Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Palazzo that Wasn't There

This is a picture of an author in Rome on a research trip, gazing wistfully through a fence at where her main character's home used to be.

Lots of stuff lasts a long, long time in Rome. Why couldn't this place?

In 1899, William Hughes Mearns wrote a charming little poem that began like this:
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there!
He wasn't there again today,
Oh how I wish he'd go away!
My version would be more like this:
As I wandered all o'er Rome,
Searching for my subject's home,
I zoomed in on her neighborhood,
But not a single stone still stood.

It was by Sixtus V destroyed,
Which makes this writer quite annoyed.
He used her palace as a quarry,
For which he really should be sorry.

But all is gone, alas, alack -
I wish, I wish it would come back!
(I would be even more annoyed, actually, if I didn't find the name Sixtus the Fifth rather delightful.)

Sixtus V

Of course, this desecration happened in 1588, so at least it's not a recent loss, like the closure of the crypt in Santa Prassede. "For security reasons," like somehow Rome's safety depends on closing off a crypt in an ancient church. Rome is hugely security conscious at the moment; there are lots of guys in military fatigues standing around monuments carrying really large guns and trying to look scary.

Do you have any idea how thoroughly camouflage does NOT blend in with Rome? Maybe if they wore clothes with mosaics on them, or marble, it would work. (Or, if I may allow myself a snarky moment, with piles of uncollected garbage. It's not quite Naples yet, but it's getting there.)

But I digress. 

Anyway, I was in Rome to look up sites associated with the main character of my work in progress. She was a wealthy Roman noblewoman, born into the Normanni family and married into the even more powerful Frangipane family.

Definitely the right neighborhood. Though they were actually from the Trastevere district.

She was born toward the end of the 12th century and died around the middle of the 13th. She was an early friend and follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, and she is buried in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Her name is Giacoma (or Jacoba) dei Settesoli, and here is a fresco of her from the Basilica:

The "dei Settesoli" part of her name indicates that her husband's branch of the family was the one that owned the ancient monument known as the Septizonium (aka Septizodium).

In the middle ages, the Septizonium was fortified and in use by its noble owners, as were the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, and many other survivors of the classical era. And in Giacoma's day, her husband's family controlled all three of those I've just mentioned, plus a triumphal arch or two. A lot of status was involved in controlling ancient monuments, and the Frangipani were no slouches when it came to public relations.

Unfortunately, over the years Rome has sometimes been rather cavalier in the treatment of its past. When it comes to the admonition "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," Rome was particularly big on the second one. Romans used to burn ancient stone monuments to generate lime to make mortar to stick other bits of ancient stone monuments together into newer stone monuments. This happened a lot.

It seems to me that the three main reasons for erasing large bits of Rome's medieval history can be summed up by these attitudes, expressed in reverse chronological order:
  1. It's only the middle ages. Let's get it out of the way to show off all this cool classical stuff.
  2. It's so old-fashioned. Let's baroque it! It needs a bunch of cherubs and vines and glitz.
  3. Ooh, look! Nice rocks. Shiny! Let's use those.
I think Sixtus was probably expressing #3 when he had the Septizonium ruins torn down in 1588 and bits reused here and there and hither and yon.

Septizonium ruins, 16th century

So what, exactly, was this Septizonium thing, anyway? And where was it? The "where" is pretty easy to answer, but the "what," not so much. It was located on the southern corner of the Palatine Hill, just a stone's throw from the Circus Maximus (which was, remember, also owned at that time by the Frangipani).

See that red oval on the map? That's the Circus Maximus, and the Septizonium was slightly north of the rounded end. Frangipani in those two locations could have waved at each other from their windows. (By the way, Frangipani is the plural, but when I say "Frangipane family" I'm using the singular. It's like "the Smiths" versus "the Smith family.")

As for what, there's a fair bit of debate about that. We do know that it was constructed on the orders of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, and what we see pictured, the ruins that survived into the 16th century, appear to be an elaborate facade. As to its original purpose, I've seen it described as a palace facade, a nymphaeum, a temple, a fountain, a place to display statues, or having "no known practical purpose."

Septimius Severus and family

Whatever it was, it was in ruins by the 8th century. It had been incorporated into a fortress long before the Frangipani took possession. But we don't know what form that took - whether it was a tower-house, or strictly a defensive bastion. Did people live there? Did Giacoma? It is widely assumed that she did, but I have my doubts. More on that later.

This picture shows the Septizonium as a romantic ruin. It isn't really that close to the Colosseum, though.

It has had a notorious role in history, but it may not deserve that infamy. There may be a question of mistaken identity involved (there is also a Septasolium, a different structure altogether.)

History tells us of popes imprisoned in the Septizonium, of other popes taking refuge from rampaging crowds of Romans in the streets below, and also of one particularly awful papal conclave supposedly held there in 1241. (I hasten to point out that 1241 was two years after Giacoma's death, and by then she had been living in Assisi for quite a while.)

It is said that the Roman senator Matteo Rosso Orsini housed the cardinals in the Septizonium, a ramshackle ruin, and kept them in a room where the rain leaked in, along with the malodorous results of Orsini's guards relieving themselves up on the roof. It is further said that the cardinals were deprived of proper food, servants, and doctors, and that they suffered mightily. One, from England, died. The rest stuck it out for two months, however, and finally elected Pope Celestine IV, who had been nobody's favorite candidate at the outset.  Celestine may have been the worse for the experience also, for he lasted only 17 days before he died, not even making it to his coronation.

I am personally inclined to think that this didn't happen in Giacoma's Septizonium. For one thing, if it had indeed been her home, or even her property, I find it hard to believe it would have deteriorated that much only two years after her death. For another, we still don't know if there was ever anything more to the Septizonium than an elaborate colonnaded facade, so there may not have even been any place to put the cardinals.

The similarly-named Septisolium (aka Heliogabalum), on the other hand, was a much more commodious place, a monastery which had been used previously for papal elections. It seems likely that this was the location of the conclave, and that the cardinals were perhaps not as ill-used as reports suggest, though certainly some of them were there (wherever "there" was) against their will.

So there I was in Rome, with no Septizonium to look at, and not even the certainty that Giacoma did indeed live in the structure that used to be there. But I take a Canadian Mountie approach to my on-site research ("We Get Our Septizonium!"), so we weren't done yet. I happened to know where some of the pieces of the Septizonium had gone, when Pope Sixtus V had it razed, so off we went, looking for the bits.

Some of it - 104 blocks of marble - wound up here, in the restoration of the Antonine Column, specifically in the base of the statue of Saint Peter:

And some of it wound up here, in the northern facade of San Giovanni Laterano:

and here, in the Palazzo della Cancelleria:

and in the restoration of the Baths of Diocletian:

and even in Sixtus's own tomb, in Santa Maria Maggiore:

These weren't the only places, but you get the idea. Giacoma's Septizonium was spread all over Rome. The destruction had cost Sixtus 905 scudi, but he got a lot of marble, travertine, and columns out of the deal.

It was a disappointment, though not a surprise. But since I was becoming increasingly convinced that her actual home was probably located in the Circus Maximus, I still had something to explore, and that exploration turned up a wealth of information.

More about that in my next post, but meanwhile here's a picture of the Frangipani tower that still stands (hurray!) in the Circus Maximus. We'll explore that next time.

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