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09.10.2012
15:36

Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo

Detail of the pavement at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
Early Christian sarcophagus with scenes of the vine harvest and peacocks, symbols of immortality.


Rome has been in the Press quite a lot recently. News about the ban on snacking around ancient monuments in the city centre has spread like wildfire across the ether’s social media platforms. The despair of Vatican officials and their cluelessness about how to handle the Sistine Chapel’s five million yearly visitors has made headlines. Any suggestion that visitor numbers should be limited provokes cries of “Snobbery! Elitism!” Alternative suggestions that nothing can be done are clearly untenable, if we want Michelangelo’s masterpiece to survive. Personally I don’t care for Michelangelo’s masterpiece (though I do want it to survive). What I love are the earlier paintings around the walls, by Botticelli, Perugino et al, which one can never see or appreciate properly because the myriad heads of the teeming crowds get in the way. In many ways it isn’t so much the number of visitors that is the problem, but their voluminousness. There are so many organised groups, disgorged from coaches or from cruise ships. This is their chance to stretch their legs, though the itinerary isn’t precisely of their choosing and they move inefficiently, plodding along with audio packs slung round their necks and a loud lady with an umbrella marshalling them from the front. I know, I know, I’m an elitist and a snob…

But I am not going to discuss this any further here or attempt to offer a solution. Largely because there is no solution. Five years ago, Rome was not like this. The Forum was still free of charge and you could wander in at will at any time of day or night. There were no lines in front of St Peter’s snaking all around Bernini’s colonnade. St Peter’s Square wasn’t barricaded like a football stadium which dreaded a clash between particularly thuggish fans. But it is now. And you often have to wait for 20 or 30 minutes before you get to the front of the line. And the ticket staff at the Forum are rude. And the fake handbag vendors have arrived in force. The city has fallen victim to its own loveliness. And when visitors begin to find it unlovely—as they are starting to—they will go off and find another place to colonise, like aphids on the underside of a rosebud. And we can’t do anything to stop it because we’re all involved. Those who write guide books; those who sell aeroplane tickets; those who run restaurants; those who drive taxis; those who need money in the municipal coffers to mend the roads; those who want their archaeology projects funded. And those who want to travel to the place where Caesar fell.

Rome is not unique. There are places all over Europe which are no-go areas for the independent traveller. I visited St Paul’s in London two weeks ago and had an appalling experience. It cost me £15 and I was shooed out after having seen about a third of what I wanted to. It will be difficult to tempt me back. When in Venice, it wouldn’t cross my mind to try to see St Mark’s. In Paris, I avoid the Mona Lisa as if she were a leper. Rome, which was once my favourite city, is now going the same way. I used to love popping into St Peter’s or the Vatican Museums. But I’ve started to choose not to. Last time I was in St Peter’s, nerdily trying to decipher an inscription, a largish lady asked me to get out the way because I was spoiling her photograph. I obeyed and went off in search of the tomb of Pope Innocent XI. I asked a young guard, and he told me it was in the crypt. It isn’t. It’s in the north aisle. Then I tried to go to the Cappella del Sacramento to say a swift prayer. A different guard saw the Blue Guide in my hand and stopped me at the entrance, saying the chapel was not for tourists, only worshippers. “Can’t one be both?” I asked him. He thought not. I insisted, was admitted, and ended up not enjoying the experience because I felt a fraud. I didn’t only want to talk to God. I wanted to look at the tabernacle on the main altar, which is particularly fine.

I spend my life researching and writing guide books. And I know that it isn’t good enough to tell people what a horrible time they’ll have if they visit the Uffizi, the Eiffel Tower, Harry’s Bar, the Colosseum. I need to find things that they will enjoy. So here is my Rome alternative to St Peter’s: San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.

Like all the early Christian basilicas (including St Peter’s), it was built outside the city walls. It stands above the tomb of an important early martyr. Not one quite as illustrious as St Peter, but even so, Lawrence was a deacon of the early Church, martyred in Rome in 258 during the persecutions of the emperor Valerian. It is said that his body was roasted on a grid-iron. More than any of the major basilicas, it retains an aura of what these churches may once have been like. It retains its lean-to porch, supported on fluted columns. Its floor is beautiful porphyry and marble inlay. It has a venerable pulpit with Cosmatesque decoration. The mosaics of its triumphal arch are in the best tradition, a procession of saints between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In the crypt you can see the slab whereon St Lawrence’s body reportedly lay after death. Here also is the mausoleum of the longest-reigning of all the popes, the controversial Pius IX, who lost Rome to the invading national army and was confined for the rest of his life to the tiny Vatican. He lies in state in brilliant scarlet, his face covered by a silver mask. The little cloister walls are covered with inscriptions from the early burial ground, and below it is a small catacomb, which can be visited with relative ease (ask the sacristan), unlike the catacomb under St Peter’s, which requires months of emails and faxes—and even then may result in nothing. San Lorenzo also stands in a part of town which is home to large numbers of Chinese and Bangladeshis. It is out of the mainstream. The first communities of Christians would have been in just such an area, far from the disapproval of patrician citizens. It is an evocative place and a very lovely one. And you will probably have it almost to yourself.

The city of Bethlehem: mosaic from the triumphal arch
Inscription from the catacombs: “Flavia Tigris, beloved daughter, lived 5 years, 3 months, 5 days, and 4 hours”

Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion

The religions practised in the later Roman empire were many and various. There was the official state cult, of course, centred around the great triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. But many other cults from different parts of the empire also flourished. There were the Egyptian religions, for example those of Serapis and Isis. There was the cult of Cybele, the Great Mother, which originated in Asia Minor. There were Jewish communities of traders and merchants. And there were Christians.

Relief of Mithras slaying the bull from the Mithraic shrine at Londinium. Displayed in the Museum of London.

The cult which most resembled Christianity and which appears to have represented a serious challenge to it, was that of Mithras, which traces its origins to Persia. Like the cult of Isis and also that of Jesus Christ, Mithraism was a “mystery” religion, in other words a faith that is concerned primarily with a realm that transcends the worldly sphere and which seeks to show initiates how to attain admittance to it. Mystery cults focus on truths that are inexplicable by man’s experience or understanding, and promise some kind of redemption or rebirth. Mithraism was particularly concerned with ideas of enlightenment, of moving from a realm of darkness to a relam of light. Some 500 sanctuaries are known, 35 of them in Rome itself, and 18 in its port city of Ostia. They were always underground, in the basements of buildings or in caves. At the eastern end of the sanctuary, the god was shown with attendant deities with torches. This represented the light towards which members were moving. Mithraism was especially popular among soldiers, which is why we find Mithraea in far-flung outposts such as Londinium in Britannia and Aquincum in Pannonia. Slaves and ex-slaves were also attracted to the cult, although women were excluded from it. One of the cult’s attractions was its graded hierarchy. Initiates moved upwards through a series of ranks just as a soldier might do, or a slave who was working towards freedom. The highest grade, a ‘Father’, was probably reserved for a leader of a congregation, and it was an important enough honour to be recorded on gravestones.

A Mithraean sanctuary typically held a sculpture or relief of Mithras shown seated astride a great bull, holding back the animal’s head and slitting its throat in sacrifice. The sacrifice of a bull is crucial to the cult—it is usually seen as a force Mithras must conquer to release the fertility of the earth. The spirit of the bull, it was believed, was released by its death, and its blood falling on the ground brought regeneration and renewal. Animals join in, as if working against Mithras. A serpent and a dog suck the wound, perhaps to prevent the blood nourishing the earth. A scorpion is often shown attacking the bull’s testicles as if to destroy its fertility. The cult draws on ancient Eastern parallels, including Zoroastrianism. Mithras himself is typically depicted wearing a Phrygian cap (from Phrygia in Asia Minor), which was used by the Romans as a recognizable symbol of the East.

There seems to have been some competition between Mithraism and Christianity over converts, but as Christianity grew more powerful it moved to obliterate Mithraism, and overtook it altogether. By the end of the 4th century, after the edicts of the emperor Theodosius, Christianity was the only mystery religion that survived. Its spread and popularity was due in large part to the fact of its wide appeal for women.

Text adapted from Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World © Blue Guides.

14.09.2012
12:42

Painting of the Day

Mural of a bird-filled garden from the triclinium of the Villa of Livia (wife of Augustus). In the Museo Nazionale in Palazzo Massimo, near the Baths of Diocletian, Rome.

Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem

A few steps away from Piazza Navona, facing the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, is the delightful and little-visited Museo Barracco, home to an eclectic private collection of ancient sculpture. The palace itself, the Piccola Farnesina, is an elegant Renaissance building built for the French prelate Thomas Le Roy in 1523. For his part is bringing about an accord between Pope Leo X and King François I of France, he was permitted to use the lilies of France on his coat of arms. Le Roy must have been proud of this distinction: the lily emblem is everywhere in the decoration of the palace, including on some of the door handles.

The collection displayed here was put together by Giovanni Barracco (1829–1914) and it runs the gamut of ancient civilizations from Egypt to the early Christian Rome. The works from the ancient Near East are particularly interesting, as there is little else like them in Rome, and this peaceful museum provides an excellent place to see them and contemplate them undisturbed. The illustration here shows a funerary relief of a woman from Palmyra.

It is a typical example of Palmyrene art of the late 2nd–early 3rd century: many examples exist in the world’s museums, and they almost always follow the following scheme: the woman’s expression is distant and hieratic; she looks into the middle distance. Her left hand is raised to her veil, under which, in her hair, she wears an elaborate diadem. Her gown is held in place with a large brooch studded with cabochon gems. Her neck is festooned with jewels, pendant earrings frame her face and there is a bracelet on her left wrist. The woman pictured here was certainly a member of the wealthy ruling oligarchy of this powerful desert city.

For more about this superb little museum, see Blue Guide Rome and en.museobarracco.it. Palmyra is one of the fifty selected sites in Blue Guides’ Sites of Antiquity.

12.09.2012
13:39

Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome

I have always been fascinated by circular buildings. The Pantheon and Santa Costanza in Rome, the tholos at Delphi. One of my especial favourites is the little-visited Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the slopes of Rome’s Caelian Hill. Below is an extract from the Blue Guide travel monograph Pilgrim’s Rome:

 

Santo Stefano Rotondo

Open Tues–Sat 9.30–12.30 & 2–5.

In AD 64, during the reign of Nero, a great fire consumed central Rome. It was witnessed by the emperor from a tower on the Esquiline Hill. After the flames had done their worst, Nero instigated a full-scale witch-hunt of the city’s Christians: St Peter may have died at this time. Nero then expropriated the land in the valley between the Esquiline and Palatine hills and constructed his vast Domus Aurea, or Golden House, a sumptuous gilded pleasure palace whose grounds incuded a vast artificial lake (where the Colosseum stands now). To feed this lake, water was brought by a new aqueduct, parts of which can still be seen around St John Lateran and here on the Caelian Hill, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana. To get to the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, you must pass beneath one of its archways.

Santo Stefano Rotondo is a fascinating and atmospheric building, secretive and little-visited, is one of the finest surviving Roman examples of a circular mausoleum-church. It richly rewards any effort made to seek it out.

The association of a circular design with funeral architecture is very old, going back to the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans. Imperial-era Rome made use of it too: the circular mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian still exist, one on each side of the Tiber bank. It is no surprise, then, that the tradition was also adopted by Christians. But just as Christian churches are congregational—unlike pagan temples, where access was restricted only to an elect college of priests—so Christian mausolea were also designed to accommodate crowds of the faithful. The mausolea of Augustus and Hadrian are mainly solid, with just a narrow tunnel and sepulchral chamber inside. There is no internal volume. Christian mausolea enclosed a wide open space designed to allow worshippers to process around and pay homage to the tomb within. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built by Constantine around the tomb of Jesus, is the most famous example of such a structure. In Rome there is the partially collapsed mausoleum of St Helen, Constantine’s mother; the mausoleum of her grand-daughter Constantia (the church of Santa Costanza); and this church, Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Santo Stefano dates from the late fifth century and is dedicated to the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. In the late sixteenth century the walls were decorated with scenes of the whole panoply of Christian martyrdom, beginning with the Massacre of the Innocents and the Passion of Christ and from there progressing through all the martyred saints, from Peter and Paul during the reign of Nero, through all the gory deaths died under subsequent imperial persecutors and ending with a final scene showing a row of triumphant saints resurrected in peace and glory from the scenes of earthly carnage behind them.

The chapel on the left as you enter the church is dedicated to two Roman brothers, Primus and Felicianus, both martyred under Diocletian and buried in the old sandpits (arenaria) beside the Via Nomentana. Their remains were transferred here in the seventh century, from which time the chapel mosaics date. In the apse, the two saints are shown on either side of a jewelled cross with Christ in a roundel above it (not Christ crucified; early attitudes to crucifixion are dealt with elsewhere in the book). The sixteenth-century frescoes (illustrated) show the two brothers exposed to lions and bears in the arena before being gruesomely done to death.

Below the church is a Mithraeum belonging to the Castra Peregrina barracks (the cult of Mithras is explained elsewhere in the book).

Text © Blue Guides/A.B. Barber

Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph

A guide to Rome's Christian monuments, explained and put into context by an examination of the history of pilgrimage, from its most ancient forms to more modern, even secular practice.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here»

 

13.05.2012
16:32

Sixth-century church to reopen

Santa Maria Antiqua, the oldest church in the Forum, is at last due to reopen after extensive repairs and restorations. It houses some exceptional wall-paintings. See the following review in the New York Times.

Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome

David Winner. Simon & Schuster, 2012

I began this quirky, genre-defying book one sunny May morning and by the time I had got halfway through it, I was really enjoying myself. I had had no idea what to expect but was prepared for either a fatuous trawl through Rome’s “eateries” or for rapturous gushing about dining all’italiana being so much more “vibrant” than the drab way we do it at home. Al Dente is neither. And as I read on, I found myself making a mental list of things to check out next time I am in Rome. The ice cream place near Termini station, the statue of St Catherine of Siena, the Villa Farnesina (apparently Raphael’s frescoes are surrounded by borders of lewd fruit; I had never noticed. But now that I come to check, I do see something tumescent above the head of Hermes…). Maybe I won’t go to the trattoria with the Che Guevara poster, where the owner hates the bourgeoisie and imposes a necktie ban. Hatred and prohibition sit uneasily on this good-natured book.

At least, I thought it was good-natured. It purports to be about food and Rome, and yes, it is about those things, but not only, and sometimes only tangentially. It is about history, about film (Fellini and Antonioni), about art (Raphael, Caravaggio), about religion, about human relationships. Winner’s previous books have been about football and I expected the tone of Al Dente to be blokey. It isn’t. It’s amusing without being ho-ho. And Winner writes exceptionally well, with a wonderful, unpretentious, effective use of language. I enjoyed the image of ancient Rome as a horse carcase slowly being eaten by a buzzard. But it was at about this point that the book started to go wrong.

It wasn’t just the strange and rather surreal encounter in Caffè Greco with the elderly Frenchman calling himself Marie-Henry [sic] Beyle. Were we supposed to interpret him as the ghost of Stendhal? It wasn’t clear. No, it was the buzzard: a Christian buzzard. Aha. Soon enough it becomes apparent that Winner has a bone of his own to pick clean. First we learn that Michelangelo studied the kabbalah and came from “tolerant, more secular Florence” and then that Dante’s best friend was a Jewish poet, as if we need to claim these two great souls as righteous gentiles before getting started. But hang on. Savonarola outlawed Florentine-Jewish money-lending in 1495, when Michelangelo was twenty. How tolerant is that and how secular was Savonarola? And is Blech and Doliner’s theory about a subversive message encrypted in the Old Testament figures of the Sistine ceiling pseudo-science or an avenue for fruitful new research? Or both? Winner doesn’t help us to decide. It begins to feel perilously as though a good idea is being stretched too thin over too few pegs. We need more support before we can tread confidently on this kind of ground.

And what happened to the food angle? Or for that matter to the beauty promised in the subhead? They got lost. The sudden descent into Jewish-Christian polemic turns what was elegant, idiosyncratic fusion cuisine into a kind of unwholesome stodge, over-boiled and half-baked at the same time. What’s the point of it all? Winner suddenly sees everything in terms of black and white and the nuances of all those Fellini films he loves so much are lost. Which is a pity, because nuanced history is always more interesting.

But let’s return to the positive. On the back dust jacket there is a short blurb offering up the work to the reading public and modestly hoping that it gives them “something to chew on”. It certainly does. And when the indigestion passes I’ll be left with the feeling that I took something away, something useful: an insight into human attitudes as well as insider knowledge of where to find the best tiramisù on the planet. Both of them very valuable things.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, contributing author of Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) and compiler of Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome .

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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