Friday, May 10, 2013

San Nicola in Carcere



Another one of Rome's many amazing churches is the Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere, St. Nicholas in Prison (photo # 1). It is on the busy Via del Teatro di Marcello, a street which takes its name from the nearby Theater of Marcellus which we discussed in a previous post. The church was built in 1128 during the pontificate of Honorius II in what was, in Roman times, the Forum Holitorium, the ancient Roman fruit and vegetable market. It was totally rebuilt by Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503) and then renovated in 1599 by Giacomo della Porta during the pontificate of Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592-1605) in preparation for the Holy Year of 1600. The work was commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, the nephew of the pope, the same cardinal who commissioned the magnificent ceiling we see today in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.


A curiosity


Clement VIII is sadly known for other things besides the rebuilding of churches. In fact, he has gone down in history as one of the "bad-guy" popes because of an incident which took place  during his pontificate. A Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno, was condemned to death by the Roman Inquisition for what was considered, at that time, heretical teaching. He was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600, in the middle of Campo de'Fiori where a statue of him now stands in his honor. (For more about Giordano Bruno see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 3, Campo de'Fiori. The description of the market surrounding the statue of Bruno will give you a vivid picture of what the ancient Forum Holitorium looked like, where San Nicola in Carcere was built).


The church was dedicated to St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra, a Greek city in what is now modern-day Turkey. The reason for the dedication to this particular saint is because a Greek community, very devoted to St. Nicholas, settled in this area of Rome in the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the right aisle of the church there is a Latin inscription which recalls the dedication to this saint. The name in carcere (in prison) is most likely applied to the church because in its subterranean part are some rooms which are believed to have been used in ancient Roman times as a prison.


But the most interesting fact about this church is that it was built into the remains of three Roman temples from the Republican era (509 B.C. – 27 B.C.) which existed here side by side. This fact alone makes this basilica unique in the city.  Remains of these temples are clearly visible, imbedded in the walls on the exterior of the church as well as in the interior and the subterranean area. On the left side of the church (your right as you face it), was a temple dedicated to the god Janus, built in 260 B.C. by the consul Caius Duilius to celebrate the Roman victory over the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. Seven columns from the temple can be seen imbedded into the external left wall of the church (photo # 2). Two other free-standing columns nearby were also part of the temple. On that same side is the bell tower which was built from the remains of a medieval tower and contains working bells forged in 1286.


The middle temple, corresponding to the church itself, was built between 197 and 194 B.C. and dedicated to Juno Sospita (the preserver). It was the largest of the three temples.


A curiosity


An ancient legend relates that during the annual festival of Juno Sospita, several virgin girls were chosen to offer food to the holy snakes which had been bred in a cave near a shrine to the goddess. If the snakes ate the food, all was well. But if they refused to eat, it was considered a bad omen and the girls would be sacrificed to appease the goddess. (I doubt if there was a waiting list of girls eager to participate in the feeding!).


The third temple, on the right side of the church, was dedicated to the goddess Spes (Hope); it was built during the First Punic War, about the same time as the temple of Janus. This was the smallest of the three temples. Six of its original twelve columns are clearly visible in the exterior wall of the church (photo # 3). The goddess Hope was one of the divinities worshipped in the Pantheon. She was invoked at anniversaries, weddings and by boys when they assumed the toga virilis (toga of manhood).


The façade of the church (photo # 1) shows a relief carving of St. Nicholas on the left, and on the right, reliefs which represent St. Mark and St. Marcellus, third-century martyrs buried in the church. Across the center of the façade is the Latin inscription which recalls Cardinal Aldobrandini who commissioned the work from Giacomo Della Porta in 1599.




Peter Aldobrandini, Cardinal Deacon of the Holy Roman Church


The interior (photo # 4) is in the basilica-style, two rows of columns which divide the church into three aisles, one large in the middle and two smaller ones on the sides. The columns themselves are all different, re-cycled from ancient Roman buildings, a common practice in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Among the many other churches which make use of ancient Roman columns are the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island.


A curiosity


On the second column on the right side (photo # 5) there is a ninth-century inscription by the rector of the church, Anastasius. It seems to be a votive offering in which the rector donates to the Church some animals, a vineyard and other things in order to ensure the salvation of his soul.


The ceiling dates to the time of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), whose coat of arms is seen in the center (photo # 6). At the end of the left aisle is a chapel which has a fourteenth-century crucifix (photo # 7) on the wall above the altar. A legend says that the body on the cross moved its eyes during a Mass celebrated by St. Gaspar del Bufalo. Also in the left aisle is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, (photo # 8) in which there is a painting brought to Rome from Mexico by the Jesuits in 1773. In the center aisle, above the columns you see nineteenth-century paintings, five on each side, which depict scenes from the life of St. Nicholas. From the same period are the frescoes in the apse celebrating St. Nicholas and Pius IX. The upper part (photo #9) shows Christ enthroned between the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas.


The subterranean area is reached by means of a  double curving stairway just inside the sanctuary. It is possible to visit it for the nominal fee of three euros paid to an attendant who will then accompany you to the area where she will give a brief explanation of the remains and then leave you free to explore on your own. The area consists of several rooms which contain remains from the three Roman temples as well as other remnants of ancient and medieval Rome. At the bottom of the steps is displayed models of the three temples (photo # 10) so you can see how they looked before the church was built. As I mentioned in my book on the Tiber Island when discussing the subterranean area of the Fatebenefratelli Hospital: Only in Rome do you see such amazing sights as this!


This church, stunning to see both inside and outside, is certainly worth a visit. It is very easy to find, just down Via del Teatro di Marcello from the centrally located Piazza Venezia. The rear of the church faces the southern tip of the Tiber island.


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