Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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Trastevere and Environs

CeciliaWhile most of Rome sank into the grime and neglect of the Middle Ages, Trastevere and the part of town facing it on the other side of the Tiber flourished in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. This occurred thanks to the aristocratic Stefaneschi family that dominated local politics and lavished these two quarters with their support. Under the family’s auspices, "their" churches were embellished by several bright artistic lights: Pietro Cavallini, Arnolfo di Cambio, and the so-called Cosmati family, who embroidered magnificent polychrome marble tapestry. San Giorgio

We start at the solitary church of San Giorgio, discussing both the eponymous saint and the history of the church. Although the fresco in the apse is badly damaged, it deserves our consideration in order to glean insight into the career of the artist, Pietro Cavallini, and the Stefaneschi family’s dedication to him.

From here we move on to Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Described as the most intact Medieval Stonecutting Techniqueschurch in Rome, it contains all the artistic and architectural features required by the liturgy of that time. And its untouched "Cosmatesque" pavement provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the significance of its symbols and local stonecutting techniques.  After recharging in Santa Maria’s quiet interior, we may pause momentarily under the crowded porch of the church. Here is the famous Bocca della Verita’, which—medieval lie-detecting legends to the contrary—is a manhole cover from an ancient Roman sewer, depicting Oceanus, the God of the Seas.

Crossing the Tiber, we head to Santa Cecilia where the glittering of early Medieval mosaics invites contemplation. Before them, a baldachin—a masterpiece by Arnolfo di Cambio—stands over the altar. Last Judgment  At the chorus on the second floor, we find Cavallini's frescoes depicting the Last Judgment. This fragmentary masterpiece was covered for centuries and considered lost by many. Recently rediscovered, it has been open to the public for a very short period of time. A delightful work, it provokes us to think about Rome's role in the development of late Medieval-early Renaissance art and workshops.

From here we stroll through Trastevere towards our next destination, the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. As we go, we get a feel for the neighborhood in which Cavallini spent many years creating frescoes and mosaics for his noble patrons. Comfortably seated in the church, we examine two sets of mosaics. The first, in the apse, is by an anonymous artist and his assistants. It depicts the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin. 

Santa Maria in TrasteverCompleted circa 1140 for Pope Innocent II, it subtly celebrates the deposition of several heretics and the subsequent unification of the Church with her celestial Bridegroom. Beneath the apse are six, masterful late-Medieval mosaic panels composed by Cavallini, illustrating scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Created for the Stefaneschi family in the 1290s, these delightful illustrations reflect the impact of contemporary Cosmatesque marble-work and the development of a new, more "photographic" approach to artistic representation.