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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"Spolia" in Rome: Reading the Middle Ages' Use of Roman Materials

What is one to make of this column?  And which way is up?  What looks like a capital - at right - is in fact the base - below.  The photo at right is the photo below turned upside down.  Christians making Santa Maria in Cosmedin used a Roman capital to shore up a column that was too short compared to the others.  You can also see the different marble blocks used to support a row of columns below.  

Even those on a first-time trip to Rome soon learn that successive generations used the materials of ancient Rome for their building blocks and decorations.  Maria Fabricius Hansen, in her recent book, "The Spolia Churches of Rome" brings new insight to this well-known fact of the "spoils" of Rome, and makes going back to a church you've visited many times seem like a first-time trip.
Hansen focuses her exploration of spolia on religious buildings and brings a wealth of historical knowledge to bear.  You can enjoy yourself without her book, finding spolia everywhere, but you'll learn a lot more with it.  We ducked into San Giorgio in Velabro one afternoon while passing by and couldn't resist a photo of it:

We had learned from Hansen's book that the Christian builders usually put similar columns in pairs, across from each other.  But in this church they didn't.  She takes her educated guess at the dates of the various capitals:  on the left here, Corinthian capitals from the first to fifth or sixth centuries, but she guesses the capital on the right (the one almost out of the picture, an Ionic one) is from the first century. The next two on the right, fluted columns with matching Corinthian capitals, she dates as first century, but the next two (grey) are of the Early Christian period.  She theorizes that the differences between the right and left "may have been intended to reflect the liturgical tradition of separating the sexes in the church, with the 'good' side on the right designed for the male members of the congregation."  "Monotony was associated with the 'sinister' left side."

Once you start looking for spolia, you can hardly stop.  Here are just a few examples we've photographed:

A shop in Tivoli.
Exterior of the supposed home of Cola di Rienzo on via L. Petroselli,
across the street and not far from Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
Christian writing added to a column in the Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere,
via del Teatro di Marcello, 46

The two photos at left and below are from the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano, a gorgeous, much-remodeled structure (including by Borromini).  Hansen points out the red porphyry columns--of various thicknesses and heights--are topped with an entablature that has the ancient Roman decoration turned backwards, or inward, with verses engraved by order of Pope Sixtus III on the previously undecorated, outward facing side.

The full title of Hansen's book is "The Spolia Churches of Rome: Recycling Antiquity in the Middle Ages."  It costs more than your average guidebook, but is worth it.

Yes, that's me holding her book in the baptistery.

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