Looking for medieval Rome

News from Rome: two years after our plans were cancelled, Valentina says, yes, the after dark, candlelit visit to the catacomb of Priscilla will happen next month. And, yes, we’ll meet at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, my favorite church in the city, then walk to Via Salaria to see Priscilla; and yes, we’ll have dinner at Da Ettore on Corso Trieste. And, yes she wants me to write an updated version of my article about looking for medieval Rome. So now it’s time for work, and it’s time to get ready for Rome again.

Law! Power! Spolia!

In imperial Rome monumental buildings expressed the majestic qualities of the regime: harmony, beauty, power, and piety. As the unity of the empire waned in the western portion of the empire, emperors continued to affirm the significance of public monuments and to invest in their maintenance and new building.

The Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), the emblematic monument to the imperial prestige that was consecrated in honor of Augustus in 9 BCE.

Beginning in the fourth century, emperors promulgated laws against using adornments and building materials from public monuments for private use. The last and most restrictive of these laws was posted in Trajan’s Forum by the emperor Majorian, who was deposed and murdered in 461, just a few years from the year 476, the fateful year often seen as the endpoint of empire in the west.

Built adjacent to the Colosseum in 315, the Arch of Constantine was among the earliest monuments constructed by re-using parts taken from earlier monuments.

Imperial affirmations didn’t change reality. In Rome, the poor the built modest houses from found materials, and the powerful used their influence to disassemble venerable monuments to construct new and ever-more magnificent palaces that demonstrated their status.

Exterior of part of a late antique aristocratic home transformed into the church of Santa Lucia.

From before the time the last emperor reigned and onward in time,  spolia, recycled marble and other prestige-granting materials, were used to create some of the beautiful works of art and utilitarian buildings that still are seen in Rome today. My favorites are the Cosamatesque floors, the columns gathered to build medieval churches, and decorative features of private homes found here and there in the city.

Cosmatesque pavements created from marble fragments cut from ancient monuments. These medieval floors are found in churches all over Rome.

On Public Buidlings. The Emperors Leo and Majorian to Aemillianus, City Prefect. While we govern the state, we are anxious to correct obnoxious practices which have long been allowed to deface the appearance of the Venerable City. For it is obvious that public buildings, wherein consists the whole beauty of the Roman state, are on all sides being destroyed by the most deplorable connivance of the city administration.

Edict of Majorian
Note the different type of marble, and capitals of these ancient columns that were used in the construction of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

While the requisite materials for public buildings are being collected, the noble constructions of antiquity are being torn down, and a great desecration is committed to allow a trivial repair. This has given rise to the practice that allows even individuals building private houses to filch and transport without hesitation, and with the indulgence of the city magistrates, what they require from public buildings, although all that contributes to the magnificence of the city should be kept in good repair by the zeal of the citizens.

Ancient sculpture used to adorn gate of a modern house.

We therefore proclaim by a general law that all public buildings, and everything deposited in temples for monuments by our ancestors for public use or amenity, my not be destroyed by anyone: further, that a justice who shall permit such a contravention , shall be fined fifty pounds weight of gold: further, that public servants and account-keepers who obey such a command and do not withstand it by objections on their own account, should be forced to undergo cudgeling, and should have amputated those hands by which they violated those monuments of antiquity which we are bound to protect.

Ancient column and other materials incorporated into a later building.

Benvenuto Cellini—Master Artist, Master Memorist and the Sack of Rome 6 May 1527

So there I was in Castel Sant’Angelo. I went up to some guns that were in the charge of a bombardier called Giuliano the Florentine. He was staring out over the battlements to where his poor house was being sacked and his wife and children outraged. He dared not fire in case he harmed his own family, and flinging his fuse on the ground he started tearing at his face and sobbing bitterly. Other bombardiers were doing the same.

Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini

Night came on and the enemy were in Rome. Those of us in the castle, especially myself with my constant delight in seeing unfamiliar things, stayed where we were, contemplating the conflagration and the unbelievable spectacle before our eyes. It was such that it could only be seen or imagined by those in the castle. But I shall not begin describing it; I shall just carry on with the story of my own life and the events that really belong to it …

Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Last thoughts on la dolce vita—5 April 1904

In her Rome diary, all-but-forgotten essayist Vernon Lee (a pseudonym) recalls the traces left by the unnamed, the unheard and the invisible, 5 April 1904. For fun, I’ve included photographs of my friend Dominot, who had a modest but memorable role in Fellini’s great film, La Dolce Vita.

Yesterday morning while looking through my Roman notes of the last 20 years, I felt, with odd vividness, the various myselfs who suffered and hoped while writing them. And even more I felt the presence of the beloved ones who, unmentioned, not even alluded to, had been present in those various successive Romes of mine.

All of them have changed; some are dead, others were never really living. But while I turned over my notebooks, there they were back. Back with their feeling of then; back with presence (in one case the presence of a distant companion, to whom I could show these things only in thought); their complete realization or their half explicit charm, their still unshattered promise. Of all these things I find not a word, barely a name; nothing telling of them to others.

Only to me, in these sites, impersonal and almost eternal, on these walls which have stood and may stand two thousand more, and these hillsides and roads full of the world’s legend- there appear, visible, distinct, the shadows cast by my own life; the forms and faces of these changed, gone, dead ones, and my own.

A room in the cabaret bar Baronato quattro belleze with glass floor above ancient remains. Dominot opened the place in 1984 and remained the MC until he died a few years ago.

Charles Dickens—an eyewitness in Rome, 8 March 1845

Who reads the travel writing of Charles Dickens?

On his travels, beyond being feted by local dignitaries, Dickens examined the penal system in the places he visited. In Rome, he witnessed and wrote a vivid account of the execution by beheading of Giovanni Vagnarelli, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a pilgrim on her way to Rome.

He preserved us a moment of Rome that no longer can be experienced. The scene is just outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the beautiful church featured in the film Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visit the Bocca della Veritá.

Dickens’ account was published in the collection Pictures from Italy. Read the entire essay below. It’s really good.

The abolition of capital punishment by civil authorities had its origins in Italy. Tuscany, in the eighteenth century, was the first state to do away with it. The government of the Papal States was the last to impose it. The last execution in Rome took place just a few years before the Eternal City became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

Preparing for an execution in Rome

Charles Dickens: “When Mastro Titta Crossed the Bridge”

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff.

He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

Mastro Titta’s memoir, Mastro Titta: the executioner of Rome: Memoirs of a corpse-maker written by himself, aims for a more bouncy account of his work than the tone found in Dickens. The book is hard to find; anyone else have a copy?

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni Decollato (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them.

Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.
At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Mastro Titta killed over 500 people by various gruesome means. It was a part-time occupation. He was a souvenir manufactuer and salesman St. Peter’s basilica in the other part of his life. His bloodstained clothes and the tools of the executioner’s trade are on display at the Museum of Criminology in Rome.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers.

Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney- coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Mastro Titta exhibiting the remains of the departed.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. “Attention!” was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last.

It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man – six-and-twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

Current image of the site of the execution on 8 March 1845. The church of S. Maria in Cosemedin is just out of the frame to the right; S. Giovanni Decollato is out of frame to the left.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw EX OFFICIO (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Exterior of the church of S Giovanni Decollato, the church that housed the confraternity that served spiritual needs of the condemned. Michelangelo, who lived in the area, was a member.

House hunting in the Roman Forum—7 March 982!!!

John, archdeacon of Santa Maria Nova, leased a pretty fancy house to Leo, a priest at the nearby church of Cosma e Damiano in Via Sacra. The property was adapted from the twin, back-to back temples of Venus and Rome that had been constructed by the emperor Hadrian 850 years before. Nice location: views of the Colosseum and close to public transportation.

Here’s how the lease describes the property.

i.e., a two-storied house with roof tiles, the entire house both the upper and lower floors, from the foundations to the roof, with a small courtyard, a pergola and marble staircase in front and with the garden, in which there are fruit-bearing trees, behind the house, with the entrance and exit ways and all that pertains to this property, which is located in the fourth region of of Rome, not far from the colossus in the temple called Romuleum, and is bordered by, on one side, the house of Romanus, an iron-monger, and also house of Franco and Sergio, who are brothers, and the garden belonging to the heirs of the late Kalopetro; on the second side this property is bordered by the garden of Constantine and his associates; on the third side by the house of Stephen, a bronze worker, and the adjacent garden of the most noble Anna; and the on the fourth side by a public road.

Id est domus solarata tegulicia et scandolicia una in integrum  cum inferiora et superiora sua a solo et usque a summon tecto, cum corticella sua et pergola atque scala marmoreal ante se cum hortuo suo post se in qua sunt arbores olibarum sue ceteras arbores pomarum, cum intriotu  et exoitu suo vel cum omnibus ad eam pertinentibus. Posita Romae regione quarta non longe a Colossus in templum quod vocatur Romuleum inter affines ad uno latere domum de Romano ferrario, atque domum de Franco et Sergio, germanis, sive hortuo de heredes quondam Kalopetro, et a secundo latere hortuo de Constaintino presbitero et de suis consortibus, et a tertio latere hortuo de Anna nobillissima puella et domum de Stephano herario, a quarto latere via publica.

Hawthorne in a lost Roman landscape

Hawthorne and his characters went on a midnight ramble through the now vanished neighborhood around via Alessandria that had been built upon a field of Roman monuments, they passed the bakery built among the ruins and sauntered on to the Coliseum.

The party moved on, but deviated a little from the straight way, in order to glance at the ponderous remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor, within which a convent of nuns is now established; a dovecote, in the war-god’s mansion. At only a little distance, they passed the portico of the Temple of Minerva, most rich and beautiful in architecture, but woefully gnawed by time and shattered by violence, besides being buried midway in the accumulation of soil, that rises over dead Rome like a flood-tide. Within this edifice of antique sanctity, a baker’s shop was now established, with an entrance on one side; for everywhere, the remanants of old grandeur and divinity have been made available for the meanest necessities of to-day.

‘The baker is just drawing his loaves out of the oven,’ remarked Kenyon. ‘Do you smell how they are? I should fancy that Minerva (in revenge for the desecration of her temple) had slyly poured vinegar into the batch, if I did not know that the modern Romans prefer their bread in the acetous fermentation.’

They turned into the Via Alessandria, and thus gained the rear of the Temple of Peace, and passing beneath its great arches, pursued their way along a hedge-bordered lane. In all probability, a stately Roman street lay buried beneath that rustic-looking pathway; for they had now emerged from the close and narrow avenues of the modern city, and were treading on a soil where the seeds of antique grandeur had not yet produced the squalid crop, that elsewhere sprouts from them. Grassy as the lane was, it skirted along heaps of shapeless ruin, and the bare site of the vast temple that Hadrian planned and built. It terminated on the edge of a somewhat abrupt descent, at the foot of which, with a muddy ditch between, rose, in the bright moonlight, the great curving wall and multitudinous arches of the Coliseum.

Hawthorne’s lost landscape – map shows modern streets that were laid out upon & amidst the ruins he mentions – this neighborhood no longer exists due to various schemes of urban planning and archeological excavation


I remember the little white car going to Stefania’s last birthday party at the farmhouse and Mario getting up to make aglio olio when there was nothing to eat, then on the way home somehow getting lost between the Appia and viale Cristoforo Colombo, and Dominot: ‘sta calma!’.