Thursday, March 31, 2016

Byzantine wonder in the Roman Forum.

The Roman Forum is probably one of the most dramatic and charming areas of Rome, especially at night, when its idyllic settings bring us back to ages past. In one of its most spectacular areas we find the ancient church of Santa Maria Antiqua, an early Christian church with rare Byzantine-style frescoes, it was thought to be lost in 847 because of an earthquake, another church, then demolished in 1900 was built upon it, the original building was found to be intact in the late 18th century. The most interesting fact is that the church has been closed down for intensive restoration since 1980 and only this year it was once again opened.

The church was built at the foot of the Palatine hill, where the temple of Augustus was located in an area that dates from the time of Domitian as an access to the Forum from the hill and where probably Pretorian guards were stationed.

When the Byzantines ruled over Rome in 552 they restored some of the original imperial palaces, as well as the ancient walls and aqueducts, they also used a sort of rectangular hall and the adjacent four sided-portico as a sort of Palatine chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Until then the churches built inside of the city walls had as a titulus the name of the original owners of the houses in which churches were founded, whereas new churches were founded outside the walls as sanctuaries located on the tombs of martyrs, such as San Callisto or San Sebastiano. The construction of a church on these spots was thought to "exorcise" the ghosts of paganism. 

The church was continuously restored and embellished by popes, such as Martinus I, John VII, Zachary, Paul I and Adrian I. In 847 an earthquake made the surrounding buildings collapse on the church and Pope Leo IV transferred the titulus to Santa Maria Nova (now Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana). In 1617 a little church was built on the ruins of it by architect Onorio Longhi with the titulus of Santa Maria Liberatrice.

Excavations began in the 18th century and more precise ones occurred in the end of the 19th century when the original frescoes were discovered, this is when the Longhi church was demolished and the icons and titulus were moved to a church in Testaccio.

The original Roman building had a basilica-shaped plan, a rectangular hall divided in three aisles. A little apse was created in the thick wall and two chapels on the two sides of the sanctuary. The quadrangle used to be a vestibule and there are the remains of an impluvium from the time of Caligula  and niches that used to host statues, on the left there is a a ramp that leads to the Palatine hill.

The church also hosts an incredible quantity of frescoes executed between the 6th and 9th century in the Byzantine stye. These works are very important, they include the first representation of an enthroned Madonna and they are also essential as a testimony of Byzantine art, because nothing of this sort survived in the east after the iconoclast crisis of 726.

In the left hand aisle there are two cycle of frescoes, in the top there are scenes from the old testament and on the bottom an enthroned Christ surrounded by saints, popes and martyrs.

Among the most interesting wall paintings there is a crucifixion in a chapel at the end of the aisle in which Christ's feet are not overlying. The Byzantine influence on this work is quite strong, especially because of the frontality and hierarchy of the proportions and symmetry of the figures, characteristics of a new visual language more easy to understand by the people. 

Another beautiful fresco is the archangel Gabriel, known as the angelo bello, dating 565/578. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Prince and the Elderly Lady.

The vecchietta romana, the Roman elderly lady is an institution in the Eternal City. They are famous for their strong character, you don't want to be against one, it would probably be the last thing you will do. They decide what goes on in churches and set up the prices in the mercato. They can be seen in the early hours of the day or in the late afternoon after returning from the market or church. There is one story that proves how great these women can be...

If you happen to pass by the grand Palazzo Altieri on the Piazza del Gesù, you should linger for a bit in the via Santo Stefano del Cacco. You will notice a narrow door and two small windows that are very much in contrast with the rest of the building. This is not a mistake of the great Baroque architect Giovanni Antonio De Rossi who designed the palace, but it is the result of a very funny anecdote.

In 1650 the Altieri, a noble papal family, commissioned a great palazzo to be built in the Piazza del Gesù. Many buildings, belonging both to the rich and the poor were sacrificed to make room for it, the prince spared no expense in buying all those houses to make room for his. In the end only one house was left, that of an elderly lady, widow of a shoemaker who did not want to renounce to her modest house in which she was born and in which she wanted to die. The lady declined all offers from the prince, he even offered her thrice the sum her house was actually worth. In the Papal States there used to be no laws regarding the expropriation of private property for public interest, therefore work on the palace stopped. The noble family made an appeal to the Pope who decided that work on the palace could proceed while respecting the house of the lady. Architect De Rossi was forced to incorporate the modest house in the huge palazzo, with its own private entrance, the prince even paid the renovation of the little house so that it would not clash with the rest of the palace. The little house can be still seen today and this story reminds us about the strength of Roman ladies. When you see one, think about the vecchietta that defeated one of the greatest Roman families of all time!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The miracle of St. Philip Neri.

The chapel of the Palazzo Massimo near the Piazza Navona was created in the XVIII century in a room of the Palazzo where in 1583 St. Philip Neri brought the son of Fabrizio Massimo back to life - since then, every 16th March - solemn Masses are celebrated in the chapel remembering this miracle and the blessing bestowed by the saint on the family. Attending the service is indeed an incredible experience.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Cloth of Honour.

It is interesting to notice that the square pattern found in the "Cloth of Honour" at St. Nicholas Church was already quite popular during the 15th century in Europe. 

The "Cloth of Honour" at St. Nicholas Church, Compton

Here is a couple of examples from Renaissance Italy: one comes from a palazzo near the Piazza Navona, in Rome the theme is quite popular on these sort of façades and also in other decorations.

A Renaissance palazzo near the Piazza Navona

The other example is that of the Della Robbia ceiling decoration in the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato Florence. 

The Della Robbia ceiling in the Cardinal of Portugal Chapel in San Miniato, Florence

I think it is an interesting proof of the connection there was in Europe through the arts. We can draw an imaginary line that goes from Rome to England, just like the Via Francigena: after Rome we have Florence that reaches Paris and then Bruges, here is the strongest connection given both by trade and the arts, following this the line reaches England, where, in the late Middle Ages, visual arts flourished, especially in the south and in East Anglia, where the Flemish influence is still visible.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

An unexpected discovery: an Englishman's house in Renaissance Rome.

Not too far from the Pantheon, near the Chiesa della Maddalena, we find what is reputedly Rome’s smallest square: Piazza Rondanini, along the Via del Pozzo delle Cornacchie. The piazza takes its name from its main building: the Palazzo Rondanini. 

The Rondanini Palace

The history of the Palazzo is quite interesting: it was built in the early years of the 16th century for the English prelate Thomas Wolsey who was appointed Cardinal titular of St. Cecilia in Trastevere in 1515. 

The early coat of arms of Henry VIII

Unfortunately, the Cardinal died in 1530 in Leicester before he could even visit the palace. On the first floor, in what is now the restaurant “Le Volte” there is a room with the original 16th century fresco decoration in the Renaissance grotesque style with the arms of Henry VIII. The fascinating fresco is in the Roman Renaissance style, there are painted trees on the walls of the room, creating the illusion of being in a garden, this was a very popular theme then. The palace was built on the semi-circular walls of the baths of Nero.

The Renassaince fresco from Wolsey's palazzo

After Wolsey, one of the first owners of the palazzo was Cardinal Tiberio Crispo, very close to the Farnese and in particular to Alessandro (Pope Paul III) who commissioned frescoes attributed to Raffaellino del Colle that still decorate the Piano Nobile of the palazzo. After his death the Boncompagni acquired the palace, then it passed to the Neapolitan cardinal Alfonso Gesualdo who sold it to Gianfranco Aldobrandini in 1596, nephew of Clement VIII. He commissioned the restoration of the palace to Ottaviano Mascarino. In 1688 Cardinal Paolo Emilio Rondanini bought the palazzo which still brings his family name, later also the piazza took it, until then it was known as “Piazza di Aquili”, from the famous family of Roman Renaissance painters that lived and worked there, such as Antoniazzo Romano and Marcantonio Aquili. The palace’s name changed into Palazzo Rondanini alla Rotonda to distinguish it from the other Rondanini palace on the Via del Corso. Despite all the different owners the palace still displays the beautiful frescoes with the late Medieval English coat of arms, making it an Englishman's house in Renaissance Rome.

Detail of the Renaissance fresco with the garden illusion from Wolsey's palazzo