The church of Santa Bibiana has one of the ghastliest locations in all of Rome. The building is hemmed in between the Via Giovanni Giolitti, the Via Santa Bibiana and the railway tracks starting at Rome’s Central Station (Roma Termini). The church has no neighbours, so it is extremely isolated. There is a huge contrast between the situation now and the situation until the first half of the nineteenth century. From its construction in the fifth century until 1863 the church was also very isolated, but in this case because it was in the country back then, far outside the city centre and surrounded by green fields and vineyards. In 1863 Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) started the construction of Rome’s first train station. This was a temporary station, which was quickly replaced with a permanent station. The first version of Roma Termini was completed in 1874, after Rome had been taken from the pope by Italian troops and had become the capital of a unified Italy. The construction of a new railway station was launched in 1937, but partly due to World War Two it was not completed until 1950. The railway station kickstarted a process of urbanisation around the church of Santa Bibiana, which saw its environs change radically. If you are thinking about visiting the church, please note that it is almost a kilometre from the square in front of Roma Termini to the Santa Bibiana!
The early history of the Santa Bibiana is rather murky. The church was constructed in what were called the Horti Liciniani in Antiquity, the gardens belonging to the noble gens Licinia. Especially the emperor Gallienus (253-268), who was a scion of this family, loved to come here. About 275 metres southeast of the church we find the so-called ‘temple of Minerva Medica’, which also used to be part of the gardens (and is, by the way, not a temple). According to tradition, Bibiana (Vivian in English) was a Christian woman whose family had a house here. During the persecution of Christians by the emperor Julianus the Apostate (361-363) Bibiana was said to have been martyred. Her death must have been particularly gruesome, as it is reported that she was beaten to death with scourges that had been weighted with pieces of lead. According to the same tradition, her father Flavianus, mother Dafrosa and sister Demetria all died tragically as well. There is, however, every reason to doubt this tradition. Although the emperor Julianus did take anti-Christian measures and was openly hostile to Christianity, he was smart enough not to create new martyrs. From the persecutions instigated by his predecessors he had learned that these had ultimately only served to strengthen rather than weaken the position of Christians in the Roman Empire. Martyrdoms simply inspired new martyrs. It is therefore extremely implausible that Bibiana really died a martyr’s death during Julianus’ reign.
And there is more about the legend that is extremely doubtful. Father Flavianus was said to have been a Roman urban prefect (praefectus urbi), a very prestigious office. But if we check the fairly complete list of urban prefects, we only find a Flavianus for 311-312 and one for 399-400 and 408. Tradition furthermore dictates that the first sanctuary dedicated to Bibiana was built on this spot by a certain Olympina, a relative of the martyr. She supposedly did this in 363, a year we find mentioned on a seventeenth-century fresco in the church (see below). However, no archaeological traces of this sanctuary have ever been found, and the same goes for the house that Bibiana’s family is said to have owned. It is therefore better to assume that the church was built by Pope Simplicius (468-483). Remarkably, some sources claim that the church was built in 467, which was the year before Simplicius was inaugurated as supreme pontiff. Since the beginning of the ninth century, at the latest, a nunnery was attached to the church. Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447) decided to suppress this Benedictine nunnery in 1439 because the nuns were behaving badly. Apparently their behaviour was not of the kind that was expected of good and pious sisters. Administration of the church was subsequently entrusted to the chapter of Santa Maria Maggiore.
A surviving twelfth-century inscription in Latin links this spot with a place that was called ad Ursum Pileatum. This can be translated as ‘at the bear with the cap’, but it is not clear what the term refers to. According to the inscription no fewer than 11,260 martyrs were buried here. The inscription explicitly states that this astonishing number does not even include children and women. The whole story about the martyrs was probably invented, although it is sometimes connected to an event that occurred during the pontificate of Pope Leo II (682-683). In his brief reign as pope, Leo consecrated a church to Saint Paul, to which he had the remains of three other martyrs translated. This church of San Paolo must have stood in the vicinity of the Santa Bibiana. The name ad Ursum Pileatum may have once belonged to the cemetery where the martyrs had initially been buried and may subsequently have been transferred to the church of San Paolo.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is undoubtedly one of the greatest sculptors and architects in history. In 1624, however, he was just a 25-year-old with no experience in the field of architecture. Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644) nevertheless had full confidence in his capacities. Now that he had designated the year 1625 a jubilee year, Urbanus had decided that the dilapidated church of Santa Bibiana, which was probably abandoned as well, had to be thoroughly restored. Bernini was commissioned to transform the building into a Baroque-style church. It was Bernini’s first job as an architect. Between 1624 and 1626 he demolished the former nunnery, added two chapels to the right side of the church and provided the building with a new façade. This new façade was fairly plain and simple. It features very few decorations and was clipped onto the ancient little church. The façade comprises a loggia on the ground floor and a residential area for the priest on the first floor. On a marble tag above the central arch we read the letters SMM, which is a reference to the chapter of Santa Maria Maggiore that administered the church. For the church Bernini also made the famous statue of Santa Bibiana, which I will discuss below.
In 1920, when the urbanisation process was in full swing and trains had been hurtling past the church for several decades, the Santa Bibiana was granted to a congregation named the Sons of the Holy Family. Founder of the congregation was the Spanish priest Josep Manyanet y Vives (1833-1901), who was beatified in 1984 and canonised in 2004. Manyanet y Vives died in Barcelona, a city known for its still unfinished Basílica de la Sagrada Família. The construction of this remarkable church, which like the congregation is dedicated to the Holy Family, is said to have been close to the saint’s heart.
Things to see
The old square in front of the church is now a garden, of which the gates are usually kept shut. If the church is open to the public, you can enter the building using another gate, which gives access to Bernini’s loggia. If you are lucky – as I was during my visit in January of 2022 – you may be able to enter the garden through the loggia and get a good look at the façade. After the arrival of the Sons of the Holy Family a new monastery was built on the left side of the garden. Architectonically it can safely be ignored. Let us therefore walk back into the loggia, where the inscription from the twelfth century that refers to ad Ursum Pileatum, already mentioned above, can be found. From the loggia three entrances give access to the church.
The Santa Bibiana is just a small church with a short nave and two aisles. In the nave we see ancient marble columns and capitals that were clearly taken from other buildings. Or to put it differently: we are dealing with spolia here. Five of the columns are pink, one is grey and two have spiral decorations. Directly to the left of the central entrance is another column, protected by a bronze grating of which parts have been gilded. Bibiana was supposedly tied to this column when she was beaten to death. For centuries worshippers have been scraping off dust from the column, which they subsequently mixed with an extract from a plant that grew on the alleged grave of Bibiana. The potion was said to have helped against epilepsy, and reportedly also against headaches and mental illnesses. The bronze grating, designed by Bernini, made scraping off dust a lot more difficult.
From 1624 the walls of the nave were painted with frescoes by two well-known artists. The frescoes on the right side are the work of Agostino Ciampelli (1565-1630), a painter living in his twilight years at the time. By contrast, for the frescoes on the left side a young artist was commissioned, Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), who was just a little older than Bernini. Pietro da Cortona had close ties with the Barberini family, of which both Pope Urbanus VIII and his nephew cardinal Francesco Barberini were members. Later he painted, among other things, a gigantic ceiling fresco in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. On that fresco the bees from the Barberini family’s coat-of-arms feature prominently and they are also present on the wall frescoes in the Santa Bibiana. Each wall has three scenes from the life of Bibiana. The final scene, painted by Ciampelli, shows us how the first sanctuary for Bibiana was built, an event that according to the caption took place in the year CCCLXIII (363). Between the scenes there are portraits of Bibiana’s relatives, on the left Demetria and Flavianus, and on the right Olympina and Dafrosa. Pietro da Cortona also painted the altarpiece for the chapel of Saint Dafrosa at the end of the right aisle. When I visited the church in January of 2022, view of the painting was unfortunately blocked by a Nativity scene.
The presumed relics of Bibiana, Dafrosa and Demetria are kept under the high altar, in a fourth-century alabaster urn. Above the altar, in a niche, is the aforementioned statue of Bibiana, made between 1624 and 1626 by Bernini. I had previously seen the statue when it had been loaned to the Galleria Borghese for an exhibition about Bernini’s work. When the statue was returned to the church, Bibiana lost the ring finger of her right hand. Fortunately the crack is completely invisible: the restoration was done very competently. The saint can be seen leaning against her column, and at her feet we see the plant that was used against epilepsy. My travel guide claims that Bibiana is holding the scourges with which she was beaten to death in her left hand, but I actually think the object we see is a palm branch, a typical attribute of a martyr. Previous statues made by Bernini were much more ‘naked’, but Bibiana is fully dressed. The statue therefore marks a new phase in Bernini’s career as a sculptor. Sculpting a naked or half-dressed person is obviously much easier than sculpting a full set of clothes with all kinds of folds and wrinkles. The statue of Santa Bibiana alone is enough reason to visit the church, but do keep in mind that the church closes early in the morning and only reopens late in the afternoon.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 174
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 156-157;
- Santa Bibiana on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 The pilleus was a cap worn by freedmen.