The Basilica of Santa Sabina: Origins and Transformations.

The present appearance of the church is that envisioned and materialized by architect Antonio Munoz, who was successively superintendent for monuments and inspector general of antiquities and fine arts of Rome. Munoz’s goal was to restore the basilica to what he believed was its original form. In the following lines we shall make a brief examination of the many transformations that this singular church has gone through its long history.

Hypothetical reconstruction, from J J Berthier
The foundation of the basilica is attributed to a priest, Peter of Illyria, who in 425 AD began construction of the building on the area where the house of the martyr Saint Sabina was believed to have stood. Sixtus III consecrated the church in 432AC.

Two beautiful rows of corinthian columns support the nave walls, in all likelihood repurposed from the nearby abandoned temple of Juno Regina, which dated back to the reign of Augustus. The walls would have been covered with colorful mosaics and marbles. The only extant pieces of this decoration were de mosaic above the main door, in blue and gold, and the rich colored marble opus sectile ornamentation between the arches of the nave.

Several written sources describe the enrichment of the interior by the pontiffs during the Carolingian period. Pope Eugenius II, who was baptized in Saint Sabina and had been a priest there before his election was particularly generous. He sponsored new paintings, a silver ciborium over the altar, supported by four marble columns, as well as pergula and schola enclosure.

This pergula or templon was composed of an architrave supported by six columns, with bronze doors in the center. This element is the precursor of the eastern iconostasis and was a frequent feature in Roman basilicas. Old Saint Peter’s was known for having a double pergula of salomonic columns, which were repurposed and now adorn the four balconies on the dome pillars. The enclosure of the schola cantorum was formed by carved marble slabs. Written sources also mention the presence of two marble ambos, presumably part of the same ensemble, similar to the one that can still be seen today at San Clemente near the Lateran. The altar had a considerable size and was made of solid slabs of porphyry.

Hypothetical reconstruction of the pergula, 1877, M G Rohault de Fleury
These descriptions paint a fascinating picture of what the interior might have looked like in the 9th century. A vibrant, complex, and colorful space in contrast with the mostly monochrome, empty-feeling church we see today.

The power void left by the disintegration of the Carolingian empire led to the ascent of feudal lords, who in 930 transformed the church into a fortress. Pope Honorius III, entrusted the church to the Order of Preachers in 1218, who transformed the feudal residence into a convent. Many important Dominicans have dwelt in Saint Sabina, several saints among them, such as St Thomas Aquinas, St Pius V, St Hyacinth, and St Dominic himself.

During this period the Dominicans erected a wall almost 9’ tall spanning the width of the church, dividing it in two, separating the people from the community. Five altars were built on the people’s side. Pope Gregory IX himself consecrated the largest one, set against the center of the dividing wall.

The next major transformations to Saint Sabina’s interior would take place during the second half of the 16th century. Pope Sixtus V, who had just revived the tradition of stational churches, commissioned architect Domenico Fontana to refurbish the church in 1586. Fontana is better known for his work in urban planning and the erection of the obelisks in Rome’s squares than for his somewhat unoriginal architectural works. The project’s main goal is to adapt the space to the post tridentine specifications, clearing up the nave and creating a sanctuary suitable for the major pontifical functions, in particular the penitential station on Ash Wednesday when the pope and all the papal household climbed up the Aventine hill to Santa Sabina. 

Fontana disassembled the schola’s enclosure, reusing the marble panels for the pavement of the new, elevated sanctuary. The pergula and the four remaining columns of the ciborium (its silver ceiling long lost) were sold off. He also repositioned the porphyry altar and excavated a confessio style chapel under it with another altar beneath. The pope’s death 4 years later would cut short any further plans for the Church.Taddeo Zuccheri had painted the apse dome, which was very deteriorated, two years prior. The hanging baldachin with silk drapes was installed in 1589.

1843 engraving by Luigi Rossini.
The 18th and 19th centuries were generally unkind to Santa Sabina. The building threatened collapse, which required several of the windows of the nave to be walled up in 1729. The Roman Republic instated by the Napoleonic forces confiscated and sold the complex in 1798. The king of Spain, Charles IV, rebought it 17 years later and restored it to the Dominicans.

Yet again, the newly constituted Italian State confiscates the building in 1867, transforming it into a Lazaretto. From then on, the church has been in the care of the “Fondo Edifici di Culto” a branch of the Italian Government.

Interior circa 1900, Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale
Ferdinando Mazzanti, architect, archaeologist and historian, conducted an exhaustive survey of the sanctuary in 1894, discovering the fragments of the plutei that Fontana had unceremoniously reused as paving stones. Mazzati installed the found fragments on the side nave wall, creating a Lapidarium.

These archaeological discoveries motivated the installation in 1906 of a neo-cosmatesque ciborium and altar, executed by Ettore Poscetti. The design leaned more towards whimsical romanticism than historical accuracy and was removed in the next intervention. Curiously enough it was later acquired by the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, where it still stands today.

The altar and its ciborium, circa 1906, Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale
Interior, circa 1906, from J J Berthier
The Temple of Santa Sabina as it stands today in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Picture by Robert Cross
The last two interventions were carried out by architect Antonio Munoz, and were probably inspired by Fr. Joachim Joseph Berthier OP, an enthusiast antiquarian. The first project took place in 1919, with the clear objective of returning the church to its primitive image, albeit following the latest archaeological restoration trends.

The nave windows were re-opened and glazed with selenite and delicate traceries, based on originals found. This included the three apse windows, which entailed the removal of the baroque murals and cladding the wall with porphyry and white marble. The triumphal arch was painted with a reconstruction of the original mosaic. The sanctuary was reconfigured, a new altar erected, the confession sealed, and the schola cantorum’s enclosure re-constructed with the extant plutei found by Mazzanti.

The first reconstruction of the schola cantorum and sanctuary, 1919, Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale
In 1936 Muñoz returns to Santa Sabina, this time completely reconfiguring the schola cantorum, apparently to serve the needs of the Dominican Fathers and adds an Ambo and lectern. He also introduces a new marble floor to the nave and a new soffit. These interventions were highly polemic at their time, with a fair amount of criticism still being directed against if for some the arbitrary design decisions taken.

The second reconstruction of the schola cantorum, 1936,  Gabinetto Fotografico Nazionale
Interior, 2010, Picture by HVNV
My own appreciation of the current state of the church is mixed. There is no denying the tremendously successful idea of re-opening the nave windows, which now flood the church with light. And yet, there seems to be something missing. While the decision of recreating the soffit and triumphal arch with muted tones, so as to simply suggest what the original was like results in a bland ensemble, lacking the vibrancy and color we see in so many other Roman Basilicas. I would have preferred that Munoz had recreated the chromatism rather than the from. This being said, I find that the most problematic area is the sanctuary. The reconstruction of the schola has negligently omitted both the ciborium over the altar and the pergula, and, simultaneously, has camouflaged the altar using the same marble as the apse wall. This results in a severe lack of visibility and prominence of the altar, which need to be much more strongly signified.

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