The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.
Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).
There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).
Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me. That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).
The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch. Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe. The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.
Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”
In Piazza di Spagna.
Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me. Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less. A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history. Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604. Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself. Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.