Art & Culture (le cose belle) / Historical Sites (l'antichità)

Santo Stefano Rotondo

Santo Stefano Rotondo

I like circles. Squares are bad. But for some odd reason (practicality, most likely), we as a species have shunned the circular building in modern times. The obvious exception to this would be stadiums, but their raucous atmosphere defeats the calm that one tends to experience in the absence of corners. When Supreme Leader Gingrich begins drawing up plans for his moon colony, I hope he takes some time to consider the relative lack of rotundas we have here on humble Earth.

Luckily, the ancient Romans liked circular buildings. While the Pantheon and the Colosseum get all the credit, there is another circular construction in Rome that deserves your attention. The aptly named Santo Stefano Rotondo lies perched upon the Caelian Hill at the end of Via Claudia, its home since the late 5th century. The nave, or whatever you want to call it, is a massive circular room with impressively high ceilings. Towards the center lies a ring of columns that support the weight of the towering roof that extends high above the altar. The continuous nature of the building elicits a remarkable calm, in stark contrast to the more ominous and brooding feeling one can experience in a typical angular church. San Stefano’s simplicity, in which its circular design is a pivotal part, makes one feel not as if he or she were in a Catholic church, but rather on the set of some film whose protagonist has to use The Stone of Silverfell to defeat Eerlok the Horrid. I even swear I saw Peter Dinklage lurking around the entrance.

But for every baby-lion-toting baboon extolling to us the harmony of the “Circle of Life” with a bunch of elephants for background dancers, there is a Thomas Hobbes, who reminds us how close we humans are to devolving into a society in which our lives are “nasty, brutish, and short.”  In a similar vein, the serenity of Santo Stefano Rotondo’s architecture lies in stark contrast to the frescoes that adorn its very walls. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century and painted by Niccolò Circignani (known as Il Pomarancio), the twenty-plus paintings depict the brutal ends of the Christian apostles and several other martyrs. Join me after the jump for a pleasant summary of their subject matter that even caused Charles Dickens to squirm, some 170 years ago.

Starting from the right of the entrance is an excellent fresco that shows a man squashed beneath what appears to be a large sarcophagus, the weight of which has caused his eyes to burst from their sockets, while still attached to the face by what must be the optic nerves. Further along the wall a butcher-knife-wielding man chops another into several pieces, perhaps as a precursor to the next fresco over that depicts a few people boiling in what appears to be a marvelous stew of sorts. Later, a man produces a fountain of blood that would make Artemisia Gentileschi proud by sliding a sword cleanly through someone’s neck; this fresco is framed by several images of people hanging at different angles from various apparati. Continuing around we see another stew being prepared, a faded image that looks like two lions devouring a man, a bearded man being buried alive, another stew, burning spears being shoved into a man’s face and torso and armpits, more gushing blood, and finally a cup of melted silver stuff being poured down a man’s throat producing a delicate wisp of steam (the realist in me thinks lead or silver, while the nerd in me thinks unicorn blood).

“Nasty, brutish, and short,” indeed. I apologize if this type of thing isn’t, well, your thing. But for someone who wrote a story in 2nd grade about gargantuan spiders ripping people’s arms off, I was quite enthralled by these walls. Unfortunately, or fortunately, again depending on your fancy, these frescoes are in dire need of some TLC. They are currently in the process of being restored but the large majority are quite faded. When I asked the man at the front-desk-type-thing when they would be finished, he simply shook his head dejectedly and muttered “lunga storia.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Rome: your one stop shop for marvelous architecture, gory history, and perpetual inefficiency!

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