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Bill Thayer

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Levels of Reality

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The statue of St. Barbara is by Ambrogio Parisi, an otherwise unknown sculptor.

Tucked away as it is at the end of a cul-de‑sac off the via de' Giubbonari, the church of S. Barbara e S. Tommaso d'Aquina dei Librai, to give it its official name, is very small and very over­looked by the casual visitor to Rome; yet in one respect it's a place that almost everyone has heard about, and many want to see: as improbable as it seems, it is here, give or take 30 meters, that Julius Caesar was assassinated — the church was built out of a little section of the Theater of Pompey, which at the time was serving as the temporary meeting-place of the Senate; the rest of the ancient theater has vanished.

[image ALT: The façade of a small two‑story stone church wedged between some old houses. It is the church of S. Barbara de' Librai in Rome.]
From the invisible presence of a solidly historical figure we move now to this equally solid stone church, honoring a saint who may well never have existed. For a good summary of the story of St. Barbara, see the article on her in the Catholic Encyclopedia: most of this numinous story is legend, even if there just might be a kernel of historical fact at the bottom of it all; if she existed, for example, her father probably did lock her up in the tower that became her usual, almost invariable, iconographic attribute.

In the sculpture on the façade we see above (or even better in this close-up), her tower is almost completely hidden: a bit of it peeks out from behind the draperies of her left arm and leg. Far more prominent is another much less common attribute of hers: the lightning bolts under the niche are not decoration at all, but are meant to remind us of that father of hers, struck by lightning for having locked her up. At the same time I have the strongest suspicion that the real reason for them is aesthetic: the vertical note of a tower would have been exactly wrong here, since the architect is seeking to deflect our eye horizontally so we won't see this tiny church as wedged between its surrounding buildings; the compressed curve of the small pediment over the door has the same effect.

The architect is identified by Giovanni Bottari, the 1764 reviser of Titi's guidebook to Rome, as Giuseppe Passeri (1654‑c.1714), a man known primarily as a writer and painter: this would be his only known architectural work.

The Librari or Librai in the name of the church are just "booksellers"; this was their church. In the 17c Rome was printing just about everything, and the wealth of the booksellers' guild is evidenced in a typically Roman way by a profusion of marbles and rich decoration, culminating in the opulent high altar, a classic example of pietre dure, a characteristically Italian form of intarsio or marquetry of "hard stones" — in this case including mother-of‑pearl, agate, and ivory — that saw its peak in the late 17c and the 18c. In sum, it was the perfect time to be commissioning this kind of work.

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The main altar of S. Barbara de' Librari.

photo © Tom Wukitsch 2002 by kind permission.

This is not a church I spent much time in; in fact I'm kicking myself for not having seen the 11c inscription. I can still give you a few highlights:

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[ 1 page, 1 large photo + details ]

The church's great treasure is a late-medieval triptych of the Madonna and Child between the Archangel Michael and St. John the Baptist.

[image ALT: A fragment of a map of medieval Rome showing 'S. Barbarae'.]

For the more studious, mind you, some good basic topographical and art history information is immediately available: Christian Hülsen's article on this church in Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo, linked to 2 further important texts — Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma and the article in the 1763 edition of Filippo Titi's guidebook. If you read Italian in fact, this seems to be the single most comprehensive resource online on this church right now, with several pages of solid reliable information.

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Site updated: 3 Feb 07