Pink tea rose from the atrium at S. Cecilia in Trastevere
Today we had another long-ish day in the field – we met at the Gesù to discuss both the original 16th century structure and facade, designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Giacomo della Porta between 1568-1575. The Gesù, used as an architectural template for many future churches in the late 16th and 17th centuries, was designed and built for the Jesuits as their “home church” in Rome. The Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola, were confirmed into an Order in the 1540 under Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) and it was Paul III’s grandson, also Alessandro Farnese*, who was the driving force behind the Gesù project.
Cardinal Farnese called upon the family architect, Vignola, to design and build for him (erm, I mean, the Jesuits) a great, impressive church with no aisles and a barrel vaulted nave. Now, this may sound like a great deal – the Pope confirms your order, then his wealthy grandson offers to build for you a church – unfortunately, the style of the Gesù wasn’t really their taste. Until this point, the Jesuits had favored more traditional church plans: long nave, a pair of side aisles and a flat timber roof. As we can see, the Gesù is not of that persuasion. Admittedly, all of the gilding of the dome and the ridiculous trompe l’oeil frescoes were later additions, even the basic structure of the church (essentially a Greek cross plan with an elongated nave) is very different from the basic basilica form.
After finishing up at the Gesù, we made our way to Trastevere, crossing the Isola Tiburtina (Tiber Island) and stopping at a bar for coffee along the way.We wound our way through Trastevere, back to Santa Cecilia, this time to see Stefano Maderno’s 16th century sculpture of the recumbent Cecilia. First, a brief recap of Cecilia’s story: she was a Roman noblewoman, living in Trastevere, martyred in the 3rd century (along with her husband, Valerian, his brother, Tiburtius and a soldier, Maximus). Evidently, she married Valerian but never consummated the marriage, and instead, converted him to Christianity – along with his brother. When the soldier Maximus was sent by Emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander to execute her, he too was converted to Christianity and was quickly martyred himself. Another soldier was sent after Cecilia and they apparently decided to boil her to death in her own caldarium, restraining her in the tub and stoking the fires for 24 hours – naturally, she emerged, dry as a bone, and totally unharmed. At this point, the emperor has had quite enough and decided to have her decapitated – unfortunately, Roman law has a “three strikes” contingency and if, after three blows, the victim is still alive – oh well. This was the case with Cecilia – three blows to the neck, and she was still alive – and continued to be for three days, during which time she gave away all of her worldly possessions, blessed her house and her family and died singing the praises of God – thus, in the 16th century, she became the patron saint of music.
Now, legend has it that in 821, Pope Paschal I was called – in a dream – by Cecilia to go recover her remains from the catacombs outside the city and bring them to a place in Trastevere (the location of her former home) and there, build for her a church. So he did. In 1599, Cardinal Sfondrato (I don’t know why, but I always think of Dracula when I hear his name) wanted to renovate the church and, in seeking to establish a stronger connection to its Early Christian past, began excavations in hopes of finding St. Cecilia’s relics. Well, he was successful – and then some. He found the relic/bodies of Valerian, Tiburtius, Maximums and Pope Urban I (who baptized Cecilia) all beneath the altar – and of course, he also found Ceclia: “entire and uncorrupt…more than 1,307 years after her death” wrote Sfrondrato. Unfortunately, in all of their excitement at finding her body, they were too afraid to violate her modesty by touching the veils covering her body, so no one actually verified this claim – or even whether or not the body had a head. Oh, I didn’t mention it? Right, well, when Pope Paschal I interred Cecilia’s body in this new church, he apparently put her head in a separate reliquary and sent it to Santi Quattro Coronati – but if it ever was there, none of the nuns know anything about it today. So yes, the body/relic of S. Cecilia may have been headless – but Cardinal Sfrondrato and Pope Clement VIII were too concerned with Cecilia’s modesty to check. Um, yeah… about that… But it gets better: apparently, Stefano Maderno’s sculpture is said to be an exact rendering of the exhumed body/relic, as it was recovered in December of 1599 and before it was reinterred in January of 1600, complete with head and turban-veil, the first representation of its time.
Here’s where the art history gets interesting: in order to represent the exhumed body as it was recovered such that it could be present at the altar, the Maderno had to sculpt a recumbent Cecilia. This could have been a problem – because obviously, any prostrate female figure is an instant sexual object, didn’t you know? So in order to desexualize this representation, Maderno twists Cecilia’s head around at an unnatural angle, present the viewer with the back of her turban-covered head and the three wounds in her neck (which are still dripping blood, FYI). So, that’s the story of Santa Cecilia.
After S. Cecilia, Kristin and Lori took me to the Indian restaurant nearby and, I have to say, it was pretty good. It wasn’t great, but it was gluten friendly, fairly tasty (if not what I’m used to) and on the cheaper side. Breaking up after lunch, we parted ways to begin more test prep – I tell you, this has been just the longest week. Our second midterm (ART H 397 – Roman Art & Architecture, Ancient-Present) which covers everything from 6th century BCE Etruscan Tombs to the Column of Trajan to the apse mosaics of Santa Pudenziana – yikes. Wish me luck!
(*These names may be familiar to you if you’ve been keeping up with my thesis: Paul III began work on Villa Farnese at Caprarola and his same grandson, Alessandro, hired Vignola to complete it in the 1550s-60s).
A look at the barrel vault in Il Gesù
Fresco of the Annunciation from the Capella di S. Maria della Strada in the Gesù – so beautifully rendered, check out the detail of the veil around Gabriel’s wings!
Window Box in Rione Sant’Angelo
Rose from the atrium at S. Cecilia
Stefano Maderno’s recumbent Saint Cecilia, 1599
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