The small church of Santa Barbara dei Librai (St Barbara of the Booksellers), which is tucked away at the back of an equally small piazza, was founded (date unknown) in the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey.
In 1600 the church was given to the Università dei Librai, the guild of publishers, bookbinders, printers and booksellers, hence its name. The guild immediately added its patron saint Thomas Aquinas to the dedication so the church should strictly be called Santi Barbara e Tommaso d'Aquino.
Santa Barbara dei Librai was rebuilt in the Baroque style during the reign of Pope Innocent XI (r. 1676-89). The statue of Santa Barbara, on the facade, is the work of Ambrogio Parisi.
St Barbara has no historical basis, but the legend surrounding her is a colourful one.
According to the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend, c. 1290) by Jacopo de Varagine (c. 1230-98), her pagan father Dioscurus kept her locked up in a tower to discourage any suitors. The tower had two windows, but, in her father's absence, she persuaded some workmen to add a third. A priest in the guise of a doctor managed to get into the tower and she was baptised. She then told her father that the windows symbolised the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Her father was furious and handed her over to the Roman authorities. She refused to recant and was tortured before being beheaded by her own father. However, on his way home he was struck by lightning and his body burst into flames.
St Barbara's special attribute is a tower, commonly one with three windows, which we can see at the base of her statue.
St Barbara is the patron saint of armourers and firemen and is invoked against sudden death by lightning. The stucco detail beneath her statue actually depicts two firing cannons.
The feast of St Barbara is celebrated on December 4th.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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