A Virgin Martyr Comes to Rome - The Ancient Church of Sant' Agata dei Goti in Rome

AGATHA, SAINT. Martinelli, Fioravante (b. 1599)

Diaconia S. Agathae ìn Subura a Floravante Martinello, descripta et illustrata.

Rome: Typis L. Grignani, 1638


Octavo: 17.5 x 12.3 cm. π6, A-G8 (with blank leaf G8)


Bound in contemporary vellum, edges stained red, blue and yellow silk endbands. A fine copy, complete with the engraved title page and the plate. Small stamp on half-title.

A rare history of the church Sant' Agata dei Goti, which was established as a diaconia in the fourth century and, in the fifth century, was restored by Ricimer (d. 472) as a church for the Arian Ostrogoths. The church was re-consecrated as a Catholic church by Gregory the Great in 592, at which time the remains of St. Agatha were transferred there and entombed beneath the altar. Although the church was rebuilt and remodeled on several occasions, it preserves aspects of its original basilica plan and the ancient granite columns that separate the nave. By 1638, when Martinelli wrote his book, the church boasted a twelfth-century tower, a fifteenth-century Cosmatesque pavement, and a newly rebuilt apse (the original collapsed in 1589).

Fioravante Martinelli was well suited to the task of writing a comprehensive history and description of the church. He had already authored a history of another Roman church, S. Laurentii in fonte de Vico Patricio, and a study of a late antique icon in the church of Ss. Domenico e Sisto. More important, he had access to the enormous resources of the Vatican Library, where he held the prestigious position of Scriptor Latinus.

In the 17th c., the origins of the church were in doubt, and Martinelli, using inscriptions (which he reproduces in the course of the text), and manuscripts in the Vatican, convincingly defends the identification of the modern church with the Arian diaconia. Among the valuable inscriptions reproduced by Martinelli and now lost is one from a mosaic in the old apse that records Ricimer as the donor (p. XXIX)

The Plate of Agatha's Martyrdom:

The plate shows an episode from Saint Agatha's martyrdom: tied to a stake, a man slices off one of her breasts while a second holds a torch to her mutilated body. The inscription at the bottom of the leaf notes that the engraving reproduces an image found in an ancient Greek menologion in the Vatican, almost certainly the 10th century menologion of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976-1025).

The book includes a chapter on the relics and indulgences of the church, which include (in addition to the remains of St. Agatha and St. Sebastian placed in the church by Saint Gregory the Great) the foot of the virgin martyr Justina, housed in a silver reliquary in the shape of a leg. Pregnant women placed votives of wax or silver in the shape of breasts before the tomb of Agatha in hopes of an easy pregnancy and safe delivery.

Martinelli describes every aspect of the church in minute detail: the plan of the church, the ancient columns, the altars and chapels, the artwork and decorations. Among the tombs is that of the Byzantine humanist scholar Ianos Lascaris (d. 1525), whose epitaph, which he composed himself, is reproduced in Greek on page XLII.

The book is dedicated to the Cardinal Nephew Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), who paid for a new ceiling for the church.

Rare. Only 2 copies in North America (Notre Dame, Houghton).