The church that today bears his name (together with that of St Andrew) was founded in 575 AD by St Gregory the Great himself who transformed his family home into a monastery. Gregory came from a noble family of the Gens Anicia and, shortly before his conversion, he had been “Prefectus Urbis”, thus holding the highest civil office in the city. When a few years later he was elected pope, the plague raged in Rome: during the great procession organized to implore its end, according to the legend the archangel Gabriel appeared and, after sheathing his sword, he rested at the top of Hadrian’s mausoleum, since then called Castel Sant’Angelo.
Of the medieval building only the 13th-century Cosmatesque floor survives: the church was in fact rebuilt several times during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and in 1573 it was granted to the Camaldolese monks, who still officiate it today. The wide staircase we can still admire today and the square in front of it were rebuilt in 1600, on the occasion of the Jubilee. In 1633, Cardinal Scipione Borghese entrusted Giovanni Battista Soria with the renovation of the atrium and the façade, the latter embellished by the coat-of-arms of the Borghese family, an eagle and winged dragons.
Rich in illustrious memorials is the portico that follows the entrance, where columns and pillars of the 16th century church courtyard were reused. Among these funeral monuments there was once also the tomb of the famous courtesan Imperia, a lover of the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. Still visible is the memorial of Sir Edward Carne, sent by Henry VIII to Rome in 1561 to handle the king’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. The interior of the church, with three naves marked by 16 ancient columns, is in Baroque style for the works carried out in 1725 by Francesco Ferrari. A small chapel at the end of the right aisle, perhaps the cell of the saint, houses an ancient Roman marble chair of the 1st century BC, which by tradition is the cathedra in which the pope sat. In the Salviati Chapel, built by Francesco da Volterra and completed by Carlo Maderno in 1600, there is instead an icon of the Madonna and Child: tradition claims that the Madonna spoke to St Gregory.
Three small chapels are in the garden adjacent to the church. In the center, the Chapel of St Andrew preserves splendid frescoes by Domenichino and Guido Reni, who was also responsible for the decoration of conch of the apse (a fresco depicting A Musical Concert of Angels) of the Chapel of St Sylvia. The Chapel of St Barbara contains the “Triclinium”, the marble table on which St. Gregory personally served lunch to 12 poor people. Legend claims that one day an angel sat at the table dressed as a poor man: in memory of this fact, every Holy Thursday, until 1870, the pope served thirteen poor people here.
Ancient and venerated, the church is mentioned in two Roman sayings. “Masses at San Gregorio are over”, perhaps derived from the ancient privilege of celebrating a mass at 13.00 for latecomers, means that there is nothing else to do. “Singing masses in San Gregorio” instead means solving everything by paying extra money: celebrated on the altar of the church, the special suffrage masses that could free the souls of the dead from Purgatory cost twice as much as the common ones.
For the timetable of the masses and visiting conditions, please consult the contacts.
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