Getting to the church of Santa Balbina is fairly easy. The church is located on the eastern slope of the Little Aventine, overlooking the gigantic Baths of Caracalla. Actually getting into the church is a whole lot tougher. Apparently, people have been having difficulties with visiting the Santa Balbina for at least a century. The church is hardly ever open and the opening hours advertised online can be very unreliable.
I must admit that my first visit ended in disappointment, as I found the church closed even though I arrived during the advertised opening hours. The gates of the portico were locked, but that did not deter me, as I had read that the church is usually entered through the side entrance. But the side entrance was locked too. When I walked back to the front of the church, I spotted a notice in Italian that informed potential visitors to ring a bell in the former convent to gain entrance to the church. However, the problem was: which bell to ring? The most plausible of the ten bells that I found in the convent had another notice in Italian attached to it that read something along the lines of “this is not the bell if you want to visit the church”. Even though my principal source for this post warned me to “take care not to cause a disturbance”, I very nearly did just that. Apparently I used the wrong bell and suddenly an angry head popped out of a window, impolitely informing me that I had no business here and that the church was closed.
If you want to visit this church, my advice would be to either make a telephone call in advance or try on a Sunday right after Mass (which ends around 10:30). The latter strategy worked perfectly for me when I visited Rome again in July 2018. Even the gates of the portico were open. When Mass had ended, I had some 30 minutes to explore the Santa Balbina, a church that is of great historic interest.
The history of the Santa Balbina is closely connected to that of a large domus from the second century that the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) granted to his friend and ally, a Roman nobleman and politician named Lucius Fabius Cilo. Cilo was consul in 193 and 204, and was subsequently appointed praefectus urbi. When Severus left for Britannia in 208, Cilo basically administered the city of Rome all by himself. He may have been the official responsible for creating the Forma Urbis, a map of the city of Rome carved in marble. Cilo’s name and that of his presumed wife Celonia Fabia were the only names of private individuals mentioned on that map, which was attached to an outer wall of the Bibliotheca Pacis (now part of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano). After Severus’ death in 211, Cilo quickly fell out of favour with his son and successor Caracalla, who even sent out soldiers to kill him. The former consul suffered humiliation and disfigurement, and then barely escaped with his life.
In the fourth century, a large apsed hall was added to Cilo’s domus. The Atlas of Ancient Rome argues that it “may have been a colossal dining hall, in which sumptuous banquets for about forty people could have been held, complete with shows of various types (acroamata) that were staged in the central area and included performing musicians, acrobats, and actors”. Today, we can still see five niches on either side, that alternate between square and semi-circular (four are square and six semi-circular). These may have been used to place dining couches in, as the Ancient Romans reclined while dining. The large apse would then have held the dining table, surrounded by couches for the most important guests. It was this large hall which was later converted into a church, the church of Santa Balbina. We do not know when exactly this happened. It may have been anywhere between the late fourth century and the year 595, when the church – the titulus Sanctae Balbinae – is mentioned for the first time in historical documents. The Atlas of Ancient Rome states that, “[e]ntering the church today, one gets an idea, in a way unlike anywhere else in Rome, of the majesty of the residences of the wealthy in this period”. I concur, but as was already mentioned above, you need to find a way to get into the church first.
The church is dedicated to a female saint called Balbina, whose historicity can be doubted. The history of the Santa Balbina is far from a happy one. Its apse mosaic, presumably from the ninth century, is gone, and throughout its history, we frequently find the Santa Balbina administered by the staff of other Roman churches, for example the San Paolo fuori le Mura (in the early eleventh century) and the nearby Santa Maria in Cosmedin (in the early thirteenth century). The church and the adjacent convent were acquired by Franciscan sisters in the late nineteenth century. The convent was used as a house for reforming prostitutes and subsequently as an orphanage. It is now a nursing home for the elderly, which explains why some of the churchgoers that I saw at the Sunday Mass were very, very old. Although it is very different now, this part of the Aventine was in the countryside until well into the nineteenth century. The hill was only sparsely populated, and the parochial justification for the church remains doubtful even today. The priest is apparently borrowed from the nearby church of San Saba.
The church that we see today still resembles the ancient hall, at least structurally, but its appearance is mostly the result of a restoration executed by Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960). I have previously discussed his work on other Roman churches, such as the Santa Sabina (also on the Aventine) and the San Giorgio in Velabro. What Munõz basically did was to give the church the appearance he believed it must have had in the Middle Ages. Although the result is probably historically incorrect, it is not unpleasant to the eye. The entrance portico with its three portals is definitely from the twentieth century, but it fits in with the rest of the church quite well.
The Santa Balbina is well worth a visit for its cultural treasures. First of all: the floor. Perhaps one would have expected a Cosmatesque floor in a church like this, but the Santa Balbina has something much better: between the simple yellow tiles we find several panels with beautiful mosaics. These are original ancient Roman mosaics, but with a twist. First of all, they do not belong here. Munõz took them from the excavations at the Imperial Forums, where archaeological research was conducted before the present Via dei Fori Imperiali was built. Secondly, the mosaics were obviously restored and re-laid. Nevertheless, they are absolutely splendid. Especially the one in the right part of the nave, featuring the twelve signs of the zodiac, is breath-taking.
And now that I have used the word “Cosmatesque”: the church does have Cosmatesque decorations. Immediately to the right of the main entrance is the tomb of Stefano de Surdis. He is often erroneously called a cardinal, but he was in fact the cappellano del papa, the papal chaplain. De Surdis died in about 1300 and his wonderful tomb was made in 1303 by Giovanni di Cosma. His name is mentioned on the monument:
IOHS FILIUS MAGRI COSMATI FECIT HOC OPUS
(“John, son of Master Cosmas, made this work”)
The rest of the inscription mentions the name of the deceased and his function: DOMIN STEPHAN D SURD DNI PP CAPLLAN. The tomb itself is a genuine masterpiece. The top part comprises a life-size effigy of the deceased, while the lower part features intricate Cosmatesque decorations. The tomb alone is worth a visit to the church. The church staff must have placed the box for donations next to this monument on purpose.
If we look up in the nave, we see that the church has an open roof. There has never been a ceiling. The current roof can be attributed to cardinal Marco Barbo (1420-1491), who ordered a reconstruction in 1489, just two years before his death. Barbo was a Venetian by birth. He was related to the more famous Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paulus II (1464-1471; see Rome: San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio). Marco Barbo served as bishop of Palestrina in Lazio from 1478 until his death and was patriarch of Aquileia as well.
Beneath the roof, in the conch of the apse, there is a late sixteenth or early seventeenth century fresco which replaced a long-lost mosaic from perhaps the ninth century. The fresco was painted by the Florentine artist Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626). Fontebuoni did a fine job, although his fresco – now slightly damaged – features a collection of saints that are likely all fictional. In the centre we see Saint Balbina herself, and she is flanked by her father Quirinus and a companion named Felicissimus. Saints Peter and Paul are depicted on the triumphal arch. The coat of arms at the top is that of Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605).
In a niche at the back of de apse we find a throne with more Cosmatesque decorations. It dates from the thirteenth century. Some of the niches on either side of the nave still have frescoes, although all of these are faded, weathered and damaged. The one in the third niche on the left is still relatively intact and can be considered the best in the church. It features a tondo with Jesus Christ above and a Madonna and Child flanked by four saints below. The saints are John the Baptist (I presume), Paul, Peter and Jacobus or James (which one is not clear, there were at least two, James the Great and James the Less). The fresco is attributed to the school of the great Roman innovator Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330).
Other niches have interesting fresco fragments as well. The first niche on the right has the remains of a fresco from the fourteenth century depicting a Madonna and Child with four saints and a kneeling donor. A lovely little detail is that the Christ Child is holding a miniature cross. Part of the fresco was destroyed when a door was made in the niche. Traces of somewhat older frescoes can be found in the fifth chapel on the left. Not much is left of them, but a very interesting one shows Saint Peter crucified upside down (see Rome: San Pietro in Montorio).
Beneath the high altar, we find a bathtub executed in red marble. It is said to contain the relics of the aforementioned Balbina, Quirinus and Felicissimus. These may be entirely unhistorical, but the church of Santa Balbina is not. I had to try to get in three times, and failed twice, but it was certainly worth the effort!
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 196;
- Santa Balbina on Churches of Rome Wiki;
- The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 381 and p. 383.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 381.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 383.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 383.