Rickety lifts and hidden frescoes: Pietro Cavallini at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
by Agnes Crawford
The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, with its verdant courtyard, rampant bouganvillea, and blissful silence broken only by the occasional thwack of a football against a column on the square outside, reminds me every time I visit of the delight that this part of Rome provided on my first forays into the area on a university class trip 15 years ago. This, I thought, was what Rome should be like.
Once inside the church it’s even better. Although a slightly chi-chi early 18th century makeover neatly boxed in the recycled and mismatched ancient columns in uniform of white and gold, even the zealous tidying of Cardinal Acquaviva couldn’t bring itself to touch the apse mosaics. Dating to the reign of Pope Pascal I (also responsible for the church of Santa Prassede, about which I wrote this) in the early 9th century, it shows Christ surrounded by saints. On the left we see the Roman noblewoman St Cecilia, who lived and was martyred here for her beliefs. Looking every inch the Byzantine princess she has her arm protectively over the shoulder of Pope Paschal, his blue nimbus rather than a halo indicating he was alive when the mosaic was made. Ill at ease, he shyly proffers the church which he has dedicated to Cecilia.
However my favourite bit of the church is not initially apparent. To the left of the entrance portico is a door which is open on weekday mornings. A nun will relieve you of a couple of euros and usher you into an improbably small and rather rickety lift which has been shoehorned into a corner of the aged building.
A level up, you find yourself in the organ loft face to face with one of the finest late medieval frecoes in Rome. The remodelling of the church didn’t just box in the columns but also reduced the size of its interior, entirely obliterating the frescoes of the great Pietro Cavallini. A contemporary of Dante, Cavallini is said to have lived to a hundred despite never wearing a hat, information which has always led me to feel rather fondly toward him. Cavallini was brought in to paint the church’s interior for Cardinal Stefaneschi, titular cardinal in the 1290s, and patron of Giotto.
Most of the paintings were lost in subsequent building work, but the upper section of the vast Last Judgement, which once occupied the full height of the entrance wall, remained patiently preserved under later plaster work until coming to light in 1900. As per the usual template, Christ is seated in judgement, surrounded by the apostles as the just are raised from the bottom left hand corner and the damned are banished down towards hell in the bottom right hand corner. The humanity conveyed by the force of expression of the apostles is breathtaking. Their wrinkles, hair, and drapery are observed with a delicate realism which offers the first whisperings of the Renaissance.
On either side spectacular angels, their wings apparently designed by Missoni, look on impassively with identical expressions.
These frescoes could be included in my “Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere” itinerary
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Piazza Santa Cecilia.
Cavallini frescoes visible Mon-Fri 10am-12:30pm