Basilica Built on Martyrdom; a Caravaggio Rival

The Return of Santo Stefano Rotundo

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 8, 2007 ( Lorenzo the Magnificent famously cautioned his young son Giovanni, the future Pope Leo X, as he set off to Rome for the first time, “As you are now to reside in Rome, that pool of all iniquity, the difficulty of conducting yourself … will be increased.”

The wary sentiment of this canny Florentine resonates even today, where many people come to see the wonders of the city without expecting to find much spiritual bolstering. Fortunately, Rome’s bad spiritual reputation often proves unwarranted.

An example is the reopening of a basilica that celebrates the triumph of Christianity over paganism, which had come at the cost of thousands of Christian lives.

On Jan. 27, with very little fanfare, Romans welcomed the return of Santo Stefano Rotundo, the ancient church dedicated to the first martyr, which has been under restoration for almost half a decade. In a unique space, tucked away on the Caelian Hill, Christians can remember that, in the words of Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs watered the seed of the early Church.”

This round basilica, shaped like an ancient victory temple, was consecrated under Pope Simplicius (468-483). The fascinating form of the church, originally three sets of concentric colonnades now cut back to two, and once intersected by a Greek cross, also harks back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built by Constantine on the site of Christ’s burial and resurrection, his triumph over death.

Pilgrims have frequented the church for more than 1,500 years. Popes embellished it with costly marbles, and the remains of the first martyrs were transported from the outskirts of the city to Santo Stefano. Sts. Primus and Felicianus were moved to a side chapel by decision of Pope Theodore in 645. The chapel can still be visited today, and its shimmering seventh-century mosaic is a rare treasure, even in Rome.

The most famous decorations of the church, however, are the frescos covering every inch of the outer wall, ordered by Pope Gregory XIII and executed by Nicolo Circignano (known as Pomerancio) in 1583. They represent hundreds of martyrdoms organized by imperial persecution. Starting with St. Peter and St. Paul under Nero, the cycle shows numerous gruesome deaths in such vivid detail that they could even give Mel Gibson a run for his money.

Many guidebooks write condescendingly of the paintings, seeing them as the apex of bad Catholic taste. But what they, and even we, forget is that the Christians were killed often as an entertainment for the Romans. Pomerancio depicts these deaths inside stadiums and arenas to remind us of the ridicule and jeers that accompanied the martyrs as they were burned, skinned alive, torn apart by beasts and otherwise tortured.

Yet they held firm. Men, women and children, aristocrats and slaves, the learned and the ignorant, all emboldened by the same Spirit, and all brought together by one faith in Christ.

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A Forgotten Artist

Just as countless people anxiously awaited the third installment of “The Lord of the Rings” (myself among them), I have been counting down the days to the arrival of the Carracci exhibition in Rome.

Annibale Carracci, the most important yet virtually unknown artist of the post-Counter Reformation era, has been given his own show with more than 120 paintings and drawings to help modern eyes learn to appreciate this brilliant painter.

Carracci was born in 1560 in Bologna, and died in Rome in 1609. A contemporary of Caravaggio, the better trained and more technically proficient Carracci has been forgotten in the flurry of enthusiasm for his more dramatic peer. But the painting academy founded and led by Carracci opened the door to the great innovations in 17th-century painting.

The later 16th century saw a crisis in art in the wake of the Council of Trent. Clarity, intelligibility and stimulation of piety were the declared objectives of art, but how to translate these dictums into artistic composition remained a mystery. Art became highly artificial, dominated by unnatural colors and unrealistic perspectives.

Painting tended to be either pedantic — a heavy-handed account of holy stories — or only understood by connoisseurs who could recognize the virtuosity of spatial construction, or dependent on figures “borrowed” from other works.

Annibale, his brother Agostino and his cousin Ludovico rebelled against an art that stood distant and uninviting to viewers. They paved the way to a new style intended to awaken and stimulate a numbed painting public. Immediacy, freshness and viewer involvement were the aims of this new movement, known as the Accademia of the Incamminati.

The Bolognese painter was aided by his compatriot, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Agucchi, author of a treatise on painting outlining guidelines for artists in the post Tridentine world. Monsignor Agucchi and Annibale consulted frequently about the portrayal of sacred subjects, and between Carracci’s technical aspirations and his interest in transmitting holy stories to the public, a new style was born.

The first rooms of the exhibition show Carracci’s brilliant blend of technical mastery and candid representations. Three self-portraits not only introduce the visitor to the artist but also to his artistic considerations. A hasty preparatory sketch for “Self-Portrait on an Easel” shows a dog barking at the portrait (an ancient Greek allusion to perfect imitation) as well as a bearded Michelangelo looking on. Carracci represents himself as ready to compete with the world of the ancients.

Nearby several works startle the visitor with unusual subject matter. A man eating beans, a monkey picking at his owner’s hair, a boy grinning giddily from the canvas, appear like candid photos capturing people almost unawares. The hasty brushstrokes and the daubs of white increase this impression of immediacy.

In Carracci’s personal copy of Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists,” he underlined a section regarding the importance of painting from live models. Carracci took this advice to heart. While some heads he painted as studies of expressions for more important commissions, others capture a fleeting instant.

These latter works of Carracci earned him the title of the founder of modern caricature.

The stunning “Boy Drinking” shows this academic study combined with the immediacy of his work. A young man throws his head back, his eyes fixed on his drinking glass. In his other hand he holds a carafe at the ready. The broad brushstrokes and the startling pose seem like a Polaroid picture, but the complexity of the foreshortened jaw and the upside down glass indicate weeks of preliminary sketches.

The magnificent draftsmanship of Carracci is wonderfully represented in the exhibit. Lifelike portrait sketches and preparatory drawings for dramatically foreshortened figures remind us that God-given talent must by supported by hard work.

Carracci’s principal commissions were either mythological or biblical subjects, and the exhibition contains many of Carracci’s hagiographical images, particularly of St. Francis of Assisi. Three versions of St. Francis show Carracci’s development of saintly iconography. The first paintings show the saint set back in the frame away from the viewer, but the last panel has St. Francis, large as life, standing half-length at the edge of the frame inviting the viewer to contemplate the crucifix and skull behind him. This aggressive viewer engagement would be echoed in works of Caravaggio.

Arresting altarpieces were the master’s specialty. Carracci’s “Pietà” from 1599, updates Michelangelo’s unforgettable Vatican version. Instead of placing Mary high on a bench, the mother and son are arranged on the ground, bringing them closer to the viewer. Exploiting his mastery of color, Carracci removes red tones from the scene, cloaking Mary in a deep blue so that the lifeless pallor of the body of Christ becomes all the more accentuated.

His spectacular mythological cycles (the most famous being in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome) are vivacious, joyous parades of allegories all bathed in a warm light symbolic of a golden age. His new technique of using brilliant daylight to illuminate his painting put him in sharp contrast with his contemporary Caravaggio who excelled at dramatic shadows.

These cycles earned Carracci patrons among popes and princes, but today, while anyone can admire Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, very few can see Carracci’s famous works, since they are housed in private collections rarely opened to the public. This is one of the reasons why Carracci has fallen in anonymity while Caravaggio has been “rediscovered.”

Both artists worked in Rome at the same time, and although not friends, held each other’s work in great esteem.

Caravaggio, never one for false compliments when it came to other people’s painting, spent a long time looking at the painting “St. Margaret” in the Church of St. Catherine of the Funari, finally declaring: “I am glad to see a true painter in my lifetime.”

These two great artists were finally pitted against each other in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Carracci did the luminous altarpiece of the “Assumption of the Virgin” and Caravaggio produced the haunting “Death of St. Peter” and the “Conversion of Saul.”

But Carracci aspired above all to equal Raphael, who, in the artist’s opinion, was “the worthiest master of art.” The flawless compositions, lifelike figures, and in particular Raphael’s boundless desire to learn, deeply affected Carracci all his life.

Asked to compare the two artists who most influenced his career, the Venetian Titian and the Florentine Raphael, Carracci replied: “Titian painted to inspire delight and Raphael painted to inspire wonder.”

Carracci died in 1609, a year before Caravaggio, and was buried next to his hero, Raphael. Raphael had used his study of the ancients to re-create the most perfect images of Christian beliefs, and Carracci followed suit, adding a vitality and vigor that stimulated Christians to think about, discuss and admire holy stories in a new way. Both men were buried in the building that most exemplifies the grandeur of the pagan world harnessed for the glory of Christianity, the Pantheon.

The Carracci exhibition will be at the Bramante Cloister of the Church of Santa Maria della Pace from Jan. 26 to May 6. It is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are €9 for adults and €7 at a reduced rate on Tuesdays.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].

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