Giuseppe Vasi showed the basilicas and the oldest churches of Rome in his third book of etchings, 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 the fifth book with other monuments near the River Tiber. He most likely had already in mind to use a plate he had made for Vedute di Roma sul Tevere, a series of landscape views he published in the 1740s. 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). In 1771 Vasi depicted again the basilica (it opens in another window) in the background of a Grand View of the Aventine Hill. You may wish to see a more detailed view of the basilica by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (it opens in another window) and the basilica as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
Etching by Gaetano Cottafavi showing S. Paolo fuori le Mura after the 1823 fire (from a book by Rev. Jeremiah Donovan)
The following description of the fire is an excerpt from Rev. J. 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 view in February 2010
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.
(left-above) Overall view of the new basilica; (left-below) front wing of the courtyard; (right) northern wing of the courtyard
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", although S. Paolo fuori le Mura was the only of the four great basilicas which retained almost entirely its original aspect. The major change they introduced was a large courtyard before the entrance and the relocation of the bell tower. The 146 columns of white 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.
(left) New fašade; (right) detail of the mosaic
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).
Popes Leo XII, Pius VIII and Gregory XVI, personally oversaw the reconstruction of the basilica, but only in 1854 Pope Pius IX was able to celebrate its new consecration. The decoration of the fašade with new mosaics was completed in 1874. They replaced mosaics by Pietro Cavallini who worked at them and at frescoes in the interior in ca 1277-285.
Mosaics in the courtyard
The new mosaics on the fašade clearly show that they were made in the late XIXth century. Small new mosaics which decorate the courtyard which was completed in the 1920s are instead more similar to those of the early Christian basilicas and in particular to those which embellished the monuments of Ravenna, e.g. its Arian Baptistery.
Interior before the fire in an etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Not far from this modest little church (S. Paolo alle Tre Fontane) is the larger
monument dedicated to the great apostle, the church called St. Paul before the Walls, a monument constructed in a great
and richly artistic style out of old and splendid remains. The entry into this church gives you a sublime impression; the series of mighty pillars bear aloft high painted walls which, closed above by the crossed woodwork of the roof, convey, it is true, to our spoiled eye the
appearance of a barn-like structure, although the whole,
if on festival days the beams were draped with tapestry,
would produce an incredible effect. Many wonderful
remains of colossal and highly-ornamented architecture on
capitals are here preserved in dignity, snatched from the
ruins of the Palace of Caracalla (?), which formerly stood near by, but has now almost entirely disappeared.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - December 1787 - Published by George Bell & Sons 1885
Most of the columns of the old basilica came from Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum.
Within it's magnificent, and its magnificence has no shabby spots - a rare thing in Rome. Marble and mosaic, alabaster and malachite, lapis and porphyry, incrust it from pavement to cornice and flash back their polished lights at each other with such a splendour of effect that you seem to stand at the heart of some immense prismatic crystal. One has to come to Italy to know marbles and love them.
You may wish to read more of Henry James's enthusiastic account of his visit to S. Paolo fuori le Mura in 1873 or see a page on the Stones of Rome.
That is the most majestic church in Rome, I think, and I suppose it is, for a cold splendor, unequalled anywhere. Somehow, from its form and from the great propriety of its decoration, it far surpasses St. Peter's. The antic touch of the baroque is scarcely present in it, for, being newly rebuilt after the fire which destroyed the fourth-century basilica in 1823, its faults are not those of sixteenth-century excess.
You may wish to read more of William Dean Howells' 1908 opinion on the new basilica.
(left) Main nave seen from the Canopy by Arnolfo di Cambio; (right) one of the side naves
Today art historians are generally lukewarm about the artistic value of the new parts of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, but for many years after its reconstruction the cold emptiness of the basilica was highly praised.
Mosaic of the arch
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 opens in another window). 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.
Mosaic of the apse portraying Jesus Christ flanked by (left to right) St. Luke, St. Paul, St. Peter and St. Andrew (in the inset Pope Honorius III)
The basilica and the adjoining monastery knew a period of embellishments between the end of the XIIth century and that of the XIIIth century: the monastery was provided with a magnificent cloister and Pope Honorius III commissioned Venetian artisans to decorate the apse with a new mosaic which replaced an older one.
You may wish to see a detail of this mosaic and other mosaics which decorate the churches of Rome.
Canopy by Arnolfo di Cambio
Arnolfo di Cambio was the Italian leading sculptor and architect in the second half of the XIIIth century. He spent most of his career in Rome: one of his first Roman works was a statue of Charles of Anjou as Roman Senator. In 1285 he completed the elaborate canopy of the basilica which he signed Hoc Opus Fecit Arnolfus Cum Suo Socio Petros, most likely Pietro Cavallini. In 1293 he made the canopy of S. Cecilia. He is also known for his funerary monuments, e.g. those to Pope Adrian V, Cardinal Riccardo degli Annibaldi and Cardinal Guillaume de Braye. He designed and decorated Cappella del Presepe at S. Maria Maggiore and cast a bronze statue of St. Peter (it opens in another window).
Another work of art which was spared by the fire is a XIIth century Easter candelabrum which you can see in the historical section of this website.
(left) Cappella SS. Sacramento; (right) St. Bridget by Stefano Maderno
Let us now return to the grand Basilica which arose to commemorate the martyrdom on this desolate site, and which is now itself standing alone on the edge of the Campagna, entirely deserted except by a few monks who linger in its monastery through the winter months, but take flight to St. Calisto before the pestilential malaria of the summer.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Walks in Rome - 1875
During the XVth century farming in the countryside surrounding Rome began to decline. This favoured the development of marshes and eventually the spreading of malaria which reached the City of Rome, especially its areas near the river. Notwithstanding its religious importance S. Paolo fuori le Mura was almost neglected and it was not chosen by the most important Roman families for their funerary chapels.
Cappella del SS. Sacramento was designed by Carlo Maderno and it was not affected by the fire, whereas the other chapels adjoining the apse collapsed or were greatly damaged.
Satana by Pietro Galli (1860); it is part of a baptismal font
This highly unusual baptismal font is one of the very few modern objects which embellish the very empty new interior of the basilica. Pope Pius IX referred to Satan in Etsi Multa Luctuosa, a papal encyclical published in 1873: Venerable Brothers, it is surprising that in our time such a great war is being waged against the Catholic Church. But anyone who knows the nature, desires and intentions of the sects, whether they be called masonic or bear another name, and compares them with the nature, the systems and the vastness of the obstacles by which the Church has been assailed almost everywhere, cannot doubt that the present misfortune must mainly be imputed to the frauds and machinations of these sects. It is from them that the Synagogue of Satan, which gathers its troops against the Church of Christ, takes its strength.
Musei Vaticani: Two Testaments Sarcophagus aka Dogmatic Sarcophagus (dated 325-350): (left to right) Creation of Eve, God gives Adam and Eve work symbols and busts of the dead couple with rough-hewn faces
This sarcophagus was found in 1838 during the reconstruction of the church. Its decoration has references to the outcome of the Council of Nicaea.
Two Testaments Sarcophagus: (left to right) Daniel in the lions' den, Prediction of St. Peter's triple denial, St. Peter is arrested
The evidence given to episodes of the life of St. Peter suggests that the sarcophagus was made in Rome. You may wish to see a page on the manufacturing of sarcophagi.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Dal Gran Costantino fu eretta questa vasta basilica ad istanza di s. Silvestro Papa in
un podere di Lucina Matrona Romana, perchŔ in esso era stato sepolto il corpo del
s. Apostolo. Dipoi fu rinnovata da Onorio Imperatore, e poi da Eudossia moglie di
Valentiniano ristaurata, ed in seguito ornata da molti Sommi Pontefici. E' formata
questa a cinque navi con 4. ordini di colonne tolte dalla mole di Adriano, oggi
Castel s. Angelo; quelle nella nave di mezzo sono di preziosi marmi, e striati, e
quelle delle navi laterali di granito; quelle per˛ della crociata sono di maravigliosa
grandezza, ed in tutto sono numero cento quaranta.