Rome visit 2: including a Mary of Egypt

Last time I wrote about the gorgeous mosaics in the basilica San Clemente that we visited during our short break in Rome recently. Today I’d like to say a few things about some of the other outstanding places we saw.

Bernini elephant I particularly liked the Bernini elephant near the even more spectacular Pantheon. Revealed to the public in 1667 in the Piazza della Minerva, the animal bears on its back one of thirteen huge Egyptian obelisks dotted around the city’s squares. This one was probably brought to Rome in the first century for a temple to Isis located here. It dates from c.580 BC. He has an admirably long, curling trunk, and a slightly worried expression. Probably the effort of holding up such a heavy load.

We walked across the Tiber – which was criss-crossed by swooping swallows feasting on insects just above the surface of the water (still haven’t seen any in Cornwall) – to Vatican City and the impressive avenue leading up to St Peter’s. Visitors were told to wear FFP2 face masks. A young woman ahead of us had passed through bag checks but then been turned back by the next level of security. She was asking people if they had a spare mask. She was so distraught we took pity on her and found a spare in our rucksack. It was worth it for the beatific smile she gave us.

Inside the basilica was jaw-dropping. It’s the largest structure I recall being in – including the massive hangar where Concorde was built in Filton (I’ve mentioned my student vacation job there before). It’s not necessary to relate what’s to be seen there. It starts with Michelangelo’s Pietà just inside the main doors – then the wonders continue.

I was expecting a rather more ostentatious, opulent interior, having seen so many Baroque churches in our wanderings in Rome, but St Peter’s is relatively restrained, even austere in comparison. It’s still sumptuous, of course, but my expectations of distasteful excess were not fulfilled. It was a genuinely spiritual experience. We even joined a service of mass. Mrs TD was raised a Catholic, so was thrilled to take communion in such a place. We didn’t understand too much of the sermon, but I gathered it was about good and evil, and renouncing the devil. Not surprisingly. We watched the film The Two Popes on Netflix when we got back: made a lot more sense having experienced the place for ourselves.

Bernini's baldacchino St Peter's I would single out for special mention the enormous baldacchino over the high altar under the basilica’s dome. Completed by Bernini (again) in 1634, it’s twenty-six metres high – as high as many palazzi in Rome. Rather like the more portable palanquins, these structures would originally have been tent-like cloth canopies; this more grandiose, architectural example is made of bronze. The name derives from ‘Baghdad’, because the cloth used in early versions of these canopies originally came from there.

Mary of Egypt St Peter's Regular visitors to TDays will know of my interest in hagiography, and in the legend of St Mary of Egypt in particular. Rome has several representations of this penitent ascetic saint, and even a temple that was once a church dedicated to her. Time didn’t permit a visit to all of these, and I stupidly neglected to research properly where to locate the statue of her among the 140 figures perched on top of the grandiose portico-terrace curving round the square in front of the basilica. Hers is one of a group of 24 in the north colonnade , and they’re so high up it’s hard to identify them from ground level. So now I’m home I’ve returned to the online image (link HERE) and can pick it out properly from the dozens of others – next time I’ll know exactly where to find her and can take my own pictures.

There were so many other places in Rome that I could enthuse about, but I think I’ll leave it there. I’d single out for passing mention the moody Caravaggios in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi near where we were staying by the Piazza Navona, and another in the neighbouring San Agostino church.

I could write a whole post just on the Piazza Navona itself. One of its three beautiful fountains – the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651) – depicts symbolically four great rivers: the Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plate. Bernini crops up again here: he designed it, and did one of the carvings. Legend has it that the figures facing his arch-rival Borromini’s church façade opposite are shielding their eyes from its horrors!

This is the church Sant’Agnese in Agone. As a former student of hagiography I’m thrilled to think that the relics of this saint, martyred when she was just thirteen, are enshrined here – on the site where the martyrdom took place.

So many places to return to or see next time. The Keats-Shelley museum by the Spanish Steps was closed, but it was good (and sobering) to see its exterior and think of poor Keats wasting away inside. The Trevi Fountain was thronged with tourists, but still breathtaking. As for the Colosseum – those Romans were brilliant architects and engineers. We’ll go inside next time.

 

 

Rome visit 1: a beautiful mosaic

We returned on Monday from a five-day visit to Rome – our first holiday abroad (apart from visiting family in Spain) since the pandemic began. We loved the city, and in particular the overlaps seen everywhere between sites and artefacts of different periods of history: step off a busy modern shopping street and stumble upon a first-century theatre or temple.

One of the most interesting examples of this layering of history is seen in the basilica of San Clemente, just a few hundred meters from the marvels (and tourist crowds) of the Colosseum. Friends had recommended a visit, and we’re so pleased we did. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in the city; there seems to be one on every corner (or tucked in the middle of an otherwise unassuming block). This one stands out.

St Clement lived towards the end of the first century; he was the third Pope, and is said to have been consecrated by St Peter. During the emperor Trajan’s anti-Christian persecution he was exiled to Chersonesus (near modern besieged Kherson) in the Crimea, and put to work in a quarry. Legend has it that he angered his captors by ministering to his fellow prisoners (and performing miracles). He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

St Cyril, a scholar born in Thessalonika, who developed the glagolithic alphabet (later adapted into the Cyrillic one), and translated the gospels as part of his mission to evangelise the Slavic peoples, found Clement’s relics (and the supposed anchor to which he’d been tied) and had some of them brought to Rome in about 867. They are still preserved in a shrine beneath the basilica’s high altar. St Cyril’s own relics are also preserved in this basilica, along with those of his brother and fellow author, theologian and missionary, Methodius.

A relic of Clement’s head was claimed by a cave monastery at Kiev. It’s sobering to think of these events as Ukraine suffers now at the hands of the same Russians who plundered and destroyed much of their Christian heritage over the centuries (and rewrote their history), and in particular under the Soviet regime of the 1920s-30s.

The existing building dates from about 1100, with 17C alterations. What’s fascinating is that it stands on a subterranean layer of earlier structures. Just beneath is a 4C church, converted from an earlier Roman nobleman’s villa. Underneath this is an even earlier space that had been used as a mithraeum – an altar and temple for rituals in honour of the Roman god (adapted from Persian practice) Mithras. From the 1C this area would have been used for clandestine Christian worship when this was still forbidden by the Roman authorities.

You have to book online to see these lower levels and their famous 11C frescos; unfortunately we weren’t able to do so when we were there – but it’s easy to find out about them (and find interesting images) online.

But it’s worth visiting just for the medieval basilica at street level. It’s stunningly beautiful. You enter through a nondescript door in a plain façade into a charming cloistered open courtyard, once used by the Irish Dominican monks who took over administration of the basilica in the 17C when they fled Protestant persecution in their homeland (see the pattern emerging here?)

San Clemente apse mosaic

Source Wikimedia Commons, licence CC-BY-SA 3.0; my own pictures weren’t very good

Apart from the sumptuously decorated ceilings and walls (with some lovely 15C frescos by Masolino in the chapel of St Catherine), the eye is drawn most to the gorgeous 12C mosaics and wall paintings in the apse.

The central image is of a vine growing out of a tree surmounted by a crucifixion scene. Figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John stand beside the cross. Twelve doves (perhaps symbolising the apostles, as well as peace) perch on the cross. Paradise is represented, but also the earthly church and its people.

Various figures appear in the curved, gilded mosaic: various saints and prophets, but also, charmingly, peasants sowing seeds being eaten by birds, and others with their livestock and fowl. Two stags drink from the rivers flowing from Eden – an allusion to the opening line of Psalm 42.

Beneath these images stands a row of twelve sheep, representing the apostles, all facing the agnus dei in their centre. At each side are symbolic representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the walls beneath the apsidal dome stand figures of the apostles in human form.

The style and iconography are a mix of Byzantine and western tropes – a fitting blend for this city of historical congruences, cultural influences and historical layers.

More images and details of this mosaic can be found at this site.