One thing Rome is not short on is churches. But, with (literally) centuries of history to explore, it would be near impossible to visit each one. So I have compiled a list of my top three favorites (excluding St. Peter’s because let’s be real, St. Peter’s would be number one and is probably already number one on your list too) in an effort to help winnow down your list.
Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, established a college in Rome in 1551. Several decades later, a larger church for this college was necessary due to an increasing number of students, and thus, Pope Gregory XV commissioned Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (The Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola) in 1626.
Much of the art in this church was commissioned during what is sometimes known as the Counter-Reformation period. I believe I have talked about how the Counter-Reformation influenced art in a previous post, but to briefly recap: during the Counter-Reformation, the church commissioned grandiose works of art that were intended to inspire, and even intimidate, viewers. The thinking was that parishioners were less likely to convert to Protestantism if their churches were awe-inspiring (at the time, Protestants believed that religious artwork violated the First Commandment – thou shall not have any God but me – because artwork encouraged viewers to worship the images rather than God himself). Because much of the art was commissioned during this period, the Church of St. Ignatius houses magnificent artwork that can only be described as overwhelming.
The church is particularly well known for its vaulted ceiling, which was painted by Andrea Pozzo, a lay Jesuit brother. Pozzo used a painting technique known as quadratura. Quadratura uses painted decoration to create an illusion of infinite space. To achieve such an effect, the artist mimics the building’s architectural details in the painting to make it appear that the room extends beyond the confines of its actual space. Indeed, when you look up, you feel as though the ceiling opens up into the heavens (for those HP fans out there, the feeling is what I imagine looking up at the Great Hall would be like – just without St. Ignatius ascending, all the angels, etc.).
The most famous scene from the vault is of St. Ignatius accompanied by the angels. According to art historians, St. Ignatius is meant to represent the Jesuit Society as a whole. If you look closely, you can see light pouring from the saint’s body. This light is supposed to represent the knowledge of God, which the Jesuits believed that they themselves gave to the world.
Indeed, if you take another look at the vault, you can see that four of the world’s continents are represented along the sides of the painting (North and South America have been merged into a single continent). Each group of figures holds a plaque with the names of the following continents (from left to right; top to bottom): Asia, Evropa (Europe), Africa, America.
Pozzo also painted the works in the presbytery. Each painting illustrates important events in the vocation of the Society, including the Siege of Pamplona, service given to plague victims, Francis Borgia’s entry into the Society, and the departure of Francis Xavier to the Indies.
To the right of the transept is an altar dedicated to Gonzaga (also produced by Andrea Pozzo), which holds the saint’s remains while to the left is the Ludovisi Chapel (created by Filippo della Valle), which holds the remains of St. John Berchmans. Interestingly (or creepily – you choose), St. John’s body does not have its heart, which is now a relic kept in the Church of Saint-Michel in Leuven.
Probably one of the most famous churches, although many do not know that it is technically a church, is the Pantheon. The Pantheon was never intended to be a Catholic Church. Indeed, the façade of the Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa, Roman Emperor Augustus’ long-time pal and general, and eventually son-in-law. The main body of the Pantheon was built by Emperor Hadrian (who you may have heard of due to his eponymous wall located in Northern England). Originally, the Pantheon was dedicated to the worship of every god, but now as a consecrated Catholic church, it is dedicated to the worship of only one god.
The church also houses the remains of the first king of (unified) Italy, Victor Emmanuel II (prior to Victor Emmanuel, multiple figures have anointed themselves with the same version of the kingly title, most famously Napoleon Bonaparte) and the remains of the artist Raphael, whose paintings I’ve discussed in prior posts.
One aspect of the Pantheon that is rather well known is its domed ceiling, which is famous for giving Filippo Brunelleschi the key to completing the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as il Duomo, Florence’s Cathedral. Indeed, the secrets of engineering that held the Pantheon’s dome aloft had been long forgotten by Brunelleschi’s time, leaving the Florentines at a loss as to how to complete their dome without it collapsing. Brunelleschi, however, re-discovered linear perspective, an ancient mathematical technique used to construct the Pantheon.
Santa Maria in Campitelli
The final church that I am going to talk about is known both as Santa Maria in Campitelli or Santa Maria in Portico. It was built in response to the plague of 1656. The pope during this plague, Pope Alexander VII, took a vow to the icon St. Maria in Portico to commission a church should the plague abait. These types of vows occurred so often that churches built as a result as commonly known now as “Plague Churches.” Well, the plague eventually did abait, and so Alexander fulfilled his promise and laid the foundation stone on September 29, 1660.
Above the doorway, you can see the inscription “S.P.Q.R. VOTVM S. ALEXAN. VII. P. M. S. MARIAE IN PORTICV A. FVNDAM. POS. A. M. DC. LXV.” Now, it has been a while since my last college Latin class, but S.P.Q.R. (an acronym that you will see all over Rome) means Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, or in English, “The Senate and People of Rome.” “VOTVM S.” also appears quite regularly in ancient inscriptions, albeit in another form (“V.S.L.M.”). Votum translates as a vow, thus referring to Pope Alexander’s vow to build the Church, and the “S” is an abbreviation of the Latin verb solvit, meaning “to fulfill.” The next three are easier: “Alexan. VII. P. M.” translates as Alexander VII, Pontifex Maximus; “S. Mariae in Porticv” means Santa Maria in Portico; and “A Fundam.” is an abbreviation for the latin phrase “a fundamenta,” translated into english as “from foundations.” “Pos.” is the abbreviation for “posuit,” translated roughly as “put” or “laid.” Finally, “A. M. DC. LXV.” refers to the date, Anno 1000 (M) 600 (DC) 65 (LXV), or 1665, the date the façade was completed.
The Senate and People of Rome
Alexand. VII. P. M.
Alexander VII, Pontifex Maximus
S. Mariae in Porticv
Santa Maria in Portico
A. FVNDAM. POS.
Laid from Foundations
A. M. DC. LXV.
In the Year 1665
After putting it all together, the inscription means In the Year 1665, The Senate and People of Rome fulfilled Pope Alexander VII’s vow to rebuild Santa Maria in Portico from its foundations (the church was built atop the site of a prior church dedicated to Mary).
The altar tabernacle was designed by Giovanni Antonio de Rossi to contain the aforementioned icon.
The icon is a typical Byzantine work, with Mary holding Jesus against a blue background between two oak leaves. Allegedly, the icon is linked to a 6th century event, when St. Galla had a vision of a couplet stating, “Hic est illa piae Genitricis Imago Mariae quae discubenti Gallae patuit metuenti,” meaning, “This is the image of Mary Mother of God revealed to Galla, humble and fearful, while serving the poor.” The image in possession of the church is probably a reproduction of a more ancient painting.
Marian devotion looms large in Roman culture, especially as she has been linked to the Port (Porto/Portico), which is typically a place of welcome and shelter, alluding to the security of the womb.
Another fun fact about this church: Henry Stuart, Duke of York, became the cardinal deacon of the church in 1747, and he and his father James Stuart (“the Old Pretender“), instituted the Perpetual Prayer, mandating that every Saturday, a mass would be celebrated with the singing of the Litanies to the Virgin to beg her to return the Church of England to the Catholic faith. Obviously, this prayer was less than successful as the Church of England has remained Anglican to this day.
The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is likely the most well-known of the artworks housed by the Vatican Museums. The chapel itself was named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (whose name should be familiar from the painting Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library mentioned in “The Vatican’s Picture Gallery“), who built the Chapel in 1483. The architecture of Chapel hints at the violence of the fifteenth century: the walls are extraordinarily thick, the windows are narrow slits (presumably to drop boiling oil on invaders without exposing the defenders to counter-attack), and the building itself has battlements. Pope Sixtus commissioned the greatest artists of his day, including, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo, to fresco the walls of the Chapel with scenes from the life of Moses and of Christ.
Pope Sixtus’ nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, however, was the one who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now-famous ceiling. Michelangelo actually tried to get out of the commission because he identified as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II, however, was not known as il papa terribile for nothing; he forced Michelangelo to take up the commission despite all of Michelangelo’s protests.
To complement the already frescoed walls, Michelangelo looked to St. Paul’s division of history, which divided the whole of human existence into three stages: (1) The Book of Genesis, which represented the history of man ante lege (i.e. before law); (2) Moses, who represented the history of man sub lege (i.e. under law); and (3) Christ, who represented the history of man sub gratia (i.e. under the disposition of grace).
Because Numbers Two and Three of St. Paul’s Division of History were already represented on the walls, Michelangelo determined to fresco the ceiling with the Book of Genesis. The design includes nine stories from Genesis that run down the middle of the ceiling.
The central panel of Old Testament stories is bordered by alternating lunettes and human figures. The lunettes (which look like small triangles) contain pictures of Christ’s ancestral lineage as recounted in the New Testament.
The figures that are placed in between each lunette alternate between Sibyls and Prophets. (Sibyls were popularized in ancient Greece, and they were believed to be oracles that spoke prophecies imparted to them by the Gods.) Below each figure is a plaque identifying whom the figure represents.
Now that we have been oriented, let’s look at the work in more detail, starting with the central panel. The central panel is divided into nine episodes found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. These nine are subdivided into three groups of three, each group telling an origin story. Starting from left to right: The Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, and The Sacrifice of Noah relate to the origin of evil; The Fall of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, The Creation of Eve, and The Creation of Adam relate to the origin of man; and the Separation of Land from Sea, The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, and The Separation of Light from Darkness relate to the origin of the universe. Although at first glance, it seems that Michelangelo scheme is backwards because he starts with Noah and ends with the origin of the universe. The reverse order, however, is intentional. The Drunkenness of Noah is the imperfection of man, but as the viewer moves towards the alter towards the Eucharist, he/she moves closer to purity of spirit and so too the figures depicted on the ceiling. Moreover, each scene holds the promise of redemption: The Drunkenness of Noah is the mirror image of the Eucharistic wine that becomes Christ’s blood. The mocking of Noah by his sons reflects the mocking of Christ during his Passion. The Flood reminds the viewers of the Covenant with God, which is fulfilled with the birth of Christ. The Birth of Eve from the rib bone of Adam echoes Christ’s fatal wound beneath his rib.
The first section that Michelangelo painted was the Flood (the second panel from the left), which is evidenced by the overwhelming amount of action within that piece as compared to the more figure-focused scenes that were created later. To depict the Flood, Michelangelo shows figures in the bottom corner of the scene struggling to get to dry land, hampered by their worldly possessions. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are not the central figures, but are physically and emotionally in the background. As I said, the scenes telling the story of Noah relate to the origin of evil and therefore the focus is on evil.
Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.
Notice the muscular figures depicted in these works? Well as Michelangelo was working, the Romans discovered the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting the snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso. These sculptures informed Michelangelo’s portrayal of the human form while painting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, especially those figures known as the Ignudi. The Ignudi sit in the four corners of each episode, symbolizing antiquity to link the Church with the illustrious Roman past.
The contorted, stressed muscles of the figures are a staple of Michelangelo’s depiction of the human body. The external tension of the figures hint at the inner turmoil of man, who is constantly at war with himself in an effort to shed his earthly flesh and desires.
As mentioned above, the central panel is surrounded by alternating Hebrew Prophets and Greek Prophetesses (known as Sibyls). If you are wondering why Michelangelo painted pagan oracles on the ceiling of the most famous Roman Catholic Chapel, you aren’t alone. Some historians argue that early Jews and Christians appropriated the tradition of sibylline prophecies because such had a storied and ancient reputation. Through the appropriation of this tradition, historians argue, early Jews and Christians were able to give their nascence religions legitimacy and authority within the pagan world in which they operated. It is also believed that the sibyls predicted the coming of Jesus. Again, connecting the Church to the ancient past.
Michelangelo also painted the fresco known as The Last Judgment (1541) on the wall behind the altar decades after he finished the ceiling and, perhaps more significantly, after Emperor Charles V sacked the city of Rome in 1527. The fall of Europe’s “eternal city” proved to be traumatic for most of Christianity, and this trauma was clearly expressed in the art commissioned and produced after the city’s fall. Comparing The Last Judgment with the ceiling, the figures appear more frenzied and confused, demonstrating real turmoil felt amongst Christendom.
Although the overall composition seems disoriented, the groupings of figures are placed intentionally; the scene is meant to be read rising from the bottom left and descending on the right, mimicking the scales believed to be used to weigh souls with Christ acting as the fulcrum.
The Resurrection is depicted on the lower left of the work, where skeletons ascend to join those above in Heaven. Michelangelo’s depiction of those in Heaven, however, is completely unconventional. St. John the Baptist, on Christ’s right, is depicted as almost Herculean, not the traditional emaciated hermit while St. Peter, on Christ’s left is shown in similar proportions. Moreover, Christ himself is depicted as though a Greek God, and although Michelangelo is in keeping with tradition that Christ’s right hand is raised and his left hand is lowered (raising the righteous and felling the damned), he positions the palms so as to allude that the opposite is occurring. Slightly beneath Christ, Michelangelo included self-portrait in a rather grotesque manner: his visage is perceptible in the face of the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, dangling over Hell. This depiction recalls his belief that one must shed his outer skin to reach the truth that lays beneath.
Under this main group, Michelangelo places the angels who raise the dead with their trumpets. One of these angels is holding the book of the damned, pointedly showing the damned their misdeeds written in the book.
In response to the nontraditional depiction, one of the Pope’s secretaries reportedly complained that the scene was more appropriate for a bathhouse than a chapel. Michelangelo had his revenge by painting the complainant’s face onto the figure of Minos, the judge of the dead in Virgil’s and Dante’s epic poems.
Michelangelo changed the physical architecture of the chapel to create the illusion that the scene was taking place within the room rather than the traditional belief, espoused by Leon Battista Alberti, that a painting should be a “window” so that viewers are seeing the scene play out beyond their own space.
So much more could be said about this room; in fact, many articles and books have been written on the topic. What is in this post is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that I have at least piqued your interest in some of this art.
In addition to the sculptures located in the Octagonal Court, the Vatican Museums are home to hundreds of other fascinating statues. I’m just going to highlight my favorite ones here, organized by museum and room.
The Pio Clementino Museum
The original papal sculptures were housed in the then Cortile delle Statue (now known as the Octagonal Court), but by the 18th century, keeping the ever-growing collection in that courtyard was no longer tenable, as the collection had dramatically increased in size over the years due to both donations and archeological excavations. Thus, Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli, followed by Pope Pius VI Braschi, converted rooms of the Belvedere Palace into a museum to house the papal collection of ancient Roman sculpture. This museum is now known as the Pio Clementino Museum, in honor of the aforementioned popes.
Hall of the Muses
The Hall of the Muses was redesigned with the intention of housing statues found at the Villa of Cassius near Tivoli (it is now commonly believed that the so-called Villa of Cassius was not actually owned by Cassius). These sculptures date from the 2nd century AD and included several (but not all nine) muses. Unfortunately, some of the sculptures found at the villa were irreparably modified by 18th century restorers in an attempt to complete the set of the nine Muses, including a sculpture that was repurposed as the muse Euterpe.
Muses were minor deities that imparted their gifts of music, poetry, and dance to men and gods, allowing both to forget their troubles by losing themselves to art. Fittingly, the Muses were the daughters of the titaness Mnemosyne (i.e. memory) and the king of the gods, Zeus.
Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos,  a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished,  she bore nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song, and whose spirit is free from care, a little way from the top-most peak of snowy Olympus. …
For although a man has sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and lives in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a singer,  the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
Hesiod. “The Complete Hesiod Collection.” Acheron Press.
The vaulted ceiling of the hall accurately reflects the hall’s namesake. (I know this section is supposed to be about sculptures, but I couldn’t resist this ceiling, so bear with me.) Painted by Tommaso Conca, the ceiling depicts both Apollo and the Muses inspiring artistic endeavours. Apollo is included along with the Muses because he was commonly associated with music, especially with an instrument known as the lyre. According to myth, the god Hermes, the inventor of the lyre, offered it to Apollo after he had been caught stealing Apollo’s cattle.
The final, and some would argue most important, piece of the Hall of Muses is known as the Belvedere Torso. The Belvedere Torso (so called due to its original placement in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard) dates from the 1st century BC and owes much of its fame to Michelangelo’s admiration of it. In fact, during and after the sixteenth century, the Belvedere Torso became the model for nudes in multiple works, including Raphael’s figure of Christ in his Vision of Ezekiel and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.
The Round Hall
The Round Hall was based off the hemispherical vault of the Pantheon. Indeed, vaulted ceiling is seemingly structurally identical (albeit a touch more ornate) to that of the famous temple to the Gods.
The floor mosaics of the Round Hall are from the early 3rd century AD while the porphyry basin in the center of the room is likely to have stood in an imperial Roman piazza. The gold Heracles housed in one of the niches in this room was found lying horizontally and covered by a stone with the letters F.C.S., standing for Fulgur Conditum Summanium, translated as “hidden from lightning flow.” Thus, historians have deduced that it had been given a ritual burial, which was customary for Romans to do for statues that had been hit by lightning.
Hercules is shown in his traditional iconography: holding his club and the Nemean lion skin. (Indeed, Hercules is generally shown in this posture.)
Gallery of the Candelabra
The Gallery of the Candelabra houses The Persian Warrior, who is depicted wearing a Phrygian beret with his upper hand grasping his sword. This work is probably a Roman copy of a Greek Bronze that was made to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Allegedly, an Athenian ran from Marathon to the city of Athens (about 25 miles) to deliver the news of the Persian defeat. It is this run that became the basis for the masochistic early morning, freezing races in which yours truly loves to participate. (Although, I do wish whoever came up with the idea had done his/her math better and kept the race at 25 miles rather than 26.2. For some reason, that seems much more manageable.)
The New Wing
The New Wing was built to house the works that Napoleon had taken from the Vatican, but which France has since returned. It links the Chiaramonti Museum to the Apostolic Library and was designed to recreate the space for which the works were originally created. One of the New Wing’s most famous pieces, Augustus from Prima Porta (1st century AD), is a statue of Augustus that was found in the Villa of Livia (Livia was Augustus’ wife; for the Julio-Claudian family tree, click here).
On Augustus’ cuirass (breastplate), there is a scene showing a Parthian king returning the Roman standards lost by Crassus during the Battle of Carrhae. Although the loss of a standard seems trivial to modern readers, to the superstitious ancient Romans, the loss of a standard was a monumental disaster. Therefore, Augustus’ recovery of such was a huge political victory for him, so much so that the event is commemorated on this larger than life statue. At the top of the breastplate is the personification of the Heavens and the chariots of Apollo and Aurora while at the bottom is the goddess Diana and the goddess Earth, symbolizing divine sanction of Augustus’ rule.
Notice the weird baby attached to Augustus’ leg? Well that weird baby was likely designed to promote Augustus’ supposed divine descent from the goddess Venus. Historians have identified the baby as Cupid, Venus’ son, in part, because he is riding a dolphin, an animal closely linked to Venus, who in one myth is born of the sea (see Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, to the left of this text, which will hopefully be featured in an upcoming post about the Uffizi).
The Julii clan (i.e. the family of Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew/adopted son, Augustus) claimed descent from the Trojan Aeneas, who himself was alleged to have descended from the goddess Venus. And therefore, Venus’ son Cupid was likely included in this piece to emphasize Augustus’ links to divinity.
The Nile is a 1st century AD Roman copy of a Greek original. The work personifies the River Nile as an old man while Egypt is represented by a sphinx, supporting the Nile. Sixteen children run along the top of the Nile; according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the children represent the sixteen cubits of water by which the Nile rises for its annual flood. Interestingly, this piece was at the center of an international debacle between Italy and France during the early nineteenth century. As it turns out, Emperor Napoleon was quite fond of Italian art, and during his invasion of Italy, he commandeered several pieces (including the Nile) and sent them to the Louvre. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Pope demanded that the French return the artwork to the Vatican. The French, reluctant to give back this treasure, offered the Pope a nude statute of Napoleon as compensation. The Pope, obviously not keen to own a colossal nude statute of an overthrown foreign invader, declined the offer and demanded the Nile back. As evidenced, the French acquiesced.
Also here is a statue of Silenus and the baby Dionysus (yes, that Dionysus; even gods of wine and the bacchanal were babies at one point). In a tribute to the baby’s eventual celestial purview, the branch supporting the two is decorated with grape vines. Silenus is variously described as Dionysus’ foster father, companion, and/or tutor, depending on the source. This statue, as usual, is a Roman copy of a Greek original (the ancient Romans had some serious appropriation issues – stealing myths, artwork, etc), and it dates from around the 2nd century AD.
I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite pieces from the Vatican. Thanks as always for reading!
The papal apartments that are now known as “Raphael’s Rooms” were commissioned by Pope Julius II upon his election to the papal throne. Rather than live in the rooms of his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, whom Julius detested, Pope Julius collected a team of artists, including Raphael, to redecorate previously unused chambers. Raphael was soon put in charge of the whole project.
The Room of Heliodorus was the second of the papal apartments to be decorated. Its walls are frescoed with events chosen to convey a dual message: of God’s protection of the Church and of Julius II’s desire to “free Italy” from its current French occupation. The fresco from which this room takes its name, Expulsion of Heliodorus from theTemple, depicts a Biblical episode wherein a Syrian named Heliodorus is sent to the Temple in Jerusalem to take its treasure. The high priest of the temple calls on God for protection, and God sends a horsemen and two youths to banish Heliodorus.
Pope Julius II is seen on the left, witnessing the event, while Heliodorus is knocked to the floor with the spilled gold in the right corner of the work. The implicit characterization of the French as the thieving Heliodorus would not have been lost on the fresco’s contemporary viewers.
Also in this room is the Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, which was completed after Pope Julius II’s death. The portrait of his successor, Pope Leo X, appears twice in this fresco: once as Leo the Great and once as a cardinal. According to legend, St. Peter and St. Paul appeared during this momentous meeting, and it was this appearance that dissuaded Attila from invading Italy. (As typical of portraits of St. Peter, he is depicted holding keys; while St. Paul is identifiable via his pointed beard.) Once again, the underlying message to the French, that God protects Rome from foreign invaders, would have been very potent to contemporaries.
It is the Room of the Segnatura, however, that houses Raphael’s most famous frescoes, including his School of Athens. Julius II used this room as his study/library, and it is this use that the frescoes are meant to reflect.
The School of Athens celebrates philosophers, focusing on Plato and Aristotle, who represent the two schools of thought: idealism and realism. Plato, holding his Timaeus, is pointing to the heaven as the source of knowledge while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, points to the earth.
Allegedly, Plato is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. His gesture to the sky was closely associated with Da Vinci, appearing throughout his work, including in his famous depiction of TheLast Supper, located in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
The Room of the Fire in the Borgo was decorated after Pope Julius II’s death in 1513. The new pontiff, Pope Leo X, took over the commission given to Raphael and made significant changes. One of those changes was to dedicate this room to the pope’s namesakes, Leo III and Leo IV. Thus, the paintings include the Crowning of Charlemagne, which depicts the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope in the year AD 800, the Justification of Leo III, the oath taken by Leo III that reaffirmed the principle that the pope is answerable to God alone, and the Battle of Ostia when, in AD 849, the papal armies were pitted against Muslim forces.
The Fire in the Borgo depicts the fire that broke out in AD 847 in front of St. Peter’s, in an area known as the Borgo. Allegedly, the efforts of a mass of people to put the fire out had no effect until Pope Leo IV appeared at a window in the Vatican Palace and imparted a blessing. At that moment, the fire was miraculously extinguished.
Leo IV can be seen in the background, giving his blessing while in the left foreground is a group of figures inspired by Virgil’s homeric epic Aeneid. In the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas flees his home city of Troy as the Greeks burn it to the ground. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, on his back while his young son, Ascanius, runs alongside him. After escaping Troy, Aeneas leads the surviving Trojans on a treacherous search for a new homeland, eventually settling in what would one day become Rome. Allegedly, the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are Aeneas’ descendants. It is in this way that Virgil ties Rome and its founding to a prestigious and ancient culture. (During Rome’s early history, many, including Greeks, thought of Rome as an uncultured back-water. Apparently, even the Romans felt like they had something to prove.)
One of the most fascinating museums housed in the Vatican is the New Pinacoteca. The “new” Vatican Pinacoteca actually dates to 1932 (although in comparison with the works held, this could be accurately dubbed “new”). Most of the paintings held in this collection picture Christian themes, stories, images, and sometimes all of the above. Therefore, before we dive in, I linked this page to go over some of the saints’ typical iconography. (I will be regularly updating it as more saints appear in the art in later posts.)
The first major art work I want to talk about it known as the Stefaneschi triptych (Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330). It was commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Caetani degli Stefaneschi for the high altar of St. Peter’s (St. Peter’s being the Vatican’s church). For such an important piece, Stefaneschi commissioned the famous Giotto. At this time, Giotto had already been praised as the greatest artist of the time by such names as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio due to his innovative technique of depicting figures with life and emotion. The figures in Giotto’s work are not static, but real and relatable; indeed, human.
Next on our swift tour of the gallery is The Redeemer conferring a blessing (Simone Martini, 1315-20), which is believed to be a panel of a polyptych (an altarpiece that was very popular during the 14th and 15th centuries). Martini manages to infuse the old tradition of Byzantine with the more modern elegance and refinement of color found in his home town of Siena. The Byzantine School was characterized by emotionless figures set in a gold background. Although those features are indeed present in this work, Martini’s positioning of the hands betrays the modern innovation that was swirling around the art world at this time: depth creation and perspective. The mere placement of one hand on a book while the other raised in a blessing catapults this work into straight into the nascent stirrings of the Renaissance.
Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library (Melozzo da Forlì) illustrates the appointment of Bartolomeo Sacchi as the first Prefect of the Vatican Library. Sacchi (known as Platina) had been put in charge of building the new Vatican Library, but during his momentous building project, he stripped marble, ancient sculptures, and other building material from ancient Roman buildings to incorporate within the new library. So although he helped beautify “new” Rome, it was at the expense of the old. Astonishingly, the painting was painted in only thirty days.
The painting shows Pope Sixtus IV surrounded by his cardinal and lay nephews, including Raffaele Riario (standing behind the Pope’s throne) and Giuliano della Rovere (the Cardinal in red), the future Pope Julius II, ominously known as il papá terrible. Girolamo Riario (in the blue) wears a gold chain, likely alluding to his recent appointment to burgher of the city of Rome and a member of the Roman nobility. The inclusion of his nephews in this group portrait is telling of Sixtus’ is a telling reminder of his unabashed use of the papal office to promote his family. Nepotism was absolutely not a new phenomenon, but contemporaries took more issue with Sixtus’ nepotism due to his relatively obscure birth (his father was a fisherman), as well as his indiscriminate use of the promotions. In fact, a major rift occurred between Sixtus and Lorenzo de’Medici (known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) because of Sixtus allowed his desire to promote his family to obscure any other important considerations.
Platina is depicted kneeling at the Pope’s feet in gratitude for his new position. And, indeed, Platina would have been very thankful for his change in fortune; just a few years earlier, he had been imprisoned and tortured by Paul II, who had suspected Platina and other humanists of plotting against him. Interestingly, Platina was a great admirer of Lorenzo de’Medici, one of Sixtus’ bitter enemies.
The Vatican owns several of Raphael’s works, including one known as the Crowning of the Virgin (also known as the Oddi Altarpiece) (Raffaello Sanzio, 1502-04), which was originally intended for the altar of the Oddi Chapel in the church of St. Francesco al Prato in Perugia. It is an early work, and as such, it is the closest of his paintings to the style of his maestro Perugino. Like his final piece, Transfiguration, this work depicts two scenes, one on top of the other, but unlike his Transfiguration, this work fails to unify the two scenes into a single composition, leaving it feeling disjointed.
Another Raphael is known as the Madonna of Foligno (1511), which was commissioned by Sigismondo dei Conti for the high altar of St. Maria in Aracoeli (Rome). Unfortunately, Sigismondo died before he could provide the intended inscription on the plaque held by the angel, and none of his heirs wanted to presume what the inscription was supposed to be; thus, the angel was left holding a blank plaque. Sigismondo is shown on the right, kneeling by St. Jerome, while on the left, St. John the Baptist is standing next to St. Francis. The background of the scene may provide the motive for this ex voto altarpiece. In the distance is a town that is narrowingly missed by an oncoming meteorite.
Raphael’s last major piece in this museum is The Transfiguration, which was commissioned by then-Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later, Pope Clement VII) for the cathedral of St. Giusto of Narbonne. Raphael, however, was notoriously slow to finish his works at the time of this commission due to his immense popularity and ever-growing number of commissions. To speed Raphael’s work along, Cardinal Medici commissioned a second altarpiece from Raphael’s great rival, Sebastiano del Piombo. In response, Raphael determined to create a complex composition, which proved to be his final work.
Like Raphael’s two other works mentioned above, the Transfiguration separates the action into two distinct scenes. But here, the distinct scenes flow together into a single cohesive composition. The first is the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, when the divinity of Christ is revealed in the presence of the prophets Moses and Elias. The second depicts a possessed boy, surrounded by the disciples, who await Jesus’ return from Mount Tabor. The piece illustrates the transition from High Renaissance to Mannerism, which is typified by agitated movement, intense emotion, and deep color schemes.
Next on our list is the Vision of St. Helen (Veronese, 1580). St. Helen was the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity). According to the Church, St. Helen recovered a piece of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) from Palestine and took it back to the West as a relic.
Veronese was well-known for depicting female saints in luxurious silks and velvets, paying special attention to the folds and weight of the cloths. Additionally, St. Helen is placed in a setting that is reminiscent of a late sixteenth century Venetian room despite the fact that she died during the fourth century. Veronese does, however, add the marble columns in the background, maybe as a nod to her ancient roots.
The Entombment is considered to be one of Caravaggio’s greatest works; it was commissioned by Girolamo Vittrice for his family chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella. Caravaggio deviated from the traditional iconography (as he typically would when painting religious themes), showing Christ being laid by Nicodemus and John on the Anointing Stone (the stone that is used to close the sepulchre). In fact, Caravaggio was known for his revolutionary treatment not only of religious figures but of art and painting in general. By all accounts, Caravaggio was irascible, violent, and unpredictable. (For an entertaining and informative podcast on Caravaggio’s life, check out Daniele Bolelli’s History on Fire, episode 11). And his character is reflected in his work.
Although apprenticed in a studio during his youth, Caravaggio was largely self-taught, allowing him to develop a distinctive style that (1) focused on light and its effects; and (2) depicted his figures as realistically as possible. You can see in his Entombment that the saints are shown without their usual halos and are not adorned in gold and light. Instead, Caravaggio’s saints are human, with human cares and human worries shown in their furrowed brows and crestfallen faces.
Finally, we get to the Communion of St Jerome (Domenichino, 1611-14), which was commissioned by the Congregation of St. Jerome of Charity for the high altar of St. Jerome della Carità in Rome. The work depicts St. Jerome taking his last communion before his death.
The positioning of the Eucharist speaks to the turbulent times, especially in terms of religion. This work was produced during the Counter-Reformation, which was characterized by the Catholic Church’s reaffirmation of its central doctrines, including transubstantiation and the worship of the martyrs. The Counter-Reformation was the Church’s response to the Protestant movements arising across the Western world. One of the tenants championed by the Protestants was that the Eucharist did not actually transform into the body of Christ during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a process known as transubstantiation. Placing the host smackdab in the center of the painting was likely meant to promote the doctrine.
Indeed, despite artists’ personal religious leanings, they tended to try and stay on the right side of the Catholic Church publically. Mainly because it was the Church from which most of their commissions came. Indeed, a major attempt to stem the Protestant movement was the increase of commissions of art. At the time, Protestants believed that art in church equated to worship of a saint, and thereby worship of an idol, which was prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the Catholic Church poured money into art to make its churches more beautiful to entice people to attend mass.
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum was founded in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI and consists of nine rooms that once housed Pope Pius IV’s private apartments in the Belvedere Palace. During the Imperial Age, Romans were crazy for everything Egyptian, and it became fashionable to import Egyptian works to Rome to decorate residences, shrines, temples, etc. In fact, after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. (when the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, defeated his one-time ally Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt), rich Romans imported various spoils of war to their city, spurring a fade. Later Emperors continued the importation of Egyptian artifacts during their respective reigns, thus creating the treasure trove that is now housed in the Vatican.
The First Room of the museum houses epigraphic artefacts (i.e. artefacts with inscriptions). Its centerpiece is the partial Statue of Ramesses IIEnthroned, which is engraved with the Pharaoh’s cartouches (a “cartouche” is an oval shape enclosing hieroglyphs that represent a name). Some scholars believe that Ramesses II may be the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus, against whom Moses and Aaron revolted. Ramesses II was also known as Ozymandias in Greek, and it is this name that Percy Shelley invokes in his eponymous sonnet:
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The other notable artifacts in this room include the False-door funerary stele of Iry (2230-2180 B.C.). According to the Egyptians, funerary stelae would “render living the name” of the deceased and give them life in the afterlife. “False-door” funerary steles were derived from the ancient practice of putting frame stelae into the façade of a building. The false-door stelae mimicked this practice, but instead of decorating the façade of a building, they were placed in the façade of the funeral chapel. It was in front of this “door” that the deceased’s relatives could place offerings of food and drink (apparently, one still needed such things in the afterlife). This particular stele was found in the tomb of Iry, or Iri-en-achti, a priest of the cult of the Pharaoh Khufu, as well as Khufu’s superintendent of the pyramid of Giza.
The Commemorative stele depicts Hatshepsut with her nephew, the future Thutmose III. Hatshepsut was one of the world’s first feminists. The daughter of one king and the wife of the other, she took hold of power while acting as regent for her nephew and named herself co-king. Unfortunately, in his old age, Thutmose III ordered that history forget her, and he attempted to erase her name from everything that alluded to her kingship. But, obviously, we know she ruled as King (from this stele as well as other sources), and so he failed in erasing her reign from history. For more detailed analysis of Hatshepsut’s story, look into The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney. It is a very interesting read that touches on a myriad of issues including gender roles, social status, and the influence of religion on both.
The challenges Hatshepsut faced and the sacrifices she made are familiar to powerful women of the twenty-first century: balancing the personal and the political, overcoming stereotypes of hysterical and unbalanced femininity, and making compromises never asked of powerful men.
Another interesting artifact housed in this room is known as The Vatican Naophorous (521-486 B.C.). A Naophorous is a statue holding the naos symbol, the symbol of a temple. This particular naophorous is in the likeness of Udjahorresnet, the “chief physician, treasurer of the king of Lower Egypt and commander of the king’s fleet.” Udjahorresnet lived during the Persian occupation of Egypt, which is described in the hieroglyphics as relatively peaceful, a description which is in stark contrast to the Greek’s description of the Persian occupation (think the movie 300, when the 300 Spartans defended the narrow pass of Thermopylae). Interesting to note the differences in which cultures respond to occupations.
Room II houses works related to the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt, including two mummies, the more famous of whom is named the “Lady of the Vatican.” The Shroud of the “Lady of the Vatican” is unique, as compared to traditional female burial shrouds, because it depicts the entire body of the deceased rather than simply the face. In fact, only six such shrouds are known to be in existence today. The lady depicted in the shroud is wearing robes and jewelry are typical of the Roman Era; in fact, her hairstyle mimics those of the Imperial women from the Severian family. Apparently, the Severian women were the “Princess Kates” of their day (except without the helpful websites that tell you where Kate gets her amazing clothes – for those who are interested whatkatewore is a great resource, providing Kate’s schedule, details about her look, and dupes of her clothes that are nicer to your pocketbook than clothes worn by royals). The other mummy, The Mummy of Amenirdis, dates from the 21st Dynasty, when mummification became the norm even among the lower classes. It was around this time that the belief that preserving the body ensured eternal life became popularized.
The Sarcophagus of Djedmut sarcophagus dates to the 22nd Dynasty, during which there was an economic crisis. Due to the limited resources during this time, the sarcophagus itself was decorated, rather than the usual practice of inscribing the tomb, and thud the text inscribed on the sarcophagus had to be condensed. Sarcophagi contained three parts: (1) an external sarcophagus (which is what is exhibited here); (2) an internal sarcophagus (Djedmut’s is in the Museum of Rochelle in France); and (3) a wooden cover.
The Ushabti of Pharaoh Seti I (Ushabti were funerary figurines that were buried with the deceased to help him or her in the afterlife. Ushabti actually means “he who answers.”) are from the tomb of Seti I (the father of Ramesses the Great), located in the Valley of the Kings. Seti I was buried with over 700 hundred Ushabti – obviously he thought he needed a ton of help in the afterlife – but they are now dispersed around the world, so I guess he might have to do more work in the afterlife than he had planned. The material with which ushabti were made varied, but Seti I’s ushabti are made out of wood and covered with a resin of some sort of vegetable, known as “black varnish,” which is supposed to signify survival after death.
The final masterpiece held in this room is the Fayum Portrait of a Young Man. Fayum Portraits, which were made out of wood and painted with tempera or encaustic, were placed over the face of the deceased, replacing the traditional funeral masks. Although called “Fayum Portraits” because the first were found in Fayum, others have since been discovered elsewhere in Egypt. Scholars believe the Fayum Portraits to be a wholly Hellenistic influence on Egyptian burial customs, in part, because the portraits became popular around the same time as the Roman occupation of Egypt.
Room III is a reconstruction of the Serapeum of the Canopus in Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli. Emperor Hadrian’s villa contained a multitude of Egyptian artifacts, which were moved to this room in the Vatican. The original curator of this museum believed that the Serapeum was a place of worship, but based on recent excavations in the villa, it is now believed that the space was actually a banqueting area, and that the name “Canopus” actually refers to a city on the Egyptian Delta, which Romans would retreat to for holidays. Located in this room are a Statue of Osiris-Apis, one side of which represents Osiris and the other the bull Apis, and a Statue of Osiris-Antonius. Emperor Hadrian’s favourite, Antinous, drowned in the Nile in AD 130, prompting Hadrian to found the city of Antinoopolis and deify him. The new cult was known as Osiris-Antinous; it took off with the citizens.
Room IV holds Roman works that were inspired by the influx of Egyptian culture after Augustus won the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Major works in this room include a Campana Plaque (mid 1st century BC through the mid 2nd century AD), The Cacco (the Roman term “Cacco” means “macaque,” a type of Asian monkey) (Phildias and Ammonios, AD 159), which once portrayed a dog, a sacred animal to the god Thoth, but it has since been damaged, and a Statue of the God Anubis (1st to 2nd century A.D.), the Egyptian god of death, who was typically represented as a jackal. Interestingly, in Roman culture, Anubis was merged with the Roman god Mercury, which is why he is seen here with Mercury’s staff.
The Statuary in Room V houses Egyptian statues, including The Head of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, which likely came from his burial site in Thebes. Also here is The Statue of Queen Tuya, which originally depicted Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III, but it was repurposed by Ramesses II to honor his mother Tuya. Next to Tuya is the princess Henutmire, one of Ramesses’ sisters. Other works include a Statue of the God Bes, the god of infants and expecting mothers, and The Anthropomorphic Statue of the God Apis. The god Ptah and a virgin cow produced a bull that lived on earth and was the divine incarnation of Apis. When the bull died, the god’s essence united with the god Osiris, creating the god Osiris-Apis.
Located in Room VI is an Urn for the Mummy of a Cat, which is not as nice as it sounds. The Egyptians would strangle or fracture the spinal cord of baby kittens to offer as sacrifices to the gods, specifically the goddess Bastet. According to myth, Bastet was a lioness who had to be “tranquilised” through ritual (and apparently through offerings of dead cats, which I would think would piss her off more…..). Also located here is the Statuette of an ibis, which was probably the vessel for a mummified ibis (hopefully not killed or sacrificed like the kittens). During holidays, priests of the cult of Thoth (who manifested as an ibis) would take statuettes like the one here from the temple dedicated to Thoth in Hermopolis to the Tuna el-Gebel necropolis.
On a more happy note, The Stele of Horus on Crocodiles is housed in this room. It depicts Horus (son of Isis, goddess of magic) standing on two crocodiles, while simultaneously holding several dangerous animals. This image is meant to convey his triumph over evil. Steles, such as this one, were believed to be infused with magic that cured individuals who had been stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake, forcing my husband (a toxicologist) out of the job.
Room VII houses artifacts from the 4th through 2nd century BC, generally from Alexandria and Palmyra, a Syrian city that connected Rome with Persia and therefore, was a commercial hub. Objects from all over the known world would pass through Palmyra, either going to or coming from Rome. The constant movement of goods through this city has produced many artifacts for historians to mull over, including the Alexandrian Terracottas that were produced in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic and Roman Age and the Palmyran Burial Reliefs (2nd and 3rd century AD). The necropolises in Palmyra contained three different types of tombs: (1) tombs shaped like a tower; (2) those underground; and (3) those in the form of a mound. Those in the form of a tower and those underground were sealed with limestone slabs that depicted the deceased and are now located in this room.
Room VIII houses “antiquities of the Ancient Near East,” or in other words, works from Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine (3rd to 2nd century BC). I’m not quite sure why they are housed in the Egyptian museum, but they are… One of the most significant pieces, although seemingly mundane to modern eyes, is a cuneiform tablet that records a sale of land in Sumerian. The Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia, produced the first known writing in the 4th millennium BC (i.e. 4000 BC to 3001 BC), and this tablet is a prime example of the cuneiform script. Also here are Cylindrical Seals, which were generally worn around an individual’s neck and were used for signatures in Mesopotamia starting in the 3rd millennium BC. The Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II celebrates King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Persia from 605-562 BC.
Room IX houses several reliefs and inscriptions that once decorated Assyrian Palaces. The inscriptions were written to celebrate Assyrian greatness as well as the Assyrian Kings’ accomplishments. By linking the magistry of the kings, the expansive palatial complexes, mythical heroes and military successes, the inscriptions elevated the status and prestige of the Imperial elite. If you’re wondering why Assyrian artifacts are housed in the Egyptian museum, it is because Assyria conquered Egypt in 671 B.C. under King Esarhaddon. Assyria, however, was only able to hold onto Egypt for a short period.
The Relief with winged Genius comes from Ashurnasirpal II’s palace, which was located on the Acropolis of Nimrud, ancient Khalku. Ashurnasirpal II reigned from 883 through 859 BC, and it was under his rule that neo-Assyrian figurative art bloomed. The relief is an example of such art, and it depicts the sacred tree (which symbolized royal fruitfulness) protected by Genius. In stark contrast to the flourishing art and culture occurring at his court, Ashurnasirpal II’s reign was characterized by violent empire expansion. He was known for his brutal treatment of conquered peoples; in fact, his “trademark” was to skin the conquered city officials alive and nail the result to the city’s walls. He did have a great party (allegedly inviting about 70,000 people) to celebrate the establishment of his new town Khalku though…
The Brick with Inscription of Sargon II is from Sargon II’s palace located in Khorsabad. The inscription is in Sumerian and states, “Sargon, king of the universe, built this city: Dûr-Sharrûkin [literally “fortress of Sargon”] is its name; within, he had this unrivalled palace built.” Sargon II, who reigned from 722 through 705 B.C., founded the Sargonid Dynasty, which would reign Assyria for the next century until Assyria’s eventual fall and Babylon’s rise. It was under Sargon that the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed, causing 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes to disappear from history. They are known as the “Lost Ten Tribes.”
The Relief with Assyrian Soldiers is from Sennacherib’s palace and depicts Assyrian soldiers leaving a city’s gates, carrying loot, thus emphasizing the military prowess and wealth of the Assyrian state. Sennacherib, Sargon II’s son, ruled from 705 through 681 B.C. Sennacherib moved the capital to Nineveh; some historians believe he had issues with his father so he obviously did not want to live in his father’s city, if indeed that is the case. He apparently had issues with his own sons as well, since they assassinated him.
The Relief with Arab Tent Set Alight is from Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh. The relief (in conjunction with another which is at the British Museum) depicts Ashurbanipal’s victories over the nomads who lived in the Syro-Arabian desert. The Relief with the siege of Bit-Bunaki is also from the Ashurbanipal palace and, as its name implies, depicts the siege of Bit-Bunaki. Ashurbanipal was Sennacherib’s grandson, and he reigned from 680 through 636 BC.
While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.
Rome is a huge city, packed with tourists – even in the off months – and in light of that, today’s post is simply about “Ancient Rome.”
The most iconic attraction in the old part of the city is the Colosseum, which is actually not the building’s true name. The real name of the Colosseum is the “Flavian Amphitheatre,” but it became known as the Colosseum due to the giant statue of Roman Emperor Nero that stood next to it (Colossus is derived from the Greek word for “giant statue”).
The Colosseum was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian (the first of the Flavian Emperors), who had no blood right to the throne, and his son, Emperor Titus. As part of their campaign for legitimacy, they built the Colosseum on the former Emperor Nero’s private boating lake. Thus, the Flavians could boast that they were “reclaiming” the land for the people by giving the people bread and circuses. The Colosseum is 160 feet high, almost a third of a mile around, and could accommodate 50,000 people. This amphitheatre was unique in that it was round, rather than the traditional semi-circles used by Greek theatres. It was possible to build a round structure because of the use of Roman concrete, an innovation not known to the Greeks. Silly Greeks. The vestal virgins (see, infra) actually got their own special box so that they could come and watch the games. Although one would think watching half naked men fight to the death would not be considered virginal.
Gladiators occupied a blurred social space in the Roman hierarchy. Typically from the lower classes, gladiators were revered by the Romans for their “Roman-like” qualities and became celebrities. Some gladiators would eventually win or earn enough money to buy their freedom, thereby achieving the “rags to riches” archetype. Giving slaves and lower classes this hope helped to keep them in line. Basically, this process was the predecessor to the myth of the “American Dream.” But, in AD 404 gladiatorial games were banned (at least in the city of Rome), then in AD 523 wild animal fighting was banned. Thus, ending (without answering) the hard question of gladiatorial social status.
Located nearby the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine (AD 312), which was built to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius (a “pretender” Emperor). Before the final battle against Maxentius, Constantine converted to Christianity allegedly due to a vision. The Arch was hastily built, and in fact incorporates multiple statues from other earlier buildings, including part of a battle frieze as well as figures of prisoners from the Forum of Trajan, several Hadrianic roundels, and eight Aurelian panels.
The next major site that people typically want to see is known as the Forum. The Forum was originally used as a necropolis (i.e. cemetery), and subsequently was the site of the Battle of Lake Curzio, a battle between the Romans and the Sabines, before it became the center of Roman life. It was eventually abandoned and buried, becoming a grazing area known as Campo Vaccino and then a quarry, although some temples were saved from dereliction because they were repurposed as Churches. It was during the beginning of the Republic that the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of the Dioscuri were built (509 BC), and during the 2nd century, the four basilicas were built, including the Basilica Aemilia, which was built by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 179 BC, but burned down during the sack of Rome in AD 410. It is possible to still see melted coins in the pavement from when it burned. Also here is the Basilica of Constantine, only one third of which remains today (it once spanned a space the size of a football stadium), and at the far west end stood a huge statue of Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor), the remains of which are now housed in the Capitoline Museum.
Several temples dedicated to past emperors remain in the Form. For instance, the Temple of Antoninus Pius & Faustina was built to honor Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina.
The Temple of Romulus was probably dedicated to the son of Emperor Maxentius (and not the mythical founder of Rome). It was a circular brick building with bronze doors. In the 6th century, it was converted into a church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, which likely is why it survives to this day, and it now houses an 18th century Neapolitan presepio (the nativity scene). Also located here is the Temple of Julius Caesar, which was built on the spot where Caesar was cremated in 44 BC.
The temples not dedicated to former emperors include: the Temple of Vesta, Ancient Rome’s most sacred temple. This temple was circular to mimic a farmer’s hut (typical of where the “ideal” Roman and his family would live), and it housed a fire (Vesta was the goddess of fire), which was tended by the Vestal Virgins. It was said that if the flame ever went out, Rome would fall. The six Vestal Virgins lived in The House of the Vestal Virgins. The virgins were chosen from noble families before they reached the age of 10, and each served 30 year terms. The Vestals were so revered that they got their own box seats at the Colosseum, and those virgins who successfully fulfilled their terms were given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Those who dared to break their vow of chastity were buried alive, which seems to me like an overreaction. But, you know, gotta make sure that those girls tend to that fire.
The Temple of Saturn now stands as the most prominent of the ruins in a fenced off area between the Forum and the Capitoline Hill. The ruins date from 42 BC, but historians think there was a temple on this spot as early as 497 BC. Saturn was the mythical King God of Italy, who ruled over an Italy in which there was no slavery, personal property or war. Every year between December 17th and 23rd, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, where the social order was turned upside down to recreate this fantasy world. (Sounds eerily similar to England’s May day.)
Meanwhile, the three slender fluted columns are now what is left of the Temple Of Castor and Pollux. It is one of the city’s oldest, built in the 5th century BC to commemorate the Roman victory over the Tarquins. According to legend, after the final battle against the Tarquins, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, Jupiter’s sons, watered the horses at this spot. As a symbol of Rome’s republic, the temple was often used as a meeting place of senators, and its front steps served as a podium for free speech.
The Temple of Venus and Rome was designed by Emperor Hadrian and was purportedly the largest and grandest in Rome. It was dedicated to Roma (the personification of the city) and to Venus Felix (who was thought to be the ancestor of Rome, through her son Aeneas). [There are excellent views of the Colosseum from this Temple]
Also located in the Forum is the Arch of Titus, which commemorated the AD 70 Roman victory over Judea. It was during this war that the Romans burned the Temple down and enslaved over 50,000 Jewish people, who were forced to build this arch as well as the Colosseum, a reminder of the dark underbelly of the Roman Empire. If you look closely, you can see the Jerusalem Menorah carved into the Arch.
This Menorah was stolen during the war and taken back to Rome as a “trophy.” Although usually tolerant of other cultures and religions, the Romans were unable to cope with the Jewish religion due, in part, to what the Romans saw as secretive rituals. The so-described secretive rituals bred suspicions of sedition and dissension, especially when the Jewish religion preached of a coming apocalypse that would overthrow the world powers. This, obviously, did not sit well with the current world powers. Even more troubling to the Romans, however, was the “new Judaism” that had recently begun springing up around the Roman Empire. This new religion was more threatening to the Romans because it allowed non-Jews to convert and join, which meant that distinguishing the converts from typical Romans would be impossible. This new phenomenon was later coined “Christianity.”
The Curia is a 1937 restoration of Diocletian’s Curia. Diocletian changed the way the role of emperor worked by ritualizing imperial power. It was he who divided the cities into units called “dioceses,” which the Church later adopted.
The Rostra is best known for being the site of Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech after the assassination of Caesar. It was a dais where speeches were given to the public. Its name comes from its decoration with ship’s prows, known as “Rostra” in Latin.
The Arch of Septimius Severus was built in AD 203 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of good ole Septimius Severus; the reliefs depict the emperor’s victories in Parthia and Arabia. Originally the inscription across the top was dedicated to Septimius and his sons, Caracalla and Geta, but Caracalla murdered Geta and removed his name (what is it with Romans killing their brothers??). You can still see the holes where the name was removed.
Trajan’s Market was a complex of shops on five levels (with the 5th level acting as a welfare office that delivered the corn dole). The street that ran through the market, Via Biberatica, was named after the drinking inns that had lined it. The market was built by Emperor Trajan and his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, in the 2nd century AD.
The next major location to see is The Palatine Hill was the home of the wolf that saved Romulus and Remus. She lived in a cave that became known as the Lupercal. In 2007, archaeologists found a vaulted sanctuary that is thought to be the cave that the early Romans believed was the Lupercal, and traces of mud huts have been found that date back to the 8th century BC. The Palatine became the place to live during the Imperial Era; in fact, Augustus was both born on the Palatine (63 BC) and established his imperial residence there. We get the Italian word “palazzo” and the English word “palace” from this Hill. Interestingly, it was on the Palatine and during the 16th century, that the Farnese family built the first private botanical gardens in Europe. The Imperial Forums were built between 46 BC and AD 113. The Forum of Caesar, was built as part of Julius Caesar’s massive building campaign, which was eventually finished by Emperor Augustus. Part of the building included a temple to the goddess Venus Genetrix (from whom Caesar claimed descent). The temple contained statues of Caesar and Cleopatra as well as of Venus, but all that remains now is a platform and three Corinthian columns. The Forum of Augustus was built by Emperor Augustus, in conjunction with the temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), which he had promised to build if he won the Battle of Philippi against Brutus and Cassius in 41 BC. As a clever propaganda move, the statue of Mars that was placed in the temple resembled Augustus. At least half of this Forum is hidden below Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Other emperors imitated the Caesars and built their own shrines to themselves. A Temple of Peace was built in honor of Emperor Vespasian, but was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt during the 3rd century as the Forma Urbis Romae. Later, the Emperor Domitian built a piazza to connect the Forums with the Temple of Peace, but he died before he could complete the work, and his successor, Nerva, turned it into the Forum of Nerva. The Forum of Trajan was used for military encampments and to perform judicial procedures. Trajan’s Column stands behind his Forum. The column was inaugurated in AD 113 to celebrate two campaigns in Dacia (modern day Romania) and is decorated with scenes from the campaigns. Trajan’s ashes were placed in an urn in the hollow base of the column. Allegedly, Pope Gregory the Great prayed to God to release Trajan’s soul from hell because he had been moved by a scene on the Column depicting Trajan helping a woman whose son had been killed. God appeared to the Pope, telling him that the Emperor had been rescued from hell, but that the Pope was not to pray for any more pagans. When Trajan’s ashes were exhumed, his skull and tongue had remained intact and proceeded to tell those who had exhumed him that he had been released from Hell. Due to this miracle, the land surrounding the column was declared sacred and the column was spared from destruction. The statue of Trajan at the top, however, was replaced with one of St. Peter in 1587.
The last major site that I’m going to talk about is the Capitoline Hill. Allegedly, Saturn founded a settlement on this hill before the foundation of Rome, and interestingly, archeological evidence does indeed suggest that the hill was inhabited before the traditional date of the founding of Rome (753 BC – a date most historians also find fault with…). Because of its steep incline, it was chosen as the city’s main stronghold despite the fact it is the smallest hill. The Hill is now home to the Capitoline Museum, which is located in the Piazza del Campidoglio. In 1536, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to design the Piazza del Campidoglio because of an upcoming visit from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but the piazza wasn’t actually finished until the 17th century.
Also located on this Hill is the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, which was dedicated to Optimus Maximus Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (the “Capitoline triad”). Construction began during Tarquinius Priscus’ rule, but was not completed until the reign of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. It was rebuilt in marble after the fires of 83 BC, 69 BC, and AD 80. The square in front of the Temple was known as the Area Capitolina, where a number of temples dedicated to minor deities, as well as other religious buildings, statues, and trophies were placed.
The Temple of Juno Moneta was built in 344 BC in fulfillment of a promise made by L. Furius Camillus during the war against the Auruncii. According to Legend, Juno’s sacred geese warned the Romans against a Gallic siege, inspiring the temple’s moniker “Moneta,” from the Latin word “to warn.” The name began to be associated with the nearby mint, and as a result, the term “money” was coined. HA! I really didn’t mean for that to be a pun, but bravo, Haley, bravo. My subconscious has bested me yet again.
The Temple of Veiovis was discovered in 1939 during an excavation under the Piazza del Campidoglio. Veiovis was the youthful God of the underworld derived from the ancient Italic version of Jupiter. The temple is located in the same area where Romulus allegedly extended hospitality to fugitives from the greater Latin area in an effort to boost Rome’s population. It was consecrated in 196 BC by Consul Lucius Furius Purpurio during the war against the Gauls, and it was dedicated four years later, in 192 BC, by Quintus Marcius Ralla.
The Capitoline Museum is housed in two palazzi, dei Conservatori and Nuovo (façades designed by Michelangelo). The Museum was founded in 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated several bronze statues to the Roman people. During the mid 16th century, other works of sculpture were placed in the Campidoglio, and in 1538, Pope Paul III requested that the Lateran (the first Roman Church) buy the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. During the second half of the 16th century, Pope Pius V decided to “free the Vatican from ‘pagan’ images” and donated works deemed pagan to the Museum. The Museum was not opened to the public until 1734, when Pope Clement XII inaugurated it following his acquisition of the collection of statues and portraits of Cardinal Albani, making the Capitoline Museum, the world’s first public museum. Be sure to check out the view from the Caffetteria dei Musei Capitolini (apparently they have really good coffee as well, which I think we will absolutely need to get through this day without drifting off; also when do we say no to coffee).
The Palazzo dei Conservatori’s first floor houses classical statues, the second floor houses the Renaissance paintings, and on the ground floor there is a room just off the courtyard that houses a collection of Egyptian statues found where there was once a temple to Isis. A tunnel links the Palazzo with the Palazzo Nuovo, where more classical sculptures are on the two main floors, and it takes you past the 2nd Century BC temple dedicated to Veiovis and the Tabularium, the Roman public record office, built in 78 BC by Consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus. [One of the best views of the Forum is from a window in the Tabularium]. The most notable statues in the dei Conservatori are:
The Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, which was probably commissioned in AD 176 as a tribute to the Emperor’s triumphs over the Germanic people. It was forced inside after the City noticed serious corroding issues and a copy was made to stand in the original’s place. Unlike other statues of Roman emperors, which typically were idealized, this statue is very lifelike.
The Lupa Capitolina: The twins Romulus and Remus were added later (probably in the 15th century) by Antonio Pollaiuolo. The wolf itself can be traced back to Etruscan or Mango-Greek workshops in the 5th century BC, and therefore, originally the wolf had nothing to do with the Roman Foundation Myth.
Spinario: a 1st century bronze of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot.
Bernini’s Bust of Medusa: based on Ovid’s descriptions of Medusa, Bernini captures Medusa during the transitory moment of her own metamorphosis into marble after she was tricked into looking into a mirror. Ugh. Gives me the heebeegeebees just thinking about having snakes as hair. I know I’m a Slytherin and should be super cool about snakes, but no. Just no. And we all know how Bryan feels about snakes…It’s like dealing with Indiana Jones over here.
The Pinacoteca is home to two Caravaggio’s:
St. John the Baptist (1602), which was commissioned by the Mattei, a noble Roman family and supposedly inspired by the Ignudi of the Sistine Chapel; and
Gypsy Girl, which legend has it that Caravaggio painted this girl as a statement that art could depict real life, not simply copy classical models.
Most of the works in the Palazzo Nuovo are Roman copies of Greeks. Romans did not have very active imaginations, as is evident from their appropriation of Greek gods, art, scholarship, and pretty much everything else. These works include:
Capitoline Venus: a sculpture of Venus emerging from a bath;
The Faun: found at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, the work is sculpted in marble and is a copy of a Greek original. (Emperor Hadrian had a thing for anything and everything Greek);
The Foot of Constantine I was once part of a 40 foot (no pun intended) tall statue of Emperor Constantine I, but only it, a hand, and a few other body parts have survived;
Wounded Warrior (Monnot, 18th century); and
The Gaul: this sculpture is of a wounded Gaul and was probably commissioned to celebrate the Roman victories over the Galatians. It was thought that it was a sculpture of a gladiator, and as such, it inspired Lord Byron’s “The Coliseum”:
AND here the buzz of eager nations ran, In murmur’d pity, or loud-roar’d applause, As man was slaughter’d by his fellow-man. And wherefore slaughter’d? wherefore, but because Such were the bloody Circus’ genial laws, And the imperial pleasure.—Wherefore not? What matters where we fall to fill the maws Of worms—on battle-plains or listed spot? Both are but theatres where the chief actors rot.
I see before me the Gladiator lie: He leans upon his hand—his manly brow Consents to death, but conquers agony, And his droop’d head sinks gradually low— And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one, Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now The arena swims around him—he is gone, Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.
He heard it, but he heeded not—his eyes Were with his heart, and that was far away: He reck’d not of the life he lost nor prize, But where his rude hut by the Danube lay, There were his young barbarians all at play, There was their Dacian mother—he, their sire, Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday— All this rush’d with his blood—Shall he expire And unavenged?—Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!
But here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam; And here, where buzzing nations choked the ways, And roar’d or murmur’d like a mountain stream Dashing or winding as its torrent strays; Here, where the Roman millions’ blame or praise Was death or life, the playthings of a crowd, My voice sounds much—and fall the stars’ faint rays On the arena void-seats crush’d—walls bow’d— And galleries, where my steps seem echoes strangely loud.
A ruin—yet what ruin! from its mass Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear’d; Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass, And marvel where the spoil could have appear’d. Hath it indeed been plunder’d, or but clear’d? Alas! developed, opens the decay, When the colossal fabric’s form is near’d: It will not bear the brightness of the day, Which streams too much on all years, man, have reft away.
But when the rising moon begins to climb Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there; When the stars twinkle through the loops of time, And the low night-breeze waves along the air The garland forest, which the gray walls wear, Like laurels on the bald first Cæsar’s head; When the light shines serene but doth not glare, Then in this magic circle raise the dead: Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.” From our own land Thus spake the pilgrims o’er this mighty wall In Saxon times, which we are wont to call Ancient; and these three mortal things are still On their foundations, and unalter’d all; Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill, The World, the same wide den—of thieves, or what ye will.
Also located on the Hill is the Tarpeian Rock, which is named after Tarpeia, the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a Roman soldier who defended the Capitol in the 8th century BC Sabine War. The Sabines bribed Tarpeia to let them up on the Capitol, claiming that they would give her “what they wore on their shield-arms.” Typically, Sabines wore gold bracelets and jewelled rings on their left hands. True to their word, the Sabines crushed Tarpeia with their shields, literally giving her what they wore on their shield-arms. They were unsuccessful in overrunning the Capitol though because the Sabine women interceded. From then on, the Tarpeian Rock was used as a place of execution – traitors and other criminals were thrown over the sheer face of the rock.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli (at least the 6th century) is the church of the Roman Senate. It occupies the space that was once the Temple to Juno, and its 22 columns were taken from various other ancient buildings. The Church’s ceiling commemorates the Battle of Lepanto (1571), and the frescos in the first chapel on the right were painted by Pinturicchio and depict St. Bernardino of Siena. The church is most famous for an icon, known as Santo Bambino, that is made from olive wood and said to have healing powers, but the original was actually stolen in 1994, and a replica is now in its place.
Finally, the Mamertine Prison is located beneath the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami church, this was (according to legend) where St. Peter was imprisoned. Also, the valiant and resilient King Vercingetorix was executed here, after he was defeated by Caesar, who had to encircle his first wall with a second wall to defeat Vercingetorix’s stronghold. (To hear a great podcast about this moment in history, check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History).