The (Totally Squished) Church of Santa Barbara dei Librai

The photo at the top of this post says it all. Romans will take over every square inch of space they can, given enough time! The little church of Santa Barbara dei Librai wasn’t always squished between buildings. Here’s what it looked like in the 1600’s,

Etching of the church of Santa Barbara dei Librai, from the 17th Century

Today, you find this tiny church at the end of a little alley. This alley is one of the historic center’s many little nooks — often filled with kids kicking a soccer ball, and tables and chairs for a little restaurant, in this case, Dar Filettaro, a great place for an inexpensive meal of fried fish.

People hanging out on the church steps

There’s been a church in this spot for a long time, possibly since the 11th Century. It is named after Saint Barbara, who was a young woman locked up in a tower by her father, away from society.

Barbara must have had some access to the outside world, because she became a Christian. Her pagan father was not amused when she rejected all the suitors he’d chosen for her. Ultimately, she was tortured for her faith and finally beheaded… by her dad.  He got his just rewards, though.  Riding home from killing his daughter, he was struck by lightning and died.

For this reason, Saint Barbara is a patron saint of those working with explosives, including miners, gunsmiths, and artillery corps.  She is often depicted with the tower she was locked up in, sometimes carrying a palm frond or a chalice. Building on the fact she’s associated with explosions, she is sometimes seen with, of all things, cannons.

Tintoretto‘s Saints Helen and Barbara Adoring the Cross; Saint Barbara (on the right) holds a tower and palm frond

The name of this church, notably, associates Saint Barbara with “Librai” — a confraternity of printers and bookbinders who took over the church. They had the current Baroque facade made, and they installed the lovely sculpture of the saint situated over the door. The engraving just above the door translates to, Saint Barbara, Holy Virgin Martyr.

The sweet depiction of Saint Barbara, over the front door, by sculptor Ambrogio Parisi — note the little tower behind on the left

The interior is modest, but certainly worth a venture inside.

Inside Santa Barbara dei Librai


The church’s painted ceiling, of Saint Barbara

The church has a lovely 14th century crucifix mounted in front of a fresco with depictions of the Madonna and St. John.

A three-dimensional wooden crucifix, incorporated into the scene

There is also a wonderful tryptich of the Madonna and Child with Saint Michael and Saint John the Baptist.

An ancient and particularly lovely painting of the Madonna and Child

One of my best pieces of advice in Rome is, if you see an open door, go in.  Many smaller churches, like this one, are not often open. But if you’re passing by and see the door open, make sure to pop in and take a look.