The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Catacombe della Via Appia
Cecilia Metella and S. Nicola a Capo di Bove
In part two:
Circo di Massenzio
Valle della Caffarella
Sepolcro di Annia Regilla
S. Urbano and Catacomba di Pretestato
Ninfeo di Egeria
SS. Annunziata (Annunziatella) and Villa di Numisia e Munazia Procula
S. Sebastiano is one of the seven basilicas travellers to Rome usually visited, in particular after 1552 when St. Philip Neri promoted
la Visita delle Sette Chiese, a special pilgrimage which was done in one day starting from
S. Pietro and ending at S. Maria Maggiore, via
S. Paolo fuori le Mura, S. Sebastiano, S. Giovanni in Laterano,
S. Croce in Gerusalemme and S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura; a section of the street which links S. Paolo fuori le Mura with S. Sebastiano is still called Via delle Sette Chiese.
Giuseppe Vasi could not avoid showing S. Sebastiano in his 1753 book of etchings showing the basilicas and the oldest churches of Rome. He tried however to kill two birds with one stone, i.e. to include the imposing tomb of Cecilia Metella in the view. The result was rather poor.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1924 map of the environs of Rome. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) S. Sebastiano; 2) Street leading to S. Paolo fuori le Mura (Via delle Sette Chiese); 3) Cecilia Metella. The small map shows also: 4) Circo di Massenzio; 5) Valle della Caffarella; 6) Sepolcro di Annia Regilla (aka Tempio del Dio Redicolo); 7) Ninfeo di Egeria; 8) S. Urbano; 9) Via Ardeatina leading to to SS. Annunziata.
The view in November 2009
Because of its archaeological and historical value the area along Via Appia Antica is protected from the construction of new buildings and from major modifications to the existing ones; for this reason little has changed since Vasi's time. In 1852 Pope Pius IX erected a column opposite the church to celebrate steps he took for the conservation of the ancient monuments along Via Appia Antica from Porta S. Sebastiano to the junction with Via Appia Nuova.
(left) Façade; (right) interior
In 1586 Pope Sixtus V replaced S. Sebastiano with S. Maria del Popolo in la Visita delle Sette Chiese; the decision was motivated by the poor condition of the church and by the lack of security of the area where it was located (you may wish to see the church as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome).
The church was almost totally rebuilt in 1612 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. The new building was designed by Flaminio Ponzio and Giovanni Vasanzio, the architects of Casino di Villa Borghese. It is smaller than the ancient one because it occupies only the main nave of the previous building.
S. Sebastiano was included again in la Visita delle Sette Chiese.
Cappella di S. Sebastiano: (above) Statue of St. Sebastian by Giuseppe Giorgetti (also in the image used as background for this page); you may wish to compare it with those of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and St. Anastasia; (below) floor with the heraldic symbols of Cardinal Francesco Barberini: bees and the Sun
Maybe Pope Sixtus V excluded S. Sebastiano from la Visita delle Sette Chiese because he was worried about the relevance given to a saint whose actual existence was uncertain and whose assumed deeds were not different from those of many other martyrs.
According to an account by St. Ambrose, Sebastian was an officer in the guard of Emperor Diocletian; he embraced the Christian faith and promoted the conversion of two guards; when Diocletian learnt about his behaviour, he sentenced him to death and ordered his fellow comrades to execute him; they tied him to a tree and shot some arrows at him; then they left the site believing Sebastian was dead, but he was not and he recovered thanks to the medications of a Christian matron; he then returned to the Imperial Palace to confirm his faith and to be sentenced to death. This time Diocletian ordered that he should be beaten to death in Circus Maximus.
The doubts about the likelihood of this account arise from the fact that Diocletian did not reside in Rome and that the Romans did not have a method for execution based on shooting arrows, because they were not skilled archers; the Roman army was complemented by units of archers, but their components were recruited in the eastern provinces of the Empire.
The popularity of St. Sebastian grew in 680 when a pestilence ended after his relics were carried through Rome during a solemn procession; later on the depiction of his martyrdom (or to be accurate of his failed martyrdom) became a preferred subject for painters and sculptors, as it offered the opportunity to depict a naked young male. Usually the saint was portrayed while he was tied to a tree (see a painting by Guido Reni), but in the chapel dedicated to him in S. Sebastiano in 1672, Giuseppe Giorgetti preferred to show the saint lying on the ground in a pose which shows the influence of works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Giovanni Vasanzio, himself a talented joiner (carpenter) and cabinetmaker, supervised a team of joiners, gilders, sculptors and painters who decorated the wooden ceiling of the basilica. You may wish to compare it with those of S. Cesareo in Palatio and S. Agnese fuori le mura which were completed a few years earlier and with other wooden ceilings of Rome.
Coats of arms and heraldic symbols of the Borghese: eagles and dragons
It is hard to say whether in Rome there are more eagles and dragons of the Borghese, or bees of the Barberini, or doves of the Pamphilj. Cardinal Borghese did not miss an opportunity to place his heraldic symbols in the decoration of S. Sebastiano.
(left) Façade of "Platonia", behind the apse of the basilica; (right) Cappella Albani
The old church was surrounded by large ancient tombs; of these one was thought to have temporarily housed the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul; they were placed under a marble slab (platoma) bearing an inscription dictated by Pope Damasus (366-384); the mausoleum became known as Platonia and Cardinal Borghese built a grand entrance to it. This access has not been used for many years and it is in bad need of being protected from acts of vandalism.
The only major addition to the church built by Cardinal Borghese was a richly decorated chapel designed by Carlo Fontana in 1712. It is generally known as Cappella Albani, after the surname of Pope Clement XI who commissioned it, but Vasi referred to it as Cappella di S. Fabiano because it is dedicated to Pope St. Fabian, a IIIrd century martyr, whose relics were moved to this chapel from nearby catacombs.
Lanterns of the domes of the church (left) and of Cappella Albani (right)
Vasi showed only the lantern of Cappella Albani in his etching and it was not as high as we see it today. The two lanterns are clearly visible in an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (it opens in another window).
Painted cupboards in the Vatican Library showing views of the catacombs near S. Sebastiano in ca 1860
The greatest of all these Cemeteria was
this of Calixtus. In these Catacombes during the
Persecutions raised against the Christians by ten
Heathen Emperors, the faithful Believers, together with their Popes and Pastors, used privately to meet to exercise their Religion, and steal their Devotions; that is, to hear Mass in little
round Chappels painted over head poorly; Minister the Sacraments; bury the dead Martyrs
and Confessors in the Walls of the long Alleys,
Preach, hold Conferences; and even celebrate
Councils too sometimes. I descended several
times into several parts of these Catacombes with
a good experienced guide (which you must be
sure of) and with wax Lights (Torches being
too stifling) and wandered in them up and down
with extraordinary Satisfaction of mind. (..) Indeed its incredible how much the
presence of these holy Martyrs bodies hath sanctified this place: in so much that no man enters
into the catacombes but he comes better out, than he went in. Catholics come out far more willing to dye for that faith, for which so many of their ancestors have dyed before them. The Adversaries of the Roman Church come out more staggered in their faith, and more mild towards the Catholic Religion, to see what piety there is even
in the bowels of Rome; Atheists come out with
that belief, that surely there is a God, seeing so many thousands of Martyrs have testifyed it with
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
We now descend into the Catacombs of St. Calixtus, the most interesting and extensive of all those in the vicinity of Rome. These catacombs communicate with others and are generally said to extend to a distance of six miles. (..) We enter the corridors of this subterranean abode, which are lined on either side with graves cut in the tufa in single, double and treble files; and meet several chapel, altars, crosses, inscriptions all of which are pointed out by the guide.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1844
Musei Vaticani: replica of a family tomb from Catacombe di S. Callisto
Five dead, most likely members of the same family are portrayed in the act of praying in a beautiful garden with birds. Their posture with their hands outstretched sideways and their palms up can best be seen in Madonna Greca, a beautiful Xth century statue. Their names are all followed by in pace (in peace) and there are no references to their age at the time of death, which is rather unusual because it was customary to indicate it, especially for children.
This very fine sarcophagus depicts scenes from the Old Testament.
And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. Genesis 8:11 King James Version
Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire.
And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king's counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them. Daniel 3:27-28 King James Version.
The two scenes were combined together to show that the true faith triumphed over the elements of nature, in this case water and fire.
Musei Capitolini: Large early IVth century AD sarcophagus found near S. Sebastiano in 1744
This sarcophagus has some elements which associate it with the Pagan tradition, but they are almost hidden. The head on the right upper corner is that of Hercules because it is inside a lion's skin, but the detail is hard to see. The relief at the centre of the chest portrays a Victory, a typical feature of earlier sarcophagi, but it is very small. The lid shows two scenes of hunts, one of which with the use of nets, but these scenes were popular with Christians too (see a Christian mosaic at Carthage). The sarcophagus does not bear inscriptions and the faces of the couple are not completely finished, so it was not made to order (see a similar case in a page on Roman sarcophagi).
Fragments of sarcophagi on the walls of modern buildings between S. Sebastiano and Cecilia Metella
(left-above) Eastern view of Cecilia Metella and Castello Caetani (you may wish to see them in an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi - it opens in another window); (left-below) bucranii (ox sculls) and festoons (the mausoleum was also known as Torre di Capo di Bove, Tower of the Ox Head because of the ox skulls of its decoration); (right) Via Appia Antica
November 11, 1786. I visited the tomb of Metella, which is the first to give one a true
idea of what solid masonry really is. These men worked for
eternity - all causes of decay were calculated, except the
rage of the spoiler, which nothing can resist.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbeth.
Goethe chose to be portrayed with this monument in the background (see the painting by W. Tischbein in the introductory page of this website).
We know very little about Cecilia Metella, whose mausoleum is the most famous landmark of Via Appia Antica and a symbol of Ancient Rome; Cecilia was the daughter-in-law of Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the first triumvirate and a very wealthy man. Most likely the construction of such an imposing building was meant to celebrate the importance of the family, rather than that of Cecilia.
Read Lord Byron's verses describing his idea of Cecilia Metella.
Western view of Cecilia Metella and Castello Caetani (you may wish to see them in another etching by Piranesi - it opens in another window)
While Piranesi's Vedute record the present appearance of the relics of antiquity, he also dug deeper, investigating the engineering achievements of the ancient Romans and attempting to reconstruct the former appearance of the ancient city. His Antichità Romane of 1756, a four-volume work that won him admittance to the British Society of Antiquarians, includes maps of the ancient walls and aqueduct system and the third volume illustrates the sepulchral monuments of the Via Appia Antica, including six plates devoted to the tomb of Cecilia Metella. In plate 49, Piranesi combined a number of views: an elevation, a plan, a cross-section and details of the masonry (it opens in another window).
(left-above) Military trophy; (left-below) inscription: CECILIAE
METELLAE CRASSI meaning (tomb) of Cecilia, daughter of Quintus Metellus Creticus, wife of Crassus; (right-above) ancient relief modified with the addition of two coats of arms of the Caetani; (right-middle) fragment of a sarcophagus; (right-below)
cinerary urns found in the vicinity of the mausoleum (at the time of Cecilia Metella, the Romans did not bury the dead inside sarcophagi, but they cremated them and kept the ashes inside urns)
The common people have been more attentive to the ornaments of the sculptor than to
the memory of the matron, for the metopes of
the frieze, or a single ox's head with the Gaetani arms, gave to this tower during the middle
ages the name of Capo di Bove.
John Cam Hobhouse - Dissertations on the Ruins of Rome - 1818
You may wish to see these other Roman mausoleums with features similar to those of Cecilia Metella: Mausoleo di Lucilio Peto (Rome), Sepolcro dei Plauzi (Rome) and Mausoleo di L. Munatius Plancus (Gaeta).
Pope Boniface VIII assigned the ancient monument to his relatives (the Caetani) who turned it into a small fortress which blocked the passage through Via Appia; its main building included the tomb of Cecilia Metella, while walls protected a larger area inside which the Caetani built S. Nicola a Capo di Bove, a rather large church.
The destroyer of the adjoining fortress was Sixtus Quintus, the Hercules of modern Rome, who dislodged every Cacus and cleared the Pontifical states of their dens. Hobhouse
The use of this section of Via Appia was discontinued after a new road was opened in 1574 by Pope Gregory XIII; the fortress was demolished so that it could not be used as a hiding place by robbers on the new road.
Museo Nazionale Romano: fragments of a relief found near Cecilia Metella
These fragments most likely belonged to a funerary monument to a gladiator. The left fragment is the first part of the relief. It shows the gladiator in two winning matches against retiarii (fighters with net and trident). The inscription Improbum is perhaps the name of the loser in the upper scene. The right fragment shows another section of the relief with two scenes. In the lower one the loser is shown in the act of surrendering, perhaps waiting for the final decision by the audience on his fate. The inscription bears two names, Pantheriscus and Hila(rus), the eleventh and the twelfth retiarii who were defeated by the gladiator.
You may wish to see a mosaic depicting gladiatorial fights in a page covering Colosseo.
Ashmolean Museum of Oxford: Tombstone of Claudius Agathemerus, a Greek doctor and his wife (end Ist century AD); it was found near Cecilia Metella; see another impressive funerary portrait of a Roman couple
You can see more of Via Appia Antica in the following pages:
Initial section from Sepolcro di Geta to Domine Quo Vadis
From Cecilia Metella to Torre in Selci and
From Torre in Selci to Frattocchie.
Go to part two.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Dopo non poco cammino si trova sulla medesima via questa chiesa, la quale fu eretta, come si crede, da Costantino Magno sopra il cimiterio di s. Calisto Papa, e fu dedicata a s. Sebastiano, come protettore della Chiesa, ed ancora perchè quivi da s. Lucina matrona Romana fu portato il di lui cadavere. Fu ristaurata da s. Damaso, da Adriano I. e da Eugenio IV. finalmente poi fu rinnovata dal Card. Scipione Borghese. Prima la custodivano i monaci Benedettini, ora però sta in cura di quei di s. Bernardo. Nella prima cappella a destra si vede il sasso colle pedate di Gesù Cristo imprese, come dicemmo, quando apparve a s. Pietro: il bassorilievo nella cappella di s. Fabiano è opera di Francesco Papaleo Siciliano; il quadro a destra è del Cav. Ghezzi, e quello incontro, del Passeri; le pitture nell'altare maggiore sono d'Innocenzo Tacconi allievo del Caracci; la cappella privilegiata, ove è il corpo di s. Sebastiano, è disegno di Ciro Ferri, e la statua del Santo a giacere sotto l'altare è del Giorgetti. La porta, che siegue dopo la cappella di s. Francesca conduce al celebre
Le sepolture de' ss. Martiri dicevansi Are, Grotte, ed ancora Arenarie. Sono queste
come vie sotterranee alte circa due uomini, e larghe quattro piedi, facendo varie guide,
ed aprendo diverse strade; onde se uno non viene accompagnato da pratici, e provveduto di
lumi accesi, indispensabilmente si perderebbe, e più non ritroverebbe la porta: onde in
alcuni luoghi vi è stato fatto un muro, acciò non vi si entrasse. Nelle pareti tanto
a destra, che a sinistra sono incavati i sepolcri a tre ordini, in forma di cassoni
con tavole di marmo, o di terra cotta, trovandosi in alcuni scolpite palme, croci,
e talvolta il nome di quel martire con una ampolla del suo sangue, ed ancora li
strumenti del martirio, contandosi, che in questo cimiterio siano stati sepolti 170.
mila martiri, e vi stettero ancora per qualche tempo i corpi de' ss. Pietro e Paolo
Apostoli. Similmente in questo luogo si congregavano i fedeli col sommo Pontefice
in tempo delle persecuzioni de' Gentili, per celebrare i divini Misterj, e si vede
ancora il sito più largo e so, nell'uscire della porta laterale della chiesa, con
l’altare, e sedia Pontificale fatta di semplice marmo. S. Filippo Neri frequentava
spesso questo santuario, e vi si tratteneva le intere notti in sante orazioni;
perciò nel medesimo luogo ebbe diverse grazie da Dio, e lasciò a noi l'esempio di
visitare questa chiesa, che è una delle sette privilegiate.