W10: Saint Frances of Rome: Palimpsest

Saint Frances' day is March 9

A palimpsest is usually defined as a written document that has been used more than once, the earlier writing having been erased to make way for the new, but, an incomplete job having been made of it, ghosts of the original text show through. The process of erasure and re-use was common with documents written on vellum and parchment in years past because those materials were so expensive. Building materials are also expensive, and architects nowadays use a buzzword—" re-purposing”—to describe the remodel of an existing building for a new use or the re-use of its materials. As a sign of our times, the action is often associated with a sense of responsibility for our environment, but for much of human history people had no choice but to re-use materials. There have been periods just like ours of course, prosperous times when there was money to bring in exotic foods, clothing, or building materials at whim. Imperial Rome enjoyed one of these periods, and was criticized for its thoughtless excess by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, written in the late first century. “It now remains for us to speak of stones…the leading folly of the day…” he wrote, reacting to the kaleidoscope of marbles and granites imported from all over the Roman Empire to be placed in temples and villas. It wasn’t long after the Empire fractured, however, that Romans, having lost the need for grandiose buildings, hastened to “re-purpose” just about any building part they could. All through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages the city served as a vast warehouse of spolia, first come, first served. Our story concerns both a building that was an example par excellence of Pliny’s criticism and a much humbler building that took advantage of its grandiose neighbor.

This is the story of the biggest temple in Rome, dedicated to a goddess-duo who were created as part of a new cult meant to celebrate the Roman people and their heritage, and of the church that snuck into this temple and became the pilgrimage site of a saint who devoted her life to helping others in her troubled times. Both the Emperor Hadrian and Saint Frances of Rome shared the goal of acting on behalf of their fellow citizens, but they did so in vastly different ways, and the physical testimonies to their efforts still stand back-to-back, awkward bedfellows indeed.

Roman Forum, greatly simplified. The red building (No 1) is the church of Santa Francesca Romana. No 2 is the Temple of Venus and Roma. 3, The Colosseum. 4, The Arch of Titus. 5, The Basilica of Constantine. 6, Church of SS Cosma e Damiano. 7, Church of S Lorenzo in Miranda. 8, Curia. 9, Tabularium. 10, Basilica Julia. 11,Temple of Castor. 12, Santa Maria Antiqua. 13, Temple of Vesta. 14, House of the Vestal Virgins. Nos 6 and 7 are churches that took over temples. No 12 figures in our story, as you will read.

Saint Frances of Rome (1384-1440) plunged me into a palimpsest from the get-go, the minute I read that her church is in the Roman Forum, because I knew then that this would not be a simple case of a building standing on its own. And I have never been able to make sense out of the Forum. I have loved it, I have drawn it, I have lingered there amongst fallen columns, grass, and wild daisies, trying to imagine the glory of Imperial Rome, but I have never figured it out. Nor will I be able to do that for you in this essay. But I will try to enrich, and explain, the little corner of the Forum where Frances’ church is found, bravely facing west and framed at her back by the massive ruin of Hadrian’s Temple of Venus and Roma and the Colosseum.

I chose Frances because all four of my sources were in agreement on her day, because she would give me a chance to write about the Emperor Hadrian (my secret crush), because she is the patron saint of car drivers (and also widows), and—get this; she was painted by the artist Nicolas Poussin (his patron was the man who would become a pope in 1667) as the force announcing the end of the plague in Rome. The title of the painting is Sainte Françoise Romaine annonçant à Rome la fin de la peste, and it hangs in the Louvre (the link is below). This is a woman for our times!

Frances was born to a wealthy family in Rome in 1384 and later, married a noble “against her will.” Now it’s possible that this part of the story is the hagiographer inserting his point of view, as saints, to be truly saintly, should probably never marry. Frances seems to have not minded too much, for she remained with her husband for forty years and had a family. Along the way she became known for her good works—there was plenty of opportunity to help others as Rome was particularly chaotic during her lifetime—and about ten years before she was widowed in 1436, she founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary, an order which followed the rules of the existing Olivetan monks of the Abbey of Santa Maria Nova, one of the stars in our building story. Her Order was a lay order (“oblate” means lay person) for women, meaning that its members could live regular lives as mothers or workers while at the same time engaging in public good causes. Frances died in 1440 and was canonized in 1608. During the rule of Pope Paul V (1605-1621), c. 1612, the church of Santa Maria Nova was re-dedicated to Saint Frances, and so it has remained to this day. The re-dedication merited a Baroque facelift and interior remodeling, work directed by the architect Carlo Lombardi.

Now it’s time to lay down the first leaf of the palimpsest—think of it as a leaf of phyllo dough that will eventually make a baklava out of our building site. The first impression in the ground that will become the Church of Santa Francesca is made by Saint Peter’s knees. We’re in Nero’s reign, 54-68 CE, and Peter is preaching to one crowd in the Roman Forum, accompanied by his buddy Paul, and a little ways away, Simon Magnus the magician holds another crowd in thrall with his tricks. Simon levitates and begins to fly about! Peter and Paul fall to their knees, praying to God to squash the dirty trickster, and God complies; Simon falls to his death. You can find the mark of Peter’s knees in the south transept of the church.

In the meantime, Nero has inherited a town house very nearby the scene of the crime, and he decides to turn this building into a sort of entry to his palace grounds which sprawl west and north up the Esquiline Hill, and which include an artificial lake where the present-day Colosseum stands. He has a Colossus of himself made—a gilded bronze statue 120 feet high—and that he places between the lake and the terminus of the Via Sacra, the main road through the Forum. Since this house-turned-vestibule will be absorbed into our church grounds, we might wonder what Nero thought of the apostles’ knee impressions…

No matter; onward. We all know what happened under Nero’s watch (54-68). And after the three emperors who followed Nero were assassinated in short order, Vespasian (69-79) began construction on the Colosseum, the greatest pacifier project in history, and as Nero’s lake gave him a site already excavated for the foundations, he built it there. Vespasian’s son Domitian (81-96) finished the project which was dedicated in the year 80.

The next layer of phyllo in our baklava is put in place by the Emperor Hadrian (117-138). Hadrian decides to build a most unusual temple, the Temple of Venus Felix and Roma Aeterna between the Colosseum and the Forum. To do so, he has Nero’s Colossus moved a short distance away by 24 elephants, and he re-consecrates the statue to the sun god Apollo to cancel Nero’s culture. Hadrian’s temple was unusual for three reasons. Firstly, although Venus had been around forever as a goddess in multiple guises, she took on a new role here, that of Venus Felix, the goddess of fertility. Hadrian was encouraging the Romans to make love and multiply. Next, Hadrian elevated a little-known goddess, Roma, to equal status with Venus. He dubbed her Roma Aeterna as the symbol of, you guessed it, an eternal Rome, a Rome as it existed at its peak under Hadrian. Creating this new cult, and placing massive statues of these two goddesses back-to-back, Hadrian put emphasis on the Roman people themselves, unlike previous emperors who had erected temples mainly to celebrate their divine bloodlines.

Secondly, the temple had a Greek plan, which meant that it was open on all sides. It sat on a platform called a stylobate that was raised only slightly above the earth and ringed with rows of columns standing proud of the temple walls. This stylobate was accessible from all sides via a continuous set of steps, and access to the cellae, or rooms where the statues of the goddesses sat, were from each narrow end. Roman temples, which borrowed on the precedent of the Etruscan temples before, usually forced you to play into a little ritual to enter them. The only access to the temple was usually by a set of stairs at the front that led to a high podium and the entry on the longitudinal axis. Hadrian was a major fan of the Greeks; he styled his hair after the Greek general Pericles, and so became the first emperor to sport a beard. You can especially see the effects of his knowledge of Greek site design and architecture at his fabulous villa in Tivoli, yet another side-story…

Finally, the Temple of Venus and Roma was the biggest temple in Rome. The concrete platform on which the stylobate and the temple stood was 328 x 475 feet and made of the most excellent and durable mix; remember that Hadrian was also responsible for the Pantheon, which is a marvel of concrete mix recipes customized for the giant dome. In the temple, the stylobate above the concrete platform measured 156 x 345 feet, and the walls of the temple were about 65 feet high. There were 100 marble columns around the perimeter almost 60 feet high; some are still in place. It must have been spectacular in its times, as it remains breath-taking for its scale even today, after a variety of forces have taken their turns gnawing away on it. In 307 a fire destroyed much of the roof and damaged the floors. Maxentius repaired this damage, but the Emperor Constantine who followed him put paid forever to pagan temples when he declared Christianity the state religion and then moved the administrative capital to Constantinople in 330. In 346 worship of pagan deities was forbidden, in 356 temples were closed, and in 408 they were decreed state property to be remodeled into churches or used as quarries for other public buildings. The temple suffered from an earthquake in 476, and about 626 the bronze roof tiles were taken to be used at Saint Peter’s.

Through all this time of decay, the concrete platform for the temple remained perhaps the most extensive and well-built monolithic construction in Rome, and that, as well as the association with the apostles Peter and Paul, made this site a prime choice for the foundation of the Christian phyllo leaves in our story. Thanks to Peter’s knees, an oratory (chapel) for the two apostles was established in the porch of the temple between 314 and 335, and later remodeled by Pope Paul I (757-767). The first mention of a church is that of a Santa Maria Nova in the ninth century, in relationship to a mudslide that took place at the other end of the Forum and buried the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in 877. Santa Maria Antiqua had been one of those public buildings that were appropriated by the Church in 580; there are several in the Forum. When it was destroyed, the monks moved their monastery and all other effects to their new site of Santa Maria Nova, which, as Rome’s Blue Guide describes it, “encroaches” on the Temple of Venus and Rome. Perhaps it only encroached because it didn’t dare enter a structure that threatened with every little earthquake to rain down more of its coffered vaults.

Forum looking towards the Capitoline Hill (west) c. 1534, drawing by Martin van Heemskerck, Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, 79 D2A, fol. 12r (taken from Krautheimer, fig 247). The façade of the church to the far right would be very similar to that of Santa Francesca Romana before the Baroque remodel.

The years rolled on. By the ninth century a little neighborhood had developed around the church, and the lower levels of the Colosseum had been turned into stores and workshops, leased out by the monks, who were given the property by the Pope. Rome was a patchwork of residential neighborhoods like these (the abitato) separated by large areas of farmland, fields for grazing, and wasteland (the disabitato). The monuments of Imperial Rome served as skeletons for the mansions and towers of the rich as well as for the tenements of the poor. Rome was a palimpsest mess.

Fifty years before Frances was born, Petrarch visited Rome and called it a “rubbish heap of history.” The popes had left in 1305 and were based in Avignon, France, and the vacuum of leadership in the city was filled by the noise of powerful, warring families, building towers and creating general mayhem. In 1377, Catherine of Siena (Feast day April 29) brought Pope Gregory XI back to Rome in 1377 with her urgent letters, but that was only the beginning of the chaos of the Great Schism, a period of about fifty years during which there were two popes simultaneously, and at one time, three (remind you of anything in current events?). Then, right before the end of the Great Schism, in 1413, the King of Naples invaded Rome, fearing that the Roman pope (Pope Gregory XII) was waxing too sympathetic towards Avignon. His soldiers ran wild through the city looting and pillaging. The chaos and distress resulting from this event may have contributed to Frances’ desire to create her Order of Oblates in 1425 and to found a monastery in the Tor de’Specchi (tower of the Specchi family) in the west end of the Forum. Frances died in 1440 she was buried in Santa Maria Nova because her order had followed the rules of the Olivetan monks who were based there.

Jump forward to the seventeenth century, to the time of the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation. Frances is sainted in 1608, and under Pope Paul V (1605-1621) Santa Maria Nova is re-consecrated to her, becoming Santa Francesca Romana, and given a facelift with an elaborate Baroque travertine façade designed by Carlo Lombardi. From the north side you can see that it is almost literally a facelift, as the travertine extends just far enough to give a good impression from the front. The medieval brick walls pick up soon thereafter. Rome is full of palimpsests, but the compositions found in the Forum are among the easiest to see, although not necessarily easy to read. Here, depending on your viewpoint, Hadrian’s temple still dominates the scene, but if you approach from the west, Francesca’s façade does a good job of proclaiming her importance, its white marble recalling some of the glory of Imperial Rome. And if you arrive on her feast day, you might want to join the parade of drivers who come to be blessed by the Vatican Secretary of State. This event was launched by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He was the first pope to travel in a car and he must have enjoyed the experience!

Now, the next time you despair about all the overlapping photos and files in your computer, just think of it as a palimpsest, like the city of Rome, so beautiful in its messy complexity!

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References for Week 10: Frances


This is the site for the Louvre and Poussin’s painting of Frances:


Books and articles

Please note that sources listed here may be available in more recent editions

Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian and the City of Rome. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Krautheimer, Richard. Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Gonzáles-Longo, Cristina, and Dimitris Theodossopoulos. “Construction and materials in the stratification of S. Maria Nova (S. Francesca Romana) at the Roman Forum,” in Construction and Building Materials 41 (2013), pp 926-941.