Happy Saints

While most of the early mosaics of the church of San Paolo fuori la Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls) were destroyed in a 19th century fire, they were carefully restored. The earliest mosaics date from the early 4th century, donated by the famous Byzantine, Ravennese Princess and Consort Galla Placidia, whose mausoleum is one of the wonders of Ravenna. In this detail, martyrs carry the crowns that mark them as the Elect of Heaven. I like the fellow in the lower row third from the right. He looks like he’s just seen you taking a picture of him and he’s so happy you’re going to post it on your blog.

Nereo and Achilleo

The church of Saints Nereo and Achilleo is a 4th century basilica in Rome found close to the monumental ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. The proximity of the church to those ruins meant that the ecclesiastics could forage for loot, and found a huge porphyry urn and placed their pulpit on top of it. The mosaics date from the period of the papacy of Leo III, the early 10th century, showing here the Transfiguration of Christ.

Striding Saints

The church of Saints Cosmas and Damien, which overlooks the Roman Republican Forum in Rome, also has some of the city’s most remarkable mosaics in the apse. Saints Cosmas and Damien were brothers, both doctors who would not take money for their services, thus they became known as the Anargyroi or ‘unmercenary’ (lit. ‘without silver’) saints. They were martyred in the great anti-Christian era of the 280s, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. Here, St Peter presents St Cosmas (who holds the bejeweled wreath-crown of martyrdom) to Christ, who stands in the center of the apse decorations, which date from the 6th to 7th century CE.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Trastevere, a medieval district of Rome west of the Tiber, is one of Rome’s most scenic quarters, but also contains some of its most beautiful works of art and architecture. The mosaics of the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere (literally, the name means ‘across the Tevere’, that is, ‘across the Tiber’) date from the early 13th century, and are purported to be the work of Pietro Cavallini. In keeping with the church’s dedication, the central subject is the Coronation of the Virgin (see below).

Trajan’s Column

In the year 113 CE the Emperor Trajan, as part of his additions to the Roman forum (see post on Trajan’s Markets below), also built a huge library with separate wings for Greek and Latin manuscripts. Between the two sections, in a courtyard, Trajan had erected a 30m tall victory column sculpted with reliefs showing events of Trajan’s military campaigns against the Dacians, who lived in what it today Romania; and it was because of those campaigns that we call it Romania. The upper portions of the column’s decorations could be viewed from terraces on the upper floors of the libraries. This scene shows, as many do, Roman ships on the Danube River, off-loading supplies for the Roman soldiers. In the background you can see the walls of a Roman fortress. To the right, the emperor inspects the army standards.

Sleeping Cecelia

An interesting pendant to Bernini’s wonderful figure of Ludovica Albertoni (a few posts below) is Stefano Maderno’s recumbent sculpture of Santa Cecelia of 1600, found in the church of Santa Cecelia in Trastevere in Rome. It’s a remarkable work of art. Maderno, perhaps knowing he couldn’t beat Bernini at his own game, decided to make the drapery thin and clinging to the body, a delicate tissue rather than the heavy folds of Bernini. I didn’t chop off her head, that’s WordPress cropping my pictures in ways I have no control over [@#$#%&%$].

Santa Costanza’s Mosaics

Right beside the early Christian church of Sant’Agnese in Rome (see below) is the remarkable tomb structure of Santa Costanza, the sister of the Emperor Constantine, dating from the early 4th century. Much of the curving, circular vaulting of the building is covered in mosaics, very decorative but with a smattering of human and animal figures. In this one, a female figure dances in the abstract roundel.

St Agnese

The church of Saint Agnese isn’t often visited by tourists, unless they love early mosaics, like I do. These ones date from the 9th century. St Agnes is in the middle, with flames at her feet because she was put in a fire but the fire didn’t burn her. Like St Paul’s, this church is fuori la mura, that is, ‘outside the walls’. There’s another reason to go here, though. It’s right beside another very important early Christian work of architecture: Santa Costanza (see above).

Trajan’s Mall

Around 113 CE the Emperor Trajan had a large commercial and office complex build near the Imperial Forum. The complex has come to be know as Trajan’s Markets. Some have suggested that they may represent the world’s first shopping mall. The most distinctive feature of the complex is its curving, semi-circular configuration, which creates a beautiful open space in front, uncommon in the Roman fora where right angles predominated. While the walls would have been plastered, and quite possibly even painted, the gentle colour of the raw brick is part of the attraction today.

Blessed Bernini

In a small chapel of a not-often visited church in Rome, San Francesco a Ripa, one can find one of Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque masterpieces. The sculpture depicts the blessed Ludovica Albertoni in spiritual ecstasy, reminiscent of Bernini’s more famous, and very similar, statue of St Teresa of Avila in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, also in Rome. In a way, this sculpture seems even more intimate and less overtly theatrical. I prefer it to the St Teresa. A warm natural light comes in from the left, from a real window, bathing the figure in soft light. The drapery is a tour de force of animated folds. Ludovica Albertoni was a Roman noblewoman who dedicated her life to the caring of the poor of Rome. She was born in 1473 and died in 1533, but Bernini’s sculpture was done in 1671-74, a hundred and forty years after her death.

Paul Outside the Walls

The church of San Paolo fuori la Mura, St Paul Outside the Walls, is one of Rome’s most important churches. The original church was very early indeed, founded, like St Peter’s, by the Emperor Constantine in the first quarter of the 4th century. That ancient basilica was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1823, thus requiring an almost total rebuilding. But many medieval portions remained or were heavily restored, including the magnificent mosaics by Pietro Cavallini from around 122o, which you see here.

Towering Taormina

One of the most dramatically situated Greco-Roman theaters in the Mediterranean is the one at Taormina, Sicily. Perched on a steep hillside and overlooking the sea, the theater also affords a view of Mount Etna, which is usually steaming or sending out a plume of ash. This picture was taken from just below the Norman-era castle of Taormina, beside the rock shrine of Our Lady of the Rock (Madonna della Rocca).

Magnificent Malaparte

The Villa Malaparte is a modernist house perched on an unlikely but dramatic promontory on the Island of Capri. It was designed in 1937 by the architect Adalberto Libera for the patron Curzio Malaparte and was featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Mepris (Contempt) of 1963. It is one of the strangest, but also one of the most stunning, collisions of built object and natural environment. In my strange profession, I get to go to Capri a few times a year and I always anticipate with pleasure seeing this incredible sight.

Capital Idea

I’m a real sucker for a good capital: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, Byzantine basket… This has got to be the best Ionic ones I’ve ever come across. It’s a bit baroque, but it’s so crisp and well preserved. It lives in the courtyard of the National Museum in Naples.