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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs
Vol. 11, No. 52 (Jul. 1907), pp209‑212.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p209  The Marble and Ceramic Decorations of the Roman Campanili
by J. Tavernor-Perry

Black-and‑white images are from the original article, and in the public domain;
any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer.

The stately but mouldering brick towers which were once the campanili of mediaeval Rome have never received from architects or archaeologists the attention which, for their beauty and associations, they have deserved. But painters have always appreciated them as valuable accessories to their compositions; and they may be found, like notes of emphasis, in the landscapes of the Poussins, of Claude, and of many others. They are but modern as compared with the venerable ruins among which they stand, but ancient as compared with the rococo palaces and 'gimcrack churches of Gesù' with which they are, perforce, too often incongruously associated; and they now to be sought for behind the screens of huge and commonplace edifices, a mere Parisian veneer, with which the new streets of Rome are bordered, where lie hidden the sole relics of an age not only long past but long forgotten.

Much obscurity hangs over both the origin and the date of these towers; and, although not the immediate subject of this article, it is necessary to know something of their history properly to appreciate the peculiarities of their decorations. Their erection has been usually assigned to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; but their origin and some of the existing remains undoubtedly belong to a much earlier period. Their fate was, in many respects, paralleled by the more modern case of the towers of Auvergne and Velay, which were destroyed or dismantled by the revolutionary agents at the close of the eighteenth century, and in the former half of the nineteenth century were gradually restored to their original conditions. Cattaneo​1 says that he is unable to trace in any detail of the campanili evidence of their erection before the eleventh century; but it must be remembered that, with the exception of the surface decorations, they are built entirely of materials from the ruins of older buildings, ancient brick and ancient marble, and that there is nothing but the workman­ship itself to give a clue to the date when the work was done. So far as the mere brickwork is concerned there is nothing either in the walling itself or in the arrangement of the cornices to distinguish it from the work of later imperial times and the same sort of walling is found in the 'Casa di Crescenzio,' which is the oldest private building of the middle ages erected in Rome,​2 and was built certainly not later than the eleventh century.​3 The classical character of the design of these towers, so symmetrical in their proportions and arrangements, is such as can scarcely have been the product of so late an age as that commonly assigned to them. Towers for use and ornament were common in imperial times, and that their form was closely akin to that of the mediaeval campanili is shown by the model of one on a stucco relief recently discovered among the ruins in the Farnesina gardens on the banks of the Tiber.​4 But besides the support of analogy, there are, not only direct documentary evidence, but actual remains, which go to prove the erection of such buildings at a very early date. Pope Stephen II, about 755, built a bell-tower to the atrium of the basilica of S. Peter, which he is stated to have overlayed with gold and silver; and a tower was built to S. Maria in Cosmedin by Adrian I about 780.​5 Within an upper stage of the tower of S. Prassede are the remains of some archaic paintings contemporary with and representing some events  p210 which occurred during the pontificate of Paschal I, about 820, which point to the erection of the tower itself at some previous date.​6 These examples are quite sufficient to show that, whatever may be the date of the towers now standing, the custom of building such towers begins at least as early as the eighth century. There are, undoubtedly, definite records of the building of campanili at much later dates, many if not most of which may have been restorations, as in the case of Auvergne. Thus the church of S. Maria in Trastevere, to the bell-tower of which we shall have again particularly to refer, seems to have been entirely rebuilt by Pope Innocent II about 1140.

It has been assumed, perhaps too hastily, that even if towers earlier than the twelfth century did once exist, they had perished in the disorders of the troublous times of the tenth and eleventh centuries, and more particularly in the devastations attributed to the Normans and Saracens under Robert Guiscard. But the dilapidation of two centuries on buildings so simple and so solid could not be very considerable, and the mischief wrought by Guiscard's raid on the monuments of the city may have been much exaggerated. When he entered Rome by the Flaminian Gate on the 28th May 1084, his aim was to rescue the Pope as quickly as possible from his captivity in S. Angelo, and, this done, he forced his way through a hostile population, avoiding as far as possible all large buildings from which he might be attacked, across the Campus Martius, through the Via Lata, skirting along the east side of the imperial fora and the Coliseum, to the Lateran Palace by the Via Caelimontana. During this difficult march his troops were too much occupied in their own preservation to do more wilful damage than was caused by the fires which broke out along their line of progress; and it was only when, three days afterwards, the citizens rose and attacked them in the Lateran that, in retaliation, any definite destruction was attempted. But even then this was confined to the comparatively small area which lay within easy reach of Guiscard's headquarters. The portion of the Caelian lying between the Lateran and the Coliseum, along the Caput Africae, at that time thickly populated, was burnt, and with it the ancient churches of S. Clemente and SS. Quattro Coronati; and the whole city was given up to pillage. But the armed bands which raided the churches, and carried off as many captives for slavery as they could, were too intent, in the short space of time at their disposal, on acquiring their spoil, to waste their energies on the destruction of bricks and mortar. Within three weeks of their entry they retired again across the Campagna; and it is impossible to believe that in that short time the Normans of Guiscard wrought the havoc done by the landsknechts of Frundsberg in the nine months' sack with which Charles V closed the history of mediaeval Rome.

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Fig. 4 S. Francesca Romana, Rome

Fig. 1 SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Rome

These campanili may be roughly described as 'all alike,' although in the number of their storeys, the proportions of their parts or the grouping of their openings each tower differs from the rest. But the characteristic features of their squareness, the arrangement of their stages, and the rich and boldly projecting cornices which crown each storey, make them a type of tower unknown in the romanesque architecture of Italy outside Rome or its immediate precincts. They were built at first solely for the purposes of utility, and such slight decorative features as they possess, such as the cornices and window openings, were the results of the adaptation by their builders of the modes of construction they found in the ruined edifices around them. The objects for which they were built were two-fold; first to form a stronghold for the protection of the treasure of the church in the times of disorder which so frequently disturbed the city, and, second, to provide a suitable place for hanging the church bells. From an early date, however, some attempt at embellishment, beyond the constructional decoration of the cornices, was made, as is implied in the description of the overlaying of the bell-tower of S. Peter's with gold and silver; but whatever the nature of this early ornamentation may have been, no remains of it have survived to this day. The remains of decoration which still form part of the existing campanili are mainly constructional, as but few portions  p211 of the plating with which they were, in part at least, encrusted still adhere to their crumbling walls. The structural marble decorations consist of the little corbels forming the principal part of the cornices, which were once used in a similar way in the brick cornices of the later imperial buildings, and may still be seen on the remains of the Thermae of Diocletian; and of the columns placed between the window openings of the upper stages. These latter were of white marble taken from the ruins of ancient buildings, and selected mainly for their decorative effect. Thus we find that Leo IV used a little column on which was a Greek inscription to Serapis for the adornment of a window in the campanile of S. Peter's;​7 and the fluted shafts in the tower of S. Maria in Cosmedin and the spirally decorated shafts of those of S. Giovanni Laterano are similar examples of such use.

The niches which appear on a few of the towers must also be classed with the constructional ornamentation, since they are also formed of ancient marble corbels and shafts. They were intended as protections or shrines, not for statues as is generally supposed, since there is neither ledge nor corbel on which a figure could be placed, but for pictures, painted or in mosaic, of the Blessed Virgin. These niches are found on the towers of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (fig. 1), S. Croce in Gerusalemme (fig. 2), S. Maria in Trastevere (fig. 3), and S. Francesca Romana, once S. Maria Nuova (fig. 4), which has two. The paintings and mosaics have all disappeared from them except from that of S. Maria in Trastevere, where in a niche of a peculiar form is a much faded mosaic of the Madonna and Child dating perhaps from the time of Eugenius III.

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Fig. 3 S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Fig. 11 S. Pudenziana, Rome

Fig. 2 S. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome

Of the applied or encrusted decorations there are two kinds, the one consisting of discs or slabs of marble or porphyry, and the other of bacini or roundels of majolica; of these the latter appear not only to have been the first to be used but to have continued in use until the period when mediaeval gave place to Renaissance architecture. When first the idea of employing such a mode of decoration sprang into existence cannot be determined, but the suggestion made by Fortnum​8 that it was due to the use of inlaid stones and enamelled discs in goldsmiths' work seems borne out by the overlaying of S. Peter's bell-tower with silver and gold. the use of bacini as a decoration seems to have occurred first at Pisa in the eleventh century, or perhaps still earlier at Pesaro, where pottery works were being carried on in the time of Theodoric.​9 There is nothing to show when first they were placed on the Roman campanili, but it seems pretty clear from the evidence of the buildings themselves that they were an afterthought, since no place was formed constructively to receive them on the face of the walls; and where they have been let into the brickwork it has only been roughly cut away to form a sinking, as in the case of the disc under the niche on the tower of  p212 SS. Giovanni e Paolo. These bacini are of two sorts; the earlier in point of date are such as those on the towers of S. Francesca Romana and SS. Giovanni e Paolo, which are enamelled dishes of varying designs, and the later ones are merely roundels of glazed terra cotta, frequently set in rings of glazed brickwork, as at S. Maria Maggiore. The four examples which we illustrate of the former class (figs. 5 to 8) seem to be covered with a lead glaze and tinted yellow, brown and green in flow colours not unlike some late productions of the Wedgwood factories. The effect of them in the sunlight is most brilliant; but the metallic iridescence which they show seems to be due to the decomposition of the glaze which has taken place in the lapse of years. They do not appear to have been specially made for the positions they occupy, except perhaps in the case of one dish, of which we give an illustration (fig. 5), which shows in a pattern of indigo on an apple-green ground the sword and crown of martyrdom symbolic of the saints on whose church it appears. The later roundels are slightly hollowed discs generally glazed in a green colour, set sometimes in a ring of plain brickwork as at S. Croce in Gerusalemme and SS. Rufina e Seconda, and would seem to be of the same date as the restored or rebuilt towers to which they are attached. Those on the tall bell-tower of S. Maria Maggiore (fig. 9), which is of late date and differs from the normal type of Roman campanili, are properly set into the brickwork, much of which is coloured and glazed, and evidently formed part of the original construction of the tower.

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Figs. 5 and 6.
Bacini from SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Rome

Figs. 7 and 8.
Bacini from S. Francesca Romana, Rome

Sometimes in association with the bacini, but more generally by themselves, thin slabs of marble and porphyry were employed as an encrusted ornament. The supply of such material in Rome was practically inexhaustible, and early in the eleventh century a school of marble masons sprang up in the city who developed the mosaic art till it came to perfection in the hands of Vassilectus and the Cosimati.º These slabs were of various shapes, such as circular and oblong, and sometimes in the form of crosses, formed perhaps as the material in hand permitted, and they seem to have been affixed to the towers without much regard for symmetry. Generally they are merely placed on the face of the brickwork, but frequently the edges were guarded by a projecting rim of tiles as shown by the porphyry cross on S. Francesca Romana, of which we give an illustration (fig. 10).

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Fig. 9 Roundel from S. Maria Maggiore, Rome

Fig. 11 Cross from S. Francesca Romana, Rome

When complete, these decorations of marble and majolica must have presented a happy and even brilliant effect. But they are now fast disappearing; and though, as in the case of S. Pudenziana (fig. 11), some attempts have been made to replace the marbles, most of the towers present but a forlorn appearance, scarred with the patches and empty settings from whence their ornaments have fallen.

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A view of S. Pudenziana.

The Author's Notes:

1 'L'Architecture en Italie,' par Raphael Cattaneo. Traduction par M. le Monier.

2 'History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages,' by Ferdinand Gregorovius.

3 For ornamental details of this building see Seroux d'Agincourt, 'Histoire de l'Art par les Monuments.'

4 'Pagan and Christian Rome,' by Rodolfo Lanciani.

5 Gregorovius.

6 'Le due nuove campane di Campidoglio,' by Francesco Cancellieri; also 'Le Chiese di Roma,' by Mariano Armellini.

7 Gregorovius.

8 'A descriptive Catalogue of the Majolica, etc., at South Kensington,' C. D. E. Fortnum.

9 'Archaeologia,' XLII. Notes on bacini.

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Page updated: 21 Apr 07