The church of San Bernardo alle Terme is dedicated to the famous French saint and abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). The ‘alle Terme’ part of the name refers to the Baths of Diocletianus – Thermae in Latin – which were built in the fourth century. The large train station of Rome, Stazione Termini, is also named after these immense baths. Although the church of San Bernardo was built as late as the end of the sixteenth century, its history is intertwined with that of the Romans baths. The base of the church is a circular building that was once part of the bath complex. The much more famous church of Santa Maria degli Angeli – Michelangelo’s last church – was also built into the Baths of Diocletianus. I have previously discussed that church and have in that post also outlined the history of the baths. To make it easier for myself, I will first plagiarise my previous post and then discuss the church of San Bernardo.
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, built by the emperor Domitianus (81-96), was spared and became part of the bath 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). The complex was entirely walled, and on the west side there was an immense exedra (a semi-circular apse) with a diameter of about 160 metres. Nowadays this is the Piazza della Repubblica. On this side of the baths there were two circular buildings on the corners of the wall, one to the north and the other to the south of the exedra. The sources use different names for these buildings, for instance rotundas, pavilions or towers. They were most likely entrance buildings, which gave visitors access to the bath complex.
Both circular buildings have more or less been preserved. The southern building can be found in the Via del Viminale and currently houses a restaurant that has the appropriate name Ristorante Terme di Diocleziano. The northern building would be transformed into a church, the San Bernardo alle Terme, almost thirteen centuries after its completion. The two entrance buildings had four entrances each. There were two on the street side and two more inside. One of these gave access to the bath complex and the other to a rectangular colonnaded hall. The purpose of these halls (one on either side) has yet to be determined. It has been suggested that the halls were libraries, but these were more likely situated on the other side of the complex, on the east side behind the natatio. According to the Atlas of Ancient Rome the rectangular halls may simply have been passageways.
Construction of the San Bernardo
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 with vegetation. Parts of them were used by the Roman nobility as hunting grounds. This only changed in the second half of the sixteenth century. In 1563 the construction of the aforementioned church of Santa Maria degli Angeli started, and then in 1598 the church of San Bernardo was built as part of an abbey founded by Caterina Sforza (ca. 1535-1605). Her grandmother was a sister of Pope Julius III (1550-1555).
Onto the ancient circular entrance building a decagonal drum was built to support a low church dome. Unfortunately the original lantern of the dome has not stood the test of time. In 1857 it was in danger of crashing through the roof and had to be removed preventively. Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) was responsible for this action and had his name and deeds mentioned above the entrance to the church with the words REPARAVIT [ET] RESTAVRAVIT. The current lantern was added at the end of the twentieth century. It largely consists of glass and covers the oculus of the dome. The oculus is the only source of light for the building, as the church does not have any windows. Rather unsurprisingly, many people have compared the San Bernardo to the famous Pantheon.
The San Bernardo probably got its Baroque decorations during a restoration that was executed in 1670. For a long time the abbey was inhabited and administered by monks of the Congregation of Feuillants. This Cistercian Order was founded by the Frenchman Jean de la Barrière (1544-1600). The church has a portrait of him by Andrea Sacchi (1599-1661). At the end of the eighteenth century the Congregation was dissolved in Italy, after it had already been dissolved in revolutionary France. Other Cistercians later took over the complex and they are still here. Between 1824 and 1906 the church moreover served as a parish church, but apparently that was hardly a raging success.
Things to see
The bricks of the Roman entrance building and the drum of the dome have been covered with a layer of orange stucco. The exterior of the church features few decorations, and remarkably both the niches of the façade and the tondi of the drum have been left empty. Only the sculpted frame above the entrance has a fresco. It represents Bernard of Clairvaux with the cross, but it is not that interesting. Let us therefore go inside. The entrance we use is one of the two entrances that adjoined the street in Antiquity. Once inside, we see the choir and high altar in front of us on the spot where the entrance to the mysterious rectangular hall used to be. To the left was the entrance to the bath complex and to the right the other street side entrance. On the left and right shallow chapels have been built. Both have altarpieces painted by Giovanni Odazzi (1663-1731).
The San Bernardo has a truly splendid coffered ceiling. One can see the coffers getting ever smaller towards the oculus. I already mentioned that this oculus is the only light source of the building and that the church is often compared to the Pantheon. However, the Pantheon has never had a lantern. There rainwater simply drips in. The twentieth-century lantern of the San Bernardo has stopped that from happening here.
The most important works of art in the church are eight enormous statues of saints made by Camillo Mariani (ca. 1567-1611). They date from about 1600 and were placed here shortly after the church had been completed. The statues have been set up in pairs in niches. To the right of the entrance we see Saint Augustinus and his mother Saint Monica. If we then go around the building counterclockwise, we see Mary Magdalene, Franciscus of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Alexandria, Catherine of Siena and lastly Hieronymus (Jerome). The statues are over three metres tall.
There are passageways on either side of the choir. The left one leads to the sacristy, the one on the right to the chapel of Saint Franciscus. The latter chapel is definitely the highlight of the church. The beautiful statue of Franciscus receiving the stigmata was sculpted by Giacomo Antonio Fancelli (1606-1674). The way Fancelli sculpted the saint’s belt (basically no more than a piece of rope) is very impressive. The German painter Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) was buried in this chapel. His tomb is in the back, to the left of the altar. Overbeck was originally from the city of Lübeck. In 1810 he arrived in Rome, where he would live and work for most of the rest of his life. In addition, he also painted an important fresco in Assisi. His tomb in this church was made by the German sculptor Karl Hoffmann, who also happened to be Overbeck’s godson.
- 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, 1999, p. 162;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 75;
- San Bernardo alle Terme on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 195.
 Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 465.