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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Santo Stefano al Monte Celio in Rome

What is Santo Stefano al Monte Celio?

Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, also known as Santo Stefano Rotondo or “The Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round” in English, is a large cylindrical basilica dating to the 5th century AD and the National Church of Hungary in Rome.

Andrea Bertozzi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Santo Stefano al Monte Celio History

Situated within a kilometre of the Colosseum, though peacefully set apart from Rome’s main attractions, this church is a favourite amongst history and architecture enthusiasts. As the name suggests, this cylindrical basilica, built in the late 5th century and subsequently consecrated under Pope Simplicius, is located on the summit of the Caelian Hill and dedicated to St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Also known as Santo Stefano Rotondo (rotondo means ‘round’ in Italian), the basilica’s architectural design was almost certainly taken from Eastern models, as well as from the ancient Roman circular mausoleum, of which two still survive in the city, those of Augustus and Hadrian (the latter familiarly known as Castel Sant’Angelo).

When the church was first built, it featured two concentric rings surrounding a 22-metre-high central cylinder. Light filtered into the central space via 22 upper windows probably glazed with thin panels of coloured alabaster, whilst the outermost ring was intersected by the four arms of a Greek cross. Various embellishments, mosaics, wall frescoes and artworks were then contributed by various charge holders of the building over the centuries. Despite a number of additions and alterations, the church remains round in shape with its 22 antique granite columns and spacious outer ambulatory.

During a 12th-century restoration, the two enormous columns at the centre supporting three arches were added as reinforcement. But by the 15th century, the cylindrical basilica, wrongly thought by many to be a converted pagan temple, fell into ruin. In 1453, Pope Nicholas V ordered a major restoration of the church, which was carried out by Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino and aimed at removing the damaged remains of the outer ring. Three of the arms of the Greek cross were demolished and the church took the form you see today. Its medieval furnishings were all cleared out, as well as the church’s ancient epigraphs. Instead, the Pope had his own epigraph inscribed in the vestibule that reads: ‘This church of the protomartyr Stephen, in ruins for a long time before, Pope Nicholas V restored in 1453’.

During the Counter-Reformation, the walls of the church were frescoed by Antonio Tempesta and Niccolò Circignani (also known as Pomarancio after his place of birth), and depict biblical scenes in chronological order, which you’ll see become increasingly gruesome as you follow them around the space.

The basilica is also the National Church of Hungary in Rome, houses a Hungarian Chapel and receives pilgrimage visitors from Hungary every year. This status finds roots in Pope Nicholas V giving charge of the church to the Hungarian order of the Pauline Fathers in 1454. Today the church is regularly used for weddings and ceremonies with permission from the German-Hungarian pontifical college, a Jesuit organisation that has owned the chapel since the late 16th century.

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