Tag: Churches

Roma 3 | History

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
My sketch of the Pantheon. I think I switched perspective points about three times so please forgive the awkwardness.. Still warming up.

My sketch of the Pantheon. I think I switched perspective points about three times so please forgive the awkwardness.. Still warming up.

Route: Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Piazza and Church), Pantheon |(tombs of Raphael and Vittoro Emanuel II, former King of Italy) and Piazza della Rotunda, Area salra Delargo de Argentina, Jewish Synagogue Museum, Temple to Hercules (formerly Vestal temple), Temple of Fortunes, Basilica di Santa Nicola in Carcare, Teatro di Marcello, Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin which holds the Bocca della Verita/Mouth of Truth, Circus Maximus, and later stumbled upon Campo dei Fiore and Piazza Navona on our way back to the Pantheon.

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.

Bernini’s Obelisk outside the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva’s unassuming facade.

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.

Santa Maria in Carcare. Note the columns and porticoes still evident from the previous church.

The beautiful mosaics in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

Interior shot of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin taken over the choral barrier. The wall used to separate those worthy of witnessing a worship from the common people and women during mass, which was usually given in latin, a language they did not understand.

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.

Approach to the Pantheon from behind, with scale.

The inside of the Pantheon’s domed roof.

My sketch of the Pantheon. I think I switched perspective points about three times so please forgive the awkwardness.. Still warming up.

The partial section elevation of the Pantheon from Roman Mornings

The way the light moves.

Where the water drains.

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

Roma 2 | Religion, Sacred Belief, and the Symbol

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Problems of proportion evident in my interpretation of St. Peter's Square

Problems of proportion evident in my interpretation of St. Peter’s Square

Route: Metro A line to Vatican City, Piazza San Pietro, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basicila’s Duomo (dome), Museo Vaticano (Vatican Museums), back to Piazza San Pietro.Each day, we are meeting in front of a different Obelisk (a tall square pyramid strucutre like the Washington memorial) in Rome. today, we met at the Piazza of Saint Peter to prolouge our journey into the holy land of the vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica was founded on the remains of St. Peter, as most churches in Europe are, based off of reliquaries or pieces of remains of famous saints or Christians. Having anticipated Bernini’s collonades, the scale did not shock me as much as I thought it would. What did was the ornament. Every single inch of the Vatican, save for the city walls, was covered in some form of ornamental tile, print, design, gilding, etc.

How small is man in the arms of God?

I asked myself this many times today. We took the Metro for the first time to Vatican City, the smallest sovereign country in the world. No passport necessary. Things I learned today:

  • The question refers to scale. In the most important house of God, the answer is, man is tiny like an ant but larger than his own head.
  • Standing/walking in a museum for four hours is more tiring than climbing 323 narrow stairs.
  • The first of many attempts to discern respect and compliance for the beliefs, practices, and places of a religion I do not believe in.

I have never been a religious person. I think that once, I sat in the clerestory of a mass in Edmonton when I was three years old. I remember nothing. I was raised on what my parents might call a blend of Confucianism, Buddhist principles, superstitious idioms, and common sense. Last summer I think I came closest to finding some connectedness to something outside of myself, appropriately named yoga, the sanskrit word for union. But if the closest thing I knew to a place of worship was a hardwood floored, white-walled yoga studio with tea lights capable of holding seventeen people, I was in for a tiny shock in Rome.

We saw a total of 17 churches in Rome, 2 of which were pagan and not used for worship, 1 of which was a synagogue, and 9 of which we entered. Arguably the most important church of all, St. Peter’s Cathedral is purportedly the house of the Saint’s actual remains, which is what sets Cathedrals apart from regular churches: their relics. When you approach the church form the Piazza, it only seems appropriately sized and relatively “normal” a) due to the amount of people swarming the square taking pictures, crossing over, and waiting to enter the church, and b) because you have not walked up to it yet. This is what happens: Churches are interesting places to talk about experience. Their whole purpose is to facilitate a sacred experience through the reenactment and storytelling of previous ones linked through symbolism. But for someone to whom the symbols have no signifier, or at best, one that holds no personal meaning, this experience is not intended. It is instead replaced with a veil of doubt. The interpretation of art for arts sake. Awe and wonder and hundreds of variations of marble making up tens of larger than life sculptures of dead popes. Columns you cannot wrap your arms around because they are meant to wrap around you.

I can see Michelangelo’s Pieta and admire the loving gaze of Mary, but felt more rush, bustle, and elbows than I did trying to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

I can gaze up at the marble baldiccino but cannot take it in without feeling pain my neck, unable to focus on any part of the lovely frescoes in the Duomo because they are too far away.

I can try to enter a chapel to quietly observe but can be shooed out for silence, for sacredness, for my shoulders.

I can walk through a church clockwise and still feel wonder at it’s architecture, it’s affect, and it’s light.

Religion has never embittered me like so many I know, yet I will remain a skeptic because I have found a greater purpose, peace with myself, and learned lessons like compassion and forgiveness without the aid of a book and a priest. I know how to show and feel gratitude to people, to situations, to things, and I thank myself because I know myself. I can take responsibility for my actions in words and feelings and learn from them without a confessional. I admit that I respect other beliefs, but it does not mean I will understand. Yet because I do not understand does not give me the right to disrespect. It was strangely peaceful in Vatican City. Sounds pretty Disney, but in whatever form they manifest, I do believe that at the heart of every religion is love, no matter how wide or honest your columns are.

” ‘Whether or note you believe in God,’ the camerlengo said, his voice deepening with deliberation, ‘you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith… all faiths… are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable.” — Dan Brown, Angels & Demons