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Page revised in September 2010.
S. Agnese fuori delle Mura (Book 6) (Day 2)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
The Plate (No. 103)
S. Agnese fuori delle Mura is one of the most ancient churches of Rome and it is dedicated to a very popular Roman martyr, yet Giuseppe Vasi did not include it in his book of etchings covering the most important churches of the Eternal City; this because S. Agnese was located not only outside the walls of the city, but also along Via Nomentana, a very minor road, while other ancient basilicas outside the walls such as S. Paolo, S. Sebastiano and S. Lorenzo were situated along important roads and were included in the pious itineraries which were recommended to pilgrims. The neighbourhood where the church was located had been scarcely populated for many centuries, but at the beginning of the XVIIIth century the situation changed slightly and Pope Clement XI turned S. Agnese into a parish church; a house was built to the left of the church as residence and office of the parish priest.
In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) old temple now S. Costanza; 2) Monastero di S. Agnese; 3) house of the parish priest; 4) Via Nomentana; 5) Ancient walls. The small 1883 map shows: 1) S. Costanza; 2) S. Agnese; 3) Via Nomentana; 4) Porta Pia.
The fašade of S. Agnese did not receive a lot of attention during the Renaissance and Baroque periods because in 1527 a broad staircase was built which leads to the church from the entrance to the monastery in Via Nomentana; a few minor additions to the fašade were removed in the XXth century to restore its VIIth century appearance; cypresses were planted in the small garden in front of it which now impair the view.
Today the neighbourhood is intensely populated and Via Nomentana is one of the busiest streets of Rome; in his etching Giuseppe Vasi included also S. Costanza, a mausoleum which is located a hundred yards from S. Agnese and which is hidden by a small mound.
According to tradition S. Agnese was built by Emperor Constantine at the insistence of his daughter Costanza on the site where St. Agnes was buried; the church was entirely rebuilt by Pope Honorius I in the VIIth century; S. Agnese is the only ancient church of Rome which retains a matroneum, a gallery from which women attended ceremonies. The columns of the nave and of the matroneum are of different height and material and were taken from ancient buildings.
According to tradition Agnes of Rome was put to death during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian because she refused to marry; for this reason she is the patron saint of chastity and of virgins; her name is similar to agnus, the Latin word for lamb, and the saint is usually portrayed with a lamb in her arms or at her feet (see the image used as background for this page which is based on a painting in S. Agnese); another church dedicated to her was built on the site of her martyrdom (today's Piazza Navona).
On January 21, the saint's feast, two lambs are blessed; their wool is woven to make the pallium, a vestment worn by the pope. Pope Paul V built a new altar beneath which he placed the remains of the saint in a silver shrine; after performing the solemn function on January 21, 1621, he fell gravely ill and he passed away a few days later.
For a long time the church belonged to a convent of nuns, but Pope Sixtus IV assigned it to the Canons Regular of S. Giovanni in Laterano; Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, a nephew of the pope who became Pope Julius II in 1503, restored the church and the monastery extensively.
According to the prevailing opinion at Vasi's time the mausoleum of Costanza (or Costantina), daughter of Emperor Constantine, was a Temple to Bacchus which had been adapted to house the sarcophagus of Costanza; this view was based on the mosaic decoration of the building which showed scenes of the vintage with putti playing with clusters of grape: these scenes however could also be consistent with symbols adopted by the early Christians (the inscription of the mosaic in the apse of S. Clemente makes a comparison between the Church and vine); in addition the circular shape of the building is typical of Roman mausolea and similar to that housing the sarcophagus of St. Helena, Costanza's grandmother.
Costanza was cured of leprosy after having prayed at the tomb of St. Agnes and she decided not to marry; the mausoleum was turned into a church in the XIIIth century; Costanza is not a recognized saint. Notwithstanding the original purpose of the building (a copy of the sarcophagus stands behind the altar), S. Costanza is regarded as an excellent location for weddings, probably because relatives and guests have a better view of the ceremony than in a traditional church.
Because of the references to the grape harvest in the sarcophagus and in the mosaics, the Bentvueghels (birds of a feather), the Dutch artists living in Rome, used to meet at inns near S. Costanza where they showed their devotion to Bacchus.
The mosaics which decorated the central hall are lost, but those in the surrounding peristyle can still be admired (they were restored in the XIXth century); they are divided into sections; in some of them a geometric pattern prevails; in others the subjects seem to float in the air.
The remains of a thick wall to the right of the mausoleum are thought to have been part of a very large courtyard which surrounded the mausoleum.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 6: S. Maria a Trevi
Next step in Day 2 itinerary: Palazzo Barberini