It is hardly surprising that I have walked past the San Marcello al Corso on numerous occasions. The ‘Corso’ part of the church name refers to the Via del Corso, one of the busiest streets in the city, which connects the Piazza Venezia with the Piazza del Popolo. In Antiquity the Via del Corso was known as the Via Lata (‘broad street’), the urban stretch of the more famous Via Flaminia. That is why we find a church named the Santa Maria in Via Lata on the other side of the street. The San Marcello is dedicated to Pope Saint Marcellus. He was pope for less than a year in 308-309. The church dedicated to him was probably built in the fourth century, but it was completely destroyed in a fire in 1519. The San Marcello al Corso we see today is a sixteenth century rebuild with a seventeenth century facade.
Marcellus became bishop of Rome – it would be somewhat anachronistic to call him pope – at a time when the church was in trouble. The previous bishop had died in 304 under slightly mysterious circumstances. It was not until May 308 that Marcellus took up office as his successor. There were rumours that the previous bishop had lapsed during the persecution of Christians launched by the emperor Diocletianus (284-305), i.e. that he had renounced his faith and had sacrificed to the traditional gods. Whether this is true or not, Marcellus was very tough on the lapsi during his short pontificate. He was also credited with creating the 25 tituli in the city, which basically amounted to the first parish churches of Rome. It is, however, not impossible that this story was a later invention.
After less than a year on the Throne of Saint Peter, Marcellus died. The exact circumstances of his death are unknown, but a fifth century tradition recorded in the so-called Passio Marcelli claims that the emperor Maxentius had the Pope arrested and forced him to work in the stables of the catabulum, the office of the central postal service. Since the postal service used lots of horses, the future saint was required to clean out the stables. The story may very well be rubbish, but it is certainly plausible that the catabulum was located on the Via Lata and that the church of San Marcello was built over part of it. The problem is that there is a rival tradition that states that the church was built into the home of a certain Lucina, a woman who was said to have given Marcellus shelter. She must be the same woman who is closely connected to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, about half a kilometre further to the north.
The San Marcello is first mentioned as the titulus Marcelli in 418 in a letter from the praetorian prefect Symmachus to the emperor Honorius, and then again in 499 and 595. It follows that this is a very old church. Excavations have demonstrated that the orientation was east-west, with the apse facing the Via Lata. In other words, the first church was not properly oriented, unlike the current church. In later centuries, the church was renovated and restructured on many occasions, with Pope Adrianus I (772-795) being responsible for one important intervention or even a rebuilding in the eighth century. In 1354 the body of the self-declared Roman ‘tribune’ Cola di Rienzo was hung here for three days after his execution on the steps of the Santa Maria in Aracoeli. People were allowed to pelt it with vegetables and stones before it was cremated.
Cola’s body was consumed by the flames, but rather ironically, so was the San Marcello itself 165 years later. On the night of 22 May 1519, a great fire broke out which reduced the church to a smouldering heap of ashes. The sole survivor of the fire was a fourteenth century crucifix, which can still be admired in the present church. The San Marcello had been administered by friars from the Servite Order (Order of Friar Servants of Mary) since 1375, and these friars now started collecting funds to rebuild the church. The job was entrusted to Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), a Florentine who became famous for his work in Venice. Sansovino decided to change the orientation of the new church so that its facade now faced the Via del Corso. Unfortunately work was interrupted by the notorious Sack of Rome of 1527 and all available money had to be used to bribe Charles V’s rampaging troops. Artists who were working on the church fled the city, among them Perino del Vaga (1501-1547), a student of Raphael.
After a two-year break, the project to rebuild the church was continued under the direction of a new architect, Antonio Sangallo the Younger (1484-1546). Work was resumed in 1529, only to be stopped again in 1530 because of a serious flooding of the Tiber. In 1536, Sangallo was replaced with Giovanni Mangone (died 1543), the man who was responsible for Cardinal Van Enckevoirt’s monument in the church of Santa Maria dell’Anima. The little-known architect Annibale Lippi completed the apse in 1569. By 1590, the entire church would have been complete. Well, not quite: the facade was still missing. This was added in the 1680s by the architect Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714). Important restorations were subsequently carried out between 1861 and 1867. The architect responsible was Virginio Vespignani (1808-1882).
Fontana’s curved facade can certainly be counted among the artistic highlights of the church. It is a prime example of Late Baroque in Rome. The best part for me is the large tondo above the main entrance, which features San Filippo Benizzi who refuses the papal tiara. Filippo Benizzi (1233-1285) was a general superior of the Servite Order, beatified in 1516 and then canonised in 1671. His connection to this Order explains why he was included in the tondo, but the story that he was elected pope, but considered himself unworthy, is surely unhistorical. The tondo is the work of the sculptor Antonio Raggi (1624-1686). The other sculptures of the facade are usually attributed to the fairly obscure artist Francesco Cavallini. The statues of the lower level of the facade represent Pope Marcellus and – again – San Filippo Benizzi, those of the upper level Gioacchino Piccolomini and Francesco Patrizi of Siena, both members of the Servite Order who lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
The interior of the church was decorated by well-known Italian artists from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, among them the aforementioned Perino del Vaga and Jacopo Sansovino, as well as Giovanni Battista Ricci (1537-1627), Francesco Salviati (1510-1563), Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) and the brothers Federico (ca. 1540-1609) and Taddeo (1529-1566) Zuccari. Especially impressive is Ricci’s huge fresco of the crucifixion on the counter-facade, painted in 1613 (see the image above). Ricci was also responsible for the frescoes on the triumphal arch and on the walls of the nave, next to the windows of the clerestory.
As regards the other artists mentioned, I certainly liked the frescoes by Salviati in de Cappella della Madonna delle Grazie. The chapel also has a fourteenth century icon of the Madonna and Child in a fifteenth century frame. Perino del Vaga worked in the Chapel of the Crucifix, where one can find the crucifix that miraculously survived the 1519 fire. The ceiling fresco of the Creation of Eve is attributed to him (see the image below). The other frescoes feature the four Evangelists and they are unfortunately in a sorry state. When Del Vaga fled Rome in 1527, these had to be completed by Daniele da Volterra. The Zuccari brothers for their part worked together in the Cappella Frangipani. Federico’s altarpiece of the Conversion of Saint Paul is the highlight here. He would go on and achieve fame for his participation in the famous fresco of the Last Judgment in the Duomo of Florence.
Against the counter-facade are two interesting funerary monuments. Especially the one on the right (to the left as one enters) is worth our attention. It is actually a double tomb for Cardinal Giovanni Michiel and Bishop Antonio Orso, commissioned from Jacopo Sansovino in 1520 and executed not long afterwards. The names of the two deceased indicate that they were Venetians. They were in fact relatives of Pope Paulus II (1464-1471), born Pietro Barbo, who was also a Venetian by birth. Giovanni Michiel (ca. 1446-1503) was the Pope’s nephew (his mother was Barbo’s sister) and served as cardinal-priest of the San Marcello al Corso since 1484. Antonio Orso was Giovanni Michiel’s own nephew. He died in 1511. Note that the upper effigy is that of the cardinal and the lower one that of the bishop.
If you visit the San Marcello al Corso, do not forget to look up, otherwise you might miss the spectacular coffered wooden ceiling by Carlo Francesco Lambardi (1545-1619) from Arezzo. It was made between 1592 and 1594.
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 159;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 296-297;
- San Marcello al Corso on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 477 and p. 483.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome in fact refers to the church as the “Domus Lucinae, after titulus S. Marcelli” (part 2, tab. a.t. 14).
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 488.