Located in a small square along via del Corso, in the Rione Trevi, it was one of the first Christian churches in Rome and is traditionally dedicated to Pope Marcellus I, condemned by Emperor Maxentius to work as a slave in the stables of the catabulum, the imperial postal service. The first documentary evidence for the church dates back to the early 5th century, in a letter in which the Prefect of Rome Symmachus informed Emperor Honorius of the contemporary election of Pope Boniface I in the church of Marcellus, and of the antipope Eulalius in the Lateran basilica. On 8 September 1354, the body of Cola di Rienzo was brought here after his execution and hung up in front of the church, which at the time looked towards Piazza Santi Apostoli.
A raging fire on the night of 22 May 1519 completely destroyed the church: the only item that survived was a 15th-century wooden crucifix, since then considered miraculous. Work for its reconstruction began immediately to a design by Jacopo Sansovino, who suggested re-orienting the church to make it face the prestigious Via del Corso. Several architects were then appointed to complete the project, including Nanni di Baccio Bigio and his son Annibale Lippi, while the interior decoration continued until the 18th century. The coved (concave) late Baroque façade, entirely in travertine, was built at the end of the 17th century by Carlo Fontana.
The church has a single nave, with five richly decorated chapels on each side and a wonderful 16th-century coffered wooden ceiling. The church’s most important works of art include the large 17th-century Crucifixion with scenes of the Passion on the counter-façade, the scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin by Francesco Salviati in the Grifoni Chapel and, in the Chapel of San Paolo, the three memorial busts of members of the Frangipane family sculpted by Alessandro Algardi, the altarpiece showing The Conversion of St Paul by Federico Zuccari and the frescoes with scenes from the life of the saint by his brother Taddeo Zuccari.
The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to the famous 14th century crucifix that survived the 1519. Devotion to it increased enormously in 1522 when an epidemic stopped when a 16-day penitential procession in all the city’s Rioni was held with it. The chapel’s ceiling vault frescoes depict The Creation of Eve and The Four Evangelists. They were begun by Perin del Vaga. At the Sack of Rome in 1527 he fled, leaving the chapel unfinished. The decoration was then completed Daniele da Volterra, on del Vaga’s design. At the bottom of the nave is the very impressive double tomb of Bishop Antonio Orso and Cardinal Giovanni Michiel, traditionally attributed to Jacopo Sansovino. The cardinal, a candidate for the papacy in the conclave of 1492, died of poisoning on 14 April 1503: the cook was accused of the murder even though according to rumor he was poisoned by Cesare Borgia.
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