The famous Saint Peter’s Basilica is connected to the equally famous Castel Sant’Angelo and the river Tiber by the Via della Conciliazione. This broad street was built between 1936 and 1950 as a result of the Lateran treaty of 1929. In 1870 Italian troops had captured Rome from the Pope. After the conquest the latter had withdrawn to the Vatican. The conflict was not ended until 59 years later, when a reconciliation – the Conciliazione to which the name of the street refers – was finally reached. Dictator Benito Mussolini was very content with the Lateran treaty, which he had personally signed. He also wanted to make a success story of the Via della Conciliazione. For the construction of this 500 metres long boulevard several churches and other buildings had to be demolished or moved, but Mussolini could not care less. The new street led to the disappearance of two older roads to Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Borgo Vecchio and Borgo Nuovo. The church of Santa Maria Traspontina once stood along the latter road. It now has an unobstructed view of the broad boulevard.
The history of the church goes back to the eighth century. Pope Hadrianus I (772-795) had a first version of the church built that stood closer to the Castel Sant’Angelo than the current church. The church was traspontina, ‘on the other side of the bridge’, which is a reference to the present Ponte Sant’Angelo. In the past this bridge was called the Pons Aelius, built during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrianus (117-138). The Castel Sant’Angelo was his former mausoleum, the place where his ashes had been interred after his death. The mausoleum was renamed the Castel Sant’Angelo during the pontificate of Pope Gregorius the Great (590-604). In 590, a terrible plague was claiming many lives in Rome. Gregorius led a penitentiary procession through the city, and when the procession was near Hadrian’s mausoleum, the Pope saw the archangel Michael standing atop the structure, sheathing his sword and thus indicating that the plague was over. This event led to the name change of the mausoleum, while the old Pons Aelius was also renamed.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is surrounded by four bastions that have been named after the four evangelists. In 1564 Pope Pius IV (1559-1565) wanted to strengthen these defensive works. His gunners needed a clear line of fire and found that the church of Santa Maria was in the way. Pope Pius therefore ordered the church to be demolished and rebuilt several dozen metres further to the west. The rebuilding started in 1566 and the new church was only completed in 1668. In the meantime a large number of architect had come and left again. In chronological order, these were:
- 1566-1569: Giovanni Sallustio Peruzzi (ca. 1511-1572), son of the more famous Baldassare Peruzzi;
- 1569-1581: Giovan Battista Ghioldi;
- 1581-1587: Ottaviano Nonni, nicknamed Il Mascherino (1536-1606);
- 1635-1637: Francesco Peparelli (died 1641);
- 1668: Simone Broggi, who built the dome of the church.
Much nonsense is told about that dome. It is often claimed that a low dome was built so that the gunners of the Castel Sant’Angelo could more easily fire over the building. One source even claims that during the notorious sack of Rome in 1527 the Landsknechts in the army of Charles V hid behind the dome of the old church so they could not be fired upon. The truth is that there is nothing special about the dome. It is true that is does not stand out, but that goes for other domes in Rome as well (see for instance that of the San Salvatore in Lauro or that of the Santa Pudenziana). The decorations on the inside of the dome were made by Cesare Gabrini and date from 1895. The decorations on the pendentives of the dome are much older. These were painted in the seventeenth century by an anonymous painter. We see the prophets Elijah and Elisha with two Carmelite saints. Since 1484 the church has been administered by Calced Carmelites.
Things to see
The Santa Maria in Traspontina is not a church that can boast of many great works of art. The façade of the building is made of travertine from the Colosseum. That is a fun fact, but there are very few decorations to be admired. The interior of the church is dominated by the colour yellow. On either side of the nave there are five chapels. The second chapel on the right has by far the most intriguing history. It is dedicated to Canute IV the Holy, the king of Denmark who was murdered in 1086. During his lifetime Canute had done much to encourage the spread of Christianity and support the Danish bishops, so in 1101 he was canonised by Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118). The chapel dedicated to him in this church was fitted out in 1640-1641 by a Dane who had converted to Catholicism during a visit to Rome. In 1685 an altarpiece was added that had been painted by Daniel Seiter (ca. 1642-1705).
In the other chapels we also find a number of works that are worth closer inspection, including works by Antonio Circignani (1560-1620), nicknamed Il Pomarancio like his father, Giovanni Battista Ricci (1537-1627) and Giacinto Calandrucci (1646-1707). In the third chapel on the left we see two columns against which the apostles Peter and Paul were said to have been tortured. The high altar was designed by Carlo Fontana (ca. 1638-1714). Part of it is an icon supposedly painted in the thirteenth century. Nowadays we can only admire a copy of it; the original was apparently destroyed in 1798.
The most interesting work of art in the church is undoubtedly the altarpiece featuring Saint Barbara in the first chapel on the right. It was painted by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640), also known as the Cavalier d’Arpino. Barbara is considered the patron saint of artillerymen, and rather unsurprisingly the chapel was used by the gunners serving in the garrison of the Castel Sant’Angelo. The painter depicted the saint as a young, blond woman with one bear breast. In her left hand she can be seen holding a lightning bolt. According to tradition Barbara, a Christian woman, was personally decapitated by her pagan father. The man himself was subsequently struck by lightning. This direct hit no doubt explains how Barbara became the patron saint of artillerymen.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009, p. 228;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 303;
- Santa Maria in Traspontina on Churches of Rome Wiki.