Italy Daily

Sidebars: Santa Barbara dei Librari, Our picks: Where to shop, eat and rest

She was decapitated
by her father, who was
immediately struck down
by lightening.

This vengeful bolt
made her venerated, and
Saint Barbara is invoked
in times thunderstorms,
fires, explosions and
sudden death.

Santa Barbara dei Librari
Bustling, bright Via dei Giubbonari spokes out from the Campo dei Fiori. Clothing boutiques, bars and gourmet groceries line the cobbled street. And tucked away among all the lights and crowds is the quirky Chiesa di Santa Barbara dei Librari (Largo dei Librari 85).

The often-overlooked church was built in the 11th century on the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Its name is often confused: Santa Barbara in Parione, Santa Barbara Anglorum and Santa Barbara in Satro, referring to two statues of the god Pan discovered in a nearby palazzo. The humble premises fell into disrepair, until the newly-formed Guild of Booksellers began restoration in 1601.

The facade is squeezed between flanking buildings. Two orders fight for stability, burdened by curlicues, scallops and columns. Yet inside, the petite scale becomes charming, intimate. Any larger, the swirl of pastels and patterns would be overwhelming.

Faux marbling blankets the walls: aqua stripes, violet blotches, yellow mosaic, green flecks and what truly resembles a brown leopard print. The intricate large altar is nearly lost amid the riotous colour. Look closely, though, at the inlaid agate, ivory and mother of pearl.

Santa Barbara has four chapels in the Greek Cross pattern. The Cappella del Crocifisso contains an unusual 14th-century wooden sculpture of Jesus, flanked by Luigi Garzi’s later fresco of the Madonna and St John at the foot of the cross.

A superb 13th-century triptych decorates the right-hand chapel, depicting the Madonna, child and saints in rich scarlet and umber on wood. Inscriptions recognise the University of Typesetters, book sellers, librarians and the ‘spiritual bond’ among those who print, sell and preserve books. The rare 21-pipe organ is also noteworthy, sporting only 45 keys of boxwood and ebony.

The church’s themes were all drawn together in another of Garzi’s paintings: Mary and the Christ Child, Saint Barbara and Thomas Aquinas all beam down upon the soberly-dressed and pious Guild of Booksellers, who are encouraging children to worship.

The chiesa is one of the most ancient dedicated to Saint Barbara, the beautiful daughter of the 3rd-century aristocrat Dioscorus. He locked her in a luxurious tower to better worship pagan gods without distraction – yet Barbara discovered Christianity.

Enraged, Dioscorus allowed the Roman prefect to torture her. The virgin was stripped and beaten, until she stood in a pool of blood, then vinegar was rubbed on the wounds. Legend says God healed her body overnight. The prefect then ripped her with iron claws, burnt her wounds and bashed her head with spiked clubs. Still Barbara would not deny her god.

She was decapitated by her father, who was immediately struck down by lightening. This vengeful bolt made her venerated, and Saint Barbara is invoked in times thunderstorms, fires, explosions and sudden death. She now is the patroness of artillery-men, firemen, carpenters, miners and the Marina Militare Italiana.

In 1634 a fire raged down the Via dei Giubbonari, destroying three shops and threatening the church. An eyewitness, il Gigli, recorded in his diary that the sacraments were evacuated from Saint Barbara dei Librari, and the fire was blessed. Immediately, the inferno died down and it began to rain, extinguishing the last flames.

The church was painstakingly restored (yet again) and re-opened in 1998. On December 4th, the saint’s day, the door’s arch is hung with red drapes and the altar massed with red carnations. Mass is held at 19.00, except in July and August (20.00). Visiting hours are erratic – ring for further details (

Where to go

Via Giulia 86
This small elegant shop bears the name of a celebrated epicure in the time of Tiberius – and rightly so. Exotic variations of olive oil and vinegar are its speciality, as well as pate, marmalade, coffee and golden jars of honey.

Grit – Art Gallery Design
Via Giula 73
A flowing path sweeps through this gallery, surrounded by ceramics, translucent magazine stands and a high-end bean bag (L350.000). Grit also sells work by artist Andrea San Paolo, such as the man-sized lamp in a barrage of neon prints.

Imago Picta
Via Giulia 70
The shop itself is eye candy, a doll’s house full of Pompeii-style wall paintings, mosaics, mirrors and other decorative motifs on offer from Fabriziano do Pinto and Ilarisa Bellezza.

Galleria Spada
Via Capo di Ferro 3
Open 8.30 – 18.30, closed Monday
The art gallery houses two rare globes, one of earth, the other a representation of heaven; as well as paintings by Titan, Andrea del Sarto and Pieter Brueghel. Don’t miss Borromini’s trompe l’oiel perspective trick and the controversial statue of Pompey.

Where to eat

Thien Kim
Via Giulia 201
Closed Sunday, all credit cards
Thien Kim is a quiet haven near the bustle of the Lungotevere, serving up delicate Vietnamese cuisine. The mixed starters and soups are renowned, though the selection for vegetarians is surprisingly poor. Expect to pay about L40.000.

Taverna Giulia
Vicolo dell’Oro 23
Closed Sunday, all credit cards
Frequented by celebrities, the taverna is the standard-bearer of Ligurian food in Rome. Specialties include mosciame and trenette al pesto, tripe alls genovese, artichokes and flank roast. Meals run about L85,000.

Ristorante Papa Giulio
Via Giulia 14
Closed Sunday, all credit cards
The decor is straight from a film noir: tall dark leather banquettes, smoky old mirrors, crisp white linen, glass goblets. And the food lives up to the elegance, with unusual selections such as smoke and champagne risotto and an ample seafood menu. The service is gracious, and bills average L50.000.

The lone hotel

Cardinal Hotel
Via Giulia 62 fax:
Renaissance architect Donato Bramante died suddenly during the construction of the City Court House in 1400. A hundred years later the site was taken up by the Armenian Congregation of Rome, and later as the Hungarian Embassy. The bar’s spectacular main wall is made from granite stones taken from the Roman Forum. Rooms in the four-star hotel cost from L262.000 to L513.000 with private baths.

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