| Franciscan Basilica of Saints Cosmas and
Approaching the Basilica is a
walk through history. Traveling the Via dei Fori Imperiali toward the Coliseum, the Roman
or tourist admires an archeological panorama of stupendous beauty.
History of the Basilica
by: Fr. Pietro Chioccioni, T.O.R. -
A. Unique in the world for its many and ancient monuments,
this broad avenue calls to mind the history, the grandeur and the splendor that was Rome.
To the left, under the Quirinale, spreads the splendid Forum of Trajan (98-117 A.D.),
dominated by the column, built in 113 A.D. and by Trajan's market. The Forum of Augustus
(31 B.C:2 A.D.) follows; then, the Transitorium Forum or the Forum of Nerva (96-98 A.D.);
and, at last, the Forum of Peace or of Vespasian (69-75 A.D.). This is nearly completely
buried by the street and neighboring buildings and gardens.
To the right towers the Capitol, designed by Micheiangelo. On the slopes of the Capitol
are the Forum of Caesar (51-44 B.C.) and the Mamertine Prison (Epoch of the Republic).
From here expand the superb mute ruins a of the Roman, Forum, set off by the Arch of
Septimius Severus (203 A.D.), by the Curia (183 A.D.), by the Temple of Antonio and
Faustina (161 A.D.), by the Temple of Romulus (307 A.D.) and by the grandiose Basilica of
Maxentius (306-312 A.D.). One catches a glimpse of the Palatine, the ruins of the Palace
of the Caesars and the Arch of Titus (Epoch of Trajan or of Domitian). After the Basilica
of Maxentius emerge the imposing columns of the Temple of Venere and of Roma (121-136
A.D.). At last, capping the vision, is the greatest and noblest monument, the Coliseum
In this, the most important archaeological zone of the city, amidst many historic
monuments, rises the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian. It was erected by Pope Felix IV
(526-530) in two classic buildings of the imperial epoch. A monumental complex, with
memories of many pages of Roman history-reflecting the vicissitudes of the transformation
from the classical epoch, to the Medieval, to the Renaissance, to the Baroque it justifies
Giovanni Biasiotti's comment that the magnificent whole of the Basilica of Saints Cosmas
and Damian can be called a true museum of the architecture and of the decoration of Roman
history, from ancient to present.
In these pages we will survey the history of the basilica, its titular saints, its
classical memories and its vicissitudes across the centuries, describing the works of art
and other noteworthy items.
Following the Roman Republic and during the Imperial Epoch, from Tiberius to Constantine,
the mystical force of Christianity spread through the empire, despite dire persecution.
Peter and Paul had begun to preach the Gospel in 41 A.D. and under their successors
Christianity continued to grow. During this period the Roman Empire of the West was
deteriorating. The Church assumed the political, judical and artistic legacy of Rome. In
387, during the reign of Theodosius, Christianity became the state religion. Despite the
tremendous impact of the barbarian invasions, the Church preserved its monumental bequest.
Christianity had a new interpretation of life to offer to the people, and the Church, the
physical remnants of history in its hands. From just this situation evolved both the cult
of the saints, Cosmas and Damian, and the erection of the 6th century basilica by Pope
Saints Cosmas and Damian. The twin brothers, Cosmas and Damian, were born around the
middle of the third century in Egea, a city in Cilicia, belonging to the Patriarchate of
Antioch, in Asia Minor. Their parents were of noble blood, and heroic Christians. Antimo,
Leonzio and Euprepio, their younger brothers, were inseparable from them throughout life.
All practiced medicine with a marked spirit of love and service, making of their
profession a mission of help to suffering humanity. From their youth, seeing the state of
moral misery and the errors of paganism, they set about enlightening others in the truths
of the Christian faith they practiced with such zeal and ardor.
Thus, the prefect Lisia, through his office as governor of Sryria and, therefore, the
supreme magistrate of Rome, sentenced them to death by means of decapitation, along with
their younger brothers. The date of their martyrdom is universally considered to be
September 27, 303. The place is controversial either Egea of Cilicia, their native city,
or Ciro of Syria, where they were buried. Over their tombs a basilica was constructed, and
later enlarged by Constantine.
They are the official patrons of doctors and health workers because of the Christian
spirit with which they worked, and because of their thaumaturgic power, used on behalf of
human suffering and for the allieviation of the problems of the sick of body and of
Erection of the Basilica
Just as their mission had been clear to Cosmas and Damian, it was widely appreciated in
the early Church, in both the East and the West. When Felix IV of the Fimbri di Benevento
family was elected Pope in 526, there were already five churches in Rome alone dedicated
to these medical martyrs. Felix, particularly devoted to them, decided to erect in the
center of Christianity a basilica in their honor. It would be their principal sanctuary,
worthy of Rome, of the pontificate and of the saints themselves.
Felix had been elected Pope through the influence of Theodoric, ruling in Ravenna. He
enjoyed the favor of the court of Ravenna, under whose jurisdiction fell the two classical
edifices-the so-called Temple of Romulus and the Flavian hall of the southern corner of
the Forum of Peace or of Vespasian - which Felix chose for his planned basilica. In
addition, the buildings were in an area of Rome considered a zone of medicine. Theodoric
and his daughter Amalasunta readily handed over the ancient structures to Felix.
The rectangular hall, the Library of Peace, was about 40 meters long and 20 wide. Its
pavement was mosaic, its side walls were in opus quadratum (large squares of mosaic work)
with skillfully sculptured marble slabs. There were 15 windows, five on each side wall.
The basic architectural addition by Felix to this rectangular hall was the apse. Though
closed today, it was originally open from base to summit, resting on three arches. It thus
balanced symmetrically with the Temple of Romulus which Felix simultaneously had rebuilt
to serve as the entrance. (Rome furnished two other examples of this combination of curved
apse and openings: St. Sebastian on the Appian Way and the Basilica of St. Mary Major.)
At the center of the apse Felix had built the altar of peacock-streaked marble which
remains in its original location, now reduced to crypt-level. Black and white columns at
the its sides held up a marble baldachin. Two lecterns for reading Scripture were also
Rising on the limits of the Via Sacra and coming into contact with the rear of the Library
of Peace (Biblioteca Pacis), which Felix was converting into the basilica proper, was the
Temple of Romulus. It is believed to have been built by Maxentius around 307 A.D. in honor
of his son Romulus who died in childhood. Originally, eight columns with corinthian
capitals flanked the bronze doors, which served first the temple and later the basilica.
Some columns were removed; those remaining are not well preserved. Statues and niches
decorated the entrance. Felix built an arch to join the temple to the basilica. There were
two long apse cells opening in front; in the cell to the right Pope Paul I (757-767)
erected an Oratory named S. Pietro in Silce. The cell on the left served as an additional
entrance hall to the basilica. The Well of Felix with its curative waters and a fresco of
the Madonna with Saints Cosmas and Damian adorned the temple.
Entering the Felician basilica, the faithful must have been spellbound. Leaving the
squalid, littered ruins of the Forum and passing through the ancient bronze doors, they
stopped under a unique round hole (foramen), through which weak light streaked. At the
threshold of the basilica, they gazed immediately at the towering figures and
scintillating golds of the mosaic. Upon the Roman walls they admired inlaid polychromes
and scenes carved in marble. Light poured from the 15 ample windows. What a
contrastpassing from the desolate pagan Forum to the solemn and touching triumphal
theophany of Christ! The greatness of a fallen Rome Felix had successfully combined with
the triumph of Christianity. With their illnesses healed through the intercession of the
doctor saints, or with the hope of receiving their help, the faithful must have departed
with an indelible memory.
The Basilica Across the Centuries
In church records one finds various titles given to the -basilica. The most common one
that it had and which it still bears is that of Basilica Diaconale, or the Diaconate of
Saints Cosmas and Damian. It was created a diaconate by Pope Adrian I (772-795). It became
one of the most important Roman centers for assisting the poor, in one of the most
populous zones of the city. During the pontificate of Gregory II (715-731) it was
designated Basilica Stazionale or Station Church as one of the churches frequented by the
Christians for Lenten prayer.
Over-all, though, the nature of the basilica is a sanctuary dedicated to the doctor
saints. The Felician inscription under the mosaic declares this. This characteristic was
soon recognized throughout Christendom.
The Basilica entrusted to the
Third Order Regular of St. Francis
Over the centuries a number of additions to the basilica were made. The most noteworthy
was that of the Romanesque bell tower of the 12th or 13th century. Unfortunately, this
bell tower collapsed in 1600, severely damaging the basilica. Thereupon, Clement VIll
(1592-1605) had the basilica substantially restored.
The more gradual deterioration had done even greater harm. In the 15th century the center
of Rome moved from the old Forum beyond the Campidoglio to the present Via del Teatro
Marcello. The Forum ground held rainwater like a sponge. Abandoned, it became a marsh
infested with malaria-carrying mosquitos, and a pasture for sheep and cows. The basilica's
popularity diminished as neither the clergy nor faithful could comfortably use it.
Early in the 1500s, the basilica's titular cardinal, Alessandro Farnese, later Pope Paul
111, decided to consign the basilica to a religious order that could run it properly and
give spiritual aid to the faithful. For more than a century, members of the Third Order
Regular of St. Francis had been living in Rome near the Farnese Palace, where the Church
of S. Girolamo della Carita is located today. Cardinal Farnese was familiar with them
because these friars had turned their own houses into hospitals for the sick and poor, and
were known for their works of mercy. In 1512 he consigned the basilica to them.
Transformation of the Basilica by Urban VIll
Urban VIII (1623-1644) had a design made by the architect Orazio Torriani, and another by
Arrigucci. Under the direction of Fr. Michele da Bergama, a Capuchin, their designs were
applied to radically transform the Felician basilica. The Roman walls of the Flavian hall
were torn down. A pavement was installed seven meters above the original, cutting the
basilica in half horizontally. This created the present basilica, and the present crypt.
The lateral chapels were created, supported by arches, columns and capitals of agile
design. The ceiling, the altar, the freize, the choir, the organ-nearly anything one sees
in the present basilica with the exception of the mosaic and the black and white marble
columns on the altar (brought up from the original one)- dates from this transformation.
Notwithstanding the loss of the Felician basilica, of inestimable archeological value, and
of the stupendous view of the mosaic from the original ground level, one can easily see
that the changes created a masterpiece of harmony and beauty.
The compositional unity of the mosaic was broken between 1667-69, during the last major
change to the basilica. Under Clement IX, the travertine under - arch was added. In the
center of this arch is his coat of arms. To the right are the insignia of Cardinals
Antonio Barberini and Leopoldo dei Medici, titulars of the basilica. To the left are those
of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis and of Cardinal Benedetto Odescalchi, titular of
The Convent of Saints Cosmas and Damian, seat of the General Curia and motherhouse of the
Third Order Regular of St. Francis since 1512, forms, together with the basilica, a
monumental and unique complex. Important records have been lost, but it is fairly certain
that following their acquisition of the basilica in 1512, the friars lodged in the
premises behind the apse, fitted for a convent. Around 1585 they petitioned Pope Gregory
XIII to repair the propped-up and dangerous roof of their dormitory. During the
pontificate of Clement VIII (1592-1605), while the first transformation of the basilica
was under way, cells were constructed above the six side altars, furnished with a small
At the same time, P. Bernardino Sabbia, Procurator General of the Order, had constructed
over the ancient imperial walls of the Forum of Peace and over the wall of the Forma Urbis
the building that presently constitutes the top floor of the wing overlooking the Via dei
Fori Imperiali. To the right of the present entrance he also built a refectory which later
served as parish hall.
The nuclear convent always remained narrow and insufficient for the needs of the General
Curia of the Order and for the continually growing number of religious. Consequently,
between 1626 and 1632, during the rebuilding of the basilica by Urban VIII, the 17th
century convent was erected. It is composed of three long arms creating the cloister or
courtyard on the side of the basilica. Into this ample convent moved the religious of the
Convent and Hospital of S. Stefano degli Ungheresi and of the convents of the Roman
Except for the branch overlooking the Via dei Fori Imperiali which was enlarged and
rebuilt between 1943-49, replacing the parish hall, the convent retains its peaceful 17th
| Top of Page |