The church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is located right next to the Roma Termini railway station. It of major interest for two specific reasons. First of all, it is the final church designed and built by the great architect and sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564). Secondly, the church was built into the ruins of the so-called Baths of Diocletianus, the largest complex of public baths in Ancient Rome. Before looking at the history of the church, we must therefore first look at the history of the baths.
The Baths of Diocletianus
The baths were built between 298 and 306. They occupied a terrain that measured about 380 by 370 metres, making the Baths of Diocletianus the largest in the city. Even though they are named after the emperor Diocletianus (284-305), they were actually commissioned by his co-ruler Maximianus. Many buildings had to be levelled before construction could begin, but the pre-existing Temple of the Gens Flavia was spared and became part of the bathing complex. In order to provide the baths with water, a new branch was added to the old Aqua Marcia aqueduct (built in 144 BCE). A good plan of the baths can be found in the Atlas of Ancient Rome, and those who do not have this magnificent book can have a look at this website or this one, which are equally informative. The baths had the standard layout to be found throughout the Roman Empire, the only difference being that this was a much larger complex, larger even than the Baths of Caracalla opened in 216. The Baths of Diocletianus could accommodate up to 3.000 people. These could undress in the apodyteria, then proceed to the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium (cold, lukewarm and hot baths respectively), exercise on the palaestrae (exercise fields) and go for a swim in the huge natatio (swimming pool).
Public baths needed water to survive, and when – partly as a result of the Gothic War (535-554) – the aqueducts fell into ruin in the sixth century, the Baths of Diocletianus were abandoned. The population of Rome dwindled. Those who stayed behind left the area and moved to the parts of the city that were closer to the river Tiber. Much like the Colosseum and other famous buildings of Ancient Rome, the site of the baths was used as a quarry to get building materials (spolia) to be used elsewhere. The baths were now basically outside the city; no one lived in the vicinity anymore and large sections of the baths were overgrown. Parts of them were used by the Roman nobility as hunting grounds.
In 1533, the terrain was acquired by the French cardinal and diplomat Jean du Bellay (1492-1560), who tidied things up a bit. Driving force behind the subsequent construction of a church at this location was the Sicilian friar Antonio del Duca (1491-1564). He wanted a church to be built and dedicated to the archangels and to the Christian martyrs who had been forced to work on the baths and had subsequently been executed. One of them was said to have been Pope Marcellinus (296-304). Now this Marcellinus may indeed have died a martyr’s death, but there is no convincing evidence for the claim that up to 40.000 Christians were required to do forced labour and work on the baths.
Antonio del Duca finally got what he wanted in 1561, after some twenty years of lobbying. Cardinal Du Bellay had bequeathed the terrain of the baths to the future saint Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), who in turn donated them to his uncle Pope Pius IV (1559-1565; Carlo’s mother was the Pope’s sister). Pius had made his nephew a cardinal and perhaps the latter wanted to return the favour. The great architect Michelangelo was commissioned to design and build the church. Work started in 1563, when Michelangelo was already 87 or 88 years old. When the octogenarian architect died the next year, the new church was not yet completed. The job to add the finishing touch was entrusted to Michelangelo’s assistant, one Giacomo del Duca (ca. 1520-1604), who also happened to be Antonio del Duca’s nephew.
Unfortunately Michelangelo’s church was ruined – yes, ruined – during a restoration in the eighteenth century. The architect in charge was Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773), the son of an Italian woman and the Dutch painter Caspar van Wittel (1653-1736; the name ‘Van Wittel’ became ‘Vanvitelli’ in Italian). Vanvitelli changed the orientation of the church by converting Michelangelo’s nave – which had been built into the frigidarium or cold room of the baths– into an oversized transept. As a result the dimensions of the church are all wrong. The architect also created a new entrance for the church. Michelangelo’s entrance was in the south-eastern side of the frigidarium, but Vanvitelli decided to have the remains of the caldarium or hot room demolished to create a new entrance there. This was provided with a Baroque façade, which was removed again in the early twentieth century (see the image above).
For some 300 years, the complex of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri was administered by Carthusian monks. They arrived here in the 1560s from their convent at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and were finally expelled in 1870. The Carthusians built a two new cloisters on the terrain of the baths to the north-east of the church. These have survived and are now part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. Part of the collection of this museum is still exhibited at the Baths of Diocletianus, but many of the top pieces are now on display at the nearby Palazzo Massimo.
Exploring the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri
A visit to the church starts on the Piazza della Repubblica outside. The two palazzos adjoining the western part of the piazza follow the curve of the huge exedra of the Baths of Diocletianus. The exedra had a diameter of some 160 metres. The architect responsible for the buildings was Gaetano Koch (1849-1910). The most important structure in the piazza is the Fountain of the Naiads, completed 1888. It is most famous for its sculptures of the naiads or water nymphs, which were added in 1901 by the Sicilian sculptor Mario Rutelli (1859-1941). The fact that there was a lot of nudity was not appreciated at the time, but nowadays it is considered rather harmless.
The caldarium of the baths is largely gone today. All that Vanvitelli left standing was its north-eastern apse which linked it to the circular tepidarium. This is now the vestibule of the church, which is known for its beautiful dome with an oculus (see the image above). From the vestibule one enters a short nave and then the huge and disproportionately long transept. As stated above, this was originally the frigidarium or cold room of the baths, which was subsequently converted into the nave of Michelangelo’s church. The transept is simply immense, measuring about 91 metres in length, 27 metres in width and at least 28 metres in height.
At both ends of the transept we find chapels dedicated to important Carthusians. The one on the left (i.e. the north-western one) is dedicated to the Order’s founder, Saint Bruno of Cologne (1030-1101). The chapel was designed by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), who was by the way buried in this church. The chapel on the other side (i.e. the south-eastern one) is dedicated to Blessed Niccolò Albergati (1373-1443), a cardinal and diplomat whose portrait by Jan van Eyck is very famous. Both chapels are known for their trompe l’oeil decorations: the columns and aedicules look convincing, but they were in fact painted onto the walls. On the left wall of the Chapel of Saint Bruno is an enormous twentieth century pipe organ. It reportedly has 5.400 hand-made pipes (I obviously have not counted them myself).
From the transept, the visitor can get into the short sanctuary of the church, to which Vanvitelli added an apse, which protrudes into part of the ancient natatio or swimming pool. The walls of the church are graced by about a dozen large painting that were originally in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The reason for moving them to a new location seems to have been the damp at Saint Peter’s. They were replaced there with copies in mosaic.
An interesting feature of the church is the so-called Linea Clementina, named after Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721). This is a sundial which follows the Meridian of Rome. It was intended to improve the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar and made by the astronomers Francesco Bianchini (1662-1729) and Giacomo Filippo Maraldi (1665-1729). The Linea Clementina is about 45 metres long and was completed in 1702.
Three Italians who played a pivotal role in World War I were interred in this church: general Armando Diaz (1861-1928), admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel (1859-1948) and finally the prime minister and diplomat Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (1860-1952), who represented Italy at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 465;
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 195;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 162;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 138-139 and p. 200-201;
- Santa Maria degli Angeli on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 195.