The San Lorenzo is Fonte is an attractive little church that can be found in the Via Urbana, at the intersection of that ancient street with the Via de’ Ciancaleoni. The church is hemmed in between a hostel for pilgrims on the left – the famous Ostello Marello – and a convent on the right. It is dedicated to Saint Lawrence of Rome, a deacon who was martyred in 258 during the persecution of Christians instigated by the Roman emperors Valerianus and Gallienus. His story has been told before on this website, for instance here and here, and it should not come as a surprise that Rome has several churches dedicated to this still immensely popular saint. The San Lorenzo in Fonte does not have any spectacular art, but you may want to visit it anyway if you happen to be in the vicinity, for instance for a visit to the more famous Santa Pudenziana some 300 metres further up the road.
According to tradition, it was at the site now occupied by the San Lorenzo in Fonte that Lawrence was held prisoner after his arrest at the Forum Romanum. When the future saint wanted to convert his pagan cellmate, he prayed for water to baptise him with, and lo and behold! a well suddenly sprung up. Hence the name San Lorenzo in Fonte. The church is alternatively known as Santi Lorenzo ed Ippolito, and that is the name that we actually find on the church facade (in Latin). In this context, Saint Hippolytus was the gaoler who had been tasked with guarding Saint Lawrence, but who also converted to Christianity and shared Saint Lawrence’s fate as a martyr. However, unlike Saint Lawrence himself, this Saint Hippolytus cannot be considered historical.
The present church of San Lorenzo in Fonte was built in the seventeenth century. There was a church here previously, but information about its origins and history is hazy. Perhaps the first church of San Lorenzo was constructed on this spot as early as the tenth century, and it must have stood on the edge of what was then the city of Rome. This church was restored in 1543 during the pontificate of Pope Paulus III (1534-1549) and then completely rebuilt during that of Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644). The architect in charge of this project was one Domenico Castelli (ca. 1582-1657) from Melide, in what is now Switzerland. The rebuilding took place in 1628, and after that an association known as the Congregazione Urbana dei Cortegiani was put in charge of the church. Its name survives above the current entrance of the San Lorenzo; below the lunette we can read the Latin words CONGREGATIONIS VRBANA. Since 1918, the church has been administered by the Oblates of Saint Joseph. The hostel next door is named after the order’s founder, Saint Giuseppe Marello (1844-1895), and it is run by the Oblate Sisters.
The facade of the church, constructed in 1800 and altered in the 1930s, is an example of early nineteenth century Neo-Classicism. It is charming, although some vegetation seems to be growing from under the roof tiles and pigeons use the tympanum as a public restroom. The facade has hardly any decoration, although there is a red cross between the two windows and the two niches at the same level have simple frescoes of Saints Lawrence and Hippolytus.
The San Lorenzo in Fonte is a small church, with a single nave and just three chapels. The most conspicuous piece of art in here is a large modern statue of Saint Lawrence himself in the red liturgical garments of a deacon. The altarpiece shows him baptising his guard Saint Hippolytus. The painting is usually attributed to Giovanni Battista Speranza (1600-1640), a relatively unknown artist who was born in Rome and also lived and worked there. Others attribute it to Andrea Camassei (1602-1649), who is hardly more famous.
The architect Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714) was buried in this church. His name should ring a bell, as his work has been discussed before on this website. Fontana is for instance known for his impressive Cybo chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo, for the renovation of the San Teodoro and the lovely piazza in front of that church, and for his portico of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and the fountain in the eponymous square. Like the aforementioned Domenico Castelli, Fontana was from the Canton Ticino in what is now Switzerland.
Near the polychrome statue of Saint Lawrence is a door with the text:
ADITVS AD CARCEREM ET FONTEM S LAVRENT
Behind the door is supposedly the entrance (aditus) to a tunnel that leads to the dungeon (carcer) and well (fons) of Saint Lawrence. I write “supposedly” because I have not been able to check it; the door is kept closed for visitors.