The medieval square San Rocco in Frascati: A day excursion to get a panoramic view of the eternal city
The Arkeytecture team recommends a trip outside Rome to see Piazza San Rocco in Frascati. This is a place off the beaten track, away from chaotic traffic, and closely linked to the history of the city, where you will find an intriguing 14th-century church as well as one of the finest views of the Eternal City.
The piazza is situated on one of the artificial terraces where the villa of Gaius Sallustius Passienus Crispus (1st century AD) stood, and where later the medieval town developed around the first cathedral, Santa Maria in Vivario, built as well on Roman remains which are still visible.
One side of the piazza is occupied by the Episcopal Palace (Palazzo Vescovile, seat of the Diocese of Frascati), the town’s first fortified stronghold. We see it today in the form it was given by the Cardinal Duke of York Henry Stuart, in the 18th century. The other side of the palazzo faces Rome, and on summer evenings the piazza before it is filled with tables that the nearby taverns set up under the elm trees.
At centre of the piazza is the 15th-century fountain built by Cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville in 1480, as indicated by the inscription on the octagonal basin.
The church of Santa Maria in Vivario is mentioned in written sources as early as the 9th century, and was rebuilt many times, the last time after the bombings of 1943, which completely destroyed the internal decoration. In 1538, during the papacy of Paul III Farnese, it became a cathedral, status which it maintained up to the consecration of the new cathedral of Saint Peter in 1708.
Its Romanesque bell tower, with its three rows of trifora windows, is a well-known image. As indicated in the inscription at its base, it was built in 1305 at the behest of Andrea di Madio and Giovanni di Giordano in their last will and testament, for intercession in favour of the souls of the deceased.
The basilical form of the interior, consisting of three apses and three naves divided by rows of ancient columns with Ionic capitals, was the wish of Cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville, whose son Jérôme d’Estouteville (1478-1495) undertook the work.
Since 1992, the crypt can be visited.
In 1656, frescoes showing Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch were found. The discovery took place at the time of the Black Plague, during which the town of Frascati was spared. This was held to be a miracle, and the two saints were added to Saint Philip and Saint James as patron saints of Frascati. Since then, the church also bears the name of Saint Roch, protector of plague victims.
Inside the church, a singular paleochristian sarcophagus in Carrara marble has been re-used as the altar. An unusual and rare decoration adorns its front side: an empty throne along with a Christogram, a monogramme of Christ. The sarcophagus was found near the hermitage of the Camaldolesi order, and was probably the coffin of a bishop of the Tuscolana diocese, who lived around the mid-5th century.
In the apse, frescoes showing the Coronation of the Virgin dating from the 16th century were rediscovered in 1879, while four of the altars belonged to various confraternities, the oldest being those of the Confraternity of the Gonfalon and Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. In 1576 an altar was dedicated for the faithful of Milan, thus to Saint Ambrose and Saint Charles.
During the first week of November, a series of “false tapestries” are shown in the church. These are paintings which imitate cloth, made with the “juices of herbs” or succhi d’erbe, and date from the 18th century. They were done for the Confraternity of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte, probably designed by the artist Michelangelo Ricciolini and painted by Giulio Pantaliss and Ignazio de Marchiso (source B. Guerrieri Borsoi, ). They can be seen in the centre nave.
In 1994, the church was robbed by thieves who carried off the work of art The Holy Family, painted by Francesco Salviati in 1550, and the wooden crucifix from the main altar, which dated from about the year 1700.