The 16th century church of Santa Caterina dei Funari derives its name from the ropemakers (funari), who used to ply their trade in the ruins of the nearby portico of the ancient Theatre of Balbus.
In 1537, Pope Paul III (r. 1534-49) gave the church that once stood on this site to Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Ten years later the church became the seat of a charity, the Conservatorio di Santa Caterina della Rosa, also known as the Compagnia delle Vergini Miserabili Pericolanti.
The charity's mission was to rescue 'poor virgins' from poverty, and its close relative prostitution. A conservatory for 150 girls and 20 nuns was built. The confratelli who ran the charity sought out 'vulnerable girls in brothels and removed them "ex faucibus daemonis" (from the jaws of the devil) into a strictly cloistered environment where they learned to read and write, were instructed in Christian doctrine, and were taught marketable skills, such as sewing and weaving. When they came of age the girls were reintegrated into society through marriage, or they joined a convent'. (Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Italy, ed. by Wisch and Ahl).
The church was rebuilt between 1560 and 1564 by Cardinal Federico Cesi and dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The design of its façade would influence that of the Chiesa del Gesu, which lies nearby.
The festoon over the entrance to Santa Caterina is decorated with an image of a sword crossed with a palm branch, while the festoons to either side bear an image of a wheel. The palm branch symbolises martyrdom in general, while the sword and the wheel refer to the martyrdom of St Catherine.
Blogging about Rome,
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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 and
small-group walking tours
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