Impressions of Rome: San Benedetto in Piscinula

For me, as a Benedictine monk, one of Rome’s most interesting churches is “San Benedetto in Piscinula.” As one of my friends likes to ask, “What is that all about?” In this case, the question would refer to the name of the church, “in Piscinula.”

This particular church is dedicated to the time and place where the young Benedict of Nursia lived while doing studies, albeit for a short time, in Rome. The Roman sojourn of Benedict is described by his first biographer, Saint Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church, who lived from about 540 to 604 AD. The Second Book of the Dialogues by Saint Gregory is dedicated the life and miracles of the great patriarch of western monks, whom we now venerate as “Our Holy Father Benedict,” who lived from 480 to 547 AD.

It is believed that Benedict came to Rome to study when he was around twenty years old, about the year 500. What would Rome have been like then? The “Fall of Rome,” as it is usually called, had already taken place and there was a lot of corruption, chaos and confusion at the time.

There are several events that mark the fall of the Roman Empire, but historians say that it was actually a gradual process of decline, occurring at a time when Rome had failed to enforce its laws and its vast territories were being divided up. This and other factors caused a great loss of strength in the Roman Empire and maintaining a cohesive whole was nearly impossible.

Barbarian forces from outside greatly contributed to the collapse of Rome as well. Destructive invasions by the foreign Goths in the late 300s continued into the 400s. This paved the way for the mayhem which Benedict encountered upon his arrival in Rome. It also led to his decision not long after arriving to flee the city, seeking something else entirely. Benedict chose to live for a time as a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, then he established communities of monks which became part of the important movement that is now called “western monasticism.”

The place where Benedict lived while in Rome is believed to have been near a grand villa with thermal baths, hence the name “piscinula,” that is, “pools.” [Read or see “The Life of Pi,” the book by Canadian, Yann Matel, and the film directed by Ang Lee, for yet another take on the word “piscinula” and “piscina”].

The “Piscinula” zone of Rome is in the popular Transtevere (“Across the Tiber”) neighborhood of Rome, just a five minute walk from our Benedictine curia of Sant’Ambrogio. The Latin word “piscine” can also imply a fish pond or a swimming pool. Some believe that the word refers to large tanks in which fish were kept alive and fresh before sale at a local fish market. As no one seems to know for sure, one can adhere to any of the several theories about the reference to “pools” and “tanks” in the locale of the Trastevere church of “San Benedetto in Piscinula.”

The present church of Saint Benedict in Piscinula dates from the Middle Ages, about the 12th century, built around the room or cell where the saint is said to have lived. The building incorporates even older columns and capitals of grey marble, probably from pre-Christian temples, from the first to the fifth centuries. Some of the church dates from the 15th century.

The tiny oratory encompassing Saint Benedict’s room or cell is from the 8th century. A small 12th century Romanesque bell tower is the most distinctive feature of the outside of the church. This is the smallest “campanile” (bell tower) in Rome, with a bell dating from the year 1069. Inside the little cell of Saint Benedict is an altar dedicated to the “Madonna della Misericordia” (Our Lady of Mercy), with a fresco of the Blessed Virgin from the thirteenth century.

What may sound like a splendid and grandiose structure is in fact a very modest building that is easily overlooked when walking to or from Rome’s popular Trastevere neighborhood.

For Benedictines, though, the church is something not to be missed! The best chance of finding it open seems to be in the morning. However, opening time seems to be erratic despite a posted sign I read inside the church one day when it was open, 9:30 to 11:30 am and then again in the later afternoon.

The church is currently under the care of the “Heralds of the Gospel,” a papal-approved Association of the Faithful, comprised of laity and clergy, represented in many parts of the world. They have been in charge of San Benedetto in Piscinula for a number of years now. They have a small residence there as well,

Some of the members of the Heralds of the Gospel are celibates, and all of them, through study, prayer and good works, seek to evangelize in parishes, especially ministering to young people. Their spirituality is focused on the Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary and emphasizes fidelity to the pope. Liturgy, music and theater are special interests of the Heralds in their evangelization work.

Sometimes the church of San Benedetto in Piscinula is referred to as “San Benedettino,” that is, “Little Saint Benedict.” This may refer to the smallness of the church and its bell tower or simply as a tender diminutive or nickname for Saint Benedict, the much-loved Italian saint and a principle patron of Europe.

Why did Saint Benedict choose to live in this spot? There is a tradition that holds he was part of the noble family of the Anicia who lived nearby. There is no historic evidence to support the theory, but it is part of the story of “San Benedetto in Piscinula.” I’m sure if you challenged locals in the neighborhood of the church, they would not react positively to the suggestion that no one really knows much for sure about Saint Benedict’s family and his time in Rome. Popular devotion is still alive and well in the Eternal City!

One of the attractive features of the church is the “Cosmateco,” or “Cosmatesque” floors. This was a particular Italian style of flooring using multi-colored pieces of stone, marble and glass, to create intricate geometric patterns that stagger the imagination when you look at them. The patience and precision of the work is a marvel to behold. Futhermore, and most importantly, the floors hold up and endure foot traffic as if it were completed yesterday.

The name of the style, “Cosmateco,” derives from the Italian family who specialized in the flooring, the “Cosmati,” who perfected this mosaic work and flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their marvelous floors harmonized perfectly with simple Romanesque architecture of the time, which can still be enjoyed in many churches. Unfortunately scores of churches in Rome were eventually remodeled in the Baroque style, diminishing the harmony between Cosmatesque and Romanesque art. A pity, but such is life.

Besides being beautiful, Cosmatesque floors act as a sort of “guide” for entering a church and getting around once inside. The floor patterns help one to “take it all in,” though almost subliminally. In general, the designs tend to direct one to move toward the altar, the center of public worship in a church. This physical passage from the church entrance to the altar is symbolic of the Christian passage from earth (the entrance of the church) to heaven (the sanctuary and altar), moving from the mundane to the celestial.

Inside the little church of San Benedetto are a number of art works from various epochs, including frescoes, paintings, sculptures and statues. Some of the art is very ancient and some of it quite recent. It is a real mix of styles and quality of art and a study in contrasts in a relatively small space. Nonetheless there is something about the church that evokes a deep sense of the sacred and connection to Saint Benedict who lived so many centuries ago.

I had been to this church in past years but not inside since arriving in Rome this past January. I finally found it open on a daily walk in early May this early. It was a delight to be inside the church again, at the place which may have once housed one of my favorite saints, who else, but Saint Benedict?

by Father Christian Leisy, OSB
Curia Sant’Ambrogio, Roma, Italia