Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bernini’s Private Commissions in the Villa Borghese

Andy Zhou
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

The Villa Borghese lies just to the north of city center and is one of the largest parks in Rome. Just like when it was built, it still offers a break from hectic urban life today. However, most visitors come to the Villa Borghese not for the beautiful gardens and peaceful environment, but for the incredible art collection in the Borghese Gallery. Built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Borghese Gallery houses a stunning variety of art from ancient Rome to the Baroque. Among all the great works of art, Bernini’s four life-size sculptures are arguably the most amazing pieces in the collection. These four sculptures exemplify Bernini’s Baroque style and relate closely to Scipione Borghese’s personal life.

Before discussing Bernini’s sculptures and how they relate to Scipione Borghese and his family, it is important to understand the background of both the Bernini and the Borghese family. The Borghese family originated from Sienna, but moved to Rome in 1541 under the head of the family, Marcantonio I. While in Rome, Marcantonio I was able to get his two sons, Camillo and Orazio involved in the church at a young age. The family quickly rose to prominent status when Camillo was elected Pope in 1605 and took the name Pope Paul V. At the time when Camillo came into power, nepotism was still very popular. He elevated his nephew Scipione Borghese to cardinal-nephew status, which turned out to be a very important move for the advancement of the Borghese family. Scipione Borghese had tremendous amounts of power as the cardinal-nephew and was able to bring in great fortunes to the Borghese family. Using these fortunes, he was able to develop his art collection and build Villa Borghese.

During Scipione’s time in the 17th century, villas were a popular trend among noble families. These villas served several purposes. The first was for relaxation. Noble families wanted to get away from the hectic city life and have a peaceful place to rest. Villas also had diplomatic and social functions, serving as places for receptions and gatherings. Finally, and maybe the most important, villas were a way for families to flaunt their status and fortune. For Scipione, the Villa Borghese was, from the beginning, a place to house and show off his collection of art.
Scipione was known as a determined and often ruthless collector of art. Many times in his life, he used his positions of power or even theft to gain pieces of art that he coveted. Despite his methods of obtaining his collection, he had an incredibly astute taste in art. He was the first patron of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who would go on to do major works in the Vatican under Pope Urban VII and would become one of the best sculptors of the Baroque era.

Bernini was born in Naples in 1598. At a young age, Bernini learned under his father Pietro, who was a successful Florentine sculptor in the Mannerist era. When Bernini was 6, his father was called to Rome by Pope Paul V to help work on the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In Rome, Bernini was able to really start his education in art and begin his great career. He was introduced to successful artists such as Annibale Carracci and in his first three years in Rome, he supposedly spent every day in the Vatican studying and making sketches of paintings and sculptures that he saw. Bernini was known as a child prodigy. He was supposedly only 8 years old when he carved his first marble head and by the age of 10, he was introduced to Scipione Borghese and eventually to Pope Paul V. Bernini impressed Pope Paul V so much during their meeting that the Pope declared, “This child will be the Michelangelo of his age.” Whether a prophecy or an astute observation, his words could not have turned out to be more correct.

Aeneas and Anchises

Bernini was only 19 when Scipione commissioned Aeneas and Anchises¸ the first of the four life-size sculptures that Bernini would do for Scipione. Bernini started the sculpture in 1618 and finished just a year later. The sculpture depicts Aeneas, who is the legendary founder of Rome, carrying his father Anchises on his shoulder, with his son Ascanius following him as he flees Troy when it falls. Following the story, Bernini depicts Anchises carrying the penates, the household gods in Roman mythology, and Ascanius carrying a torch that would later become the sacred fire of Vesta. Since Bernini was still young when he did this sculpture, it shows the influences of his father’s mannerist style rather than the Baroque style Bernini is known for. The figures are organized into a single spiraling column, which was a trademark of mannerism. The sculpture was not truly mannerist, however, and shows the beginnings of the Baroque style. Though not as much as in his later works, Bernini portrays a sense of movement in the three figures. Aeneas’ muscles and tendons bulge under the skin as if he is about to carefully take his next step. In addition, the viewer is forced to move around the sculpture since there is no angle where all three figures can fully be seen. Bernini also displays incredible detail in the sculpture. The skin of Anchises is noticeably sagging in comparison to that of his son’s, whose muscles and veins bulge under the skin.

In general, the story of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius symbolizes the three stages of a man’s life (childhood, adulthood, and old age) or more broadly the past, present, and future. However, for Scipione Borghese, this piece could have represented several ideas in his life. The first is his view of the Borghese family: noble ancestry, current power, and future success. It could also refer to the fact that the Borghese family moved from Sienna to Rome and became incredibly successful. Finally, it may represent the idea of devotion to the family and shows his gratitude to Pope Paul V for making him the cardinal-nephew.

Rape of Persephone

The second statue group that Scipione commissioned was the Rape of Persephone. This sculpture was completed from 1621-1622 when Bernini was only 23. It shows Pluto, the god of the underworld, abducting Persephone, and taking her to Hades past the three-headed dog, Cerberus, that guards the borders. As with his previous work, Bernini’s sculpture exhibits an unbelievable amount of detail and realism. Pluto’s face is distorted from the push of Persephone’s hand while her body twists as she tries to escape his grasp. Her skin also shows an incredibly natural depression as he grabs her with his hands. Furthermore, Bernini successfully captures the bewilderment in Pluto’s face and Persephone in the middle of a scream with tears flowing down her cheeks. With this sculpture, Bernini moved entirely into the Baroque style. The characteristic sense of movement in Baroque art is fully evident in this sculpture. The viewer can truly feel that Persephone is trying to escape Pluto’s firm grasp from her twisting body and flowing hair. Another important aspect of Baroque style, the forced movement of the viewer is also evident. Bernini designed the sculpture so that the viewer is forced to move around the sculpture in order to get the whole story. Bernini intended the sculpture to be first viewed from the left. At this angle, the viewer would only see Pluto’s right leg and powerful body. Moving slightly to the front of the sculpture, the viewer begins to notice Persephone’s involvement in the story. From this angle, the viewer sees Pluto’s facial expression and Persephone’s hand pushing his face as she tries to escape. Continuing to move around to the front of the sculpture, Persephone’s facial expression becomes visible and her urgency is felt. Finally, from the far right of the sculpture, Pluto can barely be seen at all and the focus is entirely on the Persephone’s struggle and anguish as she cries for help. The three-headed dog Cerberus also becomes fully visible, showing that Pluto is carrying Persephone to Hades.

By the time Bernini completed the Rape of Persephone, Pope Paul V had died and Scipione Borghese was no longer in power as the cardinal-nephew. Shortly after it was finished, Scipione Borghese actually gave the sculpture to the new cardinal-nephew as a gift and the sculpture was not returned to Villa Borghese until 1908. The pedestal on which the sculpture rests has an inscription written by Cardinal Barberini (future Pope Urban VIII) that says, “Oh you who, bending, pick the flowers of the earth, heed the one who was carried to the dwelling of wild Pluto.” With this gift, Scipione is telling his rival to be careful and that his power will eventually come to an end.

Apollo and Daphne

Bernini’s third statue group that he created for Scipione was Apollo and Daphne. Bernini started the sculpture in 1622 and finished in 1625, but work was suspended for 1 year in the middle so that Bernini could complete his sculpture of David. According to the Ovidian story, Cupid shot Apollo with a golden arrow so he fell love with Daphne and chased after her. However, Daphne was shot with a lead arrow so she repelled love and ran away from Apollo. As Apollo was finally about to catch Daphne, she screamed for help from her father, the river god Peneus, who turned her into a laurel tree to end her misery. Like with the Rape of Persephone, Bernini wanted the viewer to walk around the sculpture and watch the story unfold. Bernini intended the sculpture to first be viewed from Apollo’s back. From this point of view, the viewer can see that Apollo is in motion but it is unclear exactly what he is doing. Moving slightly to the right of the sculpture, it becomes clear that he is chasing after Daphne and reaching out his hand to grab her. At this angle, Daphne still appears to be mostly a woman. Continuing to the right of the sculpture, the viewer notices that Daphne is crying out and is beginning to turn into a tree. Her body begins to be covered with bark, her fingers are turning into leaves, and her feet are morphing into roots. From the far right of the sculpture, the viewer sees the stunned expression on Apollo’s face and notices he is actually grabbing a piece of bark and never actually touches Daphne.

The pedestal of the Apollo and Daphne also has an inscription by Cardinal Barberini. The inscription states, “Those who love to pursue fleeing forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.” Even though the sculpture depicts a Pagan story, Barberini’s passage ties the moral of the story back to Scipione’s religious background. It essentially warns against excess frivolity and promotes devotion to the Church.


The final commission that Bernini did for Scipione was David. It was commissioned after Apollo and Daphne but was actually finished beforehand. It took Bernini only seven months to complete the sculpture and he was only 25 when it was finished. The sculpture depicts David as he is preparing to shoot his slingshot. Like the previous two works, Bernini again illustrates a developing story as the viewer moves around the sculpture. Bernini intended this sculpture to be approached from the right side. From this angle, it is difficult to tell what the sculpture is about or what is happening. Moving slightly to the left, the viewer begins to see David’s tense muscles and the intense concentration and fierceness on his face. Continuing further to the left, the tightly-pulled slingshot becomes visible and the viewer gets a sense that the slingshot is about to be released. This sculpture is different from his previous three statues in that he only depicts one figure in the sculpture. Instead of seeing the whole story, the viewer must imagine what David is fighting. One can follow the gaze of David’s eyes and imagine the presence of a huge Goliath out in front of David. There are also several objects that lie beneath David. One is a lyre with an eagle’s head on it, the symbol of the Borghese family. There are also unused pieces of armor on the ground that were given to David by King Saul.

Another way to examine to Bernini’s Baroque style is to contrast it with Renaissance style. During the Renaissance, David was a popular subject among sculptors, with the most famous being Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Bernini’s David, however, is markedly different from Michelangelo’s David and other sculptures of the Renaissance. Bernini was the first to depict David in the middle of the battle in action. Renaissance sculptors usually depicted David after his victory or, as in the case with Michelangelo, before the fight with Goliath. Bernini’s sculpture also shows incredible emotion and movement, while Michelangelo’s shows David in a stationary, pensive state. The two sculptures really illustrate the contrast in styles between the Renaissance and the Baroque.

There are several connections that can be made between the David sculpture and Scipione. First, it is interesting to note that this culpture is one of the few works with a biblical reference in Scipione’s collection. The David, then, may have been a way for Scipione to highlight his relation to the church. Next, the story of a victorious underdog may symbolize the Church’s triumph over the pagans. Finally, the eagle (the symbol of the Borghese family) on the lyre beneath David’s feet, ties the Borghese family to a story of victory.

The last three sculptures that Scipione commissioned really showed why Bernini is considered the best sculptor in the Baroque era. However, he was not only the best, but the first to really embrace the Baroque style, setting the stage for future artists to follow in his footsteps. Even today, visitors of Borghese Gallery marvel at Bernini’s talent. Viewers are pulled in by the realism and feel the emotion and action of the characters as if they were part of the scene. His ability to instill movement and emotion into and tell stories through a still marble sculpture was truly astonishing. However, the David was the last major private commission that he completed. While he was still working on the David, Bernini’s good friend Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII and Bernini would enter a new period in his career. He would no longer have time for private commissions and his future works would be on a much grander scale.

Baldinucci, Filippo. The Life of Bernini. University Park: Pennsylvania State ?University Press, 1996.

Fiore, Kristina Herrmann. Guide to the Borghese Gallery. Roma: Edizioni De Luca Srl for the Minister of Culture and the Environment, 1997.

Hibbard, Howard. Bernini. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966.

Kenseth, Joy. “Bernini's Borghese Sculptures: Another View.” Art Bulletin. 63.2 (1981): 191-210.

Magnuson, Torgil. Rome in the Age of Bernini. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1982.

Moreno, Paolo, and Chiara Stefani. The Borghese Gallery. Milano: Touring Club Italiano, 2000.

Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Scribner, Charles. Gianlorenzo Bernini. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Bernini: The Sculptor of the Roman Baroque. New York: Phaidon Press, 1997.


Lexi Brewer
Honors in Rome - Summer 2008

A madonnella in the Campo de Fiori

You don’t have to walk very far in Rome to stumble upon the face of the Madonna gazing down at you. These publicly produced and funded street shrines, referred to by Romans as madonnelle, decorate many street corners in all parts of the city, and vary in quality from a simple framed print to dazzling mosaics. These street shrines have a unique history and function, as many of them are credited with performing miracles. Initially regarded as something of a threat, the Church later changed its relationship with Rome’s miraculous madonnelle to ensure the continuance of its previous power and authority. In this paper, I will track the origins and functions of madonnelle, and also the Church’s changing relationship with the public shrines. While initially ignored by the Church, the shrines represent a people’s movement that the Church was forced to adopt in order to retain power.

While Rome’s numerous madonnelle played a large part in everyday public Catholicism from the 12th century onward, they are surprisingly pagan in origins. The tradition of public devotional imagery stems from the ancient Roman tradition of compita, which translates directly as “crossroads.” Each compita in Rome contained a lare, which was a painting or statue of a domestic deity associated with the spirits of the deceased. These early street shrines came to serve an important civil function, as they not only defined the neighborhoods surrounding the compita, but also became public gathering sites for events such as public auctions. With their increased prominence, the deities that stood in the compitas started to be seen as protectors of the community. As a result, these compita with their lares soon became sanctuaries to the residents of these areas. Roman lares share many of the same characteristics of the madonnelle. Both are situated high up on buildings, and are intended to be in full view. Both were pieces of art that were designed specifically for the public domain. Both also contained sacred images that were revered by the public. And in both traditions, we will see how this connection to the public was repossessed to assert the power of a greater institution.

Lares took on a slightly different meaning in the Augustan era, when Augustus replaced each neighborhood’s lare with one of his own lineage. The new community focal points were daily reminders of Augustus’s power, and validated his bourgeoning image as a god. As such, they functioned as a piece of propaganda to ensure the trust of the people. Because the deities associated with the lares were believed to watch over and protect the community, Augustus then absorbed the significance of the previous shrines into his persona, and assumed the role, through lares, of protector of the people. Augustus recognized the power that could be gained in exploiting existing public images, images that the people would be accustomed to. In this way, Augustus used extant public images to validate his rule in a way very similar to what the Church will adopt later.

Sometime during the 12th century, public worship by the Catholics of Rome was no longer required to be as clandestine, and the tradition of sacred public imagery that started in the lares morphed into public street shrines to the Madonna. These shrines, which came to be known as madonelle, or “Little Madonnas,” had some fairly uniform characteristics. One such characteristic that influenced the madonnelle’s success as a public icon is the relationship the Madonna establishes with the viewer. Rather than gazing adoringly down at the Christ Child, the Madonna of Roman street shrines directs all her motherly love and compassion outwards through her gaze to the viewer. This establishes a personal connection between the Madonna and her devotee, and in the 12th century, reflected a change in the public’s relationship with the Madonna. Indeed, the 12th century was a time during the evolution of the Catholic Church that methods of devotion began to be increasingly “of the people.” Around the same time as madonnelle started to appear in Rome, the use of the rosary started to become widespread, as well as the recitation of the “Angelus” prayer, which was a chanting of “Ave Maria” three times. Like the madonnelle, these forms of worship were directed towards the Virgin Mary, in which the Madonna is the figurehead of the people’s Christianity. And in another parallel with the madonnelle, these forms of worship were initially rejected by the Church, but eventually were enveloped within the frame of the Church itself.

Most street shrines to the Madonna found in Rome date from the 17th through the 19th centuries, though it is believed that some street shrines to the Madonna existed in medieval times. This is hard to prove however, and indicates the difficulties involved in studying these street shrines. Often paintings are in too poor a shape to date stylistically, and exterior clues, such as their placement, the frame surrounding them, or even the public legends surrounding the madonnella are unreliable indicators. A good example of this is found in the madonella situated in the Piazza del Biscione near the Campo de Fiori. This madonnella has not only been repainted, it has also been reframed and re-situated. Unfortunately, this is common of many madonelle. As a result, it is hard to know for sure when the shrines that exist would have been constructed. The uncertainty of their creation has important implications when attempting to examine the relationship of the institution of the Church with public street shrines, as significant historical events around a particular madonnella’s creation are an important tool in discovering how they were used to gain power.

When in 1853 a researcher, Alessandro Rufini, did a survey of the number of street shrines in Rome, he counted a whopping 2,739 separate shrines, the vast majority of which were devoted to the Virgin Mary. These madonnelle would have been a part of everyday life in Rome, even for the poorest citizens-- they would pass by them on their way to work, when returning home each day, and when walking around virtually anywhere in the city. Like the lares before them, street shrines probably took on an added significance to Romans, and were most likely places of private worship, even before they started performing miracles en mass. Small images of the Madonna then assumed the role as protector of communities that was once held by the lares. This image was bolstered by the fact that in 17th century Rome, the only public source of light once the sun went down was from the small lanterns placed beside the madonnelle. One can imagine the effect this might have on, say, a layman walking home in the dark, fearful of robbers, and suddenly stumbling upon the glowing visage of the Virgin. I was unable to find any records from this time period showing that the Church either commissioned or was opposed to street shrines, so it seems that the Church had no stance, or even little awareness of these early madonnelle. A 1480 bull by Sixtus IV decreed that streets in Rome should be widened, and that any porticos that would impede this be moved. Many of the porticos that were demolished would have held madonnelle, and the inset street shrines would have either been destroyed or removed. That the madonnelle were destroyed was not the intention of the bull; they were just not important enough to be preserved. The Church seemed to largely ignore street shrines—that is, until the “little Madonnas” started performing miracles.

A reputedly miraculous madonnella near the Piazza Pigna

Most miraculous madonnelle performed their miracles during the 16th and 17th centuries, and this was a significant period in the history of the Church. The 16th century was a time of flux for both Rome and the Catholic Church. The Avignon Papacy, the rise of the Reformation, as well as a series of plagues and floods within Rome itself shook the faith of the people. The Church was losing power, Rome had for all intents and purposes fallen, and the people were becoming desperate. And within this setting of chaos and darkness, the people began to find a way of fulfilling their need of a savior on the streets. One of the first recorded miracles performed by an image of the Madonna in the public domain was performed in 1577, by a madonnella known now as the “Madonna of the Lantern.” This was located on (significantly, not in) a church on the Tiber Island, and performed its miracle when, during a flood, the lamp illuminating the Madonna continued to burn underwater.

The same miracles and prodigies performed by Rome’s madonnelle have distinct themes that repeat themselves over and over. Two examples of themes are that of the Vengeful Madonna and the Weeping Madonna. Interestingly, the nature of miracles performed by the madonnelle tends to reflect the historical or social crises of the time. For example, in one specific instance of a vengeful Madonna, an imperial soldier disfigures an image of the Virgin which cries, and the soldier is subsequently strangled by his colleagues. This may represent the sentiment of the times, in that the people put their faith in the madonnelle as a protector. By retaliating, the Madonna has shown that she can protect her people that are under threat. In another example of a vengeful Madonna, the Madonna della Misericordia, now in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, was struck by a bowl thrown by an angry bowler. The arm that threw the bowl was instantly paralyzed. Compounding her act of miracle, when the man repented 40 days later, he regained the use of his arm. Again, the Madonna protects the community through her miracles, as she punishes a man for defacing her, a man whose wayward bowl could easily have injured some one else. At the same time, she remains accessible, granting the man forgiveness when he repents for his sins.

Bleeding Madonnas were also a common phenomenon, and most stories involve a wrathful gambler striking the image and causing it to bleed. A specific example of this type can be found in the Santa Maria della Pace. The Madonna della Pace originally hung in a portico in front of the Church, which was then Santa Andrea de Aquarenariis. In a typical madonnelle story, this image was struck by a wrathful gambler, and started to bleed. In an interesting twist, however, the image garnered the attention of Pope Sixtus IV, who was so impressed by it that he ordered the church rebuilt and renamed Santa Maria de Aquarenariis. This served a significant function in bolstering the power of the Church. By moving the madonnella inside, and by devoting a Church to it, the Pope gained property of the people’s worship, and at the same time, validated their worship and brought it within the confines of a Church.

A second miracle was credited to this madonnella, when it was decided that the image was responsible for bringing peace to Rome. In honor of this, the church was renamed again, this time as “Santa Maria della Pace.” The Church’s relationship with a particular madonnella, the Madonna della Pace, is a good method for understanding how the Church used public street shrines to cement their power. Before this discussion can be completely understood, however, it is good to have some introduction to another rising phenomenon that started outside the realm of the institutionalized Catholic Church—the Cult of the Virgin.

Early in the history of the Church the public was devoted to Marian imagery, and this caused some trouble with the religious powers. They had a hard time reconciling public sentiment with the doctrines of the Church, which reserved adoration for God and God only. To resolve this problem, they afforded Mary the right to reverence. However, it was clear that the public devotion to the Madonna went beyond reverence, which was equal among all the saints, and Mary was afforded a closer relationship with her followers when St. Thomas Aquinas introduced the concept of hyperdulia, the second of the three levels of reverence, directly under the reverence reserved for God. Throughout time, the relationship the Roman populous had with the Virgin outside the confines of the Church grew more and more intimate and personal. This worried the Church, as they feared that they were losing control, in a sense, of the public’s reverence. This is shown by the Church’s attempt to reign in the growing Cult of the Virgin as they instituted new doctrines designed to distance the Madonna from her followers. However, the relationship between the people and the Madonna continued to be intimate, and some of the Church’s worst fears began to be realized when reports came of public images performing miracles. Unable to halt the changing relationship of the Virgin and her devotees, the Church needed to devise some new way of harnessing this sentiment, and the miraculous madonelle proved to be the perfect vehicle.

Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace
(picture from

As seen in the example of the Madonna della Pace, not only were significant miraculous madonnelle removed from their original settings and placed inside a church, but the Church itself was changed to most effectively use the potency of her miracles. Like Augustus, the Church used an existing public sentiment to play into their power as an institution, and by bringing the miraculous Madonna into the fold, they strongly associated themselves with the propagation of miracles. The reason so few miraculous street shrines remain in situ is because, when removed and placed in a religious setting, they were useful tools for gaining power. In addition, when these miracles were brought into an ecclesiastical setting, the Church and the papacy could then dictate the means and method of their worship. As an example, many relocated madonnelle were shrouded for most of the year, and only uncloaked during holy days and large events. Whereas the people before had access to the intercessions of the Virgin on a daily basis, now her miracles were reserved for times mandated by the Church. In this way, the Church regained power over the methods of Marian worship, and to some extent the public opinion of the papacy. Before, the Madonna produced these miracles in the public realm. Later, within the confines of the Church, the miracles performed by an image become the property of the institution that holds them, and any further assistance the public receives from the image will not only be credited to the Madonna, but also credited to the Church as a whole.

While it is easy to interpret this power struggle between the Church and the public negatively, it can also be seen as faith spreading from the lower rungs of society upward. Instead of a Pope, or a Saint, or someone else in a position of power guiding the evolution of Catholicism, it was a movement spawned from the people and exploited by the Church. In a way, this was truest to the origins of Christianity. Though the Church struggled against it, it was forced to adopt the public’s miraculous images or risk losing their loyalty. In the phenomenon of the madonnelle, the Church was forced to use the public fervor surrounding the miraculous street shrines. In this manner, the Church gained power by taking a movement of the people and adopting it as their own, legitimizing their command over worship.


Abbey, Molly. Miraculous Public Imagery of the Virgin in Renaissance Rome (University of Wahsington Master's Thesis, 2004).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Santa Prassede: a Pontificate's work of Propoganda and Preservation

Megan McClean
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

A tourist ambling along the streets near Santa Maria Maggiore would scarcely notice the simple façade of Santa Prassede nearby. The main entrance of the ninth century church is set back from the street, up a wide set of stairs and across an outdoor courtyard. The portico seen from the street is flanked on both sides by newer buildings and contains only a simple archway to allow visitors in to the stairway. However, the plain entrance is in no way indicative to the decoration of the rest of the church. In fact, Santa Prassede is known mainly for its breathtaking mosaics, which date back to when the church was built under Pope Paschal I. Paschal used the construction and decoration of Santa Prassede as a means of advancing his own name and convictions, as well as to promote Catholic ideals. Paschal’s agendas—both religious and secular—are seen in the details of the church, from the inscriptions along the basin of the apse to the blue halo which adorns his head, and will be discussed in detail in this paper.

In order to understand the reasons behind the building and decoration of Santa Prassede, it is important to understand the state of Rome and her churches leading up to the ninth century. The eighth century was marked by a series of Longobard sieges that left much of Rome in shambles; relics and martyrs’ bones were stolen, estates and church properties outside the city were looted, and the aqueducts were in disrepair. By the beginning of the ninth century, however, the Longobards had been defeated and the Byzantines driven out of Central Italy. Rome came under the power and protection of the Franks and Charlemagne was crowned emperor at St. Peter’s basilica in 800. Charlemagne was seen by many as the heir of Constantine and the protector of the church. After centuries of having the capital in the eastern city of Constantinople, this return of power to Rome caused a new tendency to look back and emulate the splendor of the early Christian empire. It also marked “beginning of an ambition to continue Roman world domination” (Grondman 70). This tendency was seen in the style of artwork and renovated churches at the time which deliberately tried to veer away from Byzantine influence and to instead feature only the style of early Christian art. This period of art and architecture is known as the Carolignian Renascence.

Because of the earlier instability and disarray of Rome and its’ churches, the rebuilding of Santa Prassede and other churches was important because it reestablished some order and refocused Romans on the veneration of their martyrs and the value of their religion. The reconstructions Paschal did after becoming Pope in 817 AD set a new precedent for the function of urban buildings. Not only did his churches serve their traditional role as neighborhood churches, they also housed the bodily remains of Roman Saints; there are remains of over 12,000 martyrs in Santa Prassede. Pashcal’s care of religious relics gave an impression that the papacy could intercede on behalf of mankind. The ornate mosaics in the church promoted his anti-iconoclastic view and the association with preserving the relics gave Paschal an authority as a protector of the church and a worthy man to serve as Pope.

Iconoclasm was a movement in the early eighth century that claimed images to be corrupting. To the iconoclasts, viewing Christian art and images was a form of idolatry that detracted from the worship of the one true God. In 724 AD an iconoclast emperor named Leo VII rose to power in the Eastern Empire of Constantinople. During his reign he called for the destruction of Christian relics and images to keep people from idolatry. In Rome, Pope Gregory III answered Leo’s edict with one of his own that prohibited the destruction of Christian images. This point of contention between the west and the east remained through the ninth century and Pope Paschal I’s reign.

Paschal made sure that his deeds of restoration and preservation were not soon forgotten; his image appears in the apse mosaic of each church and his insignia and name are inscribed multiple times throughout each. In Santa Prassede, a dedication is made along the basin of the apse in mosaic and reads as follows (translation):

This resting-place in honour of the noble Prassedes beloved of the Lord in
heaven, is resplendent with decoration of diverse precious stones thanks to the
kindness of the Sovereign Pontif Paschal disciple of the Apostolic See. He it
was who placed under these walls the bodies of numerous saints gathered from
every part, confident that, by their own means, they have merited admittance to
the resting-place in heaven.

Prassede is the patron saint of the church. She was the daughter of Senator Pudente, who came from a wealthy family and was St. Paul’s first Christian convert in Rome. He also housed St. Paul for seven years during Nero’s persecution. Pudente was from a wealthy family and a long line of senators. He is even mentioned in the Bible in the Second Letter to Timothy. Prassede also had a sister name Prudentiana and a brother named Novatus. After Pudente’s death, Prassede and her sister built a baptistery in the place of the titulus Pudente for the baptism of converted Christians. Prudentiana died at a young age and Prassede was left with the family wealth. It was after this that a church was first built in her name where she protected Christian persecuted by Emperor Antonius Pius. For those Christians who were martyred, Prassede gathered their bodies and placed them in the Catacombs of Priscilla. Prassede, too, died at a young age and was buried in the catacombs of Priscilla with the rest of her family though her bones and those of her sister have since been moved to the crypt of Santa Prassede. In Christian iconography, Prassede is often depicted holding a sponge to collect the blood of Christian martyrs in a well in commemoration of her work preserving the bones and relics of martyrs. A circle in the marble floor of the church still marks the spot where a well sat until 1913 to symbolize Prassede’s work for the martyrs.

Pope Paschal rebuilt the titulus Prassede in its current location in 822 AD. Santa Prassede and other church buildings of the time tended to mimic the early Christian basilica. In fact, S. Prassede is actually a model of the old St. Peters though on a smaller scale; there are two rather than four aisles, eleven rather than twenty-two columns on the sides of the nave, and one rather than two columns screening the transept off the aisles. Even the technique of construction is a harkening back to early Christian custom of the 4th and 5th centuries. The bricks are laid in a regular course rather than with the poor workmanship common in eighth century Rome. The foundations are solidly laid of large tufa blocks quarried from the “Servian” city walls. There is a small semi circular crypt below the church that can be entered from the nave which houses many of the relics and the remains of martyrs, as well as the bones of Prassede and Prudentiana. Originally there was an atrium in front of the church but it no longer stands today. It was built in the style of a colonnaded basilica with a narrow transept. At the front is a semicircular apse facing the northwest framed by a large triumphal arch, upon which are the elaborate mosaics that S. Prassede is famous for. The sides of the church contain smaller chapels, one of which I will talk about later in detail: the San Zeno Chapel.

The mosaics in S. Prassede were a main feature in Paschal’s reconstruction and decoration of the church and are some of the oldest surviving. Mosaics began to reappear in Rome in the late eighth century after being used in earlier centuries to decorate floors. Part of this reappearance may have been to compete with the ornately decorated buildings of Byzantium, however it was also indicative of a desire to recall the form and decoration of much earlier Christian art. The mosaics we see in S. Prassede and its’ contemporaries use glass tessare, some of which was actually taken from earlier Christian mosaics that were left in poor condition. The choice of material in itself is a decision to not use marble and glass as in Byzantium, but rather the traditional glass tessare of Christian art. The color of these mosaics was also important, especially gold which mimicked the glow of daylight and reflected the light from candles at night.

Not only was glass taken from earlier mosaics, but the schemes of S. Prassede’s mosaics also mimic earlier works. In the mosaic decorating the basin of the apse, Christ is depicted at his second coming. He floats in heaven among red clouds and blue stripes of light above the green of earth. His right hand is raised to show the scars of the crucifixion and his left hand holds the scroll of Christ. Jesus wears a tunic and sandals and has a gold halo with a blue cross. Above his head the hand of God emerges from a cloud to crown him in glory. To Christ’s left St. Peter stands with his arm around St. Pudentiana, presenting her to God. Farther to the left is a deacon who is arguably S. Zeno or S. Ciriacus. On Christ’s right, St. Paul is presenting Prassede to God. Both Prassede and Pudentiana wear rich Byzantine gowns and Prassede offers a crown to Christ which symbolizes the completed action of martyrdom. To Prassede’s right is Pope Paschal I, offering to the lord a small model of the church he has built for him. The square blue halo seen around Paschal’s head signifies that he was living when the mosaic was made. Palm trees cover the outer edges and a phoenix rests in one, representing rebirth and resurrection. The other palm represents Paradise. This scene is nearly identical to one in the sixth century church of SS. Cosma and Damiano. This general theme of Christ floating in a colorful heaven surrounded by Peter, Paul, the patron saints of the church, and the donor of the church became a very typical one during the Carolignian renascence and is seen in many churches of the time.

On the lower rim of the basin of the apse is a depiction of Jesus as the Lamb of God on top of a small mound with a golden background. Four rivers of Paradise flow from the mound. On the sides, twelve lambs representing the apostles leave Bethlehem on the left and Jerusalem on the right and walk inwards towards the Lamb of God. Below this is where the inscription, mentioned above, is placed.

The arch of the apse frames the basin beautifully and depicts different images. In the center is the Lamb on a bejeweled throne inside of a blue medallion. Under the throne are seven seals which only the Lamb can open to reveal God’s plan of salvation. Seven lamps on the side of the throne depict the seven churches of Asia. Moving farther out from the lamb are two angels on each side. On the left are the eagle (John) and the bull (Luke). To the right is the face of a man (Mathew) and a lion (Mark). These four are the four evangelists. Below and to the sides are twenty four elder men offering Christ a gold crown which symbolizes wisdom. In the very center of the bottom rim of the arch is a blue circle which is Paschal I’s monogram.

The Arch of Triumph, which is closest to the viewer when entering from the back of the nave, is just as richly decorated as the rest. Gem encrusted walls symbolize the celestial city of Jerusalem. Within the walls Christ, dressed in a gold tunic with red outline, carries a scroll in his left hand while he blessed those around him with his right. On each side of Christ is an angel and below the angels stand St. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Santa Prassede and St. Paul. To their sides, a line of apostles and saints offers to Christ a crown as a symbol of His Divinity. At two ends within the walls are Moses and the prophet Elias. The angel in the red cloak near Elias is a symbol of the revelation in the Old Testament. The gates to this celestial Jerusalem are open and guarded by two angels. Outside, the elect are waiting to be let in. A crowd of people on the bottom left corner is also thought to represent the people whose bodily remains were brought into the church by Paschal.

The cross shaped San Zeno chapel was built by Pope Paschal between 817 and 824 and is said to be the most outstanding example of Byzantine influence in Rome from the Carolignian Renascence. St. Zeno is a saint about which little is known. Not even the date of his martyrdom or anything about his biography is known. However, his remains do rest in the Chapel of San Zeno. The chapel has a centrally planned area with four columns inserted in the corners that support the groined vault. The purpose of the chapel is not clear, but many speculate that it was built as a memorial for Pope Paschal’s mother, Theodora Episcopa.

The outside features a ninth century lintel supported by two columns, one in serpentine and the other in black and white marble. Atop the lintel rests an urn for ashes. The mosaic behind the urn contains two concentric arches. In the center of the first is the Madonna and the child with S. Zeno and S. Valentine on either side and four more saints below them. In the upper arch Christ is depicted with the twelve apostles. In the upper corners are Moses and Elias and in the lower corners are the portraits of Paschal I and his successor Eugene II.

The inside of the chapel of San Zeno is breathtaking upon entrance. Four columns with golden capitals provide no structural support for the chapel but serve as visual pedestals for the angels standing atop them and supporting Christ. On the wall of the counterfacade is throne with a golden cross being worshipped by Peter and Paul. The throne represents Christ waiting for the second coming. Farther up are full sized figures of S. Agnes, S. Pudentiana and S. Prassede processing towards the altar. The niche underneath shows again the lamb on a mound with four rivers flowing from it and the busts of the Virgin Mary, S. Prassede, S. Pudentiana, and Teadora, Paschal’s mother, with her square blue halo. To one side of the chapel is a niche with a second order relic-the column of the flagellation of Christ. Mosaics cover the entire interior of the chapel, striking in their use of color and gold tessarae to mimic gems. The figures in the mosaics of the chapel are dressed in distinctly Byzantine style and their angular faces outlined in darker colors are also common in Byzantine work. The women in the mosaics are strikingly beautiful, causing them to be called by some “Paschal’s Lolitas”.

Throughout the program of mosaics added in Paschal’s time there is a theme of hierarchy and symmetry which was important in Christian art. This hierarchy suggested the order provided by Christianity in a time that was decidedly disorderly. Jesus is always depicted largest of all and above everyone else, showing that he presides over the church and its’ ceremonies. The only way in which the mosaics veer from those of the fourth century and earlier is that they are not merely to depict the stories of Christianity, but also to promote the views and reputation of the patron. This more secular agenda is very apparent in Paschal’s depiction of himself as savior of martyrs and promotion of his anti-iconoclastic stance in S. Prassede. The fact that Paschal is repeatedly placed among Jesus and his saints insinuates closeness to God and a divine holiness which make him a worthy leader for the church.

Changes have been made to the church since it was restored by Paschal in 822. While there were once ten clerestory windows on each side of the nave, some have been covered and replaced by four on each side. The bright daylight that once unified the central nave and separated it from the darker side naves no longer exists and the mosaics can only be seen as they once were with the use of artificial light. At the end of the 16th century Alessandro de’ Medici , who became Pope Leo XI, called for the painting and decoration of the entire nave to display the stories of the Passion. Three ancient columns from between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD were rediscovered within a wall of the presbytery during reconstructions in the 1700s. They are grooved with bands of acanthus leaves and of Greek origin.

A ciborium with four pillars made of red porphyry which belonged to the original ciborium was constructed in the 1700s to bring more focus to the altar and to the newly rediscovered crypt. Four stucco angels by Giuseppe Rusconi top the pillars and symbolize martyrdom. The cupola is completely covered in frescos by Antonio Bicchierai. The addition of the ciborium overlaps with the apse mosaics and breaks up their unified reading. Many of the additions to the church subordinate the mosaics and conflict with the original intentions of Paschal I. In many cases they actually detract from the overall impression of the mosaics. Yet the mosaics still shine, most noticeable of all, and remind everyone of the rich history of the Christian church and the value that Paschal I placed on preserving that history.

“The Basilica of Saint Praxedis” Edizione d’Arte Marconi. April, 2005. B.N. Marconi

Grondman, Stefan. “The Architecture of Rome” London, 1998 pg 70-71, 85-86

Krautheimer, Richard. “Profile of a City: 312-1308.” Princeton, 1980.

Mancinelli, Fabrizio. “Catacombs and Basilicas: the Early Christians in Rome.” Scala Books. Distributed by Harper & Row Publishers, Italy, 1989.

Male, Emile. “The Early Churches of Rome.” Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1960

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Church, Time, and the Meridiana

Laura Bauer
Honors in Rome - Summer 2008

Time is a fickle and fleeting idea, but it is also one that often drives the decisions of important institutions. In this particular instance, time was of the utmost significance to the Catholic Church. The Church wanted to be sure that they celebrated Easter on the correct date, which was very difficult because of the discrepancies that manifested over centuries of compounding incorrect calculations. The focus here is on achieving the beginning of the end of this problem, which finally occurs by the building of a scientific instrument within a pre-existing church. This apparatus is known as a meridiana line, which is used to determine local noon, and if made correctly, it is a more accurate time indicator than clocks. Thus, the Church commissioned one to be built in Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, which stands in the Baths of Diocletian, near the present-day Termini station. A brief history of the building of the church will be necessary to understand the later reasons for why this particular church is chosen.

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

The Baths of Diocletian, completed in AD 306 under the reign of Emperor Diocletian, had been sitting in Rome for centuries when it was decided to use them as the site for Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This conversion occurred in 1541, when a Sicilian priest, Antonio del Duca, had a vision that would revive the reverence of the Baths as an important monument of Roman history. He purportedly was visited by angels, who instructed him to convert the Baths of Diocletian into a church that would honor the Virgin Mary (Ackerman 123). Del Duca immediately attempted to have his vision turned into a reality, but the reigning Pope, Paul III, as well as his successor, Julius III, declined his request. Pope Pius IV, however, was excited about this idea, and granted del Duca the right to proceed. Pius did have another reason for acquiescing to del Duca: he had just built a new avenue, Via Pia, in the area next to the Baths, and was busy creating a small shopping area around it. He thought that a new church placed in such a significant Roman ruin would nicely add to his newly revived district.

Another attractive feature of using the Baths as the site of the church was the fact that they were pagan in origin. The construction of Santa Maria degli Angeli was one of the first moves by the papacy in the Counter Reformation, so restructuring a well-known pagan site into a church commemorating the Mother of the Church signified a strong Catholic presence in Rome. Further, it was a poignant move: the Baths of Diocletian were mainly constructed by Catholic slaves, who were, at the time, persecuted by the Roman Empire for their beliefs. Thus, a site once build by the toil of Catholics would now represent their intense faith.

The Sicilian priest also had a plan for how the church should be built. He wanted the great hall of the Baths to be the nave of the church, with a northwest entrance which would open onto the Via Pia. This would have placed the alter on the opposite, southeast end (Ackerman 125). Del Duca’s plan was originally adopted in 1550, and work began on incorporating his vision into the design of the church. However, in the midst of planning, the Carthusians gained control of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and they did not appreciate the openness of del Duca’s plan because it did not allow them enough seclusion, which was an integral part of their particular order. Therefore, an alternate plan was commissioned, and eventually Michelangelo’s design was chosen, partly because he had also designed the Via Pia. Pope Pius IV officially consecrated it as the church and monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (the Church of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs) in 1561 (Ackerman 123).

Michelangelo’s plan was the complete opposite of del Duca’s. His overarching plan was to preserve the original facades and structure of the Baths of Diocletian. Due to this technique, he chose to place the entrance of the church in the rotunda and construct the alter across the great hall in the passage to the frigidarium. This, according to Michelangelo, was the logical place to build the church because the frigidarium was the only room that was large enough and sufficiently devoid of ruins to erect the cloister with the minimum destruction of the site. This plan was well-suited to the Carthusians because it isolated the chancel from the main hall, which would contain the public alters, and thus provided them with the maximum amount of privacy. Michelangelo also was able to build a choir that was isolated from the church because he pursued minimum demolition of existing features of the Baths (Ackerman 126). Michelangelo’s design of the church also allowed the church to be constructed with the maximum amount of symmetry. This architectural practice was a hallmark of Renaissance architecture and thus held more public appeal. In fact, he managed to make every aspect of the church symmetric with respect to the line that connected the main alter and the entrance. Further, he designed the church in the shape of a Greek cross, which bespoke of strong Catholic influence, which the papacy endorsed in its Counter-Reformative struggle against the Protestants.

For many centuries before the building of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Catholic Church had struggled with its calendar. The transition from lunar to solar months had not been a smooth one, and had left ambiguities as to when the true Christian observance of religious holy days was to take place. The most concerning among these days was Easter. This day is a celebration of the rebirth of Christ and, implicitly, of the hope God represents, which meant that the Church thought observance of it upon the proper day was of utmost importance. Traditionally, the theologians had decreed that “Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox” (Heilbron 3). Originally, Catholics had to depend on the rabbis for the correct date of Easter, because it was known that the day Jesus died was the second day of Passover. This holy week was designated by a specific Jewish month and was the celebration of the new spring, occurring in relation to the vernal equinox. The Julian calendar calculated that Christ had died on a Friday, which meant that the first Easter occurred two days after this. The Christians attempted to reconcile the Hebrew lunar calendar with the Juilan solar calendar so that they would not rely on their rival faith to declare the date of Easter.

Unfortunately, reconciling these two calendrical systems with each other to calculate the date of the vernal equinox was very difficult and given to inconsistencies and miscalculations. The Church was very unhappy with the rather gross inconsistencies surrounding the celebration of Easter, because it meant that not only was the correct day not being observed, but also that the power of the Church was not absolute. Their next move was to adopt the Julian solar year of 365.25 days, instead of the odd amalgamation of lunar and solar calendrical systems that was currently used. This caused its own difficulties, as it was tricky to calculate average values of successive vernal equinoxes as well as the average length of a lunar cycle, and so determining when the correct observance of Easter should occur was still a problem. These values were first calculated in the sixth century, and went largely uncontested until the twelfth century, when it was noticed that the vernal equinoxes were not coinciding with their predicted dates.

After this, many different theories attempted to align the calendar into a unified system; all of these agreed that the major issue was the fractional day that the solar year left (365.2422 days). That fraction of a day was always rounded, which led to a compensatory cycle of extra days every few hundred years. However, depending on whether it was rounded up by 0.008 or 0.0075 to one quarter of a day varied both what year was to have days added to it as well as how many days were to be added. Several systems were constructed to deal with this. Unfortunately, by the end of all the mathematics, every system ended up with errors due to rounding or miscalculation. Added on to this difficulty was the emergence of varying church calendars, such as how Britain refrained from adopting the Catholic calendar, which meant it celebrated Easter at a completely different time than the Vatican-decreed date. By the time the Reformation threatened the Church, the observance of the vernal equinox had still not been reconciled with the new calendar, which caused further disturbances. Martin Luther, for instance, thought the Church should fix Easter on a specific day, just as Christmas had been fixed as December 25 (Heilbron 39).

The papacy did not like this idea at all, as it would detract from the correct observance of this very sacred holiday. However, it did decide that the vernal equinox should be fixed in the calendar. Previously, the equinox had been set as March 25 on the Julian calendar, but by this time that day was completely incorrect in relation to the actual equinox. Fortunately, in 1568, Pope Gregory XIII decided that the entire calendar should once again be completely reworked. This time the papacy was slightly luckier, as Luigi Giglio, a doctor from southern Italy, had already made a complete plan for calendrical reformation. His idea was eventually accepted, despite lingering problems with solar cycles, as well as a pattern that would omit three leap days every four hundred years. However, this calendar was much more accurate than the pre-existing one, and thus greatly improved Church celebrations. The Gregorian calendar was widely distributed in Catholic regions by 1582.

Unfortunately, this calendar was not universally accepted, and by 1660, Britain was 355 days off the Gregorian dates (Heilbron 144). For many years, Germany also did not adopt the system because of Protestant objections that it was simply a move to prove papal domination, which similarly affected the adoption of the calendar in many other areas. Further, this new calendar had still not managed to completely eliminate the discrepancy between the date and observed day of the vernal equinox. In 1696, this became readily apparent, as the equinox occurred as far from the calendar date as was possible, which then affected date upon which the true Easter should have been celebrated. This was not a good image for the Church, as it was still struggling with the emergence Protestants, as well as its diminishing power. It needed this issue resolved quickly and definitely.

To reconcile this, a meridiana, which is a very accurate time-measuring instrument, was necessary. The Church found a man who could bring about this change in Francesco Bianchini, and an ideal site for his measuring instrument in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Bianchini was a son of science: at a young age he was given an annuity that was to be used only to buy books. He took great advantage of this, and at the age of ten, he attended the Jesuit college in Bologna. After living with and observing this Catholic order, Francesco wanted to join the Society of Jesus. However, his father overrode his wishes and sent him to the University of Padua, where he studied many subjects, specializing in mathematics (Heilbron 149). During this time, he accepted Geminiano Montanari as his mentor. Montanari had an incredible number of resources for practicing astronomy available to him, and Bianchini was afforded full use of them.

When Francesco graduated from the university, he began to pursue an ecclesiastical life. His first step was to befriend Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who put Bianchini in charge of his personal library, which gave him another opportunity to further his education. This patronage also helped him join Ciampini’s academy, which was a discussion group of “laymen and ecclesiastical scholars” that discussed “contemporary polite subjects” held in Ottoboni’s palace (Heilbron 150). Through this, Bianchini became acquainted with the most influential scientists of the time, including Campini, Cassini, and Leibniz.

Bianchini lucked out again when Ottoboni was named Pope Alexander VIII in 1689. The new pope showered him with gifts and positions, which he gladly accepted. The next two successors to the head of the Catholic Church, Innocent XII and Clement XI, were just as generous with their patronage. Further, Pope Clement XI was the best friend of Ottoboni, so Bianchini had even further access to the highest echelons of Catholic power. Thus, when Clement XI decreed that the calendrical problems should be absolutely resolved, Francesco was the obvious choice for the scientist to lead this latest attempt, and was given the position of secretary to the new commission of the calendar, as well as chosen to build the meridiana.

Next, the church in which the meridiana was to be placed had to be selected. A meridiana already existed in Rome, built by Kircher in the main Jesuit college, but it was not accurate enough to determine the length of the year to the second, as Cassini’s in St. Petronio was. Clement XI eventually settled on Santa Maria degli Angeli for three reasons. The first, and most obvious, was that one of its walls had an unobstructed southern view, which would allow sunlight to enter the church from the meridiana hole at any time of year. The other two reasons were more subtle. First was an architectural interest in the age of the building. Because the Baths of Diocletian were so old, their foundation had stopped settling. This would allow for maximum accuracy of the meridiana, because the sturdiness of the church itself would keep the meridiana from moving with time and thus becoming incorrect and unusable. Finally, the Baths of Diocletian were once more to be used for their historic significance. Clement XI felt that, because the Baths had earlier been used to move the calculation for when Easter was to be celebrated from the Diocletian calendar to the Dominican calendar, it was only fitting that the next improvement in the way to determine Easter would be made at the same site (Heilbron 147). And so in 1701, Bianchini began construction on the instrument that was meant to solidify the Gregorian calendar and bring about the correct celebration of Easter.

The Placement of the two Meridianae

Many meridiane had been made in churches all over Italy, as well as some in France and other European countries. The most accurate of all of these was the meridiana added to San Petronio by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who actually replaced an existing, faulty line already installed in the church because construction was going to destroy it. Bianchini had known this meridiana master very well, and had actually built one of these lines with Cassini. When it was time to build the meridiana in Santa Maria degli Angeli, he consulted the aging scientist to reaffirm its accuracy as well as its placement. The hole for the meridiana had to be placed in the southern wall to allow the sun’s noon rays to enter the church at all times of year. This southern setting was necessary because of Italy’s northern hemispheric location. Bianchini placed the hole “20.5 meters above the ground in the south wall of an arch across the southern arm of the cross” (Heilbron 156). He chose this particular spot because it gave the longest possible line. Then the measurements for the actual placement of the line had to be made. First, it was necessary to determine where the sun’s rays would hit the floor of the church both furthest from the wall, on the winter solstice, as the sun would be lowest in the sky on that day and thus have the longest reaching ray, as well as when the light would be closest to the wall, on the summer solstice. Bianchini used an existing meridiana in the nearby Church of San Marco to check the accuracy of where he had determined that his line should be placed. He stood on the top of the Santa Maria and had one of his men signal him from San Marco when the sun hit the meridiana, and then the position of the sun’s rays on the floor of Santa Maria was marked (156). Because the location of the two churches only differed by a few arc seconds, in terms of latitude, it was a safe assumption that local noon occurred at the same time in both churches.

Bianchini was soon satisfied with the placement of his line, and began preparations for its actual construction. He used the same technique as Cassini had tried in San Petronio, as it was remarkably accurate. The first step of this method was to dig a ditch where the line was to be placed and insert a wooden canal into it, which was then filled with water to use as a level. The hole in the wall of the church was then checked to see if it was parallel to the ground, and then the diameter of this opening was made to be one-thousandth of its distance above the ground. The other aspect of these measurements was making sure that the meridiana was correctly aligned to the hole and passed directly under it. This was achieved by hanging a weighted string from the hole, and then damping its motion in water to correct for any disturbing motions. (Heilbron 90-91) The final step was then to pour metal into the canal, making sure it was of uniform height and width to maintain the maximum amount of accuracy.

Bianchini actually afforded Santa Maria degli Angeli with a second merdiana with its hole placed in the north wall, which marked the precession of Polaris, the North Star, as well as other circumpolar stars. The precession of a star is its circular path in the sky due to the rotation of the Earth, and, due to the way the starlight entered the church, the latitudes of these stars could be read off of the northern meridiana. These measurements allowed for advances in the accuracy of astronomical data, as well as increasing astronomical knowledge. Further, the time at which the light from Polaris was recorded as crossing the meridiana could be used as local midnight, which firmly established the starting of the ecclesiastical day for the Church (Heilbron 161). This was beneficial to the Catholic Church because, before this, different parts of Italy, as well as the rest of Europe, started their day at different times. This particular improvement aided in increasing the Church’s power, as they were now able to resolutely declare when the holy day began.

Precessing Star Tracks

Both the northern and the southern meridiane were rather extravagantly decorated. The hole for the southern meridiana had been surrounded by Pope Clement XI’s coat of arms, as a showing of papal power as well as a ploy by Bianchini for more papal favor. This coat of arms actually opened, and the larger hole left in the wall allowed for observation of both the sun and the moon for the times surrounding its highest ascent. Surrounding both lines, brass stars had been imbedded in the ground to mark the diurnal motions of various stars that had been observed for centuries (Heilbron 158). By each marker, the name of the star it tracks is recorded, as well as that star’s right ascension, or celestial longitude.

The Transit of the Sun across the Meridiana

By October 6, 1702, Bianchini’s meridiane was close to completion, and Pope Clement XI came to view the sun’s transit across the southern meridiana. Many others also witnessed this event, and it was noted that Bianchini had “[constructed] a line that contemporary connoisseurs rated the most beautiful, ornate, and versatile of all meridiane” (Heilbron 153). This instrument allowed Bianchini to calculate the latitude of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which he recorded as 41o54’27’’N. The real test, of course, was the length of the year as determined by two successive vernal equinoxes. Bianchini’s results ended up agreeing almost completely with the Gregorian calendar: he recorded the length of the year as 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 1.31 seconds, as opposed to the Gregorian figure of 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds, and the length of average lunation as almost exactly the same as the Gregorian value of 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3.11 seconds (his value was within one-hundredth of a second of this). And so Bianchini succeeded in proving the correctness of the Gregorian calendar, which meant that the Church could reassert its authority over when the celebration of holidays should occur, and could finally be certain of the correct observance of Easter.


Ackerman, James S. The Architecture of Michelangelo. New York: Viking Press, 1961. 123-140.

Heilbron, J. L. The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome. July 2006. Sacred Destinations: Travel Guide. 18 May 2008

Sestieri, Anna Maria Bietti, et al. Museo Nationale Romano: The Baths of Diocletian. Milan: Electa, 2002.

The Catholic Encyclopedia. 16 July 2008. New Advent. 18 May 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Early Christian Imagery in the Catacombs of Priscilla

Andrew Shubin
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008

Burial sites are often the first buildings constructed by civilizations and religions. These places vary from simple graves, marked with wood and stone, to huge monuments lasting thousands of years. Despite these differences, all burial places reveal facts about the lives and beliefs of the people that rest there. One such type of burial place are the underground complexes of natural and man-made caves called catacombs; the preservation of these places due to their location makes them a valuable resource. Little historical information exists on early Christians, so looking to the images, inscriptions, and layout of the oldest and largest Christian catacomb in Rome, the Catacombs of Priscilla, reveals much that would otherwise be unknown about the early Christians. The knowledge learned from the Catacombs of Priscilla can be used to explain reasons behind the rise of Christianity.

Before the significance of the Catacombs and their relationship to the early Christian movement can be discussed the layout, style of artwork, and important images will be described. The Catacombs of Priscilla are located on Via Salaria by Piazza Crati, well outside the walls of Rome in antiquity. They are first mentioned in the document Depositio Episcoporum, describing the burial of St. Sylvester in the “Cemetery of Priscilla.” Burial inscriptions in the catacombs indicate the Priscilla for whom the catacombs are named after was a member of the senatorial family achilis. She likely donated a portion of her family land, once a stone quarry, as a burial place for the early Christian community. The presence of area similar to the basement of a Roman Villa, the cryptoportico displayed in Figure 1, indicates the catacombs were part of a residence.

Figure 1: Cryptoportico.
(Nicolai, 22)

Early Christians used the Catacombs of Priscilla as a burial ground starting in the 2nd century until the late 5th century AD. The notation of being buried next to well known martyrs such as St. Sylvester, Felix and Philip made the catacombs a very popular burial place. According to the guides giving tours into the catacombs over 40,000 tombs, including tombs for seven popes, have been found. It is common myth that early Christians used the Catacombs as a place of hiding; these are based upon stories of Christians hiding in the graveyards. In antiquity most of the city of Rome was surrounded by graves and tombs meaning that early Christians “in the graveyards” could just simply be hiding outside the city. Furthermore the architecture of the catacombs, poor lighting, and lack of storage space does not support their use as a hideout. After the 5th century, the catacombs ceased to be places of burial but remained a popular destination for pilgrimage during the next few centuries. The decision to stop using the Catacombs as burial grounds may have been a result of the successive waves of Germanic invaders. The loss of the security in the countryside, along with the depopulation of Italian cities, made urban burials much more practical. Many catacombs, including Priscilla, had basilicas built ad corpus (on top of) the underground cites to facilitate worship. Eventually the instability in Italy caused by invasions and the Greco-Gothic war made these catacombs very difficult to maintain. Most of the remains of the martyrs and saints were taken to urban churches when the catacombs were abandoned. The catacombs remained forgotten until Antonio Bosio rediscovered the Catacombs of Priscilla during the Renaissance. The Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi conducted most of the initial scholastic survey in the 19th century.

The development of underground complexes for burial was not a new phenomenon in Italy; underground burial places called hypogea had been used in since the time of Etruscans. The volcanic rock called tufa, which occupies much of central Italy, was very easy to dig and strong enough to support underground structures. Wealthy pagan families often commissioned hypogea as family tombs.

The Catacombs of Priscilla contain 3 levels of tombs with a total of thirteen kilometers of tunnels. These galleries contain multiple loculi, individual niches just large enough to fit one body, stacked vertically to a structure called a pilae. The top level of the Catacombs has a very irregular structure since it was once part of a marble quarry; the bottom two levels were built later and contain a more symmetric, fishbone-like layout. Within each loculus a body was placed and closed with a piece of terracotta; sometimes juxtaposed with marble often containing a simple epigraph or fresco. These epigraphs briefly describe the deceased, serve as a warning to potential grave robbers, and contain references to Christianity. Among the most popular references include the engraving of a fish—the Greek word for fish IXΘYS is an acronym for Jesus Christ son of God and Savior. Two other commonly found symbols are the superimposed letters Chi Rho, symbolizing the name Jesus Christ; and the Greek letters Alpha Omega, symbolizing god. Linked with these long galleries are small rooms containing open wall space and fewer loculi called cubicles. These cubicles often contain marble sarcophagi as well as relatively elaborate frescos depicting scenes from someone’s life or biblical stories.

Figure 2: Typical Gallery
(Le Catacombs Di Priscilla)

Almost all paintings in the Catacombs of Priscilla were done on wet lime surfaces known as frescos. One of the most famous examples of a fresco inside the Catacombs is in the cubicle known as the The Velatio; this fresco depicts a woman in three stages of her life: marriage (left), childbirth (right), and the ascension of the soul to heaven (center). The upper walls of the room adjacent to The Velatio contain the stories of the three Hebrew youths in a Babylonian furnace and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. On the ceiling there are images of the doves, peacocks, and pheasants circling the depiction of Christ as the Good Sheppard at the center. Figure 3 is a view of the ceiling and upper walls of the cubicle containing The Velatio.

Figure 3: Ceiling of The Velatio
(Nicolai, 97).

Located close to The Velatio is the earliest known depiction of the Virgin Mary and the newborn Jesus (The Madonna shown in Figure 4). In this image Mary suckles the infant Jesus next to the Prophet Balaam.

Figure 4: First Known Image of the Madonna
(Le Catacombs Di Priscilla)

In addition to these, a large cubicle known as the Greek Chapel next to the cryptoportico contains more examples of early Christian frescos in a similar style to The Velatio. These frescoes tell the story of the salvation of Susanna by Daniel, the resurrection of Lazarus, and the story of Moses striking water from a rock among others. Next to the entrance of the Greek Chapel there is an image of a phoenix on pyre as well. A view into the entrance of the Greek Chapel is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Greek Chapel
(Le Catacombs Di Priscilla).

This style of fresco is known as the Pompeian style: the frescos utilize green and red lines to separate its respective stories and creates the impression of architecture by imitating marble. The final major addition to the catacombs was a large basilica constructed outside of the catacombs by St. Sylvester in the 4th century AD to serve as a place to recognize the martyrdom of Felix and Phillip.

The catacombs illustrate the importance of community for early Christians as well as the value placed on the concept of the eternal life and happiness promised to pious Christians. In his book The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire Edward Gibbon described early Christian communities as “societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman Empire were united only by the ties of faith and charity. Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitutions (Gibbon, 250).” The layout of the design of the individual graves is egalitarian in nature and reflects the equality felt in early Christian communities. Most loculi contain barely enough room for an individual body and are undistinguishable from each other. Pagan tombs, on the other hand, were only for members of one family and often consisted of fewer, more distinguishable graves. The exposed tufa at the end of the many chambers in almost all catacombs (including Priscilla) indicates the pragmatic nature of their construction. As more loculi were needed more galleries were dug and extended. This is different from previous types of hypogea where all walls of the tomb where covered in frescos or marble and the tombs appear finished. While the majority of graves consisted of simple loculi, some wealthier families and groups constructed their cubicles and used marble sarcophaguses. These burial sites, such as the cubicle containing The Velatio, are separated from the rows of loculi in the galleries. However, they are still relatively simplistic in nature, using red and green lines to represent a more complex architecture. Most of the surviving art in these rooms paid homage to Christianity instead of the individual family buried there, making it very difficult to distinguish the family buried in the cubicle.

Furthermore, no visible hierarchy of wealth exists in the catacombs; cubicles and wealthy sarcophagi are inter-dispersed throughout the long winding galleries and are also in close proximity to the egalitarian loculi. This could perhaps be indicative of the structure of the early Christians, where the rich and poor were drawn together by faith in Jesus and God. The very compact style of burial, evidence of continual expansion, and the locality of the wealthy with the poor demonstrate that the catacombs catered to the need of close autonomous early Christian communities to find a place to exclusively bury their dead in a way that reflected their life.

Eternal life after death for those who accept Jesus as lord and savior is a central theme in Christianity. Gibbon took note of this in the following quote:

“The ancient Christians were animated by a contempt for the present existence
and by a just confidence of immortality, of which the doubtful and imperfect
faith of the modern ages cannot give us any notion (Gibbon, 251)”

Death was seen not as an ending but rather as a transition into eternal happiness. According to Gibbon, this concept of eternal life and happiness was one of most important beliefs of earlier Christians. It should come as no surprise the catacombs, serving as a place of burial where “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7)”, are decorated with early Christian imagery. The most famous of these are the first know image of The Madonna. The Madonna was a powerful symbol as the fresco included two of the most venerated and populist characters in Christianity: Jesus and Mary. The idea of purity is manifested in this fresco as Mary is considered by many to be born without sin and Jesus is the son of God. The image of The Velatio conveys many prominent Christian stories as well as pagan symbols adopted for Christian use. In the fresco depicting the three stages of a woman’s, the most prominent stage is of the woman with her arms raised in the position of the Orant. The Orant is a pagan symbol for the soul; in the Christian context it symbolizes the soul achieving oneness through God and internal glory after death. The prominence of this symbol and its central location indicates the importance of the afterlife and faith in god. All three of the figures in the picture of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace are in the Orant position; this adoption of the Orant illustrates the concept of salvation as the protection of God saved the three youths. Also included in the cubicle ceiling are the traditionally pagan images of peacocks and doves. The Peacock is a bird sacred to the Roman goddess Hera, but in Christian imagery it serves as a sign of immortality. The dove with an olive branch is a bird with many purposes in both Roman and Greek mythology; it is associated with Athena in paganism and the Holy Spirit in Christianity. The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd can be found in Isaiah 40:11 and John 10:11-18; this image depicts Christ as a very caring and amiable leader of his flock of believers. The position of Christ at the apex of the ceiling emphasizes his importance as the centerpiece of the Christian faith as well as the provider of salvation, eternal life, and happiness after death for Christians.

Like The Velatio, the Greek Chapel is composed of a variety of Christian themes. These stories belong to three different themes: resurrection, salvation, and baptism. The theme of resurrection is manifested by the story of Lazarus who was resurrected by Jesus after his death. After Jesus resurrected Lazarus he said to his followers “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).” Making the story of Lazarus a very direct reference to eternal life promised to all Christians. The presence of the Phoenix, originally a Pagan symbol, is another reference to resurrection. The theme of Salvation is expressed in the stories of Susanna’s rescue from accusations of adultery by Daniel. In Susanna’s story Virtue triumphs over extortion and wickedness. In a time of Christian persecution and rivalries with Paganism, the triumph of Christian virtue over evil would be an important theme in the faith of the early Christians. The fresco of Moses striking water from a rock depicts Moses procuring water from a rock for his parched people. The water symbolizes that God is with his believers and later would be incorporated into the Christian symbol of baptism. These three themes — resurrection, salvation, and baptism—are three core tenets of Christianity. These tenets are especially relevant with regards to death; the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives Christians a thorough belief in Christ and the experience of salvation of their sins and suffering after death. To experience this one must enter the religion through the ritual of Baptism. The almost exclusive presence of Christian art, as seen in The Madonna, The Velatio, and the Greek Chapel, indicate the importance of Christianity in death. Furthermore, the adoption of pagan symbols such as the peacock, phoenix, and Orant could potentially explain the Christian concept of eternal life after death to those who are not as well versed in Christianity.

The function of the catacombs gives historians some clues to what factors attributed to the growth of Christianity. The egalitarian nature of the catacombs—a mixture of rich and poor—and a focus on the beliefs of the members rather than individual merit support the notion of a community built with the virtues of independence and equity Gibbon described. The Roman Empire, during the era of early Christianity, was a vast empire containing many different types of people and Pagan Pantheons. In an essay describing the rise of Christianity for the Public Broadcasting Service Frontline sociologist Rodney Stark describes the religious and cultural identity of the Roman Empire as “utter chaos”. No one god could be identified for all people even within a single city. According to Stark’s essay, early Christianity provided a religion that could be universal to those across all ethnic and economic groups. People would be attracted to these early Christian groups due to the benevolence offered to those from all walks of life. The catacombs are an embodiment of this contribution to the rise of Christianity.

A second major theme seen in the catacombs is the promise of eternal life and happiness after death. As mentioned earlier, Gibbon describes the zeal in which early Christians awaited a better life after death. He also states a well defined and universally accessible afterlife was a great improvement than the pagan concept of the afterlife “scarily considered among the devout Polytheists of Greece and Rome as a fundamental article of faith (Gibbon, 250).” In a time when life was nasty, hard, and short the prospect of a glorious afterlife through simply believing and living the tenets of Christianity was very attractive indeed.

Perhaps the most the most interesting thing about the Catacombs of Priscilla is how they contain many of the first images of some of the most popular themes of Christian arts. These images were to be replicated in all art forms for the next two millennia. The Madonna has been the subject of almost a countless number of paintings by such painters like Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Titian. The symbol of the peacock is a very prevalent Christian symbol in many Christian cities like Venice. It is utterly amazing to think that many of the most endearing symbols of Christianity began as hastily painted frescos in an underground cemetery. The Catacombs of Priscilla, one of the earliest purely Christian facilities, reveal so much about the quasi-mythic period of early Christianity. From the barely legible inscriptions on the slabs inclosing the loculi, to the fresco imagery, to the layout of the catacombs one can speculate what was important to early Christians: the concepts of community and eternal life after death. Perhaps now one can begin to see how this movement, intensely persecuted from its inception, could spread to become the state religion of the Roman Empire and the predominant religion in the Western World.

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Nicolai, Vincenzo Fiocchi; Bisconi, Fabrizio, and Danilo Mazzoleni. The Christian Catacombs of Rome. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 1999.

Stark, Rodney. “The Rise of Christianity a Sociologist Reconsiders History.” 1998. Frontline. Available Online Jul 10 2008.

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