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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


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