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Bill Thayer

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S. Stefano Rotondo

[image ALT: The interior of a small building, consisting mostly of a central circular colonnaded court. It is a view of S. Stefano Rotondo, a paleochristian church in Rome.]

This is in fact one of the gloomier churches of Rome, which is directly caused by the church's circular plan forcing light to come obliquely from the high windows. It is only thru the magic of PhotoShop that you are seeing this: here is the uncompensated photo.

The name of the church, properly, is S. Stefano: Rotondo merely means round in Italian; and indeed its rotundity is its signal characteristic, the building looking, superficially at least, very much like a pagan temple, although an entrance portico was added under Innocent II (1130‑1143): it has five arches supported on simple Tuscan columns.

[image ALT: The façade of a small 2‑story building, the lower story of which is a 5‑arched porch supported on columns. In the foreground a parked motor scooter, and in the middle ground a small pile of construction débris can be seen. It is a view of the exterior of the church of S. Stefano Rotondo in Rome.]

The construction débris is probably connected with the restoration of the original paleochristian floor inside the church.

The core of the church was built to house the relics of the proto­martyr St. Stephen in the reign of Pope Simplicius (468‑483) on the site of a 2c‑3c mithraeum, the remains of which were found in 1973. It almost certainly follows a Byzantine model, maybe that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is usually said that it is the oldest remaining example of a round church, but there is considerably more to it than that.

It was in fact built in the form of a Greek cross and 3 concentric circles of columns, superimposed: an architectural rendition of the cruciform nimbus of Christ; or, alternately, a tangible translation of "the triune God, crucified". (For this aspect of the symbolism of the circle and cross, see this passage of the Garden of Cyrus by Sir Thomas Browne; for a reconstruction, see this page at The column capitals, of a Corinthian type, reinforce this theme: not reused from a pagan building, but specially made, with crosses part of the design.

From an architectural standpoint, walls springing from rows of slender columns are not the best support for a roof; the roofing is consequently problematic, and after many restorations and at least one period in which S. Stefano was completely roofless, the church now has a timber roof. The original type of roof is not known.

The outer ring of columns was demolished in 1450 (or 1453, depending on the source) by order of Pope Nicholas V, as were three of the arms of the Greek cross. If you've followed me in the symbolism of the structure, you may see this as a curious manifestation of the Roman Church's attitude towards the Greeks of Constantinople, offering them no help in resisting the Mohammedan armies.

St. Stephen was the Christian faith's first martyr; in keeping with this, Gregory XIII (1572‑1585) had a cycle of 34 gruesome frescoes of the Tortures of Martyrs painted by Pomarancio and Antonio Tempesta. Some of these late Mannerist paintings were in turn reworked in the 19c: they are not the church's most attractive feature. Fodor's Guide to Rome, with an otherwise very slight entry on S. Stefano, alerted me to this atmospheric passage from Dickens' Pictures from Italy (Chapter 10), which I quote a bit more fully:

"To single out details from the great dream of Roman Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects. So insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him."​a

The interior does include a 7c mosaic, possibly executed under Pope Theodore I (642‑649): a large jewelled cross planted in the ground, with SS. Primus and Felicianus standing on either side, looking at the viewer. It is an awkward composition, not improved by its one salient iconographic feature: a bust of Christ appears "on" the cross — in a medallion perched on top of the upright. Notice that this is an unintegrated version of the basic theme of the building itself; the circle of kingship and the cross by which Jesus became the High Priest.

The church also houses an attractive Late Antique marble throne said to have been that of Pope St. Gregory the Great; and at some point apparently, according to Lanciani, a collection of Late Antique intarsios.

For the Castra Peregrina, a Roman military camp occupying the immediate area in Antiquity, see this article in Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

Additional Note:

a As often with Dickens, the idea is not original, though it may be wonderfully expressed. A hundred years earlier, Smollett views such paintings in the churches of Rome in much the same way.

It may also be noted, and it might even account for the spleen of these two Englishmen on this topic, that the same Pomarancio painted yet another cycle of martyrdoms for the church of S. Tommaso di Canterbury, representing the tortures inflicted on the Catholic martyrs persecuted by the English Reformation in the 16c. This according to Armellini, mind you: I find no trace of these frescoes either online or in reference works easily available to me, and have not been inside S. Tommaso. It seems plausible, though, since many of these martyrs had been trained at that church.

A fuller website is on its way; the first step toward it is to provide you with some collected source material.

[image ALT: An onsite link.]

My Web transcriptions of Christian Hülsen's Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo and Mariano Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma are each for the moment only partly online: but they do both include cross-linked sections on this church.

Confusingly, if you are looking for the church that was called S. Stefano Rotondo in the Middle Ages, this is not it; rather, it was a church constructed out of a circular temple in the Foro Boario currently identified as that of Hercules Olivarius: it still exists today. For that church, later known as S. Stefano alle Carozze and S. Maria del Sole, see Hülsen's somewhat unsatisfactory article; for the temple, see Platner's article and my photo.

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Site updated: 1 Jun 17