Trastevere in the Middle Ages
While 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 13th century. The aristocratic Stefaneschi family lived in the area, dominated local politics, and invested in their “hood.” Under the family’s auspices, “their” churches were embellished by the most innovative artists available: Pietro Cavallini, Arnolfo di Cambio, and the so-called Cosmati family, who embroidered magnificent polychrome marble floors that looked more like tapestries.
We start at the solitary church of San Giorgio, discussing both the eponymous saint and the history of the church. Although the apse fresco is badly damaged, it offers insight into the career of the artist, Pietro Cavallini and his Stefaneschi patrons.
From here we move on to Santa Maria in Cosmedin. One of Rome’s most intact Medieval churches, it contains the artistic and architectural features required by the liturgy of that time. And its untouched Cosmatesque pavement provides the perfect opportunity to discuss its symbolism and local stone-cutting techniques. After recharging in Santa Maria’s quiet interior, we may pause momentarily under the crowded porch of the church. Here a manhole cover from an ancient Roman sewer, depicting Oceanus, the God of the Seas, has been dubbed the Bocca della Verita’, the “Mouth of Truth,” claimed to be a medieval lie-detector and today the object of endless selfies…
Crossing the Tiber, we head to Santa Cecilia where glittering early Medieval mosaics await us. Before them, a baldachin—a masterpiece by Arnolfo di Cambio—stands over the altar. At the chorus on the second floor, we find Cavallini’s frescoes depicting the Last Judgment. This masterpiece was built over and hidden from view in the late 1500s. Totally forgotten, it was unexpectedly rediscovered when long-needed restoration was performed on the church!
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. Completed 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 instead 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, the mosaics reveal the extent to which Cosmatesque marble-work influenced mosaics and how Cavallini opted for a more realistic approach to art, foreshadowing the Renaissance to come…