The Church of S.Maria della Noce at S.Polo, Tarano
Text by T.Leggio, translated by Helen Patterson, Assistant Director (Archaeology), The British School at Rome

S. POLO di Tarano - Church of  the Madonna della Noce (XVIth century), built on the site of a miraculous apparition of the Virgin in 1505,  originally part of the convent of Servi di Maria.Santa Maria della Noce - A brief outline of its history
During the first decades of the 10th century the countryside of the Sabina underwent a rapid change. The end of the Saracen and Hungarian invasions and the collapse of the Carolingian empire led to the emergence of concentrated, fortified settlements: the castelli. A more evolved and more lasting social and economic model compared to the villages and curtes which had so far characterized the rural landscape of the Sabina, together with the early medieval Benedictine abbeys, such as Farfa, and the cathedral church of Vescovio and its dependent parishes. The foundation of these concentrated, fortified settlements was closely linked to the local aristocracy. Mainly of Lombard origin they profitted from the collapse of a central power and the crisis of Farfa and Vescovio, both of which had been sacked and burned by the Saracens, to reorganize the rural population and appropriate the seignorial rights which were now reduced to a local level.

It is very difficult to reconstruct the initial stages of these castle foundations given the sketchy documentation which is almost entirely dependent on the Farfa documents. The castle of San Polo, for example, is first mentioned in the documentary records of the Sabine monastery in January 1102. In this year Abbot Beraldo III leased for three generations the land (gualdo) of Sant Anatolia in the territory of Mozzano, to the presbyter Giovanni and to the brothers Rustico, Pietro and Berizone, sons of Berardo. The neighbours of this land are, among others, cited as toti seniores de Sancto Polo, in other words this property was common to all the owners of the castle.
At the end of the 12th century, the final affermation of Papal control over the Sabina led to a series of innovations at an organizational level concluding with the publication of a list of the castelli and their annual payment to the Apostolic chamber, dating to the beginning of August 1191. This document gives us a detailed picture of the territorial organization of the Sabina, one which is very different to that of today, for example the castle of San Polo made an annual payment to the Apostolic chamber of six pounds of provisini (medieval coins).
At Rome the rise to power of Cola di Rienzo caused a major upheaval in the Sabina. The majority of the castles surrendered spontaneously to the Roman tribune. At Tarano, Forano, Aspra, Collevecchio, Stimigliano, San Polo and Selci, Cola nominated as rector and podestà il nobilis vir Iannoctus Herricus but on December 2nd, following pressure from the Papal legate, he withdrew the nomination.

The Frescoes of S.Maria della Noce

Fresco dating from 1563: above, S. Nicola of Bari, the left part of a triptych.

Between 1351 and 1352 once again new forms of opposition to the Papal regime emerged, which became increasingly violent. At San Polo, in fact, in this period Paolo magistri Jannis was fined four florins because, during a meeting of the town council, he and others had opposed the negotiation to entrust the position of power for six months to the Roman church.
In the list of 'sale and focatico' (salt and hearth-tax) of the Comune of Rome, published between the 14th and the 15th centuries, San Polo had to buy 15 rubbia of salt and until 1364 was immediately subject to the Holy See. It had to pay the latter an annual sum of six pounds of denari provisini, according to the registero of Albornoz.
The end of the conflicts led to the affermation of seigneurial control over many castelli of the Sabina, favoured by the Pope to reward its main supporters. Among the first castelli to be feudalized were San Polo, with Stimigliano, Collevecchio, Selci, Torri and Montasola, immediate spectantia to the Holy See. On the 16th April 1368 it was leased by Pope Urban V for two male generations, with the possibility of leasing in certain circumstances also to the female line, to Francesco and Bucio Orsini, sons of Giordano, the deceased rector of the patrimony who died in 1365.
San Polo remained in the possession of the powerful Roman baronial family for many years. In August 1433, when Eugenio IV ordered troops to be sent to the cardinal legate at Orte to oppose Niccolò della Stella, tyrannice invadentem Statum Ecclesiae, San Polo partecipated with only 9 pedites. The copy of the land register statutes ordered by Napoleone Orsini, count of Tagliacozzo and of Albe and capitano generale of the Holy Roman Church dates to 1479. Fiefs which were confirmed by Bonface IX in 1391, despite the hostilities with the Orsini, with in addition an exemption from the payment of salt and of the hearth-tax.


The monastery of Sant Andrea in Flumine, situated on the west bank of the Tiber, also possessed notable landed property in the territory of San Polo, as mentioned in the charter of confirmation granted by Niccolò IV at the end of the 13th century. The area of land in its possession, however, seems to have rapidly decreased eventually concentrating exclusively on the church of Santa Vittoria which was later abandoned.
The religious landscape of the territory of San Polo is clearly outlined in the records of the churches in the diocese of the Sabina which were under the episcopal jurisidiction drawn up in 1343 by the bishop ordinario, the Spanish cardinal Pietro de Barros. At San Polo was the church of San Pietro, a parish church with a presbyter rector and a priest. On San Polo depended the chapels of San Biagio, of San Cosma, San Giorgio, San Stefano, Sant' Andrea, San Angelo, San Nicolo and of San Concordio, as well as others which are not named. Both the church and the chapels were under the control of the archpresbyter and of the canons of the cathedral church of Vescovio. In addition to San Pietro there was also the church of San Vittoria, which was archpresbyterial but without the cure of souls. The archpresbyter was assisted by numerous priests and his election was up to the monastery of Sant Andrea in Flumine. The bishop had the right to visit the church and could also take part of the taxes.
Although it remained in the possession of the Roman baronial family, on the death of Enrico Orsini, marquis of Stimigliano, in 1604 the Apostolic Chamber declared that the line was extinct and expropriated the castle. His legitimate son, Franciotto, appealed. The controversy ended in 1641 when his heirs, Enrico and Francesco, following an agreement with Pope Urban VIII renounced their claims on the castle .1
In 1817 San Polo had 235 inhabitants and was under the jurisdiction of Montebuono, it later fell under the jurisdiction of Collevecchio and in 1853 San Polo had 307 inhabitants, of which 54 lived in the countryside. There were 63 families and 67 houses. The parish church was dedicated to San Pietro and Paolo and had an organ, the village festival was celebrated in the name of the patron San Barnabo on June 11th. In the village, whose town walls were still preserved, were a butcher, a grocer, a cobbler and a flour mill belonging to the Piacentini family.

Fresco from 1563: "Noli me tangere", central part of the triptych.

Fresco dating from the second half of the 16th century: The Temptation of St Anthony

The apparition of the Madonna

On the 9th and 10th of June 1505, the territory of San Polo was the scene of two miraculous apparitions witnessed by a countrywoman of the name of Giovanna, daughter of Lodovico of Michele of San Polo. While the young woman was working in the family fields, beyond a hedge no more than three steps away, a young monk appeared dressed as the Servants of Mary 2 with the tunic, the scapular and the hood. The Servant of Mary held in his hand the rosary characteristic of his order which is used to pray to the Madonna, and greeted the young girl with the phrase 'Ave Maria'.
Although the girl was shocked and fearful, she replied to the greeting. The monk reassured her, blessed her and asked her what the harvest of the field was. Giovanna, put at ease by the gentleness of the monk, replied that even if the field was worked with great care the hope of obtaining a harvest from the cultivation of the land was very poor. The Servant of Mary replied that the community of San Polo deserved grievous punishment for its bad behaviour. Only the compassionate intervention of the Madonna had prevented God from venting his anger against them and causing the river to overflow its banks, which would have flooded the fields and destroyed the harvest. The following Friday, therefore, the people of San Polo must fast on bread and water as a mark of respect for God who had listened to the prayers of the Virgin and spared the village from a grave tragedy for its sins. The young monk asked Giovanna to give this message to the local inhabitants, however Giovannna refused fearing that no-one would listen to her. On hearing her refusal, the Servant of Mary blessed the girl and disappeared.
The following day, a Tuesday, the young woman was on her way to wash a cloth at the village fountain when, inspired by a premonition, she decided to return to the family fields where the monk had appeared the day before. At the fields she washed the cloth in the waters of a stream, laid it out to dry in the sun, and began to work in a field of millett next to a tall and majestic walnut tree (noce). Suddenly Giovanna heard her name. Amazed, the young girl looked up and saw, between the branches of the tree, a lady of indescribable beauty. The lady was dressed as a sister of the Third Order of the Servants of Mary and wore a black dress, belted at the hip, a large black cape covered her head, revealing two long locks of golden hair which hung down over her shoulders and chest. The face of the woman was of a particular beauty despite being bathed in tears.
Giovanna, realizing that she was in front of the Virgin Mary, fell to her knees and made the sign of the cross, trembling with fear, her arms over her chest. The Holy Virgin calmed her and asked her gently what had been the effect of the apparition of her servant the day before. On the silence of the young girl, Mary told her to call the priest of San Polo and to order him in her name to ring the church bell and assemble all the people, to preach a sermon and to invite them: 1 - to mend their ways; 2- to confess their sins; 3 - to pardon any insults they had received; 4 - to devote three days to sacred processions; 5 - to observe holy days, respecting the obligation to attend Holy Mass; 6 - to scrupulously respect all the other rules of the Church; 7 - in particular not to neglect the festival dedicated to the Madonna. If the people of San Polo followed these commands they would be happy, if not they would find themselves in serious trouble.
While she was pronouncing these words, the Virgin showed her chest scourged by the whip and her bleeding knees and implored the young girl to tell of the suffering she had borne to appease God's anger with the inhabitants of the place and to describe what she had seen and heard from the walnut tree. Giovanna was folding the cloth which was now dry, but the Madonna told her to leave it and to run to the village to carry out her orders. The young woman fled to San Polo to reveal what had happened during the two days. Returning to the field she found the cloth already folded. This vision was therefore the origin of the devotion for the Madonna della Noce3 .
Immediately after these events the people of San Polo, having acknowledged the error of their ways, built in the same year a small sanctuary on the site of the apparition, whilst in the vicinity of the small church, the Servants of Mary built a small convent, which was later suppressed by Innocent X in 1652 with 101 other minor convents.


Tempera on wall, dating from the 18th century: Madonna with Child Enthroned, adorned with jewels and rich clothes.

Fresco dating from 1563: Madonna Enthroned, Adoration of the Child, between painted marble pillars.

Fresco dating from 1563: St. Catherine, right side of triptych.

At the end of the 18th century, Cardinal Corsini, on the occasion of a holy visit to the castle of San Polo, left a brief but effective description of the small church, now under the patronage of the comunity of San Polo, of its state of preservation and at the same time gave a brief synthesis of its history4 . In the church was an altar dedicated to the Virgin above which was a panel with a painting depicting the vision with San Barnaba5 beneath, thus in part altering the original story by introducing the figure of the Holy patron. This painting, however, was not the original but a later copy, probably carried out after the suppression of Pope Innocent. The original, from San Polo, ended up on the antiquarian market and was bought in the 1950s by the Soprintendenza delle Gallerie del Lazio, when following its restoration in 1957 it was recognized as the original painting of San Polo. The painting is dated to the first decades of the 16th century and attributed to an unknown painter from Lazio. It measures 178 x 134 centimetres including the original frame and, despite its poor state of conservation, represents a faithful version of the original vision. In 1960 the painting was given to the civic museum of Rieti, although it is presently housed at the Galleria d'Arte Antica of Palazzo Barberini where it awaits further restoration6 .

The original painting

On the walls are other frescoes including one depicting Christ and Mary Magdelene, signed by the Arretine painter Sebastiano Florio and dated 1563. Near the altar is a small sacresty with a cupboard and some sacred objects which Cardinal Corsini, who had already noted that the window of the church door had no glass and that there was a large crack in the wall to the left of the altar, considered barely satisfactory.
Next to the sacred building was another building, also in ruins, which housed a hermit, monk Domenico Corsi of San Polo of the Third Franciscan Order, who showed the letters written by the same Cardinal Corsini on October 3rd 1777. Further orders were given to restore the sacred building, in some cases made during the visit of 1774. In an attempt to stop the degradation the Cardinal suspended all the masses to obtain benefices, apart from twelve which had to be celebrated once a month under the orders of the archpresbyter pro-rector, whilst all the other income from benefices was to be set aside for the repairs which had to begin within six months.

Upper part: fresco depicting the Holy Father seated among cherubim, holding a globe with a cross in his left hand.

Lower part: fresco depicting the Madonna Enthroned with Child, and St.John the Baptist and St.Biaggio.


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