THE CHURCH OF SAN SILVESTRO (also known as THE CHURCH OF JESUS)
This church was built at the head of Piazza del Mercato which was the centre of town and social life in Viterbo for centuries and is mentioned in public documents as far back as 1080. In the XIII century, following the bloody murder of Henry of Cornwall, the church went through a period of decline and became a secondary parish, positioned as it was between the St. Lorenzo Cathedral and the St. Maria Nuova collegiate. Even the competence of the burial of San Gemini was denied in 1345 after his body had been brought there from the town of Ferento after its destruction. In 1416 the Ortolanis chose it to house their guild and kept it, with only a few interruptions, until 1642. In fact it was taken by the Jesuits who had been called to Viterbo by Cardinal Scipione Cobelluzzi in 1622; from 1630 for about ten years it was the See of the Discalced Carmelites who subsequently moved to the new magnificent convent of the Saints Joseph and Therese in Piazza Fontana Grande. In 1643 Bishop Francesco Maria Brancaccio gave the church of St Silvester to the Holy name of Jesus Confraternity founded in 1540, who were to assist the sick of the hospital and manage the convalescents’ wing. Its symbol was the St Bernardine monogram which is similar to that adopted by Saint Ignatius for his Jesuits. Indeed the emblem of the Confraternity can be found on the main door of the church on top of the three mountains which characterized the council hospital and the adjoining convalescents’ wing with the year 1749 written underneath it. From the end of the seventeenth century until 1825, the monks of the Penitenza took rooms in the nearby ex Di Vico palace and used St Silvestro for their religious services. By that time the church was known as the Church of Jesus by the people of Viterbo. From 1826 to the 1970s the Society took on the temple until the last of the brothers had died. It was the brothers of the Penitenza who dealt with the restoration funded by the State in 1917. The state of abandonment into which the church fell after the last restoration turned into dilapidation with some parts collapsing in 1971. Further restoration was carried out in 1987 by the Superintendency with a contribution of funds by the Cassa di Risparmio Bank of Viterbo. At the moment the church is assigned to the Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the St. Sepulchre who have their seat in Viterbo. This modest Romanesque structure took its place in European history because of the serious crime which took place there on the 13th of March, 1271. The King of Sicily, Carlo I d’Angiò, and Filippe III, King of France were in Viterbo to request the conclusion of the conclave which had been going on for years. Henry of Cornwall, the cousin of King Edward I of England was in King Carlo’s court. Guy and Simon de Monfort also arrived in the town. They were the sons of the Earl of Leicester who had lead the Barons’ Revolt of 1265 and which had ended in the bloody battle of Eversham. Leicester had surrendered and King Edward ordered his death and the corpse was subsequently mutilated and abused. The Monforts believed this was the right moment to avenge their father’s death and the misfortunes of their family. Henry of Cornwall was at mass in the church of St Silvestro and was slaughtered at the foot of the altar where he tried to seek refuge. The brothers also killed a clergyman who tried to intervene and another one was fatally wounded. The Prince’s heart was taken to London and placed in Westminster Abbey (another version tells of his corpse being taken to London after it had been boiled with aromatic herbs to preserve it during the long journey!). This event provoked unrest and hatred but the Monforts managed to escape, though only temporarily, from the people trying to stop them. In fact Pope Gregory X, who was eventually elected by that conclave in Viterbo, on the 1st of March, 1273 condemned Guy and divested him of his noble titles and wealth. They were restored to him by Martino IV in 1283 but he was captured by the Angevins during the naval battle of Naples in 1287 and was left to die in the jail of Messina. Dante Alighieri gave his own version of the universal horror and placed Guy de Monfort in the circle of the people who had been violent against the others in the XII Canto of Hell, immersed in boiling blood: “Mostrocci un’ombra dall’un canto sola, -Dicendo: Colui fesse in grembo a Dio – Lo cor che in sul Tamigi ancor si cola”.
The façade recalls the style of other Romanesque churches of Viterbo and is characterised by its bell tower which is placed directly on the top of the church. The architraved portal has a lunette above it with a XVI c. fresco of the Madonna with the Child between two Saints (1). Above this stands the Confraternity symbol dated at 1749 and a single-lancet window in the exact centre which was re-opened during the restorations carried out between 1911 and 1919. On this occasion the trussed roof was restored and anything that did not correspond to the neo-medieval purity was removed from the church, including a wooden altar which obliterated the paintings on the apse which were restored at that time. There are some marble decorations from a earlier date in the three-belled tower. Two ancient sculptures portraying lions can be seen on the slopes of the roof, probably the remains of a prothyrum, as well as two spheres on pyramid shaped stands in brick and stone.
This church is of a simple design with a trussed roof, two single-lancet windows in each wall and an oculus above the apsidiole. Near the entrance on the right stands a simple stoup (2), along with a fresco portraying St Anthony? which is presumed to be an ex-voto from the XIV century (3) and a modern crucifix made out of iron which was made by a group of students of L. Paradisi, a teacher from the Tuscia High School of Arts (XX century). There are two inscriptions on the end wall (4) above the doors leading to the sacristy, one in Latin from the Chronicle of Matthew of Westminster, and the other in vulgar language taken from the Divina Commedia, both commemorating the murder of Henry of Cornwall at the hands of Guy de Monfort in 1271 which made this church famous. The apse is completely covered by frescoes. In the conch, dated at 1540, there is a Noli me tangere between the Saints Andrew and Silvestro (5), and in the dome there is the Eternal among musician angels, which was partially damaged during a poorly carried out restoration. The creator of these frescoes is unknown but it is undoubtedly the same hand as that which decorated the two chapels in the church of Santa Maria delle Fortezze. The fresco was commissioned by the Gardeners’ Guild which wanted to commemorate, with this picture of St. Andrew, the first church of St Andrea in Pianoscarano where their corporation began, and San Silvestro, the Saint after whom their second see was named. A wooden crucifix hangs in the centre of the presbytery,( XVII century) (6) which is said to have come from the church of Santa Maria Nuova. On the left wall, above the side entrance, there is a marble pluteus with a male head turned to one side, a section of a column which has been adapted for use as a stoup, and a tombstone from the 800s (7), There are also the remains of a 15th century fresco (8) with St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist and a mosaic picture (1981) by Enzo Mattioli which portrays The Murder of Henry of Cornwall. On the way out of the church (9) we can sees another small fresco from the fourteenth century portraying St Biagio? The frescoes on the opposite wall and on the left wall were brought to light during the restoration of the church in 1987, as commemorated by the plaque which was put up on that occasion. During this restoration an exquisite marble capital was discovered, decorated with The Adoration of the Magi and signed by Magister Guilelmus. This work of art is currently being kept in the Museum del Colle del Duomo.
AA. VV., Tuscia Viterbese, vol. I, Roma, 1968.
F. Bussi, Istoria della città di Viterbo, Roma, 1742.
Attilio Carosi, Chiese di Viterbo, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1995.
Dizionario della Pittura e dei Pittori, Torino, Einaudi, 1989.
F. Egidi, Guida della città di Viterbo e dintorni, Viterbo, 1889.
Italo Faldi, Mostra di restauri, in “L’arte nel viterbese”, Viterbo, 1965.
Italo Faldi, Museo Civico di Viterbo. Dipinti e sculture dal Medioevo al XVIII secolo, Viterbo, 1955.
Italo Faldi, Pittori viterbesi di cinque secoli, Roma, 1970.
Italo Faldi, Restauri acquisti e acquisizioni al patrimonio artistico di Viterbo, catalogo, Viterbo, Palazzo dei Priori, 1972.
Augusto Gargana, Viterbo. Itinerario di Augusto Gargana, Viterbo, 1939.
Il 1400 a Roma e nel Lazio. Il 1400 a Viterbo, cat. mostra, Roma, De Luca Editore, 1983.
La pittura in Italia, Milano, Electa, 1989.
A. Muñoz, Uno sguardo al nuovo Museo Civico di Viterbo, in “Per l’inaugurazione del Museo Civico di Viterbo”, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1912, pp. 33- 45.
G. Oddi, Le arti in Viterbo, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1882.
Cesare Pinzi, I principali monumenti di Viterbo. Guida pel visitatore, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1911.Cesare Pinzi, Storia della città di Viterbo, voll. I-III, Roma, 1887/89, vol. IV, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1913.
A. Scriattoli, Viterbo nei suoi monumenti, Roma, 1915-20.
Giuseppe Signorelli, Viterbo nella storia della Chiesa, Viterbo, 1907-1969.
Mario Signorelli, Guida di Viterbo. Monumenti del centro cittadini, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1964.
Mario Signorelli, Storia breve di Viterbo, Viterbo, Agnesotti, 1964
Simona Valtieri, La genesi umana di Viterbo, Roma, 1977.
Pinzi Cesare, Guida dei principali monumenti di viterbo, Roma 1889.
Ricci Fulvio, Il capitello di “Maestro Guglielmo” nella chiesa di S. silvestro a Viterbo, in Informazioni Supplemento a Viterbo- la Provincia/Amministrazione provinciale di Viterbo, Assessorato alla Cultura e pubblica Istruzione, Centro di Catalogazione dei Beni Culturali, A. 1 n. 1 (nov. 1985) – A. 10 n. 18 (2002).