Sulle Magnificenze (Wonders) di Roma Antica e Moderna was the overall title Giuseppe Vasi gave to the ten books of etchings he published in 1747-1761, but he did not develop a plan for having books specifically covering the monuments of Ancient Rome. These were often shown in plates which were named after a church or a religious institution. In this 1753 etching Vasi used the small church of SS. Nereo and Achilleo to depict the front wall of Terme di Caracalla, the imposing baths built by Emperor Caracalla on the slope of the eastern peak of the Aventine Hill.
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) Terme di Caracalla; 2) S. Balbina; 3) SS. Nereo e Achilleo; 4) Vigna de' Padri Gesuiti (a cultivated piece of land belonging to Collegio Romano); 5) S. Sisto Vecchio; 6) Via Nuova (the urban section of ancient Via Appia). The dotted line in the small map delineates the border between Rione Ripa (left) and Rione Campitelli (right).
The view in June 2009
The area is now planted with stone pines and cypresses which limit the
view over Terme di Caracalla and the Aventine. Via Nuova was significantly enlarged in 1914 and in 1938 (it is now known as Viale delle Terme di Caracalla); when this occurred the minor buildings near S. Sisto Vecchio were pulled down (they are visible in the foreground of the plate) in order to spare SS. Nereo ed Achilleo.
Today the gardens to the side of the new road are a favourite spot for Roman joggers.
A view of SS. Nereo e Achilleo on a Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. in March 2012
(left) Fašade; (right) portal
Entring into the town by S. Sebastian's gate, I
went on streight to the Church of S. Nereus and
Achilleus of which Church Baronius was Cardinal. The bodies of these Saints are under the
High Altar. Cardinal Baronio caused this Church
to be painted with the histories of Saints and Martyrs, to excite others to devotion by their examples.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
Domine Quo Vadis is a church along Via Appia which is associated with an episode of the life of St. Peter; the same applies to SS. Nereo ed Achilleo: the church was built in memory of the bandages St. Peter lost at this spot; they protected the wounds caused by the chains which tightly bound him in prison. For this reason the church was recorded as Titulus Fasciolae (bandages) in a IVth century inscription. The inscription was repeated on the XVth century lintel above the entrance.
The column which stands opposite the church had an ancient capital and above it a bronze cross both of which have been stolen. It was similar to a column opposite nearby S. Cesareo.
"Opus Sectile" (marble inlay) gravestone of Cardinal Baccio Aldobrandini (d. 1665) commissioned by Olimpia Aldobrandini Pamphilj (see the similar gravestone of her mother-in-law at S. Martino al Cimino)
At the end of the VIth century the church was dedicated to Sts. Nereus and Achilleus, two Roman Christian soldiers who were put to death at the time of Emperor Domitian. On that occasion their relics were moved to this church. Because of its antiquity it was always a cardinal's see, but because of its smallness which did not allow the construction of chapels it does not house interesting funerary monuments exception made for a Memento Mori gravestone near the altar which is often covered by carpets, not to upset the many couples who choose this church for their wedding.
In the IXth century the church was protected by walls and by two towers one of which can still be seen near the apse of the church. Today this tower is not as tall as it was when originally built.
The plate by Vasi shows in its lower left corner a small circular building: this medieval aedicule was most likely built at the site of a previous Roman signpost which stood where a street leading to Porta Latina branched off from Via Nuova.
The current aspect of the interior is mainly due to a 1597 renovation which was promoted by Cardinal Cesare Baronio (who restored also S. Cesareo). Its walls were decorated with large frescoes depicting the martyrdoms of the Twelve Apostles and St. Paul in line with the guidelines issued by the Catholic Church in the preceding years which recommended emphasizing the importance of their heroic sacrifices.
According to tradition a group of furious scribes and Pharisees demanded that James renounce Jesus, and when he flatly refused, they apprehended him, stormed to the pinnacle of the Temple and hurled him down to an angry mob below. Still alive, the mob began to stone him, and as he prayed for their forgiveness, he was bludgeoned to death with clubs.
Thaddeus was ordered to sacrifice to the sun and the moon, but he replied that the sun and the moon were only creatures of God; then the priests and the people rushed on him; he was killed by stones, spears and blows with a club; he was finished with an ax blow on the head. In 1438 a Franciscan named Jacopo from Lanciano in Abruzzo went to Venice to venerate the relics of Saints Simon and Judas in the basilica of the same name. The friar was so impressed that he decided to bring some relics to Lanciano. He took the head of St. Simon and a forearm and tibia of Judas Thaddeus. This explains why in the painting the forearm is detached from the body.
Shops along Via Nova and in the background the front of the baths
The baths were built between 212 and 217 AD by Emperor Caracalla, most likely to regain the favour of the Romans after he had arranged the murder of his brother Geta. They were the largest baths of Rome until the construction of those dedicated to Emperor Diocletian.
They were a social meeting point, where people went not just to bathe and exercise; on the ground level along Via Nuova there were shops and taverns and facilities of another kind. According to a Roman saying: Balnea vina Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra, sed vitam faciunt balnea vina Venus (Bathing, wine and sex rot our bodies, but bathing, wine and sex are the essence of our lives).
Front of the baths
The front wall has a length of more than 200 m/218 yd. The fact that most of it still stands, shows the sound construction techniques developed by Roman engineers. The foundation of the wall does not reach a natural layer of solid rock, but stands on an artificial terrace which replaced uneven marshy ground. To create a terrace wide enough to contain the main building, the gardens and large ancillary facilities, the engineers had to cut the slope of the hill and to build a high retaining wall to prevent landslides.
The Baths of the
Emperor Caracalla, are esteemed to be the most
largest and Vastest buildings in Rome, but not admitted
to be seene by any stranger, in regard the Jesuits have the
place in their power and permits it not.
Francis Mortoft's Journal of his travels in France and Italy in 1658-1659
The Jesuits of Collegio Romano owned the largest part of the baths, but their western section belonged to some Roman families, e.g. the Boccapaduli. The Jesuits adapted to their use parts of the baths along the front wall where they opened some passages. In Roman time the baths were not accessed from a large opening in the front wall, but from small entrances at its ends.
Mosaic was diffused here as a general flooring. I followed it on the steps of a broken stair-case, up to the very summit. I found the tessellation entire even where the pavement had sunk, and had left round the room a vacancy which was filled with a skirting of flowered alabaster.
Joseph Forsyth - Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters in Italy in 1802-1803
All the facilities of the baths, including the apodyteria (changing rooms), had fine floor mosaics based on geometric patterns or depicting cupids riding sea monsters.
Musei Vaticani: floor mosaic found in 1824-1827 in ancillary facilities, perhaps libraries, in the garden
Caracalla's ruins seem to have been well distributed, and stand in a fine advantageous solitude. These baths, coexisting with others of equal extent, will appear too extravagantly large even for "the most high and palmy state of Rome," until we reflect on the various exercises connected with the bath, on the habits of the people, the heat of the climate, the rarity of linen, and the cheapness of bathing, which brought hither the whole population of the city. Forsyth
The subject of this floor mosaic departs from those in the main building and perhaps it was made in the early IVth century as it shows a somewhat cruder taste which calls to mind Mosaico del Gladiatore. It depicts naked "pancratiasts" (wrestlers/boxers) and referees wearing a toga, similar to what can be seen at Terme di Porta Marina at Ostia. Some "pancratiasts" have a cirrus in vertice (top curl), a pig-tail hairstyle which was typical of professional athletes. It can be noticed also in other mosaics, e.g. at Aquileia.
One of three parallel underground passageways, where decorative material found in the baths is on display
The excavations and discoveries which Abel Blouet made
in 1824, Guidi in 1878, and ourselves during the last fifteen years in the baths of Caracalla, show clearly how the
service was organized. It was carried on entirely underground, by means of crypto-porticoes, which allowed the
servants to appear suddenly everywhere, and to meet the
requirements of the visitors without crossing the halls and
without interfering with the circulation of the noble crowd.
Rodolfo Lanciani - Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries - 1888
At Carthage the ruins of the Roman baths show a maze of impressive underground structures. Similar underground service passageways have been identified in the Palatine palaces and at Villa Adriana. A mithraeum was identified at the end of one of the underground passages at Caracalla. It was probably built and attended by slaves or servants who worked at the baths.
Capitals portraying Hercules (left) and Minerva (right) which were found in the frigidarium (cold room)
The main halls of the baths were decorated with high columns of Egyptian granite, similar to those which can still be seen inside S. Maria degli Angeli. In 1562 a still standing column was donated to Cosimo I, Duke of Florence. It was moved to Florence in the following year and placed at the end of Via Tornabuoni where it supports a statue of Justice - it opens in a separate window.
Fragments of marble friezes
After the Greek-Gothic War during which in 537 the aqueducts were severely damaged, the baths were regarded as a quarry for centuries and were deprived of all their decoration. Yet modern excavations have found fragments of a long marble frieze which embellished the eastern palaestra; some of them have been placed back on the walls, while others are on display in the underground passageway. They depict an acanthus scroll with some animals and small scenes (see a similar fragment in the portico of S. Saba, not far away from the baths).
The column which was donated to Duke Cosimo was still at its original location most likely because it was too big to be moved when in the XIIth century many columns of the baths were utilized for the reconstruction of S. Maria in Trastevere. Some capitals in the Cathedral of Pisa came from Caracalla's Baths too.
Piazza Farnese: one of two basins from Caracalla's Baths which was used for a fountain in the XVIth century
Two large basins from Terme di Caracalla were moved to Palazzo S. Marco in the XVIth century and then turned into fountains to embellish Piazza Farnese.
Archaeological Museum of Naples - Farnese Collection: (left) Farnese Bull (Punishment of Dirce); (right) Farnese Hercules. Both statues have been restored/completed
Dirce, Amphion and Zethus upon a vast
rock with the Bull, and other Animals. The
Figures are very fine, especially the Dirce in
Broad parts more remarkably than any other
Statues. 'Tis in a Great Taste, but extremely
Hard, and without any Delicacy at all. The
Animals are but Indifferent, and the Rope very poor. This is commonly call'd the Toro.
(..) This is esteem'd the Greatest Groupe of
Antique Statues cut out of One Stone of which we have any account. (..) Hercules is of a Beautiful White Marble, mellow'd as to its
Colour by Time; 'tis about three times as big
as the Life, and Well preserv'd. (..) It is so Famous, and so well known and of which there are so many Prints and Drawings, (..) that it needs no farther Description.
Jonathan and Jonathan Richardson - Account of Some of the Statues, etc. in Italy - 1722
At the time of Pope Paul III some gigantic statues were found which became part of the private collection of the Farnese, the family of the Pope. In 1787 they were moved to Naples.
Between 1937 and the end of the 1980s, a Summer Opera Season was staged between the two remaining pillars which supported the calidarium, the main hot hall of the baths. Aida by Giuseppe Verdi especially profited from this setting. Since 2003 the Summer Opera Season is again staged at Terme di Caracalla, but at some distance from the pillars.
You are invited to spend An Evening at the Opera at Caracalla or to read Seneca at the Baths (with many more images and an account of what went on in the baths) or William Dean Howells' account of his visit to Terme di Caracalla in 1908. The image used as background for this page shows the text of Celeste Aida, a famous aria from the opera by Verdi.
View of the church and of the adjoining monastery (today a house for the elderly)
During the Middle Ages the Aventine housed three monasteries which had the appearance of fortresses: S. Sabina, S. Saba and S. Balbina. The church stands on a building which was included in a large villa owned by Lucius Fabius Cilo, a Roman senator who was a supporter of Emperor Septimius Severus. It was first recorded as dedicated to St. Balbina, a IInd century martyr, in 595.
In 1927-1930 S. Balbina was returned to its supposed medieval aspect (you may wish to see the church in a 1588 Guide to Rome).
(left) Monument to Stefano de' Surdis, Chaplain of the Pope (d. 1303) (see other details in the Hall of Fame page of this website and the monument to Cardinal Riccardo degli Annibaldi, his uncle at S. Giovanni in Laterano); (right) episcopal chair
The too many changes undergone by the church during its long history have deprived the building of historical and artistic consistency. It contains however a number of works of art of different periods which are well worth being seen, in particular two which are attributed to the Cosmati, although the episcopal chair was perhaps overly restored (it is very similar to that at S. Lorenzo fuori le mura).
We know that the apse of S. Balbina was decorated with ancient mosaics, but during the XIIth century it collapsed. The church remained in a very precarious condition until 1489 when Cardinal Barbo promoted its restoration, but not that of the adjoining monastery.
(left) Late XIIIth century fresco; (right) relief from the tomb of Pope Paul II in S. Pietro Vecchio by Giovanni Dalmata and Mino da Fiesole. It was relocated to S. Balbina in 1650
The interior is a large rectangular hall without chapels. The wall however was thick enough to house six niches on each side. A couple of them retain parts of their medieval fresco decoration, while another one has a fine relief from the tomb of Pope Paul II. When the monument was dismantled some decorative elements were so similar to ancient reliefs that they were acquired by the Borghese and eventually sold to Napoleon (one of them is on display at the Louvre - it opens in another window).
Pope Clement VIII promoted a major effort aimed at the restoration and embellishment of the churches of Rome for the Jubilee Year 1600. In 1599 Pompeo Arrigoni, titular cardinal of S. Balbina, commissioned Anastasio Fontebuoni, a young painter from Florence, to decorate the apse of the church. Fontebuoni was involved also in the decoration of that of S. Prisca. It was a period during which painters had to strictly follow the advice given to them by priests, yet the way Jesus Christ was portrayed is rather puzzling, because the upper part of the body is naked and muscular. In 1599 the muscular nudities painted by Michelangelo in the Last Judgement in 1536-1541 were regarded as being (almost) heretical and Fontebuoni took some risks.
(left) Musei Capitolini: Eros and Psyche which was found near S. Balbina (IInd century AD) (see a similar statue at Ostia); (right) fragment of a mosaic depicting the zodiacal signs found near Porta Ardeatina in 1938
Cupid and Psyche in fond embrace, found on the Aventine,
and Leda visited by Jupiter in the form of a swan; they are not shown without the special permission
of the custode.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1843
The statue was found in 1749. Pope Benedict XIV felt its subject would not be appropriate for a papal museum or palace and he donated it to Musei Capitolini. Similar to other ancient works of art it was seized by Napoleon, but Pope Pius VII managed to persuade King Louis XVIII to return it in 1816.
The enlargement of the street leading to Terme di Caracalla was part of a larger project aimed at linking Rome with EUR, a new quarter which was expected to house Esposizione Universale di Roma, the 1942 World Exhibition. When the new road was about to cross the walls near Porta Ardeatina, an ancient necropolis was discovered. A black and white mosaic which was found there was relocated to S. Balbina which had a very plain floor.
View of Villa Mattei on the Caelian Hill from S. Balbina
The other part of the peak of the Aventine where S. Balbina is situated houses an interesting early XXth century development (known as S. Saba) where you may wish to have a stroll. The street behind the church is covered in a page about the Silent Streets of Rome.
(left) Fašade; (centre) details of the portal (above) and of a window (below); (right) XIIIth century bell tower; you may wish to see the 1478 inscription on a side entrance
The church is first recorded in the late IVth century; because the area was often flooded it was rebuilt several times and each time the floor was raised. The church was called Vecchio (old) in the late XVIth century when the Dominican nuns who lived in the adjoining building were relocated to SS. Domenico e Sisto, because of the unhealthiness of the site.
The church and the nunnery were used again in the XVIIIth century. The new fašade is a 1725 work by Filippo Raguzzini, who maintained the original entrance by Giacomo Della Porta which shows the dragons of Pope Gregory XIII (you may wish to see the building as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome).
Next plate in Book 3: Chiesa di S. Cesareo.
Next step in Day 5 itinerary: Chiesa di S. Cesareo.
Next step in your tour of Rione Ripa: Chiesa di S. Cesareo.
Next step in your tour of Rione Campitelli: Villa Mattei.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Si ascende a questa chiesa per un vicoletto molto erto, e dalla struttura di essa si ravvisa la sua antichitÓ. ╚ stato creduto da molti, che questa sia quella eretta da s. Marco Papa sulla via Ardeatina, perchŔ qui sono i corpi della s. Titolare, di s. Quirino suo Padre, e di cinque altri santi Martiri; ma essendo quella via fuori delle mura della CittÓ, ci˛ non pu˛ essere; e per˛ solamente si fa di sicuro, che fu consagrata da s. Gregorio Magno. Stette sotto la cura digli Eremiti di s. Agostino; ma ora la tengono i chierici Pii operarj. Questa contrada anticamente dicevasi Piscina pubblica, ed era la parte pi¨ abitata della CittÓ, specialmente nel tempo, che Annibale stava vicino a Roma, e la strada dicevasi Via nova, sebbene alcuni pensino, che da questo luogo principiasse la celebre Via Appia. Or su questa camminando si vede dopo pochi passi la
Quella chiesa fu edificata, come si crede, dal Pontefice s. Giovanni I. sopra un tempio d'Iside, e fu detta in fasciola per la memoria, che vi tenevano i Cristiani di una fascietta quivi caduta a s. Pietro, quando per il timore di Nerone fuggiva da Roma, colla quale teneva legata la gamba impiagata da' ceppi, tra i quali stette nella prigione. Il Ven. Card. Baronio, essendone titolare, la ristaur˛ nella miglior maniera, affinchŔ si conservasse l'antica forma di basilica con colonne, pulpiti di marmo, e ciborio, ed avendovi collocato sotto i corpi de' santi Titolari, e fattevi dipingere le muraglie da Niccol˛ Pomarancio, nell'anno 1597. a sua istanza fu data in cura ai Preti della Congregazione dell'Oratorio. Dietro di questa si vedono le rovine delle
E' sentimento di tutti gl'intendenti di architettura, che queste terme, che Antoniane furono dette, siano state le pi¨ magnifiche, e ben ordinate nell'arte, ed altresý le pi¨ ricche di statue, e marmi preziosi; poichŔ sotto di queste ruine furono trovati il Toro, e l'Ercole Farnesiano, con quasi infinite altre raritÓ, che si vedono in Roma.