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Monday, January 3, 2011

The hidden, hard-to-find, and worth-it churches of Rome, at least 3 of them

Recent painting of Santa Bibiana and train station tower

There’s no hard and fast count on the number of churches in Rome, and even beyond the total, there are hidden (in the sense that the guidebooks rarely get you there) churches in Rome that are real gems. Because we are Rome the Second Time, we don’t focus much on churches at all, but now and then Bill lets me be the “church lady” and point out a couple I love.

Here are 3 of my favorite “second time” churches: Santa Bibiana, Santa Sabina and San Giorgio in Velabro (note the Santa Costanza/Sant’Agnese fuori le mura complex made it into Rome the Second Time and RST's Top 40, coming in at #21 - even with Bill getting an equal vote – you can see them in our March 15, 2010 post.)

Altar with Bernini's Santa Bibiana
Santa Bibiana is the most central, yet in some ways the hardest to get to. We included it in our “10 things to do around the train station” post of August 5 of this yearSanta Bibiana is on via Giolitti – the street that runs along the south side of Stazione Termini. It sits improbably next to the station’s outer buildings (look for the adjoining tall round tower, covered in travertine with spiral staircase – a fine example of modernism, rather than “ugly” as some have said – at least in our opinion and in the opinion of a recent Rome academy painter whose painting is at the top of this post). No doubt not in Bernini’s time, but it is now dangerous to approach the church across intra-city train tracks and the entrance to the underground passageway that leads to the other side of the major tracks – these look fairly peaceful in the painting, but believe me, they’re not.  In fact the painting relocates the church past the tower from the station, which it is not (i.e., don't use this painting as a guide to getting there). 

Santa Bibiana

The photo at right is more realistic (Bernini, if you only could see your church now! - also, a counter to those who say graffiti "artists" don't touch church buildings). 

Although the first building on the site dates to the 5th century, the extant church of 1624-26 is Bernini's, his first major commission. He already was in fine form, as shown in his portico, façade and sculpture of the saint.

Glen Thompson of Wisconsin Lutheran College, a scholar of Early Church History, has an elaborate post on the church and the saint: He calls Bibiana or “Vivian”…one of the strangest saints around.”

In additional to general praise of Bernini and the church, Prof. Thompson recounts: “On the interior walls are a beautiful set of frescoes from the same century by Pietro da Cortona illustrating the life of St. Bibiana. Above the altar is a breathtaking marble statue of the saint carved by Bernini, and under the altar is an alabaster urn containing her remains (or relics), found under the altar of the previous church during its seventeenth century renovations.
"But who was St. Bibiana? The early medieval stories center on one Christian family in Rome in the mid-fourth century. Bibiana’s father Flavian, her mother Dafrosa, and her sister Demetria all suffered in various ways for refusing to deny their faith, and Bibiana was executed – all during the time of Julian the Apostate. Julian was emperor from 361-363, and he tried to turn the empire back to paganism 50 years after Constantine had made Christianity legal. However he died before he got his program off the ground, and there is no record of any overt persecution of Christians in Rome during Julian’s time, much less any martyrdoms! The legends about Bibiana were made up about a century later. To us,"  Prof. Thompson continues, "it seems strange that people would invent a saint for whom to dedicate their church, rather than merely choose the name of a well-documented one. My theory is that the land for the church was donated by someone, and that the story was created to give that particular spot meaning. According to the legend, the church occupies the spot where Bibiana’s house once stood.”

You may want to pray to the saint if you make it safely to her church and also hit the unusual opening hours: 7:30 - 10 a.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m. You can’t enter as a gawker during masses (weekdays 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. and Sundays 8:30, 10, 11:30 in the morning and 6:30 in the evening.

Interior of Santa Sabina

Another favorite second-time church of ours, also allegedly built on a saint’s home, is Santa Sabina. It's central enough that it makes it into some guidebooks; nonetheless, it's usually not on the Rome first-timer's list.  Santa Sabina is the mother church of the Dominicans in Rome, beautifully sited atop the Aventine Hill, next to a park well-used and favored by Romans for its with views of the city and Tiber. The church also dates to the 5th century and, while modified over the years (including by Bernini), as recently as the 20th century, it was taken back to its earlier style by an architect working under the Fascists, Antonio Munez. The inside of the church is cool, open and airy. The 1st millennium artifacts are impressive and stand out in this atmosphere. For more on the church and its history, see  Also, Bill photographed the smoking (literally) bride and groom in the park there, as shown in his blog of June 23 this year
Interior of San Giorgio in Velabro
And finally below the Aventine, swim through the crowds waiting to put their hand in Bocca della Verita' (the mouth of truth) at the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church; go behind that to the winding streets via Velabro and via di San Teodoro.

There are several churches there with impressive histories, but we suggest first stepping in San Giorgio di Velabro. Here again, one inhales the air of the first millennium (and earlier). Definitely worth taking in that whiff of history. Bear in mind, much of this was reconstructed not only during the Fascist era but also after an explosion in 1993; the reconstruction is superb and the ancient artifacts stand out.  See for more details.

Exterior and portico of San Giorgio in Velabro
We’ll pick up some other “hidden,” second-time churches in another post - some time in the far distant future when Bill once more unshackles church lady.

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