After a first walk up the Aventine, along the road of the same name, the splendid, ancient basilica of Santa Sabina rises in the square named after Peter of Illyria, the monk who founded the church and the convent. Sabina was a rich matron of Avezzano, who lived in the 4th century, beheaded under the Emperor Vespasian, or perhaps Hadrian, because she had been converted to Christianity by her servant Seraphia, who was stoned to death.
Peter of Illyria founded the basilica in 425 AD, under the pontificate of Celestine I, precisely where the house of the martyr stood. As was the custom until late ancient times, the building was constructed with re-used materials, including 24 marble columns from the nearby temple of Juno Regina.
The building works in the church over the centuries were numerous and of various kinds: in 824 pope Eugene II had a silver ciborium made, which was afterwards stolen during the Sack of Rome in 1527. During the same century, for reasons relating to defence, it was incorporated into the fort built by the Crescenzi family. From the late 1500s to the mid 1600s the inside was restored, in full baroque style, first by Domenico Fontana, then by Borromini. After 1870, when the monasteries were suppressed, the church was transformed into a lazaretto and later became the first steam laundry in Rome!
The last thorough-going restoration was the work of Antonio Muñoz, an architect at the service of the Mussolinian interventions, who attempted to restore the church to the early Christian appearance of its origins, not without distortions and anachronisms, as can easily be noticed with a little attention. The excavations of the last century brought to light the structures that stood there before the church was built: remains of the Servian walls, two small temples of archaic age, houses of the Republican period transformed in the 2nd century AD into a sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Isis, a spa complex and a domus of the 3rd-4th century with a large hall, perhaps precisely the house of Santa Sabina.
The Basilica has been witness and the setting for numerous historical events: in 537 pope Siverius hid there to escape from Belisarius who however deposed him after a brief imprisonment. In 590 a procession began from Santa Sabina, promoted by pope Gregory the Great to ward off the terrible plague afflicting Rome. It ceased when the Archangel Michael appeared on the Mausoleum of Hadrian, which since then has been called Castel Sant'Angelo.
In he 10th century the basilica was combined with the fortress of the emperor Albericus II and became the point of reference for the imperial faction, so that it became the mausoleum for the remains of the emperor's faithful followers. In the following century the church passed to the Savelli family and pope Honorius III gave it to St Dominic of Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order. His cell is still preserved inside the complex, transformed into a chapel.
In 1287 the Conclave that was to elect the successor of pope Honorius IV met at Santa Sabina, but a malaria epidemic decimated the cardinals. The survivors, not caring about the vacant papal seat, all fled, except for Girolamo Masci, who was elected pope Nicholas IV almost a year later, a rich reward for being unperturbed in the face of danger!
One of the stories of San Domenico, who lived and worked in the monastery, concerns the black stone rotunda (in reality a balance weight from Roman times) thrown by the devil at the saint, who was praying over the remains of the martyrs laid under a marble tombstone. The devil missed the target and the stone landed on the gravestone reducing it to fragments, well visible today, but mounted on a column on the left of the entrance.
Although the responsibility for the incident was attributed to diabolical action, in reality it was the architect Domenico Fontana, during restoration works in 1857, who accidentally broke the gravestone; its fragments were recovered and reassembled only much later.
The portico that acts as a backdrop to piazza Pietro d'Illiria is in the shelter of the long side of the Basilica; it was originally made up of black marble columns, which are now in the Vatican. Access to the church is through another portico on the side facing the square, through an atrium surrounded by ancient columns, housing some of the fragments found during excavations.
The portal of the basilica is a little jewel in cypress wood dating from the 5th century; it was restored in 1836, but only 18 of the original 28 panels have survived. They represent scenes from the New and Old Testaments, not without some retouching due to the historical juncture: in the panel depicting Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, the face of the Pharaoh has been modified, taking on a strong resemblance to Napoleon! An evident polemical note by the restorer who does not seem to have nurtured much sympathy for Napoleon, even though he had died fifteen years earlier!
The inside of the church, with a typical layout of the early Christian basilicas, is with three naves, divided by 24 re-used columns. The imposing apse, crowned by a triumphal arch, is decorated with Christ among the apostles, a fresco by Taddeo Zuccari. The so-called "schola cantorum", at the centre of the nave, is in reality the result of the restoration by Muñoz, who in 1936 created it in the image of that of San Clemente, using plutei (decorated marble slabs) found in the church. Large windows opening in the top part of the central nave give light to the church and used to illuminate the sparkling mosaics, made on the pattern of those at Ravenna, which decorated the central nave.