I have had any number of comments from readers about my posting on the ancient Church of San Stefano Rotondo in Rome—a site easily overlooked by most visitors to the Holy City but one that is well worth the visit. And so let me do another posting about an even more overlooked—and equally interesting—ancient Church not far from San Stefano, SS Quatro Coronati. The title of the Church, translated into English, means: the Four Crowned Saints and refers to four unnamed martyr-saints. Pope Miltiades in the early fourth century ascribed the names Claudius, Nicostratus, Simpronianus and Castorius to these four saints, but he had somehow amalgamated them to four of the five Pannonian stonemasons martyred during the persecution of Diocletian. (The fifth is Simplicius.) To confuse the issue even further, in the crypt of the church of the SS Quatro Coronati are the bodies of the martyr Saints Secundus, Severianus, Carpoforus, and Victorinus, martyrs from the suburbican See of Rome, Albano, who were put to death at an unspecified time and about whom nothing other than their names are known. So we have quite a collection of saints associated with this ancient church on the Caelian hill.
I have always liked this church because while it stands in the middle of the city of Rome, as you approach it you would swear you were walking down a country lane. Tall grasses and wildflowers block out any view beyond the Caelian itself, birds sing and at the end of the alley you see what looks more like a ruined gatehouse than a basilica. Passing through the gatehouse you enter the first of two external courtyards. It was typical of the ancient Roman Churches to have a courtyard separating it from the street beyond—Santa Praessede in Rome is an excellent surviving example of this—but the second courtyard is, I believe unique. Actually, the second courtyard was originally part of the nave of the basilica of SS Quatro Coronati, but when the church was rebuilt by Paschal II after having been burned by the Norman troops of Robert Guiscard during the 1084 sack of Rome. The resultant basilica is quite small and compact. The choir and presbyterium are screened off by a grille marking the cloister of the Augustinian nuns whose conventual church this has been since the mid sixteenth century. Standing in the courtyards you could easily be in the 12th century, totally removed from the modern world and surrounded by a complex of patinaed medieval structures that exude peace and tranquility. Inside the basilica there are some 16th century frescoes of no particular interest, but if you explore a bit you can find a lovely cloister in the cosmatesque style of the high Middle Ages. And if you are really lucky you might hit the church while the nuns are singing the noonday office. All in all it is a wonderful wormhole into medieval Rome.