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Page revised in February 2010.
Basilica di S. Paolo (Book 5) (Day 5) (View C12)
In Book 3 Giuseppe Vasi covered the basilicas and the major churches of Rome, however he did not cover S. Paolo fuori le Mura, one of the four main basilicas; in plate 43 of that book he showed and described S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane, the church built on the site where St. Paul was executed, and in the text he made reference to S. Paolo fuori le Mura (which was built upon the saint's tomb) saying that he would have covered it in Book 5. As a matter of fact less than one year elapsed between the publication of Book 3 (August 1753) and that of Book 5 (March 1754). S. Paolo fuori le Mura and S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura were the only basilicas included in the pilgrimage to the Seven Churches, which, at Vasi's time, retained almost entirely their medieval aspect.
At first sight one has the impression that the basilica has not changed much since Vasi's time, but this is due to the fact that the trees hide the XIXth century gigantic front courtyard of the modern building; the second main change relates to the bell tower, very similar to a lighthouse, which has replaced that near the fašade. In recent years a path for joggers and cyclists was built on the river bank.
The following description of the fire is contained in Jeremiah Donovan's 1842 Rome Ancient and Modern: "The year 1823 forms a memorable epoch in its history. Repairs were then being made
on the outside of the basilica by order of Pope Pius VII, who had made his religious profession in the
adjoining monastery, when, very early in the morning, the whole roof was discovered to be in
flames, and soon after descended with an awful crash, carrying with it a considerable portion of
the walls, and burying in its smouldering ruins calcined pillars, detached mosaics,
paintings, and statues; and, in the short space of five hours, the work of ages was
reduced to little more than bare walls. Even the columns of porphyry, notwithstanding
their extreme hardness, were shivered to pieces; and the large bronze door of the portico
was partly melted by the violence of the conflagration. The origin of the fire remains a secret;
but the ruin which it has left serves to explain the manner in which many of the edifices of
ancient Rome fell before the same destructive element."
The etching by Cottafavi shows that the bell tower, the portico and the transept had not been destroyed by fire yet the team of architects in charge of the reconstruction of the basilica
did not attempt to rebuild it "as it was". The major change they introduced was a large courtyard before the entrance. The columns of grey granite used in the courtyard and in the new interior came from Montorfano, an isolated mountain on Lake Maggiore: they were carried by barges to Milan where they were polished; other barges carried them to the Adriatic Sea and then ships making the circumnavigation of the Italian peninsula brought them to the mouth of the Tiber from where they eventually reached the basilica. Each shipment required between four and twelve months.
The first basilica was built at the time of Emperor Constantine, but it was soon replaced by a larger building known as Basilica dei Tre Imperatori because its construction was promoted during the reign of Emperors Valentinian II, Theodosius and Arcadius (son of Theodosius).
Today art historians are generally lukewarm about the artistic value of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, but for many years after its reconstruction the cold emptiness of the basilica was highly praised: read Henry James's enthusiastic account of his visit to S. Paolo fuori le Mura in 1873 and William Dean Howells' 1908 favourable opinion.
Probably the main attraction of S. Paolo fuori le Mura is the series of portraits of the popes from St. Peter to the current pope. It was initiated by Pope Leo I who also commissioned the mosaic on the arch before the final part of the main nave; the mosaic is also known as the mosaic of Galla Placidia, a daughter of Emperor Theodosius, because of a reference to her in the inscription along the arch. The mosaic was damaged by the fire, but it was possible to restore it; it portrays the bust of Jesus Christ surrounded by 24 elders quoted in the Apocalypse; the symbols of the Evangelists are depicted in the upper part of the mosaic; the angels and St. Peter and St. Paul were added or redesigned at a later time.
At the beginning of the XIIIth century the basilica and the adjoining monastery knew a period of embellishments: the monastery was provided with a splendid cloister and Pope Honorius III commissioned Venetian mosaicists the decoration of the apse.
You have completed Book 5! Move to Book 6 - plate 101 - Battisterio Lateranense
Next plate in Day 5 itinerary: Porta S. Paolo