Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to Porta Maggiore, eighth part

Starting point: piazza di S. Martino ai Monti 

Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                  In dextra:

             Sancti Vitalis

Sancta Pudentiana. Et sancta Eufemia            Palatium iuxta Iherusalem.

Palatium Pilati. Sancta Maria Maior                Hierusalem


Dear friends and fellow itinerarists!

When we last met, we admired some of Rome’s best medieval towers in piazza S. Martino ai Monti, but now we’d better be on the move again! We have a final climb to do before we reach our far-away goal, Porta Maggiore. The ancient Clivus Suburanus, which we followed uphill on via in Selcis, continues straight across the piazza in via di S. Martino ai Monti. In this section of the itinerary, there are a lot of monuments along our way, and the manuscript starts off by indicating that the church of San Vitale should now be on our left hand. This church is actually quite far away from where we are, along via Nazionale of today. Via Nazionale is a modern thoroughfare, but the church is aligned along the ancient vicus Longus, which crossed the modern via Nazionale at the 19th century building Palazzo degli Esposizioni, next to San Vitale. The church, consecrated already in the early 5th century and founded on an earlier titulus Vestinae, is today located several steps down from street level, and it feels as if one literally climbs down into the past to enter the small, dark portico, which, parenthetically, may be as old as the oldest church building. The church was restored in the late 8th century by pope Leo III, so we can rest assured that it was quite shiny and newly decorated when the Einsiedeln pilgrim went by. Sadly, not much from the medieval period survives inside the church, so the portico is the nearest we can come to the medieval experience we are seeking.

The portico of S. Vitale.

The portico of S. Vitale.

Also rather far away is our next landmark to the left: the church of S. Pudenziana. This church, in via Urbana, is of even older origins than S. Vitale: it may have been founded as early as the second century CE, but more certain is that it was restored already in the end of the 4th century, and again by pope Hadrian I in the late 8th century. Tradition has it (in the martyr legend of S. Praxedis, the sister of Pudentiana) that the church was built upon the baths of Novatus in vicus Patricius (coinciding with via Urbana of today, yet another of the charming streets of Monti), baths which are otherwise unknown from literary sources. In excavations during the 20th century, a bath complex from the mid-second century CE was excavated beneath the church – the church building had made use of a basilical hall of the baths. The conversion of the hall into a church may, according to the useful A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by L. Richardson, not have occurred until the fourth century – yet how fascinating it is that archaeology sometimes can prove even the most vague and seemingly unreliable literary sources! The apse mosaic of the church is one of the oldest to be preserved in Rome, and dates from around the year 400; it is heavily restored, but nevertheless leaves an impression of what our Einsiedeln pilgrim saw in S. Pudenziana (when the frescoes were already around 400 years old…).

With our next landmark to the left, we encounter one of Rome’s few definitely lost churches – rather an exception than the norm, spoiled as we are by the fact that nothing ever changes in this city, and that nothing is destroyed, but always reused, in what must be the most splendid example of historical sustainability, if we would coin an expression for it. The small church of S. Euphemia is mentioned for the first time as restored by pope Sergius I around the year 700, and a century later – in the period of our itinerary – it was embellished by gifts from pope Leo III. It was demolished in the late 16th century, when pope Sixtus IV made via Urbana broader; yet remains of the church were seen as late as 1650. On the map of Leonardo Bufalini from 1551, the church is marked out along the vicus Patricius, and today, it would have been situated just where via Urbana and via Panisperna meet, probably at the flat-iron-shaped building which now houses a pharmacy.

The church of S. Euphemia, near S. Pudenziana, in the map of Bufalini.

On our right hand side, the itinerary tells us that we should see Palatium iuxta Iherusalem (the palace near Jerusalem) and Hierusalem (Jerusalem). Apart from the nice example of medieval spelling variants of Jerusalem (the letter H caused a lot of trouble for medieval writers, since it was not pronounced), it was probably evident to the medieval reader that ”Jerusalem” equalled the church S. Croce in Gerusalemme (in Latin s. Crucis in Hierusalem). The church of S. Croce was founded by Constantine in the imperial palace Sessorium, built by emperor Septimius Severus in the beginning of the third century CE. The church was dedicated to the relic of the cross that Constantine’s mother, Helena, who resided in the Sessorium, had brought back from Jerusalem. The name Sessorium was still alive for a while in the medieval sources, in forms such as Suxorio or Susurrio, but the Einsiedeln itinerary has dropped it for the easier ”Palace near Jerusalem”. Now, the church of S. Croce is quite a bit away from where we are standing – as you can see on the modern map below (Google Maps estimates half an hour by foot to get there). But these regions should have belonged to the so-called disabitato during this period, with not much new settlements, and rather few ancient monuments compared to the dense city center, and so it might have been that the towering ruins of the Sessorium could catch the eye of the medieval pilgrim.

The route from via Urbana to S. Croce as suggested by Google Maps

The route from via Urbana to S. Croce as suggested by Google Maps

In fact, ruins of the Sessorium palace can still be seen today – and indeed, the ancient ruins get quite a new fascination when you imagine that they were admired by so many before us during the centuries, and Rome through the eye of the Einsiedeln pilgrim is still there all around.

The Sessorium palace. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sessorium palace. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another landmark near this conglomerate of buildings is, as we read in our itinerary, Amphitheatrum. Not many of the common visitors to Rome may know that there actually exists another amphitheatre in Rome apart from the Colosseum. Smallish and sweet, built in the early third century CE, it hides away just beside the church of S. Croce. In the late third century, it was built into the Aurelian city walls, and its arches were walled up.

The Amphitheatrum Castrense and the city walls.

The Amphitheatrum Castrense and the city walls (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 16th century, the theatre was deprived of its second story, and in that state it was depicted in an engraving by Etienne Duperac in 1575.

Amphitheatrum Castrense. Engraving by Etienne Duperac (Wikimedia Commons)

Amphitheatrum Castrense with S. Croce in the background. Engraving by Etienne Duperac (Wikimedia Commons)

But before we dwell too long on the monuments far from our itinerary, we have some landmarks to our left to turn to. The Palatium Pilati, palace of Pilatus, has caused some trouble for the interpreters of the Einsiedeln manuscript, since a palace with this name is not known from other sources or archaeological remains. Ferdinand Gregorovius, the great medievalist of the 19th century, suggested that it may be the Augustan Macellum Liviae (market of Livia) near S. Lucia in Ortheo, not otherwise mentioned by the itinerary – but we already passed by that area; others have meant that it could be a misunderstanding of the peculiar toponym ad ursum pileatum, ”by the bear in a hat”, which surely is rather nearby, but instead a bit further on along our itinerary (we shall encounter this bear and his hat in our next promenade). Judging from where we are supposed to stand right now – quite near the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, which also is the next landmark to our right, I think we should look closer around us to get a clue to this enigmatic palace. Some scholars has then remarked: Why does the itinerary not mention the church of S. Prassede, which we are passing right by on our way along via di S. Martina ai Monti? The church is probably as old as its sister-church S. Pudenziana, and it was restored by pope Hadrian in the late eighth century, and should thus have been of interest for the Einsiedeln pilgrim. My theory, then, would be that the palace of Pilatus was a structure which in some way was connected to the church of S. Prassede, and that the mention of the palace equalled the mention of the church – but that is just another theory, and we have to return to the more safe landmarks on our way, such as S. Maria Maggiore mentioned above. Founded by pope Liberius in the fourth century, it was restored by pope Sixtus III in the fifth century – and from this period, the magnificent mosaics that overflow the church were made. Once again, we can watch through the eyes of the medieval pilgrim exactly the same (well, though often a bit too restored) wonders in gold and bright colours that our Einsiedeln friend saw.

Mosaic in S. Maria Maggiore (Wikimedia Commons)

Mosaic in S. Maria Maggiore (Wikimedia Commons)

I just adore these gravely solemn sheep impatiently parading in front of the jewel box of Bethlehem; don’t you agree that it is the perfect spot to take a little rest and behold this medieval splendor before our exit into the sharp sunshine of Rome and the grand final of this long itinerary? After all, we have been to both Jerusalen and Bethlehem today… Au revoir!

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