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The church of Santa Bibiana, a small Baroque masterpiece

The current urban layout does not honor the precious church of Santa Bibiana and its ancient roots. Its proximity to Termini Station, its large railroad facilities and surrounding Umbertine buildings hide it from the Capital’s passing streets.

Perhaps this is just as well, for true artistic jewels discreet and reserved leave a noncasual visitor with the pleasure of discovery.

The church of Santa Bibiana: the jewel early work of the architect Bernini

An ancient tradition dates the construction of the church of St. Bibiana in 363 A.D. at the site of the martyrs of Bibiana, her mother Daphrosa and sister Demetria.

For the Liber Pontificalis, the year the church was built is 467, reigned Pope Simplicius, who transferred there the relics of other martyrs: Simplicius, Faustinus and Viatrix.

In 1224 Honorius III restored it and built next to it a women’s monastery in use until the 15th century. Urban VIII wanted it demolished in the early 17th century and rebuilt the church when the relics were found near the Jubilee of 1625.

The young Gian Lorenzo Bernini, making his debut as an architect, was called to direct the work.

A treasure chest of figurative art

Bernini, a son of art, was twenty-five years old at the time and had grown up from an early age under the guidance of his father Pietro.

A Tuscan sculptor wanted in Rome by Paul V to adorn the Pauline Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. Well-connected to the noble families of the time, Gian Lorenzo was already engaged in the Baldachin of St. Peter’s and as a sculptor had already produced several masterpieces.

Works such as: the group “Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius fleeing from Troy”; the “David”; the “Rape of Proserpine”; “Apollo and Daphne.”

For Santa Bibiana, he completely redid the facade with a configuration hitherto exclusive to Renaissance palaces. Internally, he built two chapels at the end of the aisles; closed the windows of the nave and made the new presbytery in place of the old apse.

This, from the architectural point of view; for that in terms of artistic character he created the magnificent statue of the saint placed behind the high altar.

It is the artist’s first public work of sacred subject and innovates the rules of the genre then in force. The following deserve particular admiration: the ecstatic gaze turned upward, the refined drapery of the robes, and the right hand with fingers suspended in the air.

Between architecture, art and devotion of the Roman people

Two Tuscan painters were called in to paint the interior: Agostino Ciampelli and the young Pietro da Cortona, who was also well established among the ecclesiastical nobility. The interior of the building has three naves divided by bare columns. Near the entrance stands the red marble column, by tradition the one on which Bibiana underwent scourging.

The frescoes and canvases depict scenes from the saint’s life: the cycle on the left is by Cortona, the one on the right by Ciampelli.

The church, a centerpiece of the birth of the early Baroque, was a place of popular worship. “Bibiana,” by the work of rotacism that turns the letter “b” into “v” (as in serbare = to serve), is equivalent to “Viviana.” That is, in the eyes of the people, rich in vitality.

Thus, the saint was venerated by attributing miraculous healing properties to the red powders of the mentioned column, scratched secretly.

Celebrated by the church on December 2, peasant wisdom coined a “meteorological” proverb in various local dialects. The Italian version of which reads, “If it rains in Santa Bibiana, it lasts forty days and a week.”

With the Blog of Rome and Latium Region, Around Rome guides you to discover the territories for the pleasure of satisfying curiosity and putting culture at the service of people and businesses.

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Edited  by il NETWORK | text Andrea Franchini | photo Ezio Bocci

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