In 2004 Leslie Brubaker made a rather somber joke about the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, saying that it had been the victim of “one hundred years of solitude,” an allusion the fact that, since the discovery of the church in 1900 by Giacomo Boni, its walls had been all but shut to the public.1 Recently, however, the church was the site of a major exhibition, thus ending that long period of isolation. Visitors were finally able to experience and study the medieval paintings, many of which were beautifully explained through a series of videos projected on the walls.
The church has a history of hiding, even though it is in a very public and prominent part of Rome—along the northwestern slope of the Palatine Hill, in the southwestern zone of the Roman Forum. The church was first constructed at the end of the fifth century C.E. At least five popes were involved in decorating the church,2 often superimposing the frescoes from their campaign directly on top of previous ones. One famous example of this superimposition is the “palimpsest wall,” with its seven layers of paintings (Fig. 1 ).3 The painting and repainting might have continued, but in 847 an earthquake destroyed so much of the church that it was abandoned. Ultimately covered by a Baroque church in 1617, the remains of Santa Maria Antiqua were all but forgotten. Scholars knew of the church from descriptions in the Liber Pontificalis, but it remained undiscovered until Boni's turn-of-the-century excavations.
Much research and conservation has been underway behind those closed doors since the discovery by Boni. However, the frescoes painted between the sixth to the ninth centuries were relatively unknown, which is ironic since hordes of visitors were, in essence, right there, right outside the walls of the church, visiting the Forum. Exciting announcements about the opening of Santa Maria Antiqua in 2004 were ultimately quietly revoked.4 A subsequent “opening” was advertised in 2012, but it was only a month-long event and groups were only allowed to enter “by invitation.”5 The general public was to be granted access the following year; however, this did not come to be. Even in 2013, it was only with a special permesso in hand that members of the general public, and even scholars, could find their way through the doors. Photographs were officially forbidden. With this history of inaccessibility, the promise of a major exhibition about, let alone in, Santa Maria seemed too good to be true. Yet, in 2016, from 17 March until 11 September, the church opened up its doors to host an exhibition detailing the complicated history of the church, from its earliest structures, which were built at the end of the first century C.E., to its latest artistic campaigns in the ninth century. From 8 December until 19 March 2017, the church was opened again, although in this second opening some of the galleries were closed. These galleries were set in a corridor of rooms that run parallel to a first-century C.E. ramp that leads from the Palatine Hill to the medieval church. It was remarkable that the ramp was accessible, as it, like the church, is usually closed. Visitors could make the ascent from the church to the top of the Palatine.
Access to the ramp also allows the visitor to see and experience a side entrance into the church, a space with some of the many frescoes commissioned in 705–707 by one of the most important popes of the middle ages, John VII. Thus, after descending the long, wide Palatine ramp, the visitor turns to the left to enter the church, and continues along a shorter, narrower ramp. The visitor is immediately flanked by paintings upon entering the smaller ramp—a dynamic scene of the Anastasis on the left and an austere Virgin with saints on the right—and throughout the space of the church frescoes appear everywhere, beckoning and sometimes befuddling the visitor.
Whether entering from this side entryway on the Palatine ramp or through the main door, by way of the large and impressive atrium, the experience of the exhibition Santa Maria Antiqua tra Roma e Bisanzio was tremendous, both for scholars and for the general public (Fig. 2 ). The paintings were beautifully lit. In only a few instances was it difficult to get close to the painted walls. The pathways from one space of the church to the next were clearly defined. These features were particularly exciting for anyone who had seen the church previously, without the bright lighting, with lots of scaffolding covering the walls, and with piles of broken pieces of ancient Roman stonework strewn about. Helpful diagrams explained the stories painted on the walls and explained the original structures that complemented the paintings—for example, a placard reconstructed the now-lost ambo.
The palimpsest wall (Fig. 1 ) was highlighted with beams of light meant to show the different phases. That attempt was, admittedly, not entirely successful. Spotlights on the frescoes toggled between the different phases of painting, but this was hard to follow and understand. Nor was this attempt much helped by the faint white outlines that were shown simultaneously on the floor, hypothetically to illustrate the different painting layers while the spotlights were activating those parts of the wall; the ultimate effect was a tangled complex of white outlines, a rather “spidery” composition, to borrow from Mark Twain. In fact, the palimpsest wall seemed to be missed altogether by most visitors to the exhibition. That was likely the fault of various factors. The bright, natural light within the main body of the church made the spotlights hard to see, and the painting is difficult to read without clear diagrams to plot the seven phases.
The projected videos worked to greatest effect in the two chapels flanking the apse, in the Chapel of the Doctors on the right, dated to John VII's eighth-century campaign (705–707) and the Theodotus Chapel on the left, dated to the years of his reign (741–752) (Fig. 3, 4 ). In order to explain these rather small spaces, which can accommodate between ten and fifteen people comfortably, the curators projected short videos, no more than four minutes, on the walls, about the walls. Visitors would turn and look up as the videos played on the four walls of the chapels. Each new group entering was, by turns, enchanted, surprised, and shocked, and all stopped in their tracks. Videography like this is not necessarily new, but these videos were done extremely well. For example, in the Theodotus Chapel, the video illuminated—with thin, white outlines projected on the walls—the missing parts of the original space, such as the large, variegated marble plaques that once adorned the walls. Large geometric outlines gave a sense of how luxurious and ornate the walls were in the first configuration. As the video explained, the marbles were removed in the eighth century to accommodate the painting program. The white outlines of the now-lost marble plaques faded and changed to circumscribe the shapes and forms of the standing individuals, including saints, popes, and patrons. These men and women were then highlighted one by one as the text explained their history or their stories. The video, with its accompanying written text (in both Italian and English), also led the viewer through the narratival panels on three sides of the chapel walls. But more than merely explain the stories of saints, many of which are not very well known, the videos also made very important historical and art historical arguments. In describing the Chapel of the Doctors, the video presented a scholarly interpretation originally proposed by David Knipp to explain the accumulation of the many doctor saints. Knipp suggests that the medieval visitors would have slept on the chapel floor in an incubation rite, hoping that the saints would visit them and heal them as they slept. When describing the saints Cosmas and Damian and how they allegedly healed the Emperor Justinian, the video projected images of the sixth-century mosaic in the church of SS Cosma e Damiano, still in situ nearby just across the forum. In addition to the videos that were projected in the two side chapels, there were two continually-playing videos shown on monitors. One, in the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, focused on the late antique building of the complex. The other, in the right-side aisle of the main church, explained the many different painting campaigns. Both used high-quality, computer-generated reconstructions to illustrate the many transitions of the church from the first through ninth centuries.
What is to happen to these videos now that the show has concluded? Ideally they will somehow find themselves online. And will Santa Maria Antiqua again close its doors for months or years? In her introductory essay in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Maria Andaloro, the doyenne of the medieval Rome scholarly community who recently retired from La Sapienza, writes that that she anticipates an opening that is more permanent (18). One can only hope she is right.
In the meantime, what remains is a large and beautifully illustrated catalogue, in which Andaloro is the most prominent voice. In her introduction, in order to explain the complexities of the church program, she first imagines the ways in which Charlemagne would have perceived the church. Then she shifts, a little peremptorily, to the point of view of Pope Zaccharias (741–752). In putting us in their proverbial shoes and walking us through what they may have seen, she attempts to explain to the reader how very complicated the church is with its many, often illegible, layers. It is a fine conceit. However, it also betrays a somewhat traditional approach. I do not deny that these individuals, the princely powers and popes, were essential to the creation of these painting programs, but this methodology does suggest that the church can be registered in independent snapshots, that it is a different church in each phase. In many instances, such as the palimpsest wall, earlier frescoes were covered with the new programs. Interestingly, however, there are examples of paintings from previous campaigns that were left untouched. A small painting of the Madonna and Child in a niche located in the choir, for example, was painted around, not over. The different styles and preserved evidences of the past indicate that the visitor—princely or otherwise—would have seen indications of the earlier church, remembrances of its deep and rich history. What seems to get lost, then, is the church as a space of accreted meanings.
It is with John VII, the pope from 705–707, that Andaloro's methodology is most limited. John's painting campaign was one of the most comprehensive, as she explains. However, Andaloro asserts that John VII's painting program does not fit within the Roman tradition, most notably because his program has an expansive presence of icon-like paintings. In fact, according to Andaloro, John's program needed to be “normalized” by Paul I (30). It is true that John was from Greece and his father had been a Byzantine dignitary. However, Andaloro's conclusion that John's eastern origin means that his style is eastern too, and not only that, but un-Roman, whatever that means, is problematic:
At this point, it is clear that the image-system of Santa Maria Antiqua has nothing to do with the image-system of medieval Rome. However, one should not assume that this diminishes the whole of the magnitude of the alternative, which is that of Byzantium. These are figurative structures that reenter in full force: the Byzantine-Hellenistic language of its pictures up to John VII and the remarkable presence of wall icons. In fact, the type of artistic language and the icon imagery bring the Byzantine world to life in profound and exemplary ways, constituting some of the most authentic expressions of the Byzantine world. Thus, the Byzantine world of images entered in a profound way into the heart of Rome, in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, with high profile Byzantine patrons and painter collaborating, during the time in which Rome was part of the Byzantine empire.6 (31)
Thus, Andaloro associates John solely with Byzantium, calling him emphatically the pope of Greek culture (30). Establishing these stylistic categories creates a real evidentiary challenge. It requires substantiating what was characteristically Roman in the eighth century, then showing that at Santa Maria Antiqua this kind of style was replaced by something significantly different, and then that what replaced it was already something identifiably Byzantine, presumably in the sense that we agree to call “early Byzantine.” It is perilous to assert stylistic differences that are not sustainable. It would be more correct to say that the frescoes of John reflect a contemporary aesthetic that is found in other churches that were not built by Greek popes. Churches throughout the medieval world had examples of larger painted panels (or “icons”) of saints or the Madonna in their programs. These paintings are not Greek. They are medieval.
The premise presented in the catalogue is problematic because it begs the question: What is Byzantium? Where is it? How is it defined? Andaloro concludes her introductory essay by leaving us with a sense of stark differences, of programs that were somehow at odds with each other, with a monument that is defined by a series of stark breaks. This drives the design for the exhibition and the catalogue as well. Black lines dramatically cut through the opening sequence in the video in the right-side aisle, illustrating the argument that there is a clear cut between traditions and cultures. The catalogue cover too employs this dramatic cutting imagery. Only half of some of the letters, seemingly randomly selected, are shown, cut at angles, suggesting that Santa Maria Antiqua is a monument defined by fragments and divisions. One way of interpreting these slashing lines would be to understand that Rome and Byzantium were separated entities, divided and discrete, just as Andaloro posits. But if those cut letters are meant to indicate that the church somehow falls between the cracks, that it cannot be defined fully by one word/world or the other, this would be truer to the spirit of the church. Perhaps blurred lines would have been a more helpful “image-system,” because the beauty of the experience of learning about this church is in its multiplicity of histories, of paintings, of stories, all of which go beyond that forced Byzantine/Roman division.
Although the premise is that of a differentiated East and West, the cumulative effect of the essays in the catalogue provides an understanding of the space and artistry within the church as characterized by a multiplicity of ideas, cultures, and pasts. The reader does get a sense of the many historical voices represented in its walls and how they responded and related to the phases of the medieval city. However, the organization is a little peculiar. The catalogue is broken into two parts. Major themes appear in the first section, such as the history of the palimpsest wall written by Giulia Bordi. In his rich essay, Robert Coates-Stephens considers the afterlife of antique statuary that was in the vicinity of the church, and how and why those statues were or were not tolerated in the medieval period. Why his article does not warrant its own subsidiary section is unclear, especially when there are objects in the catalogue related to his topic (such as ancient sarcophagi that sit in the nave of Santa Maria Antiqua today, which appear at the very end of the book). This is after considerations of the modern story of the discovery of the church, its conservation, and even its modern replica Santa Maria Liberatrice in Testaccio, dated to 1906–1908. A collection of marble heads, which would also seem relevant to Coates-Stephens’ essay, appear as part of a section about the face of the painted Maria Regina from the palimpsest wall. The Maria Regina shows the Madonna as a Queen of Heaven, with hanging pearls and, often, seated on a bejeweled throne. Scholars have long debated whether the image was generated in the Eastern Byzantine tradition or in the West. The authors of the catalogue, Andaloro and Bordi again, say very little that is new or critical, and on this occasion they reuse the same diagrams that appeared in essays published in 2004.7 Although they assert that the conservation of the Maria Regina's painted face opens up new investigations about the East or West question, they do not say how or by whom.
Interestingly, the Maria Regina issue does appear elsewhere, in the video shown in the Chapel of Theodotus. A Madonna and Child appear in a jeweled throne just under a large, recessed painting of the Crucified Christ. Unfortunately, only the lower portion of the painting exists. But the artists for the video reconfigure the lacuna, “painting” it in with the videos, so as to give a sense of what the paintings would have looked like when complete. These artists put the Madonna in a dark mantle, without a crown, which is an interesting choice considering she has been interpreted by other scholars as having a crown. The interpreters behind the video (Andaloro again?) have made an argument with their recreation. It is odd that the scholarly argument being made in the video is not cited or addressed in the catalogue.
Another peculiarity is the inclusion—in both the catalogue and the exhibition—of a lengthy discussion of the Oratory of John VII, which was in the original, now destroyed, Old Saint Peters. In fact, a large printed banner discussing the Oratory appeared in the exhibition, in the nave of Santa Maria Antiqua, just before the entrance to the Chapel of the Physicians, where it made very little sense. Perhaps it would have been better placed at the opposite end of the right-side aisle, where John's Oratory sat in the Old Saint Peters. But even so, its presence anywhere seemed a little peculiar in the exhibition. The connection is no more obvious in the catalogue. Andaloro argues that the Oratory is essential in an understanding of private devotion throughout the city of Rome. That may be. However, the Oratory and associated catalogue entries take up a lot of space in the catalogue, which might have been better spent explaining the New Testament scenes in the nave or the Old Testament scenes of the transenna and above the row of male saints in the left-side aisle. The representations of Joseph are wonderful and could have provided an interesting discussion about the relevance of his story. Why do Joseph's prophesies or interpretations of the dreams of the Baker and the Butler appear right above Christ's head? Where else is the Joseph story prominent in Rome? Might these paintings contribute to understanding the thirteenth-century mosaics at San Marco, perhaps as a link between the fifth-century Cotton Genesis and the later Venetian mosaics, which we know the Genesis manuscript inspired?
The organization of Santa Maria Antiqua tra Roma e Bisanzio makes it easy to forget that the book is, in fact, a catalogue for an exhibition. The entries appear sporadically, and many of the objects were never actually in the space of the church/exhibition.8 Yet, despite this somewhat uneven and unorderly organization, and the problematic affinity for seeing a Byzantine style—a Byzantine culture even—that is distinct and provides a clear contrast with Rome, the catalogue is a boon to medieval scholarship, especially in terms of its high-quality photography of the images, archaeological reconstructions of the site, and maps of medieval Rome. Since the collection of essays published in 2004, there has been relatively little said or published about the complicated church of Santa Maria Antiqua.9 The catalogue provides research and illustrations that will certainly further a deeper understanding of an artistically vibrant and productive medieval Rome, one that is not “dark” in the least.
It must be said that as helpful and useful as the publication will surely prove to be for the field, the videos and the light shows made the most lasting impression. They helped the church come to life in a way that was both experiential and intellectual, explaining the paintings in sensitive and scholarly ways. We might even say that these contemporary, technologically driven approaches are the newest artistic layer of art for a church steeped in artistic programs. It is certainly moving to know that, after all of those years of the church being lost and then closed, modern technology has provided a means of illustrating the multiplicity of histories embedded in and on the walls of the church.