Rome's Birthday; an Ancient Church Reopens

A City of Brotherly Rivalry?

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 22, 2004 ( Wednesday marked a very special birthday. The city of Rome commemorated its foundation which according to the historian Plutarch was the 11th day before the calends of May, 753 years before the birth of Christ. So this marks the 2757th year of the Eternal City.

Many ancient authors narrated the foundation of Rome, but one of the most attractive versions was written by Livy, historian to Emperor Augustus. This history links back to Virgil’s epic, «The Aeneid,» also written for Augustus.

According to this story, Aeneas, survivor of the Trojan war and son of the goddess Venus, found his way to Italy and founded a dynasty of kings in the region of Latinium. His descendant Proca had two sons Amulius and Numitor.

Although Numitor was destined to the throne, Amulius usurped the throne exiling his brother. After having killed off all male heirs, Amulius consecrated Numitor’s daughter Rhea Silva to the goddess Vesta in perpetual virginity. The god of war, Mars, forced the girl to break her vow (although Livy presents this with a grain of salt) and Rhea Silva gave birth to twin boys, Romulus and Remus.

Enraged, Amulius had Rhea Silva imprisoned and ordered the boys to be drowned in the Tiber River. Fortunately for the destiny of Rome, the evil henchmen of Amulius were lax in their duty and the boys were merely set afloat in a basket, Moses style, along the banks of the river. They were found and suckled by a she-wolf and thus kept alive until the shepherd Faustulus rescued and reared them. Hence the Roman logo of a she-wolf nursing two baby boys.

Eventually the boys grew to manhood, overthrew the usurper, reinstated Numitor to the throne and took their places as princes. But the two men dreamed of founding their own nation and so started off down the Tiber looking for a new site. Romulus chose the Palatine Hill and started to build his city walls. Remus, taunting his brother, leapt over the walls and Romulus struck his brother dead, and his posterity became the «Romans» until today.

On the surface of it, this story appears to be another antique legend of sibling rivalry, but for the Romans it meant more. This was the story of an idea of a city — no houses, streets, wives or children — yet this ideal of a great state became more important than ties to family, to friends and even to self.

To celebrate its birthday, the city of Rome offers free admission to the splendid Capitoline Museums. There, one can admire one of the oldest bronze statues in Italy, the «She-Wolf» from the fifth century B.C. with the Renaissance addition of two little baby figures, Romulus and Remus, cavorting under her. Pope Sixtus IV offered this statue as a gift to the people of Rome to help commemorate her rich history and to instill pride in the municipal heritage.

This year however, Rome’s festivities were more in keeping with imperial contests than the civic remembrance of the republic. The biggest soccer match of the year, the Rome vs. Lazio derby game, was played Wednesday night. As this game was postponed from its original date of March 21 on account of crowd violence, it appears that the birthday celebrations will reflect more the gladiatorial games of the Colosseum than the stern virtues of Rome’s founding fathers.

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Santa Maria Antiqua Redux

A thousand years after Romulus gave his name to the eternal city, Rome came under a new rule. From monarchy to republic to empire, Rome underwent its greatest transformation during the fourth century, when the temples to Jupiter and Vesta and Julius Caesar were abandoned. After war, famine and invasions, a new city was founded from the ashes of the Forum, Christian Rome.

Just before Easter, the superintendent of archaeology announced the reopening of one of its oldest and most prestigious churches, Santa Maria Antiqua. The site has been closed since 2001 to the disappointment of students of early Christian art, but is now open until the end of May for brief individual visits before the final stage of restoration begins this summer.

Across from the temple of Castor and Pollux and next door to the house of the Vestals, this church nestles at the foot of the Palatine Hill which served as home to the Roman emperor as of the first century. Santa Maria Antiqua’s existence began as a guardhouse to check visitors to the imperial residence. The sixth century witnessed the arrival of the Byzantine emperors in Rome and a subsequent rise in church building in the Forum.

Santa Maria Antiqua is particularly precious to art historians because it shows several different types of Christian mural decoration in the space of two centuries.

The famous «palimpsest wall» shows three ages of fresco painted one on top of the other. These works of art constitute a precious collection of Byzantine painting from the sixth and seventh century given that similar artwork in Eastern part of the empire was destroyed during the iconoclast controversy.

The earliest fresco in the palimpsest, known as «Maria Regina,» shows the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, flanked by two angels. It dates from about 536 to 545 when the building was a still a guardroom. This would have been used as a devotional image. The monumental, bejeweled image of the Virgin Mary seated on a throne appears as appropriate iconography for men who were expected to give their lives for the imperial family.

The year 600 saw an aggressive re-foundation of the Forum area as a Christian space. Churches sprang up everywhere, Sts. Cosmas and Damian annexed to the Temple of Romulus, St. Hadrian in the Senate building and the transformation of the imperial guardroom into a church.

During the rebuilding, the fresco of Maria Regina was damaged and painted over with an image of the Annunciation. Of this group, the head of the angel is the most exemplary. Known as the «fair angel» from about 600, the brushstroke is feather light, the face painted in soft gradations of light and shade that are a far cry from the heavy outlines of the Maria Regina. The angel has an otherworldly air as if he were making only a momentary appearance before returning to his celestial home.

In 650, the wall was painted over one last time with a series of Church Fathers. These figures are schematic, intended to portray a row of courtier types and very close in style to the mosaic decoration that became increasingly popular in Rome churches at the time which featured stiff contours and flat figures.

Painting in the church continues on the side walls through the eighth century with portraits of donor families, saints or biblical narratives. But the development of painting in Santa Maria Antiqua came to an abrupt end in the ninth century when the church was abandoned due to an earthquake and then buried by a landslide. It was excavated in the early 1900s.

The exposure to air and humidity has damaged more than 60% of the paintings, but an international commission began a large scale restoration project in 2001 to preserve the remaining works. The Samuel Kress foundation of New York and the Sigval Bergesen foundation of Oslo are sponsoring the effort that is estimated to cost about $1.6 million.

To visit Santa Maria Antiqua, you must make an appointment. Its Web site is

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A Daring Design

When John Paul II was elected to the papacy in 1978, he had to address not only the difficulties of a global pontificate but also the needs of his own diocese, the city of Rome.

The population of Rome grew dramatically after World War II giving rise to urban sprawl with ever-spreading pockets of residential areas to accommodate the vast numbers of new inhabitants.

In the early years of
John Paul II’s pontificate, it became clear that the city had about a half-million residents who were without a nearby parish. So the Pope set about rectifying the situation. Determined to «restore the Christian face of the city» he called for 50 new churches to be built in time for the Jubilee 2000.

Cardinal Ruini dedicated the most controversial, dramatic and interesting of these churches last Oct. 26 as part of the events surrounding the 25th year of John Paul II’s pontificate. Fruit of an international competition that involved the world’s best architects, the Jubilee church, the permanent memorial of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, was destined for the parish of Dio Padre Misericordioso.

Jewish architect Richard Meier won the competition with an extraordinary contemporary architecture project. Concrete arcs, glass panels and travertine blocks echo the great tradition of ancient Roman construction, but the (design propels forward toward the future of Christianity.

Located in the relatively poor area of Tor Tre Teste, six miles from the city center, the triangular site is in the low, plain area south of Rome. Here in the midst of a 1970s housing complex, in a parish comprising 2,500 families, Meier’s church soars as if blown in by an eastern wind.

Three huge shells ranging from 56 to 88 feet high made of white concrete intended to resemble polished, flawless marble evoke the idea of sails, or of a ship-one of the earliest Christian symbols.

The three arcs are separated by glass skylights through which natural light pours into the body of the church by day. By night the church is illuminated from within emanating light outward. Using both the triple shells and the play of light, Meier powerfully suggests the presence of the Holy Trinity in this small neighborhood.

Meier’s choice of materials and technique paid homage to two great Italian architects. One was Francesco Borromini, the great «contemplative» architect of the 17th century whose pure white interiors and dramatic shaping of undulating space form some the most beautiful and thought-provoking churches in the city, San Carlino and Sant’Ivo.

The other is Pier Luigi Nervi, designer of the Olympic Stadium and the Paul VI audience hall. Nervi took up the ancient Roman achievement of spectacular design in concrete as seen in the Pantheon, inventing the pure white concrete later to be used by Meier.

This remarkable church, loved by some, hated by others, serves not only as a call to a new evangelization of an increasingly secularized Rome but also as a reminder of its glorious Christian past.

It evokes the memory of the voyage made by the early Christians from Jerusalem to spread the Gospel to the west, a journey that for many ended in imprisonment or death but offered the Western world the possibility of finding truth, light and salvation.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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