A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Hidden Monastery in Rome Possesses Rich History

Sheds Light on First Poor Clare Community in the Eternal City

By Ann Schneible

ROME, 13 JULY 2012 (ZENIT)
Hidden away behind the wall of a modern Roman hospital stand the remains of an old monastery, dating back more than a thousand years.

Apart from a medieval entryway facing out into a small piazza in Trastevere, there is little evidence from the outside of Rome's Regina Margarita hospital that within its walls stands a monastery which, for centuries reaching back to the lifetime of Saint Clare of Assisi, once housed a community of Poor Clare sisters.

Joan Lloyd, a retired professor of art history from La Trobe University in Melbourne, has lived and worked in Rome for many years. She has done extensive study on San Cosimato, although apart from her own work, little research has been done, especially in English. With her colleague Karin Bull Simonson Einaudi, Lloyd co-authored a book in 1998 (in Italian) titled S.s. Cosma de Damiano in Mica Aurea: Architettura, Storia e Storiografia di un Monastero Romano Soppresso (Saints Cosmos and Damian in Mica Aurea: Architecture, History, and Historiography of a Suppressed Roman Monastery), published by the Societa Romana di Storia Patria. She is a member of the Assocazione volontaria mica aurea, an Italian association founded to raise money for the restoration of San Cosimato.

She spoke with ZENIT about the monastery, shedding light on the ancient Poor Clare community that is now hidden behind the walls of modern Rome.

The monastery of San Cosimato, explains Lloyd, was founded in Trastevere. "It was originally called Santi Cosma e Damiano — Saints Cosmos and Damien, two saints from the Orient — who were medical doctors. They in fact are patrons of medicine, and one of their big claims to fame was that they used to attend to people for nothing. They also had spiritual gifts of healing."

"In 936, a man named Benedictus Campaninus, who owned land in that part of Trastevere, founded a monastery." This date corresponds with the year in which Odo of Cluny, the abbot of the great monastery in France, paid a visit to Rome to reform the city's monasteries. A Benedictine monastery was then established, becoming one of the great monasteries in the city of Rome. A rich monastery, it lasted for 300 years.

"We know something about it from a papal document of 1005, which talks about what was actually there at that time. It says that there were three churches on the site: there was a big church dedicated to Saint Benedict, and then two churches, one dedicated to Saint Lawrence and Saint Nicholas, and the monastery itself was dedicated to Saints Cosmos and Damian."

Little of this original Benedictine monastery survives apart from a large medieval gateway which faces into the Trastevere piazza of San Cosimato.

One aspect of the the Benedictine charism was that of hospitality, said Lloyd. "Any stranger coming to the monastery would have come here [to the gateway], and next door to it there were some rooms that were built at the same time, which probably belonged to the porter of the monastery who had to welcome them. Benedict, in his Rule, actually mentions that the porter of the monastery should be there to say 'Blessed be God!' when they arrive, and the monks should treat the visitors as Christ himself."

A short way up the road from the monastery was a hospice called San Biagio (Saint Blaize), which would come to be known as San Francesco a Ripa on account of Saint Francis having stayed there while on pilgrimage to Rome. The hospice was given to the Franciscans in 1229 to be their house in Rome. "Pope Gregory IX realized that the monks themselves had been reduced to a very small number. He decided that they should give him the main monastery as well, and he set up a Poor Clare convent there in the monastery of San Cosimato — as it would come to be known."

The four nuns who came to Rome were said to have come from the monastery of San Damiano in Assisi, the monastery founded by Saint Clare herself. The Rome monastery was, in fact, founded in her lifetime, although it was the Pope who saw to its establishment in 1234.

"There is a big change again in 1470-1480 when Pope Sixtus IV, who built the Sistine Chapel (who is also Franciscan), rebuilt the monastery for them, in the sense that he rearranged the Church by putting a new façade on it, although most of the walls of the Church are still medieval… What Pope Sixtus IV also did was he built another cloister for them. At the back of the Church he built a beautiful Renaissance cloister which is a bit different in style from the medieval one."

"His blood sister," Lloyd continued, "was actually buried in San Cosimato… It's possible that she [a likely benefactress of the order] asked her brother the Pope to do something nice for the nuns."
Responsible for much of what is known about San Cosimoto's history was a nun of the 16th to early 17th century named Orsola Formicini Having joined the community at 8 years old, she spent her entire life within the monastery. Beneath a staircase, Lloyd relates, Formicini discovered "a box with some old manuscripts, and in fact they were manuscripts from the Benedictine monastery going right back, she says, to before 936."

Based upon these manuscripts, "she then wrote a history of the monastery by hand, and it's one of the interesting books that a Renaissance woman has written. It's a very good history based on these manuscripts that she found and then based on the sisters and the lives of all the sisters [she lived with] in the monastery."

Suppression of the monasteries

In 1810, Napoleon's armies overtook Rome, suppressing all of the monasteries and forcing the nuns to leave so that they could be used as barracks for the French soldiers. The Poor Clares of San Cosimato would return in 1814 to their monastery.

However, just a few decades later, the Poor Clares would be forced to leave San Cosimato forever. "In 1873," Lloyd explained, "there was a law passed in Italy which said that if the State needed various buildings they could sequester them from various religious orders — which they did. They decided, in 1875, to suppress the Poor Clare monastery [of San Cosimato]."

Although many religious orders were permitted to continue with their ministries, the Poor Clares were suppressed due to their contemplative lifestyle of prayer, which, in the eyes of the Italian government at the time, seemed to be of little use to society. "The nuns were moved out to another place [across the river near Piramide, where they remain to this day], and they took with them a beautiful icon of the Virgin and Child. In the attitude of the times, the monastery was given to a charitable use. It was to be an old-age home, to look after the poor old people."

The monastery would, over the years, be subject to extensive modification to fit its new purpose as a home for the elderly, and later as a hospital. Although the Italian government often took over monastic buildings, they typically allowed the Church to remain, and this was no exception. However, the Poor Clare choir — the portion of the Church which was set behind the cloister — would be essentially destroyed, with a large staircase being built into it.

In the 1960s, Regina Margarita hospital was built, although its function as a hospital has been largely reduced due to lack of government funding.

Nonetheless, remnants of the ancient monastery still remain. In the hospital pharmacy, for instance, paintings of Saint Cosmos, Saint Damien, Saint Sebastian, and an early Christian martyr can still be seen. Many of the cloister courtyards can still be seen as well, although they are largely overgrown and in sore need of repair. The church itself, although the Poor Clare choir has been destroyed, is otherwise largely intact. Holy Mass, which is open to the public, continues to be celebrated each day at 11 am. 

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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