Rome day 1


Sant Agnese fuori le Mura with the catacombs, the Santa Costanza and the Porta Pia

We take bus 82 or 90 from the Piazza dei Cinquecento towards the Sant Agnese fuori le Mura with the catacombs, the Santa Costanza and the Porta Pia. On our way to the Sant Agnese, we head past the Via XX Settembre to find the famous Porta Pia by Michelangelo at the Via Nomentana. We’ll have another look at this city gate on our way back: the Porta Pia by Michelangelo.

Michelangelo Porta Pia  big size    G.B. Falda surrounding Porte Pia 1676
Michelangelo Porta Pia


Photo: Cate Cobby

To our left at the Via Nomentana we find the church devoted to St. Agnes. St. Agnes of Rome was venerated as a martyr from the 4th century onward. She refused to marry, given how as a thirteen year old girl she already devoted her love to the Lord. Agnes:

His mother is a virgin, His father has no relations with women. Angels serve Him, the sun and moon admire Him. His beauty. His power is endless, His wealth is eternal. His smell awakes the dead, His touch comforts the ill. His love is pure, His Touch divine, intimacy with Him is virginal.  (transl. H/N ) It should be clear to the reader that Agnes speaks of God. Needless to say, things did not go well for the infatuated son, the devil claimed him.

The son’s father, the stadtholder, could not sit idly by, and told Agnes: The choice is yours. Bring a sacrifice together with the Vestal virgins if you value your virginity, or you will prostitute yourself along with the other whores. ‘I will not sacrifice anything to your gods,’ she answered, ‘nor be desecrated by the filth of others, because I have a guardian with me: an angel of the lord. At hearing this, the stadtholder ordered her to undress and have her taken to a brothel, but the Lord made her hair so dense that it covered her body better than clothes could. At the disgraceful brother, she found an angel of the Lord who awaited her. He bathed the house in light and crafted her a sparkling white gown. That is how the brothel turned into a house of prayer. It was even true that whoever revered the astonishing light, would leave the building more pure than when he or she first entered. (transl.  NL/N) After Agnes revived the stadtholder’s son, the stadtholder did not dare to kill Agnes. Nor was he prepared to release her, and so he transferred his position as stadtholder to Aspasius. This successor did take measures, and… ‘[…] had her thrown into a burning fire, but the flames dispersed and instead burned the rebellious people while avoiding Agnes. At seeing this, Aspasius ordered her throat cut by the sword. And so the radiating and blushing Bride devoted herself as His fiancée and as a martyr to Himself. She died a martyr’s death, as people believe, during the times of Constantine the Great, whose rule began in 309.’ (transl.  N/N)

According to a 6th century legend. From: Jacobus de Voragine, ‘The hand of God The best hagiographies from the Legenda Aurea,'(translation by Vincent Hunink and Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 pp. 31-34.

The Legenda Aurea was written in 1275 and is a compilation of many older saint stories. In the Middle Ages, the lamb is the symbol of Agnes. The lamb refers to the Lamb of God: Agnus dei. Two churches are devoted to her in Rome, the very church we now face and the Sant’Agnese in Agona at the Piazza Navona, built by Borromini. ‘Our saint’ was tortured and died at the place where the church by Borromini now stands. In the second church devoted to the holy Agnes where we find ourselves on this Saturday afternoon, she was buried underneath the altar (her skull is kept in the Sant’Agnese in Agona). Her liberated slave lies next to Agnes: the holy Emerentiana. She dared to pray at Agnes’ tomb. This was of course forbidden, and so Emerentiana was stoned to death. She too was buried underneath the main altar. When we leave the bus and cross the road we face the apsis side of the church. For the most part, the church lies buried in the hill. If we walk into the little street, the Via de Sant’Agnese, we first enter a court with an adjacent monastery. We then go down the stairs, enter the narthex and then enter the Sant’Agnese.

Via di Sant’Agnese      Large size
Via di Sant'Agnese    Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura Rome


C. W. Eckersberg Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura 1815
C. W. Eckersberg Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura 1815


Anonymous ‘View of the churches of Santa Constanza, Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura and the remains of the Basilica of Sant ‘Agnese’ c. 1560
Anonymous (follower of: Maarten van Heemskerck) ‘View of the churches of Santa Constanza, Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura and the remains of the Basilica of Sant ‘Agnese’ c. 1560, h.95 mm x w.162 mm, pen and brown ink, framing lines in pencil, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Anonymous (follower of: Maarten van Heemskerck) ‘View of the churches of Santa Constanza, Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura and the remains of the Basilica of Sant ‘Agnese’ c. 1560, h.95 mm x w.162 mm, pen and brown ink, framing lines in pencil, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Francis Towne “Temple of Bacchus Two Miles from Rome”  1801 Santa Costanza en de kerk Sant’ Agnese
Giuseppe Vasi Sant’Agnese 1795
Francis Towne “Temple of Bacchus Two Miles from Rome”  1801 Santa Costanza and the Sant' Agnese

A church was already built here in 324, commissioned by Constantina, the daughter of emperor Constantine. In the 7th century, Honorius I built a new church instead. The church was placed atop the catacombs. A part of the terrain first had to be deepened to accommodate it, at the expense at several tombs. The altar was placed straight above the tomb of the holy Agnes. Despite many subsequent restorations, the interior is still very reminiscent of early-Christian architecture. The church has three naves and the columns are re-used classical columns. At the walls and above the aisles we find a colonnade that runs past the back wall: a so-called tribune. This space was often used for women to allow them to separate themselves from the men. The tribune was accessable through the street side. Galleries were common practice particularly in Byzantine churches. This is why the architect is believed by many to have been a Greek.

Court of the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura large size
Court of the Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura Rome
Worship of Sant Agnese court large size      The wall and the cave large size
Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura Worship of Sant Agnese court Rome


Aisle large size groot formaat          Floor plan of the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura
Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura Zijbeuk aisle interior Rome
View of the side aisle large size
Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura zicht op de zijbeuk Rome


Sant Agnese fuori le Mura     Large size     Apse     Ceiling
Sant Agnese fuori le Mura interior Rome

Photo: Han Santing

Sant Agnese fuori le Mura big size
Sant Agnese fuori le Mura apse main altar Rome

The semi-dome of the apse still shows the original 7th century mosaic. The holy Agnes stands between Honorius, who offers a model of the church, and the Pope Symmachus on the right, the pope who had the first church in this location restored. The very top depicts the hand of God. He awards Agnes with the victor’s crown. The text at the bottom edge does not just list the monogram of Honorius, but also that he spent some 252 pounds of silver on the construction of this basilisk.

Mosaic in the apse 7th century large size     The hand of God the  Father
Sant Agnese fuori le Mura mosaic in the apse 7th century Rome


Mosaic  in the apse 7th century big size
Sant Agnese fuori le Mura mosaic in the apse 7th century Rome

On the spot, we are given an explanation of why this involves a typical Byzantine mosaic and how mosaics are made. Typical for Rome was the use of spolia. A sculpture of Agnes, for instance, stands triumphantically on the main altar and of course prominent in the richly decorated ceiling. At a closer glance, we notice that ‘our saint‘ is made of an antique alabaster torso. Bronze hands, feet and a head were added in the 17th century.

When examining the ciborium from 1614 above the altar, the four porphyry columns appear to be much older. They likely date back to the 7th century. Every year on January 21st, two lambs are carried into the church atop a flower-decorated wooden plateau (Youtube). The lambs are given a blessing by the priest in front of the altar. The sheep are then taken to the pope, who blesses them once more. The nuns of the S. Cecilia in Trastevere craft their wool into palliums, or pallia. These are decorations worn by arch-bishops or regular bishops.

Chapel of the holy Sabina          Catacombs
chapel of the holy Sabina Sabina Sant Agnese fuori le Mura


Before we leave the church, we descend into the undercroft to reach the catacombs. The entrance to H. Agnes’ catacomb is found left of the aisle. Three Hellenistic reliefs were found below the stairs that lead to the tombs, which can now be seen at the Palazzo Spada. The Roman ground consists mostly of tuff. This type of stone is well suited for carving out hallways or even spacious rooms. The tombs are oftentimes small, some of them adorned with interesting wall paintings. One of the most interesting paintings is a depiction of a man who hacks away at the tuff with his pickaxe.

Working the tuff of a catacomb
 Sant Agnese fuori le Mura working the tuff of a catacomb

A small explanation is given about what the depictions mean. In the 4th century, the century in which Agnes was buried here, Christians did not yet have their own visual language. They resorted to classical examples. In addition, the Christians still struggled with the fourth commandment and the old testament, where Exodus 20: 4 lists the following:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. In the early days of Christianity, symbols of Christ were only seen on signet rings. These symbols were later found as wall paintings in the catacombs. Even more common is the discovery of Christian symbols on marble plates. These plates are used to close off the tombs in the walls. Even back in Antiquity, the pigeon symbolised man’s soul. This motif, accompanied by a branch in later eras, was very popular on tomb plates. The branch represents the pigeon sent out by Noah to see if the Earth had dried out by now, following the large flood. And indeed, the pigeon returned with a branch. The fish is another often-used motif. It represents Christ. The starting letter of the Greek word for fish, ICHTHUS, was interpreted as Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter, or Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour. Moreover, the fish played an important role in several Christian miracles including the miraculous fish catch or the miraculous feeding of the 5000. The anchor, similarly, was a beloved symbol as shown here at the basilisk of the holy Agnes. Click here for the website by William Storage and Laura Maish for solid information and wonderful images about how Christ was depicted on sarcophagi and tomb plates.

Tomb stone ‘fish of the living’ 3rd century
tomb stone 3rd century 'fish of the living'

After a tour by a local guide, we head back up. We exit the church and take a path to turn left and find ourselves at the Santa Costanza. This mausoleum was built for Constantina, a daughter of Roman emperor Constantine, in the early 4th century. The building turned into a church in 1254 and was named after the by then canonised Constantina. She was called Santa Costanza. The map, cross section and the remains of the Santa Costanza.

Most mausoleums, heathen or Christian, are round or octagonal: like a centred plane. In our first schedule we’ll have a look at the early-Christian church, the S. Stefano Rotondo from 470. This too has a centred plane. Not a shape that really stuck through, mind. The classical design of a basilisk, which we will see at the Forum Romanum, is much more practical. A basilisk can accommodate a large mass of people, while leaving ample room for religious customs such as the Mass and the worshipping of relics. For a modest church or mausoleum, however, a centred plane is very suitable. Bluffton University has four pages with great pictures of the Santa Costanza.

Grave of  St. Sabina  zoom in
grave of  St. Sabina Santa' Agnese fuori le Mura Rome


Santa Costanza    Side    Other side    Facade   Narthex big size
Santa Costanza facade nathex Rome

Photo facade: jean louis mazieres

The exterior of the Santa Costanza is remarkably simple, made of red brick. When we enter via the narthex, you will see the same type of brick, but paired with valuable paired granite columns, twenty-four in total, which support the central hall and dome.

Santa Costanza the facade and the back
Santa Costanza facade Rome

Photo: Braham Ketcham

Santa Costanza interior big size      Mosaic in the barrel vaults     Piranesi ‘Santa Costanza’ Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Santa Costanza interior Rome

Photos: Bruno Brunelli and mouseover Lawrence PO

Santa Costanza dome
Santa Costanza dome interior Rome

Photo: Bruno Brunelli 

To see details of the mosaics and the sarcophagus, click here to view the website by William Storage and Laura Maish. These fourth-century mosaics differ greatly from the ones we have just seen in the semi-dome of the 7th century Sant’Agnese. A white surface shows entangled grape vines.

Santa Costanza sarcophagus of  Constantina replica      Original Vatican museum     Picking grapes     Wine perss
Santa Costanza sarcophagus of  Constantina interior Rome

Flowers, fruits and birds can be seen in between the foliage of the grapes and branches. It also depicts Constantina, the daughter of Constantine, and her husband for whom this mausoleum was built. The original tomb of Constantina, in the square apse opposite the entrance, has unfortunately been moved to the museum of the Vatican. The tomb that is now up for view is a replica.

Santa Costanza mosaic large size
Santa Costanza mosaic barrel vaults Rome
Santa Costanza mosaic
Santa Costanza mosaic barrel vaults Rome

Photo: Bruno Brunelli 

Wine press and the supply of grapes
Santa Costanza mosaic wine press barrel vaults Rome

Photos: Lawrence PO

The pressing of grapes is not just depicted in the mosaics, but also in the sarcophagus of Constanza.

Santa Costanza large size
Santa Costanza barrel vaults Rome

Photo: Gian Luigi Perrella

What’s more, the vaults of the circular aisles are decorated with classical mosaics.

The recesses above us show mosaics with Christian themes like Peter receiving the keys from Christ, or Peter and Paul who receive the scrolls from Christ. Apart from these Christian themes, which are classical in nature, there are classical themes as well.

Paul and Peter receive the scrolls from Christ large size
Santa Costanza mosaic Paul and Peter receive the scrolls from Christ Rome
Peter receives the keys from Christ large size
Santa Costanza mosaic: Peter receives the keys from Christ Rome

Between the foliage you can see grapes being harvested and a wine press. Many in the Renaissance and the period there after took the church for a temple of Bacchus. Not surprising, given the many depictions of grapes and a press. Dutch and Flemish painters founded a cultural association in Rome around 1620: the Bentvueghels. The association included such painters as van Poelenburgh, Breenbergh (born in Deventer), Jan Asselijn and van Swanevelt.

The Bentvueghels members each initiate a new member. To do so, they gathered in the Santa Costanza. The new member was then initiated as a Bent member while sharing some glasses of red wine. The recesses to the left and right of the central recess, which holds Constantine’s tomb, still show the graffiti of the Bentvueghel members.



Anonymous  ‘Portraits of elven Bentvueghels’ c. 1623 Boijmans van Beuningen Rotterdam
Cornelius Scut alias Brootsaken, Joan Muller alias Grunvink (Jan Molenaer), Willelmo Mollo alias Steekreiter (Wilhelmus Moll), Alexander uyt et land van Cleve alias Quicstert (Alexander van Welinckhoven). Bartolomeo van d


Pieter van der Laer  ‘Bentvueghels in a Rome tavern’ first half seventeenth century
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen  Berlin
Anoniem Bentvueghels in een herberg in Rome eerste helft zeventiende eeuw Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen Berlin

 We return to the bus and take line 82 or 90 and get out at the Porta Pia.

Porta Pia big size zoom in     G.B. Falda surrounding Porte Pia 1676
Porta Pia Michelangelo Rome

Photo: bron

Porta Pia large size
Porta Pia Rome Michelangelo

Photo: Simone Lucchesi


Pope Pius IV commissioned this city gate, as the description on the fronton explains. In 1561, Pius IV wished to strengthen his legacy by leaving behind some streets with a gate that would have his name, Pia. The old street, Via Pia, which passed through here, wasn’t exactly straight. Pius IV wanted a nice, straight and important connection from and to his summer palace on the Quirinal Hill, the San Marco and the bridge at the Via Nomentana. The street that ran underneath the Porta Pia was formerly located in one of the most sparsely populates areas in Rome. Pius IV’s idea that streets with adjacent buildings should be seen as a whole was a real innovation at the time. Via Pia (now Via Quirinale and Via XX Settembre) and the Porta Pia with the Via Nomentana behind it c. 1590. Michelangelo was inspired by Serlio with his city gate designs. What is remarkable with the Porta Pia is that the gate is more focussed on the city itself rather than the one who enters it.

Porta Pia Rome

Michelangelo Buonarroti was mostly interested in the gate itself. The design is reminiscent of the decors that Serlio designed for theatres. With his design, Buonarroti deviates strongly from the architectural norms of that time. There are all kinds of details that seem to mock the zeitgeist of that period. Just like you’ve learned in class, the Roman person Vitruvius with his work ‘An Architect’s Handbook’ of c. 30 B.C. was  very important for the Renaissance. Vitruvius’ way of building become the decree for any post-1400 architect. Michelangelo, however, ignored this. One clear example is the Dorian order used by Michelangelo in his city gate. Going against established grounds, the capitals received gigantic gutta. Even the fronton is ‘out of place’.

Porta Pia detail  and upper part
Porta Pia detail: pediment Michelangelo Rome

Photo: Yuri Rapoport

Once we arrive, I’ll explain and demonstrate where Buonarroti deviates even further from Vitruvian rules. There are quite some sketches by Michelangelo that have survived, including his sketch for the central doorway.

Michelangelo study Porta Pia
Central doorway front and back large size
Porta Pia central doorway front and back Michelangelo Rome

End of first day

To the next page (Day 2)