Understanding Rome

Mathematicians measure the form of things with their minds alone, separated from matter. We, who wish things to be seen, shall rely on the services of a chubbier Minerva – Leon Battista Alberti

Hippopotamuses and Lotus flowers: The Nile mosaic at Palestrina

Last week a visiting friend and I braved the torrential rain to run an errand in Zagarolo. Our mission accomplished, we stopped for a spot of lunch before meandering to Palestrina. Snaking our way through the medieval streets, in a car as wide as the roads, we eventually emerged, unscathed, at the Palazzo Barberini. A spectacular example of palimpsest, the Palazzo Barberini (once Colonna, its change of name indicative of the “good” marriage made by Taddeo Barberini to Princess Anna Colonna) is built upon the vast complex of the temple of Fortuna Primagenia which cascades down the hill.

Temple of Fortuna Primagenia, Palestrina, reconstruction drawn by Andrea Palladio in his "Four Books of Architecture" (pub. 1570)

Temple of Fortuna Primagenia, Palestrina, reconstruction drawn by Andrea Palladio in his “Four Books of Architecture” (pub. 1570)

Fortuna Primagenia was a local manifestation of the goddess of Fortune. Literally meaning “the First Bearer”, and especially associated with fertility, she was linked to the oracle of the sortes Praenestinae. These “sortes” were pieces of wood with prophetic powers said to have been found in a well at the bottom of the site and which would be consulted until Theodosius outlawed non-Christian religious practices is 393 AD.

Praeneste occupies a strategic position above the corridor which once connected the Greek world, to the south, with the Etruscans, to the north, while to the west the valley led to the Tyrrhenian. First at war, and then allied, with Rome, Praeneste would eventually fall victim to the ruthless wrath of Sulla, and was settled as a Roman military colony after his massacre of 82 BC.

It was under the rule of Sulla that the great temple was redeveloped, extending the structure of the second century BC over a total of five levels. Although dating is varied, the Nile mosaic at Prenestina, the town’s greatest treasure is sometimes thought to date from this period. Pliny the Elder tells us,

“Mosaics came into use in Sulla’s time. At any rate there still exists a mosaic floor, made from very small tesserae, which Sulla commissioned for the Temple of Fortune at Praeneste.” [XXXVI, 189]

Nile mosaic, Palestrina

Nile mosaic, Palestrina

The work of craftsmen from Alexandria, its tiny tiles create a vast (about 5.8m x 4.3 m or 19ft x 14 ft for those of you who like numbers) landscape detailing elements of the Nile.

The mosaic is almost overwhelmingly rich in detail as verdant flora jostles with exotic fauna knitted together in umpteen vibrant vignettes: a fishing boat casts its shadow as a hippopotamus comes up for air; soldiers give an illustrious visitor a triumphant reception; a religious procession sees a bier carried as musicians follow; a man punts a canoe as an opulent scene plays out under a bower dripping with grapes.

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Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Palestrina

Palazzo Barberini

Piazza della Cortina

9am – 8pm possible reduction of opening hours on Sundays, check here.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme: the stoicism of the Hellenistic Boxer

Right by Rome’s Termini central station is one of my favourite museums of ancient Roman art, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (home to these spectacular Roman frescoes). Palazzo Massimo is part of the National Roman Museum which has four locations (can a museum have branches?) which are all super, and the 10 euro entrance ticket gives you access to all of them over a three day period so it’s also jolly good value.

One of the museum’s too often overlooked superstars recently returned from a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York where he was received with great pomp. But you can usually have him all to yourself, a long forgotten hero in Room 7.

The Boxer at the site of his excavation, 1885

The Boxer at the site of his excavation, 1885

The Boxer was found in 1885 as large sections of the Quirinal Hill were being cleared to make way for the building boom of the new capital city. As entire neighbourhoods were being built to house the ministries, and the mandarins, which were the cogs in the new machines of state, archeological work was hurried. But as areas of the former Baths of Constantine were being cleared the extraordinary figure revealed himself to have been sitting, patiently, under the rubble and mud and filth of centuries.

The archeologist who was responsible for saving so much of what might have otherwise been lost in the rush to build the new capital, Rodolfo Lanciani, was present at the excavation:

“I have witnessed, in my long career in the active field of archeology, many discoveries; I have experienced surprise after surprise; I have sometimes and most unexpectedly met with real masterpieces; but I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights.”

The Boxer, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

This glorious 1st century BC bronze is one of the most poignant sculptures I can think of in Rome. At first we see a muscular figure seated in apparent relaxation, his hands bound indicating that he is a boxer. But look closer and his head, turned towards something we cannot see, tells us this is no triumphant athlete. His cheek is split and his head is bleeding from very recent wounds, superimposed upon older injuries, the details engraved and picked out in applied copper.

The Boxer, detail.

His nose has been broken and re-broken, and his misshapen ears bear the signs of multiple fights. This is no generic exaltation of athleticism but an extraordinary psychological study of an ageing boxer nearing the end of his career, as we see him called back into the ring once again.

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A guided tour of Palazzo Massimo would offer a wealth of riches for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of Imperial Rome. It could also be combined with other sites on the Esquiline Hill, such as what remains of the Baths of Diocletian.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme,

piazza del Cinquecento

9am – 6pm closed Mondays

10 euros

 

From Virgil to Vitruvius: some thoughts on the House of Augustus.

This year is a big anniversary for all things Augustus; the two thousandth anniversary of the death of the first Emperor of Rome. To mark the occasion I was asked to write this short blog post for AIRC. The thing is, verbose as I am, on my way to completing my brief I got side-tracked down all sorts of alleyways. So I thought I’d write a longer version here.

The exploitation of art, religion, legend, history, poetry, dodgy family trees, you name it, in the relentlessly sophisticated propaganda machine of Octavian/Augustus is something I’ve always found incredibly interesting.

It was Octavian’s close friend Maecenas who sponsored Virgil whose epic poem, the Aeneid, detailed the heroic journey made by Aeneas, son of Venus, following the Achaean destruction of the city of Troy. Aeneas’ long and meandering journey across the Mediterranean knowingly echoed the voyage of Ulysses, and eventually he arrived on the western coast of central Italy. It is said that he landed a few miles south of the arrival point of many modern visitors, the wildly unromantic Fiumicino Airport. Aeneas had long been claimed as the distant (and divine) ancestor not only of Romulus, legendary founder of Rome, but also of the Julii, the family of both Caesar and Octavian.

Contemporaneously, Titus Livy wrote his Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City), a history of Rome which knitted the legends of the founding of the city together into a narrative which ran up until Livy’s own time, culminating in the inevitability of the rise of the “Golden Age” of Augustus.

In the works of Virgil and Livy, poetry and history distill legend. All roads lead to a justification of the inexorable and divine right to rule of Caesar’s heir, and they are the great spin-doctors of their time; large cogs in the powerful machine of Augustan propaganda.

Geography was also to become an integral part of this programme. Throughout the centuries of the Republic, the Palatine hill had been the smart part of town, and indeed aristocratic Octavian had been born on its slopes.

According to Suetonius, writing a century or so after Octavian was first proclaimed Augustus,

“… [Octavian] lived at first near the Forum Romanum, above the stairs of the ring-makers, in a house which had once belonged to the orator Calvus…” [Suetonius, Divus Augustus, LXXII/LXXIII]

Presumably this house was not high enough on the slopes of the hill to be referred to as in Palatio. Suetonius continues, however, telling us that

“…afterwards [he lived] on the Palatine, but in the no less modest dwelling of Hortensius, which was remarkable neither for size nor elegance…”

This house had been confiscated in the wake of the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), in which Hortensius’ son had allied with Brutus. It may have been relatively modest, but its postition was not; Octavian now lived close to the site which was held to be the site of Rome’s very foundation, the Roma Quadrata of Romulus.

View today from the Palatine Hill, looking towards the Capitoline

View today from the Palatine Hill, looking towards the Capitoline

Around the time of Sextus Pompey’s defeat off the coast of Sicily at Naulochus, in September of 36 BC, work began on a new domus befitting Octavian’s rising status.

According to Cassius Dio, two centuries later,

“…The people at this time resolved that a house should be presented to Caesar at public expense; for he had made public property of the place on the Palatine which he had bought for the purpose of erecting a residence upon it, and had consecrated it to Apollo, after a thunderbolt had descended upon it. …”

Thus the Palatine began its shift from residential district to seat of power. The lines between religion and state began to blur; Apollo, protector of Troy and so of the Julii was to be venerated on the very site of Octavian’s residence. Vowed after the Battle of Naulochus, the temple was dedicated in 28 BC, after Octavian’s definitive victory at Actium (31 BC) over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. A year later he would be proclaimed Augustus.

Painted decoration with architectural motifs in the "House of Augustus"

Painted decoration with architectural motifs in the “House of Augustus”

The divinity pervading Augustus’ palace (named for the hill on which it stood) is referred to by Augustus’ contemporary Ovid. In his mournful Tristia, written from his exile in the distant and bleak land of Tomis (on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Romania), a homesick and repentant Ovid imagines his book making a voyage to Rome, and being shown the sights of the city:

“Gazing around, I saw prominent doorposts hung

with gleaming weapons, and a house fit for a god.

‘And is this Jove’s house?’ I said, a wreath of oak

prompting that thought in my mind.

When I learnt its owner, ‘No error there,’ I said,

this is truly the house of mighty Jove’

But why do laurels veil the door in front,

their dark leaves circling the august ones?

Is it because this house earned unending triumph,

or because it’s loved by Apollo of Actium forever?

Is it because it’s joyful, and makes all things joyful?

Is it a mark of the peace it’s given the world?

Does it possess everlasting glory, as the laurel

is evergreen, without a single withered leaf to gather?”

In the 1960s excavations discovered several painted rooms, believed to be part of this House of Augustus. Richly painted by extremely skilled artists, they are, however, lacking in the bling of applied exotic stones which were to be found in the palaces of later emperors.

Painted decorations at the "House of Augustus"

Painted decorations at the “House of Augustus”

Presumably it is this contrast which Suetonius has in mind when he speaks of the house’s modest decorations:

“The simplicity of his furniture and household goods may be seen from couches and tables still in existence, many of which are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen. They say that he always slept on a low and plainly furnished bed.” [Suetonius, LXXIII]

Indeed Suetonius’ insistence of the humble nature of Augustus’ residence is somewhat belied by calculations that the residence covered an area of some 25,000 sq m (92,000 sq ft).

There is a room which he mentions which has, tantalisingly if spuriously, been identified with one visible today. This is the room known as the “Emperor’s Study”, today visible (when the wildly variable opening hours of this side of the site permit) by climbing a modern steel staircase and peering through the glass opening which protects the room from humidity and our breath.

Upper cubiculum, "House of Augustus".

Upper cubiculum, “House of Augustus”.

Suetonius tells us:

“If ever he planned to do anything in private or without interruption, he had a retired place at the top of the house, which he called “Syracuse” and “technyphion.”

“Syracuse” is perhaps a reference to the study of Archimedes in that city, “technyphion” a diminutive of the Greek meaning “workshop”.

Of the rooms which are today accessible this has the most refined and elegant decoration, clearly influenced by Alexandria with stylized obelisks, gryphons, and sophisticated interweavings of vegetal elements and the architectonic.

Upper cubiculum, House of Augustus, detail

Upper cubiculum, House of Augustus, detail

This last element is just the sort of thing which angered Augustus’ architect Vitruvius enormously. In his Ten Books of Architecture he described the stage set painted by Apaturius of Alabanda for the theatre of Tralles in Lydia. The replacement of architectural elements with vegetation incited the wrath of the mathematician Licymnius who had ordered that it be repainted, incapable as it was of supporting any  in the face of similar modishly Eastern decoration poor pragmatic Vitruvius grumbled,

“Would to God that Licymnius could come to life again and reform the present condition of folly and mistaken practices in fresco painting!” [Vitruvius VII]

His laments were to go ignored, and Roman painting would become ever more fanciful throughout the first century. 

A visit to the House of Augustus can be included, upon request, in my “Heart of Ancient Rome” itinerary, where opening hours permit.

The Carafa Chapel, St Thomas Aquinas, and an earnestness of young monks

This week my parents were in town and on Tuesday I was wandering around churches with my pa and Anthony Blunt’s book on Roman Baroque churches. (We did 16 that day, that’s where I get it from…).

The last of the day was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, not Baroque, but it was right there, and a peek at the wonderful Carafa Chapel (about which I wrote this) is too good to miss.

Annunciation, Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel

Annunciation, Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel

It was especially glorious, gleaming in the gloaming of the vast church. The altar was crammed with (real) candles and, best of all, the gate over which one normally has to peer was open, giving an excellent opportunity to view the frescoes. An earnestness of young robed monks (surely the correct collective noun?) took photos of themselves on their phones, a charming anachronism which jolted us out of the late 15th century.

Their selfies focused less on the exquisite paintings of Filippino Lippi and more on a reliquary containing what purported to be an arm bone (“perhaps an ulna, at a push”, said my father, doubtfully) of St Thomas Aquinas, one of the chapel’s dedications. A quick check of my phone and indeed it was the feast of Thomas Aquinas, who had provided us with a splendid bit of theatre before we slipped past the tomb of Beato Angelico and out of the back door into the evening.

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Reliquary containing an arm bone of St Thomas Aquinas

Crest of the Carafa, with putti

Crest of the Carafa, with putti

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, Carafa Chapel.

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, Carafa Chapel.

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, detail showing the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran Palace

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, detail showing the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran Palace

 

 

The Donation of Constantine

In the mid 8th century, a beleaguered Pope named Stephen “found” a document of inestimable value. Purporting to have been written over three centuries earlier, in it the Emperor Constantine handed over complete power of the city of Rome, amongst other territories, to the reigning pope, Sylvester.

With the letter in his hand, Stephen crossed the Alps – in winter, a sign of his desperation – and sought the help of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. In return for Pepin’s help in defending lands which the document claimed to be the true property of the Church from the fearsome Lombards, Stephen would give divine blessing to Pepin’s somewhat dubious claim to the throne.

Five and a half centuries later this document, known as the “Donation of Constantine”, would be revealed to be a fake by the humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla, who detailed the multiple anachronisms in his treatise De Falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione (Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine).

However, this was but a trifling fact which had little effect on the representation of the scene in paintings, and it remained a subject to fall back on when times were tough. Two fine examples can be seen in Rome.

The first, painted in the mid-13th century is in the chapel of Saint Sylvester at the Church of the Four Crowned Saints (Ss. Quattro Coronati) on the slopes of the glorious Caelian Hill.

The grill and the "ruota degli innocenti" (wheel of the innocents) where access to the Chapel of Saint Sylvester is granted

The grill and the “ruota degli innocenti” (wheel of the innocents) where access to the Chapel of Saint Sylvester is granted

Visiting the chapel has a rather exciting air of improbability; one rings a buzzer next to a rotating compartment where abandoned children could once be left anonymously, and a nun appears at the grill and asks for a donation before buzzing open the door.

Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Consecrated 1247.

Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Consecrated 1247.

Decorated with scenes from the life of Sylvester, one panel shows the Emperor Constantine kneeling before, and below, Pope Sylvester. Imperial power is shown bowing in submission before spiritual power, a direct allusion to the recent excommunication of the troublesome Emperor Frederick II. The legendary historical event is seen through contemporary eyes.

Donation of Constantine, Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Mid 13th century.

Donation of Constantine, Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Mid 13th century.

The second was painted 300 years later, in the Vatican Palace. The vast Hall of Constantine, painted by Raphael’s most successful student Giulio Romano after Raphael’s untimely death, tells the legend of Constantine’s miraculous conversion to Christianity. The paintings show Constantine’s vision of the cross, his victory over Maxentius, his baptism, and his subsequent donation of Rome to Sylvester.

The Hall of Constantine, Vatican Palace

The Hall of Constantine, Vatican Palace

Once again Constantine kneels before the Pope, here shown in the Constantian “Old” St Peter’s.

Donation of Constantine,  Giulio Romano. 1524.

Donation of Constantine, Giulio Romano. 1524.

The fresco was completed in 1524, eighty years after Lorenzo Valla’s treatise. The subject was commissioned by Clement VII, who knew only to well that this was a scene which had never happened. No matter, here was a meeting room outside the Pope’s private apartments being painted as the threat of the Protestant Reformation grew ever more apparent. Once again the scene is morale boosting decoration in a very troubled time for the Roman Church.

Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Ss Quattro Coronati,

via dei Querceti

Every day 10am-11.45am, 4-5.45pm

No entrance fee, but a donation is required

Hall of Constantine,

Vatican Museums

viale Vaticano

closed Sundays and Catholic holidays 9am-6pm, last entrance 4.20pm.

15 euros (20 euros with reservation)

Paradise regained: the painted garden of Livia at Palazzo Massimo

In a city filled with extraordinary works of ancient art, perhaps one of the most breathtaking is one of the least visited and one of my favourites. After visiting the “Monsters” exhibition (excellent, go) at Palazzo Massimo today I went to the top floor to say hello to the dining room of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus.

Triclinium paintings from the villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Triclinium paintings from the villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

The room was discovered at the Villa of Livia ad gallinas albas (by the white hen) in the area now known as Prima Porta on 30th April of 1863, just ten days after the celebrated statue of Augustus had also been found close by. The existence and location of the villa is well-documented, amongst others by Pliny and Cassius Dio. They tell us that its name came from a white hen which fell, alive, from the clutches of an eagle into Livia’s lap. The hen, it is said, held a branch of laurel in its beak which was planted and grew with such vigour that it would provide the wreaths for the triumphs of generations to come.

The report of the Pontifical Ministry of Public Works (Rome was still, just, under papal control) recorded that a room

“with painted walls in good condition representing fruit trees and flowers with various birds. The ceiling had entirely collapsed and the stucco decoration which once decorated the vault was found among the rubble which filled the room.”

detail, triclinium of Livia

detail, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Such was the state of disrepair of the site that in 1951 the drastic decision was taken to detach the frescoes, and in 1998 they found their way to their present collocation in a room built to the dimensions of the original.

Painted c. 30-20 BC, Livia’s triclinium (dining rooms were so called for the couches arranged in groups of three) was partially underground, a common setting for rooms which were to be used in the scorching summer months. Instead of looking out onto the real gardens of the villa, a garden of the imagination was painted on its walls, just beyond a painted perimeter wall.

detail, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

detail, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

The scene is a natural impossibility: fruiting pomegranates and quinces jostle with flowering irises and camomile; palms, pines, and oaks flourish while partridges, doves, and goldfinches feast on their fruit and rest on their branches. Only one bird does not fly free, enclosed in a gilded cage resting on the low wall.

detail showing bird cage, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

detail showing bird cage, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

The scene is one of timeless and exotic fecundity; each species frozen in its own moment of glory. We are, the painting tells us, ensconced in the perpetual spring of the glorious reign of Augustus.

detail showing partially eaten pomegranate, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

detail showing partially eaten pomegranate, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

A guided tour of Palazzo Massimo would offer a wealth of riches for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of Imperial Rome. It could also be combined with other sites on the Esquiline Hill, such as what remains of the Baths of Diocletian.

National Roman Museum

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Largo di Villa Peretti

Tues – Sun 9am – 6pm

10 euros

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Rus in urbe – a bucolic stroll across the Palatine

This year December is treating Rome very well indeed. It has been largely dry, as warm as one can hope for, and the rich blue sky sets everything off wonderfully.

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On Monday I took myself off to the Palatine Hill for a wander amid the ruins in the winter sun to keep track of the never-ending restoration/shoring up work which is constantly underway. This means that the areas one can visit with clients are always changing, and I live in fear of that embarrassing moment where one promises a gem only to find a fence bearing the legend lavori in corso uncompromisingly blocking the way.

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Despite these complications the Palatine is always lovely, and more than large enough for the work not to impinge on your visit. Even in the treacherous heat of July, when the area around the Colosseum is heaving with uncomfortable but valiant visitors, it is an oasis of calm. It is often all but deserted, full of trees which are both picturesque and shady, and abundantly provided with cool drinking fountains. Not to mention the least unpleasant loo of the whole Colosseum/Forum/Palatine archeological site. 

view from the Palatine Hill across to the Caelian Hill. The church of Saints John and Paul in the distance, the remains of a branch of the Aqua Claudia in the foreground.

view from the Palatine Hill across to the Caelian Hill. The church of Saints John and Paul in the distance, the remains of a branch of the Aqua Claudia in the foreground.

The tallest of the seven hills on which Rome was founded, the Palatine can be said to be the very heart of the city. It was here, legend tells us, that Romulus founded Rome on the 21st April, 753 BC. Which is a splendidly specific date for a legend.

Over seven hundred years later it was here that Augustus would build his, initially fairly modest, residence, exploiting geography to cement his role as the new Romulus. What had, during the Republic, been the smart part of town would become the Imperial residence. Indeed the very name of the hill would become synonymous with a royal seat, giving us the word palace.

Frescoes at the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill.

Frescoes at the House of Augustus, Palatine Hill.

Following Augustus, subsequent emperors would continue the expansion of the imperial palace, until it occupied all twenty-five acres of the hill. When the western Roman Empire collapsed five hundred years after Augustus, the opulent decoration of the state halls and courtyards, once richly adorned with gilded bronze statuary and with coloured marbles and granites from the the far reaches of the Empire, began to be looted.

The once vast population of the city, a million people at the time of Augustus, would by the year 800 (three-hundred years after the last emperor was deposed) number barely twenty-thousand souls. The hill which had once been the seat of an empire which governed from the Atlantic to Iraq would become the very edge of the medieval city, and a series of fortified monasteries, built against the walls of the Imperial palace grew up on the hill.

View of the Palatine in the Codex of Saint George (early 14th century). Biblioteca Vaticana.

View of fortifications on the Palatine in the Codex of Saint George (early 14th century). Biblioteca Vaticana.

Its history and its position towards the Lateran saw it retain a political and military significance throughout the early Middle Ages. However, following the return of the papacy from Avignon in the early 1400s, and the subsequent and definitive establishment of the papal residence across the river at the Vatican, the Palatine was all but abandoned; little more than a quarry for spare parts.

St Peter's seen from the Palatine Hill

St Peter’s seen from the Palatine Hill

Today the Palatine affords a rather poetic view across to the dome of St Peter’s; the dome of the church rising in the distance is framed by the ruins of the Imperial palace in the foreground. That was built from this; the city of the emperors quite literally became the city of the popes.

The Palatine Hill is part of my Heart of Ancient Rome itinerary.

Palatine Hill,

via di San Gregorio

8.30am until c.1 hour before sunset (exact opening times here)

12 euros

The Stefaneschi Altarpiece, Arnolfo di Cambio, and the first whisperings of the Renaissance.

Last month, having finished a tour at the Vatican Museums and with an hour to kill, I wandered into the Pinacoteca. As I mentioned here the Vatican Picture Gallery is spectacularly good, and massively under-visited. This is thoroughly understandable, first time visitors have more than enough on their plate with the really big stuff; the Sistine Chapel is near the end of a long and winding route, and selectivity is fundamental to avoid running out of steam before getting there. But for those with museum stamina (a long visit can be broken up with a break at one of the cafès) or on a return visit, I can highly recommend it.

Stefaneschi Altarpiece, school of Giotto da Bondone, c.1320. Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Stefaneschi Altarpiece, school of Giotto da Bondone, c.1320. Pinacoteca Vaticana.

On this blustery November day I focused on the early rooms, and found myself standing alone before the Stefaneschi Altarpiece (November has a lot to recommend it). Commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi, it is traditionally attributed to Giotto based on a reference in the Liber benefactorum, the list of benefactors of St Peter’s. This refers to Cardinal Stefaneschi as having commissioned a panel from Giotto at the vast cost of 800 florins.

This attribution has long been the source of discussion. The altarpiece is dated to the mid- to late- 1310s. Undoubtedly it was painted after 1313, the year of the canonization of Pope Celestine V, because on the right we the see the kneeling figure of Pope Celestine V complete with halo.

Saint Celestine V. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

Saint Celestine V. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

The humble hermit reviled by Dante was revered by Giacomo, who dedicated his poem Opus Metricum to the doomed pontiff. However financial documents place Giotto in Florence from 1314. The most plausible attribution is therefore to a workshop set up in Rome by Giotto, and working to the master’s designs, during his sojourn in the city c.1310.

Stefaneschi’s altarpiece was probably destined for the High Altar of the old Church of St Peter. An enormously important commission, it is also one with a strong political significance. Painted during one of Rome’s bleakest moments – the papacy had decamped to Avignon just a few years earlier – the painting is indicative of the cardinal’s desire to shore up the crumbling primacy of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome.

Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi donating the altarpiece to Saint Peter. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi donating the altarpiece to Saint Peter. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

We now see it in a rather drab early twentieth century frame, but the gilded gothicizing opulence of the original setting can be seen in the painting itself. On the front of the central panel, to the left and kneeling before St Peter, is Cardinal Stefaneschi himself, shown presenting the altarpiece to the saint. This is a wonderful bit of “mise en abyme” (literally “placed into the abyss”); the painting within the painting also shows a tiny cardinal offering a tiny altarpiece, and so on, presumably, ad infinitum.

A painting within a painting. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

A painting within a painting. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

What particularly caught my attention this time was the throne upon which Peter sits. In the steepness of its upper triangular section, adorned with abbreviated pinnacles, it echoes the forms of two ciboria by Arnolfo di Cambio from the previous decades.

St Peter enthroned. Detail, Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

The first, dated c.1285, at the basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls (heavily restored after the great fire of 1823).

Ciborium, San Paolo fuori le mura. Arnolfo di Cambio, 1285.

Ciborium, San Paolo fuori le mura. Arnolfo di Cambio, 1285.

The second, dated 1293, at Saint Cecilia in Trastevere (where Arnolfo is believed to have been working at the same time as Pietro Cavallino painted these frescoes).

Ciborium, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Arnolfo di Cambio, 1293.

Ciborium, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Arnolfo di Cambio, 1293.

Both see Arnolfo merging a solidly classical symmetry with the Gothic; spiky pinnacles are added to steeper-than-classical pediments, and trefoils replace the round classical arch. As well as an elaborate sculptural decoration – at the Santa Cecilia ciborium the figure of San Tiburzio shown on horseback, the rider’s head turned one way the horse’s the other; the animal’s foreleg raised, forever frozen in movement, marks an extraordinarily sophisticated dynamism for the period – both use the contemporary Roman art of Cosmatesque inlay.

San Tiburzio. Detail, ciborium, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

San Tiburzio. Detail, ciborium, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

Pieces of chopped up Roman columns and sculptural decoration, together with gold tiles, were employed in a sort of mosaic decoration. We can see green, yellow and Imperial purple, colours of materials once imported from the far reaches of the, by now, long-fallen Empire. The columns themselves are also “recycled”.

Similarly if we look at the Stefaneschi altarpiece, we also see ornate Cosmatesque decoration framing the vast figure of Peter, shown sternly carrying his enormous keys. The same decoration is found on the sides of the throne and the steps which converge to give a sense of depth. In the foreground the floor is also decorated in the Cosmati style, the geometry of the decoration serving to emphasise the physical space in which the scene takes place.

Cosmatesque floor depicted in the Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

Cosmatesque floor depicted in the Stefaneschi Altarpiece.

Despite the deeply felt medieval mysticism which pervades his Opus Metricum, Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi commissioned a work which echoes the very recent sculptural architecture of Arnolfo di Cambio; a modern fusion of the classical and the Gothic.

In its desire to represent emotive figures and three-dimensional space it is imbued with the first tentative glimmerings of the Renaissance, and it is a piece in which Peter, the very foundation stone of the Roman Church, sits on a piece of contemporary furniture.

San Paolo fuori le mura

Piazzale San Paolo

7am-6.30pm

______________

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

Piazza Santa Cecilia in Trastevere

9.30am – 12.30pm ; 4pm – 7pm

_____________

Pinacoteca Vaticana,

Vatican Museums,

viale Vaticano

9am – 6pm, last entrance 4.20pm. 16 euros. Closed Sundays and Catholic holidays.

Eternal acanthus and the apse mosaics of San Clemente

In my last post I wrote about the 15th century chapel of Branda Castiglione at the church of San Clemente, a languid stone’s throw from the Colosseum. San Clemente is one of countless buildings in Rome which serves as a history of the city in microcosm: twelfth century church upon fourth century church upon Imperial buildings, upon… Well, they stopped digging there.

It also serves as a testimony to the most maligned of millennia, that which we still call either, dismissively, the “Middle Ages” or, pejoratively, the “Dark Ages”. A thousand years of history are brushed away in two words. As if they had only existed in function to that which had come before and that which would follow. From the lofty heights of the Renaissance, scholars gazed across to the equally lofty heights of the Ancient world, ignoring the benighted trough they imagined between the two.

In the introduction to his “Lives of the Artists” (published 1550) the foundation stone upon which, whether we like it or not, the history of art is built, Giorgio Vasari set this tone in speaking of Gothic architecture. It was, he said:

“…di proporzione molto differenti dagli antichi e dai moderni. … son fuggiti da loro come mostruosi e barbari, dimenticando ogni lor cosa di ordine; che più tosto confusione o disordine si può chiamare, avendo fatto nelle lor fabbriche, che son tante che hanno ammorbato il mondo, porte ornate di colonne sottili ed attorte a uso di vite, le quali non possono aver forza a reggere il peso, di che leggerezza si sia.”

“… of vastly different proportions to both the ancients and the moderns. … which in [Gothic] hands became monstrous and barbaric, forgetting all order; that it might be more accurately called confusion and disorder, having put in their buildings, so many as to have infected the world, slim and twisted columns, which cannot have the strength to support the weight, no matter how light it be.”

But despite Vasari’s distaste for almost everything built after Constantine (died 335) and before Alberti (born 1404), it is an extremely interesting period, especially in Rome, and one in which the art and architecture of the Ancient world was not so much abandoned as adapted. As I have mentioned here, here, and here, one of the elements of Roman art to survive into the city’s Christian history was the art of mosaic.

Entering San Clemente from the street, one enters the shadows of the twelfth century church, replete with the glorious apse mosaics of c.1120, their glittering gold tiles a million miles away from the faux gladiators and tawdry souvenir stands at the end of the road.

Apse mosaics, San Clemente, 12th century

Apse mosaics, San Clemente, 12th century

In the centre of the mosaic we see a symbolic crucifixion; the cross far larger than the figure of Christ around which vast doves, symbols of the Holy Spirit, roost. The hand of God reaches down from the jewelled heavens to complete the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

From the base of the cross an acanthus plant grows, its tendrils spiralling into seemingly infinite whorls; in this piece of medieval Christian art we see a reuse of ancient Roman symbolism. These ever generating shoots of the acanthus are symbols of fecundity and eternal life often found in Roman art, perhaps most notably at the Ara Pacis where they represent the prosperity of the pax Romana, the peace reached after decades of civil war under the reign of the first Emperor, Augustus.

Acanthus whorls at the Ara Pacis, Augustan period.

Acanthus whorls at the Ara Pacis, Augustan period.

This appropriation of pre-Christian iconography reminds us of the inescapable Roman-ness of the Roman Church. An atavistic impulse pervades; Romans were Roman long before they were Christian.

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