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Sep 16, 2013

A Roman mummy and her jewels.

If you ever visit Palazzo Massimo don't forget to include the basement in your itinerary:  my favorite room houses an amazing exhibit of gold jewelry, alabaster cinerary urns and a sarcophagus still containing the mummy of an eight-year-old girl!
There's also a stunning numismatic collection, the largest one in Italy, covering all periods from the mint of Juno Moneta. 
More than 100 marble fragments illustrate the Edict of Diocletian (301 A.D.),  a measure to combat inflation, essential for understanding Roman economy.  Last but not least you'll have the opportunity to admire the 3 precious scepters of the emperor Maxentius  found in 2006 on the slopes of the Palatine by the Arch of Constantine.
But let's go back to Roman jewelry...  those treasures are precious documents to understand the opulence and the luxury of antiquity.  The little girl of Grottarossa is unique:  though embalming was practiced in Rome, this is the only mummy (II century A.D.) that survived from that period.  Her funerary kit is also on display.  She was actually found adorned with gold earrings and a gorgeous gold necklace embedded with sapphires.

Jewels from archaic period to Imperial age.

So many different ways to style the hair with gold.
A Roman Barbie (II century).  Ivory.
From the sarcophagus of Tivoli (Via Valeria).
Grottarossa Mummy
discovered in 1964.

Her doll.

Her jewels. 

Sep 12, 2013

The 'X-rated' Fountain of the Naiads in Rome.

No other city celebrates water like Rome! Almost every square is adorned with a fountain more or less monumental!  Arriving by train,  the very first fountain we come across is the modern Fountain of the Naiads, dominating Piazza della Repubblica. 

The square, a step away from Termini station,  is also known as Piazza dell' Esedra, occupying the large curved space of the former baths of Diocletian.  The porticoes designed by Gaetano Koch at the end of XIX century, replace the ancient Roman buildings originally located around the exedra

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels is actually an interesting example of converted architecture: one of the halls of the ancient Roman baths, transformed by Michelangelo into a church! Hard to tell from the exterior, since the façade is, simply, the brick wall of what was probably the ancient Tepidarium, respected and maintained by an artist that was so much ahead of his time.

The very first fountain, commissioned by the pope Pius IX in 1870, was dominated by four chalk lions by Alessandro Guerrieri, replaced in 1901 by the Fountain of the Naiads by Mario Rutelli.

Rutelli was a sculptor from Palermo, probably more known for being the great grand-father of Francesco, mayor of Rome twice between 1993 and 2001.  Mario's father was the famous architect who designed the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele in Palermo: the third largest lyrical theatre in Europe.
Mario Rutelli designed also the statue of Anita Garibaldi on the Janiculum and one of the Victories on the Monument to Victor Emmanuel.

For Mussolini the fountain was ' the exaltation of eternal youth, the capital's first salute to art'.

The Naiads are nymphs, each one alluding to a particular form of water.
They can be identified by their allegorical  animal.

A frilled lizard for the nymph of underground streams.

When first unveiled the four naked bronze statues of the Naiads, deemed to be 'obscene', were fenced with a railing.  Their 'lascivious' and 'provocative' poses were considered excessive by the prude conservatives of the time!

A horse for the nymph of the Oceans (detail).

The models who posed for Rutelli's sensual naiads were renowned for their beauty:  they came from Anticoli Corrado, a little village perched on a hill, not too far from Rome, known in XIX century for the legendary beauty of local women, apparently so attractive that the little borgo became the village of artists and models, literally colonized by sculptors and painters!

A giant snake for the nymph of rivers.

Fortunately, in spite of the opposition and the initial censorship, the naiads remained in place and the railing was finally removed. 

A swan for the nymph of the lakes.

Rutelli completed the fountain with some sculptures to be placed in the centre:  three human figures, a dolphin and an octopus tangled together. 
The first version in mortar placed in 1911 for the International Exposition was greeted with so much sarcasm, that the final bronze version was never added.
The group nicknamed the fish fry, was replaced by the statue of the sea-god Glaucus which received more positive feedbacks. 
The much criticized concrete fish fry lies abandoned in the gardens of Piazza Vittorio today. 

Sep 7, 2013

San Vito, a surprising church in Rome.


The little church dedicated to St. Vitus in the rione Esquilino, is only 10 minutes from the more known Basilica of St. Mary the Major. 
It's first recorded at the end of VIII century as S. Vito in Macello since it was near the macellum, the ancient Roman indoor market.

The location of the church is bizarre, almost leaning on the Arch of Gallienus.
The arch was originally an ancient Roman gate (Esquiline) in the Servian walls, the very first walls of Rome (IV century B.C.).  Rebuilt in monumental style in the Augustan period, it was dedicated to the emperor Gallienus and his wife Cornelia Salonina in 262,  by the equestrian Aurelius Victor (the inscription is on the architrave). From the gate two important Roman roads started:  the Labicana and Tiburtina.
The Church is actually dedicated to St. Vitus,  Modestus and Crescentia:  IV century martyrs under the emperor Diocletian, much venerated the Middle Ages.
St. Vitus is more known; Modestus, and Crescentia were, respectively, his tutor and his nurse, husband and wife.  According to the legend Vitus, the son of a Sicilian senator, was brought up by Modestus and his wife as a Christian. His father tried in vain, even torturing him, to shake his faith, but Vitus was resolute and did not betray the two.  They managed to escape by boat to Lucania but were captured and taken to Rome where St. Vitus also cured the emperor Diocletian's son of devil possession.  Accused of sorcery they were tortured and condemned to death.
An angel would have brought them back to Lucania where they died. 
The three saints are very popular in Southern Italy and Sicily.  Much venerated also in Prague where the huge cathedral is dedicated to St. Vitus, the patron saint of Bohemia.
In the late Middle Ages in Germany St. Vitus feast (June 15th) was celebrated in a singular way:  worshippers danced around his statue.  As a matter of fact he is the patron saint of dancers (besides actors, comedians). He is also invoked for protection against epilepsy, lightnings, animal attacks and... oversleep!  The expression 'St. Vitus dance' also refers to a neurological disorder characterized by uncoordinated movements. 

The church in Rome was originally a diaconia, a 'welfare center' for the care of poor people and the distribution of alms. It was rebuilt at the end of XV century by the pope Sixtus IV in the present location, near the original site.  The Cistercian monks to whom it was entrusted at the time, established also a small monastery, adjacent to the church.  Further restorations followed and with the expansion of the neighborhood beyond the Roman walls a new façade was opened on Via Carlo Alberto.  In the 70s such alterations were fortunately removed.
The interior is incredibly plain and sober:  one nave, the apse, a lacunar ceiling, almost white. 
So modest that, walking toward the altar, you don't expect the impressive fresco on the right wall.
XV century fresco

It's a Renaissance work attributed to Antoniazzo Romano or Melozzo da Forlì (XV century) depicting a Madonna and Child, between Crescentia and Modestus and, down below, from the left St. Sebastian, Saint Margaret (the dragon, one of her attributes, has almost disappeared, only the tail is visible) and St. Vitus with a dog.
St. Sebastian, St. Margaret, St. Vitus and ...the dog.

In the Italian iconography he appears with one or more dogs. 
Probably because of his birth:  June 15h is a date preceding summer which was associated by the Romans to the star Sirius, considered to be the 'dog star' because it's the brightest in the constellation of the dog (Canis Major).  But also other explanations are possible of course, even if less credited:  the dog could be related to the fact the saint was invoked against rabies, or more simply it is a symbol of his fidelity to Christ.
A modern fresco (XIX century) on the opposite wall shows a Madonna offering the rosary to St. Catherine of Siena and St. Dominic.

On the right wall there is also an ancient Roman funerary cippus (a tomb marker) still bearing the inscription.    Known in the Middle Ages as pietra scellerata (infamous stone), it was believed that martyrs were tortured and killed on it.  Its surface is consumed because according to traditional beliefs the powder obtained by scratching the marble cured a multitude of evils, especially hydrophobia (rabies).

Sep 4, 2013

Saint Labre, the clochard that lived at the Colosseum.

A moving sculpture portrays St. Benedict Joseph Labre on his deathbed: the funerary monument sculpted by Achille Albacini, a pupil of Canova, in 1892, is in the Church of Madonna dei Monti (left transept). 
But who was this eccentric saint canonized in 1881 and known as the 'beggar of the Colosseum'?
Born in the small village of Arnettes, near Arras, the eldest of 15 children, he had good parents and lived a comfortable life. 
Fascinated by the monastic life from a young age and despite his attempts to join Trappists, Carthusians and Cistercians, he was invariably rejected, judged 'unsuitable for communal life'.
In 1769 finally admitted to the Cistercian Abbey of Sept-Fonts decided, after a short stay, that his vocation was elsewhere.  Labre entered the Third Order of St. Francis. 
He reached Rome on foot and living from begging traveled to the major shrines of Europe (Loreto, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Einsielden, just to name a few).
He lived in Rome under one of the arcades of the Colosseum (XLIII, where the ticket boot is now).
Very popular in the city where the Romans had nicknamed him the Beggar of the Colosseum.
His health soon deteriorated:  he was only 35 years old.
He collapsed in the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti and was charitably transported to one of the backrooms of a butcher in Via dei Serpenti where in the afternoon he died.  It was a Holy Wednesday (April 16, 1783).  Huge crowds gathered for his funeral.  The police had to be doubled, soldiers accompanied the body to the Church: more honor could scarcely have been paid to a royal corpse.
He died a beggar in Rome.
Within a year of his death his reputation for sanctity had spread, it would seem, throughout Europe.
The process of beatification began only one year later.

Sep 2, 2013

Borgias' troubled burial.

The dark legend of the Borgias is known.
Alexander VI, the fourth Spanish pope who occupied the papal throne (the first 3 were Damasus I, Benedict XIII and Callisto III Borgia, the uncle) was a controversial figure:  the Borgias are associated with adultery, incest, simony and murders. Maybe such dark legend was exaggerated by Romantic mythology (Hugo, Dumas, Apollinaire), for sure they were not absolutely innocent.
Alexander died of malaria or perhaps poisoned,  after a long agony on August 18th, 1503,  after 11 years of papacy.
The master of ceremonies Johannes Burkhardt gave him the funeral honors:  the body was moved to the Sistine Chapel and then to St. Peter's. Being a very hot August, the burial was hurried to prevent decomposition.  He rested in the 'Chapel of the Spanish' (disappeared with the reconstruction of St. Peter's). Originally located by the obelisk when it was still on the left side of the Basilica. Buried next to his uncle Callixtus III, the other Borgia pope.  When the obelisk was moved to the center of the square under Pope Sixtus V, the Spanish Chapel of the popes was destroyed and their remains placed in a lead coffin. In the early seventeenth century the remains were moved to the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato, the National Church of the Crown of Aragon  Only at the end of XIX century they were given proper burial in the Chapel on the right, the first as you enter:  some Spanish aristocrats raised funds for the Chapel (their remains had been abandoned in a corner of the Sacristy where only some curious traveller would have ventured eager to see what was left of the Borgia's legend).  The present Monument is by Moratilla.  The Borgias rest finally in peace after 400 years.  The Spanish king Alfonso XIII (the last one before the Franco Regime) was deposed here after his death in Rome in 1941. 

The unusual columns in Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Madonna del Rifugio.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli is one of the oldest churches in Rome:  located on the highest summit of the Capitol hill where, according to Medieval legends, the Tiburtine Sybil would have announced Augustus the coming of Christ. Built on the ruins of the Temple of Juno Moneta, its first construction should date back to 6th century.  Rebuilt by the Franciscans in the XIII century, its grand stairway was offered as an ex-voto for the end of the plague in 1348. 

Edward Gibbon writes in his Memoirs:  'It was in Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter [the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli] that the idea of writing the decline and the fall of the city first started to my mind'. 

A fascinating contrast between Classical art and Christianity pervades the interior of the church.  It could be epitomized by the curios ancient columns of the nave: colossal columns recycled from ancient monuments and painted between XIV and XV century!

St. Luke.
Madonna of the Column.
A mysterious column (the third on the left) bears the inscription A CUBICULO AUGUSTORUM.  Probably originally in the imperial palace, it is surprisingly perforated. 
That strange hole might have been used for astronomical observations.