Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns

In the lovely convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati, in a quiet corner of Rome reached on foot in little more than ten minutes from the Colosseum, frescoes were discovered in a Gothic hall in 1995. Since this was in an area belonging to a closed order of Augustinian nuns (who have been in the convent for some five centuries), many years’ discussion ensued to establish how it would be possible to allow visitors to see the frescoes once restoration had been completed. The difficulties have at last been resolved and the hall is now opened on two days a month by a volunteer organisation which specialises in making accessible places in Rome not normally easy to visit.

Janus, representing the month of January.

Heralded as perhaps the most important medieval cycle of secular subjects to have survived in the entire city, it is indeed a remarkable sight. The cross-vaulted hall was part of a grand 13th-century residence reserved for the Cardinal. In fact a cardinal priest attached to the Carolingian convent became Pope Leo IV in 847 (a chapel from his time survives off the little cloister).

Up until now the most fascinating part of the convent open to visitors was the little Cappella di San Silvestro, approached just off the courtyard, with its charming fresco cycle of 1247 commissioned by Cardinal Stefano Conti and illustrating the life (and legend) of Pope Sylvester (324–35). The Gothic Hall is on the first floor, approached from the opposite side of the courtyard through the convent library. Frescoed at around the same time as the chapel, it was the most important room in the Cardinal’s suite. It was where he would probably have received visitors, administered justice and given banquets. The decoration is divided into two distinct parts. The three walls of the first bay have illustrations of the Months, all with charming stylised trees. January is depicted as a seated Janus figure with three faces while a boy is supplying him with cured pork, and sausages can be seen hung up to dry. Trees are being pruned in February, and in March an eccentric scene shows a languid youth holding out his very long, thin leg to a lady so that she can extract a thorn from his foot. In April shepherds are shown tending their animals. The next wall has an idyllic scene in May, with a man on a horse smelling a bouquet of flowers while children up trees laden with fruit gather them into baskets. In June grain is being harvested with scythes, and in July it is being processed on a circular threshing floor. Figs are being offered to a seated old man in August. The last wall begins with September, with wine barrels being prepared for the grape harvest, depicted in October. November has a ploughing scene and in December pigs are being butchered. The upper register, which illustrates the Liberal Arts, is less well preserved: but a female figure representing Geometry can be made out as well as Music, illustrated by an organ operated by bellows.

The second bay has a frieze of female Virtues and Beatitudes dressed in armour carrying small figures (from the Old or New Testament or a Saint) on their shoulders and trampling under their feet pairs of figures representing the Vices. The qualities personified are explained in long inscriptions. Solomon, representing Justice, is given pride of place, flanked by a pair of exotic birds. Above them are lunettes with even more curious scenes:  a pair of figures suggesting Abundance, with cornucopia and baskets brimming with all sorts of good things (and their nicely rounded rear ends very much in evidence since their cloaks have fallen to their knees!). Another has the Sun (symbolising Christ) and the Moon (symbolising the Church) in chariots drawn respectively by horses and by bulls, separated by a giant ornamental vase.

All of the scenes are separated with delightful friezes: colourful geometric borders, trompe l’oeil patterns, little naked figures playing with ribbons, dolphins with their tails entwined, and a great variety of birds. Little genii with curly tails can be seen fighting each other on either side of flower pots, and amusing young telamones playing in the leaves and holding up festoons of flowers and fruit. A bright emerald green dominates the background of the entire painted surface.

The discovery of these frescoes has caused art historians to revise the entire history of painting in Rome in the 13th century.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Rome.

The Gothic Hall (Aula Gotica) is at present open twice a month on a weekday by appointment; to book: archeocontesti@gmail.com; T: 335495248. Explanation in situ given also in English. An offering is expected for the convent. For information, see here.

The Chapel of St Sylvester and cloister are usually open 10–11.45 & 4–5.45; holidays 9.30–10.30 & 4–5.45, although—since they are part of the convent—the opening hours are subject to change according to the availability of one of the nuns. For admission, ring at the old wooden bell of the convent and ask the nun beyond the grille to press the door release. When the nuns are busy or at prayer it is sometimes necessary to ring more than once; if there is no reply, wait and try again a little later. Minimum donation of one euro.

Church open 9–12 & 3-5.30. Services (with sung Mass) are held frequently by the nuns, who are known for their musical talents.

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