The headquarters (called “the curia”) of our Subiaco Cassinese Benedictine Congregation is housed in a former monastery, called “Sant’Ambrogio della Massima,” in the heart of Rome, the “centro storico,” or “historic center” of the Eternal City. Centrally located it certainly is, near to the Vatican, important churches and plazas (piazze) of Rome, where innumerable places of worship, sightseeing, entertainment and dining are to be found.
The building where our curia is located is actually only a section of a once flourishing monastery of nuns and the premises now owned by the Italian government. The monastery was divided up into several parts and used by various groups. Ironically, we are the only religious group using the former monastery.
Before the birth of Christ, the property where Sant’Ambrogio now stands was part of a complex of pre-Christian sites, including a round temple dedicated to the Greek god Hercules, from about two hundred years before the birth of Christ. In 28 BC the area was further adorned with an extensive porch in front of the temple. Archeological research has discovered parts of the temple and porch beneath the current Sant’Ambrogio buildings.
By the time of the Emperor Constantine the Great and the Edict of Milan in 313, when Christianity received approval as an accepted part of the Roman Empire, ruined temples were often used for the construction of homes for prominent Roman families. A certain Aurelius, Prefect of Gaul (modern day France), made his home in Rome where the temple of Hercules had been.
Aurelius and his wife as well as their daughter and son, named Marcellina and Satyrus, went to live for a time in what is now Germany. While there a third child was born in 337, Ambrose, who eventually became bishop of Milan and a great Doctor of the Church. He is also remembered as the one who baptized Saint Augustine of Hippo.
After the death of Ambrose’s father, the family relocated to Rome, where the mother eventually died. Marcellina, being a good older sister, saw to the education of her little brothers Satyrus and Ambrose, who were raised in the Christian faith.
At Christmas in 353, when Ambrose was about sixteen years old, his sister Marcellina received the Rite of Consecration of Virgins from Pope Liberius and with some companions transformed the family home in Rome into a monastic community. This constituted what is now considered the most ancient house of religious in the city of Rome.
From extant letters, we know that when Ambrose became bishop of Milan he continued to seek the advice of his elder sister Marcellina in “far away” Rome, which even today is some hours by car or train from the Eternal City.
After the time of Marcellina, a small chapel was added to the family home that had been turned into a monastery, and the chapel was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of “Mother of God,” as a result of the proclamation of Mary’s new title at the Council of Ephesus in 431. At the end of the 8th century the original building of Marcellina’s monastery was replaced by another structure. Portions of the tower of the “new house” remain to this day.
In the year 803 a donation to the monastery made by Pope Leo III is mentioned in an extant list and the house referred to as the “Monastery of Saint Mary, called ‘of Saint Ambrose.’” Inclusion of the phrase “of Saint Ambrose,” indicates that the monastery was constructed on a piece of land once belonging to the family of Saint Ambrose. Since the time of Pope Leo III, the name of the monastery of “Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose” comes up in all lists that have come down to us that mention Roman convents or monasteries.
Almost all the churches and monasteries of Rome were destroyed at the end of the 11th century, either by Norman invaders in 1064 or by the great earthquake of 1091. The next century many were rebuilt, including Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose. This secured the continuation of the monastery built on land one belonging to the family of Saint Ambrose.
In the 12th century the nearby ancient Teatro Marcello was fortified with a six foot thick wall, some of it extending right to the monastery of Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose. This too was a factor in keeping the Ambrosian monastery safe through succeeding generations.
In a document of 1272 the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio are described as being Benedictine. We know that the Rule of Saint Benedict had been re-introduced into Rome by the Abbots of Cluny at the end of the 10th century and gradually extended to nearly all the monasteries in the west, including “Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose” in Rome.
Another extant document, from 1192, refers to the monastery with the name “Sant’Ambrogio della Massima,” a title that is still used for our curia in the 21st century. The title “della Massima,” comes from a discovery a hundred years ago of the nearby “Porticus Maxima,” (literally, “huge porch”), a covered walkway from about 330 AD, after the Edict of Milan. The Porticus Maxima was part of a larger passageway for pilgrims to reach the tomb of Saint Peter at the Vatican, not too far away from Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose monastery. Today the Vatican is about a twenty minute walk from Sant’Ambrogio, especially pleasant along the fairly tranquil Via Giulia.
The size of the community of sisters at Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose varied over the centuries, but seems to have grown from 12 to 14 to 25 by the 16th century. Gradually additions were made to the house to accommodate the growing number of sisters. What is now the main refectory at Sant’Ambrogio was at one point the sisters’ chapter house.
In 1810 Napoleon drove out all religious from Rome and the monastery of Saint Mary and Saint Ambrose was abandoned for the next several years. Eventually Franciscan sisters came to Sant’Ambrogio as the Benedictine sisters had been dispersed.
The Franciscan presence at Sant’Ambrogio also came to an end, but on June 5th, 1861, Pope Pius IX entrusted a portion of the monastery to Benedictines, this time to monks of our Congregation. They used the building for a time as a missionary college to train monks for overseas work. That purpose was later abandoned and gradually the house was adapted to be used as our headquarters or curia. It remains so to this day.
Among 19th century changes to Sant’Ambrogio was the façade of the church, which had collapsed and was replaced with the present façade. Side altars were added to the church as well.
Various construction and modifications projects were taken up in the course of Sant’Ambrogio’s long history. One of these projects in the late 16th century was under the care of the renowned Giacomo Della Porta, who also built the famous “Fountain of the Tortoises,” now a huge tourist attraction, in the Piazza Mattei, just outside the front door of Sant’Ambrogio. Don’t forget to visit this somewhat out of the way treasure on your next trip to Rome!