Thursday, March 10, 2011

6. Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Today's photos:


1.  The basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

2.  Bernini's elefant supports a miniature obelisk.

3.  A stained-glass window above the central door.

4.  A holy water font at the entrance of the church.

5.  A view down the main aisle.

6.  The Risen Christ by Michelangelo.

7.  The funeral monument of Maria Raggi by Bernini.

8.  The tomb of Catherine of Siena below the main altar.

9.  Roma: Capitale d'Italia.





This basilica, located practically in the shadow of the Pantheon, was built in the 13th century over a 9th century oratory which itself had been built over the ruins of a temple of the pagan goddess Minerva.  This accounts for its unusual name, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (St. Mary above Minerva). The church was built for the Dominican order which continues to staff it today.  The simple façade is from 1453.


A curiosity


On the right side of the façade are several small marble plaques which mark the height of flood waters from the Tiber in various years.  This is a very low area of Rome and before the retaining walls were built along the Tiber in the late 1800's, Rome experienced some flooding almost every year. It is frightening to see from the plaques how high the flood waters rose in certain years.


Two papal conclaves were held in this church. The first was from March 2-3, 1431 in which the cardinals elected Eugene IV (1431-1447).  He is the pope who commissioned to Filarete in 1445 the magnificent bronze doors in St. Peter's Basilica.  (For the story of these doors, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 17, Peter and Paul). The second conclave was from March 4-6, 1447 when Nicholas V (1447-1455) was elected.  It was Nicholas who first put into motion the plans to build a new St. Peter's Basilica.


Next to the church is the monastery, built between 1280 and 1330.  This building once served as the headquarters of the Dominican order, but it also had a much more sinister purpose.  It was the site of the weekly meetings and the trials of the Inquisition.  It was in this building that the trial of Galileo Galilei was held in 1633, a trial which ended with the scientist renouncing his "heretical" teaching that the Earth was not the center of the Universe.  Galileo was "rehabilitated" over 350 years later by Pope John Paul II (1978-2005).


A curiosity


These solemn acts of renouncing heretical teachings were called ceremonies of abjuration and were often held publicly inside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva; they were attended by large numbers of people.  Ironically, in light of the Galileo trial, the building served for a time as the Ministry of Scientific and Technological Research.  Today it houses, among other things, the Library of the Italian Senate. 


The church and monastery building are in Piazza della Minerva, an area which our City Fathers have very wisely turned into a pedestrian precinct, a move which has saved another small piece of Rome from the onslaught of automobile and motor scooter traffic.  In the middle of the piazza, directly in front of the church, is a very interesting sculpture which was designed by Bernini and sculpted in 1667 by Ercole Ferrata.  It is a little marble elephant supporting a small Egyptian obelisk.  The obelisk was discovered on the grounds of the monastery in 1665.  It belonged to an Egyptian temple of the goddess Isis which existed in this area in ancient times.  One of the inscriptions on the base of the monument is very interesting and clever.











You, whoever you are, who see that the figures of wise Egypt sculpted on the obelisk are carried by an elephant, the strongest of beasts, understand that it is the task of a strong mind to sustain solid wisdom.


The interior of the basilica, with its vaults and colorful stained-glass windows, is one of the few examples of Gothic architecture in Rome.  The church is home to a large number of tombs which include popes, cardinals, bishops, artists, saints and other assorted characters, some famous and some infamous.  Many of these individuals give rise to unusual stories and curiosities.  There are also works of art here by such well-known artists as Michelangelo and Bernini.  So plentiful are these tombs and works of art that we will only talk about a few of the most famous ones.


Santa Maria sopra Minerva served as the church of the Florentines before the construction of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, so it is no surprise that many Florentines are represented here.  For example, two Florentine Medici popes are buried here: Leo X (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-1534).  Buried in the floor beneath Leo X is the famous Latinist, Cardinal Pietro Bembo who died in 1547.  Bembo was a friend of both Michelangelo and Raphael.  It was he who composed the beautiful Latin inscription on Raphael's sarcophagus in the Pantheon.  (See The Sights of Rome, Chapter 16, The Pantheon).


A curiosity


Another Florentine tomb of particular interest is that of Neroni Diotisalvi who died in 1482.  He is entombed in the wall just to the left of the center door of the basilica.  It is curious that he is buried in the same church as two Medici popes because he participated in the conspiracy of the Pazzi brothers against the Medici family in 1478 in which Giuliano dei Medici (the father of Clement VII) was killed and his brother Lorenzo il Magnifico was wounded.  For his involvement in the conspiracy Diotisalvi was banished from Florence by Piero dei Medici, father of Giuliano and Lorenzo. 


Here now are some other tombs and works of art to be admired in various places in the basilica.  Look, for example, at the beautiful marble holy water fonts on either side of the central door.  They were sculpted in 1588 by the Florentine artist Ottaviano Lazzeri.


The fifth chapel on the right side, the Chapel of the Annunciation, holds the tomb of Urban VII who had the shortest papacy in history, 13 days, from September 15-27, 1590. The chapel was designed by Carlo Maderno, the artist who designed the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. 


A curiosity


Maderno was hired by the Confraternity of the Annunziata, a charitable organization founded in 1460 which provided dowries for the daughters of poor families who could not afford them.  This was a favorite charity of Urban VII, which is why he was given burial in this chapel.  


The sixth chapel on the right, the Aldobrandini Chapel, is the work of three famous artists: Giacomo Della Porta, Girolamo Rainaldi and Carlo Maderno.  Buried in the chapel is yet another pope, Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592-1605).  Nothing unusual about that.  What is unusual is the fact that the pope's parents are also buried here, just across the chapel from him.  This same chapel is home to a statue of St. Sebastian which some scholars now attribute to Michelangelo.


Perhaps the most famous of the many chapels in the basilica is the Cappella Carafa located in the right transept. It was built by the Carafa family, one of whose members was Paul IV (1555-1559) whose tomb is on the left side. The chapel contains important frescoes painted by Filippino Lippi between 1488 and 1493. 


Probably the most important tomb in the entire church is the one beneath the main altar.  It holds the body of St. Catherine of Siena who died in 1380.  Only her body is here because her head was sent to Siena where it is buried in the church of San Domenico.


Just to the left of the sanctuary is the statue of the Risen Christ by Michelangelo which has an interesting and intriguing curiosity associated with it.


A curiosity


The story is that there were two versions of this statue.  The first one was left incomplete and rejected by Michelangelo because of a defect in the marble.  In addition, some believe that the rejected piece of marble was turned into the statue of St. Sebastian which we mentioned above in the Aldobrandini Chapel.  In any case, the Risen Christ which is here was begun in Florence by Michelangelo in 1519 and brought to Rome in 1521 where it was completed by other artists less skilled than Michelangelo.  In fact, experts say that the only part of the statue which can be definitely attributed to Michelangelo is the face, particularly the eyes and mouth.


Just opposite Michelangelo's Risen Christ is the very Baroque funeral monument of Maria Raggi sculpted by Bernini in 1643.  Having even a partial Michelangelo and a Bernini almost side by side is enough to take your breath away!  Maria Raggi was a Dominican nun who died in Rome in 1600.  Bernini here adopted his famous "drapery theme" in which the marble actually appears to be flowing like real cloth.  Bernini's drapery theme per eccellenza is the funeral monument of Alexander VII Chigi in St. Peter's Basilica.  Near the monument of Maria Raggi is another work by Bernini – the bust of Giovanni Vigevano between the third and fourth chapels on the left side.


Celebrating the Unification of Italy: 1861-2011 - Roma Capitale


As we celebrate 150 years of Italian unity, let's not forget that at the same time the City of Rome celebrates 140 years as Capital of Italy.  It was on September 20, 1870 that the Italian troops of Unification breached the walls near Porta Pia and claimed the City of Rome.  The following year Rome was officially declared the Capital of the newly united country.  September 20, therefore, is a significant date in the history of the Eternal City, which is why the street leading to Porta Pia is named for this date, Via XX Settembre.  (For more about Porta Pia and the famous breach, see Roma: Sights and Insights, Chapter 16, Porta Pia).



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