Rome: Santi Apostoli

The Santi Apostoli.

My first attempt to visit the church of the Holy Apostles in Rome was hardly a raging success. I had not forgotten that the Romans celebrate Epiphany on 6 January, but I had not expected that that meant that the Santi Apostoli would be used for religious services all day long. Visiting the church was simply not an option. Coming back another day was not an option either, as the main reason I came here in the first place was the Chapel of Cardinal Bessarion, which is only open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays in the morning. Exploring the interesting portico of the church, which is usually a pleasant experience, was not possible that day. This part of the building had been occupied by homeless immigrants who had built a virtual tent city here. So all in all, it was crystal clear to me that I would have to postpone my visit to the Santi Apostoli indefinitely.

Fortunately I got another chance to visit the church about six months later. The immigrants had moved to a new location, it was not a religious holiday and I had the immense church all to myself for a while. More importantly, I was also the only visitor in the Cappella di Bessarione, which is truly the highlight of the church.


Interior of the church.

The church of the Holy Apostles is a good example of a church where looks can be deceiving. The building does not look that old, but the history of the Santi Apostoli in fact goes all the way back to the sixth century. Its founding is attributed to Pope Pelagius I (556-561), and the church was completed under his successor, Pope John III (561-574). It was initially dedicated to the Apostles James the Less and Philip, and later – as late as the fifteenth or sixteenth century it seems – to the other ten Apostles as well. Next to nothing of the original church has survived. In 1348 the edifice was severely damaged by an earthquake. Use of the church had to be discontinued until 1417, when a thorough restoration was ordered by Pope Martinus V (1417-1431). His real name was Oddone Colonna, and the Colonna family palace is located next door.

In the late fifteenth century, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere – the future Pope Julius II – commissioned the architect Baccio Pontelli (ca. 1450-1492) to construct a new portico for the church. There are similarities between this portico and that of the San Pietro in Vincoli elsewhere in Rome, which is hardly surprising, as Pontelli was responsible for the latter portico as well. His portico for the Santi Apostoli has nine arches on two different levels. It makes the building look like a Renaissance palace rather than a church. The portico was altered significantly in ca. 1665 by Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691). He had the higher-level arches walled up and provided them with windows. The statues of Christ and the Apostles on the balustrade were also added as part of his intervention.

Ceiling fresco by Baciccia.

The Santi Apostoli was almost completely rebuilt during the pontificate of Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721). The Pope hired Carlo and Francesco Fontana, father and son, to demolish most of the old church and rebuild it in the style of the Late Baroque. The new church was completed in 1714. The only parts the two architects had not touched were the crypt and the portico. Nowadays we see a large yellow facade above the portico with the Latin text IOANNES DVX TORLONIA FRONTEM PERFECIT A D MDCCCXXVII. The text commemorates that it was Giovanni Torlonia who, in 1827, sponsored the construction of this Neo-Classical facade, which is the work of Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839).

Exploring the portico

I sympathise with homeless people who need a place to stay, but it was unfortunate that their tents blocked all view of the artistic treasures in the portico. Among the highlights is a Roman relief from the second century featuring a large eagle inside a wreath. The Latin text beneath the eagle’s talons indicates that the relief was placed here by the aforementioned Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who was a nephew (nepos) of Pope Sixtus IV. We will meet these two again in the Chapel of Cardinal Bessarion (see below). The stone lion below the Roman relief was made by Pietro Vassalletto, a sculptor active in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. We have previously seen some of his work (or that of his relatives) in the San Saba, the San Paolo fuori le Mura and the San Giovanni in Laterano.

Roman eagle and stone lion (left) / Canova’s monument for Volpato (right).

Altarpiece by Muratori.

The Roman relief can be found in the right part of the portico. On the other side we can admire a more modern work, a monument by the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822). It was made for Giovanni Volpato, an Italian engraver who had died in 1803. Canova’s monument was executed four years later. It features a woman wearing the typical Greek peplos. She is seated and crying, wiping her tears away with her dress. On the right is a bust of the deceased. The pedestal has the names of Volpato, Canova and Pope Clemens XIV on it. Between the woman and the bust we can just discern the word amicitia, which is Latin for ‘friendship’. As a final note of interest: the triangular pediment of the monument has a wreath and a ribbon that are quite similar to the ones that are part of the Roman relief on the other side of the portico. I somehow doubt that this is just a coincidence.

Exploring the church

Once inside, many will find it hard to believe that the Santi Apostoli is truly a church from the sixth century. It must have had splendid mosaics once, but these are all gone. Also gone is Melozzo da Forlì’s huge apse fresco of the Ascension of Christ, which was painted in the 1470s. It was ripped apart by father and son Fontana during their rebuilding in the early eighteenth century. Bits of the fresco have survived: the central figure of Christ now resides at the Palazzo del Quirinale, the official residence of the Italian president, and several of Melozzo’s angels can now be admired in the Vatican Museums. Nevertheless, the loss of the fresco was sad indeed.

Angels by Melozzo da Forlì (Vatican Museums).

Tomb of Pope Clemens XIV by Antonio Canova.

What we see nowadays is a rather dark eighteenth century, Late Baroque church which fortunately does feature a few interesting works of art. The ceiling fresco in the nave, depicting the Triumph of the Franciscans (see the image above), was painted in 1707 by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, nicknamed Il Baciccia (1639-1709). The immense altarpiece, which measures some 14 by 6.5 metres, is the work of Domenico Maria Muratori (1662-1744). It depicts the martyrdoms of the aforementioned Saints James the Less and Philip (see the image above). On the left, James is clubbed to death, while on the right we see the crucifixion of Philip. Above the triumphal arch we see a fresco painted in 1709 by Giovanni Odazzi (1663-1731). The fresco is worthy of note for its masterful use of perspective. The protagonist in the scene is Saint Michael the Archangel. He is casting the rebel angels out of Heaven, and it really looks as if they are falling.

Above the door to the sacristy we may admire the tomb of Pope Clemens XIV (1769-1774), who became notorious for suppressing the Order of the Jesuits. The tomb was made by the aforementioned Antonio Canova and executed between 1783 and 1787. Apart from a statue of the Pope himself, who is gesticulating wildly, we see additional statues of two grieving women. The one on the right is accompanied by a little lamb. She represents Temperance. The one on the left is Clemency, and she seems to be blocking part of the Pope’s name, so that we may erroneously conclude that this is the tomb of Pope Mens the Fourteenth. Canova was still a young man when he started sculpting the tomb, so we may forgive him this small flaw in the design.

Tombs of Giraud de Caprières (below) and Cardinal Raffaele Riario (above).

The Santi Apostoli has a few older tombs as well. In the sanctuary, to the right of the high altar, we for instance find two splendid tombs, one above the other, for the French knight (eques Gallus) Giraud de Caprières (died 1505) and Cardinal Raffaele Riario (1461-1521). I could not find much information on the former, but Riario was a famous patron of the arts who was responsible for the construction of the Palazzo della Cancelleria (see Rome: San Lorenzo in Damaso). He was in fact the man who invited the young Michelangelo – then about 20 years old – to come to Rome (see Rome: Galleria Corsini). Ironically, he could have chosen to destroy the young Florentine’s career, as the latter had sold him a fake piece of ancient art, the so-called Sleeping Cupid. We should be grateful that he did not. Riario’s tomb is often attributed to Michelangelo, but on no solid evidence. The tomb mentions two important functions that the deceased had held, that of Bishop of Ostia and of Camerlengo (Camerarius).

An even older tomb, that of Raffaelle della Rovere, may be found in the crypt, which is usually open to visitors. Raffaelle, who died in 1477, was the father of Giuliano della Rovere – the future Pope Julius II – and a brother of Francesco della Rovere, who later became Pope Sixtus IV. His tomb is the work of the noted sculptor and architect Andrea Bregno (ca. 1418-1506). The original crypt dates back to the sixth century and is the place where the relics of Saints James the Less and Philip were kept. However, the crypt in its current form is a nineteenth century creation. Apparently the original crypt had been forgotten, or at least inaccessible for centuries and was only dug up in 1873. The decorations downstairs are attempts to imitate the frescoes in the Roman catacombs. I must say I have seen better attempts closer to home.

Interior of the Bessarion Chapel.

Chapel of Cardinal Bessarion

The Santi Apostoli has seven chapels. By far the most beautiful and interesting of these is the unrivalled Cappella di Bessarione. Basilios Bessarion (ca. 1403-1472) was born in Trebizond, now part of Turkey, but then part of the independent Empire of Trebizond (1204-1461). He was active as a Basilian monk and later became the metropolitan of Nicaea. Bessarion was a member of the Greek delegation that travelled to Italy in 1438 to participate in the Council of Ferrara and the subsequent Council of Florence, the aim of which was to reconcile the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. On 5 July 1439 a Decree of Unity was signed and then read out in the Duomo of Florence. It was Bessarion who read out the Decree in Greek. The Churches of the West and of the East had now formally been united, but the whole project came to nothing when the Decree was rejected by Constantinople the next year.

Bessarion decided to stay in Italy. He converted from Orthodoxy to the Catholic faith and became a cardinal. The titular church given to him was that of the Santi Apostoli. Bessarion was quite a scholar of Greek literature and Greek philosophy, and his residence in Rome – the Casina del Cardinale Bessarione – became a centre of learning and exchange of ideas. He was also a lifelong advocate for a new crusade, having seen both Constantinople and his native Trebizond succumb to the armies of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and 1461 respectively. In 1471, he travelled to the court of King Louis XI of France to entice the monarch to lead the forces of Christendom in a holy war against the Turk. Louis, however, had no taste for a new crusade. Rumour has it that he even insulted Bessarion, and that this hastened the latter’s death. This may just be an urban legend, but Bessarion was dead the next year nonetheless.

Madonna and Child – Antoniazzo Romano.

The story of his funerary chapel in the Santi Apostoli is quite extraordinary. The chapel itself is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint John the Baptist and the early Christian martyr Saint Eugenia of Rome (executed in 258). Bessarion commissioned Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508) to provide the chapel with an extensive cycle of frescoes. Romano was assisted by the aforementioned Melozzo da Forlì and worked on the chapel between 1464 and 1468. All the while Bessarion himself was still alive, so it is plausible that the frescoes represent his dreams and ideals, in particular as regards unity in the Christian world, a bridge between East and West and cooperation with respect to fighting the infidel.

The history of the chapel is not a happy one. The frescoes of the lower register were damaged by continuous flooding of the Tiber. Whatever was left of them was destroyed when a new altar designed by Carlo Rainaldi was installed here in about 1650. The chapel was then acquired by the Odescalchi family, who initiated a complete remodelling which took place between 1719 and 1723. The architect involved could have just demolished the old chapel, but instead decided to build a new one inside the existing one. As a result, there is now a very narrow space between the back wall of the new chapel and that of the old chapel. Amazingly, the old chapel was then completely forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1959 by the architect Clemente Busiri Vici (1887-1965). The Cappella di Bessarione was restored between 1989 and 2005 and reopened to the public on a regular basis in 2010. There is an admission fee of 4 Euros, but believe me: it is worth every penny.

Visitors can admire the remaining frescoes from a metal walkway. Since a picture says more than a thousand words, I will just refer to first image in this paragraph for a visual explanation of this construction. The original frescoes of the lower register have all been lost. What we see today are two portraits of Saints Eugenia and Claudia on the sides (possibly seventeenth century) and a Madonna and Child in the centre. There were probably frescoes about the life of Saint John the Baptist here once, as the chapel is co-dedicated to him. The original Madonna and Child was in fact an altarpiece, and it has survived. It is also a work by Antoniazzo Romano and can now be found in the Chapel of Saint Bonaventure, which is the first chapel on the right.

Chorus of Angels.

Saint Michael at Monte Gargano.

Clearly the three scenes higher up the wall are the main reason to visit this chapel. On the highest part of the wall we see a multitude of angels in many different colours. Originally they would have been circling around a Triumphant Christ inside a mandorla, but not much of Christ has survived. In fact, the only thing that is left is a tiny piece of his robes. Antoniazzo’s fresco in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which also features a Christ inside a mandorla composed of angels, might give us an idea of the original composition.

The two scenes below the Chorus of Angels both feature Saint Michael the Archangel and relate to two legends in which he was involved. The scene on the left shows the apparition of the saint in the guise of a bull in a cave near the city of Sipontum in Apulia. This event is said to have happened around the year 490. Sipontum is visible in the background. We also see archers shooting arrows at the bull, only to see these bounce off and being “returned to sender”. The apparition caused the then bishop of Sipontum to found the famous Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo sul Gargano. Monte Gargano was hugely popular with pilgrims from Normandy in France. In fact, it was a visit from 40 Norman pilgrims in 1015 that led to masses of Normans immigrating to this part of Italy and ultimately establishing themselves as an independent power in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. Although the Normans were sometimes troublesome for the Church, they were devout Catholics as well and played a pivotal role in the First Crusade. The scene is therefore likely connected to Bessarion’s dream of a new Crusade with Norman (i.e. French) help.

Saint Michael at Mont-Saint-Michel.

This is certainly the case with the scene on the right, which is much more complex. The scene is set on a beach in Normandy itself. In the top right corner, there is another apparition of Saint Michael in the guise of a bull. According to legend, the archangel appeared to Saint Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, in 708. The bishop subsequently founded the famous abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel on a tidal island off the coast. In the background we see fortifications on the island, as well as several ships. The foreground is rich in detail. On the beach we see both Basilian monks in their black habits and Franciscans wearing brown. Their peaceful co-existence and cooperation no doubt represents Bessarion’s dream of a unification of the Churches of the East and of the West (he had been a Basilian monk himself, and the Conventual Franciscans administered the Santi Apostoli). Some of the details are truly impressive. Note for instance the images of Christ and the Madonna and Child on the chasubles of the two figures on the right, the seashells on the beach or the musical notes in the book that one of the Basilians is holding.

There is a theory that the figure of the bishop with the halo, probably Saint Aubert, in fact represents King Louis XI of France, whom Bessarion tried to interest in a new crusade against the Turks in order to liberate Constantinople (and, we may assume, Trebizond as well). This is not impossible, although it must be said that Louis’ rather striking nose was omitted in the fresco. Behind the king are two familiar figures. The man in the scarlet robes is Francesco della Rovere, the future Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484). The man in purple standing to his right has part of his face missing. He can still be identified as Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and Sixtus’ nephew. Let us end this paragraph with a few close-ups.

Exploring the cloisters

Monument for Michelangelo.

The convent next door should be open to visitors. Here we can find a modern-looking wall monument for Michelangelo Buonarroti, already mentioned above. Michelangelo died in 1564 in Rome and was first buried in the Santi Apostoli, before his body was translated to the church of Santa Croce in Florence. The relief on the wall monument shows a reclining Michelangelo of mediocre quality, accompanied by two putti.

Of more interest is a text in both Latin and Greek pertaining to Cardinal Bessarion. It reads:



Text dictated by Cardinal Bessarion.

Bessarion apparently dictated this text himself and intended it for his tomb. It mentions his position as Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati (‘Tusculum’) in the Holy Roman Church, and as Patriarch of Constantinople, a position he obviously only held on paper. And yet Bessarion also stressed that he was “born and raised in noble Greece”. For him it was possible to be both Greek and Latin. It was a surprisingly modern thought that would not have been shared by many in both the Greek East and the Latin West. The year mentioned on the tomb is 1466, the year Bessarion dictated the text. The Greek text below states that Bessarion made this tomb for the body (σωμα), while the soul (πνευμα) will find its way to Immortal God.

Which raises the question where Bessarion’s body is now. It is certainly not in his former funerary chapel anymore and not in the convent either. According to the usually reliable Churches of Rome Wiki it was not even moved to the Santi Apostoli until 1957! Inside the church we can find another monument for the cardinal on one of the pillars. But where the body is today is a mystery to me.


  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 157-159;
  • Leaflet about the Cappella di Bessarione, provided by the church;
  • Santi Apostoli on Churches of Rome Wiki.


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