It just wasn’t my day. I had wanted to see the Santa Balbina church on the Aventine first and then proceed to the Santi Nereo e Achilleo near the Baths of Caracalla. Both turned out to be closed at the advertised opening hours, which was rather frustrating. I continued my way and followed the old Via Latina, kind of expecting the San Giovanni at the Latin Gate to be closed as well. Fortunately, it was open. There was just one other visitor, and when he had finished taking pictures, I had the church to myself. The San Giovanni a Porta Latina, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, is an intriguing basilica, simple but charming. The highlight here is a late twelfth century fresco cycle which covers the walls of the nave, the sanctuary and the counter-facade. The frescoes are not in mint condition, but most can still be interpreted and they clearly show that the interior of medieval churches was intensely colourful.
An abridged history of the church
The earliest history of the church is extremely hazy. There must have been a church at this location before 772, because in that year the new pope, Adrianus I (772-795), ordered the existing edifice to be completely rebuilt. The old church may be dateable to ca. 500 and may have been erected during the reign of the Ostrogothic King Theoderic (493-526). More information about Theoderic can be found here. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) is often tentatively mentioned as the person responsible for building the first church. While compelling and direct proof for all of these claims is lacking, there is certainly circumstantial evidence. An analysis of parts of the church fabric seems to back up a founding date of ca. 500. A roof tile, now used as a lectern in the sanctuary, even bears the tax stamp of Theoderic himself. Since such tiles could and were reused, this cannot be considered conclusive evidence, but it certainly is an interesting indication.
Pope Adrianus’ eighth century church was thoroughly restored by Pope Celestinus III (1191-1198) in 1191. The pope was an octogenarian, but apparently still full of vigour. This restoration provided the church with a very nice Cosmatesque floor in the sanctuary, which is still visible today, and perhaps with its campanile (the church itself claims the tower may be up to two centuries older). Artists employed by Celestinus also painted the fresco cycle already mentioned above. The church we see today is basically Celestinus’ basilica.
After 1191, things seem to have gone downhill for the San Giovanni. The area was depopulated, the church isolated and neglected. Fortunately, periods of severe neglect were always followed by new restorations. The campanile was restored in 1433, the portico five years later. The fact that the San Giovanni became a titular church in 1517 also helped. In 1565, bishop Alessandro Crivelli (1514-1574) was made a cardinal. A year later, he was given the San Giovanni as his titular church. Large restorations were subsequently carried out, which unfortunately included covering the twelfth century frescoes with a layer of plaster. On the other hand, the frescoes were probably in a bad condition already and plastering them over may actually have conserved what was left.
Crivelli’s successors continued renovating the church, and there were more restorations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1668, the Baroque painter Paolo Gismondi (1612-1685) – also known as Paolo Perugino – painted new frescoes on the nave walls. These had been commissioned by Cesare Maria Antonio Rasponi (1615-1675), cardinal-priest of the church. Much of all this good work was undone when soldiers in Napoleon’s armies used the church as a barracks. It was left in a deteriorated state, deconsecrated and then consecrated again later in the nineteenth century, which of course involved more restorations.
Twentieth century restorations took a ‘back to the Middle Ages’ approach. The idea was to restore to churches like the San Giovanni the look these churches were supposed to have had in medieval times. Unfortunately, no one really knew what medieval churches looked like. As a consequence, these restorations were usually rather subjective exercises, which most of the time involved removing all Baroque additions. This is exactly what happened at the San Giovanni. Since 1938, the church and surrounding buildings have been administered by the Fathers of Charity. These ‘Rosminians’ removed Gismondi’s frescoes, as well as the coffered Baroque ceiling.
But it was not all bad. The Fathers also set about restoring what was left of the medieval fresco cycle. The parts of the cycle above the altar had already been discovered in 1913-1915. When these had been restored, the rest of the frescoes in the nave were discovered as well. A final cycle of restorations took place in 1940-1941, and these have preserved the frescoes for posterity, so that even visitors in the twenty-first century can admire them. Although they are faded, the frescoes make the San Giovanni special and the loss of Gismondi’s frescoes seems like a reasonable price to pay. This is what medieval churches actually looked like: they were decorated with colourful frescoes (or mosaics) and certainly did not have boring plastered or naked brick walls (see Santa Maria in Cosmedin for a dubious example).
Exploring the San Giovanni a Porta Latina
A tour of the San Giovanni starts outside. In front of the portico is an old well with simple decorations. It is “from the time of Pope Adrian I” according to the church’s own website, but it may be a little younger, dating back to the ninth century. A text on the well informs us that it was made by a certain ‘Stefhanus’. I have no idea whether there is any water left in the well. The lid is closed and locked, so there is no possibility of taking a look inside.
Let us now take a look inside the church. The San Giovanni is a small and simple basilica, with a central nave and side aisles. A somewhat special feature is that it has three apses. This is often interpreted as an Eastern or ‘Byzantine’ element of the church. However, there are also plenty of Romanesque churches that have three apses, the pieve in Rignano sull’Arno being a good example. The light in the church is beautiful, especially in the morning. The windows of the apse have alabaster panes, which creates a very warm and soft kind of light. Above the windows, in the conch of the apse, is a Baroque fresco by an unknown artist. For some reason it was spared during the anti-Baroque renovations in the twentieth century. The bottom part was, however, damaged a bit when the windows, which had previously been bricked up, were reopened again. It now looks like a cookie with three bites taken out of it.
The Cosmatesque marble floor in the sanctuary is very pretty. Note that the altar rests on a step which contains a marble slab with a text in Latin. It reads:
TIT * S * IOANNIS * ANTE * PORTAM * LA[TINAM]
According to the church itself, this is “the “title” of the Basilica, of ancient origin, discovered during the renovations of 1940”. This is a rather puzzling message. If it refers to the San Giovanni being a titular church, the text cannot be ancient. After all, the church has only been titular since 1517. Perhaps the marble in which the text was carved is ancient.
One reason the fresco cycle is so impressive is that it is simply huge. It consists of some fifty scenes with stories from both the Old and the New Testament. Although the machine for turning on the lights was out of order – which I found out after I had inserted a coin; I did not get it back – the light in the church was good enough to see most of the (surviving) details of the frescoes. I could discuss all the scenes here, but that is probably not a good idea. Since pictures say more than a thousand words, I will post some of the photos I took below. Even these photos can only convey part of the experience. I would advise anyone who is interested to go and see the frescoes themselves. A full discussion of all the scenes can be found here.
Included in my gallery are:
- From the right wall: Creation of the Universe and Creation of Adam (top register), Annunciation to the Virgin and Annunciation to Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother (middle register), Resurrection of Lazarus (badly damaged) and Christ enters Jerusalem (ditto; lower register);
- From the side wall of the sanctuary: twelve of the twenty-four elders mentioned in the Book of Revelation;
- From the right wall: Adam and Eve and the serpent in Paradise;
- From the right wall: Adam and Eve judged by God. Eve looks emaciated and she will not be pleased with her boobs…
- From the counter-facade: Adam and Eve in exile and stories of Cain and Abel (damaged; top register), the Last Judgment (lower register);
- From the left wall: Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac.
There are a few more puzzles inside the San Giovanni. In the chapel at the end of the left aisle we find a nice mosaic of an angel, more specifically a cherub, against a golden background. It is definitely a modern work of art, but I have not been able to find a date, nor more information about it. There is no text in the mosaic, except for the Christogram IC XC.
The chapel at the end of the right aisle has a fresco of the Madonna and Child (see above). The style is very different from that of the cycle discussed above and this work was surely painted later. The artist is unknown, and those who have more detailed information about the fresco are welcome to leave a reply below.
San Giovanni in Oleo
A little bit further down the Via Latina is a lovely chapel which is also administered by the Rosminians. They keep it closed, but do check it out and ignore the graffiti. The San Giovanni of the chapel is Saint John the Evangelist, and like the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, it is dedicated to him. The name – Saint John in the Oil – refers to the botched attempt by the Roman emperor Domitianus (81-96) to make a martyr of the evangelist. The sadistic emperor tried to boil John in a cauldron full of hot oil, but the oil did not even hurt him. Domitianus then banished the evangelist to Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. The failed execution is supposed to have taken place here, near the Latin gate. It is a good story, but unfortunately there is not a shred of evidence that John ever visited Rome. The story of the cauldron full of oil was famously frescoed by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) in one of the chapels of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
The San Giovanni in Oleo was built in the early sixteenth century. It is not entirely clear which architect was responsible for its construction. The website of the San Giovanni a Porta Latina still claims that it was built by Bramante (1444-1514). This assumption might be based on similarities between the chapel and the Bramante’s much more famous Tempietto elsewhere in Rome. However, modern travel guides usually attribute the San Giovanni in Oleo to either Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536) or Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546). The chapel was built in 1509, which means Peruzzi would have been about 28 years old and Sangallo 25. A bit young perhaps, but not impossible.
The chapel was commissioned by the French prelate Benoît Adam, who worked for Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Adam added the inscription “Au plaisir de Dieu” to the building, which can be seen above the entrance. The dome of the chapel was rebuilt by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) in 1658. It is not impossible that the San Giovanni in Oleo replaced an earlier chapel at this site. If the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina was indeed built ca. 500, there is a fair chance that this previous chapel was erected around the same time.