- The church is next to an old Roman city gate, usually called the ‘Arch of Gallienus’;
- The church has two facades, so that it is unclear to visitors which side is the front and which the back;
- The church is so sparsely decorated that it seems like we are dealing with a Protestant church of an orthodox-Calvinist denomination.
These reasons are sufficient to pay the church a visit. This is, by the way, easier said than done, as the building is usually only open early in the morning and late in the afternoon. It is therefore advisable to a plan a visit well in advance.
The Porta Esquilina
The city of Rome got its first set of city walls in the sixth century BCE. These have traditionally been attributed to king Servius Tullius (578-534 BCE), who is often equated to the Etruscan warlord Mastarna. In the past historians have from time to time expressed doubts about the historicity of these walls, but we now have solid archaeological evidence. The walls were made of grey tuff. After Rome had been sacked in 387 BCE by a band of marauding Celts it was decided to build a second set of walls. Apparently the old walls were no longer considered satisfactory. The construction started in 378 BCE and in 353 BCE the Romans were still working on the walls and towers. After the king that ruled two centuries previously the new walls were called the Servian Walls, even though they have nothing to do with him. The name may be explained by the fact that the new walls largely followed the outline of the original walls. The new walls were made of yellow tuff; they were four metres thick and had a height of between eight and ten metres. With a total length of about 11 kilometres they closed off an area of about 426 hectares.
The new walls had several gates that allowed people to enter and exit the city. One of these gates was the Porta Esquilina or Esquiline Gate. This is the gate that we find next to the church of Santi Vito e Modesto. The gate played an important role in 211 BCE, the year that the Carthaginian general Hannibal marched on Rome to break the siege of the city of Capua. Hannibal advanced along the Via Latina, while the proconsul Quintus Fulvius Flaccus pursued him along the Via Appia further to the south. Flaccus entered the city by taking the southern Porta Capena and then left Rome again through the Porta Esquilina. He subsequently made his camp between this gate and the Porta Collina, the northernmost gate of the city. Hannibal’s march on Rome ultimately ended in failure. The Romans did not abandon the siege of Capua and the Servian Walls ensured that Rome was too well defended for Hannibal to attack it.
The Porta Esquilina was renewed under the emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE). At the time the gate consisted of three passageways, a large one in the middle and two smaller ones at the sides. Only the central passageway, which was higher than the other two, has been preserved. In 262 a certain Marcus Aurelius Victor added an inscription praising the emperor Gallienus (253-268) and his wife Salonina. The former is lauded as clementissimus princeps (‘most merciful prince’), the later as sanctissima augusta (‘most sacred empress’). The inscription used to be a lot longer, but the top part has been lost. The eulogies for the emperor explain why the gate is usually called the ‘Arch of Gallienus’ nowadays, but one should keep in mind that this is not a triumphal arch. Not long after the addition of the inscription Rome got its third set of walls, which were built on the order of the emperor Aurelianus (271-275). At the time but Rome had expanded way beyond the old Servian Walls: large parts of the city were well outside them. The Aurelian Walls had a total length of 18 kilometres and integrated these newer parts into the city again. And so the old walls, and with them the Porta Esquilina, ended up inside the city instead of surrounding it. The ‘Arch of Gallienus’ looks like it is still in good condition, but one will surely notice the huge crack above the passageway.
Santi Vito e Modesto
Saint Vitus was a Sicilian martyr who was killed in or around the year 303 during the persecution of Christians launched by the emperor Diocletianus. You now understand how Vito Corleone, also a Sicilian, acquired his name. Modestus was supposedly Vitus’ tutor, but he most probably never existed, and neither did his wife Crescentia, Vitus’ nanny. At some point a church dedicated to Vitus was built in Rome, possibly as early as the sixth century. Around 1450 this church had become ruinous. We do not know where this first church stood, but it was in any case not on the spot of the present church. The construction of that church started in 1474 by order of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484). The new church was administered by Cistercian monks. In 1824 the Santi Vito a Modesto was turned into a parish church. It was restored in 1836 by Pietro Camporese (the Younger; 1792-1873).
In the introduction of this post I already mentioned a curious element of the church: it has two facades. At the end of the nineteenth century it was decided to reverse the orientation of the church. The side facing the Via Carlo Alberto was then provided with a neo-Baroque façade in 1900. Remarkably, this intervention was then undone again between 1973 and 1977. The original façade was restored as the main façade, although it was stripped of all of its stucco because this was considered to be post-medieval. The 1900 façade at the rear end was left standing. It was covered in scaffolds when I visited the church in January of 2022, so I did not take a picture of it. On this picture from 2009 you can see that the façade still has an orange-brown colour, but apparently the original colour is white, as is demonstrated by this picture that was made ten years later.
The Santi Vito e Modesto has a single nave. The interior of the church is immensely boring. It is not that the decorations are of inferior quality, the problem is that they are almost completely absent. Nevertheless, there is at least one reason not to skip this church, and that is the fresco in the chapel – actually no more than a niche – on the right side. The fresco is attributed to Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508). It represents a Madonna and Child, who are flanked by the aforementioned (fictive) Saints Modestus and Crescentia. Below them three more saints have been depicted: Sebastian, Margaret of Antioch and Vitus. Near Vitus the year 1483 has been painted. That means the fresco dates from the rebuilding under Sixtus IV.
Also on the right side we find the so-called pietra scellerata. This name means something along the lines of ‘villainous stone’. Many Christians were reportedly tortured and murdered on this stone. In Antiquity the Macellum Liviae, a large Roman market, must have stood in the vicinity of the church. Later generations believed a macellum to have been an abattoir, and so they linked the stone to the butchering of Christians. This is completely unhistorical: the stone is in fact a Roman tombstone of a citizen from Placentia (modern Piacenza). In the past churchgoers used to scrape off pieces of the stone hoping that the dust cured them from rabies. Needless to say that there is not a shred of evidence this helped.
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 81-83;
- Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab IV;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 174;
- Jonathan P. Roth, Roman warfare, p. 17;
- Santi Vito e Modesto on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 81-83.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 83; Jonathan P. Roth, Roman warfare, p. 17.
 See the modern Italian words macelleria (butcher’s shop) and macellaio (butcher).