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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in February 2012.

- Grottaferrata

It was his (of Cicero) custom in the opportunities of his leisure to take some friends with him into the country, where, instead of amusing themselves with idle sports or feasts, their diversions were wholly speculative, tending to improve the mind and enlarge the understanding. In this manner he now spent five days at his Tusculan villa in discussing with his friends the several questions just mentioned. For, after employing the mornings in declaiming and rhetorical exercises, they used to retire in the afternoon into a gallery, called the Academy, which he had built for the purpose of philosophical conferences, where, after the manner of the Greeks, he held a school, as they called it, and invited the company to call for any subject that they desired to hear explained, which being proposed accordingly by some of the audience became immediately the argument of that day’s debate. These five conferences, or dialogues, he collected afterward into writing in the very words and manner in which they really passed; and published them under the title of his Tusculan Disputations, from the name of the villa in which they were held (from the Introduction to the English version of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations by C. D. Yonge).

Abbazia di Grottaferrata seen from Monte d'Oro

It is uncertain whether the Abbey of Grottaferrata was built above Cicero's villa, but the fact that the ruins of a small aqueduct have been identified at this site is consistent with a reference Cicero made about the water supply of his villa. The Renaissance walls which surround the abbey were built making use of those which supported the terraces of the villa. The abbey is located between Marino and Frascati, which is not far from ancient Tusculum.

The second cloister of the abbey and underneath it a portico of the Roman villa

Cicero says that in the afternoons he used to retire with his friends into a gallery. This has been identified in a portico which supported what today is the second cloister of the abbey; it could have been used by Cicero and his friends for walking while they were discussing philosophical matters; the portico was sheltered from cold north-eastern winds in winter and remained cool in summer.

(left) "Aedicula Vetus" (Old Shrine) and behind it "Crypta Ferrata" (Iron Crypt); (right) modern statue of St. Nilus the Younger by Raffaele Zaccagnini

The abbey is named after crypta ferrata, a funerary cell which was closed by two iron railings (It. ferro = iron). Assuming that the villa belonged to Cicero it could have been the tomb of his daughter Tullia. Together with Aedicula Vetus it was turned into an oratory in the Vth century and in 1004 it was donated to Nilus, a monk from Calabria, the southernmost region of the Italian peninsula. According to tradition at that time Nilus was ninety-four years old, yet he was canonized as St. Nilus the Younger, to distinguish him from a Vth century Greek saint.

(left) S. Maria di Grottaferrata; (right) detail of a late XIXth century mosaic showing the church after the changes made by Cardinal Mario Mattei

Nilus had a vision of the Virgin Mary who told him to build a major shrine on the site of the small oratory. The church was completed in 1024 and it was subsequently modified several times. Many cardinals have associated their name with the construction of beautiful churches; unfortunately Cardinal Mario Mattei cannot be included among them. In 1848, in his capacity as Cardinal Bishop of Frascati, he decided to give the old church a Gothic style façade. Between 1911 and 1930 the church returned to its assumed medieval appearance, but this was done in an unconvincing manner.

Porta Speciosa (Beautiful Door) and details of its marble frame and of its wooden door

At the time of Nilus, Calabria was a Byzantine possession and Nilus followed the rule established by St. Basil the Great, the father of Eastern monasticism. In line with the Byzantine tradition the church was preceded by a narthex which has retained its original decoration and in particular the door leading to the prayer hall. A small inscription in Greek above the lintel quotes a sentence by St. Theodore of Studion: You who are about to enter the House of God, forget your worldly anxieties, to favourably impress the Judge inside. Today prayers sung by the monks remind visitors that they are entering a holy place (you may wish to listen to them at the abbey website - external link).

(above) XIth century mosaic above Porta Speciosa portraying a "Deesis" (Christ in Majesty flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist) and a small Basilian monk; (below) lintel of the portal

The abbey flourished in the XIth and XIIth centuries, but the conflict between the popes and the German emperors led the latter to seize and sack the abbey (in 1163 Frederick I Barbarossa and in 1230 Frederick II). The abbey declined because of the foundation of new religious orders by St. Dominic and St. Francis and because of the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 by Frank knights which put an end to the remaining Byzantine influence in Italian political and religious matters.

(left) Medieval baptismal font; (right) Cosmati pavement

In 1439 Bessarion of Trebizond, Bishop of Nicaea and a trusted adviser to Byzantine Emperor John VIII, was appointed cardinal by Pope Eugenius IV in the frame of an attempt to unify the Greek and Roman churches. Cardinal Bessarion visited all the Basilian monasteries in Italy and he reformed their rules to ensure they complied with the Roman Catholic Church doctrine, although retaining a typical Greek liturgy.
In 1462 he became abbot commendatario (having supervision over the affairs of the abbey, without being a monk) of Grottaferrata and he brought the abbey back to its old importance. Changes were made at that time and in the following centuries to the interior of the church, but some medieval features such as the baptismal font and the Cosmati pavement were not affected.

XIth century mosaic above the apse portraying the Twelve Apostles at the sides of a throne

Of the ancient mosaics which decorated the interior only a Hetoimasia was not replaced by later frescoes or mosaics. Hetoimasia (ready/empty throne) is a Christian symbol for the Ascent to Heaven of Jesus Christ. Although not being very common it can be seen at other locations in Italy where links with the Byzantine world were strong such as Venice. You may wish to see other Roman Golden Mosaics.

(left) Renaissance Gate; (centre)) an oak, the heraldic symbol of the Della Rovere; (right) military symbols including (top) a pelta, the shield of the Amazons (you may wish to see an Amazon with a pelta in
a relief in the Museum of Corinth)

At the death of Bessarion in 1472 Pope Sixtus IV appointed a new abbot and he chose his young nephew Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere; you can see the two in purple dresses in the third icon of the banner at the head of this page. The new abbot promoted an enlargement of the abbey which included a new residence in Renaissance style for himself. Its entrance was framed by reliefs inspired by ancient Roman paintings discovered in those years at Domus Aurea and called candelabra (chandeliers) because of their vertical alignment.

Fortifications of Grottaferrata

In 1482 Cardinal Della Rovere commissioned Baccio Pontelli to design and build new state-of-the-art walls which could withstand the impact of cannon. At that time he did not have anything to fear because his uncle was still living, but he probably thought that the fortified abbey could provide him with a safe haven in the future.
A few years later Cardinal Della Rovere was assigned to the see of Ostia where he asked Baccio Pontelli to design S. Aurea, a church which shows a decoration similar to that of the Renaissance Gate at Grottaferrata, and a castle which is known as Castello di Giulio II, because in 1503 Cardinal Della Rovere became Pope Julius II.

Main cloister

When we think of a cloister, we do not expect to see such high columns and harmonious vaults as those designed by Giuliano da Sangallo for Cardinal Della Rovere. They resemble those designed fifty years earlier by Filippo Brunelleschi at Spedale degl'Innocenti in Florence. Because Sangallo was primarily a military architect he was credited by some art historians with the construction of the walls of Grottaferrata and Ostia.

Cappella Farnese: (left) altar; (right) ceiling with the coat of arms of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese

After cardinals Bessarione and Della Rovere, being the abbot of Grottaferrata became a highly regarded appointment. In 1589 Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, a distant relative of Pope Paul III, was appointed abbot commendatario of Grottaferrata. He was born in Parma and he protected a series of artists of the School of Bologna (the two towns are quite close). His palace in Rome was decorated by the Carracci, the leaders of the School of Bologna, whereas at Grottaferrata in 1610 he commissioned Domenichino, a pupil of the Carracci, a series of frescoes for a new chapel which adjoins the church, rather than being part of it.

(left) Fresco by il Domenichino in Cappella Farnese; (right) detail showing (from left to right at the sides of the horse) the painter himself, Guido Reni and il Guercino

In the early XIXth century travellers came to Grottaferrata to see the frescoes by Domenichino: at that time this painter and Guido (as Guido Reni was called) were considered the last great Italian painters before the Decadence (i.e. the Baroque period) and in 1827 Stendhal wrote of fresques sublimes at Grottaferrata in his Promenades dans Rome.
In 1842 J. Donovan gave a detailed account of the frescoes to the readers of Rome Ancient and Modern and its environs: (one of the frescoes depicts) the interview of St. Nilus and Otho III near Gaeta. Otho dressed in an embroidered mantle, has alighted from his charger, and extends his arms to embrace the saint, who, with a countenance at once breathing affection and sanctity, humbly extends his arms towards the Emperor. The saint is followed by other monks bearing a Cross and thurible; and the Emperor is attended by his soldiers and suit, amongst whom Domenichino has painted himself clothed in green, and holding the bridle of the Emperor's horse; and his two friends Guido and Guercino, the former leaning on the horse and the latter earnestly addressing Guido. (..) This large fresco is full of life and spirit.
Later on in the XIXth century the admiration for Domenichino faded away (read Henry James' account of his visit to Grottaferrata).

(left) Baroque altar; (right) the sacred image

In 1627 Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, was appointed abbot commendatario of Grottaferrata. In ca 1660 he commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini the design of an altar meant to house a medieval sacred image of Madre di Dio (Theotokos in Greek). Bernini designed the altar which was executed by Antonio Giorgetti, one of his most trusted assistants (you may wish to see other Baroque Angels).

The image used as background for this page shows a cow feeding a calf, the symbol of the abbey. According to tradition an ancient bronze statue of a cow was taken away by the Muslim troops of Emperor Frederick II when they looted Grottaferrata.

Other abbeys/monasteries in this web site:
Monastero di S. Paolo fuori le Mura
Abbazia di S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane
Sacro Speco di S. Benedetto a Subiaco
S. Scolastica a Subiaco
Abbazia di Farfa
Abbazia di Fossanova
Abbazia di Casamari
Abbazia di Pomposa
Meteora monasteries in Greece
St. John's monastery at Patmos in Greece
The monastery of Sumela in Turkey
The monastery of Deyr az Zafaran at Mardin in Turkey
The abbey of Bellapais on Cyprus

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

S. Maria di Grotta Ferrata
Correva il decimo secolo della nostra salute, quando Agareno Arabo, soggiogava tutta la Calabria, con una fierissima persecuzione contro i Cristiani; ma molto più contro i monaci, e religiosi, ed essendo in quella Provincia per il timore disertati tutti i monasterj, e romitorj, s. Bartolommeo Nileo discepolo di s. Nilo monaco dell'Ordine di s. Basilio, scelse 60. de' suoi monaci di rito greco, e fuggendo le crudeltà del Barbaro predatore, se ne venne nel Lazio per servire Iddio in santa pace. Giunto nell'ameno campo in vicinanza del Tusculo, quasi per divino istinto fu guidato ad una sa grotta, che ancora oggidì si vede, dove insieme co' suoi religiosi si ricoverò; e dormendo in essa con tutti gli altri compagni, gli apparve la ss. Vergine dicendoli, che ivi si fermasse, e vi fabbricasse una chiesa in suo onore.
Dominavano allora nel Tusculo undici Conti di grande autorità e possanza, i quali avendo avuto la stessa visione, non solamente somministrarono i sussidj per la fabbrica della chiesa e monastero; ma con somma generosità provvidero loro di rendite per lo mantenimento di cento Monaci sotto la condotta di s. Bartolommeo loro primo Abate, e fondatore. Questi datosi subito a fabbricare, operò quivi diversi segnalati miracoli, e fra gli altri, che stando per cadere una delle otto colonne, che egli dalle rovine antiche, ivi cavate aveva, per ornarne la chiesa, come ancora si vede, egli la fermò in aria col segno della santa Croce.
Crebbe poi a tal segno la devozione de' Fedeli verso quel santuario, che accrebbero quelle entrate alla somma di 60. mila scudi annui, con 21. chiese e monasterj soggetti; arricchiti e segnalati con vari privilegj. Nulladimeno a poco a poco mancato il fervore e la devozione; massimamente in occasione dello scisma tra la Chiesa Greca, e la Latina nell'anno 1462. alli 28. di Agosto su quel monastero da Pio II. ridotto in commenda Cardinalizia, onde molti Cardinali Commendatarj hanno ristaurata, ed ornata la chiesa con marmi, sculture, e pitture insigni, tenendosi in gran conto quelle nella cappella laterale dipinte a fresco dal Domenichino, per commissione del Card. Farnese, mentre era Commendatario di quel monastero, ora ridotto a pochi monaci.

Next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Marino

Latium was enlarged in the 1920s with territories from the neighbouring regions: the map on the left shows the current borders of Latium; the map on the right has links to pages covering towns of historical Latium: in order to see them you must hover and click on the dots.