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0238 Andrea Bacciolo, "Belonging of right to our English nation". The Oratory of Domine Quo Vadis, Reginald Pole, and the English Hospice in Rome

RIHA Journal 0238 | 30 March 2020

"Belonging of right to our English nation"

The Oratory of Domine Quo Vadis, Reginald Pole, and the English Hospice in Rome

Andrea Bacciolo


Located in Rome, at the Appian Way, the oratory of Domine Quo Vadis is a circular domed building that has heretofore been dated to Julius III's pontificate (1550–1555) and associated with Cardinal Reginald Pole's patronage. In addition to confirming the role of Reginald Pole, new documentary evidence proves both an earlier date of construction and the involvement in the works of the English Hospice as financial contributor. Considering the cultural and political climate, the Anglo-Roman relations, and the institutional background, this article deals with the oratory as a materialization of the emerging identity of English Catholics in Rome.

The Oratory of Domine Quo Vadis

[1] Standing outside the Aurelian Walls, the oratory of Domine Quo Vadis is a small, circular domed building situated in the carefully preserved environment of the Appian Way Regional Park a few kilometres from the city centre of Rome.1 Located next to the church of Santa Maria in Palmis, it faces both the Appian Way and Via della Caffarella, marking the fork in the road (Fig. 1).

1 Oratory of Domine Quo Vadis, south-east of Rome, at the Appian Way (photo: A. Bacciolo)

[2] Its external appearance shows materials and building techniques that suggest a certain, almost exhibited economy in contrast to a learned architectural lexicon. Alternating with a daubed opus incertum, eight pilasters with peperino bases and capitals rhythmically articulate the chapel's wall. Doric travertine piers define two walled-up portals that initially gave access to the internal space. Until the early twentieth century the interior was adorned by two paintings depicting the meeting between Christ and Peter. Other images in the building showed Peter convicted by Emperor Nero, the same apostle escaping to the Appian Gate, and the Virgin and Child.2 A seventeenth-century engraving by Giovanni Maggi (1566–1618) focuses on the main painting, while also illustrating the original platform and the belfry, creating an ideal representation of the building (Fig. 2).

2 Giovanni Maggi, "Ecclesia Sanctae Mariae Annunciatae extra Urbis moenia…", in: Giovanni Baglione, Le Nove chiese di Roma, Rome 1635, plate 5, detail

[3] Up until this point, the oratory has not attracted the level of consideration that it deserves, and not much is known about its origin and construction. During the past decades Wolfgang Lotz was among the few academics that called attention to the domed chapel. In his famous 1964 essay on Renaissance centrally-planned churches, Lotz included the Domine Quo Vadis among a series of buildings denoted as Memorialbauten, among which were also the octagonal shrine of San Giovanni in Oleo and Bramante's martyrium in San Pietro in Montorio. Lotz dated the oratory of Domine Quo Vadis to the first half of the 1550s, and associated its construction with Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500–1558), one of the most influential personalities in the Age of Reformation.3

[4] Partially confirming Lotz's hypothesis are sixteenth-century visual and written sources authored by erudite scholars from different cultural backgrounds. While corroborating the hypothesis of Reginald Pole's patronage, these sources shed light on the question of the dates of the Domine Quo Vadis’s construction while also introducing a forgotten institutional actor in the history of the building.4

[5] Representing the most important sites and structures located in the Roman countryside, Eufrosino della Volpaia's Mappa della Campagna Romana (1547; Fig. 3) clearly illustrates the outline of the oratory out of the Porta San Sebastiano. This visual reference rejects Lotz's conjectures about the date, also providing a new terminus ante quem.

3 Eufrosino della Volpaia’s map of the Roman countryside, 1547, detail (repr. from: La campagna romana al tempo di Paolo III: mappa della campagna romana del 1547 di Eufrosino Della Volpaia riprodotta dall'unico esemplare esistente nella Biblioteca Vaticana, Città del Vaticano 1914, attached plate)

[6] According to Onofrio Panvinio's De praecipuis urbis Romae sanctioribusque basilicis (Rome, 1570):

[…] via Appia sacellum antiquitus conditum fuit, nostro saeculo Reginaldi Poli cardinalis Britanni iussu, inpensa Hospitalis Anglorum renovatum.5

Moreover, as reported by the German theologian Jakob Rabus in the diary of his pilgrimage to Rome (1575):6

Zwischen S. Sebastian und S. Joanne Laterano liegt ein feins Kapellin, so der berühmte Kardinal Polus wiederumb erneuert.7

Finally, in his manuscript work Roma Sancta (1581), Gregory Martin8 stated that

As we goe from S. Sebastians to S. John Laterane there standeth this Chappel, belonging of right to our English nation, and in Cardinal Poles time repayred by the Hospitall of our nation.9

These sources suggest, therefore, that Reginald Pole initiated the restoration of an ancient oratory placed in the area of Domine Quo Vadis before 1547, the English Hospice of Rome paid for the works, and decades after the building still belonged to the "English Nation" in Rome.

[7] The aforementioned evidence opens lines of inquiry into both the significance of such a rural zone for the interested parties, and the exact time frame of these restorations. Other questions arise around the circumstances that brought Reginald Pole and the English Hospice to jointly patronize the building of the oratory. Finally, could this new data help us to elucidate the adoption of the architectural solutions that shaped the building? Did the oratory inform a particular identity?

New lights on the building

[8] As noted in several early modern guides, the area of Domine Quo Vadis was considered one of the most relevant stages for the worship of Saint Peter in the Eternal City.10 According to the Passio of Processus and Martinian, while Saint Peter was fleeing Rome to escape Nero's persecution, the Apostle met Jesus. Peter asked Christ: "Domine, quo vadis?" (Where are you going, Lord?). Then Jesus answered that he was going to Rome to be crucified. Peter therefore returned to the city, where he was eventually martyred.11

[9] Because of this legendary episode the site was included in the Roman pilgrimage route for centuries and in the Middle Ages the church of Santa Maria in Palmis was built on the very location where, according to the tradition, the meeting between Peter and the risen Jesus took place (Fig. 4).12

4 Church of Santa Maria in Palmis, south-east of Rome, at the Appian Way, front (photo: A. Bacciolo)

[10] Archival records suggest that some properties in that area were owned by the English Hospice in Rome from the 1370s.13 The hospice of the "Holy Trinity and Saint Thomas the Martyr" had been founded few years before, in 1362, in order to give assistance to the poor English pilgrims in Rome.14 Located along the Via di Monserrato, the hospice was ruled by the Societas confraternitatis anglicorum Urbis. Over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the institution developed its influence and increased its holdings, acquiring houses and properties. Especially during the reign of Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) the hospice grew in importance, serving as a place for self-representation of the Tudor monarchy in Rome. During that period the membership of the confraternity was closely tied to the English court: several confratres of the institution came from the King's inner circle and even the warden was nominated by royal appointment. At the high point of the conflict between Henry VIII and the Papacy, Pope Paul III (r. 1534–1549) took charge of the hospice and decreed the election of new members, such as Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was designated as warden. Under the protection of the Holy See, the institution became a forge for the construction of English Catholic identity. Throughout the following years the hospice's income from renting houses and vineyards would mainly provide board and lodging to English exiles that escaped from Henry's oppression.

[11] During the papacy of Gregory XIII (1572–1585) the ownership of a plot of land in the area of Domine Quo Vadis was claimed by the hospice. A newly found document conserved at the Archives of the Venerable English College in Rome reports this claim, also providing relevant information about the oratory.15 According to this act, the quarrel occurred on the occasion of the Holy Year 1575. This dating is significant because in the eyes of foreign communities in Rome the Jubilee was not only a critical moment to raise money from the pilgrims but also an extraordinary opportunity for self-representation in a cosmopolitan scenario. As stated by the document the plot of land had been part of the institution's properties since the late fourteenth century. The sacred building standing in that area was owned by the hospice as testified by the presence of the warden's crest and emblems on the wall, there placed in 1537 in remembrance of the restoration of the structure completed in that year:

sub proprietate dicti hospitalii [sic] ac tunc restaurationem fuisse <factam> expensis dicti hospitalis ut supra de anno 1537, ut apparet per appositionem armorum et insignium custodii [?] ….16

The use of the term "renovatum" by Panvinio and "restauratio" in the manuscript might imply that in the very same place there was a pre-existing structure.17 Nevertheless it is necessary to highlight that both these texts were composed for different purposes in the 1570s, and the author of the act likely made use of the rich description by Panvinio to lay claim to a more ancient right over the property.

[12] However it is surely attested that at least in the middle decades of the fifteenth century no structure existed in that location. Between 1447 and 1452 the English hagiographer and theologian John Capgrave (1393–1464) wrote an account of his journey to Rome, known as Ye Solace of Pilgrimes.18 As described by Capgrave,

Marie de palma is a cherch in the hey wey as we go fro porta appia on to sebastianes cherch. This is a praty litil cherch & a place annexid thertoo where is comounly a taverne to the counfort of pilgrimes […]. Be yond this cherch not fer litil mor than a boweschote stant a crosse thei clepe it domine quo vadis. Ther met our lord with petir whan he fled his martirdam.19

Although the author cited the church of Santa Maria in Palmis and even the nearby tavern for pilgrims, he did not mention any other structure.

[13] Therefore the works undertaken by the hospice in 1537 did not alter an extant antique or early-Christian building. Most probably a new structure was built on that occasion and, according to Eufrosino della Volpaia's map, that intervention gave the first and final shape to the sacellum called the Domine Quo Vadis.

[14] As implied by Sandro Carletti, the construction of the oratory could be connected with the ruinous condition of the nearby church of Santa Maria in Palmis.20 This assumption is confirmed by two seventeenth-century publications by Francesco Maria Torriggio, who also remarked on the high frequency of visits to the devotional chapel.21 Nevertheless, not only does the building history of Santa Maria in Palmis remain unclear, but also scholarship has never verified any connection between the English Hospice and the aforementioned church. Therefore, this assertion does not explain the motivations behind the selection of the Domine Quo Vadis area by the English Hospice to erect a devotional building.

[15] In order to understand the circumstances that led to the works and their formal results it is first necessary to illustrate some relevant aspects of the cultural policies pursued by Paul III during the first years of his papacy. Secondly, I will also present an overview of the urban representation of papal authority on the occasion of Charles V's entry into Rome in 1536. Finally, with the purpose of investigating motives and intentions behind the construction of the oratory, I will concentrate on the relations between England and the Holy See. I will focus both on the role of Cardinal Reginald Pole and on the institutional status of the English Hospice during that period.

The site as a crucial stage in the route of Charles V's triumphal entry in 1536

[16] Since the beginning of Paul III's pontificate a syncretic interpretation of Rome informed papal cultural policy. As material traces of the spiritual legacy of the ancient martyrs, the early Christian monuments in Rome were integrated in a new tangible image of the imperial city with the purpose of visualizing the rebirth of the Church.22 In 1534 the pope appointed his former secretary, the antiquarian and diplomat Latino Giovenale Manetti, to the newly established office of commissario alle antichità.23 Manetti's assignment was to restore the ancient ruins, and particularly the imperial buildings in which early Christian martyrs were venerated. In 1536 Manetti, together with several other humanists and artists, such as Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, realized the first manifestation of the melded vision of ancient and contemporary Christian Rome as envisioned by Paul III.

[17] On the occasion of the triumphal entry of Charles V into Rome, ephemeral apparati highlighted the landmarks in the urban landscape, and new roads were traced to connect Christian and imperial monuments and sites.24 The event celebrated the conquest of Tunis by Charles V's army in the military campaign against the Ottomans, representing the fruitful results of the imperial actions inspired by Christian virtue. The decorative programme was mostly focused on the figures of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Charles V, and Scipio. The procession route started outside the walls from the Via delle Sette Chiese passing through the Porta San Sebastiano, the Palatine, and the Capitoline hill. Finally, following the via papalis from Piazza di San Marco, the route reached Castel Sant'Angelo and terminated at the Apostolic Palace. On 5th April 1536, approaching the city from the monastery of San Paolo fuori le Mura, the imperial cortege had its very first key stage at the Domine Quo Vadis, where the College of Cardinals was waiting for Charles V.25 Then the procession entered Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, that had been decorated with paintings and stuccoes (Fig. 5).26

5 View of the Porta San Sebastiano, Rome, from the Appian Way (photo: A. Bacciolo)

[18] The central portion of the wall above the gate showed a crowned Romulus bearing a lituus. The ephemeral decoration depicted the first king of Rome while he was putting the mitre and the crown on the top of the crests of Paul III and Charles V, which were placed between the figures of Numa Pompilio and Tullio Ostilio. The adjoining towers were embellished with the triumphs of Scipio Africanus and Scipio Emilianus. Other images focused more on the history of that particular site, presenting the retreat of Hannibal by the will of God and the intervention of Quintus Fulvius Flaccus against the same Carthaginian commander. Eagles, rosettes and festoons completed the decorative programme of the gold-painted gate, while the inscriptions defined Charles V as Tertius Africanus. Finally, recalling the Domine Quo Vadis episode, in front of the gate stood two statues depicting Saint Peter and Christ, with the inscriptions "Domine tu hic eras", and "Redi, hic sedem meam constitue". Moving from Saint Peter's meeting with Christ, the whole decorative programme drew upon both the profane antique heritage and early Christian references. While superimposing past and present times, it celebrated Rome as the motherland of both the profane and the sacred powers.

[19] Therefore, one year before the works were paid by the English Hospice, the area of Domine Quo Vadis had already become a crucial site for the expression of Paul III's ideas about the political relations between the Papal Seat and the Empire as well as the hierarchical order of temporal and spiritual power.

Reginald Pole, Henry VIII, and the English in Rome

[20] The construction of the oratory on such a site acquires a more specific meaning when analysed in the context of the growing disputes over the English religious affairs. In the 1530s tensions arose between Henry VIII and the Papacy, particularly following the Act of Supremacy, and culminated with the publication of the bull of excommunication in 1538.

[21] As mediator between Paul III and the English sovereign, Reginald Pole was the most eminent critic of Henrician religious policies of the time (Fig. 6).27 He was also a leading proponent of a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church that proposed a spiritual renewal based on the study of scripture (especially the Pauline epistles) and a different consideration of the justification by faith. As a distinguished theologian, he was held in high esteem by Henry VIII before the break with Rome, particularly during the debate about the annulment of the marriage with Catherine of Aragon.

6 Magdalena van de Passe (1600–ca. 1638), Reginald Pole, engraving, London, 1620. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection (by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC BY-SA 4.0 International License)

[22] Great-nephew of Kings Edward IV and Richard III, Pole matriculated at Magdalen College (Oxford) in 1512, graduating in 1515. In 1521 he went to Padua with a stipend from Henry VIII. There he met Pietro Bembo, who introduced him to Gianmatteo Giberti (formerly Leo X's datary), and Jacopo Sadoleto.28 After his return to England, Henry VIII intended to make use of him in the divorce cause, and in October 1529 Pole was sent to Paris with the purpose to search for consensus on that delicate matter. In 1531 Pole expressed to Henry his concern over several complications with regard to pursuing a divorce, especially the political risks for his succession and the dangers from foreign princes.

[23] After having left England in 1532 Pole experienced a religious conversion. Between 1535 and 1536 he composed the Pro Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione, in which he condensed his positions against Henry's claims, also challenging Richard Sampson's argument for royal supremacy.29 In the same period Pole sought imperial support for his cause. He argued that the current situation in England required severe remedies, and he fervently called for both English aristocrats and Charles V to intervene. He also tried to convince the emperor that there were "whole legions lurking in England" ready to support an invasion, proposing economic warfare.30 On 22 December 1536, Pole was elevated to the cardinalate. Created papal legate on 7 February 1537, he received the informal task of assisting the Pilgrimage of Grace – a rebellion that opposed the Reformation of Henry VIII – by raising funds for their cause in Flanders.31 He left Rome on 18 February and arrived in Paris on 10 April. During his journey, on 31 March 1537, Pope Paul III issued a bull, offering a crusading indulgence to anyone who committed to overthrow Henry by force. Thereafter he went to Cambrai, where he escaped several assassination attempts plotted by John Hutton, the English ambassador to Mary of Hungary. After several requests for permission to enter imperial territory, he was finally allowed to reach Liège. At papal request he left the city in late August 1537 and he was back in Rome most likely by the following autumn. Finally on 7 January 1538 Pole was appointed to the commission of cardinals preparing a general council.

[24] While Pole's own opposition to Henry VIII increasingly consolidated, in Rome the English Hospice was run by John Borobrigg.32 Appointed custos for life by royal grant in 1532, Borobrigg worked for the interests of the sovereign. As already suggested by other scholars, the survival of this stronghold of monarchical authority in Rome might be explained by the reluctance of the papacy to recognize the conflict with Henry VIII as more than temporary. In fact, a turning point in the administration of the hospice occurred just a few months before the publication of the bull that eventually excommunicated the English sovereign.33 The hospice then passed into the hands of Reginald Pole and his dependants, and on 8 March 1538 a motu proprio by Paul III confirmed the cardinal as head of the institution.34 According to the document, by that time only one member of the confraternity remained at the hospice; this person exercised all the administrative tasks, also applying the incomes to himself. The motu proprio here likely referred to Borobrigg, who, however, was so aged and weak to be unable to perform alone the administrative duties formerly assigned to different people on an annual basis. Displacing the warden appointed by the English crown, Paul III established a new foundation and ordered an election of confratres mostly from Pole's entourage. Arranged by the vicar of Rome, the election of these new members was intended to mark the institutional re-foundation of the English Hospice under the protection of the Holy See.

[25] Hence, Pole commissioned the building of the oratory of Domine Quo Vadis during a key phase of the religious and political relations between the English crown and the Papacy. The Cardinal was at that time deeply involved in a severe debate with Henry VIII, as the spokesperson of the English dissentients. Moreover, for several months in 1537 he had also been travelling across Europe with the purpose of raising support for a religious uprising in England. This stormy political moment also coincided with a turning point in the institutional history of the English Hospice, the foundation that patronised the construction of that sacred building. While previously the confraternity served as instrument of the Henrician policies in Rome, it was acknowledged by Paul III in 1538 as a national institution that gathered English expatriates in a common profession of faith against their king. It is likely that Pole took advantage of this climate and decided to make use of the hospice’s properties and incomes for an architectural statement in the Domine Quo Vadis area.

A materialization of the emerging identity of English Catholics

[26] During an age of rediscovery of Early Christian sites and monuments, the oratory was built in one of the most significant areas for the worship of Saint Peter. In his Pro Ecclesiasticae Unitatis Defensione Pole reminded Henry VIII of the meaning of the Petrine foundation: "Romanam ecclesiam cathedram Petri esse, in petro fuisse fundatam ecclesiam Romanam".35 Moreover, in 1536 Charles V's triumphal entry into Rome had marked that site as emblematic for the manifestation of Paul III's idea about the Church, its spiritual authority, and its primacy over the temporal power. On the same occasion the Domine Quo Vadis area was also highlighted as a space for the celebration of the fruitful allegiance between the Holy See and the Empire. During those years Pole had often appealed to Charles V against Henry VIII,36 and even if the area was located far away from the heart of the Urbs there was probably no better place in Rome to legitimize this request, also expressing a clear statement of loyalty to the papacy. Finally, thanks to the frequent visits paid by pilgrims to the Domine Quo Vadis, it was an ideal location where the English in Rome could perform their own confessional identity to an international audience.

[27] The significance of the site both on an urban scale and in the European political context merged with a precise and meaningful architectural solution. In order to comprehend the singularity of this construction, the other architectural examples integrated in the same set by Lotz – Bramante's Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio and the oratory of San Giovanni in Oleo – serve as a basis for a comparative analysis of the Domine Quo Vadis oratory and its Roman references in the first half of the sixteenth century (Figs. 7-8).37

7 Donato Bramante, Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome (© Quinok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA-3.0)

8 Unknown architect, Oratory of San Giovanni in Oleo, Rome, 1509 (photo: A. Bacciolo)

[28] The capitals employed in the oratory of Domine Quo Vadis for the portals and pilasters appear to have been clearly inspired by the great model given by Bramante in his Tempietto (Figs. 9-10).

9 Pilaster capitals: (left) Oratory of Domine Quo Vadis, (right) Bramante, Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio (photos: A. Bacciolo)

10 Bramante, Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio, pilaster capital (photo: A. Bacciolo)

The bases recall in a simplified way the form of San Giovanni in Oleo (Figs. 11-12).38

11 Pilaster bases: (left) Oratory of Domine Quo Vadis, (right) Oratory of San Giovanni in Oleo (photos: A. Bacciolo)

12 Oratory of San Giovanni in Oleo, pilaster base (photo: A. Bacciolo)

[29] The pilasters, the entablature, and the four oculi show a curious employment of brick masonry. The precise workmanship of the brick surface both in the pilaster shafts and in the oculi suggests a deliberate intention to avoid the use of daub (Fig. 13).