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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Tips on Visiting Rome: Water

Rome is famous for it’s accessibility to water and modern Rome is no different. If you’re planning on visiting the Eternal city, especially during the summer, invest in a water bottle! It’s a great way to save Euros from your travel budget! There are fountains everywhere known as nasoni where you can fill up with fresh, clean water.

I can’t stress enough how grateful you’ll be to have it during June, July and August. Buying water from vendors is expensive and the same goes for restaurants. And when you’re in the middle of the Roman Forum and the Mediterranean summer gets to be a little too much, you’ll be glad you have some water. Plus, there’s a nasoni on the Forum. Make a game of it and see how many historical places you can fill up at. Holy water, anyone?

Here’s some more in depth articles, one that has a video to demonstrate how to use a nasoni. You laugh now…

The Nasoni: Rome’s Ubiquitous Public Fountains

Can You Drink from Rome’s Water Fountains? Really?

And yes, there’s an app for that.

Drinking Water 

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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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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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The Pio-Clementine Museum

If you’ve ever taken an Art History course the P.C. is enough to make you drool. If you haven’t, never fear! I hope to give you enough info to at least fool your friends and family, which is half the fun anyway.

So, the Pio-Clementine, P.C. for short, is named for the two Popes who presided over the organization, back in the 1770’s. It’s home to the Vatican’s collection of Greek and Roman Art dating from antiquity. Follow the links for more detailed articles and photos.

Here’s a list of P.C. Powerhouses:


Belvedere Apollo – Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD

Considered by many to be the greatest sculpture from antiquity, the statue of Apollo was found in nearby Anzio in 1489 and quickly installed in the Belvedere Palace at the Vatican. Originally, Apollo held a bow outstretched in his left hand. Noted for the ideal male proportions and the contraposto pose.


Laocoon – 2nd century BCE

Found in 1506, the Laocoon depicts the Trojan priest and his sons struggling against divinely powerful snakes. The classical depiction of the human body started a revolution amongst artists when it was discovered.


The River God Arno

Modeled after a Hellenistic original during the time of Hadrian, the River God Arno has been modified over the years. The lion carved on the vase was meant to honor the Medici pope Leo X, and the Arno River flows through Florence, the Medici’s hometown. It makes my list for having one of the most expressive faces.


Belvedere Torso – 1st century BCE

Kept in the Hall of Muses, you’re likely to nearly overlook the battled piece of marble on your way to the next great room. Keep an eye out! The Belvedere Torso may look beat up, but what remains influenced artists for centuries. Michelangelo held it in especially high regard. You can see it in several of his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Follow the link for more images.



To represent the women, the depiction of Ariadne was purchased once again by Pope Julius II in 1512, the same year the Sistine Chapel was completed. According to mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur. She fell asleep and was then discovered by Dionysus. The statue sits upon a sarcophagus and was originally kept in the garden.


Heracles, 1st-3rd century AD

This gilded bronze statue fills a commanding position in the Round Hall (Sala Rotunda). It was found in the 19th century near the Campo de’ Fiori. (Heracles is more commonly known to us as Hercules. He’s easy to spot because he’s almost always carrying a club and is draped in a lion skin.)


The Braschi Antinous

Also located in the Sala Rotunda, the colossal sculpture is a depiction of Hadrian’s favorite, Antinous. He drowned in the Nile River and Hadrian deified him and began a cult around similar attributes as Osiris and Dionysus. There are several statues and busts of Antinous in various characters around the museum. You’ll start to recognize him.


Sarcophagi of St. Helena and Constantina

Believed to have held the remains of Constantine’s mother and daughter, the monumental porphyry sarcophagi reflect the imperial standing of both the women. As mothers, wives, and daughters of emperors, their status could afford a material as expensive as the red porphyry mined in Egypt. They date from the 4th century AD and are decorated with pagan themes.


Hall of the Animals

If you’re traveling with children be sure to stop by the Hall of Animals. It has rows of animal sculptures. Let them pick out the donkeys, camels, horses, dogs, and which one they like best.

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Early Rome and Romulus


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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