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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

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

Location: The Roman Forum (See maps below).

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 seventh 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: “Martyrij gestans virgo Martina coronam / Eiecto hinc Martis numine, temala tener.” [2] 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 important, 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. 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 rather domestic aspect.  A row of two-story buildings of different sizes makes the entrance to the church difficult to discern. In fact, in his Delle chiese di Roma (1600), Ottavio Pancirolo referred to the church as “hidden.” [5] It is possible that this nondescript condition caused sixteenth-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, Santi Cosma e Damiano, and Santa Maria Nova. [6]

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 (see thumbnail image). 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 houselike 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.

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. [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 in the acquisition of the church on the part of the Università dei Pittori, the guild to which the painters belonged before the founding of the Accademia.

-- Silvia Tita

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

[2] “While Martina a martyr is, her name even from Mars derives, to her the temple is consecrated.” See, for instance, Pancirolo 1600, Totti 1638, and Vasi 1753. Sometimes an Italian translation accompanied the Latin inscription.

[3] Compare Pancirolo’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] Pancirolo 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.

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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.

Pancirolo, 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.