The San Martino ai Monti is located just north of the Parco del Colle Oppio, a large public park on the Oppian Hill. The Oppius is one of two spurs of the Esquiline Hill; the other is called the Cispius. Nero’s Domus Aurea once stood here, and the area has the remains of the Baths of Titus and those of Trajanus. The church can be reached by following the Via delle Sette Sale from the San Pietro in Vincoli. In fact, this street is named after a series of chambers that were part of the Baths of Trajanus. The church of San Martino that we see today has a seventeenth century appearance, but it is much older. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reconstruct its history before the ninth century with certainty. Part of this post will be an attempt to glue the archaeological pieces of the puzzle together.
Just to the west of the present church there used to be a building from the third century. It is commonly called the Titolo di Equizio. Equitius was said to have been a priest who lived during the pontificate of Pope Sylvester I (314-335). The Liber Pontificalis claims that this pope built a church here, which was called Titulus Equitii in Latin. But was this the building next to the current San Martino? Originally this third century building was definitely not a church. Andrea Carandini’s authoritative Atlas of Ancient Rome describes the building as having “square pillars, lateral courtyards, and underground rooms”, adding that “the prevailing hypothesis is that this monument functioned as a market”. The Atlas uses the Latin term horreum, which basically means a warehouse. The drawings in the Atlas show a building with underground storage rooms, which in a way can be compared to the pits found underneath the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
So the original building was not intended for Christian worship. But was it converted into the Titulus Equitii by Pope Sylvester? The Atlas of Ancient Rome is not so sure: “The building may have had a relationship with the Basilica of Santi Silvestro and Martino – built by Pope Symmachus (498-514) – and an earlier titulus Equitii“. The exact location of the titulus therefore remains a mystery. It may have been the third century market hall, but it may also have been located under the present church of San Martino, or perhaps somewhere else. The remains of the market hall can usually be visited. Visitors can go down into the crypt of the San Martino and then look for a door on the left side. This gives access to a tunnel that leads to the market hall. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations on my last visit, so I have no photos to share. The Christian decorations inside the edifice – mosaics and frescoes – seem to be no older than the late fifth century, which matches with Pope Symmachus’ pontificate. There seems to be no archaeological evidence that Pope Sylvester I was active here in the early fourth century. Perhaps this market hall has indeed been wrongly identified as the Titolo di Equizio. Who knows.
The situation is complicated further by the claim in the Liber Pontificalis that Pope Sylvester also founded a titulus at the same site bearing his own name. Almost two centuries later, the aforementioned Pope Symmachus then built a church dedicated to this Sylvester and to Saint Martin of Tours (died 397), the bishop who shared his cloak with a beggar. This must refer to the San Martino ai Monti, of which the official name is the Santi Silvestro e Martino ai Monti (see the quote from the Atlas of Ancient Rome above). So was this a single church? Or were there two churches here, side by side or front to back, one dedicated to Sylvester, the other to Martin? It is not impossible that the former market hall was dedicated to Sylvester, as the late fifth, early sixth century mosaics that have been found down here seem to depict this pope twice. An information panel in the church itself suggests that Pope Symmachus’ basilica was erected south of the former market hall, on fourth century foundations (see the image above). But it is also possible that Symmachus’ basilica stood at the site of the current church. For the moment, the puzzle appears to be unsolvable.
The present church
Fortunately, there can be no doubt that the present church owes its existence to Pope Sergius II (844-847), a pope whose reign was troubled by Saracen attacks on Rome (see Rome: San Paolo fuori le Mura). Not much of this ninth century basilica remains today. Pope Leo IV (847-855) added frescoes and mosaics, but these were all lost. He also founded the adjacent monastery. The ancient marble columns in the current church were possibly taken from Pope Symmachus’ church and subsequently re-used for Pope Sergius’ church. But I repeat that we do not know where Pope Symmachus’ church was located, either on the same site as the current church or to the southwest, as the church administration itself seems to presume. It is impossible to say who is correct, and it does not matter much either.
In 1299, Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) gave the church and monastery to the Calced – i.e. wearing shoes – Carmelites, who have been here for over seven hundred years now. The present appearance of the church is mostly the result of a seventeenth century renovation carried out under the aegis of the painter and architect Filippo Gagliardi (1606-1659). Work started in either 1647 or 1650 and was completed in 1654 or 1656. Gagliardi also had the crypt remodelled, adding a staircase, but fortunately had the sense to leave the medieval aedicule in place (see the image below). It comprises a large disc of red marble (porphyry), surrounded by white and green marble (called verde antico). The relics of many martyrs are kept down here, among them those presumably belonging to Pope Martinus I (649-655; note that the church is not dedicated to him, but to the aforementioned Saint Martin of Tours). When I visited the church in January 2018, there was a charming Nativity scene here as well.
It was once thought that Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) was responsible for the church facade, which was completed in 1676 (the year is mentioned on the frieze in Roman numerals: MDCLXXVI). However, it is now attributed to Filippo Gagliardi as well (at least the design, Gagliardi was long dead when it was finished). It pays to walk around the church and admire it from behind. The huge brick apse is hard to miss, and so is the flight of stairs which leads to a back entrance. The piazza in front of the San Martino, part of the Viale del Monte Oppio, was not created until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Up until then, the back entrance would have served as the main entrance. Stairs leading to this entrance are now overgrown with weeds and the gate is apparently always kept closed, a clear indication that this entrance is seldom used nowadays.
The Via Equizia to the right of the church is also interesting. This street was named after the priest Equitius. From here we can inspect the exterior of the right aisle of the church, of which the lower section is made of large blocks of tufa. It is not clear whether these blocks were already used in Pope Symmachus’ sixth century basilica or belong exclusively to Pope Sergius’ ninth century church. What is clear, is that they were scrounged from an ancient building in the vicinity.
Things to see
My last visit to the San Martino ai Monti was slightly marred by the fact that the entire right aisle was closed off because of renovations. As a result, there was no opportunity to admire the decorations here. This meant that I could not take a look at the frescoes of the Roman Campagna by Gaspard Dughet (1615-1675). He was also known as Gaspard Poussin, as his sister was married to the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665; see Rome: San Lorenzo in Lucina).
Fortunately, the most interesting decorations can be found in the left aisle. Here Filippo Gagliardi executed two frescoes that show the interior of Saint Peter’s Basilica and that of the San Giovanni in Laterano. What is special about the frescoes is that they purportedly show the former church as it may have looked like before Pope Julius II (1503-1513) started rebuilding it. The fresco depicts the church with an open roof and a large mosaic in the conch of the apse. The fresco of the San Giovanni in Laterano gives an indication of what the cathedral may have looked like before it was remodelled in the seventeenth century by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). However, there are doubts as to how accurate Filippo Gagliardi’s depictions are. New Saint Peter’s Basilica was for instance completed and consecrated in 1626, and the painter certainly never saw the original Constantinian Basilica.
At the end of the left aisle there is the Chapel of Our Lady of Carmel. It was created in 1593 and restored exactly two hundred years later. The chapel has an icon of the Madonna and Child surrounded by angels. For once, there is no silly tradition that it was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. In this case the maker is known with certainty: his name was Girolamo Massei (ca. 1540-1620), a painter from Lucca. The icon was incorporated into a larger painting by Antonio Cavallucci (1752-1795).
Many important clergymen have served as titular cardinal of the San Martino ai Monti. Among them is Saint Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), the future archbishop of Milan. Others include Achille Ratti and Giovanni Battista Montini, who became Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pope Paulus VI (1963-1978) respectively.