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Franciscan Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian


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. - Rome 1973

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 (72-80 A.D.).
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 Felix IV.

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 spirit.

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 constructed.

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 basilica.

The Convent

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 entrance corridor.

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 province.

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 century appearance.

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