Time slips by and we age silently with the years …

June 24 is the feast of Fors Fortuna, the goddess of good luck, divine blessings and fate. Celebration of this festival had the character of a spirited pilgrimage. Devotees came by foot and by boat. It was a day of playfulness, joy and drinking on the Tiber in Rome.

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! (Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, / et fugiunt freno non remorante dies. / quam cito venerunt Fortunae Fortis honores! / post septem luces Iunius actus erit.)

Ovid – Fasti
Rome, 1890. View from Rome towards Trastevere and the Farnesina, the site of Fors Fortuna

Ovid’s poem Fasti contains a description of the calendar of Roman religious festivals and dramatic narrative depictions of Roman mythology. In this work, Ovid presents himself as a bard writing by divine inspiration, “there is a divine power within me, and when it stirs I’m afire with inspiration,” (est deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo). He dedicated one book to each month of the year. Despite his claims to have completed the entire calendar year, the extant poem consists of books for the first sixth months of the year (January to June), and no quotation of the presumed remainder of the other six book-months is found in the work of other authors.

The Romans dedicated several temples to Fors Fortuna, 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.

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. (ite, deam laeti Fortem celebrate, Quirites: / in Tiberis ripa munera regis habet. / pars pede, pars etiam celeri decurrite cumba, / nec pudeat potos inde redire domum. / ferte coronatae iuvenum convivia, lintres, / multaque per medias vina bibantur aquas.)

Ovid – Fasti

Ruins on Tiber near the site of the temple of Fors Fortuna and the present-day Farnesina

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. At one time, the gardens hosted Cleopatra during her sojourn in Rome. Cicero complains about her presence there. 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.

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. (plebs colit hanc, quia qui posuit de plebe fuisse / fertur, et ex humili sceptra tulisse loco. / convenit et servis, serva quia Tullius ortus / constituit dubiae templa propinqua deae.)

Ovid – Fasti

Lanciani Forma urbis Romae (plate XX) Trastevere and Tiber

Today Renaissance Villa Farnesina occupies this site. This villa was developed by the banker Agostino Chigi, who commissioned Raphael other artists to embellish the building.  

Ovid began to compose Fasti in Rome presumably in hopes of in gaining the favor of Augustus (an avid reformer of Roman religious life) and other members of imperial family. He continued to write and to revise the poem after his banishment from Rome in 8 A.D to gain recall to Rome. Famously, Ovid attributed his exile to “a poem and mistake.” Whatever the official distaste for his early erotic poetry, his friendship with subversive members of the imperial family caused his final disgrace. From exile, Ovid dedicated Fasti to Germanicus, the ill-fated heir of the emperor Tiberius, and one of the most influential members of the imperial dynasty throughout his brief life. The appeal failed, and Ovid died in exile after 10 years of pining for return.

Paris thoughts in snowy New York

On the first day of frost and snow in New York here’s something nice from #ernesthemingway #moveablefeast #paris

Now you were accustomed to see the bare trees against the sky and you walked on the fresh-washed gravel paths though the Luxembourg gardens in the clear sharp wind. The trees were sculptures without their leaves when you were reconciled to them, and the winter winds blew across the surfaces of the ponds and the fountains blew in bright light …

hemingway-a moveable feast (miss stein instructs)

Augustus, Ovid and the Ara Pacis—consecrated 30 January 9 BC

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar dedicated to the goddess Peace located in Rome. The role of Augustus in initiating a period of peace and prosperity was a key component of Augustan ideology. The altar was consecrated on 30 January 9 BC. The Roman Senate had commissioned the monument on 4 July 13 BC to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after he had spent three years in Hispania and Gaul.

Here is what Augustus says about the Ara Pacis in the “Res Gestae,” an account of his career that was inscribed on bronze tablets placed outside of his mausoleum, which will be open to visitors again this April.

On my return from Spain and Gaul, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilius, after successfully arranging affairs in those provinces, the senate resolved that an altar of the Augustan Peace should be consecrated in the Campus Martius in honor of my return, and ordered that the magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins should perform an annual sacrifice there.

Cum ex Hispania Galliaque rebus in iis provincis prospere gestis, Roman redi, Ti. Nerone P. Quintilio consulibus aram Pacis Augustae senatus pro reditu meo consacrandam censuit ad campus Martium in qua magistratus et sacerdotes virginesque Vestales anniversarium sacrificium facere iussit.

Originally the Ara Pacis stood in the Campus Martius along the urban segment of the Via Flaminia (the modern Corso), though outside of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome.

Lanciani FuR plate 8 showing the site of the Ara Pacis and the mausoleum of Augustus

The Campus Martius was a flood plain. Over time silt deposits from flooding covered the monument. Fragments of the monument were uncovered over time, and a dedicated effort of recovery was performed during the Fascist regime.

Mjussolini and Hitler examining part of the Ara Pacis

The museum that housed the Ara Pacis was inaugurated in 1938. Like other artifacts from Roman antiquity, the Ara Pacis was employed as an adornment of Fascist ideology.

Fascists officials at the inauguration of the original museum that housed the Ara Pacis

The Fascist-era building was replaced by one designed the Richard Meir in 2006. Like the building it replaced, this museum is located adjacent to the mausoleum of Augustus, between the tomb and the Tiber.

Res Gestae inscribed on the exterior wall of the current Ara Pacis museum

The Fasti of Ovid, a group of poems that describe the religious festivals of the Roman year, is the only extant literary reference to the Ara Pacis.

In 8 AD, Augustus sent Ovid to exile due to “a poem and a mistake,” according to another of the poet’s works in exile, Ex Ponto. The Fasti were composed as part of his petition for permission to return to Rome. The quality of his writing remained high, but no poem or friend could bring him home; he died in Black Sea relegatio in 18 AD after ten years away from Rome.

My song has led to the altar of Peace itself.
This day is the second from the month’s end.
Come, Peace, your graceful tresses wreathed
With laurel of Actium: stay gently in this world.
While we lack enemies, or cause for triumphs:
You’ll be a greater glory to our leaders than war.
May the soldier be armed to defend against arms,
And the trumpet blare only for processions.
May the world far and near fear the sons of Aeneas,
And let any land that feared Rome too little, love her.
Priests, add incense to the peaceful flames,
Let a shining sacrifice fall, brow wet with wine,
And ask the gods who favor pious prayer
That the house that brings peace, may so endure.
Now the first part of my labor is complete,
And as its month ends, so does this book.

Ipsum nos carmen deduxit Pacis ad aram:
haec erit a mensis fine secunda dies.
frondibus Actiacis comptos redimita capillos,
Pax, ades et toto mitis in orbe mane.
dum desint hostes, desit quoque causa triumphi:
tu ducibus bello gloria maior eris.
sola gerat miles, quibus arma coerceat, arma,
canteturque fera nil nisi pompa tuba.
horreat Aeneadas et primus et ultimus orbis:
siqua parum Romam terra timebat, amet.
tura, sacerdotes, Pacalibus addite flammis,
albaque perfusa victima fronte cadat;
utque domus, quae praestat eam, cum pace perennet
ad pia propensos vota rogate deos.
Sed iam prima mei pars est exacta laboris,
cumque suo finem mense libellus habet.

Caligula—Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus— gets stabbed in the obscaena and dies 24 January 41

I love how Suetonius pushes all the right buttons to make the reader love and despise the Caesars. Caligula was his most sustained hatchet job. This grim and menacing figure, even when played with the charm of John Hurt in I, Claudius, makes Nero seem merely to have been a petulant boy operating under the influence of affluenza.

The ruins of the palace on the Palatine looking toward the Circus Maximus with a United Nations office building in the distance

After reading 57 chapters of Rome gone bonkers in Seutonius’ life of Gaius, we all know that Caligula has it coming. Our narrator tells us, “While he was running riot and laying waste in this way, a number of people had the idea of making an attempt on his life … Many prodigies foretold his violent end.”

Ita bacchantem atque grassantem non defuit plerisque animus adoriri … Futurae caedis multa prodigia exstiterunt.

The cryptoporticus on the Palatine believed to be site of the murder

His murder—undertaken during public games and performed in a passageway beneath the palace—was dramatic and messy.

“On the ninth day before the Kalends of February … There are two versions of the rest of the story. Some say that while he was speaking to the boys Chaerea, approaching from behind, gave the emperor’s neck a deep cut with his sword, shouting, “Take this!;’ then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, the other conspirator, ran his chest through from the front. Others report that Sabinus, who had arranged for soldiers who were in on the plot to get rid of the crowd, asked Caligula for the password following usual military practice. When Caligula replied ‘Jupiter,’ Chaerea shouted ‘Let it be so!’ As Caligula looked behind him, Chaerea split his jaw with a blow. As he lay with his limbs twisted up, repeatedly calling out that he was alive, others finished him off with 30 blows. All acted on the signal, ‘Again,’ Some even stabbed him in the nuts.”

VIIII. Kal. Febr. hora fere septima … Duplex dehinc fama est: alii tradunt adloquenti pueros a tergo Chaeream cervicem gladio caesim graviter percussisse praemissa voce: ‘hoc age!’ Dehinc Cornelium Sabinum, alterum e coniuratis, tribunum ex adverso traiecisse pectus; alii Sabinum summota per conscios centuriones turba signum more militiae petisse et Gaio ‘Iovem dante Chaeream exclamasse: ‘accipe ratum!’ Respicientique maxillam ictu discidisse. Iacentem contractisque membris clamitantem se vivere ceteri vulneribus triginta confecerunt; nam signum erat omnium: ‘repete!’ Quidam etiam per obscaena ferrum adegerunt.

View across the Circus Maximus toward the ruins of the Palatine

Truman Capote and his pet bird Lola in Rome

Truman Capote wasn’t much of a sightseer. Still, he seems to have had a wonderful time in Rome, the city with more sights to see than perhaps any other. He was more interested in examining personalities, especially the bigshots who opened the world to him. And he always had a pet companion. He lived with his crow Lola at 33 Via Margutta, a little street not far from Piazza di Spagna.

Snowfall Via Margutta

We settled for the winter in Rome, first at a hotel (the management of which expelled us after five days, and was not even a first-class establishment), then in an apartment at 33 Via Margutta, a narrow street often painted by bad painters and renowned for the number of cats who dwell there, unowned cats sheltering in the overgrown patios and existing on the charity of half-mad elderly women, crones who every day tour the cat jungles with sacks of scrap food.

Here he is writing to his high school teacher Catherine Wood on January 3, 1953.

I am freezing in Rome. I have two electrical heaters but they just barely take the chill off the room. The floors are marble—absolute ice. I can hardly hold this pen. Princess Caetani arranged for me to have a private audience with the Pope. It was supposed to last 15 minutes, but I stayed more than half-an-hour, an extraordinary man, so really charming and beautiful.

Via Margutta

You can read about Lola, the apartment and the neighborhood in Capote’s posthumous collection of essays, Portraits and Observations.

Our apartment was a penthouse; to reach it one climbed six flights of steep dark stairs. We had three rooms a balcony. It was because of the balcony that I rented it; after the vastness of the view from the Sicilian terrace, the balcony offered, in contrast, a miniature scene as tranquil and perfect as firelight: several Roman rooftops, faded orange, faded ocher, and a few across-the-way windows (behind which episodes of family life could be observed).

Truman and Lola

When the sun was out Lola always took her bath on the balcony balustrade. Her tub was a silver soup dish; after a moment of sprightly immersion in the shallow water, she would spring up and out, and as though casting off a crystal cloak, shake yourself, swell her feathers; later, for long bliss-saturated hours, she drowsed in the sun, her head tilted back, her beak ajar, her eyes shut. To watch her was a soothing experience.

Titus Flavius Vespasianus—the delight and darling of the human race—born in Rome 30 December 39 CE

Have you see today’s obituary of the great humanist and master of literature (and my teacher and friend) Reggie Foster in the NYT? It’s a little bit of fact, more exaggeration, and the repetition of stories that began as sarcastic jokes and later presented as confession in various sources. The obit in Reggie’s hometown Milwaukee paper was warmer, but the best account of the man’s personality is the recent article, The Vatican’s Latinist.

Suetonius was frequent visitor to Reggie’s classroom. The life of Titus is not my favorite, but since it’s his birthday here are a few highlights to savor anglice et latine.

Birth

Titus, who bore his father’s cognomen Vespasianus, was the delight and darling of the human race. Whether through innate disposition, policy, or fortune, such was his success that he secured the good will of all, and that too—a most difficult task—while he was emperor. For while he was a private citizen and even during the reign of his father, he did not evade hatred, let alone criticism by the public. He was born three days before the kalends of January in the memorable year that Caligula was murdered, in a modest house near the septizonium. The room itself was dark and dingy, and today it still exists and is on display.

Titus cognomine paterno, amor ac deliciae generis humani, (tantum illi ad promerendam omnium voluntatem vel ingenii vel artis vel fortunae superfuit, et, quod difficillimum est, in imperio: quando privatus atque etiam sub patre principe ne odio quidem, nedum vituperatione publica caruit), natus est III. Kal. Ian. insigni anno Gaiana nece, prope Septizonium, sordidis aedibus, cubiculo vero perparvo et obscuro (nam manet adhuc et ostenditur)

Denarius of Titus

A man of quality

His qualities of mind and body were conspicuous even when he was a boy but still more when he came of age. His appearance was striking, conveying both authority and charm; he was unusually strong though not tall, and his stomach protruded a little. He had an exceptional memory and the ability to grasp almost all the arts of both war and peace.

In puero statim corporis animique dotes exsplenduerunt, magisque ac magis deinceps per aetatis gradus; forma egregia et cui non minus auctoritatis inesset quam gratiae, praecipuum robur, quamquam neque procera statura et ventre paulo proiectiore; memoria singularis, docilitas ad omnis fere tum belli tum pacis artes

Arch of Titus

Randy Romanus

He was suspected of self-indulgence on the grounds that he would engage in drinking bouts that lasted  with the most dissolute companions that lasted past midnight, he was also accused of lustfulness because of his troupes of catamites and eunuchs, and because of his passion for Queen Berenice, to whom he is even said to have promised marriage.

Praeter saevitiam suspecta in eo etiam luxuria erat, quod ad mediam noctem comissationem cum profusissimo quoque familiarum extenderet; nec minus libido, propter exoletorum et spadonum greges propterque insignem reginae Berenices amorem, cum etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur

Warren Cup – British Museum

Impressario

He was as generous as any of his imperial predecessors. At the dedication of the Colosseum and of the nearby baths that hear his name, he put on the most splendid gladiatorial games. He also staged a mock battle at the old Naumachia, and in the same place a gladiatorial show; on a single day 5,000 of a great variety of animals were killed in a single day.

Et tamen nemine ante se munificentia minor, amphitheatro dedicato thermisque iuxta celeriter exstructis, munus edidit apparatissimum largissimusque; dedit et navale proelium in veteri naumachia, ibidem et gladiatores atque uno die quinque milia omne genus ferarum.

Piranesi – Ruins of the Baths of Titus

Humanitarian

During his reign a number of disasters occurred, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania and an enormous fire Rome that lasted three days and nights; and a plague that had unprecedented severity. In the face of calamites of such magnitude, Titus expressed not just the concern of an emperor, but the love which only a parent can provide, giving consolation in his edicts and as much practical help that his resources could provide.

Quaedam sub eo fortuita ac tristia acciderunt, ut conflagratio Vesevi montis in Campania, et incendium Romae per triduum totidemque noctes, item pestilentia quanta non temere alias. In iis tot adversis ac talibus non modo principis sollicitudinem sed et parentis affectum unicum praestitit, nunc consolando per edicta, nunc opitulando quatenus suppeteret facultas.

Vesuvius and Pompeii

The Bird in Rome #tennesseewilliams

Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.

I found this graffiti on Vicolo del Bollo above and to the right of a nasone. It reminded me that Gore Vidal called Tennessee Williams the Glorious Bird first from premonition of his greatness and later because GV understood that Tennessee soared high above his contemporaries.

How lucky was I find to find this graffiti in Rome, the city where those two first met and where years later I joined them long after both had packed up and disappeared?

Rome 1948

Thoughts on old St. Peter’s basilica in Rome 12/12/882

Of all the disappeared wonders of the ancient world, the original basilica of St. Peter’s (extant c. 330 to 1505) is one I would most like to have experienced. Few of its features were preserved in the new church building. The accretion of memorials there was undoubtedly magnificent. We’ll never know.

Fragment of Navicella mosaic created for old St. Peter’s basilica

Here’s a report of an event that happened in old St. Peter’s on December 14, 882. It’s from the Annales Fuldenses, a contemporary Frankish history. It seems that order became shaky in Rome just as it had within the Carolingian dynasty.

Pope John (VIII) died. In his place Marinus, who was already bishop of Caere (near modern Cervetri not far from Rome), succeeded, contrary to canon law. A very wealthy man named Gregory, who was also a military commander that the Romans call a superista, was murdered by his colleague in the atrium of St. Peter’s; the floor of the church was drenched with his blood as he was dragged over it.

Annals of Fulda
Fragment of thirteenth-century mosaic once located in old St. Peter’s basilica and now in the Museo Barracco in Rome.

Iohannes pontifex Romanus decessit in cuius locum Marinus antea episcopus contra statuta canonum subrogatus est. Quidam Gregorius nomine quem Romani superistam vocitabant dives valde in paradiso sancti Petri a suo collega occisus est et pavimentum acceslesiae per quam trahebatur totum sanguine illius infectum.

Annales Fuldenses
Mosaic entitled Mater Misercordiae once located in old St. Peter’s basilica.

Finding Otto in the Vatican Grottoes

In Rome nothing is more absurd than the presence in the Pantheon (also known as Santa Maria ad Martyres since 608 AD) of the worm-ridden corpses of the first kings of the modern Kingdom of Italy, who made the Eternal City their capital in 1871. They’re gone but not all the way forgotten. The ridiculous, black-shirted guard that stands vigil over the graves is eager to restore to power this line of monarchs, who managed their government with the élan of mentally-challenged pimps.

Portrait of Otto II in an illuminated manuscript

Fortunately, the monuments to kings entombed in other parts of the city continue to exude a more romantic aura, the greater the further back in time they go.

Current tomb of Otto II in the Vatican grottoes

Holy Roman Emperor Otto II—Imperator Romanorum Augustus—died of malaria in a palace near St. Peter’s basilica 7 December 983. Like other popes, kings and anonymous faithful, he was entombed ad sanctos, i.e., close to the tombs of saints, in this case near the relics of St. Peter. Initially, Otto’s tomb was located in the atrium of St. Peter’s basilica, a highly visible location. Later, when the basilica was rebuilt in the sixteenth century his remains were transferred to a different sarcophagus, which one can visit within the grottoes of today’s St. Peter’s.

Otto was 28 years old when he died. Though he was not born in the purple, he was a child when made king of the Germans in August 961 and emperor in December 967, ruling in both positions as partner to his father Otto I (later called Otto the Great). At the death of his father in 973, Otto continued to rule as sole king and emperor, aged 18 years old.

Engraving on ivory to celebrate the wedding of Otto II and the Byzantine princess Theophanu

Otto II was a pivotal figure in the project of renovatio imperii, the renewal of empire. In Europe, Otto the Great had established his position as the highest authority in Latin Christendom, the papacy having been subordinated by the imperial manipulation of Roman elections. Thinking globally, Otto the Great married his son to the Byzantine princess Theophanu, a union intended by the Germans to claim equality of Latin and Greek (Christian) Romans and imperial power.

Things began to go badly for Otto II and the whole project of reviving the Roman empire in the last years of his life. First, in July 982, he sought to complete the annexation of the entire Italian peninsula to the empire. This required the conquest of southern Italian territories controlled by the Byzantine emperor and Muslim emir of Sicily. After early success against Greek and infidel, the Germans were defeated by a Muslim army in Calabria. The absence of a dominant power in southern Italy meant that Byzantine and Muslims were able to reclaim territory as Otto retreated to Rome.

Tomb of Otto II and medieval inscriptions and mosaic

Otto continued his father’s policy of controlling the Catholic Church through the nomination of popes. Events demonstrated the fragility of this policy as well. Nearly every Ottonian pope was challenged by a local claimant to the papal throne with the result that the political life of the city was volatile. One contemporary and vituperative historian called this defiance of imperial authority “the malign custom of the Romans.”

Just a few days before Otto’s death on December 7, 983, Pope John XIV was consecrated to continue management of the Church in support of imperial authority. The death of the emperor made this pope’s position shaky, and John XIV soon found himself imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was later murdered.

Floor plan of the Vatican grottoes. The tomb of Otto is located at #59. The tomb of his nephew Pope Gregory V is #58. The full location key is here.

The tomb one sees in the grottoes today is not the original vessel for Otto’s remains. His current sarcophagus is an ancient one put to new use. The only remaining portion of the original tomb was re-used too. The porphyry lid of Otto’s first sarcophagus is now the baptismal font in St. Peter’s. Unconfirmed reports hold that it was created as the tomb for the emperor Hadrian (obit 138 AD) and was discovered in the Castel Sant’Angelo, which Hadrian had built as his own tomb.

Baptismal font in St. Peter’s basilica thought to incorporate the tomb of the emperors Hadrian and Otto II.

Still, the idea of using the papacy lingered. Note that Pope Gregory V (996-999), whose tomb is marked number 58 on the floor plan and adjacent to Otto’s own, was a nephew of the late emperor. Gregory was made pope by this cousin the emperor Otto III, who died at age 21 in 1002, the last of Ottonians to rule in Rome.

Many tenth-century popes, including Otto’s man John XIV, were entombed in the atrium or the adjacent portico of old St. Peter’s basilica. These tombs were destroyed during the demolition of the basilica in the sixteenth century.

Plan of old St. Peter’s basilica made by Tiberio Alfarano in 1590

Auden that day in Trastevere “… appear in visions / To all musicians, appear and inspire”

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere isn’t my favorite church in Rome, but it is the place that gave me my first sense of wonder in the city. November 22, 1998—day one in Rome— was a Sunday.

And it was the feast of Santa Cecilia—the patron saint of musicians and poets. Legend says she was martyred in her home on this site, first by attempted suffocation to quiet her songs of praise, and when that didn’t work, by a traditional sword beating.

Archeological remains beneath the church make the legend tangible to the faithful.

Remains of ancient buildings beneath the church of Santa Cecilia. This is the legendary site of Cecilia’s martyrdom.

I didn’t know any of this when I left the apartment on via Marmorata, crossed Ponte Sublicio and turned right on via di San Michele, eager to find the city. Moving along that narrow and vacant street, I glanced to my left at the first piazza then saw and heard what it means to be in Rome on that day.

Detail from the 1748 map of Nolli showing the old Strada id Marmorata, the ruins of the ancient pons Sublicius and the position of St. Cecilia. My route was a little different.

The church was filled with flowers and sacred song. Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia was part of the musical program. The composer had asked his friend W.H. Auden to write a poem for a choral composition in praise of the saint. The first performance was in 1942. Auden later published the poem as Anthem for Santa Cecilia’s Day. Britten was born the saint’s feast in 1913, and the work is an ode to his patron.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions / To all musicians appear and inspire, / Translated Daughter, come down and startle / Composing Mortals with immortal fire.

Auden – Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day

Cecilia continues to be present in the work of contemporary musicians, among them Brian Eno, David Byrne and Paul Simon. Judith Shatin, professor emerita of composition at the University of Virginia, has dedicated two works to her, The Passion of Saint Cecilia and Fantasy on Saint Cecilia. The Grammy-winning, Mexican-American jazz/blues/world music quartet La Santa Cecilia is on tour now!

In a garden shady this holy lady / With reverent cadence and subtle psalm, / Like a black swan as death came on / Poured forth her song in perfect calm / And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin / Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer, / And notes tremendous from her great engine / Thundered out on the Roman air.

Auden – Anthem
St. Cecilia with an Angel by Baroque master Orazio Gentileschi (father of the renowned Artemesia Gentileschi). The organ is the symbol of St Cecilia.

The church of Santa Cecilia has existed since at least the fifth century, but its current appearance dates from the ninth century when Pope Paschal I rebuilt it. This pope claimed to discover the relics of the saint in the catacomb of San Callisto on the Via Appia and to have deposited them in this church. Along with the corporal remains of the saint, a bloody shroud found among them was brought to the church and is also considered a relic.

Location of St. Cecilia’s remains when it was in the catacomb of St. Callisto.

Latin alert: Here’s part of a contemporary account of Paschal’s discovery of Cecilia’s remains.

Quibus et linteaminibus sanguis sanctae martyris abstersus, involuta ad pedes illius coroporis sacratissimo cruore plena, de trina carnificis percussion reperta sunt. (These linens had been used to wipe away the holy martyr’s blood; soaked in sacred blood from the executioner’s three strokes, they were discovered wrapped at the feet of her body.)

The church hosts a number of artworks that amaze all visitors to Santa Cecilia.

Paschal commissioned the mosaic in the apse to celebrate the dedication of this new church. Similar mosaics were produced for the other churches he built: Santa Prassede, which is close the Santa Maria Maggiore, and Santa Maria in Dominica (aka Santa Maria in Navicella) located on the Celio, not far from the Lateran.

Ninth-century apse mosaic at St. Cecilia

Pietro Cavallini’s fresco of the Last Judgement is another masterwork created for this church. These frescos are among my favorite things in the whole city. Access to them is limited, protected as they are by the cloistered nuns of Santa Cecilia.

Cavallini, The Last Judgement
more Cavallini
and more Cavallini

The famous sculpture by Stefano Maderno of the fallen body of St. Cecilia is the most recent masterwork produced for the church. This sculpture, placed at the altar, is said to depict the saint’s body at the time of its discovery.

Maderno’s St Cecilia located at the altar of the church in Trastevere
Altar and sculpture at Santa Cecilia
Altar, sculpture and mosaic at Santa Cecilia

The soft complaining flute / In dying notes discovers / The woes of hopeless lovers, / Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.

John Dryden – Song for st. Cecilia’s Day, 1687