I used to think that there were only three interesting churches in Trastevere, my favourite neighbourhood in Rome: the Santa Maria in Trastevere of course, and then the Santa Cecilia and the San Crisogono. I now realise I was wrong all the time. The Santa Maria dell’Orto should be on the list as well. This church can be found in the Via Anicia, just around the corner from the Santa Cecilia. It is dedicated to Our Lady of the Garden, with orto being the Italian word for a kitchen garden.
The church was mostly built in the sixteenth century and has a spectacular eighteenth century Baroque interior. The most conspicuous element of the Santa Maria dell’Orto must however be its massive brick facade, which is attributed to Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), although he died before it was completed. Unfortunately a large school building accommodating the Istituto Comprensivo Regina Margherita obstructs the view of the right part of the facade. What is furthermore special about the Santa Maria dell’Orto is that it is, or used to be, a guild church. Guilds of shopkeepers, greengrocers and millers – to name just a few – commissioned architects and artists and leased chapels. In this respect, the church can perhaps be compared to the church of Orsanmichele in Florence.
According to tradition, a farmer in Trastevere was suffering from a serious illness when he prayed to an icon of the Virgin. The result was a miraculous recovery. The farmer then set up the icon near the fence surrounding his garden and soon more miracles were reported. This led to the construction of a chapel and subsequently a proper church. The Confraternity (later: Archconfraternity) of Santa Maria dell’Orto was the motor behind the church building activities, which seem to have started in the late fifteenth century. Several guilds – the traditional number given is twelve – were involved in the project as well. The Italian word for a guild is università, which is confusing, because the word means ‘university’ as well.
Although it was consecrated in 1524, the church was still far from completed at that time. Work was continued under the direction of Guidetto Guidetti (died 1564), who had been a student of the great architect and sculptor Michelangelo. Guidetti made important changes to the design. Initially, the church had been given the shape of a Greek cross, but Guidetti changed the plan into that of a Latin cross, the shape the church still has today. Vignola’s spectacular facade was completed in 1577, four years after the architect’s death. The final stages are attributed to the architect Francesco Capriani da Volterra (1535-1594). The facade is especially noteworthy because it is topped by eleven little obelisks. Work on the interior of the church was completed by 1579.
Today, the church still has decorations from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for instance by the brothers Federico (1539-1609) and Taddeo Zuccari (1529-1566) and by Giovanni Baglione (ca. 1573-1643). However, the lavish Baroque interior dates from the eighteenth century. The sculpted garlands and foliage give the visitor the experience of being in a genuine garden church. Much of the stucco work is gilded, including that of the nave ceiling. Here we find a large fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin by Giacinto Calandrucci (1646-1707). Work on the nave and the marble floor was done by the architect Gabriele Valvassori (1683-1761), under whose direction the Baroque stucco work was executed as well. Valvassori was also responsible for the construction of the current high altar, on which we can find the original icon of Our Lady of the Garden.
In 1585, a delegation of four Japanese Catholics – the so-called Tenshō embassy – visited Rome for a meeting with Pope Gregorius XIII (1572-1585). They were just in time, as the octogenarian Holy Father passed away in April of that same year. One of the delegates was Nakaura Jurian or Giuliano Nakaura (1568-1633). A Jesuit priest and missionary, he was martyred in 1633 and beatified in 2008. The third chapel on the right, which was leased by the guild of the winegrowers (vignaioli), has a modern icon of him, probably painted on the occasion of his beatification.
The icon features Nakaura as a young man, although he was well into his sixties when he was executed. This is probably because Nakaura was only seventeen years old when he visited the Eternal City as a member of the Tenshō embassy. In the background we see the facade of the Santa Maria dell’Orto and the river Tiber. A popular tradition dictates that the Japanese delegation was taken on a pleasure cruise on the Tiber when suddenly their ship got caught in a storm. Fortunately, the Japanese realised they had just visited the Santa Maria dell’Orto and started to pray to Our Lady of the Garden. This helped. The incident explains the centuries old connection between the church and the Catholics of Japan.
Churches of Rome Wiki was an important source for this post.
Update 13 February 2022: new photo’s have been added.