A short version of the history of this church could be something along the lines of: “It survived in the past because it was mistaken for another church, and it survives in the present because it is a popular wedding location”. But that does not do the San Cesareo in Palatio justice by a mile. It is another one of those interesting Roman churches that is very difficult to visit because of limited opening hours. A Saturday morning is usually a good time for a tour of the church, provided you do not disturb the preparations for the wedding that is likely to take place later that day.
The name of the church means ‘Saint Caesarius in the Palace’. That palace – Palatium in Latin – was obviously located on the Palatine Hill, where the Roman emperors lived (our word ‘palace’ ultimately derives from the name of this hill). The San Cesareo in Palatio is clearly not located on the Palatine Hill. It is in fact not even near it, the Palatine being roughly one kilometre further to the northwest. So why is the church called the San Cesareo in Palatio? The answer is that, in the late sixteenth century, it was mistaken for another church that was lost by the start of the fifteenth century. This other church is generally referred to as the Oratorio di San Cesareo in Palatio. This oratory was in fact located on the Palatine Hill and it was dedicated to a rather obscure martyr from Terracina. Nothing is known regarding the demise of the oratory, but it was certainly thoroughly forgotten.
Just under 200 years later, the cardinal and church historian Caesar Baronius (1538-1607) believed that he had rediscovered the oratory. He was wrong of course, as the current San Cesareo in Palatio is located on the Via Appia near the Baths of Caracalla, but his error did save the building he mistakenly identified as the old oratory from destruction. So what exactly was this building on the Via Appia? The Atlas of Ancient Rome identifies two triclinia or dining rooms beneath the present church and believes that they were part of an ancient domus or private residence. The rooms had mosaic floors featuring naval motifs. An alternative interpretation of these second century rooms is that they were once part of a bathhouse. If that is correct, the bathhouse must have become obsolete once the much larger Baths of Caracalla opened their doors in the year 216.
A first church was built over de ruins of the two rooms in the eighth century. This church was later rebuilt, but by 1302 it has become ruinous. Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) subsequently decided that it was to be incorporated into a pilgrim’s hospice, as this was a convenient location on the road to the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian further down the Via Appia. This hospice does not seem to have been a great success. The premises were turned over to a group of nuns, but their nunnery was suppressed by Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447) in 1439.
Then a cardinal named Basilios Bessarion (ca. 1403-1472) had part of the former hospice converted into a private residence, to which he moved in about 1460. Bessarion was a Greek who had participated in the Councils of Ferrara and Florence and had subsequently converted to Catholicism and become a cardinal (see Ferrara: The Duomo). The Casina del Cardinale Bessarione is still there. It pays to walk around the San Cesareo to view both the church and Casina from behind. The former cardinal’s residence used to be open to the public, but this is unfortunately no longer the case. Since 2010 you can, however, visit the cardinal’s magnificent funerary chapel in the church of the Santi Apostoli.
In the late sixteenth century, Caesar Baronius was titular cardinal of the nearby church of Santi Nereo e Achilleo. He believed that the dilapidated church next to the Casina was the lost church of San Cesareo in Palatio. After obtaining permission from Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605), Baronius had the church thoroughly restored. This restoration was executed between 1602 and 1603. The church was given the rank of a titular church and was renamed the San Cesareo in Palatio. We now know that this name in not correct, but it has stuck. One of the most famous cardinal-priests of the church was Karol Józef Wojtyła, the future Pope Saint John Paul II (1978-2005). The church we see today is mainly the result of Baronius’ intervention, although obviously several restorations have taken place in later centuries.
A closer look at the church
The simple facade of the church was designed by Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602), known for completing the Chiesa Nuova elsewhere in Rome, the church where Cardinal Baronius was laid to rest. The frescoes that once adorned the facade are no longer there. To the right one may notice a simple building in naked brick. This building is a priest’s house.
Inside the church, we find many interesting features, for which we may once again credit Cardinal Baronius. The best works of arts are arguably the objects with Cosmatesque decorations. These were not made in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century of course. They date back to the Middle Ages (thirteenth or fourteenth century?) but were moved to here from other Roman churches during the Baronius restoration. Some are thought to have come from the San Giovanni in Laterano, which still preserves some original thirteenth and fourteenth century Cosmatesque decorations in its cloister. Especially beautiful is the altar frontal, which features several animals. Two pigeons are on either side of a small church topped by a cross. Below them are more birds, and these are brightly coloured. They have tentatively been identified as birds-of-paradise. On either side of the pigeons we see a pair of horses and of sheep respectively.
Behind the large baldachin from the seventeenth century is a Cosmatesque throne, which again features the aforementioned birds-of-paradise, as well as a rooster and what appears to be a lion (or perhaps a griffin). Two Cosmatesque screens separating the sanctuary from the nave now serve as lecterns. And then there is the ambo or pulpit. Apart from the usual Cosmatesque work, we can also admire little sculptures of the Evangelists and Adam and Eve.
Of the more modern decorations, we first need to mention the ceiling (see the image above). It was added during Cardinal Baronius’ restoration. It features both Saint Caesarius flanked by two angels and the coat-of arms of Pope Clemens VIII, the pope who approved the restoration of the church. Frescoes for the church were provided by Giuseppe Cesari, also known as the Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640), and his pupil Cesare Rossetti (ca. 1565-1626/27). Rather curiously for a seventeenth century church, the San Cesareo has an apse mosaic rather than an apse fresco. The Cavalier d’Arpino, who often worked for Pope Clemens, designed it, but it was executed by someone else, one Francesco Zucchi (1562-1622), a Florentine. The mosaic depicts God the Father and two large angels. Seven putti (or putti’s heads) can be seen above God, presumably representing the seven days in which God created the earth, while a further two are at his feet.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 194;
- San Cesareo in Palatio on Churches of Rome Wiki;
- The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 381.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 381.