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A New Look at Rome’s Rousing Middle Ages


A New Look at Rome’s Rousing Middle Ages

Capitoline Museum, Rome

15th C. hall in Capitoline Museum is now devoted to the Middle Ages in Rome. To right and left are drum-shaped marble measuring pans for oil, wine and dry goods.

ROME, July 30, 2009 – When its doors first opened in 1734, the Capitoline Museum, which stands upon the hilltop that is the very heart of Rome, was one of the first European public museums and a favorite haunt of the wealthy Grand Tourists from all over Europe. As of July 30, this venerable museum offers something novel to all tourists—a chance for a fresh look at a relatively neglected period of Roman history and the arts, the Middle Ages.

The newly opened Sala del Medioevo (Hall of the Medieval) on the first floor of the Palazzo dei Conservatori—the building on the right facing the U-shaped square laid out by Michaelangelo—is unusual in itself. The buildings of the Campidoglio (from Capitolium) were largely put to the torch during the sack of Rome in 1527, but this small and elegant hall was one of the few spared, and so we see it as planned by Michelangelo.

“Since 1561 this hall was been office space used for archives,” said the director of the archaeological museums of Rome, Claudio Parisi Presicce, at today’s inauguration. “The new restoration pays homage to a period considered for far too long ‘dark ages.’”

Roman Senator Charles d'Anjou

Sicilian King and Roman Senator Charles d’Anjou. The life-size marble sculpture, circa 1256, shows traces of vivid color.

Rome, fald-stool

Folding throne called a fald-stool was decorated with two lions. Corner relief depicts a trumpeter.

Under the Roman Empire, when Rome had over one million inhabitants, the Capitoline Hill overlooking the Forum was home to both the sacred and profane: the temple to Jupiter and the Tabularium, the massive public office building where bronze tables of the tax and other records of ancient Rome were kept. It is still home to the Ara Coeli Church and to Rome’s City Hall, whose foundations rise from the ruins of the old Tabularium. Twin palazzi, which today house the Capitoline Museums, flank the City Hall on either side.

Rome’s population had shriveled to 35,000 during the early Middle Ages, but gradually a new middle class, composed of small landowners, professionals, businessmen, judges and city officials, began seeking secular self-government, spurred on by the example of the communes existing elsewhere in Italy. This new class vied for power over medieval Rome with the papacy and with the Holy Roman Emperor. After riotous uprisings, the ruling pope finally recognized the city’s rights to a secular magistracy in 1145.

By that time, the open space at the top of the hill had become a marketplace that functioned every nine days and a gathering-place for citizens. The vestiges of the ancient buildings had been adapted as headquarters for the guilds of Rome and for archives, courtrooms and public offices, including for the prefects, or police. A document from 1151 states that city delegates met in the “new hall of the palace council.” This hall, its foundations partly in the Tabularium, partly in the temple to Jove, became the seat of the revived Roman Senate, which annually elected 56 senators to administer civil and criminal justice.

Hence the importance of the centerpiece of the new medieval hall, the larger-than-life-sized statue, carved from a gigantic block of recycled ancient marble, showing Charles d’Anjou, king of Sicily and twice elected to the Roman senate. This extremely rare statue was carved around 1276 by Arnolfo di Cambio, who had learned his craft from the master sculptor Nicola Pisano. Charles, twice elected to the Roman Senate, is portrayed while seated on a folding chair like the sedia curialis of Roman pro consuls. The statue, which stood in a Gothic niche with trumpeters on either side, was originally vividly colored and had applied gold leaf decorations.

For a century the statue had pride of place high on a wall somewhere inside the Campidoglio, but then it was detached and dumped in some inner courtyard, where it was found, damaged and covered with dust, by a senator at the time of Pope Sixtus IV. During that 15th century restoration detailing and the colors were scraped away. Despite this, the expression on the senator-king’s face is appropriately imperious and the style strikingly modern. It is a realistic portrait, and Charles appears slightly jowly, with a bit of droop below an otherwise firm chin.

Rome, white marble trumpeter

White marble trumpeter (fragment) was the right-hand corner inside a trefoil arch whose centerpiece was the seated statue of Charles d’Anjou.

Roman bas relief

Medieval composite has, from an altar, an ancient Roman wheel-shaped bas relief depiction of the twelve labors of Achilles. Center, a square of precious porphyri is encircled by Cosmatesque decorations.

Other examples of medieval life (plus another reuse of marble—in this case, of broken solid marble columns with some visible fluting) can be seen in drum-shaped measuring basins for 13th century wine, oil and dry goods like wheat, sold in the Campidoglio market. The column-drums had hollowed-out basins at the top for official measuring units; on one is written cog vini (short for congio, the standard liquid measurement).

Another adaptation from antiquity is a panel made for a medieval altar which incorporates a flat, wheel-shaped bas relief showing the twelve labors of Achilles. Originally the wheel in white marble was part of an altar table; in medieval Rome it was enhanced with cosmatesque decorations composed of precious marble scraps.

Rome, Palazzo dei Conservatori

Rome’s Palazzo dei Conservatori [Photo by Berthold Werner]

Sala del Medioevo, Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy. Permanent exhibition in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Curators Claudio Parisi Presicce and Elena Bianca Di Gioia. Display by architect Francesco Stefanori. Bilingual catalogue Italian-English “Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily and Senator of Rome, the Honorary Monument at Capital Hill in Rome in the Thirteenth Century.” Campisano, Rome, 2009

Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the "Cleveland Press" of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to "ARTnews" of New York and to "Current World Archaeology" of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey.

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