The church of San Salvatore in Lauro itself is not that interesting. I nevertheless really wanted to visit it, and that had everything to do with an object that can be found in the adjacent convent. That object is the tomb of Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). It used to be in old Saint Peter’s Basilica, but when that basilica was demolished the tomb was moved to the San Salvatore complex at the end of the sixteenth century. Convent and church are separated nowadays. The convent offers accommodation to the Musei di San Salvatore in Lauro and these museums have opening hours that are different from those of the church. In 2018 the museums were closed when I tried to visit them, and so I regretfully missed the tomb. In January of 2022 I was more fortunate. The gates were open, so I could enter the cloister and the adjacent courtyard (cortile). I found a temporary exhibition with free access, but the museums turned out to be closed. The tomb is in the former refectory of the convent, and a friendly custodian offered to get the key and give me access to this room, which currently serves as a hall for lectures and conferences.
History of the church
The history of the San Salvatore goes back to at least the twelfth century. At the time the church was already dedicated to Jesus Christ, our Saviour. The building apparently stood in the vicinity of a laurel tree (laurus), and that tree became part of the name of the church. This is not uncommon in Rome, which also has a church of Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros. In the middle of the fifteenth century cardinal Latino Orsini (1411-1477) had the San Salvatore rebuilt. When the rebuilt church was largely lost in a fire in 1591, the architect Ottaviano Nonni, nicknamed Il Mascherino (1536-1606), was hired to lead a second rebuilding. Mascherino worked on the church between 1594 and 1600 and completed the nave, but then the project failed because of a lack of funds. The next important event was in 1669. Pope Clemens IX (1667-1669) assigned the convent next to the church to a confraternity of Piceni, i.e. inhabitants of the Marche region (which used to be called Picenum). These people had a reputation for being very loyal supporters of the pope, who served him as soldiers and tax collectors.
The Piceni thought long and hard about what they wanted to do with the unfinished church building, but in 1697 they commissioned the architect Francesco Fontana (1668-1708) to build a transept. Francesco was a son of the much more famous architect Carlo Fontana. For unknown reasons he quit the project after just one year and it was not until 1727 that the project saw some progress again. Fortunately the new architects Ludovico Rusconi Sassi (1678-1736) and Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) managed to speed things up considerably. Salvi is mostly known for his work on the Trevi fountain. His job was to build the sacristy, while Sassi worked on a dome, choir and bell-tower (which were completed by Salvi after Sassi left). The San Salvatore was consecrated in 1731, but only actually completed in 1736. A façade was still missing though. This was added between 1857 and 1862 by the relatively unknown architect Camillo Guglielmetti, who worked in the Neoclassicist style.
Things to see
The church of San Salvatore is a remarkable building. People standing on the piazza next to the church will immediately see the enormous brick buttresses. The church has a dome, but it is barely visible. The roof of the nave is much higher than that of the transept, so the dome is basically hiding behind the roofline. Guglielmetti’s façade is very robust and completely made of travertine. Below the triangular pediment is a Latin text that reads:
MARIAE LAVRETANAE PICENI PATRONAE
(“For Mary of Loreto, protectress of Picenum”)
The text refers to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Loreto. Loreto is a town in the Marche that is famous for its Basilica della Santa Casa. The name of that basilica is a reference to the house in which the Virgin supposedly lived in Nazareth in the Holy Land. Angels were said to have taken the house from Nazareth to Italy in 1294, taking a couple of detours along the way. The angelic transport of the house is depicted on the relief that adorns the façade of the San Salvatore. Three angels are holding the house and can be seen moving it through the air, while the Madonna and Child are sitting on top of it. The relief was made by the sculptor Rinaldo Rinaldi (1793-1873).
The San Salvatore has a beautiful interior, with high columns, dentillated cornices and marble cladding. In the back of the church is a splendid altar screen made in 1792 by Antonio Asprucci (1723-1808). The altarpiece is a statuette of Our Lady of Loreto. The statuette is a copy; the original was a work of the Flemish sculptor Frans Duquesnoy (1597-1643). In the third chapel on the right we find the most important painting of the church: a rather dark Nativity scene painted by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669). My travel guide claims it was his first large altarpiece, and online I find that it was completed in 1626. In the chapel relics of the apostle Judas Thaddaeus are kept. He is of course not to be confused with Judas Iskariot, the apostle who betrayed Christ.
Another remarkable work of art in the church is a modern wooden sculpture group featuring Christ and Padre Pio (1887-1968). Pio of Pietrelcina (whose real name was Francesco Forgione) was a Franciscan mystic known for the bleeding stigmata he was said to have had right up until his death. Of course Pio had his detractors, who claimed there was nothing supernatural about his stigmata and asserted that he simply made them himself. Nevertheless, Padre Pio, who was canonised in 2002, is still a very popular saint. The church possesses a number of relics of the man and is considered a centre of his cult. The sculpture group in the San Salvatore is a bit odd. It represents Padre Pio helping Christ to carry to cross, but it actually looks like the grim-faced Pio is trying to stop the Saviour. Christ looks behind him and appears to be annoyed: “What are you doing man?” I found the sculpture group in the first chapel on the right, but apparently it is moved around every now and then.
The former convent
The entrance to the former convent is to the left of the church. The complex was commissioned by Latino Orsini and therefore dates from the fifteenth century. Visitors first enter a cloister, which was partly covered in scaffolds during my visit. North of the cloister is a courtyard (cortile) of about equal size with a seventeenth-century fountain. This Fontana dei Piceni is tentatively attributed to Il Mascherino. I explored the cortile extensively because I mistakenly assumed this was where I would find the tomb of Pope Eugenius IV. The tomb turned out to be elsewhere, but the courtyard does have other interesting sculptures. The relief above the entrance to the courtyard is very beautiful. It depicts Saint Peter being liberated from prison by an angel sent by God. The sculptor has incorporated the words of the apostle from Acts 12:11 into the relief. On the left, above Saint Peter, we see the text NVNC SCIO VERE QVIA MISIT DOMINVS ANGELVM SVVM, ET ERIPVIT ME [DE MANV HERODIS]. The sculpture dates from the early sixteenth century. The name of the sculptor is not known, but he was probably of the school of Luigi Capponi.
From the courtyard one can enter the chapterhouse and the refectory. Both rooms have doors with beautifully decorated door frames. Above the entrance to the chapterhouse is a bust of cardinal Latino Orsini which is dated 1621. On the other side of the courtyard we can admire two busts. The left one is a bust of cardinal Antonio Correr (1359-1445), who was a Venetian. The bust on the right possibly represents Lorenzo Giustinian (1381-1456), the first patriarch of Venice. According to another theory the man is actually Pope Eugenius IV, who was born in 1383 as Gabriele Condulmer. He too was a Venetian, and as a young man he was associated with the Augustinian congregation of San Giorgio in Alga on an island in the Venetian lagoon. Canons from this congregation administered the complex in Rome until 1668. The close ties between the convent and the Venetians must have contributed to the decision to move the pope’s tomb to this complex at the end of the sixteenth century.
The tomb of Pope Eugenius IV
Eugenius IV’s pontificate was anything but easy. The pope first of all had to deal with the Council of Basel, which firmly believed that supreme authority within the Catholic church rested with church councils, and not with the Holy Father. At some point the council even elected its own antipope, Felix V (1439-1449). Eugenius furthermore quarrelled with the powerful Colonna family from Rome, of which his predecessor Martinus V (1417-1431) had been a member. In 1434 the pope was even expelled from Rome, and until 1443 he mostly resided in Florence under the protection of Cosimo the Elder. Eugenius IV will mostly be remembered as the pope who tried to reunite the Roman-Catholic and Eastern-Orthodox churches at the Council of Ferrara, which was later moved to Florence. At the time the Council was held (1438-1439) the Ottoman Turks were already at the gates of Constantinople. Although an official Decree of Unity was signed on 5 July 1439 (see Ferrara: The Duomo), this was rejected the next year in the East. In 1453 Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman conqueror Mehmet II.
The pope’s tomb has been placed against the left wall of the refectory, which is now a lecture hall that is still used by the Pio Sodalizio dei Piceni. The large painting in the back of the hall represents the Wedding at Cana and was made by Francesco Salviati (1510-1563). The tomb is to the left of the painting, and regretfully the view of it is slightly obstructed by a lectern. The monument was made by Isaia da Pisa, who worked on it between 1450 and 1455. I have previously discussed his tomb for Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustinus, in the church of Sant’ Agostino. The tomb of Eugenius is very beautiful. The pope is lying on his deathbed while the Madonna and Child and two angels are watching over him from above. On the left and right we see four sculpted male figures. They do not have captions, so it is difficult to tell who they are. One of them has a tiara and is therefore a pope, perhaps Eugenius III (1145-1153), at whose side the deceased reportedly wanted to be buried. The figure in the top right corner might be an apostle or evangelist, while the other two figures appear to be bishops.
Below the deceased we read the following Latin text:
VRBS VENETVM DEDIT ORTVM
QVID ROMA VRBIS ET ORBIS
IVRA DET OPTANTI
CAELICA REGNA DEVS
“The city of the Venetians gave origin.
What Rome? Authority over the city and the world.
May God grant him his wish
and take him into the kingdom of Heaven.”
This text is followed by a much longer Latin text praising the numerous good deeds performed by Eugenius. The text was not part of the original tomb, but was added when the object was moved to the refectory. Interestingly, the highlights of the pope’s career are literally highlighted by using a larger font. See for instance the impudence (insolentia) of the Council of Basel. The Council of Florence is mentioned as well, as is the participation in that council of the Eastern Roman emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448). Of course John is referred to as the “emperor of Greece”: for the Catholic Church the Catholic Holy Roman Empire was the only legitimate successor to the Roman Empire, and not the Orthodox Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Lastly, in the penultimate line the congregation of San Giorgio in Alga is mentioned. It was the congregation that decided to set up the monument here, thus preserving it for future generations (who, if they want to see it, do have to put in a lot of effort).
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 174;
- John Julius Norwich, The Popes, chapter XVI;
- San Salvatore in Lauro on Churches of Rome Wiki;
- Wendy J. Reardon, The Deaths of the Popes, p. 152.
 “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel to liberate me from the hands of Herod”.
 See John Julius Norwich, The Popes, chapter XVI.
 Translation taken from Wendy J. Reardon, The Deaths of the Popes, p. 152.