The Church of Saint Susanna at the Baths of Diocletian (Italian: Chiesa di Santa Susanna alle Terme di Diocleziano)
is a Roman Catholic parish church located on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, Italy. There has been a titular church associated to its site as far back as A.D. 280. The current church was rebuilt from 1585 to 1603 for a monastery of Cistercian nuns founded on the site in 1587 which still exists there.
The church served as the national parish for residents of Rome from the United States from 1921 to 2017, during which period it was assigned to the care of the Paulist Fathers, a society of priests founded in the United States. As of August 1, 2017, the parish is moving to Saint Patrick’s Church on Via Boncompagni No. 31, one block from the American Embassy.
The ground-breaking Baroque facade was designed by Carlo Maderno, his first commission in Rome. Previously he had worked under the architect, Domenico Fontana. Completed in 1603, it created a grander sense of height and depth than it actually possesses, yet is completely proportional. The pope was so impressed by the work that he named Maderno one of the principle architects for St. Peter’s Basilica. He created the nave and facade of that great monument.
Which the facade and decorations are Baroque, the church foundations are ancient. There has been church on this site for 1700 years! The first was a house church (domus ecclesia) during the Roman era, opened to faithful followers by the home’s owner, Gabinus. He had a daughter named Susanna. Both of them were martyred here. In 330 AD, under Emperor Constantine, the first chapel was established to entomb the two martyrs. Subsequent buildings and additions took place over time to achieve the current place of worship you see today.
Santa Susanna is unique in that it is the only church in Rome completely covered in frescoes. The interior is vibrant and a veritable feast for the eyes!
A Stunning Late Renaissance Showcase
Santa Susanna displays little evidence of its former early Christian and medieval incarnations. The church as we see it today is a splendid all-of-a piece showcase of late Renaissance art and architecture. In fact, the interior is so different from most Roman churches that we start to rub our eyes in surprise and disbelief.
In comparison with most Roman churches, Santa Susanna seems broad and spacious, filled with light and awash with pastel colors. The nave is richly frescoed with huge figures, classical vistas and luminous green gardens, and speckled with light golden stucco-work throughout. This was the work of Rome’s most important artists of the late sixteenth century. Their style was a bridge between Renaissance classicism and Baroque exuberance, called “Mannerism”(emphasis on style rather than representations of reality), and characterized by a light palette, distorted figures, and unorthodox perspectives.
In the late sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V ( 1585-1590) was investing Rome with an unprecedented flurry of building activity, laying out streets and piazzas, raising obelisks and aqueducts, and spreading around churches, fountains and villas. The Quirinal Hill, with Santa Susanna at its peak, was one of Sixtus’ pet construction sites (Moses Fountain, Montalto Villa, Quirinal Palace, Via and Porta Pia). He gave his Rome Vicar and Santa Susanna’s titular Cardinal, Jerome Rusticucci, free reign to appropriately transform the church.
Rusticucci began his drastic renovations in 1588, finishing in 1595, under the supervision of Sixtus’ favorite architect, Domenico Fontana. The much admired façade was completed by Carlo Maderno in 1603, right before he did his main work on St. Peter ‘s. The Sistine “Mannerist” workshop, inherited by Rusticucci upon the pontiff’s death (his successor Clement VIII preferred the exclusive services of Cavalier d’Arpino), imparted to Santa Susanna that striking unity of pictorial style and content we experience today.
Six immense frescoes by Baldassare Croce (1558-1628), on either side of the nave, depict the life of Santa Susanna’s Old Testament predecessor Susanna, described by the prophet Daniel. (Bathing in her garden, Susanna is accosted by two old lechers; they falsely accuse her publicly of seduction; Daniel proves Susanna’s innocence, and the men are stoned). The effect is really quite breathtaking: luxuriant scenery, glowing colors, towering architecture. (But don’t look too closely; Baldassare was no Michelangelo or Caravaggio!)
Other pictorial cycles in the apse allude to the martyrdoms of Saints Susanna, Felicity, and Gabinus, and were done by Mannerist artists Tomasso Laureti, Cesare Nebbia and Paris Nogari. The nave frescoes are delightfully painted as imitation tapestries fluttering in the wind, and separated by massive trompe-l’oeil spiral columns. Large statues of prophets in the nave, and of SS. Peter and Paul in the apse, were done by a sculptor called Il Valsoldo. The beautiful gilded lacunar ceiling (attributed to Carlo Maderno) shows Santa Susanna flanked by Cardinal Rusticucci’s white stallion coats-of-arms. In fact, these prancing horses appear anywhere and everywhere throughout the church. Just in case we missed the point.
Besides the ubiquitous Cardinal Rusticucci (buried in the lovely oval crypt), Sixtus V’s sister, Camilla Peretti, also had a hand in restoring Santa Susanna. She commissioned decoration of the Chapel of San Lorenzo (left of apse, paintings by Mannerist artists Giovan Battista Pozzo and Cesare Nebbia) and transported the relics of Saints Genesius (patron of actors) and Eleutarius to the chapel, consecrated in 1591. Camilla had Sixtus V assign an adjacent monastery to her favorite order of Cistercian nuns and started work on their new convent, collaborating with Cardinal Rusticucci, who from 1570 was Protector of the Cistercian Order. Major work on the convent dates from the seventeenth century.
The Cistercian monastery of Santa Susanna
Founded in 11th-century France, the Cistercian order gradually spread throughout Europe to spread the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. One branch, the Italian (male religious) Confraternity of Saint Bernard, obtained a papal decree whereby Sixtus V granted to a new group of cloistered Cistercian nuns the formerly Augustinian monastery of Santa Susanna and adjoining lands. (The male Cistercians still inhabit the church of St. Bernard across the street and serve as the nuns’ chaplains.)
The Santa Susanna sisters are fond of reminding visitors that they have remained on the premises for over 400 years. In fact, with Italian unification in 1870, most of their property was expropriated by the Italian State (now barracks and stables for the Presidential Guard). The large and wealthy community of 150 nuns gradually dwindled in numbers (and resources) to about 13. By the time the Paulists came on the scene, the convent was shrinking, and the church hardly used by the strictly-secluded nuns. In fact, they usually attended services behind thick iron grates to the sides of the altar.
Santa Susanna, American National Church in Rome
After World War I, the Paulist Fathers, founded in New York City in 1858, had grown to such an extant that they felt the time had come to seek approval of their religious institute from the Holy See, in order to be able to work throughout the worldwide Church. They also wanted to establish a Procurator General there to coordinate their work with the Vatican. To this end, the Superior General of the Society, the Right Reverend Thomas Burke, C.S.P., went to Rome in January 1921 to meet with Pope Benedict XV for this. During this trip, they first noticed Santa Susanna, as it was adjacent to the American Embassy to Italy at the time. Its location made it of interest to the Americans
The Paulists opened the office of the Procurator General in the city that following spring, headed by Thomas Lantry O’Neill, C.S.P. In the meantime, Burke’s brother, also a member of the Society, had approached President Warren Harding to make him aware of their interest in making use of the church to serve the growing American population of Rome. Harding made a request for this to the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, during the course of a meeting in June. Bonzano transmitted the request to the Vatican Secretary of State, with the recommendation that it be granted as a gesture of good will to the United States.
In December 1921, Pope Benedict XV authorized the Paulist Fathers to administer Santa Susanna as the national church in Rome for the American residents of Rome and visitors from the United States of America. The abbess of the monastery gave the keys to the church to the new pastor on 1 January 1922. Cardinal William Henry O’Connell of Boston presided at the first public Mass for the American community of the city on 26 February 1922.
The cardinal who held the title to the church had died during the summer of 1921, leaving the church with no legal owner under Italian law. At the same time, the installation of electrical lights in the church, to which Americans were accustomed, but was shocking to the Roman people. The Ambassador of Romania also claimed the church as a national church for the people of his country. The ownership issue settled at the end of 1924, when Bonzano, the former Apostolic Nuncio and by then a cardinal himself, requested a transfer of his title to this church. Once that was accomplished, he appointed O’Neill as the Rector of the parish.
From 1958 to 1985, the cardinal assigned to Santa Susanna as his titular church has been the Archbishop of Boston. Bernard Francis Law is the current titular cardinal, though he resigned as archbishop in 2002.
Since August 2017, following a campaign by the Cistercian nuns who had maintained a presence at Santa Susanna since 1587, the American expatriate community relocated its national church to San Patrizio.