Rome 1300

July 11, 2022

Rome 1300
On the Path of the Pilgrim
Herbert L. Kessler & Johanna Zacharias
(Yale, 2000)
237 p.

Rome is a city that sprawls through time like no other. Buildings separated by centuries sit cheek-by-jowl, and the span of the city’s memory stretches back to an ancient pedigree that few can rival. A stimulating thought experiment is to take a time-slice of the city: what would it have looked like in the year X?

That is just what Kessler & Zacharias have done in this book. They imagine what it might have been like to be a pilgrim coming to Rome in 1300, the year in which Pope Boniface VIII declared the first Jubilee. Modern visitors to Rome tend to think first of ancient Rome and of Renaissance Rome, so the choice of 1300 is a very good one; it gives us an opportunity to imagine the city as we probably have not done before.

What would a pilgrim have seen and heard at that time? No Michelangelo, no Raphael, no Borromini, no Bernini. St Peter’s basilica, as we know it, was not there. Go further back.

They put us in the shoes of a pilgrim who arrived, at the city’s south side, on August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption. On that night there was an annual procession through the city from St John Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore that passed by many sacred sites. Over the course of the book, we walk to the marvellous church of San Clemente, then past the Colosseum and through the ancient Roman Forum, visiting the church of Sts Cosmas and Damian before turning north to pray at Santa Prassede and then, in the early hours of the morning, at Santa Maria Maggiore. After a brief rest, our pilgrim then makes her way down to St Paul’s Outside the Walls, and, finally, to St Peter’s to conclude her pilgrimage.

Reading the book has been an unalloyed delight for me, bringing back so many wonderful memories of my time in Rome. San Clemente is my favourite church in the city; when I was last there I rented an apartment from which, leaning out the window, I could touch the façade of Santa Prassede; I have myself followed a procession from the Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore (although it was for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and followed a much more direct route). At every turn of the page more wonders were in store.

Although many of the sites and sights were familiar to me, not all were. Some things have changed in the intervening 700 years, though not as many as you might think. The book spends a good deal of time on the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran, which I not only have never visited (few have), but did not know about. And of course St Peter’s is radically different today; the earlier basilica was, in structure, much more similar to St Paul’s than to the new church, and I read this section with fascination. But the great candlestick at St Paul’s is still there.

The narrative device used by the authors to organize the book — of pilgrimage — is an appealing one, but it is a device. In its bones, this is an art history book, dedicated primarily to describing and understanding the architecture and art of the churches. The pilgrim would have had to be unusually thorough to apprehend all of the details the authors describe, and would have been accustomed to thinking in unusually academic prose to boot, but this didn’t bother me. The book is illustrated with over 200 photos, many of them in colour. It’s a wonderful book.

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