Roman Mornings was first published in 1956 by James Lees Milne. It recounts eight buildings in Rome as examples of certain eras of Roman history. They are mostly churches, and today the most significant historical sites we visited were two of those churches. In the vein of Roman Mornings, day three of Derive a Roma took us on a historical tour of the city, because if one is looking to read into the layered and conflicted history of a deeply religious and powerful empire, look no further than the buildings which house her faith.
In studio in January, we did a series of case studies based on the interpretation through lenses of stories, strata, and streets “in such a way as to illuminate the dialectical character of the historical process: one that yields a specific built morphology and a truly unique built entity, and one that is to be found in only one place.” Rome is the perfect place to address through these lenses because it is full of myth, has a visibly layered historical strata, and winding streets that relate directly to papal planning processes. Today, I am interested in strata because it best depicts the multi-layered filo pastry that is Roma’s past. The strata of her churches begin on Pagan foundations overtaken by Christianity, converted from circles to crosses.
Although these churches tell the story of conquest and persecution of religion, faith is the reason that their structures are still so well preserved to this day. We began our day at the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome, and even then only on the interior. Lees-Milne explains:
“One of the most remarkable things about mediaeval architecture in Rome was its almost complete resistance to Gothic elements. This is the more strange when one recollects that the Gothic style is wholly derivative from Catholicism, of which the fount and seat was Rome itself… In the middle ages the city was still so rich in classical remains, in columns, entablatures, capitals and marble details of all sorts, legacies overlooked or spared by the succession of depredations made on classical monuments throughout the dark ages, that there was little need for builders to tax their creative powers. Through the long millenium there was very little new architecture at all and constant alteration and adaptation of old buildings.” — James Lees-Milne, Roman Mornings, Romanesque, Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Being a huge fan of Gothic churches, I was surprised by this fact, and pleased to know that there was at least one, even if it was built on an ancient temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The hint of what lies beneath comes from a Bernini obelisk in the adjacent piazza. The obelisk is carried by an elephant, seemingly happy to have found itself by the Pantheon on it’s way from Africa to the North Pole.
Two other churches we visited today explain Less-Milne’s point very well: Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin and Basilica Santa Maria Nicola in Carcare. Situated about a block apart from each other and separated by two carefully preserved ancient pagan temples, Carcare was also built on pagan foundations, and Cosmedin was “not truly Roman, Lombard, or Byzantine, but a protracted evolution of all three styles.” Caught in the transformation of a great empire between two religions, the churches illustrate a careful set of decisions to preserve and conserve specific pieces and versions of history, including remains, materials, and art.
Taking a step back, one block northwest of the small marble oliphant in Sopra Minerva lies one of the greatest architectural works standing to this day: the Pantheon. Originally built in the 2nd century AD as a pagan temple (hence the name Pantheon, or multiple) to the great Greco-Roman Gods of Venus and Jupiter alike, it was converted into a Christian church in 608, thereby preserving it’s beautifully domed structure and it’s famous keystone-free oculus. Lees-Milne uses the Pantheon to open his book as an example of Ancient Roman architecture, although the story it tells is much more than that of an ancient Rome. I presented Milne’s take on the Pantheon, and here were the most important/interesting facts:
- The structure mimics that of a cube, as it stands 140 ft. tall and 142 ft. in diameter. It can fit a perfect sphere inside.
- The supporting circumference of concrete is in places, 20 ft. thick. It is actually not one continuous mass but instead eight separate piers with weight relieving arches.
- The sixteen columns supporting the portico are monolithic Egyptian granite, meaning they are each made of one. Piece. of. Stone.
- It appears bare because all of it’s valuable ornament has been stolen and repurposed into other structures. 60 years after it’s Christening, the gilded bronze in the dome was removed, not to be redone (without gilding) for 700 years. Bernini used bronze beams originally from the Pantheon’s portico to create the Baldiccino in St. Peter’s Cathedral.
- The Pantheon also uses materials pilfered from other churches.
- When it rains in the Pantheon, the water drains to the centre directly underneath the oculus to a small hole the width of my finger, but in extreme cases would likely drain to the circumference of the structure because the weight of the walls has depressed the ground they stand on over hundreds of years.
The Pantheon was not the beautiful Pagan church that I expected, where the sun would alight on specific gods and goddesses during the appropriate season. It was a Christian church without an apse; a tomb to two kings and a poet, with an eternal light more successful than any glass windowed church could ever hope to be. Two close, two quotes that I feel describe the magical aura that once existed and that I had hoped to see in the Pantheon:
“Whereas the gothic cathedrals of the Christian builders were aspirant — their pointed pinnacles and spires reaching to the highest heaven in joyous praise of a beneficent Almighty — the Pantheon was meant to be propitiatory. Instead of striving to epitomize in stone the supreme attributes of a single celestial god, the architect of the pagan shrine endeavoured to devise a worldly habitat which the elusive Roman deities might condescend to visit from time to time… a microcosm of that limited universe which the Roman civilization understood…” — James Less-Milnes, Roman Mornings, Ancient Roman, The Pantheon
“Here lies Raphael, whom Nature feared would outdo her while alive, but now that he is gone fears she, too, will die.” — Inscription on the tomb of the Artist Raphael