Italy Book: Getting a Handle on the Rome Churches and Their Art

Folks who’ve been to Italy know that one of the cool thing about the churches is that you get to see great art in the places they were created for. I guess you can theoretically do that here in the USA. But here, you don’t have many churches that want to spend that much for their art, or great artists who want to paint a ceiling for 16 years. In Italy, you step into some off-the-beaten-path church and there’s an alter piece by Titian or a sculpture by Bernini.

The Sistine Chapel is the prime example of this. An entire ceiling that captures the spiritual and artistic understanding of Michelangelo. It’s like seeing our cultural DNA mapped out over our heads. Of course, with the massive crowds, your Sistine Chapel experience is also reminiscent of wading through a Tokyo subway station.

In contrast, many churches in Rome or Venice can still offer an intimate and even spiritual experience. You can sit there and take in the space and the art in your own time. Add a bit of prayer or meditation and you can almost imagine yourself a part of a 16th Century congregation.

And as I think through where I’d like to go in Rome next month, I’ve been reading up on a couple of books that cover the churches and the art they hold. The Churches of Rome by Beny and Gunn has some great details about the churches with text that walks the reader thorough the various historical eras.

The book is a great reminder that these places of worship have been displaying the core religious, artistic, architectural and cultural trends in Rome for 2,000 years.

Churches of Rome by Grimal and Rose doesn’t get into the historical details and is more issue oriented. But this book has amazing shots of the churches by Caroline Rose. Both books help to fill in the blanks for anyone who wants the context of these artistic repositories.

The Challenge

The challenge for me (or anyone) planning a trip to Rome is twofold. First, which churches are worth a visit? I’m spending more time in Rome than most tourists and I’ll return several times before the book is done. But I do a photo shoot at each church. And it takes time to breath in a location and capture its spirit. So which of the 200+ churches to cover?

The second challenge is more complicated – the context. If you saw several of Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings side by side with zero context, your initial reaction might be, “What’s with this guy? He’s doing the same exact painting over and over but with different colors.”

But, realize that those Monet paintings were experiments in light and perception and you start to go deeper into the dynamics of the art work. This issue plays out at the churches of Rome on far grander scale.

Decoding the Art

One of the huge travel with art and travel is decoding what you’re taking in. All those pictures start to look the same – even if you understand composition. Because every single work of art has a story, an artist who lived that experience, an economic system that supported him or her, and a cultural history. That’s why so many people take tours, to get the backstory.

For example, lets just look at one church that was in my new books. San Clemente because a church when a pre-existing Roman building was consecrated some time before 385. This Roman building was built on top of a Second Century Mithra temple (shown in Caroline Rose’s photo). The Mithra cult involved sacrificing bulls as you can see.

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Then a new church got built above the old one in 1108. Back then, they used to pile up the rubble from old ruins in the area and continue up. It saved on demolition costs. The church of San Clemente was restored in the 1700s, probably to deal with structural problems and more importantly, to add frescos that would evoke the Church’s current Baroque approach to religious art. The Catholic Church became more disciplined in the artistic messages they put in their churches after the Counter-Reformation.

Here’s Caroline Rose’s photo of the upper church.

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What you’re seeing here is a floor structure and tiles from (I believe) the 12th Century. That amazing gold colored mosaic behind the alter is also from that initial 12 Century construction –builders often kept mosaics from the earlier version in these Roman churches. The columns, upper windows, side wall paintings and ceiling fresco are from the Baroque era.

All that kinda works for me – if I don’t look too closely at the ceiling. But a mosaic from 1100 lives in a whole different universe from a fresco from 1700. In 1100, perspective hadn’t been invented yet. The piously flat faces of Jesus and the saints in the mosaic are so unlike the ceiling fresco with all the cherubs and saints floating around in Heaven.

The point is, just having that bit of knowledge helps me to decode that church and its artistic history. And knowing what I’m seeing helps clue me into the subtleties of the architecture and the art works.

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