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Members' Research Report Archive

Santa Maria in Trastevere: The Life of a Medieval Building in Early Modern Rome

Dale Kinney, Bryn Mawr College (emerita)
Samuel H. Kress Professor, 2016–2017


Carlo Fontana, design for the porch of Santa Maria in Trastevere, c. 1701. Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Klebeband 26, Inv. NI. 7458, Art. Fol. 110. Photograph Michael Ehritt / Art Resource, NY

Tracing its origin to a portent that occurred before Christ was born, Santa Maria in Trastevere can claim to be the oldest church in Rome. Physically, however, the church on the site today originated around 1140. In a dissertation completed in 1975, I wrote the history of this building from its legendary origin to its twelfth-century rebuilding and festive consecration by Pope Innocent III (1160/1161–1216) in 1215. Based on published and unpublished written and pictorial sources, the history remains valid, but I am increasingly dismayed by its disconnection from the building that actually exists. Although it is still recognizably a “Romanesque” church of the Roman type—a basilica with nave walls carried on colonnades, a transept, wooden roofs, and a porch—the building beloved today by Romans and tourists alike is the product of nine centuries of alterations and embellishments. My ambition now is to write the history of that other church.

My colleagues at CASVA helped me to think through the models for such a history. After discarding afterlife (implies death), biography (too anthropomorphic), and palimpsest (too layered), I am attempting a “processual” history of the kind described by the Italian architect and restorer Gianfranco Spagnesi, who has written that the authenticity of a historic building depends on the valorization of all of its visible phases, “the entire sequence of diverse moments, each dependent on the one that preceded it but to be considered also autonomously.” In the case of Santa Maria in Trastevere, significant “moments”—that is, alterations or enhancements of form that remain determinative in the building’s present appearance—occurred in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Making use of the National Gallery of Art’s extraordinary collections of rare books and prints, I have concentrated on the eighteenth century, especially on the well-documented moment in 1701 when Carlo Fontana (1638–1714) was commissioned by Pope Clement XI (1649–1721) to rebuild the decrepit twelfth-century porch. This modest assignment was infra dignitatem for Fontana, who at age sixty-three was the preeminent architect in Rome. Nevertheless he took the project seriously and made multiple drawings for it, which are now divided between the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle and the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig. The circumstances of the commission were elucidated by Christopher Johns in 1993. The five drawings in Windsor Castle were published by Allan Braham and Hellmut Hager in 1977 and are now readily available in digital copies, but the fifteen drawings in Leipzig had been only partially published, by Eduard Coudenhove-Erthal in 1930. Through CASVA I was able to commission new digital photographs of the Leipzig drawings, which can now be viewed on the website of Art Resource.

Study of the full complement of Fontana’s designs shows the range of his ambitions for the project, from the complex rhythm, massing, and circular accents of one beautiful drawing in Leipzig to the stripped-down classicism of the design that was actually built, with five equal arches on identical piers. The new porch, described by a contemporary as “di poca magnificenza,” was a professional disappointment for Fontana, who blamed it on the stinginess of the pope. For the purposes of my study, it is an occasion to reflect on the dialectical relation of the new porch to its predecessor and to prior attempts by other architects to modernize the early Christian facade. The anachronistic projecting porch was a perpetual challenge that inspired a variety of solutions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, some entailing the porch’s visual or physical obliteration.

During my residency I also rewrote for publication two papers originally delivered at conferences in spring 2016. Both concern the interpretation of eight third-century capitals with heads of Isis, Serapis, and Harpokrates that were reused in the nave colonnades of Santa Maria in Trastevere. One article (“Afterlife and Improvisation at Santa Maria in Trastevere”) approaches the topic from the standpoint of the Middle Ages, reconstructing the kinds of knowledge and experience that different groups (laypeople, canons, learned clerics) might have relied on in attempting to decipher the pagan heads. The second article (“The Paradigm of Spolia”) focuses on the modern art historian, reviewing the paradigms for understanding the persistence of pagan imagery in medieval art, from the seminal article by Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl in 1933 through its various critiques (Michael Camille, Georges Didi-Hubermann), revisions (Salvatore Settis), alternatives (Arnold Esch), and the recent revival of Warburg’s Mnemosyne panels and Pathosformeln (Francisco Prado-Vilar).