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Étienne Dupérac, Church of Santa Martina (detail), in I vestigi dell’antichità di Roma, 1575. National Gallery of Art, Mark J. Millard Architectural Collection, David K. E. Bruce Fund (1985.61.572.b)

Church of Santa Martina

Chiesia di Santa Martina , Beati Martine , ecclesiae Sanctae Martinae , Ecclesia S. Martine , Ecclesia Beate Martino , ecclesiam Sanctae Martinae , Ecclesia Sanctae Martinae , ecclesia Sancte Martine , Chiesiadi Santa Martina , Ecclesia S. Martinae , Chiesa di Sancta Martina , Ecclesia Sancti Martini

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Selected Bibliography

Alberti, Romano. Origine, et progresso dell'Academia del Dissegno, de pittori, scultori, et architetti di Roma. Pavia, 1604.

Francini, Girolamo. Le cose maravigliose dell’alma città di Roma, Venice, 1566.

Krautheimer, Richard; Wolfgang Frankl; and Spencer Corbett. Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae: The Early Christian Basilicas of Rome (IV‒IX cent.), 5 vols. Vatican City, 1937‒1977.

Massimo, Vittorio. Notizie istoriche della villa Massimo alle terme Diocleziane. Rome, 1836.

Panciroli, Ottavio. Roma sacra, e moderna. Rome, 1600.

Salvagni, Isabella. "The Università dei Pitttori and the Accademia di San Luca: From the Installation in San Luca sull’Esquilino to the Reconstruction of Santa Martina al Foro Romano." In The Accademia Seminars: The Accademia di San Luca in Rome, c. 1590‒1635, edited by Peter M. Lukehart, 69–121. Washington, 2009.

Titi, Filippo. Descrizione delle pitture, sculture e architettura esposte ad pubblico in Roma; opera cominciata dall'Abate F. Titi con l'aggiunta di quanto è stato fatto di nuovo fino all'anno presente. Rome, 1763.

Totti, Pompilio. Ritratto di Roma moderna. Rome, 1638.  

Vasi, Giuseppe. Delle magnificenze di Roma antica e moderna. Rome, 1753.

Six lines of black text in Italian and Latin

Figure 1. Ottavio Panciroli, Tesori nascosti dell'alma città di Roma, 1625, p. 81. National Gallery of Art Library, Rare (DG804 .P36 1625)

In the early modern period, it was believed that the Church of Santa Martina had functioned as the ancient Roman Secretarium Senatus for the Curia Senatus (also known as the Curia Julia), the latter located on the site of what became, in the 7th century, the Church of Sant’Adriano. At this time the Church of Santa Martina was supposed to have been built on the remnants of the Temple of Mars erected by Emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BCE–14 CE). [1] This site was identified as a suitable repository for the relics of Santa Martina because the saint’s name sounded as though it derived from Mars (Italian Marte; Latin Mars, Martis). An inscription, still extant at the site in 1600 and often reproduced by coeval sources, celebrated this association [fig. 1]: “The virgin Martina wearing a martyr's crown / has the church now Mars has been expelled from here.” [2]

Detail of an engraved image printed on paper showing the street-facing sides of some buildings and small human figures walking

Figure 2. Étienne Dupérac, Church of Santa Martina (detail), in I vestigi dell’antichità di Roma, 1575. National Gallery of Art, Mark J. Millard Architectural Collection, David K. E. Bruce Fund (1985.61.572.b)

There was conflicting information about when the saint’s relics had been transferred to the church and when the church had been consecrated, whether by Pope Sylvester I during the time of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great (reigned 307–333), or by Pope Alexander IV (reigned 1254–1261) in 1256 on the occasion of the (re)consecration of the site.[3] The former belief underscored the antiquity of the church. In addition, this prestigious identification linked the church to the foundations of early Christianity, a defining period for Rome as the papal city. Such filiation placed the Church of Santa Martina within the papal orbit and, more importantly, connected it to the cultivation of Constantinian sites. It could thus provide the artists of early modern Rome with leverage for generating interest in the site.

Visual and textual sources give enough information to form an idea about the site’s appearance before 1588, the year Pope Sixtus V (reigned 1585–1590) conceded the church to the artists in exchange for the recently demolished Church of San Luca on the Esquiline Hill. [4] Indeed, Santa Martina did not look like a typical church. Pirro Ligorio’s map presents a building with a uniform facade, bracketed by the statue of Marforius and the church of Sant’ Adriano.

Black ink printed image of churches, arches, gardens, and other structures from a top-down view, with text labels and numbers

Figure 3. Étienne Dupérac, Nova Urbis Romae Descriptio, detail, 1577, etching. London, The British Library

However, as one can see in the detail from Étienne Dupérac’s engraving of the area of the Roman Forum that includes the church, the facade, which faced the Forum, presented a nonuniform, domestic aspect [fig. 2]. A row of two-story buildings of different sizes makes the entrance to the church difficult to discern. On the other hand, in his map of Rome published two years later, Dupérac depicted the structure from an aerial view like a church, analogously to its neighbor Sant’Adriano [fig. 3]. Compared with Dupérac's earlier view of the area, that may have been the case for the roof (labeled letter C), whereas the façade masked the function of the site. In fact, in his Delle chiese di Roma (1600), Ottavio Panciroli referred to the church as “hidden.” [5]

It is possible that this nondescript condition caused 16th-century authors of guidebooks to Rome, such as Girolamo Francini (1566), to overlook the Church of Santa Martina when enumerating the other churches in the Forum: San Pietro in Carcere, Sant’Adriano, San Lorenzo in Miranda, Santi Cosma e Damiano, and Santa Maria Nova. [6] Similarly, Florimi obliterated the site from his map of Rome. Although an excuse could be formulated when considering that all churches in the Roman Forum are almost unrecognizable due to Florimi’s abundant usage of hatching, the void corresponding to the site of Santa Martina designates it as unimportant. Both the unusual shape and unimpressive size of the structure may have contributed to Florimi’s decision not to indicate the site.

Detail of an engraved image printed on paper showing the street-facing sides of some buildings and small human figures walking

Figure 4. Étienne Dupérac, Church of Santa Martina (detail), in I vestigi dell’antichità di Roma, 1575.

In Dupérac’s engraving, above the entrance to the complex is a small rectangular panel in which the silhouette of a figure can be distinguished [fig. 4]. This may have been an image of Santa Martina, placed there to mark the entrance to the church. [7] Extant drawings by Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo present a unique nave plan preceded by an atrium. [8] But as the elevations reveal, the atrium must have been partly filled in with house-like structures. Changes around the site had been implemented even before the painters initiated their work on the church, but they were confined to the exterior. After the replanning of the area under the supervision of Cardinal Alessandrino (Michele Bonelli) in the 1580s, a street was created between the Church of Santa Martina and the adjacent Church of Sant’Adriano. Initiated by Cardinal Alessandrino under Pope Gregory XIII, the project could not have continued without the approval of his successor, Sixtus V.

Figure 5. Romano Alberti, frontispiece to Origine, et progresso dell’Accademia del Dissegno, de pittori, scultori, et architetti di Roma (detail), 1604. Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome

The Accademia would have to cope with extensive maintenance work on the church throughout the next decades, but in his Origine, et progresso dell’Accademia del Dissegno, de pittori, scultori, et architetti di Roma (1604), Romano Alberti expressed satisfaction with the site for its capaciousness and ability to host an academy [fig. 5]. [9] Sixtus V’s decision to cede Santa Martina to the Accademia is by now a historical given. It is worth noting, however, that in his book on his own Villa Montalto, Vittorio Massimo quotes a manuscript on the Church of San Nicola in Carcere by Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni (1663–1725). [10] There, Crescimbeni relates an alternative history of the transfer of the artists from the Esquiline to the Forum. According to his account, the painters themselves wanted to change the location of their headquarters from the Church of San Luca to the Church of Santa Martina as early as the pontificate of Gregory XIII. This account suggests greater agency to the Università dei Pittori, the guild to which the painters belonged before the founding of the Accademia, in the acquisition of the church.

~ Silvia Tita, revised August 2021

[1] See, for instance, Panciroli 1600, 428–429.

[2] “Martyrij gestans virgo Martina coronam, / Eiecto hinc Martis numine, templa tenet.” See, for instance, Panciroli 1600, Totti 1638, and Vasi 1753. Sometimes an Italian translation accompanied the Latin inscription.

[3] Compare Panciroli’s and Totti’s versions of the early history of the site.

[4] For this, see the entry on the Church of San Luca on the Esquiline on this website. After the installation of the artists in Santa Martina, the parochial community of the church was divided among three neighboring churches: San Nicola in Carcere, San Lorenzo ai Monti, and Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

[5] Panciroli 1600, 427.

[6] Francini 1566, 20v–21v.

[7] Additionally, in Dupérac’s image, the letter C marking the church appears twice, once near the nave and again just below the entrance.

[8] For reproductions of these plans, see Krautheimer et al. 1937-1977, 3:84–85.

[9] “Sudetto luogo di Santa Martina dove di già si è principiata la nostra chiesa di San Luca … assai luogo capace per poter ridure insieme, e fare una nobilissima Accademia.” Alberti 1604, 2.

[10] Massimo 1846, 46.