The Santa Francesca Romana is located on the north-eastern edge of the Forum Romanum, close to the Colosseum. Confusingly, the official name of this church is actually Santa Maria Nova. The name means “New Saint Mary’s” and suggests that there is or was an “Old Saint Mary’s” as well. That is correct. The Santa Maria Antiqua is located behind the remains of Temple of Castor and Pollux, also on the Forum Romanum. It has been closed for years and has only been reopened to the public in 2016. The Santa Maria Antiqua is an immensely interesting church and I will dedicate a separate post to it. This post is about the Santa Maria Nova, which only received a secondary dedication to Saint Francesca of Rome (1384-1440) in the seventeenth century. The name Santa Francesca Romana has stuck and it is this name that I will be using for this post.
This part of the Forum has a long history, spanning a period of some 2.000 years. It was once part of the emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea or Golden House. This was a huge palace, built after the 64 Great Fire which destroyed much of the city. The palace covered some 2.6 km². After Nero’s death in 68, his successors stripped the Domus Aurea, filled it with earth and had it built over with more useful buildings. Vespasianus (69-79) started construction of the Amphitheatrum Flavium or Colosseum, which was completed by his son Titus (79-81), who also constructed a set of public baths. The much larger Baths of Trajanus were opened in 109. Finally, it was the emperor Hadrianus (117-138) who built the Temple of Venus and Roma, completed in 135. The temple was presumably erected over the former atrium of Nero’s palace. The temple had two central rooms or cellae, and the two goddesses sat back to back in their respective apses, with Venus facing the Forum and Roma the Colosseum.
What remains of the temple can be visited on a ticket to the Forum Romanum. I highly recommend a visit, if only for the brilliant view of the Colosseum you have from the far end of the temple platform. The apse of the Roma part is still standing (see the image on the left), while the Santa Francesca Romana was built onto the platform of the Venus part on the other side. Please beware that the church cannot be visited from the Forum itself. You have to exit the Forum and take the slightly steep Clivo di Venere Felice (named after the goddess) to get to the church. To further complicate things, if you want to get a good look at the church’s facade, you have to admire it from the Forum, or better still: from the Palatine Hill.
The first Christian building at this site was a small oratory dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. It has been attributed to Pope Paulus I (757-767), but the Paul in the name of the oratory is definitely the apostle and not the pope (who was never canonised). According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter (second century), there once was a powerful sorcerer in Rome named Simon Magus. With his tricks, he had gained favour with the emperor. His actions led to a conflict with Saint Peter, and in order to prove his divine powers, Simon offered to show that he could levitate high up in the sky. The point was apparently to prove that he was able to ascend to heaven, as Christ had done. When he did so, Peter dropped to his knees and prayed for God to intervene. As a result, Simon fell out of the sky and was mortally wounded (or stoned by the mob, which turned against him). The Acts of Peter and Paul (perhaps fourth century) add that Paul was present as well, and that the emperor involved was actually Nero. Two stones with the imprints of Peter’s knees are now kept in the church. They show that Peter prayed very, very hard (see the image below)!
When the Santa Maria Antiqua was abandoned after suffering damage in the 847 earthquake, Pope Leo IV (847-855) moved the church to the oratory of Saints Peter and Paul on the other side of the Forum. Leo presumably also initiated the rebuilding of the oratory into a proper church, a project that was only completed around 996 under Pope Gregorius V (996-999). Gregorius was one of the youngest popes in history: he died when he was about 27 years old. During his short pontificate, he managed to complete the process of transferring the title of the old church to the new one and the restructured oratory was henceforth known as the church of Santa Maria Nova.
The Santa Francesca Romana can be considered a tenth century church, but one of the most important restorations was executed in the twelfth century by Pope Alexander III (1159-1181), leading to the re-consecration of the church in 1161. The restoration provided the church with its charming apse mosaic (see below) and its elegant Romanesque campanile, both of which can still be admired today. Alexander had a difficult pontificate. He was up against the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa and four antipopes in succession (the story is told in more detail here). The Pope spent most of his time outside Rome, so it seems like a small miracle that he managed to complete the renovation of the Santa Francesca Romana at all.
Of course Saint Francesca herself only enters the scene in 1384, when she was born in Rome as the daughter of the nobleman Paolo Bussa and his wife Iacobella dei Roffredeschi. During her life, she founded a community of Benedictine oblates which still exists today. The oblates took their religious vows before the prior of the Olivetan Benedictine monastery which was attached to the Santa Maria Nova. This is the reason she was buried in the crypt of the church after her death in 1440. The crypt can be visited, but it is probably only interesting for worshippers and not for casual tourists.
Francesca was canonised by Pope Paulus V (1605-1621) in 1608, and this had important consequences for the Santa Maria Nova as well. No doubt the church would become a pilgrimage site now, so it had to be in mint condition. The magnificent wooden ceiling was installed in 1612, while the facade designed by Carlo Lombardi (ca. 1554-1620) was added three years later. The interior of the church was given a Baroque makeover, but the decorations were fortunately not excessive, for which the restorers must be complimented. The last major restoration of the interior took place in 1953. Because of a decision by Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), Francesca is regarded as the patron saint of motorists. Every year on her feast day (9 March), motorists would try to park their cars as close to the church as possible to get her blessing. This tradition seems to have become extinct, no doubt partly because the Via dei Fori Imperiali is now a limited traffic zone.
The former monastery, suppressed in 1873, used to accommodate the Antiquarium Forense, a small museum displaying artefacts that have been discovered in the Forum. I remember that was still advertised in one of my older travel guides. As a result, I tried to walk in during my visit to the Forum in 2009, but was chased out again by the angry lady behind the reception desk. Apparently the Antiquarium Forense had already been closed back then and visitors were no longer welcome here.
The church used to have all the features of a classical basilica, but the side aisles have been converted into chapels (in the seventeenth century, I presume). As a result, the church now has a single nave. The chapels are not that interesting and much of the original Cosmatesque floor has been replaced with a modern marble floor in 1953. The church has a raised sanctuary, which can be reached by climbing the stairs on either side. In the sanctuary, much more of the original floor has survived. It dates from 1216 and was laid here during a restoration ordered by Pope Honorius III (1216-1227).
The apse mosaic is the highlight of the church. Visitors should have no trouble admiring it. The light is good, there are no choir enclosures or baldachins blocking the view and it is possible to get right under the mosaic. The mosaic dates from Pope Alexander’s restoration, so it was presumably executed in 1161. It is therefore from more or less the same period as the apse mosaic that can be found in the Santa Maria in Trastevere and there are certainly similarities as regards colours and symbolism. However, the Trasteveran mosaic is much more refined and detailed, and also much larger. This does not mean the mosaic in the Santa Francesca is of poor quality. On the contrary, it is very nice. We see the Madonna and Child in the centre, with the Hand of God above them. Saint Peter and his brother Saint Andrew are on the right, while Saints John and James (the Greater) are on the left.
Pope Gregorius XI’s tomb is located in the church, but I unfortunately missed it one both of my visits to the Santa Francesca. Gregorius was the pope who brought the papacy back to Rome from Avignon in 1377. This event is commemorated on the relief of his tomb, which was executed by the sculptor Pietro Paolo Olivieri (1551-1599) some 200 years after Gregorius’ death in 1378.
Finally, do not forget to take a look at the icon in the apse above the altar. Tradition used to dictate that it was brought back from Troas in present-day Turkey by a participant in the First Crusade named Angelo Frangipani. This story is probably made up. The icon dates from the twelfth century and was painted by a Tuscan school artist. In 1950, it was discovered that it was in fact painted over a much older icon presumably from the sixth century and quite possibly from the Santa Maria Antiqua. The original icon may be older than the Madonna della Clemenza in the Santa Maria in Trastevere. The old and new icon were separated from each other and the old icon is now kept in the sacristy. Regretfully, this means it can no longer be admired by visitors, unless they make an appointment.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 87;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 198-200;
- Santa Francesca Romana on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 5 March 2022: new images have been added.