A music-making angel from Melozzo's fresco
Rome is a city of many lost treasures, fortunately some of them can still be found and reconstructed in their (almost) entirety, it is just the case of what we will discover in this article.
The Piazza Santi Apostoli with the Palazzo Colonna and the Basilica in 1550
Istituto Nazionale di Grafica, Roma
The Basilica of Santissimi Apostoli, the Holy Apostles, is a large church that hosts the bodies of the disciples of Jesus, Philip and James the Less, therefore a titulus apostolorum. It was built in the 4th century by Pope Julius I, it was the only Roman church not to be built on the site of a previous ancient building, although building materials came from the Constantine Baths., the original plan was that of the Apostoleion in Constantinople. During the Byzantine era, under Pope Pelagius I and the rule of Narses, it was reconstructed with a greek-cross plan. Adrian I writes to Charlemagne praising this building for its width and its amazing mosaics. In 1348 it was destroyed by an earthquake and only the two sculpted gate lions survive from that building.
The 15th century choir of the basilica
The church was restored in the 15th century by Pope Martinus V Colonna, his family had always lived next door and still does. A portico was built in the Renaissance style and so were the nave and apse of the church, the apse was later decorated, under the pontificate of Sixtus IV, with frescoes by Melozzo da Forlì, papal painter, Michelangelo himself who lived and worshipped in the parish, was inspired by the Renaissance frescoes for his Sistine Chapel cycle, Melozzo was also the first to make use of the trompe l’œil technique. The church also hosted other Renaissance treasures, such as the Antoniazzo Romano frescoes (the only Roman Renaissance artist) in the chapel of Cardinal Bessarione, the fragments still exist in the same location.
Unfortunately, by the 17th century dump ruined the frescoes and the building itself so much, that in 1702 Clemens XI commissioned an overall restoration of the building to architect Francesco Fontano, who died in 1708 and was succeeded by his father Carlo, and then by Nicola Michetti in 1712. The “new” rococo building was consecrated by Pope Benedict XIII in 1724.
A music-making angel from Melozzo's fresco
Fortunately we can still reconstruct the beautiful fresco that decorated the apse of Santissimi Apostoli because many fragments are located in the Vatican Museums and the Quirinal Palace. Melozzo, pictor papalis, had already worked in Rome under Sixtus IV della Rovere, he painted two altarpieces of the two St. Mark’s (pope and evangelist) for the Basilica of San Marco and a fresco of Sixtus IV for the Vatican Library.
Sixtus IV Appointing Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library, Melozzo da Forlì, 1477
The decoration of the apse was commissioned by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere in 1475, the future Pope Julius II, under the pontificate of his uncle Sixtus IV, when Melozzo was pictor papalis. The fresco was innovative for mixing the technique that derived from Mantegna and Piero della Francesca, with the tromp l’œil and the advanced use of perspective, making Melozzo’s style a unique one. The fresco represented the ascension of our Lord, being surrounded by music-making angels and by the apostles, it was inspired from the early Christian mosaics in Rome and especially from that at the basilica of Cosmas and Damian. Melozzo was fascinated by the early style when in Rome and in fact, he also made a mosaic (an unusual technique during the Renaissance) for the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
Pope Sixtus V declares Saint Bonaventura Doctor of the Church in SS. Apostoli, Giovanni Guerra e Cesare Nebbia, 1590
The apostles (now almost completely lost), in the lower part of the fresco, more or less like in the early mosaics had a symbolic role, Peter and Paul, patrons of the city, were located right below our Lord, the disciples buried in the basilica certainly had a place of honour as well and so did Mary, although we are not certain of her location.
1938 replica of the lost fresco by Melozzo
What we can see today are the figure of the ascending Christ, surrounded by cherubs, now in the Quirinal Palace and the music-making angels at the Vatican museums. Christ is not only ascending, but in this act he is also blessing the earth from the once again gained position of honour in the congregation of saints.
Christ blessing and cherubs
It is an incredibly exciting image, the cherubs are frenetically glorifying his figure in a turbulent and happy dance, but the also worship him and acknowledge his majesty.
Angels praying in the clouds
The seraphs encircle this bursting of holiness which we have the honour to admire, playing all sorts of Renaissance music, playing the music of heaven and singing to his glory.
The work is a total Te Deum, and as we join in singing with angels, archangels, saints and martyrs, so we pray and enter in communion with them while admiring this window into heaven. There are references to the Last Judgement, because of its solemnity and pathos. In fact, it is a whole reference in itself.
The figures all belong to the same work, but we can also admire them in their detail, which is incredibly fine, despite the position for which they were designed. The seraphs open actual windows into heaven, and each of them is an independent beautiful sex-less being: angel.
Now separated from its context, but thanks to the 18th century prelates, nonetheless saved for the future generations. This is not only a postlude to Piero della Francesca or a prelude to Raphael. This is God's own work and image through the hands of Melozzo da Forlì, a great artist and pictor papalis.
To get an idea of what entering the church would have been like, visit the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and admire the apse with the Antoniazzo Romano frescoes.