A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome

We were lucky to get into the area of the old Port of Trajan, just south of Fiumicino airport. The website states that it is “open” between 9am and 1pm on the first Saturday and last Sunday of the month, and gives a Google map with a pin stuck in it close to the Parco Leonardo railway station. So we took a train there, on the first Saturday of the month, and arrived shortly after nine thirty. No museum in sight. I rang the number and was told that the guided tour had already begun, that there was no way we could join, that in any case a prior booking was necessary. We could come back on the last Sunday of the month. “No,” I said, “you don’t understand. I’ve NEVER been in Rome on the right day of the month before. This time I am! It’s my only chance! We really want to join the group. Tell us where they are!” We set off on foot, along the busy Via Portuense, with the prospect of several kilometres to go, narrowly missing being flattened by trucks. Then a godsend: a man stopped and gave us a lift. The entrance gate was just under a motorway flyover (marked A on the map). By extraordinary good fortune, the tour was just inside the gate, inspecting the remains of what had once been a portico fronting a line of granaries belonging to the old Port of Claudius.

The ports were laid out here in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, first by Claudius and then by Trajan. The sea has retreated some three or so kilometres west since then, and most of the area has dried out or been drained, but some of the old contours remain. The grain stores, though overgrown with weeds, still clearly retain parts of their old flooring, built up on brick stilts known as suspensurae, a device designed to minimise damp.

Suspensurae in the floor of an old warehouse

Claudius’ port was, in its heyday, the largest in the Mediterranean, with 800m of wharf. But it was unsheltered and very vulnerable to storms. In AD 62, for example, 200 ships at anchor were wrecked in a gale. The complex was altered, with a new harbour further inland, by Trajan. We left the Claudian area by means of a short colonnaded street (B), with a double enfilade of chubby travertine columns running up it. On one side we were shown a brick archway filled in with bricks arranged in the crosswise opus reticulatum pattern. The archway was never open, the guide explained. It was placed there to give greater strength, to direct the downward thrust of the wall outward to the buttressing piers on either side, at a point where there is no stable ground directly underneath. We were also shown two pieces of fallen travertine column. One of them, a capital, had two iron pegs sticking out of its underside. It was with these that the capital was fixed to the block below it, but with a “glue” of molten lead, which was poured in along specially cut runnels (shown in the next illustration). Lead, unlike iron, has a certain amount of elasticity, which can better withstand seismic shocks.

At the end of the colonnaded street we turned right, to the site of the old Darsena, Trajan’s inner harbour (C). There is little to see now but a reed-filled marsh, but at one side the stone harbour wall can be seen. Analysis of the warehouses that stood alongside this harbour has shown that the stores of marble, the heaviest item to move, were—perfectly logically—placed closest to the dock. On the further side were warehouses that had possibly held grain, or some other commodity sensitive to damp, since the walls had been coated in a layer of pozzolana, a waterproof cement made from a mixture of lime and volcanic ash.

View of the Darsena

From here we walked out onto a broad, flat path, grass-grown now—though once it had been filled with water, for this was the channel (D) that linked the old Port of Claudius with the hexagonal Port of Trajan. It is wide enough for several ships to have passed along it at once. At its far end we could see the remains of large warehouses (E). We turned past them, onto a narrower path (F), again once a water channel linking the harbour complex with the Fossa Traiana, the canal that Trajan dug to link his port to the Tiber.

We were all impatient to see the famous hexagonal port, but there was wildlife to be admired: a herd of fallow deer; enormous funghi that were erupting from the soil practically before our eyes; a long black-and-yellow chequered snake; and scatterings of porcupine quills. The land is a bit unkempt. Much of it belongs to the Torlonia family. It could be a magnificent park, if time, energy, money and enthusiasm could be found…

Part of the hexagonal basin is flanked by warehouses of the Severan period, probably built during the reign of Antoninus Pius. It was possible to climb onto a sort of viewing platform, to get a glimpse of the basin (G). But the view from the ground is nothing compared to the sight of it that you have from the air, when flying from Fiumicino. This huge six-sided harbour has always been full of water. In the Middle Ages it was stocked with fish. No one is sure why a hexagonal shape was chosen. The information board at the site was non-committal. Our guide was keener on the more interesting story: that it was the work of the great genius Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect who designed the Markets of Trajan in the Imperial Fora. That he chose a hexagon because the ripples caused by ships moving into it would create “echo-waves” coming from the side, which would meet the outgoing wave and effectively cancel it out. We experimented with this at home, with a six-sided container but, sadly, managed to prove nothing. The tour was long, but very interesting. Today, as Blue Guide Rome so aptly puts it, most overseas traffic to Rome still docks here: the airport of Fiumicino could not be located in a more appropriate spot.

Information for visitors:
Open on the first Saturday and last Sunday of the month. Call ahead to book: T: 06 6529192. Meet at the Museo delle Navi, Via A. Guidoni 35 (Fiumicino Airport). Tours begin at 9:30 and last approximately three hours.

For updates on the ongoing archaeological project of the British School at Rome/University of Southampton, see here.

Pour l’honneur de la France

In the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, just off the Corso in central Rome, is a simple, unobtrusive little monument to the French artist Poussin. He died in Rome on 19th November 1665 and the monument was placed in the church by Chateaubriand in 1832, at the height of the Neoclassical age, ‘pour la gloire des arts et l’honneur de la France’. The glory of God is not mentioned. Poussin is most famous as a painter of romanticised classical landscapes. The relief carving on the monument shows shepherds in an olive grove grouped around a tomb, trying to make sense of the words inscribed in its surface. It is a direct reference to a famous work by Poussin, now in the Louvre, in which exactly the same scene is shown. Written upon the tomb are the words: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. Death, in other words, comes to us all, even to the carefree creatures of idyllic Arcadia.

(An extract from Pilgrim’s Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph)

An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome

At half past seven on an early November morning, the sun is gilding the rooftops but the streets below are still in deep shadow. The newspaper kiosk is doing a slow trade. Few people are about as yet. There are street cleaners, and dog-owners bringing pooches out to empty their bladders, and sandalled nuns and neatly dressed ladies making their way to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

It is an old foundation, dating back to the days when this part of Rome was still open countryside. “Delle Fratte” means “of the bushes”. In its present aspect, the church is Baroque, built of warm café-au-lait-coloured brick. Its unfinished tower and tall, slim campanile are the work of Francesco Borromini. The campanile can only really be seen from the street that runs alongside the church, Via Capo le Case, from where, after dusk, the Gabriel audio equipment store projects laser beams onto the church’s lateral flank.

Borromini’s campanile by day
The Gabriel Store laser show by night

Morning Mass is celebrated in a steady stream, at 7, 7.30, 8 and then every hour until midday. The altar that is in use is not the main one. Instead, the chairs and pews are turned to face a chapel on the north side, with its altare privilegiatum, its “privileged altar” from which, at a time when such things were condoned, you could come away after Mass with a plenary indulgence. This is the “Chapel of the Apparition”, so called because one January day in 1842 the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a vision to a young French Jew by the name of Alphonse Ratisbonne, converting him to Christ. St Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who elected to die in place of another in Auschwitz and who is now the patron saint of political prisoners, celebrated his first Mass at this altar in 1918.

A priest clad in penitential purple arrives to officiate. He begins with a prayer for all deceased Minims, members of the Franciscan order of mendicant friars founded by St Francis of Paola in 1435. A chapel dedicated to the founding saint stands on the other side of the church, with an altarpiece by the late-sixteenth-century Renaissance artist Paris Nogari. It was perhaps painted when Pope Sixtus V gave the church to the Order of the Minims. The chapel also contains a scale model of the passenger liner Cristoforo Colombo, dedicated to St Francis of Paola in his guise as patron saint of Italian seafarers.

Members of the small congregation hastily scribble petitions to the Virgin on little slips of paper which they place in a basket on the altar rail. Behind them an aged prelate in voluminous black robes slumbers sprawled in his confessional. As the Mass progresses, he begins to receive clients and is constrained to wake up and shut the doors.

The priest is reading from the New Testament. I recognise the words of the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. In the apse, above the unused high altar, is a fresco of the miracle of the loaves and fishes and below it, in a cartouche, a line in Latin from St John’s Gospel: “Andrew saith unto him, there is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes.”  This is the only reference that I can see to Andrew, the church’s titular saint. To the left, in another chapel on the north side, is Giovanni Battista Maini’s sub-Berniniesque statue of St Anne, depicted lying on her side, her hand clasped to a palpitating stone bosom.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand, by Pasquale Marini (17th century)

A number of artists from Rome’s foreign community were buried here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among them was Angelica Kauffman, known for her portraits and her ceiling and wall paintings. Her plaque is beside the door on the north side, below that of her husband and fellow artist Antonio Zucchi.

“Here lies buried Angelica, daughter of John Joseph Kauffmann of Schwarzenberg, who by the merits of her paintings earned a cenotaph in the Pantheon but who ordered that she herself be laid to rest in the same grave where Antonio Zucchi was placed, that she may live in peace with her husband after death. She lived 66 years and 6 days, and died on the nones (5th) of November 1807. Hail and farewell, most excellent of women.” A bust of Kauffman was erected in the Pantheon in 1808.

Flanking the chancel are the church’s two greatest works of art, Bernini’s angel with the crown of thorns and angel with the titulus, two originals from the series on Ponte Sant’Angelo. I don’t much care for them. I find their facial expressions and exaggeratedly postured limbs absurd. I don’t like their billowing drapery. But they are by Bernini, so I pay them my respects before leaving via the side door into the cloister.

The cloister is a lovely, peaceful space, planted with orange and lemon trees. In the brick pavement the word “Charitas” is picked out, the motto of the Minims, who are enjoined to show brotherly love to one another. Like all Franciscans, they take a vow of poverty. But the Minims of Munich, in order to keep body and soul together, began brewing beer. They named it Paulaner, after the town of Paola, the birthplace of their founder. Hence the beer’s logo of a cowled friar.

Mass is over by the time I go back into the church. Ite, missa est. The congregation shuffles out, shriven, contended, fed with the body of Christ and ready to face the day. A young sacristan from Goa scurries over to the altar to tidy up and another priest in purple arrives to take the next Mass, a tall, handsome young man from Nigeria. A new congregation shuffles in. The process of writing petitions to the Virgin begins all over again. Exaudi orationes servorum tuorum.

Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum

Last week, for the first time in my life, I visited Rome without going into the Forum. Usually I pop in to check out any new developments, to visit parts of it that were roped off the last time, or simply to enjoy the thrill of just being there. But this time, I have to confess, I couldn’t face it. Rome seems more crowded every year. Not very long ago, the Forum was free. You could wander in at will at any time of day or night. Now there are fences and turnstiles. The exit beside the Arch of Septimius Severus, with its high barricade and tall barred gate looks like something from a high-security prison. No way in. Did I really want to fight my way through the crowds along Via dei Fori Imperiali, past the gaudy carts selling fizzy drinks and hot dogs, to join the long, long line at the ticket office? No. I couldn’t face it.

But just when I begin to think curmudgeonly thoughts, that Rome has had its day, has lost its elegance and charm, I see something to make me fall in love with it all over again. It always happens and this afternoon was no exception. I glanced behind me at Pietro da Cortona’s severely symmetrical façade of SS. Luca e Martina. The door was closed as usual, but there was a notice on it that I had never seen before. I rushed up the steps to take a closer look and this is what I saw:

Oh joy! The sign itself was beautiful, with the tall columns of the Temple of Saturn reflected in its shiny plastic surface. But its message was even better: the church would be open on Saturday! A miracle! This church isnever open…

Well, it is now. On Saturdays, from 9–6 in October to April and from 9–8 in May to September.

The first church on this site was built by Pope Honorius I in the seventh century. Honorius’ pontificate was not uniformly glorious but he was particularly keen on building or embellishing churches on the site of martyrdoms and to him we owe the lovely basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (as well as the Senate House in the Forum, which has survived so well because he converted it into the church of Sant’Adriano). This church, between Sant’Adriano and the old Mamertine Prison, was dedicated to the Roman martyr Martina and later also to St Luke, when Pope Sixtus V gave the building to the Accademia di San Luca, the artists’ academy. This was not pure altruism. Pope Sixtus wanted to enlarge the square outside Santa Maria Maggiore, the basilica which was to house his magnificent funerary chapel, and to do so he needed to demolish the academy church of St Luke. In exchange, the academy received this one, and gave it a second dedication to the patron saint of artists, following a tradition that St Luke painted a number of portraits of the Virgin Mary. Several academicians chose to be buried here, among them Pietro da Cortona himself, who designed the church we see today.

Monument to Pietro da Cortona (d.1669), architect of the church

Pietro da Cortona was a Tuscan painter and architect. He worked for the Medici in Florence and for another Tuscan family, the Barberini, who made their fortune in papal Rome. The design of this church is largely by Pietro, assisted by his nephew Luca Berrettini. The façade bears the papal insignia and name of Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), for whom Pietro also produced the splendid trompe l’oeil ceiling in the salone of Palazzo Barberini.

The façade of SS. Luca e Martina is austerely elegant, apparently symmetrical but not completely (which gives it interest), and firmly placed at the restrained, harmonious end of the Baroque spectrum. The interior is airy, light and beautifully proportioned: much of the structural detail and the pale colour scheme dates from the early eighteenth century, departing from and complementing the Baroque in a very pleasing way. The current upper church stands much higher than ground level, for this is a damp site and the crypt below has suffered from flooding. De-humidifiers are at work flat out, and from the peeling walls, one can see why they are needed. The crypt was designed by Pietro da Cortona partly as his own mausoleum and his tomb remains (his monument is pictured above).

In the upper church, above the high altar, is an effigy of St Martina, whose remains were found when work began on Cortona’s remodelling. The altarpiece itself is a copy of Raphael’s St Luke Painting the Virgin.

Because this is a minor “sight”, there are no crowds here, no couples taking pictures of each other on their smartphones, no lecturers with iPads discoursing to their flocks, no guides shouting semi-accurate factoids at voluminous tour groups, no commercially-operated mendicants camped on the steps. If you happen to be in Rome on a Saturday and can’t face the queues for the Forum, come here. It is peaceful and beautiful and is the masterpiece of one of Italy’s finest Baroque artists.

For more on the church of SS. Luca e Martina, and on the Roman Forum, see Blue Guide Romeand Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.