This page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
S. Maria Maggiore
The Miracle of the Snow
The Loggia and its Mosaics
The Roman House
a second page covers:
The aspect of S. Maria Maggiore, one of the four major basilicas of Rome, was modified by
Pope Benedict XIV in 1743 through the construction
of a new façade and of a clergy house to its left which matched that already existing to its right.
When Vasi published this view in 1753 he therefore showed a very recent addition to the monuments of Rome. He depicted S. Maria Maggiore also in
plate 122 (rear of the basilica) and plate 157 (southern side) (and in a grand view he made in 1771).
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Collegio dei Penitenzieri (experienced priests) della Basilica; 2) Bell tower of S. Prassede; 3) Monastero delle Monache Filippine; 4) Nuova Canonica (clergy house) della Basilica; 2) and 3) are covered in other pages. The small map shows also 5) Column of Pope Clement VIII.
The view in July 2009
At Vasi's time S. Maria Maggiore was almost at the edge of the populated part of the city; some private houses and religious buildings were located opposite its southern side whereas its northern side bordered on the gardens of
Pope Sixtus V's Villa Peretti.
The construction of Stazione Termini, the Central Railway Station, on the site of the villa has turned the area into a very busy one and the basilica has become a gigantic roundabout (rotary) for cars and buses. The building has not been modified, but the square in front of it was enlarged in the late XIXth century and Collegio dei Penitenzieri was pulled down. The small bell tower of S. Prassede is hidden by modern buildings.
You may wish to read William Dean Howells' account of his visit to S. Maria Maggiore in 1908.
Mark Twain visited Italy in 1867 and in "The Innocents Abroad" he wrote about:
"The Rank of Holy Personages in Rome (based on the number of churches named after them):
First: The Mother of God - otherwise the Virgin Mary.
Second: The Deity.
Fourth: Some twelve of fifteen canonized popes and martyrs.
Fifth: Jesus Christ the Saviour (but always as an infant in arms)."
In particular he wrote: "There are so many churches named for Mary that they have to be distinguished by all sorts of affixes."
In the case of S. Maria Maggiore the affix is a reference to its size. It was the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and for a time it was referred to simply as "S. Maria".
(left) The bell tower; (right) detail of its decoration
S. Maria Maggiore was built at the top of Cispius, the highest peak of the Esquiline, which in turn is the highest hill of Rome; in addition the bell tower of the basilica is the tallest of Rome so it is clearly visible from most parts of the city; it was built in 1375-76, most likely to celebrate the expected return of the Pope from Avignon. Its design is similar to previous Romanesque bell towers, but its current appearance is heavier than that of others because some windows were sealed up. Pope Julius II added the golden globe and the cross to its apex.
(left) Coat of arms of Pope Paul V with angels by Nicolas Cordier and Ambrogio Buonvicino;
(right) coat of arms of Pope Benedict XIV with angels by an unknown artist
Flaminio Ponzio designed for Pope Paul V the two clergy houses we see on the sides of the façade, but he actually built only that to its right. The other building was completed in 1721-43. They both were decorated with a gigantic coat of arms of the pope between two angels; when seen side by side they show the changes in portraying angels during the baroque period; the angels by Cordier and Buonvicino have a masculine body which is clearly visible beneath a light dress and their wings are very large, whereas those designed for the other coat of arms have covered bodies and their wings are less imposing. For more about Baroque Angels click here. The actual coats of arms of the popes were erased during the French occupation of Rome.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini lived very near S. Maria Maggiore, he wanted to be buried there, his father Pietro was involved in the decoration of Cappella Paolina and his son Pietro Filippo was one of the priests of the basilica. Notwithstanding all these ties he was not involved in the redesign of S. Maria Maggiore because his project for the external appearance of the apse was rejected. Visitors are told that a staircase inside the bell tower was designed by him, however most art historians do not include it among Bernini's works.
Main altar of Cappella Paolina: relief depicting the Miracle of the Snow by Stefano Maderno
S. Maria Maggiore is also known as Basilica Liberiana and S. Maria ad Nives (snow): both names make reference to the traditional account of its foundation. On the night before August 5, 358, Pope Liberius saw in his dream the Virgin Mary who told him to build a church on the site where later that night snow would fall. A precious (bronze, marble and lapis lazuli) relief in Cappella Paolina portrays the pope drawing the plan for S. Maria Maggiore on the snow which had fallen on the top of the Esquiline Hill.
Re-enactment of the miracle in August 2008
Although miracles do not call for scientific explanations, hail-storms, although unusual, can occur in Rome in August: hailstones may whiten the ground for a short time giving the impression of a snowfall. The event is re-enacted every year.
(left) Base of the column and fountain by Carlo Maderno; (centre) shaft and capital; (right) bronze statue by Guillaume Berthélot
Pope Paul V ordered the relocation of a 46 ft high column of Basilica di Massenzio to the square in front of S. Maria Maggiore. At the time Basilica di Massenzio was known as Tempio della Pace and in the long inscription the Pope explained that the column was dedicated to the Virgin Mary because ".. ex cuius visceribus princeps verae pacis genitus est donum dedit" (the Prince who gives true peace came from her womb). For this reason the column is also known as Colonna della Pace.
(left) Statue of Pope Paul V by Paolo Sanquirico, best known as a craftsman who made medals, and a dragon, one of the Pope's heraldic symbols; (centre) Statue of King Philip IV of Spain by Girolamo Lucenti, a pupil of Bernini; (right) Column of Pope Clement VIII
In 1609 the Canons of S. Maria Maggiore commissioned Paolo Sanquirico a large statue of the Pope to thank him for the erection
of the Column and the construction of their clergy house. Given the size it was most likely meant to be placed outdoors, but it eventually ended up in the Sacristy and from there
it was moved to the new clergy house.
During the XVIIth century the political rivalry between Spain and France had an impact on the Roman basilicas. S. Giovanni in Laterano was under the patronage of the Kings of France and its Canons commissioned Nicolas Cordier a statue of King Henri IV of France. In 1659 the Canons of S. Maria Maggiore decided to commission Girolamo Lucenti a statue of King Philip IV of Spain. The statue was most likely designed with the supervision of Bernini, but it was actually completed and moved to S. Maria Maggiore only in 1691. Eventually it was placed in a niche of the 1743 portico of the new façade.
A column resembling a cannon and having a cross on its top was erected by Pope Clement VIII to celebrate the 1598 Peace of Vervins which put an end to a war between France and Spain. It was originally placed in front of S. Antonio Abate, a church very near the basilica. In 1881, when the streets around S. Maria Maggiore were enlarged, it was relocated to a small courtyard on the northern side of the basilica.
(left) Coloured plate of a book portraying Pope Clement X while he is being shown plans for a new façade; (right) detail of a 1621 engraving showing the old façade. It was made to illustrate a project endorsed by Pope Paul V which provided for the construction of a second bell tower
The foundation of S. Maria Maggiore is attributed to Pope Liberius, but the current basilica was built by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) after the 431 Council of Ephesus had stated that the Virgin Mary should be referred to as Theotokos, i.e. Mother of God (and this explains the dedication of the basilica).
The interior of the building was decorated with mosaics, but there is no clear evidence that the façade had a similar decoration. The mosaics were added at the end of the XIIIth century at the initiative of Pope Nicholas IV. The portico shown in the two illustrations was built in 1575 by Pope Gregory XIII. You may wish to see the basilica in a 1588 Guide to Rome (prior to the construction of the clergy houses).
Upper band of the mosaics: (left) the Virgin Mary; (right) Jesus Christ in Majesty (under his feet: Philipp. Rusuti Hoc Opus Fecit)
The mosaics were made up of two bands which show differences in style and execution technique. The upper band was signed by Filippo Rusuti, but he could have been the author of both bands, perhaps after an interval of time. The upper band reflects traditional patterns in the subject and in the style: Rusuti was most likely asked by the Pope not to depart from them. It is partially interrupted by the architectural elements of the loggia designed in 1743 by Ferdinando Fuga who did his best to preserve the central scene.
Lower band of the mosaics: (left) the Virgin Mary appears in a dream to John, a rich Roman patrician who financed the construction of the basilica (the image used as background for this page shows the Virgin Mary appearing in a dream to Pope Liberius); (right) John tells Pope Liberius about his dream
The lower band has the appearance of a fresco, rather than that of a traditional mosaic. It is partitioned into four panels which do not have golden backgrounds, but show medieval buildings and the richly decorated interior of a church. The subjects are not portrayed in a static pose and they wear very expensive garments. The band recalls mosaics by Pietro Cavallini at S. Maria in Trastevere which are dated 1298 (there was a rivalry between the inhabitants of Trastevere and those of Monti).
The loggia designed by Fuga
The loggia is the most convincing work by Fuga, the leading architect of his time, but it was criticized by Pope Benedict XIV who found its design was somewhat frivolous for an ancient basilica; it is interesting to compare it with that of S. Giovanni in Laterano which was designed by Alessandro Galilei in 1735. You may wish to consult a directory on Baroque Architecture in Rome listing all the works by Fuga.
(left) Interior of the loggia; (centre) view towards the side loggia of S. Giovanni in Laterano (the street was opened in 1575); (right) a stucco angel by Pietro Bracci. It is one of four statues which in 1750 were placed at the top of the canopy in the interior of the basilica and were removed in 1932 to allow a better view of the apse
Roman House: (upper left corner) a calendar of September; (lower left corner) a marble decoration; (centre) a fresco depicting farmers picking apples in an orchard (an activity which was carried out in September); (upper right corner) fragment of a floor mosaic; (lower right corner) brick with the manufacturer's brand
In the late 1960s a source of humidity near the main altar was investigated by making careful excavations beneath the floor of the basilica. The expectation was to discover traces of an older church, perhaps that built by Pope Liberius, but instead walls of a Roman house were found. The rear part of S. Maria Maggiore stands over the peristyle of the house which was filled with earth. The walls were most likely decorated with frescoes depicting a "farming calendar" (only September is clearly visible). The house had small baths and is dated IInd/IIIrd century AD. Eventually a tavern was installed in a corner of its premises.
Move to page two.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
La gran colonna, che sta nella piazza di questa basilica, è l'unica, come dicemmo, rimasta intiera di
quelle, che ressero il gran tempio della pace, di cui vedemmo le rovine in Campo Vaccino, da dove
fu quì trasportata da Paolo V. il quale vi pose sopra la statua della ss. Vergine fatta di metallo dorato,
e da piede il fonte di acqua perenne.