Friday after Ash Wednesday: Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Passing under the arches which stretch over the Clivio Scauri we come around the side of this ancient church, built over several Roman ruins.  Among these is the house in which the patrons of this church witnessed to their faith with their lives.  Ss. John and Paul were soldiers who were chosen to serve as functionaries in the Imperial household in the middle of the fourth century.  Although the Imperial family was often in heresy with regard to many of the theological disputes of this time, these two saints were able to continue in their offices while holding to the orthodox faith.  However, when Julian the Apostate ascended to the throne in 360, they were forced with the decision either to embrace the renewed pagan religion or face death.  They refused to cooperate with the Emperor’s demands, and so were executed in their home on this site and buried nearby.  Although such an execution within the city walls was illegal, it is thought that the emperor sought to be as discreet as possible about this matter because of the unpopularity of his command.

After the death of Julian in 363, work began to perpetuate the memory of the saints.  This site had already been a location of Christian worship at the time of the saints’ martyrdom, with one of the early tituli, known as the Titulus Bizantis, located nearby.  In the late fourth and early fifth century a Roman senator named Pammachius built a basilica in honor of the two saints over their house and those surrounding.  This new basilica served as the seat of the Titulus Pammachii, and although the older titulus was based in the same location it seems that they maintained separate legal existences for at least a century.  Likely completed before 410, the church was further decorated in the middle of the fifth century.  The basilica did not experience any major events of note until the late eleventh century.  At that time, during one of the conflicts between the pope and others in Rome the pontiff had been driven from the city.  Attempting to retake the city, he enlisted the aid of a Norman army.  However, when the attack occurred in 1084 not only did the pillaging army cause much destruction, but also the fires which sprang up amidst the chaos.  Along with many other churches in the area, this basilica also suffered heavy damage, with repairs taking place in the early twelfth century.  Later that century the porch and campanile were both built.

The church would be renovated several times between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, with the current interior dating largely from a renovation from 1715-18.  In the late 1850s, the sacristy was added, as well as a large chapel dedicated to St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionist order which serves the basilica.  In the late nineteenth century, archeological excavations and studies of the Roman ruins beneath the house began, with the results being open to the public as a museum today.  From 1948 to 1950, a restoration/renovation was carried out by the Cardinal Spellman of New York, who held the title to this church at that time.  During this time the façade was returned to its medieval appearance.  The interior was also restored; among the additions were chandeliers that had previously hung in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.  Therefore, the basilica today is a palimpsest of architectural history, from the Roman ruins that make up the foundations, to the modern chandeliers hanging in the nave.


Address: Piazza San Giovanni e Paolo, 13

Directions: Take bus 271 from Piazza delle Rovere (at the bottom of the Gianicolo hill, on the western bank of the Tiber) to the stop at the Circus Maximus.  Get off and go back in the direction from which the bus came for a short time, crossing the street (via di San Giorgio) and going up the hill which should now be on your right (following the Clivo di Scauro), you will come upon the church to your left.

Walking Directions