Museum  December 27, 2022  Christopher Siwicki

Rome's Missing Medieval Past

Christopher Siwicki

Mosaic of Phoenix, apse of St Peter’s Basilica, 1205-1209/12 

To the casual observer, Rome is not a medieval city. For much of the Middles Ages – approximately the 6th to 14th centuries AD – Rome was a major world capital and the seat of the Papacy, yet the physical remains of this period are often overlooked in favor of its ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque monuments. Although traces survive, many medieval structures are either hidden behind or were removed to make way for the building projects of later generations. The exhibition Roma Medievale: the lost face of the city at the Museo di Roma, assembles some one hundred and sixty objects, including mosaics, paintings, manuscripts, and architectural fragments, to illustrate this missing part of the city’s history. 

The most violent periods of the destruction of medieval Rome occurred during the late 19th century after it became the capital of the new Italian nation, and in the first half of the 20th century, when the city was modernized through slum clearances and the creation of expansive new roads. However, the slow erasure of the Medieval fabric was a long process that began during the Renaissance with the renovation of the city’s churches.

Christopher Siwicki

Mosaic of St Luke, façade of St Peter’s Basilica, second half of the 13th century 

Evidence of this in the exhibition is from the mosaics and frescos that were saved from ‘Old’ St Peter’s Basilica. Built by the emperor Constantine in the early 4th century AD, St Peter’s Basilica was enhanced in subsequent centuries with new cycles of frescos and mosaics. Then, in 1506 Pope Julius II embarked on a scheme to completely replace the original basilica with a new, larger, and architectural innovative structure. 

Elements of the original St Peter’s were repurposed in the new Basilica or recycled in other buildings around the city. The decoration of the earlier church is known only through drawings and a few fragments of mosaics and frescos from the apse, façade, and portico, which were preserved when it was pulled down. Now, they are on display in the exhibition.

Christopher Siwicki

Fresco of Saints Peter and Paul, portico of St Peter’s Basilica, 1277-1280 

The Renaissance rebuilding of St Peter’s was perceived as an act of rejuvenation, not a demolition. It involved some of the greatest artists and architects of the age – Bramante, Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo, and Michelangelo. But before this later masterpiece was built, the earlier story of artistic achievement is worth a look too.

‘Roma Medievale. Il volto perduto della città’ is curated by Marina Righetti and Anna Maria D’Acchille and at Palazzo Braschi, Museo di Roma from 21/10/2022-05/02/2023

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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