Tag Archives: rome

Art does not exist in discrete boxes designated by period

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and then Thunder Bay, Ontario, I had this idea that the history of the arts was neatly compartmentalised. After mediaeval stuff, there was Renaissance, then Baroque, then Classical, then Romantic. (Which is where music history should maybe end?) My first clue that this was not so cut-and-dry was when I learned that Beethoven, although ‘Classical’ is, in certain respects, drawing us into the Romantic.

When we think about visual art, it’s pretty much the same. People didn’t stop building Romanesque churches just because Gothic had come around. Gothic-style art was not immediately engulfed by the Renaissance. And sometimes it can be hard to see where the Renaissance ends and the Baroque begins.

Not only do stylistic periods overlap, but in real life they also co-exist. This coexistence is abundantly evident in Rome, where the same church might house ancient columns, Late Antique mosaics, mediaeval mosaics and a mediaeval crucifix, as well as some Renaissance paintings and Baroque architecture and sculpture. Some places that look like the Baroque vomited all over their inside still have their wooden, mediaeval crucifices and maybe an early mediaeval Byzantine Madonna and Child. And sometimes you can find the 19th century peeking around the corner.

It’s a simple point, but an important one. The visual world of a single place and period is not restricted to its historical moment. The Colosseum is not just a Flavian monument; it persists in monumentality in Late Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, through every period of art in the Eternal City, right up until today. It does not cease to be part of the visual landscape of Rome just because modern Roman buildings are quite different.

I think this simple observation is important for historians when they start to try to take into account the visual evidence of a given period. It is important to track the changes and developments peculiar to each moment, but we also need to remember what the rest of the visual world of these people was.

For example, fifth-century Rome is not just refurbished Constantinian basilicas. It is not just the Theodosian Mausoleum. It is not just the mosaics in Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. It is also the Basilica of Maxentius, the Baths of Trajan, the Ara Pacis, the Column of Trajan, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the imperial residence on the Palatine. Rome in the 400s was still ancient Rome, and these secular and pagan monuments were the main visual displays for the populace of the City, including her bishops (‘popes’).

This means that when we look at the mosaics in the fifth-century basilicas, we need to ask ourselves what message Xystus III or Celestine I was sending into this world full of triumphal arches, secular military campaigns, pagan temples, altars to false gods. What does it mean? In this still-so-pagan visual world, is the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea up on the wall in Santa Maria Maggiore, alongside Joshua making the sun stand still in the sky in battle against the Amorites, or Melchizedek prefiguring Christ not making its own statement about the supremacy of Rome’s new religion and protector?

Finally, I think that this Classical visual culture will still have had its effect upon the Christians as they started to make themselves visible in the public spaces of Rome, or in their sarcophagi. I think it would be unavoidable, living right alongside the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, let alone the Classical sarcophagi along the roads in and out of the City.

These are thoughts that could be considered for any city and any time. What did it look like to them? What else was there besides what was new? How might this have influenced them? Did it affect Tallis to write Renaissance music for singing in Gothic churches? Who knows? We never will if we don’t ask.

Many Romes

Successful shopping

Successful shopping

Two days ago (my first day in Rome), I walked from the British School at Rome (BSR) to Sant’Anna Gate of Vatican City. Just to see how long it would take me. 45 minutes. Apparently I’m slow — somewhere out there is a long-legged Catholic who can do it in 22. Nonetheless, having timed the journey, I’ve decided that Tram 19, which passes right in front of the BSR, is more my style. If I catch it before 8:30 AM.

Having arrived in Vatican City, I decided to do some browsing of tourist shops. I wanted a Rome-themed key chain for my Roman keys, a nice Swiss Guard toy soldier (I’d seen one once but failed to locate it when in the mood to buy), and maybe (if they exist) a Leo the Great-themed souvenir (to my knowledge, these seem not to).

I don’t know how many tourist shops I went into. They are legion and all in a row beside the walls of Vatican City on Via di Porta Angelica. You can buy one of a vast array of rosaries — who knew something so simple could come so varied? You can buy one of a smaller selection of saint statues or medals — occasional Italian mediaeval or Byzantine-style icons and prints thereof, maybe a print of a Renaissance saint painting. A vast range of Pope Francis souvenirs is present, with (St) John Paul II ( JP2) coming in second. The odd Pope Benedict XVI souvenir still lingers here and there. Small replicas of St Peter’s also abound. And crucifixes. In the mix are a variety of more generic Rome souvenirs, largely focussed on ancient art, history, and architecture, or the Trevi Fountain.

Just around the corner from these can also be found a whole other variety of Catholic store — liturgical outfitters, for all your ecclesiastical needs! Clerical shirts, chasubles, stoles, chalices, patens, censers, tabernacles (!), monstrances, all displayed proudly in the window. Apparently you can also buy purple bishop socks and red cardinal socks. Because why not?

Furthermore, just off St Peter’s Square is the official book shop of the Vatican Press (not sure what they actually call themselves). Lots of Catholic books in there in Italian, Spanish, Polish, English, German, Japanese, and others. The English books, besides translations of official Vatican and papal documents, looked mostly to be aimed at an American audience.

This is the commercial side of one of the many Romes. This is Catholic Rome. Or, rather, one of the Catholic Romes. This is pilgrim/spiritual tourist Rome. One of the shops I visited was even called Al Pellegrino Cattolico. The other aspect of this Rome is found in basilicas and churches, in religious artwork and papal appearances and papal audiences. It is found in the catacombs.

I was originally going to jokingly call this post ‘Two Romes‘, as a nod to Rome and Constantinople, and then surprise people by discussing two Romes in actual Rome. However, I realised in bed last night that there are more than merely two Romes. Besides the tourist/pilgrim side of Catholic Rome, there is also the functioning world of Roman Catholicism in Rome — this Rome is not about tourist/pilgrim shops or visiting the seven pilgrim churches. This Catholic Rome runs and maintains the pilgrim churches. But it also includes the various persons in the Vatican who run the Roman Catholic Church. It also includes the various religious orders who have an established presence in the City. It also includes the various Roman Catholic research/training institutes. Rome actually is the physical heartland of Roman Catholicism, much more than Canterbury ever could be for Anglicanism.

So there are at least two Catholic Romes

They exist and overlap. They also live cheek by jowl with many other Romes, however. There is ancient Rome, visited by tourists, studied by Classicists, beneath the surface of the City. There is historic Rome beyond the classical, visited and studied by the same people. And in the midst of the scholars, tourists, pilgrims, and prelates, there are the modern Romans and the Italian government. All of these Romes exist and overlap and are all about the city, as when one visits the Pantheon (now a church).

This truly is the Eternal City, and its fascination will never cease to hold me.

Renaissance Europe was full of incredable churches with great art bulging out their doors

The title of this post comes from this great article pieced together out of undergraduate history papers. No joke. Real people wrote these things. Since I’m in Florence and was recently in Rome, both of which are great Renaissance cities, when I read that article and saw that sentence, I decided it was time to take a break from ancient and late antique Romans to mention Renaissance stuff.

And, really, if you look at the Duomo here in Florence, there does seem to be ‘great art bulging out [its] doors’:


My photo of the Duomo’s main portal last February

Now, although I maintain that Classical learning never died in the Middle Ages, and that mediaeval art and architecture is, rather, ‘other’ instead of ‘worse’, it cannot be denied that in that period commonly called the Renaissance, we have a new direction in the art and architecture of Europe that draws its inspiration more directly and clearly from the Classical past than did, say, the Gothic. It also does a few new things, I think.

I don’t think a Greek or Roman would ever have built, say, St Peter’s Basilica in Rome:

The nave of St Peter's

I actually took this photo!

But it is clearly one of the most iconic and powerful Renaissance structures on earth. It is also the largest church. But what St Peter’s does is seek to embrace certain Greek ideals of balance in form and image and architecture.

Also, it has art bulging out of it everywhere.

A St Peter's dome

A dome at St Peter’s; bulging, but away from you

My favourite Renaissance things, though, are either classicising sculpture, such as this:


Hercules Kills a Centaur (because, why not?); Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Or early, fifteenth-century fresco by the likes of Fra Angelico that is playing with Classical ideas of the human form and perspective and space but has yet to lose its connection to the mediaeval world of the iconic. The following are both from San Marco, Florence, but the first isn’t my photo.

Florence!My final thought on Renaissance art for tonight is tied up with it bulging out the doors of Europe’s churches. Walking through Florence is an unrivalled experience in terms of contact with art, for here we find the highest concentration of art in all of Europe. Hairdressers have paintings on their ceilings. The dome of the Duomo rises above it all, visible all over the city. The Piazza della Signoria has a collection of Renaissance statues in it. Churches like Santa Croce have glistening Renaissance facades.

The art is everywhere. At one level, we cannot deny that it is humanist — it is here to celebrate humanity and our achievements as a race. Yet it is also here to help us transcend the merely human, to stretch towards the divine, just as the Gothic does, only in a different way; the ‘Fra’ before Angelico and Bartolomeo, remember, indicates that these men were friars (Dominicans, in fact, the Order of Preachers). Sometimes the artists were called ‘Divine’ in their day, such as ‘Divine Titian’. This was a reminder of the Image within the artist, the idea of subcreation at play throughout it all.

I hope that if you have the chance to meet some of Renaissance Europe’s churches with art bulging out of them that you, too, can have a divine experience, and rise above the muck of ordinary existence.

Roma Aeterna

Capitoline She-Wolf. She was there to suckle Rome’s founder. (I saw her yesterday!)

Rome, according to tradition, was founded in 753 BC. Archaeology, I’m given to understand, thinks that’s not far off from the truth. This city has had continuous human habitation ever since, and for a very considerable portion of that time, Rome has been a major city. It was the largest city in the ancient world, with 1 000 000 inhabitants — not to be matched again until London in the 19th century. Although there was population decline in the last decades of Empire and much of the Middle Ages, the papal presence meant that Rome remained a major city, and is now a giant megalopolis as the capital of a modern, united Italy.

Rome, then, is a city of juxtapositions (people say this sort of thing all the time about European cities, I know). This fact first struck me on the bus ride in from Ciampino Airport along Via Appia Nuova. The speakers were blaring some sort of horrific modern popular music. Everyone was on a phone or whatnot. Modern buildings lined our course. And there — an aqueduct out the window. Sometimes other ruins. Sometimes 19th-century buildings with 20th-century shops languishing in the bottom floor.

The people who live in the region of Rome must get used to seeing antiquity at every turn. The novelty has yet to wear off on me — I have loved turning corners from modern streets to ancient monuments. Around a corner, and Marcus Aurelius’ Column! The Pantheon! Ooo, Republican era temples! Oh, down those steps is Trajan’s Column! Right next to all sorts of ancientness! Sweet deal.

My first view of Trajan's Column

Column of Trajan

What sets Rome apart, as noted above, is that it’s not just ancient. Through this door — a Gothic church! Here, a Renaissance one. A Mannerist church. A Late Antique Church. A Renaissance palazzo. A Baroque piazza. A Baroque church. From the terrace at the Capitoline Museum, the domes of Rome’s churches pop up amid the roof tiles everywhere.

While Rome’s population may have declined at the close of antiquity, the Eternal City never diminished into a village clustered around some ruins the way Athens did. Athens feels like it has no life between Pericles and Byron. Rome’s ongoing life is everywhere, in the ancient monuments, mediaeval and Renaissance churches, Baroque fountains, and modern monsters (Il Vittoriano, anyone?).

It makes for an almost overwhelming city to visit. I like all of these things (Il Vittoriano gets old, and the Museum of the Ara Pacis is hideous). So much beauty, so much wonderfulness.

You start to feel small.

And you remember that your own place in this world is finite, temporal, gone in a blink of an eye.

So it is imperative to soak in a city like Rome while you can, before you are gone. Carpe urbem.

Rome: Engineering an Empire

The documentary Rome: Engineering an Empire (apparently the first in a doc series called Engineering an Empire on the History Channel) is mostly good, and not only because Robocop does the commentary. The history of Rome from Julius Caesar to Caracalla is highlighted through its engineering feats, beginning with Caesar’s temporary bridge across the Rhine (an artefact any evidence of which I wonder remains), although jumping back to tell us all about the Via Appia (a road) and the Cloaca Maxima (a sewer). Showcased are aqueducts, Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea), the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), the Forum of Trajan (including the Column), Hadrian’s Wall, the Pantheon, and the Baths of Caracalla.

I think something more may have been said on the subject of Claudius, but I was loading the laundry at that point.

The monuments are used to demonstrate something about the men who built them, a documentary conceit I quite like. The Domus Aurea reminds us of Nero’s egotism and reckless, profligate spending. Hadrian’s Wall reminds us of Hadrian’s task of demonstrating himself a great general while at the same time maintaining, not expanding, Rome’s borders. That sort of thing.

Each architectural piece is discussed from an engineering point of view, including CGI blueprints and cross-sections, which are very helpful in helping the uninitiated (i.e. me [I do history, not engineering]) understand what is being discussed.

I know this sort of thing is currently out of fashion in documentaries, but they also used computers to reconstruct ruined monuments, often superimposed over real footage of what they are like today — so Hadrian’s Wall is seen at (estimated) full height in Northumbria, or the glittering interior of the Domus Aurea is spliced in between shots of the building as it is right now. There are also costumed re-enactors, who have never bothered me, although as to why they are always using such wrinkly parchment instead of smooth papyrus — or even smooth parchment — is beyond me.

For those reasons alone, it is worth an hour and a half of your time, if you ask me.

Just watch out for usual American republicanisms, such as referring to the Senate as ‘elected’ or the Principate as ‘tyranny.’ And ignore the last few minutes about the Later Roman Empire entirely, where the whole period from Caracalla’s death in 217 up to the 500s is seen as Rome spiralling towards her own demise (a very slow spiral if it takes 300[?] years) and completely ignoring the architectural and engineering feats of the period, as well as the military strength and stability of the fourth century — and the cutting of the aqueducts by the Ostrogothic forces in their siege of Rome in 537 is referred to as being the action of ‘one tribal group.’ Right. The Ostrogoths were just a bunch of marauding savages in skins, I imagine. Certainly, that’s what their art tells us:

Theoderic the Amal, Ostrogothic King of Italy

Anyway, I own a copy on DVD (a gift from my lovely parents), but it seems to be available on YouTube if you’re interested.

Augustine and the lesser gods of ancient Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

I am auditing a class on St Augustine of Hippo, most especially to get my mind around his Christology so I can comment on Leo’s intelligently. Nonetheless, all sorts of other interesting things are arising on the way (so far, no Christology, in fact), such as his discussion of Roman gods in City of God, Book IV.

In this book of his monumental work (the introduction to my volume [Penguin Classics] calls it the last great work of classical Latin; I, of course, am not so sure),¬† Augustine is attacking the ‘official’ and common religion of the Roman world through a frontal assault upon the divinities of the Roman world themselves. The usual anti-pagan polemic about the lascivious mythology surrounding the gods (as old as Justin Martyr of the 2nd century) comes up, as do discussions of more sophisticated visions of deity such as Jupiter is all the gods or a vision of pantheism/panentheism (apparently a Stoic thing).

Along the way, he mentions multitudinous divinities for the many aspects of life, from birth to death, and everything in between. He gives a catalogue of all the many divinities involved in the growing and harvesting of crops. He discusses so many gods that the list is exhausting — but by no means exhaustive. What Augustine has tapped here is the rich vein of the numinous that Romans traditionally find everywhere.

The English word numinous is from the Latin numen. A numen is the spirit of a thing. Not necessarily the spirit as a disembodied, metaphysical soul, although that can be the numen. More like the energy or force or power that lies behind and within something, that is associated with it. Before it became coalesced with Greek visions of deity — something that is almost complete by Virgil’s Aeneid — this was the primary encounter with the ‘spiritual’ that Romans had.

Everything was numinous. Beings we may call ‘less divinities’ were everywhere — the divinity/spirit of the hearth (Vesta), the divinity/spirit of all fire (Vulcan), the divinity/spirit of warfare (Mars), the divinity/spirit of water (Neptune), the divinity/spirit of abundant harvest (lots of choices, e.g. Ceres), the divinity/spirit of marriage (Juno), the divinities/spirits of the household (Penates), the divinities/spirits of the household who are ancestors (Lares), the divinity/spirit of the heavens & rain (Jupiter). And so forth.

In oldest Roman religion, these divinities were not always fully hypostasised personalities like their Greek counterparts Hestia, Hephaestos, Ares, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, Zeus. Vesta is both the spirit of the hearthfire and the hearthfire. The Vestal Virgins keep her fire burning both as a ritual that is symbolic of the goddess and as a way to keep the goddess herself burning. The numinous is all around the ancient Roman.

And since the numinous is everywhere, watching your every move, you perform your rituals very carefully. You walk backwards spitting beans out of your mouth on the right day at the right hour to keep the Penates of your household happy. If you screw up, you start over again or risk the displeasure of the Penates. This is why, when we look at sculptures of the Emperor Augustus as a priest, he has his head covered. They would cover their heads with their togas like that when performing sacred rituals to prevent anything in their peripheral vision from distracting them from their task at hand.

This ritualistic element persists throughout all of Roman paganism, to the bitter end. Even upper-class Neo-Platonists who believe that there is only the One Who is Good, or Stoics who believe only in the World Soul, will engage in these rituals that are the lifeblood of Roman religion.

Augustine’s listing of them may be tiresome, but it is part of his attack on the entire Roman pagan metaphysical artifice. If these gods are not worthy of belief, then why sacrifice to them at all? Why call the One ‘Jupiter’ if you don’t believe any of the stories about Jupiter?

I think that having so many numina around made things difficult for the average, thoughtful Roman once their religion began to be Hellenised, let alone by Augustine’s age, as mentioned above. If these are individuated hypostaseis who live not in the temples but on Mt Olympos or in the heavens, why make statues or tend fires or sacrifice bulls? It seems a bit strange. And so they move along into Stoicism or Epicureanism or some form of Platonism.

Roman religion. The undercurrents of its pre-Hellenistic roots are visible even in St Augustine. Go read some classics.