The name of the church of Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli is a bit of a jawbreaker. Moreover, it is far from clear what exactly the Magnanapoli part refers to. Although the name seems to be a reference to the Campanian city of Napoli, it may just as well be the corruption of a word that sounded quite similar (in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, Marconi square is for instance often called Macaroni square). However this may be, the church is dedicated to a saint who was from a city in Tuscany: Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Catherine was born in Siena into a family of 25 children. She was canonised in 1461, made a Doctor of the Church in 1970 and named patron saint of Rome (1866), of Italy (1939) and of Europe (1999). Her body rests in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, but her head was taken back to Siena. The church of Santa Caterina adjoins a busy piazza, the Largo Magnanapoli. It has one of the most picturesque backgrounds in Rome, as it was built next to the thirteenth-century Torre delle Milizie. The tower could very well pass for the campanile of the church, but the real campanile is situated behind the church building.
Catherine of Siena was a tertiary of the Dominican Order. Her followers in Rome originally made use of a chapel, which at the end of the sixteenth century was considered too small for their community. With papal support they bought an old fort on this spot belonging to the Conti family. Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) then made designs for a church that was to be erected here, and between 1608 and 1613 there were some building activities. For reasons that have never become clear the construction was subsequently suspended, leaving the tertiaries to focus on expanding their convent. In 1619 they bought the aforementioned Torre delle Milizie from the Conti family. It is often claimed that the emperor Nero used this tower to observe the Great Fire that struck Rome in the year 64. There are two reasons why this story is nonsense. First of all, Nero was in Antium when the fire raged and secondly, the tower is a medieval structure, as was already mentioned.
In 1628 the construction of the church was resumed. After Maderno’s death in 1629 the project was led by Giovanni Battista Soria (1581-1651). In 1640 the church was consecrated, but work on the interior was only completed the next year. In 1872 the Italian government kicked the tertiaries out of their convent. Two years previously Italian soldiers had taken the city of Rome and exiled the Pope to the Vatican. The Italian government was strictly secular and clearly had no more need for convents and religious orders. The convent of Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli was converted into a military barracks. The square in front of the church was lowered, which necessitated the construction of a flight of stairs in order to reach the entrance (the old situation is depicted very well on this etching). Between 1913 and 1924 the convent was demolished, so that nowadays only the church is left. In 1929 – the same year that the Italian state and the Pope made peace by signing the Lateran treaty – it was granted to a military vicar. The church is now the seat of the Military Ordinariate in Italy and has close ties to the Italian army.
Things to see
The façade of the building looks very high and slender, but this is mostly the result of the lowering of the square in front of the church (already mentioned above). Visitors will not find any spectacular decorations on the façade. All the spaces that could have been used to add painted or sculpted decorations have been (deliberately?) left empty. See the square spaces above the arches, the niches and the tondo in the triangular pediment. In the loggia we find large statues by Domenico de’ Rossi (1659-1730) on the left and right. They represent Saints Dominicus and Catherine of Alexandria. Dominicus de Guzmán (1170-1221) was, of course, the founder of the Order of the Dominicans, while Catherine was a tertiary of this order.
The Santa Caterina has a single nave and three chapels on either side. It has a splendid Baroque interior dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The best decorations are to be found in the choir, where above the high altar we can admire a relief of the Extasy of Saint Catherine by Melchiorre Cafà (1636-1667; see the image above). Cafà, who died young, was from the island of Malta, just like the architect Carlo Gimach (1651-1730), who was also active in Rome (see Rome: Sant’Anastasia). The relief of the Extasy is flanked by two other reliefs, which were made by Pietro Bracci (1700-1773). The reliefs represent two Dominican saints, the tertiary Rose of Lima (1586-1617) and the prioress Agnes of Montepulciano (1268-1317). The high altar was designed by Carlo Marchionni (1702-1786) and built a year after his death.
The ceiling fresco is also of excellent quality. It was painted in 1700-1712 by Luigi Garzi (1638-1721), a painter from Pistoia. The fresco represents the Apotheosis of Saint Catherine. The saint sits on a cloud and is dressed in the solemn black and white of the Dominicans. A woman in cheerful red and blue extends a hand towards her. She is the Virgin Mary. Behind Catherine and Mary we see several saints. On the left they are Saints John the Evangelist and Dominicus, and on the right Saints Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Alexandria (note the wheel), after whom Catherine of Siena was no doubt named. Above them, on his own cloud, is Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels and putti. The fresco gives the impression of one big happy chaos. Note the angel in the bottom left corner. He has his back turned towards the viewer and is playing a string instrument. It really pays to study the ceiling fresco quite well. The time needed for doing that is better not spent on the side chapels, as most of the art that can be found there is pretty nondescript.
Further reading: Churches of Rome Wiki.