The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
S. Croce in Gerusalemme
Tempio di Venere e Cupido, Circus Varianus and Houses of Imperial Officers
S. Maria del Buon Aiuto and Oratorio di S. Margherita
The lonely situation of this antique Basilica, amidst groves, gardens and vineyards, and the number of mouldering monuments and tottering arches that surround it, give it a solemn and affecting appearance
John Chetwode Eustace - A Classical Tour through Italy in 1802
S. Croce in Gerusalemme is one of the Sette Chiese, the seven Roman basilicas which are visited by pilgrims, especially during the Jubilee years. It is said to have been built by St. Helena to house the fragments of the True Cross she found in Jerusalem and brought to Rome. At the time of the plate the fašade had just been rebuilt (1743) by Domenico Gregorini and Pietro Passalacqua at the initiative of Pope Benedict XIV.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Acquedotto dell'Acqua Claudia; 2) Tempio di Venere e Cupido; 3) Monastery; 4) Street leading to Porta S. Lorenzo. 1) is covered in another page. The small map shows also 5) S. Maria del Buon Aiuto; 6) Terme Eleniane; 7) Oratorio di S. Margherita.
The view in May 2009 (you may wish to see a 1909 watercolour by Yoshio Markino depicting the basilica)
S. Croce is no longer in a remote area of Rome, but a large space in front of the basilica has been preserved from modern buildings and the view is almost
that shown in Vasi's etching. The building faces north-west and therefore it is best seen in the afternoon of a day near the summer solstice.
You may wish to see the basilica as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome, when it was surrounded by walls and its aspect was very similar to that of S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura.
(left) Fašade (of the vestibule); (right) bell tower (XIIth century)
The original church was made up of the large hall with an apse of an ancient Roman residence. It was modified in the XIIth century by the addition of a transept and the division of the hall into three naves. Other major changes were made in 1743 when an elliptical vestibule, perhaps the swansong of Roman baroque architecture, was added before the church.
Apse and rear part of the church which shows the walls of Helena's palace
The Palace, inside the walls, is known in documents of a later age as the Palatium Sessorianum. The origin of the name is obscure, but the fact that it was an Imperial residence of the third and part of the fourth century is undoubted. Helena, mother of Constantine, preferred it to the Palace of the Caesars, and the place is full of associations of her. (..) I confine myself strictly to archaeological evidence: but Church documents give fuller details about their works, and about the transformation of the great hall of the palace into a Christian place of worship under the title of Hierusalem. This hall resembled very closely in shape and dimensions the Templum Sacrae Urbis turned into a church by Felix IV. Constantine left the hall as it was; he only closed the lower arches opening on the garden, and added an apse at the east end.
Rodolfo Lanciani - The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome - 1897
Museum of the Basilica: XIIth century frescoes portraying two Patriarchs
In 1913 during a restoration of the building some detached frescoes of the old church were discovered in a recess under the roof where most likely they had been forgotten at the end of a late XVth century redecoration of the apse.
The fašade is crowned by gigantic statues. One of them portrays Emperor Constantine, the son of St. Helena, as if he were a saint (for the Greek Orthodox Church he is a saint). You may wish to see a gigantic statue of Constantine by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and one of St. Helena by Andrea Bolgi, one of his assistants.
(left) Dome of the vestibule: its neat stucco decoration recalls patterns established by Francesco Borromini at Cappella dei Re Magi; (right) detail of an oil painting by Corrado Giaquinto on the ceiling of the main nave
Giaquinto portrayed Constantine on his knees while his mother introduces him to the Virgin Mary who in turn intercedes on his behalf with the Holy Trinity. The Emperor did have a need for good advocates as he had ordered the killing of his wife and of his eldest son. The purpose of the painting was to recognize the contribution of Catholic monarchs (and in particular of the Habsburg Roman Holy Emperors) in the stamping out of heresies. The painting by Giaquinto does not have the illusionistic features of many other Roman ceilings of that period. You may wish to see the ceilings he painted at S. Nicola dei Lorenesi and at S. Giovanni Calibita.
Baroque canopy and apse with late XVth century frescoes depicting events associated with the True Cross (you may wish to see the frescoes by Piero della Francesca at Arezzo depicting the same subject)
Gregorini and Passalacqua had to work on a tight budget and they did not touch parts of the building. They used the existing ancient columns of a medieval ciborium to place above them a very baroque bronze structure.
Cappella di S. Elena: (left) mosaic of the ceiling; (right) ancient statue of Juno found at Ostia and turned into a statue of St. Helena in the XVIIIth century
The main altar and the apse were not the heart of the church. Pilgrims went to S. Croce in Gerusalemme to see the fragments of the True Cross and other relics and these were kept in an underground chapel which is said to have been built by Empress Galla Placidia (or by her son Valentinian III); it was decorated with (lost) mosaics similar to those of her mausoleum at Ravenna. The decoration of the chapel was renewed in the late XVth century with mosaics perhaps based on drawings by Melozzo da Forlý. In the XVIIth century some fragments of the cross were moved to S. Pietro.
(left) Cappella Gregoriana, a chapel adjoining Cappella di S. Elena: pedestal of a statue of St. Helena (it was found at the time of Pope Sixtus V and based on the text of the inscription it is dated 327); (centre) 1755 monument to Cardinal Gioacchino Besozzi by Innocenzo Spinazzi (see a page on similar monuments); (right) entrance to Cappella delle Reliquie
The holiness of the underground chapels was increased by the fact that according to tradition their original floors were covered with earth from Jerusalem that St. Helena had carried with her. Many cardinals, bishops and other pious men chose to be buried in these chapels. Unfortunately for them the relics were moved in 1930 to Cappella delle Reliquie, a new modern chapel which was completed in 1952. It can accommodate the visit of large groups, but it lacks the appeal which praying where others have prayed for centuries gives to a holy site.
The monastery adjoining the basilica belongs to the Cistercian Order, a branch of the Benedictines with a great deal of emphasis on self-sufficiency and manual work; the monks have their kitchen garden inside nearby Anfiteatro Castrense, a Roman small amphitheatre behind the basilica.
The monastery seen from the garden
(left) Tempio di Venere e Cupido; (centre) Musei Vaticani: the statue which was found in the "temple" and after which it is named; (right) Centrale Montemartini: statue of a muse leaning on a rock pillar which was found in 1928 in a new development to the east of the "temple"
The extreme southeast corner of the city, between the line of the Claudian aqueduct and the Amphitheatrum Castrense, seems to have been the property of the Varian family from an early period, and to have been transformed into a park by Sextus Varius Marcellus, father of the Emperor Heliogabalus. Lanciani
The ruins which Vasi attributes to a temple to Venus and Cupid are actually those of a villa built by Emperor Heliogabalus, which later on became part of the residence of St. Helena (Palatium Sessorianum). The statue of Venus (known as Venus Felix) is said to portray Sallustia Orbiana, wife of Emperor Alexander Severus. It was found before 1509 when chronicles say that Pope Julius II moved it to Casino di Belvedere.
Remaining evidence of Circus Varianus and the walls of Rome in the background
Heliogabalus enlarged and improved the gardens, which became part of the Imperial domain. Here he retired to conspire against the life of his cousin, Severus Alexander, and here he was found, starting a chariot race, by the praetorians eager to take a revenge for the attempted assassination of the cherished young prince. The gardens were cut in two by Aurelian's walls. We do not know whether the part extra muros was abandoned. (..) When Antonio da Sangallo the younger examined the ruins of the circus in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, an obelisk was still lying broken in three pieces in the vineyard of a Messer Jeronimo Milanese. (..) The remains of the Circus were very conspicuous in those days. (..) The obelisk was dug out in 1570 (..) and it was removed in the following century to the Barberini garden. Valadier and Pius VII. erected it at last in the central avenue of the passeggiata del Pincio. It is a work of Hadrian's time, cut in memory of his favorite Antinous. Lanciani
Evidence of two Roman houses and the aqueduct and city walls behind them
The section intra muros continued to be an Imperial garden and residence, and attained great notoriety at the time of Helena and Constantine. Lanciani
When the Aurelian walls were built strips of clear ground immediately adjacent the walls were created. The external strip gave defenders a clear view of what was happening outside and an unobstructed field of shot. The internal strip gave ready access to the rear of the curtain wall to facilitate movement of the garrison to a point of need. The buildings of the imperial residence which adjoined the walls along Aqua Claudia however were not demolished. In 330 Constantine moved the capital of the Empire to Constantinopolis and his successors never resided in Rome, thus the palace was gradually abandoned. In the early Vth century when the walls were repaired / strengthened by Emperors Arcadius and Honorius the buildings along the walls were pulled down and were covered by their own debris. In the late XIXth century the area was a vineyard (Vigna Conti, near 4 in the small map).
Floor mosaics of "Casa dei Ritratti" (House of the Portraits)
In 1959 evidence of the floors of two Roman houses was identified at the foot of the aqueduct/city walls, but only in 2016 a thorough restoration of them was carried out. They testify to the excellence of the technique used by the Romans to make floor mosaics. One of the houses is named after portraits of a man and of a woman at the centre of floor mosaics of two adjoining small halls which are decorated with leaf scrolls and birds.
Floor mosaics: (above) Casa dei Ritratti; (below) Casa delle Fontane (House of the Fountains) see a similar floor having an optical effect at Tomba Barberini
House of the Fountains was named after some small waterproof basins for collecting water in opus signinum, a technique which was used also for floors, e.g. at Solunto and Paestum.
The houses most likely belonged to high officers of the imperial court and are dated early IIIrd century AD, but there is evidence that they were maintained until the mid of the IVth century. Their design and size is almost identical.
House of Aufidia Cornelia Valentilla: floor mosaic of the largest room
Excavations made in 1887 for the opening of Viale Principessa Margherita (today Via Giovanni Giolitti) near the arches of Porta Maggiore led to finding a fistula (lead water conduit) which bore the name of Aufidia. In 1888 three other fistulae were found and Rodolfo Lanciani marked the area as AUFIDIAE VALENTILLAE. DOMUS? HORTI? in his 1893 Forma Urbis Romae.
In 1982 maintenance works under a modern power station in that area led to discovering four rooms of a finely decorated house of the second half of the IInd century AD.
House of Aufidia Cornelia Valentilla: painted walls of the largest room
The paintings follow typical Roman patterns with fake architectures framing large sections of the walls with a single subject at the centre of a wide space. The colours are chiefly red, yellow and white. You may wish to see Insula delle Ierodule at Ostia or House of the Red Walls at Pompeii for other similar paintings.
House of Aufidia Cornelia Valentilla: corridor and the stairs leading to the upper floor
The rooms were slightly below the level of the ground which explains why they were not entirely destroyed when the area near the walls was cleared. There are still three marble steps at the end of a painted corridor which has a particular kind of floor mosaic made up of grey and yellow marble pieces (see a similar floor mosaic at Villa dei Quintili). In the early IVth century, similar to the houses along the aqueduct, the house of Aufidia was inhabited by an imperial officer.
(left) Cistern of Terme Eleniane; (right) Centrale Montemartini: fragment of a floor mosaic depicting a wrestler, similar to those found at Terme di Caracalla
These baths were built at the time of Emperor Septimius Severus between S. Croce in Gerusalemme and an aqueduct built by Emperor Nero which provided them with water. They stood on low ground to be protected from northern winds and they had gardens on their southern side. An inscription found in the XVIth century indicates that they were restored by St. Helena, but it is not clear whether they were public or private baths. Today only the cisterns are visible in a sort of below ground garden surrounded by apartment blocks.
(left) S. Maria del Buon Aiuto; (centre/right) Oratorio di S. Margherita
S. Maria del Buon Aiuto was built in 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV on the site of a previous chapel known as S. Maria de Spazolaria.
The Pope placed his coat of arms on the building and an inscription with his name on the lintel of the door. A smaller inscription said that the chapel was meant for those
who wished to pray for the souls of their kin in Purgatory.
Oratorio di S. Margherita is a chapel which is rather hard to find; it is located in a tower of the Roman walls: the tower, unlike the others, has some windows on the inner side of the walls and a sort of bell tower at its top. Because of its overall aspect it was called Prigione (prison) di S. Margherita. The chapel was quite popular in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, but later on its existence was forgotten.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Fu questa eretta dall'Imperatore Costantino ad istanza di s. Elena sua madre nel suo
palazzo Sessoriano per collocarvi il legno della ss. Croce, che aveva portato da
Gerusalemme, e per˛ ne prese il titolo ed il nome. Dopo molti riattamenti fu ultimamente
rinnovata dal Pontefice Benedetto XIV. col disegno del Cav. Passalacqua Messinese, ed Ŕ
ornata con pitture, e stucchi dorati; quelle nella volta, nella crociata, e i due laterali a
fresco fatti nella tribuna sono di Corrado Giaquinto; il quadro nella prima cappella a
destra Ŕ di Gio. Bonatti, quello nella seconda di Carlo Maratti, e nella terza dipinse
il Cav. Vanni. Il ritrovamento della ss. Croce dipinto nella tribuna sembra maniera di
Pietro Perugino. Dalla porticella a destra si scende ad una devota cappella divisa in due,
una dedicata alla ss. PietÓ, e l'altra alla s. Imperatrice, nella quale ella aveva fatto
riporre della terra portata da' luoghi santi di Gerusalemme: perci˛ non Ŕ lecito di
entrarvi le donne, ed Ŕ ornata di mosaici e di marmi. I quadri ne' tre altari sono di
Pietro Paolo Rubens, e le pitture a fresco del Pomaranci. Il bassorilievo della PietÓ Ŕ
opera di autore incerto, ed il deposito del Cardinal Besozzi Ŕ d'Innocenzo Spinazzi.
Tornando poi in chiesa, il quadro del primo altare Ŕ di Luigi Garzi, ed il s. Tommaso nell'
ultima Ŕ di Giuseppe Passeri. ╚ questa una delle sette chiese, ed Ŕ ufiziata da' monaci
Cisterciensi. Lo stradone d'incontro, che porta alla basilica di s. Maria Maggiore,
fu fatto da Sisto V. e quello a sinistra, che va al Laterano, dal mentovato Benedetto XIV.