Santa Maria Degli Angeli

Santa Maria Degli Angeli [8]

It is the year 1541, priest Antonio Duca experiences an ecstatic vision that convinced him that at the former baths of Diocletian there has to be built a church. A church dedicated tot the 40.000 Christian martyrs that have died there during the built of the baths, ordered by and named after Diocletian. Antonio Duca made it his lifework to make sure the church would be build there, in the following decades he made repeated appeals to the popes to support his plan but were all turned down because of the excessive anticipated expenses. “troppo gran macchina”.[5]

But then Pope Pius IV came in power, he issued a papal bull in which he ordered the built of the Santa Mary Degli Angeli e dei Martiri Basilica (Basilica of the Saint Mary, her angels and the martyrs) in 1561. Michelangelo was chosen to do the design and the church was built in 1563 and 1564. Interesting about the church is that from the outside it looks like the ancient bathhouse, and when you enter it’s a church. This difference in perception will be the subject of our research. We first give a brief introduction to the historical context in which the church is built, after that we’ll research what motive there could be for preserving ancient ruins. Then a comparison will be made with how the Germans dealt with their undesirable heritage (their Nazi-past) to get insight how there could be dealt with such heritage, to conclude with an analysis of the church given the information we gained by the previous 3 subjects. Traditionally we’ll conclude with a conclusion.

1. Historical Context
2. Preservation
3. Damnatio Mamoriae?
4. Conclusion

Historical Context

The 16th century was in religious perspective dominated by the reformation and contra-reformation. A reformation which as battlefield the reforming of the church. A church which Luther and Calvin (among others) thought was needed to be reformed because of their objections against the practice of indulgence and the growing corruption within the Catholic Church. For the purpose of this article it’s good to realize that in the time of the built of the church the Concille of Trente just ended and by that we’re on the turning point of the reformation and contra-reformation.

I rest further considerations on the reformation and contra-reformation for the sake of the length of this article. However, it’s good to know that the Protestants abandoned the Mary-worshipping. Jesus was put on the top of the religious ladder for them. This is interesting being the church named after the Saint Mary; the saint the Protestants didn’t worship any more. The one thing quite as interesting is the fact that the authority of the church was at his least during the time of the build, the reformation at his peak. Therefore the need to re-establish authority should be felt the highest. That could be for us the motive for the built, as we will see.


Preservation is a technique where a building, being a reject or a ruin, is tried to be preserved in his current state. Preservation as antitheses of restoration, where by restoration they strive to rebuilt the neglected building in his original state[5]. Michelangelo hasn’t tried to restore the bathhouse into the glamorous state it was in after the built in the 4th century, he tried to preserve it. He used the ruins of the ancient bathhouse as a shell in which he built the church. Here fore it becomes interesting to explore the motives for preservation throughout the times in history, and in relation to the church what could be the motive for preserving the bathhouse. Why did they preserve the building that symbolizes the death of so many martyrs, and what could the history of preservation learn us in relation to that question.

Preservation was frequently used as a political tool throughout the history of Rome: By claiming to preserve the remains of ancient Rome the rulers try to show they’re the rightful heirs of the imperial past. Preserving ancient structures was used to link the imperial past to the present, and thus to legitimize their power. The right to dedicate an ancient structure symbolizes absolute power. The ruler could coopt the proud imperial past as their own trough preservation.[1]

Preservation through Roman History: Augustus made preserving ancient Roman artifacts state policy. It was for him the unique opportunity to relate the present directly to the past. That was necessary because of the several civil wars that ultimately lead to his dominance. He made it state policy to show that he was respectful towards the ancient Roman traditions. An example is the preservation of the Casa Romuli. With preserving that structure Augustus tried to reinforce his own personal connection to the founder of Rome, Romulus, and thereby reinforcing his own status as the rightful heir of that past and the ruler of the new Roman Empire.

Centuries after Augustus were marked by declining political and economic power. Because of the costliness of preserving ancient structures the focus shifted from preservation, to stabilizing by slowing down or interrupting the process of decay. That was until around 500 when king Theodoric got in power. He continued the tradition of using the preservation of ancient structures as a political tool. By preserving ancient structures he tried to imply the continuity between him, as “Barbarian King”, and the imperial tradition. Preservation to serve his political legitimacy.

An development the more important for our building is the rise of Chrstianity during that period of time. The pope used preservation, once again, as a political strategy to purge the dangerous association of the pagan past of the Romes and adapt it to fulfill the Popes own needs. Pope Gregory the great expressed it as follow:

“Do not destroy the pagan temples but the idols that they harbor. As for the building themselves are concerned, be content to sprinkle them with holy water and place your alters and relics in them”

With the collapse of the Byzantine Rule, followed by periods of anarchy, it was the popes that carried the tradition of preservation into the future. Preserving ancient Roman remains therefore long time was a papal concern, until the Civil Government was found in 1141. The civil government was charged with defending the interests of ordinary Romans against the popes and important Roman nobility. A civic statue from the 14th century revealed that they appointed themselves with the task of preserving the ancient past. They once again used preservation as a political tool, now to emphasize the idea of the Roman population as a communion, preservation as a collective responsibility.

The consequence of this all was shared jurisdiction over the ancient remains Roman remains by the Pope and the civil government.[5]

In relation to our building this leads to the conclusion that there are a few things to be learned: Preservation was adopted as a papal strategy to purge the association of ancient structures with their pagan past. This could be interesting for our building being an symbol of paganism, with the deaths of 40.000 Christian martyrs. The question arises if Pope Pius IV (pope during the built of the church) used the ancient baths, accompanied with its pagan past, for strategically means.

In this context it’s very interesting what the Pope stated in the bull in which he ordered the building of the church: The pope declared that preservation of the ancient bath complex was a primary papal concern: after having lain “for many centuries derelict and neglected, the repair and subsequent revamping of the ruins as a church would not only augment and promote the Christian faith, but contribute to the greater decorum and splendor of the papal capital.”

A motive for the building of the church could therefore be found in the reformation. There’s a need to confirm the Papal’s legitimacy, and that could have been done by claiming the heritage of the baths for their own, being the rightful heirs of the ancient past. Stating by building the church at that ground that the martyrs that died there where their (catholic Christian) martyrs. This is only a hypothesis on the question of why the church was build there, what was the motive for that. More interesting is the question why the building looks the way it does. Why do we see a bath house, and why is it a church when we enter?

Damnatio Mamoriae?

If you look at the horrifying history of the baths of Diocletion you would expect that there would never have been built a church. A church at that place should feel like a synagogue in Auschwitz, a place where thanks to the holocaust a synagogue would feel like morbidity at his purest. Nevertheless, like we’ve seen, there could be a motive to build a gods house on such ground. But if you do that, you expect the builders to at least erase all what’s left of the memory of the terrific past. Pope Pius IV did the opposite, the built the church by preserving the past. The church encapsulated by the horrifying past.

For us an expected solution would be if they decided to erase the memory of the past, and to build the church on that ground showing the concurring over the pagan past. Building a church with erasing the memory could serve as a symbol of the victory of the Christian fate over the pagan past. But somehow there was a need not to erase the pagan memory. Damnatiao Mamoriae: erasing of the past. We have to take a side-step to a more present history to find an explanation why in our case the Pope didn’t decide to erase history, and why it would even serve the present for him. We’re going to take a look on how the German’s dealt with their Nazi-past, and what the lesson is we could learn in relation to our church.

A similar problem arose after the fall of the Nazi-regime on how to deal with the Nazi Party rally grounds in Nuremberg. There originated a discussion in the 70’s and 80’s on the question if there was need to restore the grounds (before then the ground was neglected, and fallen into ruin). The Nazi’s, romanizing the Roman-era, idealized the idea of their buildings falling into ruin at the end of their 1000-year empire[2]. Letting the buildings at the ground fell into ruin wasn’t therefore an option. That idea was strengthened by the fact that the buildings weren’t built proper and had fallen into ruin already. The fear arose that the respect, admiration, worship and sympathy the Nazi’s expected by observing the ruins would be fulfilled. Neglecting the grounds was thereby no option, neither was restoring because that would show too much respect to the Nazi-past.[6]

And how about destroying? The grounds were placed on the monumental list by the German Government in the early 70’s, to serve as a whiteness of the horrifying past. They choose calculated neglect, so that the buildings didn’t fall into ruin and to show their horrid to the past. By neglecting the buildings slowly they tried to prove the absurdity of the idea of a 1000-years empire.[3]

MacDonald[6] fits this problem in the discussion how to deal with an undesirable heritage: a heritage a majority of the population prefers not to have. A notion of historical consciousness (in our case, the undesirable heritage) acknowledges and theorizes the consciousness of people in relationship to their past, history and historicity [4]. The fact the Nazi-case could learn us is the active consciousness of the Germans in relation to their Nazi-past. By distancing from their past they acknowledge their past, after all distancing implicates a notion of the subject you take distance of. The placing on the monumental list shows the awareness as well. It says a lot that they didn’t want to destroy the grounds, thereby erasing history (damnatio memoriae), but let it be there to serve as an eye whiteness of this black-page in German History.

The last concept seems to be the very learn full for our case. The church is built in the bathhouse, the bathhouse functions as a shell around the church. It seems like the past is being conserved, as it could tell us something. In analogy to the Nazi grounds it seems like the bathhouse functions as whiteness of the martyrdom of the 40.000 Christian martyrs. They didn’t distance themselves from history, they embrace it. Or better said, they let the history embrace them. The Bathhouse embraces the church.

It’s possible to explain the minimalistic approach from a practical point of view, and by minimalist approach we mean the bathhouse used as a shell. It could be the financial state of the Papal city at that time, or like Karmon [5] states that it’s the minimalistic style Michelangelo developed and his love for preserving ancient buildings. Though, that is a cultural evolutionistic rather unsatisfying answer. Pope Pius IV and the Civic government could have always decided not to build the building. Fact is that they did. We like to argument that by letting the bath house encapsulate the church it was the most terrific way to claim that the martyrs that died for the church did so for the Catholic Church rather than the protestant movement. The church as (early) contra-reformation rhetoric. They’ve planted a new memory, namely the church, in the old history, bound it together and let it look like the new memory always was there. Binding the two phases in history together, like they’ve always been indissoluble bound, stating the connection between the martyrs, the early Christians and the Catholic Church.

If we approach our building in the way Van Heusden[7] learned us, being the difference in perception of an object as we see it and what is really is, as the answer to a problem. The difference in perception is quite clear in our case, we perceive a bathhouse, but when we enter it turns out to be a church. In our view that difference in perception is the answer to the problem of the reformation. The church trying to claim the heritage of the 40.000 martyrs for their own. And they do that in a quite obvious way, by claiming the bathhouse by building a church in it which is named Saint Mary. A main subject of the ongoing battle between the two sides.


The Santa Maria Degli Angeli e dei Martiri is a church built in a therefore preserved bathhouse. The bathhouse encapsulates the church. Preserving throughout Roman history is used as political tool to claim the ancient past for their own, stating to be the rightful heir of the past. There was in this case need for the Pope to claim the past, the reformation was ongoing and the legitimacy of the Catholic Church declining. By letting the bathhouse embrace the church they tried to claim the 40.000 Christians that died in the build of the bathhouse for there own, stating that their the rightful heirs of that past. They let the past serve as an eye-whiteness of their martyrdom and therefore in the words of the Pope: "the repair and subsequent revamping of the ruins as a church would not only augment and promote the Christian faith, but contribute to the greater decorum and splendor of the papal capital.”


  1. D.Karmon.The Ruin of the Eternal City: Antiquity and Preservation in Renaissance Rome, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press 2011.
  2. A. Scobie, Hitler's state architecture: the impact of classical antiquity, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press 1990.
  3. J. Arthurs, ‘Fascism as Heritage in Contemporary Italy’, in: A Mammone and G. Veltri (red.), Italy Today: the Sick Man of Europe, Routledge 2010, p. 233-260.
  4. J. Rüsen, Western historical thinking: an intercultural debate, Bielefeld: Berghahn Books 2002.
  5. D. Karmon, ‘Michelangelo’s ‘Minimalism’ in the Design of Santa Maria degli Angeli,’ Annali diarchitettura 20 (2008), p. 141-153.
  6. S. MacDonald, ‘Undesirable Heritage: Fascist Material Culture and Historical Consciousness in Nuremberg’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 1 (12), p. 9-28.
  7. B. van Heusden, ‘Semiotic cognition and the logic of culture’, Groningen 2009.