Rome: Sant’Agata dei Goti

Sant’Agata dei Goti.

One of the most confusing things about the small church of Sant’Agata dei Goti is that it is not located in the Via di Sant’Agata de Goti. This streets runs just to the south of the church. The Sant’Agata has its main entrance on the Via Mazzarino and a side entrance on the Via Panisperna. Both entrances were initially closed when I tried to visit the church in July 2018, but I found them both open about half an hour later. The side entrance leads directly into the right aisle of the church, while the main entrance gives access to a charming cloister from which one can enter the nave of the church. The cloister likely replaced the atrium that the Sant’Agata had in Antiquity.[1] There can be no doubt that this is a very old church, but it is still not clear how old exactly it is.

Early history

The Atlas of Ancient Rome simply states that the Goth Ricimer had the church built between 459 and 470.[2] There are two problems with this claim. The first is that Ricimer (ca. 405-472) was not a full-blooded Goth. He was a son of the Suebic king of Galicia in Spain, although his mother was indeed the daughter of the king of the Visigoths. Ricimer served in the army of the Western Roman Empire and ultimately became its supreme commander. The second problem is that the sole evidence for this claim is a text that was part of the now lost apse mosaic. The text mentioned Ricimer’s titles and stated that he did something nice to the building. The Latin word used is adornavit, from the verb adornare, which means ‘to decorate’ or ‘to embellish’. So judging by this text, it is more likely that Ricimer had an existing church decorated rather than a new one built. This is a clue that the church – or at least the church building – may actually be decades older than the Atlas of Ancient Rome states.[3]

Cloister of the church.

We do know that the church of Sant’Agata was initially an Arian church. Whether or not this was Ricimer’s faith as well is not clear, but it was certainly the faith of the Ostrogoths – the ‘Goti’ from the name of the church – who invaded Italy in 489 and ruled it until 554 (see this post). The dimensions of the building are somewhat unusual: it is almost square. In this respect it resembles the former Arian cathedral in Ravenna, the Ostrogothic capital (see this post). The church was rededicated to Orthodoxy in 592 under Pope Gregorius the Great (590-604). It was only then that the church received a dedication to Saint Agatha of Sicily, a virgin martyr from the third century whose breasts were reportedly amputated with a pair of pincers.

Later history and things to see

The facade of the complex in the Via Mazzarino was added in 1729 and is the work of Francesco Ferrari, a somewhat obscure architect who also worked on the church of San Gregorio Magno. The facade features a tondo with an image of the saint holding a palm branch (a symbol of martyrdom) and her two severed breasts on a plate. If you find the gates open here, you can enter and first of all admire the lovely cloister and its well, which is dated to about 1530.

Saint Agatha with her severed breasts.

Upon entering the church itself, we immediately realise that most Late Antique and medieval elements are gone. This is now a Baroque church. The original apse collapsed in 1589 and took the fifth century apse mosaic with it. Fortunately the Dominican friar and scholar Alfonso Chacón from Spain (1530-1599) had made a watercolour of the mosaic, which was in its turn used to make an engraving which was printed in 1690. We therefore know that the mosaic featured Christ seated on a globe, flanked by the twelve apostles. The depiction of Christ on a globe is not unusual; we have see that before, both in Rome (here, here and here) and in Ravenna (in the famous church of San Vitale). You can see an image of the drawing here. Thanks to Chacón’s watercolour we also still have the text of the mosaic. It referred to Flavius Ricimer as a ‘famous man’ (vir illustris), who was supreme commander of the army (magister utriusque militiae; i.e. master of foot and master of horse), patrician (patricius) and a former ordinary consul (he held the consulship in 459, so the mosaic must have been made after that).

Interior of the church.

Ceiling of the church.

The altar baldachin dates from the twelfth century, but it had to be reassembled in 1933 and several elements are not original. One of the best parts of the church is the central part of the floor. Here we see elements of the original fifteenth century Cosmatesque floor. The church floor was re-laid in the 1930s. The interesting gilded and coffered ceiling was installed in 1633.

The nave features a series of frescoes about the martyrdom of Saint Agatha. These were painted in 1633 by Perugino. He was not the famous Umbrian painter Pietro Perugino (ca. 1446-1523; real name: Pietro Vannucci), but a much less well-known painter from the seventeenth century called Paolo Perugino (1612-1685; real name: Paolo Gismondi). This Perugino was probably also responsible for the new apse fresco which features the Glory of Saint Agatha.[4]

Notes

[1] For a reconstruction, see Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 198a.

[2] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 467.

[3] See Churches of Rome Wiki for a discussion about the origins of the church.

[4] According to the Churches of Rome Wiki, it may also have been painted by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini (1609-1681).

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