Rome: The site of Old Saint Mary's on the edge of the Forum

In the 1860's Pietro Rosa cleared the earth from the arches over the Clivus Victoriae, or Street of Victory, which ran along the hillside above the Forum. More than any other spot on the hill these dark substructures now stir the imagination with their glimpses of black and hidden rooms where feet may not at present enter. As early as 1869, when Helen Hunt Jackson visited the Palatine, she was struck by the contrast between these dark arches, the barren excavations in the Flavian Palace, and the planting of the Farnese Gardens, where Napoleon III had evidently done some tidying. 'I had all along anticipated seeing ruins grander than any other except the Colosseum,' wrote the American authoress. 'As I saw them from the distance they looked imposing, and looked wild and overgrown. . . . But what do you think you see when the gate is first opened ? . . . You see a broad walk and a sort of café-like building, and very much landscape garden, nice little beds, such as you might see in Brooklyn or Springfield, bushels of roses, and white thorn and box borders; if you are like me, you stand stock-still and burst out laughing, and say "Where is the Palace of the Caesars?" and then your archaeologist leads you along, up and up, into great spaces, some of them floored with mosaic, some of them bare earth. . . . However,' she continued, 'when I was fairly underground, walking along an old street, many feet beneath the landscape garden, and looking into stuccoed room after room, and up steep stone staircases . . . I found my usual faith and reverence reviving.' By the end of the 1880's little was left of the Farnese Gardens except the ilex grove at the northwestern corner, with its marvellous view across the Forum to the Capitol, and the casino, the 'café-like building', with its double staircase and fountain.

In the remnants of the garden peace now broods, save for the disturbing sense of buried history in the still-unopened rooms of the palace below, where excavators long to penetrate. Here, on the hill above the ancient vaults, roses and orange trees strike notes of brilliant colour, stone pines shade the casino's walls, ivy mantles them, and glossy-leaved oleanders fill the air with their spicy smell. Under the central baroque arch the old fountain still drips over emerald moss and lichens to splash into a grotto below. Through the opened archway of the right-hand staircase, cool darkness beckons into Nero's Cryptoporticus. And toward the Capitol a pathway leads past walls of crumbling brick, under the arches of the Palace of Tiberius, along the Clivus Victoriae, and down a steep ramp to the church of Santa Maria Antiqua at the edge of the Forum.

This church, dedicated to Mary, was one of the first to creep into the buildings abandoned by the emperors. It was founded about the early sixth century in part of a huge brick structure just below the Palace of Tiberius on the northern border of the Forum. The identity of this building is still a problem. Known for a long time as 'the library of the temple of Augustus', it may have formed a monumental approach to the Palatine. In the ninth century the church had to be abandoned as unsafe; perhaps the gigantic ruins poised on the hill above had been dangerously weakened by the earthquake of 847. In its place the worshippers built another church for the Virgin, Santa Maria Nova, New Saint Mary's, in the ruins of the temple of Venus and Rome at the east end of the Forum, leaving to the abandoned church the name of Santa Maria Antiqua, or Old Saint Mary's. Early in the seventeenth century the new church was rebuilt and re-dedicated to Santa Francesca Romana.

The site of Old Saint Mary's on the edge of the Forum was reputed in the Middle Ages to be a haunted spot. The Mirabilia describes it as 'a place that is called Hell, because of old time it burst forth there; and brought great mischief upon Rome; where a certain noble knight, to the intent that the city should be delivered after the responses of their gods, did on his harness and cast himself into the pit, and the earth closed; so the city was delivered.'

This was a medieval version of the ancient Roman legend of Marcus Curtius, told about another part of the Forum. As Livy tells the tale: 'The ground gave way, at about the middle of the Forum, and, sinking to an immeasurable depth, left a prodigious chasm. This gulf could not be filled with the earth which everyone brought and cast into it, until admonished by the gods, they began to inquire what it was that constituted the chief strength of the Roman People; for this the soothsayers declared that they must offer up, as a sacrifice to that spot, if they wished the Roman Republic to endure. Thereupon Marcus Curtius, a young soldier of great prowess, rebuked them, so the story runs, for questioning whether any blessing were more Roman than arms and valour. A hush ensued, as he turned to the temples of the immortal gods which rise above the Forum, and to the Capitol, and stretching forth his hands, now to heaven, and now to the yawning chasm and to the gods below, devoted himself to death. After which, mounted on a horse caparisoned with all possible splendour, he plunged fully armed into the gulf; and crowds of men and women threw offerings and fruits in after him.' The traditional site of the gulf described by Livy was in the western part of the Forum, not far from the foot of the Capitol hill, where its location is still marked by an irregular pavement, surrounded by a border, in front of the Basilica Julia.

Some time in the Middle Ages, probably in the thirteenth century, when danger from falling ruins was evidently over, the church of Santa Maria libera nos a poenis inferni, Saint Mary Deliverer from the Pains of Hell, was built near this haunted spot. Early in the seventeenth century this church, known in Italian as Santa Maria Liberatrice, was given the baroque front which appears in Vasi's etching. In 1702, when digging for marbles in the debris behind the church, excavators discovered part of Santa Maria Antiqua, had drawings made of some of its ancient frescoes, and filled it up again. The old church remained almost entirely buried until Santa Maria Liberatrice was, in turn, demolished in 1900-1901 in order to uncover the older buildings and the ramp leading up to the Palace of Tiberius on the hill.

Santa Maria Antiqua was probably built into the imperial pile in the very century when the Middle Ages were closing in on Rome. Medieval men were slow to recognize an abrupt break between their own times and the ancient world and felt themselves still a part of the Roman Empire. But one of the sixth century's most far-sighted statesmen, Cassiodorus, minister to Theodoric, seems to have sensed the moment of fundamental change, when the Church rather than the State became the guardian of the intellect as well as of the soul. At the beginning of the Gothic wars in 535 Cassiodorus was planning, with Pope Agapetus I, a Christian university in Rome, modelled on the universities of the pagan empire. A scant five years later, when the forces of the Emperor Justinian were slowly reducing Rome to a dependency of the Byzantine East, Cassiodorus withdrew from the Eternal City and founded, in southern Italy, two monasteries where his monks could copy, before it was too late, the great works of ancient times.

From the shadow of Santa Maria Antiqua, founded in a pagan building when the tide was turning toward the Middle Ages, it is but a step to the site most thickly peopled with memories of the city's ancient, pagan past-the Roman Forum.

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