The name of the church
The church of Sant'Ambrogio della Massima is dedicated to Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church. There are several interpretations of the word "Massima". Some say that it alludes to a legendary foundress, who however probably never existed. The word "Massima" may come from a property belonging to the monastery, near to the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, or it may refer to the ancient sewer system Cloaca Maxima, which in the 16th century was confused with another sewer close to the monastery. The only plausible explanation of the word "Massima" was the discovery, in the 19th century, of the Porticus Maxima, i.e. the portico of Maxima, a covered way constructed towards 380 A.D. along the street leading from the theatre of Balbus to the pons Aelius, the present Ponte Sant'Angelo. The portico was intended for pilgrims going to venerate the tomb of St. Peter.
The history of the church
On Christmas Day 353 A.D. Marcellina, the elder sister of St. Ambrose, received the veil of a consecrated virgin from the hands of pope Liberius (352-366) and, with some companions, she transformed her family home into a convent, which has lasted until our times and is, in fact, the most ancient house of religious in Rome. Soon a little chapel was added to the convent. It was dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary as a result of the Council of Ephesus, which, in 431, had proclaimed her "Mother of God". Towards the end of the 8th century the chapel was replaced by another building, of which the tower remains. In 803 the "Liber Pontificalis" of pope Leo III (795-816) records a donation to "il monastero di S. Maria detto di S. Ambrogio", i.e. "the monastery of Saint Mary, called 'of Saint Ambrose'". The expression "of Saint Ambrose" indicates, that the monastery was constructed on a piece of land belonging to the family of Saint Ambrose. This confirms the tradition, which implies that the paternal house of the saint was on this site.
Several of the churches of Rome were destroyed at the end of the 11th century, either by the invading Normans under the leadership
of Robert Guiscard in 1084 or by an extensive earthquake in 1091. However, they were reconstructed at the beginning of the
following century, and one may assume, that the chapel of Saint Mary was also rebuilt, as well as the church of Saint Stephen
in its immediate vicinity. In the beginning of the 13th century the church and monastery were assigned to Benedictine nuns. As
the community started to grow, the church of Saint Mary became to small, and it was united, in about 1500, to the adjacent church
of Saint Stephen. This new building took the name of Saint Ambrose. The increasing number of sisters eventually required an
enlargement of the convent, and in 1578 Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602) built the wing in which is the present entrance to the
monastery. At the initiative of one of the sisters, Beatrice de Torres, and with a rich benefice from her brother, cardinal
Ludovico de Torres, the wing of the convent which faces the Via di Sant'Ambrogio was built. In 1606 the rebuilding of the church
began to the designs of Carlo Maderno (1556-1629).
In 1810, during the French government, Napoleon drove out all the religious, and the convent remained empty until 1814. A first
restoration was made by pope Pius VII (1800-1823), and some Franciscan sisters replaced the Benedictines. However, they were
driven off by the Holy See, because they had maintained the cult of a false mystic, the prioress Maria Agnese Firrao, who had
inflicted herself with the Stigmata. In 1861 the monastery was given by Pius IX (1846-1878) to Benedictine monks of Subiaco, who
have ministered the church since then. Additional restorations were undertaken at the end of the 19th century and in 1962-1963.
The architecture and the art of the church
The old façade of the church was the work of Maderno. In 1862 it unexpectedly collapsed, and it was replaced the following year by the present one. The simple façade, which faces a small courtyard with a 17th century fountain, presents a portico with three arches. Above them there are three windows, of which the middle one is blind. The façade is crowned by a triangular pediment.
The interior is built on a Latin cross plan with four lateral chapels. The high altar, which dates from the beginning of the 17th
century, is the work of G.P. Morandi. It is adorned with e.g. black marble columns, a balustrade, and a tabernacle in gilt
wood. Under the mensa the relics of St. Polycarp (69-155 A.D.) are kept. The painting St. Ambrose healing a sick man
by Ciro Ferri (1634-1689) once embellished the high altar, but it disappeared and was replaced by another one given by pope Pius VII
(1800-1823). In December 1974 pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was to visit the church of Sant'Ambrogio, and the monks intended to restore
the high altar painting. Surprisingly it was discovered that the painting actually depicted pope St. Pius V (1566-1572)! It had been
painted by a Sicilian Capuchin, Fra Fedele da San Biagio (1717-1801) in 1765. The monks perceived that they couldn't put the painting
of Pius V back on the high altar for the celebration of St. Ambrose. As it was, pope Paul VI himself asked the Olivetan monk Ambrogio
Fumagalli (1915-1998) to paint another one, St. Ambrose reviving the son of a poor woman. Above the high altar painting
there is still another, much smaller, painting from the 17th century depicting the blessed Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus and
St. Joseph along with another holy person. The cupola was constructed in 1634-1635 by Orazio Torriani (active 1601-1657) and has frescoes
depicting the four Evangelists. The pendentives are decorated with frescoes by Francesco Cozza (1605-1682) representing the
triumph of the four cardinal virtues over their opposing vices: Justice (with a sword) over Envy; Fortitude (with a column) over
Fear; Temperance (with a bow) over Sensuality and finally Prudence (with a mirror) over Fortune or Honour. The altar of the right
transept has a copy of the Crucifixion by Francesco Trevisani, while the altar of the left one has Ciro Ferri's
St. Maurus healing a paralysed man, and a small 15th century icon of the Madonna and the Child.
The first chapel on the right hand has a fine 19th century painting representing Saint Marcellina with her two brothers, saints
Satyrus, the elder and Ambrose, the younger. The painting shows Marcellina teaching Ambrose how to read. This painting substituted
the Deposition by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610-1662). Above the arch of the chapel there is the interesting
Rest on the Flight to Egypt, probably a 17th century work. The second chapel has a statue of St. Benedict by Orfeo Boselli
(1597-1667), a disciple of the Flemish sculptur François Duquesnoy. It replaced a painting by Pietro da Cortona (1597-1669)
depicting the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen, which now belongs to the State Hermitage Museum of
St. Petersburg, Russia. The architecture of the chapel is by Giovanni Battista Mola (1586-1665). Above the arch of the chapel
one can see a fresco representing the Ordination of St. Stephen.
The second chapel on the left hand is dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary. It was constructed in 1622 and has two columns of
a rare type of marble from the Tivoli area, north of Rome. The altar is a work by Giacomo della Porta and has a medieval icon of the Virgin, which was discovered in 1846
below ground level in the church of San Benedetto in Piscinula in Trastevere. The monks acquired the icon and added the Infant
Jesus. The frescoes of the chapel depict scenes from the life of the blessed Virgin, and they are the work of Cavalier d'Arpino
(Giuseppe Cesare 1568-1640), e.g. the Nativity of the Virgin, the Presentation in the Temple, the Visit of St. Elisabeth, the Birth
of Jesus and the Visit of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Prophecy of Simeon, and Mary at the foot of the Cross. There
are also depictions of the Assumption and the Crowning of the Virgin in Heaven. Above the arch of the chapel there is a fresco showing the Annunciation.
The first chapel to the left is dedicated to Mary's husband, St. Joseph. The main painting represents St. Joseph with the Infant
Jesus surrounded by St. Clare and St. Ambrose. The chapel has some frescoes depicting St. Gregory the Great, St. Dominic and the
Visit of St. Benedict to his sister St. Scholastica. The splendid marble decoration of the
chapel dates from 1634 and has the bees of the coat of arms of the Barberini family, who employed Sanctus de Sanctis, the donor
of the altar of the chapel. Above the altar in the sacristy there is a 17th century Crucifixion and above it the
Eternal Father by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli. In the refectory of the monastery one may see the painting Death of Saint Benedict by Baccio
Ciarpi (1578-1644). This painting was originally in a little church dedicated to St. Benedict, called San Benedetto in Clausura
ai Catinari. It was situated opposite the church of Santi Biagio e Carlo ai Catinari in the present Piazza Benedetto Cairoli, but
it was demolished in the second part of the 17th century.
Last but not least: take a look at the fresco in the refectory of the monastery!