Rome: San Benedetto in Piscinula

The San Benedetto in Piscinula.

Oh, I knew about the existence of the church of San Benedetto alright. Traversing from one part of Trastevere to another, I had passed by the church on many occasions. It is located on a square, the Piazza in Piscinula[1], where I sometimes have lunch in one of the restaurants or buy ice-cream in one of the gelaterie. The nineteenth century church facade is therefore a familiar sight for me. However, the doors of the San Benedetto were usually closed and I stupidly assumed that the church would not be worth visiting anyway. The medieval campanile, one of the shortest in Rome, gave away that this is in fact an old church, but I assumed the interior would have been heavily restored and modernised, much like the facade. I was so wrong. Once I had crossed the threshold of the San Benedetto in July of this year, I entered a time capsule and travelled back to the Middle Ages.

History of the church

There can be no doubt whatsoever that the San Benedetto in Piscinula is a medieval church. It was probably built in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, as is demonstrated by the fact that the oldest bell in the campanile dates back to 1069. The church enters the records in 1192. There is, however, a tradition that it is several centuries older. This tradition dictates that the church was built over the ruins of a large house belonging to the noble gens Anicia. The future saint Benedictus (San Benedetto) was said to have stayed at this house for several years at the end of the fifth century (ca. 495-500). Benedictus (ca. 480-547) then quit his studies, said goodbye to the Anicii and traded in the prospect of a brilliant career for a life of solitude and prayer in a cave near the town of Subiaco in Lazio.

Interior of the church.

A small oratory was later built on the spot where he was supposed to have stayed in a small room, the Cella di San Benedetto. This is where we now find the Cappella della Madonna, on the left side of the church. It has columns from the eighth century, but it is not clear whether these have always been here or were taken from another building. In any case, the current chapel dates from the thirteenth century, not the eighth.

The story of Saint Benedictus staying here is probably a later invention, but it is not impossible that there was an oratory or some other place of worship on this spot before the current church was built in or shortly before the year 1100. Columns and capitals were taken as spoils from ancient Roman buildings and used to create a small church with a nave and two aisles. A short Romanesque bell-tower was erected, a Cosmatesque floor was installed and frescoes for the nave were executed (only traces of these survive today). Although the San Benedetto in Piscinula has lost much of its former splendour and seems to have been abandoned on more than one occasion, there is still a lot to see. Nowadays the church is administered by the Araldi del Vangelo or Heralds of the Gospel, a religious order from Brazil. It is clear that they take good care of the building.

Exploring the San Benedetto

Cosmatesque floor.

The church is hemmed in between residential buildings. This is actually quite comical: you may notice a lamp in the window sill above the left aisle and the aforementioned Cappella della Madonna. As stated above, the Neoclassical church facade was made in the nineteenth century. There is not much to tell about it, so let us go inside quickly. We first arrive in a vestibule, which has two useful information panels about the history and art of the church. To the left is an entrance to the Cappella della Madonna, although it was closed when I paid a visit and I had to enter it through the left aisle. The vestibule also has a few traces of medieval frescoes, the best one being a Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Paul, probably executed by a Roman artist in the fourteenth century (see the image below).

From the vestibule we can enter the actual church. The San Benedetto is curiously asymmetrical, and that is probably an understatement (see the image of the interior above). Whereas the nave becomes wider as we approach the sanctuary, the two aisles become narrower. The walls of the building are all skew and one gets the impression that the architect was drunk. The columns used in the church are a mixed bag. They are from different centuries (from the first to the fifth according to one information panel) and made of different materials. The best part of the nave is obviously the Cosmatesque floor. It looks a bit poor and has clearly never been restored. The marble is cracked and several pieces are missing, but what counts is that the floor is one hundred percent original. In this respect, the San Benedetto beats other churches in Trastevere which have or used to have Cosmatesque floors, such as the Santa Maria (which has a faithful copy), the Santa Cecilia (original floor destroyed) and the San Crisogono (floor partly restored).

Madonna and Child and Saints Peter and Paul / Saint Benedictus / Madonna and Child and Saint Anne.

Saint John the Baptist and the Lamb of God.

The apse and the aisles have several interesting frescoes, fresco fragments and paintings. The fresco in the conch of the apse is sixteenth century and may be ignored, as may the two sixteenth century frescoes of Saints Blaise and Nicholas on the apse walls. But the two paintings above the high altar are intriguing. The upper one is a somewhat damaged fresco featuring a Madonna and Child, the lower one a panel with Saint Benedictus himself, seated on a throne. Both were painted in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Benedictus has a book on his lap with the first line (in Latin) of the Rule he himself formulated. Perhaps the panel currently on display is a copy, as the information panel in the church indicates that the original is in restauro (I must say the copy looks convincingly real, if it is in fact a copy).

Just to the right of the apse is a fresco fragment showing the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, mother of the Madonna (see the image above). Unfortunately Saint Anne has part of her head missing. At the feet of the Madonna we may notice a supplicant whose face is regretfully gone. The fresco can be dated to the fifteenth century and can be seen as a much simpler version of the much more famous painting by Masaccio and Masolino which is now at the Uffizi in Florence. Slightly older is a fourteenth century fresco of Saint John the Baptist and the Lamb of God in the left aisle.

Icon in the Cappella della Madonna.

And then there is the thirteenth century Cappella della Madonna, also known as the Oratorio di San Benedetto. It has a splendid Cosmatesque floor and a fairly modern altar, consecrated in 1604. Into the altar is set the icon of the Madonna and Child to which Benedictus is said to have prayed. This is impossible: Benedictus supposedly stayed in Rome between 495 and 500, but the icon we see today was certainly not painted before the thirteenth century (a fact even the church itself concedes, considering the text on the information panel in the vestibule). To the left of the chapel is the cell where Benedictus is supposed to have stayed (the Cella di San Benedetto). Given the fact that the columns in the chapel seem to date from the eighth century, it is certainly not impossible that an oratory has stood on this site since that time, predating the church by several centuries. But the connection with Saint Benedictus sounds like pious nonsense, and in my honest opinion, this version is best discarded.

Churches of Rome Wiki and the information panels in the church were important sources for this post.


[1] The name means something along the lines of ‘little fish tank’ or ‘little pool’; the meaning is unclear.


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