Over the past two weeks, we have visited three distinctive churches that each took our breath away in different ways. The first is rarely seen. The second is seen by almost every tourist in Rome. And the last is one of those masterworks of architecture that really must be seen to be fully appreciated
Each Friday we were at the American Academy, I took part in the “Fellows Walk.” The last of those – for us – took place a week ago Friday and it was titled “The Presence of Absence: The Medieval Roman Forum.” I’ll turn to the AAR’s description of the walk to fill you in on the focus:
Rome brims with a seemingly endless number of sites that loom large in the popular imagination. But how does the imagined city compare to our actual, sensory experience of Rome? This final series of Walks will lead us through a selection of sites — forum, church, neighborhood, villa and garden — designed to provoke a set of distinct, physical experiences. Charting places of sensory input across time, these Walks will encourage us to become aware of the presence of absence, visual perspective, mathematical order, scale, materials, topography, labor, fragrance, temperature, color and much more beyond.
Today’s visit will focus on how we experience Medieval Rome through both the traces — and voids — of this stratum of the city’s history. We’ll concentrate on a series of sites in the Roman Forum, which witnessed some of the early transformation of Rome’s ancient, pagan monuments into places of Christian worship. We’ll begin our discussion on Via dei Fori Imperiali, a Fascist-era road that cut through the Forum and obliterated much of Medieval Rome in the process. From here, we’ll visit three churches that emerged between the 6th and 9th centuries: Ss. Cosimo e Damiano, S. Lorenzo in Mirandola, and S. Francesca Romana. These locations represent the varying degrees to which we can experience the history of Medieval Rome in sites that were once the center of Roman society and culture yet today are rarely open to the public and thus remain a mystery to contemporary residents and visitors alike.
Many people know San Lorenzo as “the church in the temple” in the middle of the Roman Forum. Others know it as “the church where the entrance door hangs in mid-air on the second floor.” Those two things are connected.
This is a 17th century Baroque church, but it was originally the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, built around 141 CE. Over time through the Middle Ages, as the Forum filled in with silt and occupation debris, the floor of the church – and thus the entrance door from the Forum side – was raised to its present location. When archaeological excavations began in the 19th century, there was some pressure to demolish the church to leave only the Roman temple remains. That did not happen, however, and the current church provides one of the most interesting – and seldom seen – views of the Forum.
The conversation on the walk focused on how the Medieval Forum was lost – intentionally – to the archaeology of the 19th century (with its focus on Imperial Rome) as well as the 20th century fascists changes to the city (which also had a focus on returning Rome to its Imperial glory). Absence is often a very important part of the historical record, as we see here.
Yesterday, Candice and I visited a church that – unlike San Lorenzo – is on every tourist’s “Top 10” list of places to see. That would be the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo.
Santa Maria del Popolo is an art museum and a church. Raphael? Check. Caravaggio? Check. Bernini? Check. And that’s only the beginning.
Santa Maria del Popolo – located on the beautiful Piazza del Popolo – is a well-loved church by people of all faiths and no faith. As found in the church’s brochure,
I have always considered Santa Maria del Popolo (Our Lady of the People) as an example, a perfect example of the specific nature of Italian cultural patrimony….
Finally, I want to return to a church mentioned in an earlier post – San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains). This design – a masterpiece of architect Francesco Borramini – is both “extraordinary and complex.” Working with a very difficult site and needing to include a number of elements to complete the architectural program, Borramini came up with a design that works and thrills at the same time.
It is the dome, with its exquisite geometric pattern, that caps this wonderful space and brings it all together.
There is more I could show, but my pictures do not do this building justice. So I am going to end this visit to Italian churches with a segment on San Carlo from Daniel Solomon’s Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) – a favorite text.
Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites. His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument. Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon…
Never have the ordinary and the extraordinary been reconciled with more sublime elegance than at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Its interior is nothing less than a three-dimensional cosmological map depicting in its intricate geometries and its filtration of light the relationship of heaven and earth. But the sanctuary of San Carlo sits on an unremarkable street corner on the consistent street frontage of via Quirinale, leading to the magnificence of Palazzo Quirinale and Piazza Quirinale a couple of blocks up the street. Mediating between the glories of the interior and the important but subservient role of the exterior is a subtly undulating wall, true to the demands of both inside and out. In this most complex of mediations, Borromini leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power.
If you are in Rome, get thee to this church!
More to come…