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Monasterio di S. Paolo fuor le mura (Book 5) (Day 5) (View C12)
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The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Monastero di S. Paolo fuori le Mura
Via Ostiense and Cappella del SS. Crocifisso
The external appearance of Monastero di S. Paolo fuori le mura is very so similar to that of a fortress and it is an indication of its troubled history. Because of its isolated location at one and a half mile off Porta
S. Paolo on the road leading to Ostia and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the monastery was at risk of being raided by the Saracens during the Middle Ages and from the XVIth to the early XIXth century by Ottoman corsairs based in Algiers and Tunis. The plate shows that apart from a tavern, there were no other buildings in the proximity of the monastery. This was due to the fact that the area was plagued by malaria.
In summer 1823 a great fire destroyed almost the entire Basilica di S. Paolo which adjoined the monastery without reaching the latter which retains its medieval aspect. When the basilica was rebuilt a large bell tower designed by Luigi Poletti was added to its back. The area opposite the monastery was developed after WWII.
The history of the monastery is distinct from that of the basilica; the oldest record mentions the existence of a nunnery dedicated to S. Stefano and of a monastery dedicated to S. Cesario; Pope Gregory II unified the two institutions and assigned them to the Benedictines; he is regarded as the founder of the monastery. In 846 the Saracens who raided S. Pietro, also sacked S. Paolo and the monastery;
Pope John VIII (872-882) promoted the construction of Giovannipoli, a fortified burg which included the monastery and the basilica.
In the XIth century the popes assigned to the monastery extensive properties in the Papal State; during the pontificate of Pope Innocent III the monastery was embellished with a very fine cloister, which is regarded as a masterpiece of what some art historians describe as the Early Roman Renaissance, a flourishing of the arts at the beginning of the XIIIth century which preceded by two centuries the Italian Renaissance.
Vassalletto and Cosma were two families of Roman marmorari (marble masters) whose works are generally defined as Cosmati. The Vassalletto were involved in the design of the cloister which was completed by 1214; the northern side of the cloister, which some believe was finished a few years later, shows a more elaborate decoration than the other ones; it is not limited to the geometric mosaics, for which Vassalletto and Cosma are best known, but it includes reliefs (such as that portraying Adam and Eve) and a cornice which follows ancient models, for example the cornice of Tempio di Adriano.
In general we are more familiar with the myths of the Ancient World and their iconographic representation, than with those of the Middle Ages; many of the symbols and episodes sculpted by the Vassalletto are of difficult interpretation, but certainly they meant something to their contemporaries; a detail which identifies the works by the Vassalletto is the (unexplained) presence of small sphinxes between the pairs of columns.
Via Ostiense was flanked by funerary monuments and graveyards and the basilica and the monastery were built above a complex of cemeteries; the cloister houses a series of sarcophagi found in the area, some of which were reutilized during the Middle Ages or the Early Renaissance.
For some centuries an arcaded passage sheltered the pilgrims from Porta S. Paolo to the basilica; the latest records describing this long portico date from the XIIth century; according to tradition at approximately midway between the gate and the basilica St. Peter and St. Paul met for the last time before being carried to the sites of their martyrdoms. A small chapel having on its fašade a relief showing the two saints was pulled down at the beginning of the XXth century when Via Ostiense was enlarged.