During the Middle Ages and until the early XXth century S. Sabba (S. Saba today) was almost
the only building on this peak of the Aventine Hill.
It must be said that even at the time of ancient Rome the area was scarcely inhabited, although the population of the city was much larger than it was in 1753, when Vasi made this etching. The street leading to the church was a dead end and it was very steep; Vasi did not show any coaches attempting to reach its top.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Monastery and church of S. Saba; 2) External porch; 3) Sarcophagus in the internal porch of the church (not shown in the map). The map shows also 3) Rovine delle Mura Serviane.
The view in April 2009
The view of the final part of the street leading to the church is very similar to that of the etching; the area around the church is no longer occupied by vineyards and kitchen gardens, but overall it retains a very peaceful atmosphere. You may wish to have a stroll in S. Saba, an early XXth century housing development which is named after the church.
The church was built in the last years of the Xth century above an oratory of the VIIth century. In ca 1462 Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, during the pontificate of his uncle Pope Pius II, added the loggia and restored the interior. You see his coat of arms in the image used as a background for this page. You may wish to see the building as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome: its portico had six nice ancient columns which Pope Pius VI replaced with brick pillars in the late XVIIIth century (perhaps they were used for the decoration of his family palace).
Early examples of Cosmati decoration: (above) 1205 lintel of the entrance; (below-left) pavement; (below-right) detail of the balustrade which separated the choir from the rest of the church: it was decorated by the Vassalletto,
another family of mosaicists of the XIIIth century who are best known for the decoration of the cloister of S. Paolo fuori le Mura
St. Sabba (439-532) was a Greek monk who founded several lavra in Palestine, a lavra being a community living in small caves or cells around a chapel and a refectory; the most famous of them is the Great Lavra known as Mar Saba near Bethlehem in the West Bank. In the VIIth century Palestine was first occupied by the Persians, then retaken by the Byzantines and eventually it was invaded by the Arabs. It is likely that monks who fled from the devastations of that country founded the first church/monastery on this part of the Aventine. Towards the year 1000 with the deepening of the rift between Rome and the Greek Orthodox world, the monastery was assigned to the Benedictines and later on to (Benedictine) monks from Cluny Abbey, who restored the church and embellished it with frescoes and mosaics.
(left) Interior; (right) fourth nave
In the early XXth century the interior of the church was freed from additions made after the XVth century. The church has an unusual "fourth nave", smaller than the others on the left side of the building. It could have been a lateral portico facing a lost monastery. In the XIIth century it was closed and it became a "fourth nave". In the following century it was decorated with some fine frescoes.
Fourth nave: XIIIth century frescoes: (left) Madonna and Child with St. Saba; (right) Pope St. Gregory the Great (?) and another saint
Vasi shows a sarcophagus on the right side of the plate, but he explains it is in the portico (where it still is). The decoration of the sarcophagus is called strigilato after the curved shape of strigilis, a tool used by the ancient Romans to take away sweat or oil after exercise or massage (you may wish to see a mosaic at Ostia showing its use).
(left) Fragment of an ancient lintel showing an acanthus scroll with a winged horse and a small bird; (right) VIth century AD relief portraying a farmer picking a fruit (another medieval relief on display in the portico is shown in the historical section)
The sarcophagus is part of a small collection of antiquities which were found in the area surrounding the monastery, including a number of ancient bricks
bearing the manufacturer's brand.
The use of acanthus leaves arranged as a scroll is a decorative motif which was widely used in classical architecture; during the last centuries of the Roman Empire the scrolls became "inhabited" by the depiction of birds or small hunting scenes (you may wish to see mosaics with this type of scrolls at Corinth and Philippopolis and reliefs at Vaison and Arles).
(left) Detail of a sarcophagus portraying a lion killing a boar (a similar one can be seen in Strada dell'Orso); (centre) relief of another sarcophagus portraying the Good Shepherd; (right) right wall of the portico with inscriptions and fragments of
Servian Walls in Piazza Albania (left) and in Via S. Anselmo (right)
Ancient Rome had three sets of walls: a) the walls built on the Palatine Hill when Rome was founded by Romulus on
April 21, 753 BC (the Romans counted the years ab urbe condita from this date). The walls
were later on incorporated into the palaces built by the emperors; b) the Servian Walls, named
after Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, but most likely built during the Republican government of
Rome in the IVth century BC. They surrounded the seven hills of Rome; c) the Aurelian Walls (see map - it opens in another window) built in 275 AD by Emperor Aurelian and to a great extent still in place.
The valley between the two peaks of the Aventine retains one of the two remaining stretches of the Servian Walls (the other one being Aggere Serviano). This section was most likely restored in the Ist century BC during a period of civil strife. It retains an arched opening for a ballista, an engine which threw stones on the assailants.
Detail of Colonna Traiana showing Roman soldiers activating a ballista in a fortified military camp
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Fu questa col monastero data a monaci Greci de' quali nell'anno 772. fu creato
Papa Adriano I. ma poi mancando i Greci, fu eretta in commenda, e finalmente da
Gregorio XIII. fu unita al collegio Germanico in s. Apollinare. Nel portico di questa
evvi un sarcofago antico, che si crede essere stato di Tito, o di Vespasiano Imperatore.