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St. Peter’s Basilica

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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Categories: Art and Architecture, Churches, History, People, Uncategorized, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republican Rome: Part Two

The First Triumvirate and Civil War

The alliance that formed between three individually powerful men of Rome was tenuous at best and borderline illegal at worst. In part one we talked about increasingly powerful generals, leading armies that were loyal to the commander they had served with for years. In this part, we will see perhaps the two greatest generals at odds with each other.

If you’re a fan of the Hunger Games series, you might have some idea of what this alliance will turn out like. The three tributes may work together as long as they see personal benefit, but only one will be crowned victor. Once the balance of power shifts, alliances are broken. In this arena of eastern and western provinces, Rome is the cornucopia each man strives for.

Siege-alesia-vercingetorix-jules-cesarThe First Triumvirate was made up of Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompey Magnus. After this we’ll shorten the names to Crassus and Pompey. Within the alliance Crassus and Pompey were the more senior members. Crassus was enormously wealthy, perhaps the wealthiest man in Roman history, and Pompey was a celebrated military leader of several victorious campaigns. Julius Caesar, though younger, was a popular up-and-coming politician with charm and promise. Together, the Triumvirate was able to politically out-manuever the opposing political party, the Optimates, led by Cicero and Cato the Younger.

While the situation was detrimental to the Republic’s integrity, the members of the Triumvirate had successfully taken power. With the support of Crassus and Pompey, Julius Caesar was elected consul, then proconsul in 58 BCE, making him governor of provinces. Caesar’s land reforms were pushed through with the help of his allies and he left Rome to pursue a successful campaign known as the Gallic Wars. But in 53 BCE, Crassus sought his own military victory against the Parthians, was defeated and murdered. His death tipped the scales of power and set Caesar and Pompey at odds against each other. The death of Pompey’s wife Julia, who was also Caesar’s daughter, severed the last link between the two men. Distrust, suspicion and ambition drove the two men apart.

With Caesar pursuing victory after victory in Gaul, his loot was able to fund his generosity and win him loyal allies. He doubled the pay of his troops and called in more legions to reinforce him from Gaul. But in 51 BCE, a motion was put before the Senate to order Julius Caesar to give up his command at the end of his term and return to Rome. Caesar counter-offered, and declared he would give up his command if Pompey was ordered to do the same. The Senate threw their support behind Pompey and granted him funds and troops should Caesar become a greater threat. In January of 49 BCE, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, the border of the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Roman territory, with his 13th Legion. To enter Rome with an army was considered a strike against the Republic and it is said Caesar uttered the phrase “Alea iacta est” meaning “The die is cast” as he did so.

In the absence and growing mistrust of Caesar, the Senate had appointed Pompey as sole consul, effectively kicking Caesar out of the club. When Caesar marched toward Rome, Pompey declared Rome indefensible and fled to Brundisium, then across to Greece. Once Caesar had secured his position in Rome he pursued Pompey across Greece where the final battle took place at Pharsalus in 48 BCE. Julius Caesar defeated the army of Pompey, who escaped and sought asylum in Egypt, but was murdered as soon as he stepped off of his ship. The last supporters of Pompey were finally defeated in Spain, at the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE.

After the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar set out for Pompey anticipating that he would seek funds and support from Ptolemy XIII, the young king of Egypt. He arrived too late as we know, but resolved a dispute over who would rule Egypt, a very young Ptolemy XIII or his elder sister Cleopatra VII. After a siege, reinforcements arriving, and consequently being locked in the palace while this all happened, Caesar’s forces captured the port and Cleopatra emerged as ruler as well as pregnant with a child who would be called Caesarion.

When Julius Caesar returned to Rome, he did so as an emperor in all but title. His military victories had made him the master of the Roman world. He was generous in forgiving old grievances and instead of a widespread massacre of old enemies, he sought amnesty instead. He initiated many reforms both on economic policy as well as political. He expanded the senate, took a census, planned the Forum of Caesar, and created the Julian calendar. But just because Caesar was the first to forgive, doesn’t mean his contemporaries would extend the same courtesy. In the wake of Caesar’s many changes opposition remained wary of Caesar’s concentration of power. In an end made famous by William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar ignored the advice of the soothsayer and went to the Senate on the ides of March 44 BCE, where he was assassinated by a mob led by Marcus Junius Brutus. The conspirators meant to save the Republic perhaps they only proved that city needed a single manager over the factions that vied for Rome.

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Republican Rome: Part One

The Republican period of Rome lasted from roughly 509 BCE until 44 BCE with the death of Julius Caesar. It began with the oath of Brutus  after the death of Lucretia and ended with a similar oath from Brutus’s relation by the same name.

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Rome and foreign territory in 500 BCE

Rome was never a republic in the true sense of the word. Society was still harshly divided into economic, patriarchal classes of patrician and plebian, slave and free. Once the last King was expelled from the City, power was quickly consolidated by the patrician founding families who were able to hold the highest elected offices of the state. The powers of the King were transferred to two elected consuls, each serving a one-year term. To hold this position bestowed nobilitas on patrician families and the first person from a family to hold the position of consul was condescendingly referred to as a novus homo, or new man.

Further executive and judicial positions were added as the new constitution matured. A censor was in charge of financial matters, taxes, and public works. Praetors served as law officers and judges, overseen by the consuls. Aedile’s were more of a plebian rank that supervised markets and temples. And although the patricians had considerable power in the political arena, the plebians were able to bargain and irritate the patricians into a few concessionary positions of their own during the Republican period. The position of Tribune of the People was created to be a direct link between the Plebians and the Senate. This was an especially large win for the plebians because a Tribune carried a great deal of political power.

Militarily, the Republican era would see Rome grow into the military power we associate with red capes, standards and discipline. We left the Romans defending the city walls against the Etruscans in 509, but by 265 BCE, Romans had conquered the entire Italian peninsula south of the Arno River. They had scored a literal “Pyrrhic victory” against the Greeks and were about to embark on the first of the Punic Wars, after which Rome would emerge as a Mediterranean power.

The defeat of Carthage left Rome with new territories and provinces to maintain in Spain, Africa and the East. The Eastern Provinces were often kept as client kingdoms, but the provinces of Europe were eagerly sought after by would-be governors. Serving in the military, beginning a political career in Rome, then returning to lead an army became a typical career path for many famous Roman’s including Gaius Marius. Fame and fortune could be won in the provinces, for the generals as well as the soldiers, and increasingly, Roman soldiers were loyal not to Rome but to the commanders who awarded them for success and loyalty. Men like Lucius Cornelius Sulla were able to use their loyal veteran forces to enforce their own political agenda.

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Roman Expansion during the Republican Period

But as we get to the 2nd century BCE, things in the military begin to quiet down. Rome takes a depth breath and rests for a moment, pausing in its great expansion. As a result many of its soldiers were no longer required. They returned home and exacerbated the unemployment within the city. The bored soldiers combined with a sudden influx of newly minted Roman citizens from the provinces called for a bit of gerrymandering. The system that had served the agrarian society of the early Republic so well needed to be revised to suit a more international level.

The canary in the coalmine came in the form of the Gracchi brothers. Political reformers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi were sons of a prominent politician and military commander and Cornelia Gracchus, daughter of Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War. Patrician to the core they were each elected Tribune of the People and proposed a wide sweeping redistribution of land, and fixed grain prices to resolve the growing number of landless, urban poor. They both met violent ends for their reforms, but they proved the people were capable of challenging the Senate.

With powerful generals now eyeing Rome herself like a city for the taking, it was left to them to sort out who would enter the city in triumph. As the last century of the Republic closes in,  we see Generals begin to vie for political power with their loyal legions close at hand. In 59 BCE, a forty-one year old Julius Caesar was made governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyria. Within a decade, he had conquered Gaul, explored Britain and joined an alliance known as the First Triumvirate, the results of which we will see next.

Republican Rome: Part Two >>

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Cloelia: Heroine of Republican Rome

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Though the bravery of Horatius was worthy of legend, at the time it only stalled the army of Lars Porsenna and the Etruscans, intent on taking back the young republic of Rome. He besieged the city and eventually a truce was negotiated. A group of female hostages were given to the Etruscans, among whom was one named Cloelia.

One day, while bathing at the river she and the other women quickly swam back to the Roman side. Although this violated the terms of the truce, Lars Porsenna was so taken by the act of bravery that he allowed Cloelia to choose which hostages he would allow to return back to Rome. Cloelia chose a group of young boys, remembering that Rome would need young men in the future defense of their city.

The Romans honored her act of courage and loyalty by erecting an equestrian statue of her along the Via Sacra. The statue was lost centuries ago, but it was one of the first honorary monuments to be awarded to a woman.

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Horatius Cocles: Hero of Republican Rome

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Another one of Rome’s memorable heroes from the early Republican period is the character of Horatio Cocles, a sixth century Roman soldier who defended Rome against many in a story known as “Horatio at the Bridge.”

Having banished Tarquinius Superbus and his family from the city, the new republic of Rome found itself the target of many surrounding powers, hoping to catch the city at a moment of weakness. Ally to Tarquinius, Lars Porsena led an army against the city of Rome, conquering the outpost on the Janiculum Hill located on the far side for the Tiber.

Seeing the advancing army, Horatio tried to rally the retreating Roman troops to no avail. To buy time, Horatio rushed to the one place the army could cross the Tiber river, the Pons Sublicius. Standing at the far end of the bridge he ordered two friends to destroy the bridge by any means while he held the advancing army off.

While they hacked away Horatio defended the bridge until it collapsed into the rushing water. Then he jumped into the Tiber and swam to the other side to safety. This stalled Lars Porsena and bought the Romans enough time to prepare for a siege, saving the city from a quick capture. He was honored in the city and given as much land as he could plow in a single day. A statue of him was erected near the Forum.

The story of Horatio’s bravery was told to Roman youths as an example of bravery and honor, especially as a soldier. Horatio’s heroic example would later become the subject of a narrative poem by Lord Macaulay (1800-1859).

And, as they passed, beneath their feet

They felt the timbers crack.

But when they turned their faces,

And on the further shore

Saw brave Horatius stand alone.

This is an excerpt from Lord Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge” part of a larger work entitled The Lays of Ancient Rome. You can find the complete poem 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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:

Giotto

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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.

Perugino

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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.

Raphael

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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

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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.

Veronese

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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.

Caravaggio

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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The Rape of Lucretia

The Oath of Brutus

The Oath of Brutus

Rome has her fair share of heroes and heroines, all chosen and remembered for displaying the attributes of a true and honorable Roman. Part history, part legend, thses stories have worked their way into the Roman ideology as moralistic folklore.

The story of Lucretia is a bit different, not only the tone of the story, but the outcome. Here, Lucretia becomes a catlyst for political action, one of the few times a woman is placed in that role.

As the story goes, Sextus Tarquinius, son of King Tarquinius Superbus, was on military furlough with a group of men, all claiming their wife was more virtuous than the other. Collantinus claims that his wife Lucretia is by far the most virtuous. They ride out to see what each wife is doing while their husbands are away, only to find each is feasting and enjoying herself. Only Lucretia is diligently at her loom weaving.

Over come by her chastity, Sextus return to Collantinus’s home several days later and forces himself on her. He blackmails her, threatening to kill her than kill a slave, implicating Lucretia in commiting adultery with a slave, dishonoring her husband. Lucretia submits to Sextus, then sends word to her husband and father, both authority figures for a roman woman.

When they arrive, she tells them what Sextus did, and confesses her adultery. She begs Collatinus to pursue Sextus and make him pay for his deeds, which Colantinus promises. Then, rather than live in dishonor as an example to other women, Lucretia stabs herself with a knife.

One of the witnesses, Lucius Junius Brutus, immediately takes up the promise Lucretia asked of them. Here is Brutus’s speech according to Livy, posted by Fordham University. Follow the link for full text.

“By this blood, which was so pure before the crime of the prince, I swear before you, O gods, to chase the King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, with his criminal wife and all their offspring, by fire, iron, and all the methods I have at my disposal, and never to tolerate Kings in Rome evermore, whether of that family of any other.”

Tarquinius Superbus and his family were chased out of Rome. He sought support from the Etruscans to no avail. By the time the dust from his horse’s hooves settled, Rome was on its way to becoming a Republic.

We’ll be seeing another famous relation of Brutus, once again at the heart of political unrest, in 44 BC.

(Fordham University has a ton of great sources like this one and I’d recommend reading a few if you have an interest!)

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Early Rome and Romulus

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Estimation of what the Capitoline Hill looked like.

Rome was a veritable late-comer onto the scene of founding civilizations. To bring some perspective, Herodotus estimated that Homer lived sometime around 750 BCE, so Greek Literature was well underway and the Trojan War longer than that. The Zhou Dynasty was settled into China, and busy introducing the Mandate of Heaven and don’t even bother running the numbers on the Egyptian Pharaohs.

This is a map of Italic languages in the 8th century BC

This is a map of Italic languages in the 8th century BC

So when Romulus settled on a hill overlooking a bend in the Tiber, Romans had considerable catching up to do. Thankfully, the Italian peninsula was a favorable place to start a civilization. The area was rich in metals and agricultural products like olives and wine. The Apennine Mountains created a sense of regionalism and the ocean provided trade opportunities. Early peoples included Celts in the north and Po River valley, Greeks colonizing the South and Sicily, Venetians in Venice, Oscans, Umbrians, and perhaps most importantly, Etruscans just to the North. Very Early Rome had closer neighbors we’re aware of, the Sabines and Alba Longa for starters, but the Etruscans put their stamp on Rome most effectively.

Etruria was a loose confederation with established political and religious systems. They already traded with Egypt, Phoenicia and Greece. When the Romans set up shop in a region known as Latium, now Lazio, they knew a good thing when they saw it. Romans have a talent for adopting and adapting qualities of other cultures and they began with Etruria. The Etruscan influenced the Roman ideals of architecture, religion, divination, and politics, providing Rome with the last three Kings.

To populate his city, Romulus took in…outcasts. Slaves, refugees, exiles, criminals. Apparently a group of bachelors, because Romulus soon had to concoct the “Rape of the Sabines” to correct to shortage of women within the city. As a result war broke out with the Sabines, but the two tribes reconciled as the Sabine women became integrated into the Roman village.

Many of the small tribes amongst the neighboring hills were integrated in Romulus’s thirty seven year rule. This quick consolidation wouldn’t have been accomplished without order and governance. Romulus set up a group of lictors, who carried fasces around to enforce the King’s authority. He elected one hundred elders to the position of senator to form an advisory committee.

Where you can see it today:

As you can imagine, Romulus’s city has changed quite a bit in three thousand years. But, on the Palatine Hill near the Tiber, close to the house of Augustus, archaeologists have uncovered Romulus’s village. It doesn’t look like much, but here are the original postholes where the huts of the village stood. Detritus from the postholes and carbon dating revealed a surprisingly accurate 8th century BCE date.

If you stand in the Roman Forum and look up to the Capitoline Hill and over to the remnants of the palaces on the Palatine, imagine the Rome of Romulus. The ground you are now standing on would have been a wet, marshy bog that flooded periodically. And wouldn’t be drained successfully for centuries. Each rise you see in the city would have meant a neighboring tribe. On the other side of the Palatine would have been the small port and market on the Tiber.

006Here’s some idea of what the huts might have looked like. These so called Hut-Urns are from the 8th century BCE. They were meant to replicate the huts that people resided in.

These humble origins played a very prominent role in the mentality and morals of the Roman people. They had come from a village of farmers and they (for the most part) retained a close connection to that ideology. And although most of what we know about this time comes from legends, the character of the Roman culture and many of its attributes can be credited to this early stage.

To read more about the Period of Kings click here.

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