Itinerary II, Ponte S. Angelo to porta Salaria, fourth part

Starting point: piazza S. Lorenzo in Lucina


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                      In dextra:

Sancti Silvestri, ibi balneum              FORMA VIRGINIS


We are now standing outside the portico of S. Lorenzo in Lucina, perhaps feeling a bit chilly from having visited the subterranean excavations beneath the church, and that very special and thrilling smell of the Roman underworld – dusty stone and damp clay – is lingering around us. We’d better get going again, and from the itinerary we are instructed that the church of S. Silvestro should be out next landmark to the left. If we cross via del Corso, continue on via Frattina and then immediately to the right on via del Gambero, we will soon reach piazza di S. Silvestro.

San Silvestro

Piazza and church of S. Silvestro.

SSILV martyres

Martyr inscription in S. Silvestro.

And there, in the corner where we enter the piazza, is our church, S. Silvestro. Entering through the portal, we find ourselves in the atrium of the church, and for our aims, there is actually no need to go any further. First of all, it is a beautiful place, where hundreds of fragments of reliefs and inscriptions have been mounted on the wall, but it is also the location of the remnants that interest us from the medieval church. In the portico, near the entrance of the church, some more lengthy inscriptions are found. The oldest (which actually consists of two fragmentary parts) is a message right from the time of our itinerary: an eighth-century inscription naming all the saints whose relics are kept in the church, and their ’birthdays’ (that is, the day of their martyrdom). On lines three and four, we can for example discern the names Anterus and Miltiades, two very early popes (from the third and fourth centuries respectively).

The church of S. Silvestro was rather recently founded if compared with the date of our itinerary – pope Paul I (mid–8th century) is said to have established the church and an adjacent monastery in his very own house, in sua propria domo. This house must have been a magnificent one, since this is believed to be the spot where emperor Aurelian built a temple to the sun, Sol Invictus, in the third century AD. Maybe it is the ruins of this temple that the itinerary interprets as Roman baths – balneum – but the ancient topography of this place is not entirely clear. However that may be, it is a typical phenomenon of the time that large quantities of relics were being moved into the city from the abandoned catacombs and burial places outside the walls, and laid to rest in churches such as S. Silvestro.

Inscription from 1119 in S. Silvestro.

Inscription from 1119 in S. Silvestro.

But there is one more inscription that I would like you to take a look at, even if it is of a later date: the early 12th century. Its long and verbose Latin text may be a little difficult to read, but the essence of it is as follows: the Antonine column (yes, the column of Marcus Aurelius from the previous part of our itinerary) and the small church S. Andrea built next to it belongs to the monastery of S. Silvestro, and the income from the pilgrims who visit the column and the church should therefore be collected by none else than representatives of this monastery. Should this happen anyway, a very detailed ban is placed upon the person responsible. The stone document is signed by Petrus, abbot in the monastery, and dated to anno Domini MCXVIIII (=1119). The format and lay-out of the inscription – more like an actual document in stone than an epigraphic masterpiece – is typical for the 12–13th centuries. But these inscriptions also point to something important when it comes to guidebooks: the medieval pilgrim or traveller who was able to read a little Latin could move around town and learn a lot about the places she or he visited by studying the ubiquitous inscriptions. We shall soon return to the inscription collection in the Einsiedeln manuscript, but also later guidebooks, from the 16th–18th centuries, often explicitly advices the reader to complement the information in the book by reading inscriptions such as these. Thus, the function of the Roman and medieval inscriptions stayed alive much longer than Antiquity itself when it came to transferring information – in our days, though, the inscriptions have become relics themselves since the common traveller now no longer can read them. And with this – guidebook-typical – lament, we will be on our way again.

Our next landmark, Forma Virginis, is written right over the middle of the page, and as we have learned, this means that we are supposed to pass under it, through it or very near it. So where will we be heading? Forma is the medieval Latin word for aqueduct, and, as already discussed in the previous part of the itinerary, it is Aqua Virgo we are looking for. As we also have seen, it crossed via del Corso a bit further south than where we are now – but this is where the inscription collection in the manuscript comes to our help. There, an inscription is reported as located in forma Virginis, that is on our aqueduct. It begins Tiberius Claudius Drusi filius Caesar Augustus… (CIL VI, I, 1252) and tells about how emperor Claudius had the aqueduct restored in the first century AD. Thanks to this inscription, we now know exactly where to go, because the inscription still exists – on an arch of the Aqua Virgo that once spanned an ancient street that went east from about where we now are standing. The street is visible on the archaeological map Forma Urbis edited by Rodolfo Lanciani, where all major finds and excavations known in Rome in the early 20th century are depicted (it is accessible online here and here). The modern route that approximately follows the ancient – and medieval – street is via del Pozzetto and via del Bufalo, and after a slight turn to the right, the short via del Nazareno. And half-way up this street, we notice that we pass, not under, but above a Roman arch now sunken deep into the ground.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

If we gaze down on it through the fence, parts of the inscription that the author of the Einsiedeln manuscript saw can still be seen. To get an even better view of the monument, the trick is to have a coffee at the Caffè Accademia next to the ruin, and then visit the bathroom in the cellar (oh, the truths of ancient Rome buried in all these cellars accessible and inaccessible…), from where it is possible to look out from a window straight onto the arch.

Aqua Virgo in an engraving by Piranesi (18th century) (Wikimedia Commons).

Aqua Virgo in an engraving by Piranesi (18th century) (Wikimedia Commons).

In the 18th-century Piranesi engraving above, we can grasp the appearance of the aqueduct in the time of our itinerary – but if we believe this to be a faithful view of the monument in the 18th century, we are wrong. Piranesi should never be entirely trusted, and if we read the last line below the image, it says ’Questo condotto rimane inoggi interrato a livello de capitelli’, that is, in Piranesi’s time, the arch was no more overground than it is today.

Since we left piazza di S. Silvestro, we have been going uphill, and we will continue doing so on our way towards porta Salaria, so we’d better rest here for a moment, and perhaps have another caffè (corretto, even?), before we continue on the last part of our itinerary.

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