhood and find it open, be sure to pop in, take a look at the portico and admire the frescoes. If you have been to Ravenna and have visited the more famous San Vitale there, visiting its older cousin in Rome should be an interesting experience.
The Churches of Rome Wiki was the main source for this post. My travel guides do not even mention the San Vitale. Shame on them!