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Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

One of the most important edifices in which the genius of the twelfth century may still be appreciated is Sta Maria in Trastevere, a point at which concentrate many legends and memories that carry us back into a past even anterior to the Christian era. As the Aracceli church is associated with the name of Augustus, and the legend of the altar dedicated by him to the expected Messiah, so is this venerable church connected with the history of the best among heathen emperors—Alexander Severus, who adjudicated in a suit between the Christians and certain tavern keepers (popinarit) for possession of the site supposed to be identical with that where this Sta Maria stands, and which the former desired to appropriate for worship; the young emperor deciding that it was better to allow the worship of God under whatever form than riotous feasting on this hallowed ground — melius esse ut quomodocumque illic Deus colatur quam popinariis dedatur (Vita. Alex. § 49).
It is traditional (not indeed certain) that Calixtus I.
(c. a.d. 222) founded on this spot the first public place of Christian worship in Rome, which was rebuilt by Julius I. in 340; and again by Gregory III. nearly four hundred years later, its site having been originally occupied in imperial times by the Tabernia Meritoria, or hospital for retired soldiers; and especially preferred by the Christians, because here a fountain of oil had gushed from the ground, and continued to flow hence into the Tiber for one day, shortly before the Nativity of Our Lord—a phenomenon far from unaccountable or unprecedented in Italy, but interpreted by such early Christian writers as Eutropius and Orosius as a praeternatural foreshowing of that Divine Birth. The spot where the oil gushed forth is still marked by a grated cavity below the tribune of Sta Maria in Trastevere, whence some moisture of the soil led to the idea of their identifying it at the restoration in the twelfth century; and two Latin epigraphs, one near the cavity in question, and one on the coffered ceiling, still remain to assert the miraculous nature of that phenomenon, whilst the words Pons Olei, on a marble slab near the Ponte Sisto, indicate where that fountain made its way into the Tiber.
In 1 1 39 Innocent II. ordered the entire rebuilding of this basilica soon after, and in the act of thanksgiving for, his release from a harassing contest on the submission of the Antipope Anacletus. His successor, Eugenius III., finished between 1143-53 what the former did not live to see completed; but it was not till near the end of the same century that this new basilica was consecrated by Innocent IV.
Of the building erected at that period, the campanile, the lateral walls and cornices, the fine Ionic colonnade of massive granite shafts, the rich inlaid pavement and (most interesting) the mosaics, both external and internal, alone remain intact. On the facade, disfigured by the worst early eighteenth-century work, the composition on a frieze of mosaics, ordered by Eugenius III. in 1135, is fortunately left in situ. This precious relic represents the Blessed Virgin with the Child on a throne amidst ten female saints, five approaching on each side, all richly clad, and all holding lamps, which are lit in the hands of eight, unlit in those of the two others. This suggests the Parable of the Ten Virgins; but it is clear that such a subject cannot have been in the artist's thoughts, as each in the stately group advances towards the sacred throne with the same devout aspect and graceful serenity, the same faith and confidence. The sole observable distinctions are that the two with unlit lamps are somewhat more matronly, their dress simpler, more nunlike than is the case with the rest, and that instead of being crowned, as are the others, these two wear veils. Explanation of such attributes may be found in the mystic meaning attached to lamps—the light being appropriate to virgin saints, the oil taken to signify benevolence or almsgiving; and we may conclude that the females without light are wives or widows in this saintly group.
Two other diminutive figures (the scale indicating humility) who kneel at the feet of the Blessed Virgin are Popes Innocent II. and Eugenius III., vested in the pontifical mantle, but bare-headed. Originally the Madonna and Child alone were nimbed, as we see in a water-colour drawing taken from this original,* dated 1640, before a renovation by which that halo has been given alike to all except the two popes. Another much-faded Madonna and Child, under an arched canopy, high up on the campanile, may perhaps be coeval with the mosaic just described.
Sta Maria in Trastevere comprises a western vestibule, a broad nave divided from its aisles by eleven columns (mostly Ionic) on each side, besides two responds; a transept (not extending, however, beyond the aisles), and a round-ended apse as broad as the nave. The pillars of the colonnade between the nave and the aisles are said to come chiefly from a temple of Isis,t but there are some few which are of a different pattern to the rest. They sustain (instead of arches) a heavy plain entablature, upon which are a series of very depressed discharging arches (not concealed by any decorative work) which bear a heavy projecting cornice, and the clerestory walls. The arch of triumph is a noble round arch, turned on two rich composite columns just detached from the wall. The floor retains an elaborate mosaic pavement, in which are some interesting incised monumental slabs. The aisles, chapels, clerestory and roofs belong entirely to the " confirmed Italian " epoch, and chapels have been added in the same style. This is regrettable, but the roof over the nave, designed by Domenichino, who painted the Assumption in the centre of it, is a fine if not over-gorgeous example of its age and class.
The high altar stands in the middle of the tribune, facing west, under a modern baldachino of good design after the antique, and there is an episcopal chair in the middle of the apse, raised on five steps. There are two paschal candlesticks, spiral columns inlaid with bands of mosaic work, which stand on the lowest step, one on each side, of the ascent from the nave, and on each side of the bays, intermediate between the nave and the apse, is a kind of cage, or pew, with high cross-bars at the top, intended for singers during a solemn Mass.
The great mosaic in and above the apse, restored by Camuccini early in the last century, is the most valuable art-work of Sta Maria in Trastevere. Central to the principal group on the vault is the Saviour, seated, with His Mother, crowned and robed like an Eastern Queen, placed beside Him. Both share the same gorgeous throne, and the same footstool; above appears a hand that extends from a fan-shaped glory, with a jewelled crown for the head, while she (a singular detail) is giving benediction with the usual action, He embracing her with the left arm and in the right holding a tablet that displays the words, " Veni electa mea, et ponam in thronum meum," to which corresponds the text from a tablet in her left hand, " Laeva ejus sub capite meo, et dextera illius amplexabitur me." Below the throne stand, on the same plane, each with his name in gold letters, Innocent II., holding a model of this church; St Laurence in deacon's vestments,* with the Gospel and a jewelled cross in his hand, the sainted Popes, Calixtus I., Cornelius and Julius L, St Peter (in white classic vestments) and Calepodius, a priest and martyr of the third century, introduced into the group because his body, together with those of the other saints in this mosaic, was brought from the Catacombs to be here enshrined.
With respect to ecclesiastical customs, this grand mosaic in the apse of the Trastevere basilica affords positive evidence of its splendour and varieties in the twelfth century. We do not see the keys in the hand of St Peter, but the large tonsure conspicuous on his head. He is said to have invented that ecclesiastical badge, and it is sometimes the sole peculiarity (besides his ever-recognizable types) given to this Apostle in art.
Surmounting the archivolt is a large cross between the A and Q, supported by the Evangelistic symbols. Laterally are large figures of Isaiah and Jeremiah, each with a text from his prophecies on a scroll; while along a frieze below, twelve sheep issue from the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and approach the Holy Lamb, who stands on a mount whence flow the four rivers of Paradise—or, as some iconographists more justly interpret it, the four streams of Gospel truth.* Palms and a phcenix are seen beside the two prophets, also a less commonly-introduced symbol—caged birds that signify the righteous soul incarcerated in the body, or (with highest reference) the Saviour in His assumed humanity.
Such an accessory suggests the ancient custom in some countries of releasing birds at funerals, and of that still kept up amidst the magnificent canonization rites, of introducing various kinds of birds, in cages, near the high altar.
When we bear in mind the date of this splendid mosaic composition in the Trastevere basilica—about a century and a half before the epoch of Cimabue and Giotto, we may hail in it the dawn that ushers in a brighter day compared with the deep gloom previous, if not an actual Renaissance of Christian art.
The more important mosaics on the lower wall of the apse, illustrating the principal events in the life of the Virgin Mary, belong to the thirteenth century. They are by Pietro Cavallini, besides the other mosaic, in which the commissioner of this work, Bertaldo Stephaneschi, is seen in the act of being presented, kneeling, to the Madonna by SS. Peter and Paul. The treatment of the last scene here, from the life of the Blessed Mother, is very remarkable, in that the artist has presented, not the assumption of the body, but the transit of the soul in the form of an infant received into the arms of the Saviour, who appears amidst the group of apostles.
This treatment of the subject may be taken as an evidence of the gradual admission of that legend as to a corporeal ascent, like that of the Son Himself, in the case of His Mother.
The renovation and embellishing of this church, half a century ago, brought to light a choir advancing from the centre of the nave, and no doubt enclosed by marble screens, entirely hidden under the intarsio pavement.
If this feature had really been so sacrificed in the twelfth century, the fact affords singular proof of the early departure, even in conservative Rome, from precedents that affected both ritual usage and the architectural plan in sacred edifices.
At later periods, such ancient choirs and enclosures were removed from many churches in that city.
There are two good monuments in Sta Maria in Trastevere, those to Cardinal Stefaneschi, of the Annibaldi House (1417), and Cardinal d'Alen9on, brother of King Philip le Bel; also an altar with Gothic canopy and relief from the story of the Apostles Philip and James, to whom it was dedicated by the same French cardinal. On the Alencon monument we see, besides the usual recumbent figure, a relief of the Transition of the Virgin, remarkable in this respect, that there is nothing to indicate the Assumption of St Mary in the body, but a different idea, corresponding to that expressed in earlier treatments of this subject, the soul being seen, in form of a new-born infant, received into the arms of Christ, who stands above the bier, amidst the mourning Apostles. The sculptor of the tomb of Cardinal Stefaneschi has been identified as Paolo da Gualdo, and it bears the signature, " Magister Paulus." This master has been identified with various sculptors who bore the name of " Paolo "; among them Paolo di Mariano called Paolo Romano. In the church of San Francesco at Vetralla is a tomb evidently by the same hand as the Stefaneschi monument, and which is signed in full: " M. Paulus De Gualdo Cattanie Me Fecit." The sculptor is therefore not a Roman, as usually supposed, but an Umbrian from Gualdo Cattaneo near Spoleto, who worked at first at Viterbo and its neighbourhood, and later went to Rome. The following works have been ascribed to him with certainty; the tombs of Bartolomeo Carafa in Sta Maria del Priorati, Rome (1415); of Briobis, son of Giovanni Vico, Prefect of Rome, at Vetralla, dating from the close of the fourteenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century; a tablet commemorating a Neapolitan noble, Niccolo de Summa, at Civitacastellana, of 1403; and the Anguillara monument at Capranica di Sutri (1408). The Alencon monument and the Gothic altar in Sta Maria in Trastevere are attributed by some to this same Paolo; the former with some certainty, but the latter doubtless belongs to a later and less-gifted artist.
In the sacristy of Sta Maria in Trastevere is a tabernacle for the holy oils by Mino da Fiesole, worthy of that sculptor's high repute, both in the perfect elegance of architectonic design and in the fine treatment of the figures, which comprise reliefs of the Saviour, from whose side blood is flowing into a chalice; St Peter and St Paul on the summits of pilasters, and angels who appear to guard the metallic doors.