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Sep 7, 2013

San Vito, a surprising church in Rome.


The little church dedicated to St. Vitus in the rione Esquilino, is only 10 minutes from the more known Basilica of St. Mary the Major. 
It's first recorded at the end of VIII century as S. Vito in Macello since it was near the macellum, the ancient Roman indoor market.

The location of the church is bizarre, almost leaning on the Arch of Gallienus.
The arch was originally an ancient Roman gate (Esquiline) in the Servian walls, the very first walls of Rome (IV century B.C.).  Rebuilt in monumental style in the Augustan period, it was dedicated to the emperor Gallienus and his wife Cornelia Salonina in 262,  by the equestrian Aurelius Victor (the inscription is on the architrave). From the gate two important Roman roads started:  the Labicana and Tiburtina.
The Church is actually dedicated to St. Vitus,  Modestus and Crescentia:  IV century martyrs under the emperor Diocletian, much venerated the Middle Ages.
St. Vitus is more known; Modestus, and Crescentia were, respectively, his tutor and his nurse, husband and wife.  According to the legend Vitus, the son of a Sicilian senator, was brought up by Modestus and his wife as a Christian. His father tried in vain, even torturing him, to shake his faith, but Vitus was resolute and did not betray the two.  They managed to escape by boat to Lucania but were captured and taken to Rome where St. Vitus also cured the emperor Diocletian's son of devil possession.  Accused of sorcery they were tortured and condemned to death.
An angel would have brought them back to Lucania where they died. 
The three saints are very popular in Southern Italy and Sicily.  Much venerated also in Prague where the huge cathedral is dedicated to St. Vitus, the patron saint of Bohemia.
In the late Middle Ages in Germany St. Vitus feast (June 15th) was celebrated in a singular way:  worshippers danced around his statue.  As a matter of fact he is the patron saint of dancers (besides actors, comedians). He is also invoked for protection against epilepsy, lightnings, animal attacks and... oversleep!  The expression 'St. Vitus dance' also refers to a neurological disorder characterized by uncoordinated movements. 

The church in Rome was originally a diaconia, a 'welfare center' for the care of poor people and the distribution of alms. It was rebuilt at the end of XV century by the pope Sixtus IV in the present location, near the original site.  The Cistercian monks to whom it was entrusted at the time, established also a small monastery, adjacent to the church.  Further restorations followed and with the expansion of the neighborhood beyond the Roman walls a new façade was opened on Via Carlo Alberto.  In the 70s such alterations were fortunately removed.
The interior is incredibly plain and sober:  one nave, the apse, a lacunar ceiling, almost white. 
So modest that, walking toward the altar, you don't expect the impressive fresco on the right wall.
XV century fresco

It's a Renaissance work attributed to Antoniazzo Romano or Melozzo da Forlì (XV century) depicting a Madonna and Child, between Crescentia and Modestus and, down below, from the left St. Sebastian, Saint Margaret (the dragon, one of her attributes, has almost disappeared, only the tail is visible) and St. Vitus with a dog.
St. Sebastian, St. Margaret, St. Vitus and ...the dog.

In the Italian iconography he appears with one or more dogs. 
Probably because of his birth:  June 15h is a date preceding summer which was associated by the Romans to the star Sirius, considered to be the 'dog star' because it's the brightest in the constellation of the dog (Canis Major).  But also other explanations are possible of course, even if less credited:  the dog could be related to the fact the saint was invoked against rabies, or more simply it is a symbol of his fidelity to Christ.
A modern fresco (XIX century) on the opposite wall shows a Madonna offering the rosary to St. Catherine of Siena and St. Dominic.

On the right wall there is also an ancient Roman funerary cippus (a tomb marker) still bearing the inscription.    Known in the Middle Ages as pietra scellerata (infamous stone), it was believed that martyrs were tortured and killed on it.  Its surface is consumed because according to traditional beliefs the powder obtained by scratching the marble cured a multitude of evils, especially hydrophobia (rabies).

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