San Pietro in Montorio, burial-place of the exiled Irish in Rome, 1608-1623

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Volume 15

Pl. 1: Faí§ade of San Pietro in Montorio.

Pl. 1: Faí§ade of San Pietro in Montorio.

After their untimely deaths, variously from disease, exhaustion and deprivation, at least seven but possibly as many as eleven or more members of the O’Neill and O’Donnell exiles, including the earls themselves, were buried between 1608 and 1623 in San Pietro in Montorio. The form of the burials, the surviving grave-slabs and their inscriptions, the earliest records of these and of their architectural context, together with correspondence between two successive Spanish ambassadors and the Spanish court of Philip III, hint at the circumstances of this Gaelic community’s exile.

San Pietro in Montorio as historic landmark

The establishment of San Pietro in Montorio as a major ecclesiastical landmark in Rome began at the end of the fifteenth century. In 1472 it was ceded by Pope Sixtus IV to Amadeo de Silva, his Spanish confessor, for the use of the Amadeiti Franciscans (Friars Minor). The rebuilding of the church was initially funded by the Valois King Louis XI of France, and subsequently by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The Habsburg and Valois kings viewed Rome as a prize and sought to impose their own popes, one of the more serious outcomes of which was the sack of Rome by the Imperial army in 1527.
The Irish community who became an integral part of the history of this church were initially bound to it because it was patronised by Philip III of Spain (1598–1621), who was nominally the benefactor of the earls in Rome. The Franciscan Friars Minor would also have been a very familiar religious order on the Ulster ecclesiastical landscape, and enjoyed the patronage of O’Neill in Tyrone and of O’Donnell in Tyrconnell before their exile.
The new church of San Pietro in Montorio (1500) was built to a single-nave plan, terminating at the west-south-west end in a polygonal apse. The nave is divided into five bays, each housing a dedicated chapel and altar. Below the floor level a crypt or burial vault runs between the pier abutments. The façade is classically simple and refined in Renaissance style (Pl. 1). Commemorative plaques on the façade and balcony express the intense patronage that the church enjoyed, especially from Philip III of Spain, who played a key role in the destiny of the Ulster earls.
The most renowned feature of San Pietro in Montorio is Bramante’s Tempietto, which is placed centrally in the cloister garth (Pl. 2). It was commissioned by the Spanish royal family in 1502. In the same decade they also sponsored the decoration of the church interior. In 1523 Raphael’s Transfiguration had adorned the reredos of the main altar. It was in this environment of very fine sixteenth-century Italian artistic and architectural achievements that the exiled Irish community buried their dead. Their surviving grave-slabs are located in the floor of the nave beside Cappella San Giovanni Battista, one of the two large pseudo-transepts before the sanctuary (Pl. 3).

Death and burial at San Pietro in Montorio

The combined effects of the arduous eight-month journey across continental Europe to Rome in 1608, the summer heat and the mosquito-ridden Tiber, and an exhausting June pilgrimage to the ‘seven great churches’ of the city conspired to weaken the health of O’Donnell and other members of the earls’ party, including Hugh, baron of Dungannon, eldest son of O’Neill. The exiles were at that time living in apartments of a palazzo (probably Palazzo dei Penitenzieri) located between the streets of Borgo Vecchio and Borgo S. Spirito, in the district known as the Borgo, near the Tiber and immediately west of Castello S. Angelo.
Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s chronicle contains important references to the failing health of O’Donnell. On 17 May 1608 the earls received a papal invitation to vespers at the Vatican which O’Donnell had to decline because he had ‘somewhat of a feverish sickness’. He was well enough to undertake the pilgrimage to the ‘seven great churches’, which he, O’Neill and their courtiers began at Santa Maria Maggiore on 10 June. That particular pilgrimage was de rigueur for the great and the good in Rome and was exhausting not least because over the several days it lasted the earls were shown each and every relic housed in the churches.
In July 1608 O’Donnell, his brother Cathbharr, Hugh, baron of Dungannon, and Donal O’Carroll, the Vicar General of Killaloe, travelled to the coastal town of Ostia fifteen miles west of Rome in order, as Ó Cianáin explained, to ‘make holiday and take a change of air’. Unfortunately for them, ‘all agreed that that particular place [was] one of the worst and most unhealthy for climate in all Italy’. On 18 July Rory O’Donnell became ill and died on 28 July, aged 33. He was buried the next day in the Franciscan habit at San Pietro in Montorio. The reportedly resplendent funeral was sponsored by the Spanish ambassador in Rome, the Marqués de Aytona, who in a letter of 13 October 1609 reported that he had given Nuala O’Donnell 300 crowns towards it. De Aytona and his successor were vital to the survival of the earls and their followers in Rome; they took pity on the hardship of the exiled Ulster Gaelic aristocracy and gave the necessary financial support to ensure that they were buried with appropriate dignity.
Muiris, O’Donnell’s servant, died on 3 August, as on the eighteenth of that month did Donal O’Carroll, Vicar General of Killaloe. It is likely that they too were interred in the crypt at San Pietro in Montorio, perhaps within the same vault as O’Donnell. Cathbharr O’Donnell and Hugh, baron of Dungannon, who had also taken the fatal journey to Ostia, were moved from the Borgo on the west bank of the Tiber to the palace of Monte Citorio, in the hope that the distance from the river and the higher altitude might cure their fever. But Cathbharr, aged 25, died on 15 September and was buried ‘in the same manner as the Earl, and close to his tomb’. After a year of illness Hugh, baron of Dungannon, at just 23 years of age, died on 24 September 1609 and was laid to rest beside his two uncles. His father could not afford to pay for his funeral, and the new Spanish ambassador in Rome from 1609 to 1616, the Conde de Castro, actually funded the funeral to the tune of 400 crowns.

Pl. 2: Bramante's Tempietto (1502) in the cloister garth of San Pietro in Montorio.

Pl. 2: Bramante’s Tempietto (1502) in the cloister garth of San Pietro in Montorio.


Pl. 3: View over the grave-slabs of Hugh, baron of Dungannon, and Rory O'Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell, showing the Azzurri family vault hatch (bottom right) and commemorative slab to Hugh O'Neill laid by Cardinal Tomás í“ Fiaich in 1989 (bottom left).

Pl. 3: View over the grave-slabs of Hugh, baron of Dungannon, and Rory O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell, showing the Azzurri family vault hatch (bottom right) and commemorative slab to Hugh O’Neill laid by Cardinal Tomás í“ Fiaich in 1989 (bottom left).

Bramante’s Tempietto…
Pl. 2: Bramante’s Tempietto (1502) in the cloister garth of San Pietro in Montorio.

View over the grave-slabs…
Pl. 3: View over the grave-slabs of Hugh, baron of Dungannon, and Rory O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell, showing the Azzurri family vault hatch (bottom right) and commemorative slab to Hugh O’Neill laid by Cardinal Tomás í“ Fiaich in 1989 (bottom left).

Hugh O’Neill died on 20 July 1616, aged 76, but the political climate had changed by then, a fact reflected in the attitude to his burial and grave-slab inscription. A letter from the Council of State to Philip III remarked that: ‘As the Earl left no funds for his burial, Cardinal Borja spent what was necessary at the expense of the Embassy . . . but in doing this he endeavoured to cover such appearances as might cause difficulties in the relations of your Majesty with the King of England’. This significant statement may help to explain the brevity of the inscription on O’Neill’s grave-slab.
The seventeenth-century registry of San Pietro in Montorio records that the ‘Secretary of the Prince of Ireland’, probably Henry Hovenden, lord of Gleancoy, ‘from the parish of the Holy Spirit’, who died on 24 September 1610, was buried in San Pietro, as well as another unknown ‘Irish gentleman from the parish of the Holy Spirit’ who died on 22 July 1613. Both of these were probably buried in the Irish section of the crypt, but commemorative slabs were not inscribed for them. It is also likely, although not recorded, that O’Neill’s youngest son Bernardus, who died in Rome on 16 August 1617, a year after O’Neill’s death, was interred within the ‘Irish’ vault. Members of the households of the earls, such as John MacDavid, who was in attendance on O’Neill from 1615, can be expected to have been buried there too.
The Irish burial count in the crypt of San Pietro in Montorio stands at six certain interments; to these a seventh can be added on the testimony of Alveri, who in 1664 recorded an inscription to Eugene Matthews, archbishop of Dublin, who had died on 1 September 1623. If Donal O’Carroll, John MacDavid, Bernardus O’Neill and Muiris, O’Donnell’s servant, are added to that number, it can be conjectured that at least eleven members of the Irish community in exile were interred at San Pietro in Montorio.

Identifying the site of the burials

A visitor to San Pietro in Montorio today will find two large marble grave-slabs and a commemorative plaque next to Cappella San Giovanni Battista. The plaque (see Pl. 3), often mistaken for O’Neill’s grave-slab, was laid in the floor in 1989 by Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. O’Neill’s grave-slab has been unaccounted for since the mid-nineteenth century. It was probably a casualty of the repaving of the church after the damage inflicted on San Pietro in Montorio during the Risorgimento, when the French and Garabaldi’s forces battled on Gianicolo for the whole month of June 1849. The original inscription to O’Neill, however, and those of the memorials to his son, to O’Donnell and to Matthews, along with descriptions of their precise locations in the nave, were published in 1664 in the second volume of Gasparo Alveri’s Della Roma in ogni stato. Alveri’s study contained the most comprehensive collection of modern inscriptions from the churches of Rome. His work is of great importance in recovering a view of the layout of the Irish grave-slabs.

Pl. 4: Armorial bearings of O'Donnell as portrayed on his grave-slab. (J. Fenwick)

Pl. 4: Armorial bearings of O’Donnell as portrayed on his grave-slab. (J. Fenwick)

Pl. 5: Extract from a ground-plan of San Pietro in Montorio showing the position of the Irish grave-slabs (A and B) in relation to the underlying accessible vaults, which are outlined in green. (J. Fenwick and A. Gallagher)

Pl. 5: Extract from a ground-plan of San Pietro in Montorio showing the position of the Irish grave-slabs (A and B) in relation to the underlying accessible vaults, which are outlined in green. (J. Fenwick and A. Gallagher)

Alveri recorded 74 inscribed memorials in the floor of San Pietro in Montorio in 1664, the majority of which commemorated sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian families, and just seven of which remain today. Considering the poor survival of the large collection recorded in 1664, it is nothing short of miraculous that all the grave-slabs of the Irish were not cut up or discarded during the post-Risorgimento repaving. Meehan, in his Fate and fortunes, attributed that particular piece of good fortune to the intervention of the Irish Dominicans of San Clemente, who apparently prevented the slabs from being lifted out of the floor.
Alveri systematically recorded all of the memorials, commencing at Cappella San Giovanni Battista and working from left to right through ten rows of inscribed slabs, down the nave towards the church entrance. In his scheme, he placed the grave-slab of Hugh, baron of Dungannon, at the beginning of the second row and beside it that of Rory O’Donnell. The grave-slab of Hugh O’Neill headed up the third row, with the memorial to the archbishop of Dublin beside it. Essentially the Irish grave-slabs were arranged in a set of four, Hugh O’Neill below his son Hugh, and the archbishop below Rory O’Donnell. It can also be said with conviction that the two surviving grave-slabs are in the general location accorded to them in Alveri’s scheme. Although the position of a grave-slab in a church floor does not necessarily indicate the location of a corresponding burial in the crypt beneath, the relatively young age of the church (c. 1500) at the time the first of the Irish were buried there in 1608 makes it likely that their vaults lay directly or almost directly below the slabs.

The grave-slabs and their inscriptions

The marble grave-slabs inscribed to Rory and Cathbharr O’Donnell and to Hugh, baron of Dungannon, lie side by side (Pls 3, 5 and 6) and share an ornate border. Nearly identical in size, it is probable that they were contrived as a set piece, although some minor nuances in the production of the inscriptions suggest two different hands at work. The design of the slabs fits comfortably into the canon of Italian memorials of the period, especially in terms of the use of coloured marble inlay for family arms, crests, memento mori and border ornament. It is their inscriptions, however, that establish them as more than just grave-slabs, and it is because of the inscriptions that such large rectangular slabs of marble were required. The inscriptions can be viewed as highly polemical speeches in stone—a call from the very graves of the leading Ulster Gaelic families for support from Catholic Europe.
Rory O’Donnell’s memorial consists of a main slab carrying the inscription and distinguishing arms, two side borders decorated with rhombus, circle, half-circle and cruciform inlays, and top and bottom border strips inlaid with bright yellow memento mori. A 37-line Latin inscription in bold Roman script extols the earl of Tyrconnell and his brother Cathbharr as defenders of the Catholic faith, and openly associates them, the earl of Tyrone and their cause with Philip III of Spain and Pope Paul V.

Joseph Fenwick recording in the Azzurri family vault. (L. Bartlam)

Joseph Fenwick recording in the Azzurri family vault. (L. Bartlam)

It also refers to Red Hugh O’Donnell, Rory and Cathbharr’s eldest brother, who died at the castle of Simancas in September 1602 (poisoned, it is believed, by the double-agent James Blake of the merchant Blake family of Galway) and was buried in the Franciscan church at Valladolid in north-west Spain. Below the inscription there is a jewelled coronet and the arms of O’Donnell: a shield held aloft by a lion and bull rampant, and within it a sleeved right arm, bent at the elbow, the clenched hand holding upright the cross of Columcille (Pl. 4).
The style, detailing and execution of the grave-slab of Hugh, baron of Dungannon, closely resembles that of Rory O’Donnell, but a slightly different approach to the rendering of Roman numerals on the former suggests that another inscriber may have worked on Hugh’s gravestone. The slab carries a 23-line Latin inscription, a jewelled coronet and the arms of the baron of Dungannon: a scrolled shield or cartouche decorated with two lions rampant holding aloft the Red Hand of Ulster. A body of water, represented by blue-grey marble inlay at the base of the shield, is incised with the Christian fish symbol.
It is clear from Alveri’s 1664 notice of Hugh O’Neill’s slab that it was quite plain and was simply inscribed D.O.M. HUGONIS PRINCIPIS ONELLI OSSA (‘To God the Best and the Greatest. The bones of Prince Hugh O’Neill’). Alveri’s record of the inscription on the grave-slab of the archbishop of Dublin, which lay immediately beside that of Hugh O’Neill, refers to him as ‘a man distinguished in doctrine . . . who after a difficult time in Ireland came to Rome under Gregory XV where he was received kindly . . . while he furthered negotiations with his fatherland . . .’. During the survey of the floor of the nave conducted by Joe Fenwick and me in 2005, a fragment of what could be Matthews’s slab, cut up for flooring around the Cappella della Presentazione di Gesù al Tempio, was identified. It bears no trace of an inscription, but some of the decoration remains: the incised tassels of a cardinal’s or archbishop’s hat, and a border section with a running floral motif.

Exploring the crypt

Unlike British and Irish church crypts, which generally have a central aisle and side aisles from which vaults can be reached, at San Pietro in Montorio, as in many Continental churches, there is no general access to the crypt but hatches in the floor to individual burial vaults. In June 2006 we secured an opportunity to explore two accessible vaults in the vicinity of the surviving Irish grave-slabs (Pls 5–7). This exploration took place in the knowledge that during the post-Risorgimento repaving of the nave floor approximately 68 grave-slabs, including those of O’Neill and Matthews, were removed or cut up, and the hatches through which the vaults below were originally reached were sealed over by the new marble floor. Apart from the seven slabs that survived the upheaval, an additional 21 memorials, many of nineteenth-century date and dedicated to Italian families, were inserted into the floor, and new hatches were cut to access the old vaults below. Alongside this the contents of vaults were periodically cleared out to make room for new burials.
The hatches through which we entered are marked G and H on the accompanying plan (Pl. 5). Hatch G forms part of the nineteenth-century Azzurri family memorial, which occupies the approximate position of the former Hugh O’Neill and Eugene Matthews grave-slabs. The hatch leads down into what in 1860 became the Azzurri family burial vault (Pl. 6). In 1989 Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich and Father Fergus O’Farrell had also entered this vault in search of O’Neill, but left no published record of their findings. The plan (Pl. 5) shows that the Azzurri vault runs under approximately half the length and most of the width of the grave-slabs of Rory O’Donnell and Hugh, baron of Dungannon, as well as occupying part of the area beneath the former Eugene Matthews and Hugh O’Neill memorials. Looking up at the hatch from below, one can see the line of an earlier vault hatch that had been sealed over during the nineteenth-century repaving. The Azzurri vault contains six coffins of that family. There is no trace of any earlier burials within the vault, which leads to the conclusion that they were cleared out to make way for the Azzurri interments, or that they had already been disposed of or reburied elsewhere in the crypt after the Risorgimento. If, as appears likely, this vault formed part or all of the Irish burial space within the crypt, the burials it contained are no longer in place.

Pl. 7: The author standing above the coffin debris and scattered burials in the vault below hatch H. (L. Bartlam)

Pl. 7: The author standing above the coffin debris and scattered burials in the vault below hatch H. (L. Bartlam)

A second vault was entered through hatch H, which lies immediately to the right of hatch G. According to Alveri’s scheme, this ought to mark the approximate burial-place of Francisco Beltramello, who died in 1631, but the inscription on the surviving grave-slab is so worn that it is impossible to confirm this. The vault certainly does not contain the remains of this single individual—it unfortunately houses a considerable depth of decomposing coffin debris and badly scattered human remains from many former individual burials (Pl. 7). Erect coffin lids and the strewn nature of the remains indicate that they were probably redeposited here after having been cleared from nearby vaults.
The findings of this exploration leave little hope that all of the Irish burials have survived in place, but there is a possibility that a narrow vault lies behind the brick-sealed partition wall on the left-hand side of the Azzurri vault. Until that possibility is tested, it cannot be confirmed that all of the Irish burials have been redeposited or discarded.

After-life of the Irish memorials

The story of the burial-place of the exiled Irish community at San Pietro in Montorio does not end in the seventeenth century. Correspondence among the papers of St Catherine’s Convent, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, housed in the provincial archives of the Sisters of Mercy at Bessbrook, Co. Down, reveal that James Molyneux Caulfeild (1820–92), third earl of Charlemont, funded repairs to the tombs of the earls in Rome between 1843 and 1846. This he had done at the request of his mother, who was a lineal descendant of the O’Donnell earls of Tyrconnell through her mother’s line. During the repair work to the grave-slabs, two discarded fragments of marble inlay from the border of O’Donnell’s tomb had been returned to Ireland. Just before her death in 1878, 32 years after the fragments came into her possession, Mrs Caulfeild made it known to the primate of Armagh and to Revd C. P. Meehan that it was her wish to have the ‘relics’ incorporated into the altar of the new St Catherine’s Convent of Mercy at Ballyshannon. The construction of the convent began in 1877, a year before Mrs Caulfeild’s death, and it was officially opened in 1884. Remarkably, the Bessbrook archives also contain a tiny fragment of marble inlay, which I have positively identified as a small broken corner piece of inlay from the border of the O’Donnell grave-slab. Recovering the story of the Irish community at San Pietro in Montorio rests upon such fragile and vulnerable connections to the past.

Further reading
C. P. Meehan, The fate and fortunes of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Rory O’Donel, Earl of Tyrconnel (Dublin, 1868).
M. Kearney Walsh, Destruction by peace: Hugh O’Neill after Kinsale (Armagh, 1986).

Elizabeth FitzPatrick lectures in archaeology at NUI, Galway.


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