Project Description

Art in Trastevere in the Middle Ages

While most of Rome sank into the grime and neglect of the Middle Ages, art survived and flourished in Trastevere (and the part of town facing it on the other side of the Tiber River).  The aristocratic Stefaneschi family, who lived in the area, dominated local politics and invested lavishly in their “hood.”  Under the family’s auspices, “their” churches were embellished by the most innovative artists available.  To name a few, there was Pietro Cavallini, Arnolfo di Cambio, and the so-called Cosmati family, who embroidered magnificent polychrome marble floors that look like tapestries.

Two Medieval Churches (and Artistic Gems) Near Trastevere

We’ll start at the solitary church of San Giorgio in Velabro.  There, we’ll discuss the saint, the history of the church, and its art.  Although the apse fresco is badly damaged, it offers insight into the career of the artist, Pietro Cavallini and his Stefaneschi patrons.

cosmatesque pavement in the Medieval Church of Saint Mary in Cosmedin near Trastevere

Next door to San Giorgio is Santa Maria in Cosmedin.  Untouched by later restorations, it is one of Rome’s most intact Medieval churches.  Therefore, its art and architecture reflect the liturgical needs of the Middle Ages.  Without a doubt, its untouched Cosmatesque pavement provides a marvelous opportunity to discuss its symbolism and local stone-cutting techniques.  A detail of the pavement is seen in the picture.  We’ll definitely recharge in the church’s quiet interior, but its crowded porch (outside) can be unnerving.  A manhole cover from an ancient Roman sewer, depicting Oceanus, the God of the Seas has been positioned here.  He has been dubbed the Bocca della Verita’, the “Mouth of Truth.”  While legend has it that he was a medieval lie-detector, today he is undeniably one of the most famous photo ops in Rome!

Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere, The Apex of Innovation in Medieval Art

Crossing the Tiber, we’ll head to Trastevere and the Church of Santa Cecilia.  There, glittering early Medieval mosaics await us.  Discussing them will prepare us for the even more grandiose medieval mosaics in the Church of Santa Maria.  We’ll also focus on the baldacchino (canopy in Italian).  It stands over the high altar and was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio.  Finally, we’ll take the elevator to the second floor of the cloistered nuns’ residence.  It gives us access to the choir, where we’ll admire Cavallini’s frescoes depicting the Last Judgment.  Believe it or not, his masterpiece was built over and hidden from view in the late 1500s!  It was then forgotten… until it was unexpectedly rediscovered during long-needed restoration in the modern era.  Thank goodness!

A fresco from the late Middle Ages by artist Cavallini in the choir of Saint Cecilia, Trastevere
apse art and mosaics of Saint Mary in Trastevere from the Middle Ages

From there, we’ll stroll through Trastevere towards our next destination, the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere.  As we go, we get a feel for the neighborhood where Cavallini spent much of his life creating frescoes and mosaics for his noble patrons.  Then, we’ll get comfortable in Santa Maria and focus on its history and mosaics.

The oldest mosaics, in the apse, are by an anonymous artist and his assistants.  It depicts the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin.  Those mosaics can be seen in the photo.  Completed in circa 1140 for Pope Innocent II, the mosaics subtly celebrate the deposition of several heretics and the subsequent metaphorical marriage of the Church with her celestial Bridegroom.  Beneath the apse are instead six, masterful late-Medieval mosaic composed by Cavallini.  They illustrate scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.  Created for the Stefaneschi family in the 1290s, the innovative mosaics reveal Cavallini’s interest in a more realistic approach to art.  He is clearly foreshadowing the Renaissance to come!

Where To Go After The Middle Ages in Trastevere?

Daniella often defines Trastevere as the bohemian part of town.  It’s full of cafes, eateries, romantic alleys, and people-filled piazzas.  It’s a great place to sip a prosecco and write postcards–providing that you can resist the urge to people-watch!  If you’re a photography buff, Trastevere will offer you picturesque themes to snap, like old palazzi’s doors and the occasional lazy cat on a moped.  The Janiculum looms above Trastevere and offers beautiful views over the city. Need ideas after visiting Trastevere in the Middle Ages?  Ask Daniella!

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