Roman Hideaway (part 2)

by Mark Russell
First part is here

My absolute favorite destination on the Caelian Hill and, in fact, all of Rome is perched on its north-eastern slope, a short walk from the Colosseum or St. John Lateran. This is the fortified twelfth-century church and convent of Santi Quattro Coronati dedicated to four early-Christian sculptors martyred by order of the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to sculpt a statue of a pagan god. Perhaps founded as early as the fifth century, it was destroyed by the Normans at the end of the eleventh century and subsequently rebuilt, and fortified, on a smaller scale. Many of Rome’s sites are much more ancient. But I never feel as enveloped by the past as I do within the enclosed spaces of these tall, heavy, buttressed, weathered, and irregular brick walls that speak of the structure’s history in a direct, striking, but quiet way to the few who visit.



Santa Maria in Domnica

Entrance to the hulking mass of what seems a medieval fortress is through a gate below the ninth-century tower, the oldest surviving campanile in Rome. In the second courtyard is the entrance to one of the monastery’s jewels: the Chapel of Saint Sylvester built in 1246 and decorated with frescoes from that time. Admission is through a small vestibule and by donation to the cloistered Augustinian nuns housed here since the fifteenth century. Ring a bell and wait for a nun to appear behind a small grate in the wall; your donation is then accepted through an adjacent aperture where orphaned and unwanted children were once deposited. Access to major artworks, otherwise hidden from the public, can be gained in this manner at other churches in Rome: one rings a bell, knocks on a door, or uses an intercom to petition the monks, nuns, or sacristan for access. For me, these experiences are much more exciting than filing through a museum. The frescoes in the small chapel tell the story of the relationship between Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester and emphasize the Church’s spiritual and temporal authority. Betraying strong Byzantine influence, the images are bold, vividly colorful, detailed, lively and full of animated gesture and expression. The Chapel of San Sylvester is my favorite place to appreciate the sophistication of medieval art and storytelling; it is among the best spots in Rome to commune with great artwork in a quiet and intimate space. I have never seen anyone else in the chapel.


Santi Quattro Coronati

Santi Quattro Coronati’s other jewel is its thirteenth-century cloister. Here again, ring a bell to alert the nuns who will open an old wooden door in the basilica’s dimly-lit interior. Stepping through this portal, you enter one of the most secluded and serene settings in Rome. An arched, and columned portico frames an ambulatory enclosing a garden with an ancient fountain at its center. In addition, the cloister’s peripheral walls are encrusted with a variety of fragments from early-Christian sarcophagi. In this hidden, unfrequented space the silence is broken only by the chirping of birds and the calming tinkle of water. This is a place that time forgot. Or so I thought until, to my surprise, I once came upon a nun tapping away on a laptop computer at a table in one corner of the cloister. When I expressed astonishment that modernity had breached the monastery’s walls to enter this ancient space and invade the lives of nuns who never leave its confines, she replied in a resigned tone that modernity was “sometimes necessary even here.”


Santi Quattro Coronati

In my experience, Rome is promoted, and appreciated by visitors, as a city of Ancient, Early Christian, Renaissance, and Baroque monuments. Of course, there are several important medieval basilicas and churches including San Clemente,Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and Santa Maria in Trastevere. But you needn’t travel far off the beaten path to discover that the city’s medieval heritage is much richer than many guidebooks admit. There are remarkable works of medieval art and architecture scattered around Rome. Santi Quattro Coronati is one of the finest examples.
But we’ve digressed. And yet digression is the point. Traveling should be about doing things at leisure. Even a city as busy as Rome in high tourist season offers opportunities to do just that, and it is worth seeking out its less-frequented monuments and spaces. To be honest, I enjoy a return to the city center’s chaos after a morning on the Caelian Hill. But it is one of the best places to decompress, recharge, and experience Rome’s history and beauty at a slower, untroubled pace – a necessary counterpoint to the vigor and animation of the Eternal City.

Mark Russell

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