In one of his famous watercolors on paper, Ettore Roesler Franz (1845-1907) represented the Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati (Four Holy Crowned Ones), on the Coelian Hill, in Rome.
It was 1884 and the Roman painter portrayed the old monastery – built in the 4th century over a pre-existing Roman structure, and re-built after 1084 by pope Paschal II – surrounded by the countryside: a solitary fortress, quiet and isolated from the rest of the 19th-century city. As he was capturing the imposing, medieval building, he could not be reached by the noise of the construction sites that were busy with making the squares and streets of Rome comply with the new, so-called “stile umbertino”.
Today, everything has changed of course. Yet the fortress-monastery of the Four Holy Crowned Ones always looks a little bit outside of the world, sheltered from urban excitement despite being right at the heart of the city.
Walking past the entrance arch and entering inside its mighty walls is really a wonderful experience.
You are welcomed by two contiguous courtyards, and under the second’s right-hand portico – a sort of vestibule of the church’s entrance – you will see the entrance to the Oratory of San Silvestro, a slice of the Middle Ages where Byzantine-style frescoes from the 13th century tell the “Stories of Constantine and pope Sylvester”, drawn from “Actus Silvestri”.
An old portal leads to the church, which is divided by ancient columns into three naves.
Above you, notice the wooden ceiling dating back to the 1500s and, in the back, a large apse with 17th-century paintings. A small crypt houses the relics of the four martyrs to whom the church is dedicated (four legionnaires who were killed by Diocletian for refusing to worship a pagan god’s statue or, according to a different tradition, four artists who refused to sculpt it).
Then there are the medieval cloister with its fountain and the Gothic Hall, which only recently reopened to the public, with remarkable paintings of the zodiac signs, the Arts, the twelve months, the four seasons… a cycle of frescoes that was discovered only a few years ago and is now being studied by experts from the whole world.
And on top of beauty and art, this hidden corner of Rome can offer a moment of precious spirituality – with a chance to pray with the Augustinian nuns belonging to the order that was entrusted with the church in 1564.