All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in February 2012.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Marino
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