The House of Crescentius

Near the Tiber, north of the unidentified temples, stands the stump of a ruined tower, a survival from a type of fortified dwelling common in medieval Rome. This House of Crescentius is decorated with carved fragments from ancient Roman structures set into medieval brickwork, whose surface is enlivened by half-columns of the same material.

These nameless and forgotten fragments of ancient Rome were probably put together by a twelfth-century Roman who wished to command the bridge across the Tiber at this point, the now ruined Ponte Rotto, or Broken Bridge, remnant of the ancient Pons Aemilius. A long inscription in medieval Latin on the exterior of the house tells all that is known of its builder. The exaggerated phrases raise more questions than they answer:

'Nicholas, to whom this house belongs, well knew that the glory of the world was vanity. He was induced to build this dwelling, less by vanity than by the desire to restore the splendour of ancient Rome. Within a beautiful house, be mindful of the grave, and remember that thou hast not long to live in thy dwelling. Death travels hither on wings. No man's life is eternal. Our sojourn is brief and our course light as a feather. Whether thou mayest escape from the wind, lock thy door a hundredfold, and surround thyself with a thousand guards, death nevertheless sits beside thy pillow. Even if thou shuttest thyself in a castle that almost approaches the stars, death will only the more rapidly carry thee--its prey--away. The lofty house towers to the skies. From the foundation to the summit it was raised by the First among the First, the great Nicholas-in order to restore the glory of his fathers. Here stands the name of his father Crescentius and of his mother Theodora. This famous house was built for his beloved child, and given to David, by him who was his father.'

The perpetual conflict of the Middle Ages, and especially of medieval Rome, permeates this inscription. The son of the Church accepts the brevity and vanity of life and worldly glory; the heir of the Roman Empire desires 'to restore the splendour of ancient Rome' and 'the glory of his fathers'. Both thought and phraseology are touched with the wistfulness of the twelfth-century Roman who recalled in the Mirabilia the 'temples and palaces of emperors, consuls, senators and prefects' that 'were in the time of the heathen within this Roman city' and of those medieval Romans who revived the Senate on the Capitol hill.

Benjamin of Tudela wrote in the same century that 'around the part of Rome wherein men dwell, are spread out twenty and four miles of ruins'. This Jewish traveller had an exaggerated impression of the size of the ancient city, but his vivid picture brings to mind the concentration of medieval population in just such places as that in which this tower stood-the low-lying ground along the Tiber or between the hills, where water was easily obtainable. Among the habitations many, no doubt, were such patchworks of old and new as still survive in some medieval churches and in the structure which Nicholas built here. Certainly, throughout the Middle Ages, Rome, like San Gimignano today, was a city of tall towers, such as Benozzo Gozzoli painted in his famous view of Saint Augustine Leaving Rome for Milan. Prolonged interior conflicts, foreign conquests, and, most of all, the building programmes of renaissance and seventeenth-century popes destroyed most of them. But the great towers of the Milizie and the Conti still stand, though the Conti's was badly damaged in 1312 and lost the last of its upper stories in the seventeenth century. Smaller towers, however, still rise in unexpected places, and this truncated remnant of that built by 'the First among the First' still guards the approaches to the Ponte Rotto.

This half-demolished tower has been known by other names as well. That of 'House of Rienzi', especially popular in the nineteenth century and still occasionally in use, came from antiquarian attempts to connect some puzzling initials in the inscription with Cola di Rienzi, the fourteenth-century champion of the people. The name 'House of Pilate' has more basis in fact, for this building was used as the setting for the trial of Christ before Pilate in processional Passion Plays, which began at a house in the Via della Bocca della Verità, wended their way through the southern part of the city, stopping to play various scenes, and finally ended with the Crucifixion on Monte Testaccio, a little farther south.

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