Many years ago, my better half and I were having lunch at a small restaurant in the Via dei Santi Quattro, just behind the Colosseum. I received a text message from a friend, who asked whether I was interested in going out for a drink that evening. That was a problem of course: I was in Rome, he was in Amsterdam. So no drinks that evening, but my friend provided me with a brilliant suggestion. He texted that I should really visit the church of Santi Quattro Coronati, and especially the Chapel of Saint Sylvester which is part of the same complex. What a coincidence! We were actually in the Via dei Santi Quattro, and the church my friend mentioned was just down the road. Unfortunately, it was also closed at that hour. This church regretfully does not have generous opening hours. I had to wait five more years before I could finally visit the Santi Quattro Coronati and the adjacent chapel. But it was worth it.
The four crowned saints
The name Santi Quattro Coronati suggests that the church is dedicated to four crowned saints. Well, not quite. There are actually two groups of crowned – that is: presented with a martyr’s crown – saints, one group of five (!) sculptors and another group of four soldiers. That adds up to nine crowned martyrs in total, and the historicity of all of them can be doubted. According to tradition, the sculptors were Christians who refused to make a statue of the Roman god of healing, Asclepius. They were martyred during the reign of Diocletianus (284-305), who had them locked up in lead coffins and thrown into the river Sava. This is all supposed to have happened in Sirmium in Pannonia, present-day Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia. The four soldiers of the second group were also Christians, and they refused to sacrifice to Asclepius. The soldiers were stationed at the Castra Albana in Latium, the headquarters of the Legio II Parthica, raised by Septimius Severus in 197. To punish them for their refusal, Diocletianus had them executed.
In some versions of the legend, the two stories are apparently glued together. One of my sources even claims that the four soldiers refused to execute the five sculptors and were therefore executed themselves! It all sounds like pseudo history to me, but the church of Santi Quattro Coronati claims it keeps the relics of the four crowned martyrs in its crypt. The crypt was not accessible to the public when I visited the basilica, but my sources inform me that these relics are kept in four separate sarcophagi. Whether these are the relics of four or five sculptors, four soldiers or up to nine crowned martyrs is of secondary importance, I presume.
History of the basilica
At first sight, the complex of which the church of Santi Quattro Coronati is a part looks more like a fortress. Thick and high walls and an impressive guard tower above the entrance give the complex a daunting appearance. In fact, part of the complex, the so-called Cardinal’s Palace, was indeed constructed for defensive purposes. I will take stock of it below.
There can be no doubt that the Santi Quattro Coronati is a very old basilica. The first building on this site was a Roman basilica dating back to the fourth century. This was a secular building, intended for public affairs. We do not know when it was converted into a church, but the tradition that Pope Melchiades (or Miltiades) was responsible for this conversion is not backed up by evidence and seems rather unlikely. Melchiades was pope from 311 until 314. If the Roman basilica was built ca. 300, it would have been turned into a church almost instantly. A later date for the conversion into a place of Christian worship seems more realistic. In any case, the Roman basilica was much larger than the present church. The complex now has two courtyards, but in Late Antiquity the second courtyard was occupied by the building. The lower part of the huge apse is still original and thus dates from the fourth century. It pays to check it out in the Via dei Querceti to the west of the complex.
It is possible that the conversion into a church did not take place until the pontificate of Pope Honorius I (625-638), but again we have no certainty. What we do know is that Pope Leo IV (847-855), the man who defended Rome against the Saracens, rebuilt the basilica in the ninth century. This was a large church, with a nave and side aisles. The new church was severely damaged when Robert Guiscard’s Normans sacked Rome in 1084. Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118) had it rebuilt, but on a much smaller scale. In fact, the present church can be considered a truncated version of the previous one. The nave was shortened by some 20-25 metres, creating a second courtyard. The aisles were abandoned and later annexed by the Benedictine monastery to the south and the residence of the titular cardinal to the north. This was the so-called Cardinal’s Palace. So in effect, the new Santi Quattro Coronati was not just shorter, but also much narrower. The apse was not reduced in size, and it seems much too large for a relatively small church. Paschalis’ new basilica was consecrated on 20 January 1116.
In 1246 the Cardinal’s Palace was enlarged and fortified by Cardinal Stefano de Normandis dei Conti (died 1254). The reason to fortify this part of the complex seems to have been to create a safe spot for the pope to retreat to in case of an emergency. The Lateran Palace, some 500 metres down the road, was not considered defensible and the population of Rome was fickle and unreliable. These were the days of the conflict between the pro-pope Guelfs and the pro-emperor Ghibellines, and the position of the pope was never secure. To add insult to injury, the then pope, Innocentius IV (1243-1254), was embroiled in a bitter conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Cardinal Conti also had the Cappella di San Silvestro (Chapel of Saint Sylvester) consecrated as his private chapel in the Palace and commissioned frescoes for it. These are papal propaganda and will be discussed in greater detail below.
When the popes moved to Avignon in 1307, the Cardinal’s Palace soon fell into disrepair. In 1564, the whole complex was given to a community of Augustinian nuns, who started an orphanage here and ran it until it was finally closed in 1872. The monache agostiniane themselves are still here though and there is a fair chance that you will see them if you visit the church, the cloister or the chapel. One of my travel guides claims these nuns have taken a vow of silence. Well, probably not. When I was in the church, one of them was talking to a visitor. Moreover, if you want to visit the Chapel of Saint Sylvester, a nun will tell you a donation is required.
Exploring the complex
The first courtyard is the atrium of the church built by Pope Leo IV in the ninth century. It is not very interesting, apart from the imposing guard tower (see the first image in this post). One of my tour guides claims it is one of the oldest towers in Rome, but it is actually at least in part a reconstruction from the early twentieth century. The idea in those days was to give churches dating back to the Middle Ages their original medieval appearance again. The results were usually not at all historically accurate, but totally the architect’s opinion (see, for instance, Santa Maria in Cosmedin). The architect in charge of the reconstructions at the Santi Quattro Coronati was Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960), who also ‘did’ the San Giorgio in Velabro.
There is not much of interest in the second courtyard either. The most interesting fact is that this used to be part of the nave of Pope Leo’s church. Visitors entering the present church will immediately notice the short nave, the oversized apse with its colourful frescoes and the beautiful Cosmatesque floor. The floor is truly the showpiece of the basilica. It is some 900 years old and was made by one Magister Paulus, presumably when Pope Paschalis II had the church rebuilt after the Norman Sack of 1084. In the aisles we find some rather damaged frescoes of saints, which are dateable to the late fourteenth century. One of them shows Saint Peter’s Barque, a symbolic representation of the Roman Catholic Church as a ship (see Rome: Santa Maria in Domnica for another example).
The frescoes in the apse, both on the wall and in the conch, are the work of the Florentine Baroque painter Giovanni da San Giovanni (1592-1636). The eleven panels of the apse wall show scenes related to the martyrdom of the Santi Quattro Coronati (the sculptors, if I am not mistaken). The conch has a huge fresco of the Glory of Heaven. Take a look at the image included in this post and you will instantly realise that one of the windows in the apse is blocked by the adjacent cloister. All three windows have curtains, but while sunlight is clearly visible behind the ones on the right and in the middle, the one on the left is dark.
To get to the cloister, ring the bell in the left aisle. A custodian will open the door and ask what you want. If you say you want to visit the cloister, you will be asked for a donation of at least two euros to contribute to further restorations of this part of the complex. Please, be generous, the cloister is a lovely and tranquil spot in this part of the city and hopefully it will remain open to visitors. Unfortunately the central court with the fountain is closed off, but visitors are allowed to wander through the galleries unattended and take pictures. The cloister was constructed in the thirteenth century, probably after 1239, for the Benedictine monks that were present at the complex until 1417. They were succeeded by Celestines and Camaldolese, and finally by the Augustinian nuns mentioned above.
Only the lower part of the cloister, up until the cornices, is original. The second storey, which is hideous, was constructed in the sixteenth century when the complex became an orphanage. The fountain in the central court is from the twelfth century. It is one of the oldest in Rome and predates the cloister itself. It was originally in the second courtyard before being moved here.
From the cloister gallery one can visit the Cappella di Santa Barbara. This chapel has an interesting architectural history. It was once part of the basilica built by Pope Leo IV in the ninth century. It could be entered from the left aisle (that is, from the north). Above, I have discussed how that left aisle became part of the monastery, so now the chapel can only be entered from the cloister (that is, from the west). Unfortunately, only traces of the wall frescoes remain.
The Chapel of Saint Sylvester
This chapel is the true highlight of the Santi Quattro Coronati, and formally it is not even part of the church. It has in fact for centuries functioned as a church in its own right. As stated above, it was consecrated by Cardinal Conti in 1246 as his private chapel. When the complex passed to the Augustinian nuns and their orphanage, who had no need for the chapel, it was acquired by the guild of marble workers, the Università dei Marmorari. This guild was founded in 1406 and – mirabile dictu! – it still exists today. Among its members were famous sculptors and architects such as Michelangelo, Bernini, Borromini, Ercole Ferrata and Carlo Maderno. The four crowned martyrs who were sculptors happened to be the patron saints of the Università, so obviously the marble workers were very interested in using this chapel, which was after all part of a complex dedicated to these martyrs.
To visit the chapel, enter the foyer from the second courtyard. There you can ring a bell again. One of the nuns will ask you – in Italian – what you want. If you reply that you want to see the chapel, you will be asked for a donation (again, please be generous) and the nun will unlock the door for you. There is an electronic lock on the door nowadays and you can open it yourself after you hear the buzzer. In the past you would actually be given a key! The frescoes on the walls of the chapel, executed by unknown artists in 1246 (one source gives the year as 1248), are wonderful. Although some are damaged, most are in excellent condition. Eight of the frescoes form a cycle that tells the completely unhistorical story of the emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) and Pope Sylvester I (314-335). The story clearly serves political and religious purposes and is therefore quite intriguing. Let us take a closer look.
The cycle starts above the entrance to the chapel, below a large fresco in the lunette that shows Christ as the Pantokrator between the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and the other apostles. In the first scene of the cycle, we see the emperor struck by leprosy, which is his punishment for having persecuted Christians. The usual treatment to get rid of the disease is to bathe in children’s blood, which the emperor refuses, much to their mothers’ relief. In the second scene, the emperor, his face still disfigured by the disease, is sleeping. Peter and Paul appear to him in a dream and advise him to call for Pope Sylvester, who is living in exile on the Monte Soratte. A delegation of three is sent to the pope, who agrees to come back to Rome (scenes three and four).
Now come the really interesting scenes. First, the pope shows the emperor an icon with the faces of Peter and Paul (scene five). Then, Constantine is baptised by full immersion, much more acceptable than bathing in children’s blood (scene six). The emperor, now a Christian, is miraculously cured of his leprosy and obviously very grateful. In the final two scenes, we see Constantine presenting the pope with a simple tiara and holding his horse by the reins, a clear sign of submission.
Now the whole story is rubbish. Constantine never persecuted Christians, nor did he ever suffer from leprosy. Pope Sylvester’s exile is most likely fictional as well and he certainly did not baptise Constantine. In fact, Sylvester was long dead when Constantine finally had himself baptised on his deathbed in 337. As stated above, the frescoes are propaganda.
The seventh scene is very important, as it symbolises the Donatio Constantini, the alleged transfer by Constantine of temporal power over the Western Empire to the pope. As a result of this transfer, the emperor was deemed to be subordinate to the pope. Unfortunately for the Church, this Donatio never happened, and it was in fact based on an elaborate fraud, a document fabricated in the mid-eighth century. Whether Cardinal Conti knew about this or not, the frescoes served a useful purpose at a time when the pope was pitted against the Holy Roman Emperor, and the question of who was subordinate to whom was very relevant.
Although the frescoes featuring Constantine and Sylvester are the most interesting artworks in the chapel, do not forget to check out those on the right wall. On the left we see the strange story about a Jewish rabbi who whispered the word “Satan” (or, in a different version of the story, “Jehovah”) into the ear of a bull. The bull dropped dead, but Sylvester managed to bring it back to life by whispering the word “Jesus” into its ear. In the second scene, Constantine’s mother Helena finds the True Cross in Jerusalem.
The third scene is damaged, but it shows Sylvester defeating a dragon that was terrorising Roman citizens on the Forum. The young Raffaellino da Reggio (1550-1578), who died at the tender age of 28, was commissioned by the marble workers to fresco the small sanctuary. Raffaellino did a good job, unlike the marble workers themselves, who damaged the thirteenth century frescoes by installing choir stalls.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 185;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 238-240;
- Santi Quattro Coronati on Churches of Rome Wiki.