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Dec 8, 2016

Santa Costanza: the perfect space.

Santa Costanza is a haven of peace in the midst of a bustling city. A magical space, no wonder it is one of the most popular sites for weddings. A new metro stop on line B (Sant'Agnese/Annibaliano), only 4 stops from Termini station, renders its access much easier. 2 miles away from the ancient city walls, it is one of the very first examples of central plan Christian buildings. Identified as the mausoleum of Costanza, the daughter of the emperor Constantine and built in one of the properties of the family, its function has recently been questioned. Probably meant to be initially the tomb of her younger sister Helen, the body of Costanza might have been placed here later. The mid IV century building housed her porphyry sarcophagus moved to the Vatican Museums in the XVIII century.
If the exterior is rather austere with a simple brick pattern, the interior is surprising. (make sure you take some coins to get the lights turned on). The IV century mosaics of Santa Costanza deal with pagan themes common in Roman funerary art largely adopted by Christianity with new meanings. So the putti harvesting grapes to make wine are no longer acting only in honor of Bacchus and the wine takes on a new meaning for Christians. It's a moment of transition but the 'revolution' is smooth and harmonious.
Harvesting putti.
Mirrors, cornucopias, peacocks.
The building is still so pagan that it was mistaken for a Temple of Bacchus and in the XVII century a group of Flemish artists known as the Bentvogels  (the gang of the birds) celebrated their ‘ initiation ritual’, toasting in front of the sarcophagus of Costanza, after partying all night (many of their names are still carved on the walls of the niches). 
XVII centuries graffiti.

The mausoleum was first converted into the baptistery of the Church of Santa Agnese (VII century) and then into a church dedicated to Santa Costanza (1254) who became a martyr in the Middle Ages without any historical evidence.
The mausoleum was located by one of the very first Christian basilicas built in Rome in the IV century sponsored by Constantine (the emperor that legalized Christianity) and dedicated to the martyr St. Agnes whose remains are supposedly in the nearby catacombs.  Despite the lack of reliable information about her, she is one of the most popular saints, supposedly martyred around the age of 13 under the reign of Diocletian. This basilica was not technically a church but a funerary hall,  its floor was covered with burials, partly discovered during recent excavations.  Used for funerary banquets, mass was held only once a year for the feast of the martyr.  Shaped as typical Roman racetracks , also called circiform from circus, these basilicas are a typical Roman solution even if they were found also elsewhere (in Bir Ftouha, north of Carthage or Aquileia). In Rome such peculiar type of building was first identified in 1915 (San Sebastiano on the Via Appia). Their shape is symbolic if we consider how initially the life of a Christian is compared to a challenging competition to get, in conclusion, the palm of victory (the heavenly bliss).
The round mausoleum and the U-shaped basilica.
Perimeter wall of the circus shaped basilica.

It was was externally surrounded by more tombs and mausoleums (such as the one of Costanza).  The remains of the Constantinian  basilica are still visible:  the great perimeter wall with buttresses and windows  is best viewed from piazza Annibaliano, the inner area is occupied by a meadow now.  Its marble columns were probably recycled for the construction of the new church that the pope Honorius in the VII century wanted to locate directly on the tomb of the martyr Agnes.
Opening hours – from 9 to 12 and from 3 to 6 pm. Free entrance.
Visits are not allowed on Sunday morning and during functions or weddings.
To visit the catacombs and the church of St. Agnes:  www.santagnese.org


Nov 25, 2016

San Marcello al Corso: a less known church.

According to tradition it was founded by the pope Marcellus, martyr under the emperor Maxentius and exiled from Rome after the riots caused by his severity against lapsed Christians who had renounced to their faith under the recent persecutions. Another version claims he was condemned to work as a slave attending the horses (he is the patron saint of horse breeders) at the catabulum:  the headquarters of the Imperial Post stables.
His remains are supposedly under the main altar of the church.
The present church, rebuilt several times, was designed by Jacopo Sansovino and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger after a fire in 1519.
The façade was added by Carlo Fontana at the end of XVII century while the interior was partly redecorated also in the XVIII century and restored by Vespignani in 1867. 

The church hosts a bizarre funerary monument:  the double tomb of Cardinal Giovanni Michiel known as Cardinal S. Angelo for his first title as cardinal of the church of S. Angelo in Pescheria (up above) and his nephew bishop Antonio Orso (down below). Designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1520 (according to Giorgio Vasari). They seem to rest on a on a bunk bed. The bishop lies on a pile of books: an allusion to his donation of 730 codes to the library of the monastery.

The Cardinal was the nephew of the pope Paul II and belonged to a prestigious Venetian family. A candidate for the papacy during the conclave of 1492 which ended with the election of Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI), he died in 1503, poisoned by Cesare Borgia, the pope's son,  after 2 days of agony. The truth of those rumors was never proved. Cantarella, a variation of arsenic, was the poison of choice of the Borgias. If dosed right it wasn't immediate and obvious. The cook, accused, was executed and the enormous wealth of the cardinal was confiscated by the Borgias.

Crucifixion (detail). 1613

A huge Crucifixion by Giovan Battista Ricci is frescoed on the counterfacade. The Lombard artist was also an excellent draughtsman. Mainly active as a fresco painter during the pontificates of Sixtus V, Clement VIII and Paul V, Ricci was one of the busiest painters in Rome during this period, and was elected to the Virtuosi al Pantheon in 1583 and, five years later, to the Accademia di San Luca.  

A well preserved medieval fresco (XIV century) survives in the Grifoni Chapel. The Madonna is crowned by a couple of later cherubs painted by Perin del Vaga, a pupil of Raphael. They were particularly praised by Giorgio Vasari: '...i più belli che in fresco facesse mai artefice nessuno... '.

The baptistery of the ancient church was found in 1912: one of the few for the immersion rite surviving in Rome.  The bricks are still coated with marble (VIII century, although V century remains were also discovered).  

Opening hours - 7,30 am - 11 pm (weekdays) - Saturday and Sunday 9,30 am - 11 pm.
If you wish to visit the archaeological remains under the church ask at the Sacristy (a little donation is highly appreciated).