Art and Architecture

St. Peter’s Basilica


St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest churches in the Christian religion. It is one of four major basilicas located in Rome and the principle church of the Pope. Although St. Peter’s is located within Vatican City, this basilica is not the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, better known as the Pope. That honor belongs to St. John the Lateran. So while the official cathedra, or seat, of the the Pope is not St. Peter’s, the Basilica remains a landmark within the Catholic Church and Roman history.

St. Peter’s Brief History

St. Peter’s and Vatican City are situated on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from the ancient Campus Martius. Outside the walls of the city, Nero built a circus on the site to hold chariot races and carry out executions. These executions shaped the future of Vatican Hill. You’ve heard the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” Here’s some historical context behind the saying. In 69 A.D., Rome was consumed by a terrible fire that lasted for days. Actual cause of the fire is unknown, but because Nero one one of the few who gained from the destruction, fingers point to him. To shift the blame away from himself, Nero blamed the Christians, a new group of monotheists, and began executing them at the circus on Vatican Hill. One of those executed was Peter, one of the original apostles of Jesus Christ and the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. Peter was buried nearby and an altar was set up as a place to worship at the apostle’s tomb. Modern day St. Peter’s sits over the site and acts as a modern incarnation of that memorial.


Sketch of Old St. Peters with the pieces labeled.

After St. Peter’s execution, the site became a pilgrimage destination, as well as a burial site for Christians. In 326 A.D., the emperor Constantine built “Old” St. Peter’s in a typical latin cross plan. The basilica style suited the nature of Christian religion and contained several key elements. The building began with a large atrium for people to gather. Only those who had been baptized were allowed beyond the narthex and into the holy space of the church. For that reason, you often see a small round structure called a baptistry set just outside the church. The main body of the basilica style church contains a long nave, flanked by aisles. The altar is located in the semi-circular apse at the back of the building. The transept cross section creates the familiar latin cross floor plan. Santa Sabina is a great example of the old basilica style church. Old St. Peter’s stood until 1506, when Pope Julius II began plans to rebuild a grander St. Peter’s. At that point a new structure was probably needed, as the wooden structure was now almost 1200 years old! Construction was underway for 150 years before the church was finally completed, funded in part by the sale of indulgences. During that time over a dozen Popes oversaw the evolution of New Saint Peter’s as consecutive architects modified the existing plans, notably these three. Bramante was first hired by  Julius II to and he set forth a greek-cross floor plan, that is a centrally planned church with a “plus” sign shape and a dome. Both Bramante and Julius died before the work was completed and Michelangelo was brought in as chief architect. Michelangelo also did not live to see the basilica completed. Carlo Maderno was recruited by Paul V and ordered to extend the central nave of the church to create the more traditional latin cross plan. The extension of the nave and the addition of the facade created a problem of scale and perspective. The closer you get to the facade, the more you lose sight of Michelangelo’s dome. Bernini was brought in to decorate the interior and add the finishing touches.


Panorama of St. Peter’s Square

The Basilica’s Exterior

When Bernini first began construction on the Piazza’s enormous porticos, the surrounding area was a tight knit cluster of buildings, much like most of Rome today. To approach the Basilica, a visitor had to meander through the maze of streets until the vast open Piazza was finally revealed, with anticipation and all the grandeur the space deserves. That effect remained until Mussolini began another one of his building projects and created Via della Conciliazione. The new road cuts a direct path to Vatican City, enabling a visitor to grow accustomed to the massive size of St. Peters as they walk up to it. It kind of undercuts the overall effect of the square. Consider approaching St. Peter’s from another route. Bernini was faced with the unusual challenge of trying to unite the open space of St. Peter’s by distinguishing the square and drawing your attention to the Basilica. The result is an unique elliptical shaped portico comprised of 284 columns. With two lanes for pedestrians and a center lane wide enough for a carriage, the simple design draws our eye to the facade of Saint Peter’s and ties together the open piazza. The vast reaches of Bernini’s portico extend out into the square, like a pair of arms greeting the worshippers. The portico in some ways replaces the old basilica church component of an atrium, a courtyard for the faithful to gather. The placement of the columns allows visitors open access to the piazza, and yet the view of the surrounding buildings is obscured. Entrance to St. Peter’s begins in line near the right hand side of the portico. Placed in the center of the elliptical is the large obelisk. This obelisk was the same that sat in Nero’s circus, and witnessed St. Peter’s execution. Flanking the obelisk are two fountains, one designed by Maderno, the other by Bernini. It’s fitting that the two fountains sit together. Bernini’s work on the portico draws attention to Maderno’s work on the facade. When Michelangelo died he left no plans for a facade. How did you manage to draw attention to the front door in the middle of such a large piazza? Maderno solved the problem by gradually increasing the depth of the columns and bringing each set slightly closer together. That draws our eye to the center balcony where the Pope appears to greet the audience in the square.

The Basilica’s Interior


Close up of the facade and the statue of St. Paul.

Where to begin. It’s sites like this that make a little research go a long way. I’m hoping to get individual posts up on many of the highlights very soon. But for now we’ll begin by walking up to the church. As you scale the stairs up to the church your eyes begin to adjust to the vastness of the building before you. The letters that spell out: “In honor of Prince of the Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, supreme pontiff in the year 1612, the seventh year of his pontificate” are each three feet tall and the sculptures that adorn the roof are over twenty. The two sculptures that greet you outside are of Peter and Paul, added in the 19th century. Before you enter the basilica you can see equestrian statutes of Constantine and Charlemagne on your right and left under the atrium. Directly before you is the Holy Door, only opened for the Jubilee every 25 years. Once inside, stop for a moment to take in the result of 150 years of planning. Step back and take a look around before you get swept up in the excitement of the other tourists.


St. Peter, spiral of the Baldachino, and the sunlit Dove in the background

On your right as you enter is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. Done when he was only 24 years old, the marble sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Don’t forget to take a glimpse at the floor as you enter. Noted by stars along the nave, are comparable sizes of the other great churches in the world. The great round porphyry stone – a very expensive type of red stone – just in front of the entrance, is the same stone that Charlemagne kneeled on to become the first Holy Roman Emperor. Continuing on you’ll see the monument to Gregory XIII by Camillo Rusconi in 1723. Gregory is responsible for the Gregorian Calendar, and is flanked by personifications of Faith and Wisdom. Back in the central nave is the statue of St. Peter, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. Centuries of worshippers kissing the Saint’s foot have left it shiny. Even a short list will include Bernini’s enormous Baldachino, the bronze canopy that graces the papal altar and marks the center of the basilica’s transept. The Pope gives mass from this altar, which sits over the confessio and the tomb of St. Peter. The baldachino’s four spiraling columns are intended to evoke the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The source of all this bronze came from the ceiling of the Pantheon, where Urban VIII infamously called for its removal. Be sure to take a moment here to look up and admire Michelangelo’s impressive dome. It’s 348 foot height means the Statute of Liberty could stand inside it. The inscription reads: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The dome is supported by four large piers, within each Bernini placed a sculpture of a saint: Veronica, Helen, Longinus, and Andrew. Beyond the Baldachino on the left hand side is another Bernini work, this one the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini utilized the space effectively despite the fact that a door lies underneath the marble folds of fabric. Move closer to see that the personification of Death raises the cloth to allow passage through the doorway. At the great apse at the very end of the nave is the Altar of the Throne. A sun burst of gold crowns the monument lifted by the four doctors of the church. Inside is reportedly the throne of St. Peter. Sunlight hits the transparent window in the afternoon.

Visiting the Basilica

Admission to the Basilica is free like all churches. It is open from 7am till 7pm April through September and from 7am till 6pm the rest of the year. The best days to visit the Basilica are probably Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I mean that with a grain of salt. Vatican City is a very popular tourist attraction so the down times are still going to be busy. But process of elimination can help you choose a good day. Vatican City observes the day of rest and is closed on Sundays. Mondays are crowded because all other museums in Rome are closed on Mondays. Wednesdays the Pope give an audience and appears at 10:30am to bless St. Peter’s Square so Wednesdays are a bit busier. Saturdays the locals come to visit. It’s important to remember the Basilica is still a working church and sometimes portions may be blocked off as a service takes place. If you have the time, stick around until the service is over and the area become open again. You can get a glimpse of church officials as they leave and beat the rush once the section becomes open again. Good things come to those who wait. Very few people are willing to stick around, so you may find yourself in quiet corner.

Just like the Vatican Museum, there is a metal detector before the entrance to the Basilica. The entrance is located underneath the right hand side of the portico. (Right hand side when facing the Basilica.) Sometimes the line to the metal detectors begins to filter out into the piazza. Don’t be dismayed. The line moves quickly. Don’t be expected to keep your pocket knife or anything though. The guards take their jobs seriously. Here too, dress code will be enforced. Rome in July and tank tops might seem like a perfect match, but not at the Vatican. Shorts or dresses down to the knees are safe, as well as shirts that cover your shoulders. This applies to gentlemen as well. Close-toed shoes are also a good thing. Better to play it on the safe side when visiting the Vatican.

Visitors can also take a climb up to the top of the dome. It’s a bit of a hike and warm in the summer, but very cool and worth it. The view from the top of the dome is one of the best in the city. If you go in the summer, fill up a water bottle and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. The first leg get you up to the roof of the basilica, which I thought was kind of fun. You can stop and shop at a small gift store, on the roof, that’s run by nuns. There’s also a water fountain up there. An elevator can take you this far, if you’re traveling with handicapped or children. The second leg lets you pause inside the dome of the basilica. Not at the top, but inside, where you can walk around and look down at the church below. The final leg is the tightest fit, but keep in mind that you’re actually inside the dome now and nearing the cupola. Don’t be afraid to pause at the windows as you go for the view (And some fresh air).

Do keep in mind that the Sistine Chapel is accessible through the Vatican Museums, not through St. Peters.

Here are some sites I found very helpful:

Sacred Destinations has a great page on St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to check out their other pages as well.

The Vatican website is brimming with information. Here’s a link to their Basilica information page.

Also, a link to “Practical Information” on the Vatican’s site. Here you can find information on how to arrange tickets for a Papal Audience, as well as more in depth tours, like a tour of the grottoes and necropolis.

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Etruscan Art and Architecture

web_DrawingEtruscanTempleEtruscan artwork and architecture exists in plenty in some areas and in others it’s only been recorded and described by others. From the foundations that remain and the writings of Vitruvius, we have some idea of what a typical Etruscan temple looked like. Located at the center of an orthogonal planned city, Etruscan’s constructed temples from the resources available, in this case mud brick and a volcanic stone called tufa. The square structure was raised on a podium, with equal space being designated for a covered porch and the interior rooms or cellas. Wooden columns in the Tuscan order were positioned at the front and the temple was accessible by a single staircase.

04apollodescIn place of the elaborate entablatures Greek Temples were famous for, terra-cotta statues lined the tiled roof, like this statue of Apollo dating from 510-500 BCE. Originally part of a group, the life-size Apollo includes a lively amount of motion and the “archaic smile” that is similar but somewhat more advanced than the Greek kouroi. As far as the chronology and progression of art history, the Etruscan’s present a more naturalized depiction of the human form even if the proportion inaccuracies would have had the Greeks in an uproar. The hint of motion and the visible spark of life is characteristic of Etruscan sculpture.

300px-Banditaccia_Sarcofago_Degli_SposiCounter intuitive though it may seem, tombs are also an important window into Etruscan culture. At Cerveteri, the cemetery is laid out like a small town and the tombs themselves like houses of the dead. Inside the “Tomb of the Reliefs” you can see it was set up to closely resemble a house. The walls are painted and couches were carved from stone. There are everyday household items carved into the walls. The most well known sarcophagus from Cerveteri is the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” from 520 BCE. Now located in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco in Rome, the terra-cotta sarcophagus shows a husband and wife reclining together on a couch. Again the Etruscans favor depiction of humans with archaic smiles and the appearance of expressions, rather than the classical straight face. Details from their hair and clothes leave use with some idea of contemporary culture.

697px-Chimera_d'arezzo,_fi,_03Bronze sculptures encompass some of the finest pieces we have from the Etruscans. Their skill with bronze made the products marketable around the Mediterranean and the pieces they kept at home are of amazing quality. While their Greek counterparts were concerned with idealized perfection, Etruscan artists seem at ease with inaccuracies and care more about the emotion they seek to communicate in their artwork. That emotion comes through clearly in the bronzes we have in a variety of styles. The bronze Chimera of Arezzo is one example of Etruscan bronze work. The mythical chimera was part lion, goat and serpent, a deadly fire breathing creature that was a popular subject in early Italian art. This depiction, however, shows the typical Etruscan flair for life and movement in their sculptures. The Chimera of Arezzo is now kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Florence.

brutus_exhibition_pageTwo pieces that visitors to Rome are likely to come across is a bronze bust known as the “Capitoline Brutus” and a bronze She-wolf known as the “Capitoline Wolf.” It’s not surprising that these pieces are both found in the Capitoline Museum. The bust is believed to be a portrait of the famous hero Lucius Junius Brutus, the early republican character from the Rape of Lucretia. Despite the bust being from the mid-3rd century BCE, the strong verism in the features make it easy to believe that this is indeed the face of Roman legends. The eyes are made of painted ivory. The Capitoline Brutus is one of the oldest surviving portraits from antiquity, it’s existence is made even more remarkable because bronze was often melted down.

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The Etruscans


As a powerful culture that predates the Romans and would eventually influence their younger neighbors in many ways, the Etruscans are an interesting introduction into the culture and foundation of Rome.

The historical record surrounding the Etruscans begins in 1200 BCE, when a Bronze Age people known as the Villanovans occupied the northwest region of Italy. The Etruscans would become the predominate group and by the 7th century BCE would control the region known as Etruria (Tuscany), located to the north of Rome on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Etruria was rich in metals such as copper, iron and tin, creating a culture of smiths suited to working with bronze. Combined with fertile soil and forests, Etruscans were able to expand their network across the Mediterranean

493px-Etruscan_civilization_mapEvidence exists of the Etruscans trading with the people of Greece, Egypt and Phoenicia. Their skill with bronze fueled a market for reliefs, statues, vessels and jewelry. No literary documents have survived, but records from trading partners like Greece and Egypt have enabled historians to piece together some knowledge of Etruscan history. Further information has been assembled by archaeologists excavating tombs and urban remains. Despite the lack of written documents the archaeological evidence paints a picture of a surprising advanced society, wealthy, with a lavish lifestyle, and a capable naval presence.


Sarcophagus of the Spouses, National Etruscan Museum, Rome. Late 6th century BCE

The Etruscan’s existed in a loose confederation of tribes, similar to the Greek polis, led perhaps by kings or chiefs in the major cities of Veii, Tarquinia and Cerveteri. Society was divided along class lines into the aristocracy and lower classes. Etruscan women enjoyed a rare amount of status, even for Roman women and especially for Greek women. They were educated, and even participated in public life as demonstrated in this sarcophagus. Here, a husband and wife recline on a couch, the man supposedly holding a drink as if at a party.


Apollo of Veii, 510-500 BCE

The Etruscan’s influence on Roman culture materialized in many ways including religion, architecture and government. Ancient sources have specifically credited the Etruscans with passing on the skill of divination to the Romans. Divination would include interpreting the will of the gods from the flight of birds, entrails of a sacrificed animal, or events in the sky.

Architecturally, the Etruscan style temple employed the post and lintel system to support mud-brick walls and a wooden roof. Vitruvius uses the term Tuscan order to define the variation of column that Etruscan’s preferred. Similar to the well known doric order, the Etruscan version used an unfluted shaft and simplified bases and capitals. The layout of an Etruscan temple was almost equally divided between a covered porch and the interior cella or room. The temple was built high on a podium  and was reached by a single staircase to signify the humility of the worshiper. The roof line of Etruscan temples appear to have been decorated with large terra-cotta statues of the gods like this example of Apollo. Romans would later take elements from both Greek and Etruscan temples to create their own hybrid.

The Etruscan’s political power arguably peaked during the Period of Kings, when three Etruscans ruled Rome in succession. They brought with them advances in engineering and urban planning, allies and trading opportunities. Roman society was also divided into classes along economic lines. For a short time Rome was a possession of Etruscan rulers. But by the 6th century BCE, the last king Tarquinius Superbus would be chased from Rome and a republic formed in his place. Rome did not defeat the Etruscans militarily overnight, as Rome was only a small part of their territory. But after two centuries of conflicts Etruria was assimilated into Roman culture.

Today, visitors can see these and many other Etruscan artifacts in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, located at the northwest corner of Borghese Park. It’s a wonderful museum and one of the least visited in Rome. Housed in the Villa Giulia, the villa was originally built by Pope Julius III to showcase his collection of antiquities. The museum’s website appears to be only offered in Italian but follow this link for “Informazioni” where tickets appear to be eight euro and operating hours are from 8:30-7:30.

To read about the founding of Rome, click here.

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Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel

The homestretch of your visit to the Vatican Museum, and one of the most famous masterpieces in the world. This wing of the museum includes works by some of the greatest painters on your way to the Capella Sistina. This winding path takes some time and if the summertime crowds are present it may take even longer. Take a short break perhaps and if you’re traveling with kids make sure nobody needs to use the restroom.


Gallery of Maps and Tapestries

Longer than a football field the Gallery of Maps and Tapestries covers the distance between the main body of the Museum and the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica. To find it on a map will help you to better keep your bearings. Hung on the walls are forty maps completed by Ignazio Danti and commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. They act as a walking tour of Italian history. Just beyond, is the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries.


Room of Constantine

Intended for use as a reception hall, the room is decorated with four events from the life of Constantine including, Vision of the Cross, Battle at Milvian Bridge, Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome. Though this room was planned by Pope Julius II and Raphael it was not executed and completed before the two had died.


Raphael Rooms

Comprised of four stanzas (rooms) the Raphael Rooms were commissioned in 1508/1509 by Pope Julius II. Having secured the services of both Michelangelo and Raphael just down the hall from each other Julius set about decorating his papal apartments with the greatest of the High Renaissance. Although there are many individual pieces throughout the rooms that detail specific moments from the history of the papacy as well as theological iconography a few of the ones that shouldn’t be missed are Parnassus, Fire in the Borgo, Liberation of St. Peter, and the School of Athens seen above.


Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was restored between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV from whom the Chapel is named. He recruited Renaissance greats such as Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Roselli to decorate the walls. His nephew Pope Julius II entrusted Michelangelo with the ceiling and lunettes in 1508. Michelangelo returned again in 1533 at the behest of Clement VII to paint the Last Judgement on the altar wall. Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist sites, the Chapel is still very important in the Catholic Church. This is where the Cardinal’s meet during conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter. Most won’t need directions to the ceiling and Last Judgement but if you can, find Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys and Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah.

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Vatican Museum: Courtyard and Garden

Visitors to the Vatican Museums are bound to notice a few odds and ends kept in the museum courtyard. There’s just a few but each one is worth mention. Come on out and see one of the world’s most exclusive backyards.


Base from the Column of Antoninus Pius

Located on a large deck between the Pinacoteca wing and the Pio-Clementine wing, is the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius. The column was originally erected by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to honor their predecessor. Though the column has not been preserved, the base serves as an excellent symbolic illustration of an emperor’s deification. The relief featured most prominently shows the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina being flown upward by a winged genius while personifications of the Campus Martius and Roma flank the figures. Two other sides illustrate a decursio, a cavalry salute during which they ride in a circle around the deified emperor.


Cortile della Pigna

Translated into English as the “Courtyard of the Pine” the courtyard of the Belvedere Palace is the home of a seemingly innocuous bronze pinecone. This pinecone, however, dates from the 1st century AD and was originally located near the pantheon. Used as a fountain, in ancient times the pinecone was moved to Old Saint Peter’s during the Middle Ages. It now sits in the exedra designed by Bramante. Flanking it are two replicas of peacocks that used to decorate the mausoleum of Hadrian. The originals are now kept in the Braccio Nuovo.


“Sphere within Sphere”

Most likely one of the youngest pieces in the Vatican, “Sphere within Sphere” was designed by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro in the 1990’s. One of a few located around the world, the actual meaning behind the sculpture has been difficult to come by. Unquestionably thought provoking, the golden sphere sits in the center of the courtyard.

You may also be interested in a tour of the Vatican Gardens. Tickets are only offered as a guided tour which includes access to the museum, gardens, and an audio guide. The tour is tour two hours long and is available on every working day except Wednesday and Sunday (The days when the Pope holds audiences.) Find the link here.

Note: According to the Museum website, tours of the gardens have been suspended until further notice. I’m guessing it’s due to Pope Francis’s busy schedule. I’ll keep an eye on it and up date when it changes.

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Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore


One of the four great patriarchal Basilica’s of the Catholic Church, any descriptions of Saint Mary Major is sure to contain plenty of superlatives. It is the largest church dedicated to Saint Mary, and one of the oldest Churches in Rome. The bell tower was added in the 14th century and has the distinction of being the tallest in Rome, 240 feet high, and marked the Papacy’s return from Avignon.

Santa Maria Maggiore is also known as “Our Lady of the Snows” which refers to the story of how the church was founded. On August 5TH, 358 a Roman couple decided to bequeath their fortune to the Virgin Mary and prayed to her for guidance on how to best do that. That night they dreamt of a place marked on top of the Esquiline Hill. They conferred with Pope Liberius a discovered he had had a similar dream. They climbed to the top of the hill to find a patch of snow covering the ground. The church was built on that spot. (Historical evidence is for this founding tale is a bit shady but it makes for a good story nonetheless. And sometimes the story often matters more than the history.)

DSCN0099The church as it stands today has been added to and renovated over the centuries, so much so that it’s difficult to see the original 5th century structure from the exterior. It’s only upon entering the church that you begin to feel the age of the space. The interior of Santa Maria Maggiore still maintains it’s traditional basilica style format, with a central nave lined with ionic columns, and two side aisles crowned by an apse. Clerestory windows provide light from above.

It is near the apse that the more famous elements of Santa Maria come into play. Here are Byzantine mosaics dating from the 5th, 12th and 13th centuries. The 5th century mosaics are located in the nave above the altar and the later mosaics are located further back in the apse. The didactic images from the 5th century tell stories from the old testament and included depictions of Moses, Joshua and Abraham.

Santa Maria Maggiore is still very popular with tourists and pilgrims. The Sistine Chapel holds a relic of the Holy Crib in the Confessio and a statue of Pope Pius IX kneels before it. The Holy Crib is said to be pieces of the manger where Christ was born and is kept in a crystal reliquary. Saint Jerome is also buried here, known for translating the bible into Latin.

363px-Virgin_salus_populi_romaniAs with many sacred places, Chapels have been added by wealthy families as a place to honor and bury notable family members. In Santa Maria Maggiore you can find the Borghese Chapel, built by Pope Paul V to house the Salus Populi Romani, perhaps the oldest Marian image in Rome. Paul V is buried here and Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father Pietro are buried across the nave in the Sistine Chapel.

Although the Church has undergone many changes, the overall splendor of the building has been maintained. The chapels have been continuously recreated by wealthy families. The ceiling was said to be gilded by some of the first gold to be brought back from the New World. The famous Cosmati family designed the marble flooring. Ferdinand Fuga redecorated much of the interior as well as the façade in the 1740’s into the details we see today. With such a busy interior many of the most important people throughout modern Rome’s history are in some way connected to this church.

When you visit:

It’s hard to get a true impression of the church on the hill since modern Rome has built up around it unless you approach the church from the Forum and Piazza Venezia, walking up Via Panisperna or Via Cavour. Santa Maria Maggiore is also located just a few blocks south west from Termini station and Metro stop.

It’s open most days from 7am to 7pm, 6pm during the winter. It is a working church so if you get caught in the middle of a mass, quietly give them due respect and space but stick around. How often do you get to see mass in a place like this? There is a small museum with artifacts and access to the loggia.

White rose petals are dropped from the dome during mass on August 5th to celebrate the founding, and the Pope presides over feast day on August 15th. A procession of the Holy Crib takes place on December 25th.

For more information, visit the Vatican’s very informative website here.

And here’s a link to a floor plan of Santa Maria Maggiore along with the locations of the key points of interest: here.

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Evolution of an Arch

As we’ve seen the Roman Arch moved things along quite a bit architecturally. But with a little innovation they increased the utility of the masonry ten fold. The arch as a single entity is good for a doorway, window or portico. But if you wanted a larger covered space you need additional support.


The solution came in the form of barrel vaults and groin vaults. Barrel vaults are essentially a long extension of a single arch. They form a long tunneling effect. Barrel vaults were utilized to build the large warehouses through out the city in ancient time, in order to store the vast shipments of goods coming into the city. Some of the most visible examples of barrel vaults are the ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius. To see them in person, you realize what a large open space they really are. Seen from both the Forum and Via dei Fori Imperiali, it’s an imposing structure.


Groin vaults are when two barrel vaults intersect at ninety degree angles. With the combined strength of four posts or piers, groin vaults require less buttressing and there for are an even sturdier structure. The groin vault heralded many of Rome’s greatest building projects. Today, one of the most important places you can see groin vaults is at the Colosseum. Forming a continuous corridor around the arena, the groin vaults allowed the high ceilings and monumental stadium.


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Anatomy of an Arch


Parts-of-an-Arch1_1-e1314734247311The arch is one of the simplest and most important architectural features you’ll see in Rome. They form an integral part to many of the ancient structures and churches in Rome and are something you would probably over look unless you know what you’re looking at. And since the arch is truly Roman, it deserves due diligence.

A Roman arch in it’s most basic sense uses compression from the weight of the structure above to hold the pieces together. Using accurately shaped voussiors and a carefully placed keystone the arch diverts the stress downward in a force called thrust. This increases the load bearing capabilities and let’s us build taller, grander structures.

Now, I’ve had that explained to me in several different classes so if you didn’t catch all that, or got distracted at the pronunciation of the word voussoir, don’t worry. Let’s just say that the arch was more effective than the two options we had before. Which looked something like…

post and lintel

Post and Lintel


Corbelled Arch

The post and lintel system was used in ancient Greek and Egyptian architecture, as well as the famous Stonehenge.But as you can see, it requires large posts to support the considerable weight of the lintels. That limited the height of the the structure as well as the possibility of significant windows. With such a heavy structure to support, space couldn’t be compromised for windows except at the very top near the roof, known as clerestory windows. This lead to very dark interior. Also, if a post and lintel building had a solid roof, that too was made of stone. Supporting the roof required a forest of large columns known as hypostyle halls. One of the best examples of that can be seen at Karnak.


The other option was a Corbelled arch, where the stones gradually inclined until they met at the apex of the arch. You can see from the image that they were on the right track, but the corbelled arch just wasn’t self supporting like it needed to be.

The Roman arch offered much greater architectural flexibility, and could withstand greater pressure. For the first time it offered the availability of a an open space. But even arches had limitations. It would require further innovation before many of the grandest spaces would be possible.

Evolution of an arch

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Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums

With 460 paintings distributed through 18 rooms, the Vatican Pinacoteca is home to some of the greatest names in art. Giotto, Perugino, Raphael, Da Vinci, Veronese and Caravaggio are all represented. Any introduction beyond that would be redundant. Many of these artists have more than one piece kept in the Vatican, unless you’re Raphael and you painted an entire wing. The Pinacoteca is on your right as you enter the museums main reception area.

Pinacoteca Roll Call:



Stefaneschi Triptych – 1315-1320 AD

The three panels of the triptych take it’s name from Cardinal Stefaneschi, who commissioned the piece for an altar in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Done by Giotto and his assistants, St. Peter is the central figure: bearded and holding the keys of heaven and hell. The patron Cardinal Stefaneschi kneels before him and offers the altarpiece in tribute.



Madonna and Child with Saints – 1495-1496 AD

The scene of the Virgin Mary with Christ is a popular portrayal, this one commissioned for the chapel in the town hall of Perugia. They are flanked by saints, St. Louis and St. Lawrence in the foreground and the patron saints of Perugia in the background, St. Herculanus and St. Constantius. His use of oil painting was a trademark of northern Europe that had made it’s way into northern Italy as well. The vibrant colors reflect Perugino’s choice of materials.



Oddi Altarpiece 1501-1504 AD

Throughout the Vatican, we will get to know Raphael and his works quite well, but here is a piece that marks an early point in his career. It is comprised of four pieces, but the Coronation of the Virgin, seen above, in my mind is the section where Raphael shows the greatest independence from his master, Perugino, and is easiest to identify. White lilies sprout from the tomb surrounded by apostles who gaze upward as Mary is crowned. And who doesn’t love those angels?

Leonardo da Vinci


St. Jerome in the Wilderness – 1480 AD

An undisputed da Vinci creation, this unfinished work allows us to see the artist’s process as he worked toward a finished product. The oil and tempura composition depicts St. Jerome and the outline of a lion before a rocky landscape. St. Jerome lived in the desert as a hermit, where he befriended a lion after pulling a thorn from its paw.



Vision of St. Helena – 1580 AD

This was Veronese’s second attempt at the subject of St. Helena, the first is located in the National Gallery in London. This version is decidedly more regal, St. Helena appears as an empress as the vision of the true cross comes to her.



Entombment – 1603-1604 AD

Once again, Caravaggio uses his intense tenebrism to highlight the subjects of the composition. Emotional elements combine to form three layers. The first is the dramatic grief displayed by the three women in the background. In the expression of John the Evangelist, the main bearded figure, you can see the second layer of practicality and loss as Christ’s followers must continue, even as they symbolically stand on the foundation of the Church. And then there is the realism in Christ himself, in his arm hanging and the greenish hue to his face.

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Braccio Nuovo


The “New Wing” of the Vatican Museum is one of my favorite spaces in the entire museum. It was built after works previously confiscated by Napoleon were returned and completed in 1820. The skylights in the ceiling and the original Roman mosaics in the floor provide a dynamic you can’t find in the other wings. There are twenty-eight niches housing sculptures of emperors and Roman replicas of famous Greek statues.


Augustus of Prima Porta – 1st century AD

Discovered in Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, the sculpture is larger than life and combines the qualities of the emperor in an oratory stance, military cuirass, and mythological allusions to his ancestry. Compared to the earlier depictions of the Republican era, this ruler appears divinely empowered and slightly removed from the audience.


The River Nile – 1st century AD

Found in 1513 in the Campo Marzio, the River Nile reclines on a Sphinx armrest with a horn of plenty next to him. The sixteen children surrounding him are meant to symbolize the flood of the river. According to a Roman measurement, the Nile would flood sixteen cubits, hence the number of children. The piece is a roman copy of a Greek Hellenistic original from the temple of Isis and Serapis.

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