A year ago I copied the words of Tennessee Williams from his notebook into my own. Tonight they activate my memory.
Thursday July 17, 1958 (6:20 am)Tonight one of Rome’s rare and lovely summer rain and thunderstorms.
In January 2010 my daughter is just a few months old. I have a
grant to travel Rome. Her mother is against it. But when else soon will I have
the time and free money to live by myself in Rome for a couple of weeks?
My place is a room at the guesthouse of a monastery on the Aventine. Sant’Anselmo is large and crowded. The other guests here are to take part in the community: meals, work, and the monastic hours of sung prayer. I live mostly like a bad monk.
I arrive with two bottles of duty-free whiskey buried in my little suitcase. The guest master gives me key to the gate in case I return after it’s locked at the 8 pm curfew. I’ll be needing it. I do work for half the day then wander the city all night with the full leather wine bag I got years ago on the Camino. I see friends and meet strangers, but after a certain hour I have the place to myself.
January’s the wet time of the year. One night the rain starts
after midnight. The rain falls in the way that makes it hard to find a refuge
in the tight streets around Piazza Navona. It’s cold; there’s no place to get
away from it.
Hurrying along via dei Coronari, I turn onto the vicolo della
Pace. The gate in front of Sant’Maria della Pace is locked, denying me shelter
on the porch. The street continues into the piazza; I see the lights shining
through the rain to illuminate the Fontana del Nettuno. And then I’m there.
The rain stops but the lightning and thunder keep going. The rumble echoes and the bolts flash above the low buildings that ring this deserted place. I wonder how often anybody is ever here alone like I am now. I wander admiring the things I usually because of the crowds here.
Rain falls and stops again after a few minutes. This happens a few
times. When it does, I press into one of
the shallow archway entrances of the palazzi. I crouch in one of these and
wait, gazing at the great Borromini church Sant’Agata in agone.
How long am I there? I’m not sure. But why would I leave? I have
no other place to be, and when would I be here alone again. Never seems like
the likely answer.
And what about Tennessee? He was at his notebook almost an hour
after dawn. Has he just risen to begin his writing day? Or is he just home from
the dark alleys or suburban streets where he spends so many nights chasing what
he calls nightingales?
I’ll never know.
In a letter he wrote to a friend from Rome about the same time as his rain and thunderstorm, he says,
There are lots of things that we could have talked about that we didn’t, but that’s life for you.
It sure is.
Eight years later I will be with my daughter in Rome. We take a break
from a long dinner at Il Miraggio and walk up via Corsini to his apartment at
number 12. I point and tell her that’s Tennessee’s house, that we can’t see him
in the dark but he’s there standing in the window. She squints and waves,
By the time we get home she’s asleep. I take a beer onto the
terrace and a couple of books. I read Tennessee’s one act Talk to me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. It’s one of his unknown
In the morning, I’ll learn that the hat I bought Aurelia at the lake near Castel Gandolfo is still at the trattoria. I’ll get it later.
I have stood on the crowded back platform of a 7 o’clock Batignolles bus as it lurched along the wet lamp lit street while men who were going home to supper never looked up from their newspapers as we passed Notre Dame grey and dripping in the rain.
Yesterday a friend reminded me that it was the birthday of Oliver Sacks, the late medical doctor, naturalist, and writer. It just so happened that this morning I finished a book of his that I’d never heard of until I found it by chance in the Hudson Park library. I’m planning to trip to Mexico, and though I don’t want to spoil the sense of surprise and wonder by over preparation, I do take a look at all the books on the country I come across. So I picked it up.
Sacks’ Oaxaca Journey documents a trip he took with amateur and professional fern lovers/hunters to Mexico in 2000. I’m not a fervent reader of natural history; but when a writer like Oliver Sacks invites me on a trip, it would be foolish to spurn the opportunity.
Before reading this book, I knew nothing about ferns and little of specificity concerning the indigenous people of Mexico. More than anything else, this book has been a prompt to learn more about those things that have caught my interest as introduced by Sacks.
The enthusiasm for the journey’s mission is palpable. Sacks is traveling with members of the American Fern Society, whose membership is a mix of specialists and knowledgeable amateurs. Many of its members are associated with the New York Botanical Gardens, which is located in the Bronx. In Sacks’ judgement, the Fern Society has maintained the spirit of past generations of natural historians—botanists, birders, mineralogists, and others—who create a “a sweet, unspoiled, pre-professional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of wonder rather than egotism and lust for priority and fame.” I’ve been a member of the NYBG for years, but now having read this journal, I have a more profound appreciation of its work.
Sacks (with his usual perceptiveness, curiosity and imagination) and his fellows bring their book knowledge and the accumulated field experience on this journey. I learn that ferns exist in a wide range of environments, that ferns existed in the time of dinosaurs, and that ferns ability to adapt is surpassed by no other living thing. Oaxaca, it turns out, is the ideal place to come to know the fern. A greater diversity of fern species live here than elsewhere. Here “there is every sort of habitat, from the arid central valley (itself a 5,000 foot-high plateau) to rain forest and cloud forest, to mountainsides. Tree ferns, climbing ferns, filmy ferns, shoestring ferns, they are all here in unparalleled diversity.”
This style of exploration can be considered planned discovery in the natural world. The familiar and the new exist together. But in a broader sense, one is never certain what it is that will be discovered. The theme of adaption is continued when Sacks casts his mind’s eye on social environment of this area of Mexico.
The fusion of culture hits one everywhere, in the faces, in the language, in the art and pottery, the mixed colorful styles of architecture and dress, the complex doubleness of the ‘colonial’ at every point.
Sacks maintains his focus on the natural world he has come to explore with his companions, but as the week goes on he is drawn more and more to the people of Oaxaca and to their history both before after the arrival of the Spanish. I especially like how he incorporates the presence of the group’s guide, Luis. As presented by Sacks, the work as a source of information focuses on historical issues and seems to have little interest in the natural world. In the beginning he is a bit of a pedantic irritant, but gradually Luis offerings broaden the gaze of Sacks. Luis is the embodiment of persistence of the essence of Mesoamerican people and evident change in them engendered by a changing environment.
Luis, our guide, though Hispanic in many ways, also has the dark skin, the powerful build, the high cheekbones of a Zapotec. His ancestors, some of them, crossed the Bering Strait in the last ice age; B.C., for these people, means Before Cortes, the absolute divide between the pre-Conquest, the pre-Hispanic, and what happened later.
The Oaxaca Journey is the kind of book I didn’t know I was looking for, suggestive and inviting rather than pedantic. Sacks calls the raw form of the book “light, fragmentary, impressionistic, and, above all, personal.”
The journey and book end where they had begun, an airport terminal, which is the liminal passage way of setting out and returning from this transformative experience.
This has turned out to be a visit to a very other culture and place, a visit, in a profound sense, to another time. I had imagined, ignorantly, that civilization started in the Middle East. But I have learned that the New World, equally, was a cradle of civilization. The power and grandeur of what I have seen has shocked me, and altered my view of what it means to be human. I will brood on the experience, I will read more, and I will surely return again.
Was it just a month ago that I managed to (binge) watch the HBO program Rome for the first time? The mix of fiction and historical fact is fine with me, and I’m not one to worry if the audience member less familiar with Roman history might mistake one for the other.
One scene that stands out (for me), since though it might seem to be far-fetched is based on a (barely known) Roman source. Even better, this source, a letter, features two giants of Roman history: Julius Caesar and Cicero.
In this scene, Julius Caesar and his advisors are seen standing around a huge map of the city that has been unfurled on the floor of the senate house. (I would love to find this image!)
They are discussing plans to divert the course of the Tiber so that it would flow further to the west of the city and behind the Vatican hill.
We know of this plan from a gossipy letter (dated July 9, 45 BC) written by Cicero to his best pal/sage confidant Atticus in which he shares some insider information on the real estate market in Rome.
Here’s the juicy part:
Soon after, Capito with Carrinas entered the room. I hardly laid a finger on their cloaks when Capito began to talk about the enlargement of the city. The Tiber is to be diverted, starting from the Milvian bridge along the Vatican hills; the Campus Martius is to be covered with buildings, while the Vatican plain is to become a kind of new Campus Martius.
“What’s that,” I said. “I was going to the auction and buy Scapula’s gardens, if the price was right.”
“Better not,” he said. “The law will go through. Caesar wants it.”
Cicero was interested in the property as a possible site for a shrine that he intended to build and consecrate to his daughter Tullia, who had died from complications of birth in January of 45.
As part of his mourning, he wrote a work known as Consolation while in seclusion at a seaside retreat south of Rome. The act of writing, Cicero said, was an attempt to distract his mind from the profound bereavement he was experiencing.
Cicero, known for his wit and enthusiasm for politics, withdrew from friends and public life for an extended period. The extent of his grieving was considered excessive by other Romans.
Consolation was famous in antiquity, but has been lost and is known only from brief quotations in the work of other writers.
In another letter to Atticus, Cicero reveals the transformative power of grief, “The things you liked in me are gone for good.” Elsewhere, he said that Consolation “reduced the outward show of grief; grief itself I could not reduce, and would not if I could.”
The plans of these giants of Rome came to nothing. The proposed urban intervention planned by Caesar was abandoned after his murder. Similarly, the shrine to Tullia was never built. Cicero returned to public life with gusto in the later summer 45; he was murdered in December 43.
Recently I was perusing the shelves at a local branch of the NYPL when I
found Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary.
Athill, an acclaimed memoirist, wrote this diary, at the bidding of her mother,
during her first trip abroad as a late-twenty-something in 1947. She calls this
holiday her “first magical experience of
A Florence Diary is a slight
volume, just 64 pages long, but Athill fills that limited space with poignant
reflection. The introduction, written in 2016 when Athill was 99 years-old,
accounts for one quarter of her pages. She died just a few months ago at the
age of 102.
This book, introduction and diary together, prompted reflection on my own
first trip abroad. Most evocative is her sense of curiosity, the sense of new
experience she captures in her stray moments, observations and judgements. The
naive candor of the diary invited me to recall my own first sojourns in the
For an observer like Athill, all parts of place leave traces. She provides a
sense of that in her recall of a visit to the Caribbean: “I remember tears
in my eyes when I realised, on leaving Trinidad, that I would probably never
again hear the voice of the kiskadee – the bird whose call sounds so exactly
like someone asking plaintively, “Qu’est-ce
qu’il dit? Qu’est-ce qu’il dit.”
Also here you read about the venturesome traveler she was willing to be:
“I learned to like traveling alone because you connect much better with
strangers that way.” The encountering of strangers, befriending them, spending
a few days and nights together, then parting without pangs or regrets when the
time comes to say good-bye, is an inescapable fact of the most productive
For Athill, travel is an escape “into what felt like real life.”
And how exacting that is to convey to others: “It would be
difficult—probably impossible—to convey by words on paper the reality of the
places and incidents I enjoyed so much …”
All I’ve addressed comes from just the introduction and not the diary, but it’s a key to understanding the diary, too. The ellipsis there (and elsewhere) signifies that you’ll have to read her evocative remembrances of moments from various places and parts of her life yourself in order to know really what I mean.
Rome is a city made of voices. I listen to all of them: inscriptions, biography, graffiti, history writing, the poets, etc.
For these deeds, now, he took more pleasure in being loved than in being honored.
Trajan was one of the very good emperors, having the virtues of generosity, tolerance, and magnanimity, so much so that as a pagan (and reputed vigorous homosexual) he was even given a pass for Christian salvation.
The baths of Trajan were inaugurated on July 1, 109 (or maybe 110). Apollodorus of Damascus, who was the architect of Trajan’s forum, designed the baths. The above ground remains of this thermal complex are scant, but their plan can be put together by reference to third-century Marble Plan of Rome and to sixteenth-century drawings of the ruins.
There scale of the bath complex, but to what to degree can’t be known since
earlier monumental, imperial-age baths don’t exist in their original form. They
did, however, establish a prototype for the later imperial baths of Caracalla,
Decius, Diocletian, and Constantine, which were strategically built in other
area of the city that provided the opportunity for monumental buildings.
The main block of the baths measured 190-by-140 meters. It was set within a colonnade precinct (approximately 300-by-220 meters in dimension) that was built upon an artificial platform. The design used the physical setting to practical effect; the caldarium or hot room was oriented to the southwest to take advantage of the afternoon sun. The complex rested on a northeast-southwest axis, with the main building attached to the northeast wall. This was contrary to the more widely used north-south axis of many buildings in the vicinity. It is suggested that this unorthodox orientation was chosen by the architects to reduce the bathers’ exposure to the wind, while also maximizing exposure to the sun.
Within the complex, the building was surrounded by a large grassy area. The baths themselves consisted of pools, including a tepidarium (warm area and, it is presumed, first room visited in the baths), a caldarium (hot pool and dry, sauna-like area), frigidarium (cool pools used after those previously mentioned), and also gymnasia, and apodyteria (changing rooms).
In addition to the facilities of the bath complex used by the public, there was a system of subterranean passageways and structures used by slaves and workers to service and maintain the facilities. Also underground, the massive cistern, surviving today as the Sette Sale, the “seven rooms”, stored much of the water used in the baths. It was capable of storing no less than 8 million liters. There were also several exedrae on the eastern and western sides of the building. After archaeological analysis performed after excavation in 1997, it is thought that at least one of these exedra served as a sort of library and a holding place for scrolls and manuscripts.
Like similar complexes, the baths of Trajan included gardens, shops, and
housing for its workers.
The visible remains are scattered among its large footprint, which partially
overlaid the mad emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea and now is covered by the modern
Parco Oppio. The complex is located to the northeast of the Colosseum.
Some traces of the baths can be seen in the Parco Oppio, which is not the
most salubrious of public spaces in centro
The semicircular terrace projecting from the SW side of the platform. This structure is two stories high, in brick-faced concrete with a balcony along the upper edge supported by travertine brackets, some added during a modern restoration. It’s speculation that the semicircle was fitted with concentric rows of seating for the viewing of sporting events or other forms of performance. Beneath this are remnants of the Domus Aurea.
A large semicircular exhedra in brick-faced concrete at the western corner
of the outer precinct line with statue niches on two levels, missing its
Two walls of the central bathing block. The straighter one belonged to one of
the secondary hot rooms beside the main caladarium.
The semicircular one was a large exhedra beside the palestra courts; the
springing of its semi-dome concreate roof survives, with part of the first row
of square coffers which decorated the ceiling.
A large semi-circular fountain house (nymphaeum at the eastern corner. The
entire exhedra floor was a large water basin, filled by fountains set in the
row alternatively round headed and rectangular niches around the lower zone of
the enclosing wall. The semi-dome had hexagonal coffering on its ceiling and
the walls were lines with colored marble veneer. A corridor runs on two levels
round the outside, probably connecting with a two-story colonnaded gallery
which right round the outside of the precinct.
Trajan’s baths are not done with their secrets. Archeological excavations within the past 20 years have brought to light large frescoes on various themes – no images available for publication here. Go to Rome and find them for yourself.
My name is Ursus, and I was first among the Romans
To play with grace the glass-ball game with my companions,
Cheered on (I tell the truth) by large applauding crowds
In the Baths of Trajan, Titus, Agrippa, and often Nero.
Rejoice, my fellow ballplayers, gather round my statue
And load it down with leafy boughs, with garlands of violet
And rose, dispense with loving care the pungent scents,
And with the finest wines from my ancestral cellar
Pour libations out for me, though I still live.
Eulogize old Ursus with one concordant voice:
“He was a witty, cheerful, extremely learnèd ballplayer
Surpassing all in strategy, grace, and subtle skill.”
But let an old man use this verse to tell the truth:
I’ve been defeated, I confess, not once or twice
But often, by Verus, three times consul and my patron,
The urban wall that once enclosed St. Peter’s basilica and its neighborhood is one of the best preserved monuments of medieval Rome, but it seldom gets the love it deserves. How many who pass through the wall or encounter portions of it in the hotels, restaurants and other buildings constructed along it, and which even incorporate this medieval wall into their design, know when, why and how that it was built?
the fifteenth century most travelers arriving in Rome via the pilgrimage routes
that traversed northern Italy would pass through the Porta San Pellegrino and
see (if not read) this inscription:
Traveler who comes and goes, notice this beauty that Leo IV has now willingly built. These fair summits shine with shaped marble made by men’s hands and pleasing for their beauty. This triumphant prelate carried out this great work that you see in the time of the unconquered Caesar Lothar. I believe that the wars of evil-mined men will never harm you, nor will your enemies triumph further. Rome, head of the world, splendor, hope, golden Rome, o nurse, behold how your prelate’s effort is on display! This City is called Leonine from its founder’s name.
On June 27, 852, Pope Leo IV and his clerical entourage of bishops, priests, deacons and “all the orders of the Roman Church,” barefoot and with ash on their heads, consecrated Porta San Pellegrino with this prayer:
O God, who did confer on your apostle Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven and did grant him the pontificate of binding and loosing, grant that the help of his intercession we may be delivered from the bonds of our sins; and cause that this city which we have newly founded with your assistance may ever remain safe from your wrath and have and manifold triumphs over the enemy on whose account it has been constructed; through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Life of Leo IV -Liber Pontificalis
Leonine wall was roughly two miles in length. It ran westward from the Tiber
and enclosed St. Peter’s basilica the adjacent area, which included churches
and monasteries, and the neighborhoods of foreign residents that developed
around St. Peter’s. Though nearly all of the western and southern segments of
it have disappeared, several substantial lengths of the northern segment
survive in the Vatican gardens and (more visibly) along the street that runs
from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Vatican palace.
The story of the wall that answers the questions when, why and how is worth knowing.
The Assault on St. Peter’s Basilica
sea off the west coast of Italy and been a-swarm with Muslim freebooters based
in Africa and Spain for much of the ninth century when a band of them landed at
Ostia (now Ostia Antica), the port of Rome, on Monday August 23, 846.
Contemporary reports state 11,000 men, 500 horses and 73 ships constituted the
raiding force. This force defeated the garrison at Ostia and forced the relief militia
sent from Rome, which included Romans as well as Franks, Saxons and Lombards,
to retreat refuge behind the walls of Rome.
They were safe behind the third-century walls of the city, but the richly endowed cult centers, especially the basilicae of St. Peter and St. Paul, remained vulnerable to plundering by, what a contemporary Roman writer called, “that plague-bearing race.” The raiding party arrived at the city around twilight on August 25. Having been deterred from entering Rome, the invaders turned their attention to the basilica of St. Peter. A seeming rag-tag force of Romans and foreigners present in Rome left the city to engage the marauders there at the site of St. Peter’s martyrdom, but their intervention was unsuccessful.
… and there the horseman swarmed from the ships, and made a surprise attack on St. Peter the prince of apostles’ church with unspeakable iniquities. Then all the companies of Romans, left leaderless, came out to Campus Neronis to face the armed men …
Life of sergius II – Liber pontificalis
Roman account ends in mid-sentence, apparently due to loss in manuscript preservation,
but the choked voiced enhances the drama of the moment.
The shock of this blow to the caput mundi meant that accounts spread throughout Christendom, and more monastic chroniclers outside of Rome recorded the immediate outcome of this invasion.
The Saracens and the Moors laid waste the basilica of St. Peter and, along with the very altar which had been placed over his tomb, they carried off all the ornaments and treasures.
annals of st-bertin
basilica of St. Paul on via Ostiense received similar treatment from the invaders.
The Saracens didn’t make a clean break with their loot. There are conflicting accounts of subsequent events. Sources agree that the raiders did not make a clean escape, and that a combination of fighting with Italian naval forces and stormy weather wrecked at least part of bandits’ fleet.
Muslim raiders did return to the coast around Rome with the apparent aim of returning to the city and the endowed churches that stood vulnerable outside its walls, but they were defeated near Ostia. There was a continued Muslim presence in area south of Rome into the tenth century, but the city itself was not attacked again.
The papal and imperial response
In response to this attack, the papal and imperial authorities had to two objectives. One was to protect the basilica of St. Peter from future incursions by building a wall to protect the shrines and the settlements that had grown up around it, and the other was to replenish the endowment of the basilica.
papacy and empire were allies and competitors. The newly elected Pope Leo IV is
the better remembered benefactor of Rome, but the work the emperor Lothar
(grandson of Charlemagne) in achieving those objectives, especially as fund
raisers, was essential to their success. Each man wanted to be perceived as the primary
benefactor of the restoration of St. Peter’s basilica. Contemporary sources
were partisan and championed either papal or imperial claims. This account
focuses on papal sources.
The Romans captured a substantial body of Saracen prisoners in the course of these raids. Sources provide no hard numbers, but they the number was so great as to be unmanageable. Consequently, the Romans divided the captives into two groups. The men in group were executed by hanging in the trees around Ostia. The others were brought to Rome to performed forced labor, including work building the wall around St. Peter’s.
We ordered that some should live, bound in iron, but for one reason only so that they could know clearly clearer than light both our hope, which we have in God, and his ineffable piety, and also their own tyranny. After this to stop them living idly or without distress among us, we were bidding them to carry out everything, sometimes at the wall we were building around St. Peter the apostle’s church, sometimes at various manufacturers’ tasks, whatever seemed necessary.
The replenished endowment of St. Peter’s basilica
At the same time that the walls were being built, Pope Leo IV and other donors began to replenish the endowment of St. Peter’s with liturgical furnishings. The contemporary biography of Leo describes his offerings. The confessio of St. Peter, the area of the saint’s tomb, received the most conspicuous of these gifts. The main altar of the basilica particularly above the confessio. Together the tomb, altar and confessio comprise the most sacred area of the basilica. Two sets of steps lead down to confessio, which is slightly below floor level. This is the same level as the grottoes of the current basilica, where the tombs of popes continue to be placed. The tombs of the grotto level around the tomb of Peter. This level is slightly raised above the ancient cemetery buried beneath the basilica. The confessio was a conspicuous site of papal patronage.
In St. Peter the apostle’s church after the Saracens looting this God-protected pontiff provided fine silver railings weighing 800 pounds, which are in front of his confessio; and four silver-gilt panels which are on the steps in the front of the confessio, and two lambs, which together weigh 44 pounds. There too he presented crowns in porphyry of wondrous size, decorated in fine gold with 12 dolphins with an inscription of the name of this bountiful prelate, the actual gold weighing 3.5 pounds, also 10 fine silver arches there decorated around with gold interweave.
life of leo iv -liber pontificalis
Leo also provided gifts for liturgical use in other parts of the basilica all made with precious metals, silk and jewels. The most specular may have been “a crucifix constructed of wondrous size of fine silver-gilt and with jacinth jewels and one other large pearl, weighing 77 pounds.” The volume and quality of gifts presented here attests to the importance of this shrine as the spiritual center of Roman Christendom.
Dedication of the walls: June 27,
walls created what early medieval documents call the “new City” and more
frequently the Civitas Leonina, the Leonine City, after its founder Pope Leo
After performing the blessing and evocation at the Porta San Pellegrino, Pope Leo and his clerical entourage continued on their procession around the circuit of the walls. This movement paused at the two other gates in the wall, where similar evocations were made and were inscriptions that lauded the work of Leo were placed.
Then at last with the works of the new city finished and completed as we have related, the blessed pope, who is in all things praiseworthy, in order that this city (which is called Leonine from its founder’s own name) might stand strong and firm forever, order with the devotion of a great spirit and in joy of heart that all the bishops, priests, deacons, and all the orders of the clergy of the Roman church should, after litanies and the chanting of the psalter, with hymns and spiritual chants, go with him round the whole circuit of the walls, barefoot and with ash on their heads. They humbly fulfilled what he had ordered. The venerable pontiff himself pronounced three prayers over this wall, with much weeping and sighing, asking and beseeching that this city might both be preserved forever by Christ’s aid and endure safe and unshaken from every incursion of it enemies by the guardianship of all the saints and angels.
June 24 is the annual Roman festival of Fors Fortuna, the goddess luck, chance and fate.
Time slips by and we age silently with the years,
There’s no bridle to curb the flying days.
How swiftly the festival of Fors Fortuna’s arrived!
Celebration of this festival had the character of a spirited pilgrimage. Celebrants came by foot and by boat. It was a day of playfulness, joy and drinking.
Quirites, come celebrate the goddess Fors, with joy:
She has her royal show on Tiber’s banks.
Hurry on foot, and others in swift boats:
It’s no shame to return home tipsy.
Garlanded barges, carry your bands of youths,
Let them drink deep of the wine, mid-stream.
The Romans dedicated several temples to this goddess, all of them on the banks of the Tiber. Servius Tullius, king of Rome from 575–535 BC, is said to have founded one of these temples. A second temple was founded by a certain Cervalius in 293 BC from the spoils of war. Both of these were built on via Portuensis, the road that ran from the city to the coast. According to legend, the founders were of humble background and had ancestors born as slaves.
The people worship her, because they say the founder
Of her shrine was one of them, and rose from humble rank,
To the throne, and her worship suits slaves, because Servius
Was slave-born, who built the nearby shrines of the fatal goddess.
The most famous of these temples was in Trastevere, where it was built in gardens that Julius Caesar bequeathed to the Roman people for public use. The gardens hosted Cleopatra during her sojourn in Rome. The poet Ovid, whose verse from the Fasti is featured here, did not known this temple, since he had been in exile from Rome for a number of years by the time this temple was dedicated in 17 AD.
Today Renaissance Villa Farnesina occupies this site. This villa was developed by the banker Agostino Chigi, who commissioned Raphael other leading artists to embellish the building.
On my way to Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, a chance conversation with an acquaintance brought back to life a perennial problem that confronts devotees of medieval Rome. The visit was part of my work that examines how the cult of saints generated the sacred topography of the medieval city. Mention of this research errand was met with a bemused stare. Then, “The medieval city? Ha! Bulldozed—it doesn’t exist.” After a minute more of distracted small talk, she wandered away along the Via dei Coronari, watching her own reflection in shop windows, her thoughts far from our conversation.
She was right, in a way. Generations of popes, cardinals, kings, mayors, dictators, speculators and their archeological flunkies had done a job on Rome with their shovels and their pickaxes, some in search of the classical city and others in the quest to create a model of urban planning. For a medievalist, a walk around town can be a bummer. What’s left to see? Many medieval buildings that survived to modern times now are known only from the early years of photography, others have been restored beyond recognition, and some even have been uprooted and reassembled in new locations, cut away from their native context.
Yet, the medieval city is still here to be found. The antidote to heartbreak is to know how to look for it. The Middle Ages in Rome—if one equates the period with the ascendancy of Christian cultural and political influence—began in the cemeteries on the suburban fringe of the city. Why there and not in the monumental center of the city? One persistent view holds that this was because the emperor Constantine, patron of the Roman Church, wanted to appease the still pagan aristocrats by leaving the center untouched by a cult that not long before had been persecuted as a subversive presence in the city.
Maybe, but that’s not the best explanation. Constantine understood that the heart of Christian culture was located there at the martyrs’ tombs that filled the cemeteries flanking the roads outside the third-century urban walls. So it was there that he built the great basilicae and other foundations to honor those Christian heroes. These included both universal figures like Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome, and the local blessed, like St. Lawrence (225 – 258) on the Via Tiburtina and St. Agnes (c. 291 – c. 304), whose tomb on the Via Nomentana was my destination that day.
The Notitia Ecclesiarum urbis Romae is an early
catalogue of the devotional practices of the faithful in these peripheral
areas. This work provides detailed information on the churches, catacombs and
other sites to which pilgrims were drawn, including the church and catacomb
sites associated with St. Agnes. The dynasty of Constantine took a special
interest in Agnes. A large basilica was erected on the site and now lies in
ruins. Then Constantia, the daughter of the emperor, constructed a mausoleum
for herself and perhaps her sister adjacent to the basilica to demonstrate her
devotion to the saint resting in the nearby catacomb.
The papacy soon followed the imperial lead. Pope Damasus I (366–384) erected one of his famed metric epigraphs to honor St. Agnes not long after the basilica was constructed. The original inscription is preserved in the present church. The Liber Pontificalis, the collection of serial biographies of Roman bishops, documents how the papacy acted as patron to the cult of St. Agnes throughout the early Middle Ages. The frequency and high quality of the gifts given to St. Agnes by successive popes demonstrate the exalted position of her cult among Romans. The most lasting of these gifts was a new church constructed by Pope Honorius (625–638). This is the church one visits today. The intimacy between the popes and the cult is clear here. The altar stands between reliquary of St. Agnes in the catacomb below and the apse mosaic above, which depicts Honorius offering the church to the saint. This church remains one of the most beautiful in Rome.
To find the medieval city, I
follow the trail of the cult of saints as it moved from these peripheral sites
to inhabit the monumental heart of the city. The development of the cult of St.
Agnes provides insight into this phenomenon. The Passio Sanctae Agnetis, the narrative of Agnes’
martyrdom, is one of about 150 hagiographic texts related to Roman martyrs
known collectively as the Gesta Martyrum.
The events narrated by these texts are said to have occurred before the
reign of Constantine, but identifiable temporal contexts are scare among
them. The title Gesta Martyrum is taken from
the Liber Pontificalis, which states that Pope Fabian
(236-250) assigned scribes to record the acts of martyrs in Rome. No
trace of this supposed work has been found to exist, so a relationship to these
hagiographic writings cannot be established.
Scholars approach these texts
from three critical perspectives. One is to accept the texts as transmitting a
historical account with some embellishment of the events they depict. A second
perspective perceives them as pious fictions meant to edify and entertain
members of an increasingly Christianized society. The third approach goes a
step further. It focuses on the date of composition of these narratives,
thought to be the fourth and fifth centuries. To these scholars, each gesta provides insight into the ideas and
attitudes of contemporary writers and audiences. These hagiographic writings
align the legends of the saints with the religious and political realities of
an increasingly Christianized society, one in which pagan opposition to
Christian predominance has almost entirely disappeared. Read together with
other evidence, it’s clear that the sacred topography of the city within the
walls had by then reflected this reality.
Papal patronage and perhaps elite Roman families directed how St. Agnes and other saints’ cults migrated into the city in both texts and in buildings. In addition to the complex on the Via Nomentana, two other foundations are known to have been dedicated to St. Agnes. The earliest known references to them are in the eighth and ninth centuries, but there is reason to believe that cult of St. Agnes was present in the city long before. For instance, Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) demonstrated his devotion to St. Agnes by distributing her relics to foundations outside of Rome. Also, churches in other parts of Rome were dedicated to St. Cecilia and St. Susanna, who share similar attributes of sanctity as Agnes: local, female, martyr. And, all three of these saints were included the sixth-century Roman canon of prayer. Clearly, these cults had a presence in the life of the city.
The monastery dedicated to Agnes Ad Duo Furna is the first mention, in the life of Pope Gregory II (715-731), of a foundation within the walls associated with her cult. This monastery later was combined with nearby Santa Prassede. It continues to host a chapel dedicated to her, an arrangement made by Pope Paschal (817–824). Sant’Agnese in Agone is the most famous of the churches dedicated to her. The first mention of it dates from the first half of the eighth century, but the date of its foundation is not known and was likely much earlier. The name of this piazza is a later rendering of “in agone,” which demonstrates the influence of cult as a shaper of the topography of the city. The peculiar relationship of theses suburban and urban foundations to Agnes’ Passio intimate how the sacred topography of Rome changed between the fourth and subsequent centuries. The storyline of the Passio focuses on Agnes’s commitment to maintain her virginity by resisting the demands that she marry the son of one of most powerful pagan families of Rome. Her resistance to the family causes her to be condemned to life in a brothel, where still she maintains her virginity and where the miraculous power associated with her first appears. Indeed, the miracles that preserve her occur in this place of intended torment finally cause the pagan witnesses to make her a martyr.
Sant’Agnese fuori le mura appears at the conclusion of the Passio as the site of her interment and the post mortem miracles which attracted a crowd of devotees to her tomb. Perhaps surprisingly, Sant’Agnese in Agone is not mentioned in the Passio, though nearly all of the action later was said to have occurred in what would be the neighborhood of this church. The drama of the story takes in the vaguely named theatrum, which later was associated with the stadium of the emperor Domitian, site of the Piazza Navona. The arched structures of the stadium can still be visited below ground level today. One conclusion to draw is that the Passio was written before this church was founded, the implication being that the narrative inspired the identification of this location as the scene of events in the Passio. The use of the stadium location was opportunistic. And it was persuasive. In Rome, places of this kind were associated with prostitution. Indeed, the word fornix, which means an arch or vault, was also used as a word for brothel. Here text and the physical city work together to reframe the spiritual topography of the city. The anonymous ruin became the site of spiritual power that has persisted for until the present day. This is just one of many instances where the inherited remains of the classical city were adapted to create its medieval successor.
A ninth-century pilgrimage
catalogue, the Einsiedeln Itinerary,
demonstrates how the sacred topography of Rome had changed and would continue
to function like the nervous system of the medieval for hundreds of years. It
is here that Sant’Agnese in Agone is first documented, though the church
certainly had been in place for some time. This work is a
collection of itineraries of pilgrims moving from sacred site to sacred site
through the city, each beginning at one gate in the city wall and terminating
at another. Contrast it with the Notitia Ecclesiarum urbis Romae,
which names just one church within the walls, leaving a large white area on its
mental map of Rome. Conversely, the Einsiedeln Itinerary pays
scant attention to the area outside the walls, noticing sites there only in
relation to those inside the city. There inside the walls Sant’Agnese in
Agone is not isolated but is one of many churches, the saints and their patrons
together creating the medieval city.
Moving towards home again later that night I found myself there with Agnes in her city place. I remembered the earlier conversation with the friend who was content not to know any of the things that sent me out across the city and back. Leaving Piazza Navona I was on Via dei Coronari again, where the awkward goodbye occurred that morning. Chances are she’s never wondered how Agnes got there.