Friday: Santi XII Apostoli

Passing through the Piazza Ss. Apostoli, one is hard pressed to imagine the raucous activities that took place here half a millennium ago, when the Colonna family, one of the most powerful in Rome during the Renaissance, lived in the palace to the right of the church.  Not only lavish parties with fountains of wine and gleaming gold and silver decorations, but also more popular festivities, such as the throwing of barnyard fowl from the palace loggia to the crowd below, as well as battles between the different families in the city, all took place here, where today tourists sip coffee and motorbikes pass by.

The earliest record of a Basilica of the Holy Apostles relates to one built under Julius I in the mid-fourth century near Trajan’s Forum (in which stands his famous column).  A successor to this first church was begun by Pope Pelagius I in the mid sixth century on the present site, being dedicated by Pope John III around 570.  At this time the relics of the apostles Ss. Philip and James the Lesser were placed beneath the high altar.  While little is known about the lives of these two saints outside of what is given in the Gospels, Philip is believed to have preached in Hieropolis, where he was crucified.  James, possibly identifiable with the first bishop of Jerusalem who also presided over the council there as recorded in Acts, was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and beaten to death with a club.

This first basilica reflected Byzantine architectural styles, as Rome was at that time under the control of the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople.  His emissary Narses is recorded as contributing to the erection of the new basilica.  Following this the basilica seems to have had a peaceful existence until an earthquake in 1348, which heavily damaged it.  Martin V undertook a restoration in 1421, followed by a more extensive one by Sixtus IV and his nephew, the future Julius II, from 1471 to 1484.  The Franciscan Order, which staffs the basilica through the present day, arrived here in 1463.  A major rebuilding of the church in the early years of the eighteenth century provided them with an opportunity to commemorate their order in the decoration of the church, as we shall shortly see.  The façade was completed over a century later, in 1827.  Some decades later, the relics of Ss. Philip and James were rediscovered under the high altar in 1873.  These are placed in a confessio beneath the sanctuary, built between 1871 and 1879 as a place of prayer for their remains and those of several martyrs brought here from the catacombs.


Address: Piazza dei Santi Apostoli

Directions: Take bus 40 or 64 from the Acciaioli stop (in front of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini) to Piazza Venezia; get off, cross the street and turn right until you reach Piazza XII Apostoli. Turn left and enter the piazza, the church is to your right.

Walking Directions