Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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Medieval Frescoes and Marble Intarsia

Were the Middle Ages really so bleak? Did artists truly lack inspiration and did the Arts stagnate? What did patrons want to express when they commissioned artisans to decorate churches and chapels? What did the cartoonish gestures in San Clementemedieval frescoes really mean to onlookers? How did these gestures continue to manifest themselves in Renaissance art? We will answer these questions as we concentrate on the upper and lower levels of the church San Clemente and the frescoes in the chapel of San Silvestro at the church of Santi Quattro Coronati.

In the long-ago year 1000, in what is now the lower level of San Clemente, Maria Macellaria and her consort commissioned t≈hree frescoes dedicated to th Mosaice life of Saint Clement and one scene in honor of the popular Saint Alexis. The anonymous artist(s) caught the Christian community's attention by using humorous cartoon-style vignettes to illustrate lessons about miracles and righteous living. After discussing these scenes, their content, and their style, we focus on the mosaics in the upper church’s apse.  After focusing on San Clemente, we head over to the forgotten church of Santi Quattro Coronati, the Four Crowned Saints.

Although their exact identity is lost, rumors claim that the saints were four stonecutters or sculptors who were martyred on account of their refusal to carve pagan idols after their conversion to Christianity. The church of the Four Crowned Saints itself is a peculiar remnant of medieval architecture, where sacred space vies with fortress architecture. Indeed, during the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, it served both purposes. Today, the structure is occupied by cloistered nuns who will, with a donation, lend us the key to open the door to Saint Sylvester's Chapel.  Saint Sylvester's Chapel

Saint Sylvester's Chapel is our second stop in this half-day in order to appreciate the art in chronological order.  Saint Sylvester's Chapel Although experts disagree on the exact date, the chapel was decorated sometime in the mid-1200s. It is often described as a hymn to the Emperor Constantine's generosity and magnanimity. With true medieval flair, however, the fresco cycle focuses on Constantine's conversion by and submission to Pope Sylvester. Full of historic inaccuracies, the fresco is a marvelous work of Medieval art.

Returning to San Clemente, we will contemplate the fresco cycle of the famous Branda-Castiglione chapel from the early 1400s. Once attributed to the early Renaissance artist Masaccio, modern research now ascribes them Masolino da Panicale. On the side walls of the chapel, we observe scenes from the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Ambrose. On the back wall is a Crucifixion. In Masolino's masterpiece, the Renaissance desire to experiment with perspective, to accurately depict interior and exterior space, and to render figures in a life-like manner is more than apparent. After admiring this piece and studying it closely, we come to appreciate the passage from Medieval art to its early Renaissance successors.