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Eleventh-century Rome

Spring is finally here, The Road to Canossa will be released next week, and I really fancy a holiday! A few chapters of Lotharingia and The Road to Canossa are set in Rome, a city I would love to revisit, especially in springtime. What I love about Rome, apart from the all pervading-beauty, is its complexity: the layers of history so visible in its buildings, a Roman stone wall topped up by a medieval brick wall surmounted by a Renaissance roof, with baroque sculpures....These layers remind the visitors that what they see is impermanent, that the eternal city has preserved its eternity by reinventing itself, constantly adapting and changing over over the centuries and the millennia. Survival through beauty, perhaps.

Last time I visited, I was just beginning my research notes for Lotharingia, so part of my journey was an attempt to answer the question: 'If you could time travel to the Rome Matilde walked through, what would you see?'


Medieval Rome was very different from today's. It was a mix of ancient, Byzantine, and medieval architecture. There would be no Trevi fountain, the baroque churches, the elegant Renaissance palaces and Saint Peter's dome. Many of the ancient monuments of Rome would still be standing, although damaged, repurposed, or modified by the Christian rulers who came after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was these traces I went after, on a long walk from the Vatican to the Campo Marzio.

And in some cases, admittedly, not much was left. In some cases, the only connection between medieval past and present would be the name. My departure point, Saint Peter's Basilica, in the 11th century was completely different. The current Basilica is the third church built on the site where the apostle Peter was believed to be buried, a Renaissance/Baroque masterpiece designed in the age of Michelangelo and Raphael's. To make room for it, the earlier Saint Peter, the one in which Matilde and Ildebrando would have worshipped, was completely demolished. And their Saint Peter was already the second Basilica, rebuilt in the 11th and 12th centuries, after a fire in the 9th century had partially destroyed the ancient Roman original.


What you will find in Saint Peter's though, is Matilde's tomb, watched over by a baroque statue. Remarkably she is one of only two women granted the honour of burial in Saint Peter's - the other being Queen Christina of Sweden.

In medieval times Saint Peter's position outside the city walls left it exposed to raids, and the pope's residence was actually in the Lateran, within the walls, and on one of the ancient seven hills. On my walk from Saint Peter to the city centre of Rome, I made my way through the hostels and churches dedicated to foreign pilgrims flocking to Saint Peter's shrine, to cross the Tiber at Castel Sant'Angelo. In 1000AD, the former mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian (2nd AD) had already been turned into a fortress - a symbol of papal power as well as a defensive structure. Yet its cylindrical tower had not yet been built; it consisted of a square-shaped structure with several levels, topped by a square tower. The main entrance was a drawbridge over a moat, and there were several courtyards, gardens, a luxuriously furnished papal apartment, and underground passages, precious in difficult situations as escape routes - Rome suffered a number of sieges and endemic internecine strife between different factions,


I then crossed the Tiber at the Angel bridge, one of the few Roman bridges still extant, and headed into the city centre, the area of the seven hills, protected by the Servian walls. A residential district of houses and small churches arranged around a peculiar elongated square stood before me. In Matilde's days it was a popular meeting place for locals, and used for fairs and festivals. Its shape revealed its earlier incarnation as a stadium for athletic contests and chariot races in the days of the empire. Called 'Circus Agonalis' in those days, it now goes by the name of Piazza Navona.


To my left, between the Quirinale and Palatine hills, was another relatively sight Matilde would have recognised: the majestic dome of the Pantheon: This magnificent temple dedicated to all the gods of ancient Rome had been converted into a Christian church dedicated to Mary in the 7th century and was still standing in 1000 AD.

My next stop was the Palatine Hill. One of the most important in ancient Rome, it would have been largely abandoned in the eleventh century, and the ruins of the imperial palaces and gardens would be scattered throughout the hillside. Walking down the Palatine Hill, I entered the Roman Forum, looking for the buildings that my characters would have recognised. In the 11th century, he Forum had already been turned into a quarry for building materials. Many of the remaining structures had been stripped of their marble and stone for reuse in other buildings. The Arch of Titus would be in relatively good condition. An 11th century visitor would have seen the Arch of Septimius Severus, although damaged and overgrown with moss and weeds. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, stripped of its marble for use in other building, had been converted into a Christian church dedicated to St. Lawrence in the seventh century. In the 11th century, it became a court for the medieval Roman government. Despite its state of neglect, in medieval times the Roman Forum was still used for public gatherings, and several religious processions.

I suspect an 11th century visitor would be drawn the only recent building in the Forum, the small church San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, built only a few decades earlier, on the site of a Roman temple to Saturn. In those days it was dedicated to Sain Peter and Saint Paul's, as it was built over the Mamertine prison, where they were allegedly held before their martyrdom. Now it is an elaborately-decorated baroque building, but in 1000 AD IT would have been decorated with frescoes and mosaics.

From the Forum, I climbed up the Capitoline Hill. The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the most important temple in ancient Rome in the 11th century had already been converted into a Christian church, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

On the Quirinale Hill, I stopped by the Church of Santa Susanna and the eight-century Church of San Silvestro al Quirinale. Matilde and Ildebrando would have been recognised the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, originally built as part of the Baths of Diocletian in the 4th century AD. In their days, though, it would have been a relatively simple structure, with a nave and a semicircular apse.

I skirted the Viminal Hill, the smallest of the seven, which in the 11th century was mainly used for defensive purposes, and was the site of the barracks of the city's watchmen and guards, and reached the Esquiline. The largest of the seven hills, in medieval times was home to many of the city's immigrants and artisans. In would have been a bustling neighborhood, with markets, shops, and taverns lining the streets. It is also home to 5th century Santa Maria Maggiore. It was one of the largest churches in Rome during the medieval period, boasting Byzantine-style mosaics and frescoes, including a 5th-century mosaic of the Virgin and Child. Heading towards the Colosseum, I stopped at the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), built in the 5th century to house the chains that were believed to have bound St. Peter during his imprisonment in Jerusalem. It was there that the Conclave gathered for the papal election that saw Ildebrando anointed successor of Peter. The chains are probably the only item an 11th-century visitor would recognise, as the church was extensively modified in the following centuries and is now famous as the home of Michelangelo's Moses.

From San Pietro in Vincoli, I descended towards the majestic frame of the Colosseum, built over a former lake between the Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian Hill, In Matilde's days, weakened by earthquakes and burnt by fires, it was another open air quarry, looted for building materials. Next to it, I walked around the triumphal Arch of Constantine, celebrating the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius in 312 AD, another sight virtually unchanged.

My next destination was the Caelian Hill. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this hill had replaced Capitoline and Palatine as the centre of power. It was here, in the Lateran area, that the popes actually lived. The sprawling Lateran palace complex included the papal residence, with interconnecting buildings, gardens and courtyards, and the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, the cathedral of Rome. In the 11th century, the 4th century basilica, was extensively renovated and expanded with Byzantine-style decorations, including mosaic floors, frescoes, and marble sculptures. Tthe city's aristocracy also lived here, in elegant villas with gardens. Empress Agnes lived in one of those villas, and Beatrice of Tuscany had her own Roman residence there.

The stunning Basilica of San Clemente, originally built in the 4th century, and extensively renovated and expanded in the 11th century., is a building Matilde would have recognised. The lower levels of the church still contain early Christian and Byzantine frescoes and mosaics.


The next hill, the Aventine Hill, with its beautiful views of the Tiber River and the city, was home to several important churches you can still see today, such as the Basilica of Santa Sabina and the Church of Santa Prisca.

Santa Maria in Aventino has changed significantly since Ildebrando lived within its walls. In those days, it would have had a simple rectangular plan with a single nave and apse. The interior would have been decorated with frescoes and mosaics, and the altar would have been adorn ed with precious liturgical objects and relics. One of the most notable features of the church in 1000 AD would have been the bell tower, which was a prominent landmark on the Aventine Hill. The tower was octagonal in shape and topped with a conical roof. It was built using ancient Roman bricks and marble spolia, or reused materials from ancient buildings. Even the name of the church has changed, it is now called Santa Maria del Priorato. One of the most intriguing views of Saint Peter's dome is taken through the keyhole of a garden. This is the Priorato garden annexed to the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato. The church was renovated and modified extensively by Piranesi in the 18th century so the keyhole is a relatively new thing, but the direct view of the then-domeless Saint Peter's from Santa Maria must have still made for quite an amazing sight.

From the Aventino, I continued my descent towards the Campo Marzio. Amongst the ruined Roman temples and buildings, I made out the 8th century Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Built on the site of an ancient Roman temple, in Matilde's time it would have been magnificently decorated with Byzantine-style mosaics, including a beautiful 9th-century Virgin and Child. Outside the church, one of the walls of the porch is the home of the marble mask known as "Bocca della Verità" ("Mouth of Truth"), immortalised in Roman Holidays. As I placed my hand inside it, I realised with a shiver that Matilde , in one of her many visits to Rome, may have done the same.





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