Sant'Ambrogio della Massima

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The church, located on Via di Sant'Ambrogio in rione Sant'Angelo, Rome

Sant'Ambrogio della Massima (also Sant'Ambrogio alla Massima[1]) is a Roman Catholic church in rione Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy, that perhaps dates to the 4th century. It was a convent until it became the subject of a Vatican investigation in the 19th century, when it was disbanded and repurposed as a missionary college and later an abbey church. It is said to have been associated with Saint Ambrose.[2]


The name of the church derives from the tradition that the church was built on the site of the house in which Saint Ambrose lived in Rome, before he moved to become the bishop of Milan. The name "Massima" may derive from the Cloaca Maxima, a branch of which flows nearby, or from another church property, or from a claimed foundress of the church.[3]


Sant'Ambrogio della Massima arose from the merger of two previous churches on the site in about 1500: one dedicated to Saint Mary, and a second to Saint Stephen. According to legend, the convent of Saint Mary was founded by Saint Marcellina, the older sister of Saint Ambrose, in 353. It was rebuilt in the 8th century and again in the 12th century; the church of Saint Stephen was also rebuilt in the early 12th century. The new building that united the two was dedicated to Saint Ambrose under the Benedictines and was gradually extended over time. Giacomo della Porta added a new wing in 1578.[3] In 1606, Carlo Maderno redesigned the church under the orders of a nun, Beatrice Torres, and her brother Ludovico Torres.[4] The church was abandoned during the Napoleonic Wars, but was restored under Pope Pius VII beginning in 1814.[3]

During this period the convent was inhabited by the Franciscans as an enclosed, women-only convent.[5] The founding abbess of the restored convent, Maria Agnese Firrao, was convicted in 1816 of "false sanctity", or pretending to be a saint, and was removed from her post and imprisoned.[6] Despite this, she continued to direct activities at the convent via smuggled correspondence with followers there.[7] In 1859, Princess Katharina of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst, who had recently joined the convent as a novice, denounced its activities to an inquisition, accusing mistress of novices Maria Luisa, among others, of "sexual transgressions, heretical practices and homicidal schemes", according to Salon.[5] Katharina noted the veneration of Firrao as well as Maria Luisa herself; the latter claimed to receive messages from Jesus, was performing rituals usually allowed only for priests, and slept with several of the novices.[5][8] Other transgressions included incorporating kissing and other sexual actions into the ritual of laying on of hands, and alleged affairs between the women and priests.[6] According to Katharina, when she challenged convent practices, she became the victim of an attempted poisoning. As the investigation proceeded the Vatican removed the sisters from the convent and sent Maria Luisa into "forced isolation", but details of events at the convent were kept private by church authorities.[5][6]

In 1861 Pope Pius IX gave the building to a group of Benedictine monks; they adopted it for a missionary college and replaced its façade when it collapsed the following year.[3] The college was disbanded in 1883. The church is currently an abbey and the curial house of the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation.[9]


The current building, parts of which date to the 17th century, is a domed basilica. It is cross-shaped, with a chapel to either side of the nave. The church includes "rich gold stucco decorations and frescos depicting the life of Mary".[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pietrangeli (1976), sub voce
  2. ^ Rome, ancient and modern: and its environs, Volume 2 by Jeremiah Donovan 2010 ISBN 1-174-37350-4 pages 179–180
  3. ^ a b c d "Sant'Ambrogio della Massima". Hidden Churches of Rome. Retrieved 19 February 2015. 
  4. ^ Dunn, Marilyn (1997). "Convents". In Gaze, Delia. Dictionary of women artists. Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 27. ISBN 9781884964213. 
  5. ^ a b c d Miller, Laura (15 January 2015). "Nuns gone bad". Salon. 
  6. ^ a b c Bethune, Brian (19 January 2015). "The sex cult inside a convent". Maclean's: 56. 
  7. ^ Gordon, Susan. "Poison, power struggles, and the mysterious nuns of Sant'Ambrogio". Biographile. 
  8. ^ Hardy, Rob (June 2015). "Miraculous tools of corruption". The Skeptic. 35 (2): 54–55. 
  9. ^ "The Order of St Benedict". Chilworth Benedictines. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  10. ^ Monico, Nicolle (7 February 2014). "8 obscure churches in Rome that will take your breath away". Huffington Post Italy. 


  • Pietrangeli, Carlo (1976). Guide rionali di Roma (in Italian). Sant'Angelo. Fratelli Palombi, Roma. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 41°53′35.4″N 12°28′42″E / 41.893167°N 12.47833°E / 41.893167; 12.47833