Rome: Santa Maria in Via Lata

Santa Maria in Via Lata.

This post is not just about the abovementioned church in the Via del Corso, the modern name of the ancient Via Lata. It is also about the six rooms beneath the church that are together known as the ‘House of Saint Paul’. Since most of the artistic treasures that used to adorn the walls of this ‘house’ were moved to a nearby museum, the post is also about this museum, the Crypta Balbi in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure.

The church

In 220 BCE, the Roman censor Gaius Flaminius began construction of the Via Flaminia, a road that connected Rome to its colony of Ariminum (modern Rimini) on the Adriatic Sea. The part of the road that was within the city was called the Via Lata, or Broad Way. In the first century CE, a huge building was constructed here. It is still not quite clear what kind of building it was, but there is no doubt that it was very large. It was in this building, or its ruins, that a diaconia was established, possibly in the late seventh or early eighth century. A diaconia was a church institution that was dedicated to care for the poor and distribution of food and other goods to those in need. It was basically a form of social security in the Middle Ages. The founding of this diaconia is usually attributed to Pope Sergius I (687-701). A small chapel for religious activities was attached to the building. This is now Room II of the underground area (see below).

Interior of the church.

In the eleventh century, flooding was a major problem in many parts of Rome. During the pontificate of Pope Leo IX (1049-1054), it was therefore decided to build a church over the diaconia. This was not unusual in Rome at that time, and a similar process took place at churches such as the San Clemente. The old chapel of the diaconia and another room (now Room I) were preserved as a crypt. The other rooms were filled in with earth. The eleventh century church was rebuilt in the late fifteenth century. The rebuilding had been ordered by Pope Innocentius VIII (1484-1492) and was started in 1491. In charge of the project was Rodrigo de Borja, the cardinal-deacon of the church. He would succeed Innocentius as Pope Alexander VI in 1492 and is perhaps best known for his notorious children, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.

The new church was completed in 1506. By this time, the church had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary – in this case the Madonna Advocata – for almost 100 years; there had apparently been a miraculous apparition of her in 1408. About half a century after the Rooms V and VI of the underground area had been cleared out in 1594, it was apparently time for another rebuilding of the church. The architect involved was Cosimo Fanzago (1591-1678). Fanzago was from the town of Clusone in Lombardy, but he worked in Naples for most of his life, where he was one of the most important Baroque architects of his age. His sympathy for a rebellion against Habsburg rule in Naples in 1647 led to a death sentence and forced the architect to flee to Rome. There he first completed work on the exterior of the Santa Maria in Via Lata and then proceeded to do the church’s interior as well, a project that was finished in the 1650s.

Rooms II and V of the ‘House of Paul’, with Cosimo Fancelli’s bas relief and a photo of a fresco.

During the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667), the current facade of the church was added by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). This facade is huge, and much taller than the church itself, which is only of modest height. Da Cortona’s project was started in 1658 and finished in 1662, a year mentioned on the facade in Roman numerals (MDCLXII). Pope Alexander also had the crypt restored in 1661 and Room III cleared out. A bas relief by Cosimo Fancelli (1618-1688) was installed in Room V (see the image on the right and the text below).

So to sum up, the church we see today is mostly seventeenth century. Its Baroque interior is colourful and impressive. A late twelfth century icon of the Virgin as the Madonna Advocata is above the high altar. Unfortunately the ornate frame completely covers the text on the icoon, which should read FONS LVCIS STELA MARIS and PETRVS PICTOR. The first text means “Well of Light, Star of the Sea”, the second is the name of the artist who painted the icon. There are many churches in Rome that have similar icons; see for instance those in the San Lorenzo in Damaso, the Santa Maria in Aracoeli or the Santi Bonifacio e Alessio. The Santa Maria in Via Lata furthermore claims to have the relics of Saint Agapitus, a somewhat obscure third century martyr whose image can also be found in the apse mosaic of the nearby church of San Marco.

Fresco of San Giovanni of the Caelius (end of the 8th century; Crypta Balbi).

House of Saint Paul

The underground area comprises six Rooms, most of which have already been mentioned above, and it is traditionally known as the House of Saint Paul. The Acts of the Apostles claim that after arriving in Rome:

“Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house and received all who came in unto him,
preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” (Acts 28:30-31).

The suggestion is that Saint Paul was kept under some sort of loose house arrest before being decapitated in ca. 67 and buried in a tomb on the Via Ostiense (see Rome: San Paolo fuori le Mura). But even if Paul did visit Rome, there is no evidence to conclude that he ever really lived here, in the ‘House of Saint Paul’. Some traditions claim that Saint Peter and Saint Martialis lived here as well for a while. This claim is even less plausible, as Saint Martialis, the Apostle of the Gauls, was not even a contemporary of Peter and Paul. If he existed, he lived in the mid-third century!

Ancient column with a cross.

To add insult to injury, there is yet another tradition that claims that Saint Luke the Evangelist lived here with Paul, wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles AND painted the icon of the Madonna Advocata which is now in the church above! We are clearly in the realm of religion here, not in the realm of historical fact. Interestingly, Cosimo Fancelli’s bas relief in Room V combines all of these traditions: it depicts Saints Paul (with a sword), Peter (with the keys of Heaven) and Luke (writing his Gospel) together. In the background are Saint Martialis and an ox, the traditional symbol of Saint Luke.

A visit to the House of Saint Paul costs two Euros. Some may consider it a disappointment because most, if not all frescoes have been detached and moved to the Crypta Balbi museum, one of four locations of the Museo Nazionale Romano. There they can be kept under more favourable climatic conditions. A visit to this museum is ten Euros. The original frescoes in the ‘House’ have been replaced with photographic reproductions. These give some idea of what was discovered down here, but they are nothing like the real thing. The images of frescoes used in this post are all from the museum.

Now let us now take a quick look at the six Rooms. Room I has traditionally been identified as the room where Saint Paul was kept under house arrest. Here we find a well that Saint Peter is said to have used for baptisms, as well as a column, presumably from Antiquity. On top of the column is an urn with a christogram (chi-rho sign) and the column itself has a cross carved into it. It also features a Latin text from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, VERBUM DEI NON EST ALLIGATUM, “The word of God is not bound” (the original letter was in Greek, by the way). Room II is the original chapel of the diaconia described above and Room III is where one enters the underground area via a seventeenth century staircase that runs down from the entrance loggia of the church into the crypt.

Fresco about the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Crypta Balbi).

Perhaps the most interesting room is Room IV. Here archaeologists exploring the underground area at the beginning of the twentieth century discovered several layers of frescoes. A cycle featuring the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus from perhaps the late seventh century was later overpainted with a similar cycle about the martyrdom of Saint Erasmus from the eighth century. The story about the Seven Sleepers is quite famous: seven young Christians fleeing from the persecutions of the emperor Decius (249-251) go into a cave where they fall asleep. Some 200 years later, during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450), they wake up and to their astonishment discover that the world around them has become Christian. The fragmentary and damaged fresco from Room IV shows a government official and a bishop visiting the sleepers in their cave.

Stories of Saint Erasmus (Crypta Balbi).

Saint Erasmus is a rather obscure saint from the late third, early fourth century. Whether he was a bishop of Formia in Italy, as some sources claim, or a bishop of Antioch in Syria, as others do, is not entirely clear. Perhaps there were two separate saints called Erasmus, perhaps neither of them ever existed. It does not matter. The fresco scenes show him brought before the throne of the emperor Diocletianus (284-305) and then stripped naked and tortured. Another, very fragmentary fresco shows him witnessing a comet or shooting star.

Room VI.

The early twentieth century excavations also uncovered two eighth century frescoes in Room IV representing Saints John and Paul, Giovanni and Paolo in Italian. Their church in Rome can be found on the Caelian Hill; their church in Venice is the largest in the city. The remains of what was presumably an altar once can also be found in this room. The Cosmatesque decorations on the object are very nice.

Room V has Cosimo Fancelli’s sculpture, already discussed above, while in Room VI we find an altar with more Cosmatesque decorations and a fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Paul and a kneeling supplicant. Again the original was moved to the Crypta Balbi, but in this case the word ‘original’ is a misnomer. It seems that there was initially a medieval fresco here, which was repainted in the seventeenth century, presumably during Pope Alexander VII’s restoration project. The painter – or ‘re-painter’ – may have been someone working in Pietro da Cortona’s studio.




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