Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cosmati Floors

We visit many churches in Italy because they embody lots of history and art.  Although most have sculpture,
wall and ceiling frescoes, or paintings by noted artists, lately I’ve been drawn to the colorful floor pavements known as Cosmati.

Santa Maria in Trastevere, Roma.
Medieval pavement re-laid 19th c.

What are they?
Cosmati floors, also called Cosmatesco or Cosmatesque, are a particular form of what archeologists, architects and art historians call opus sectile (cut work) where pieces of stone are cut to whatever size and shape is required to create geometric patterns when fitted together.  Roman and Byzantine mosaics, termed opus tessellatum, are pictures and designs created from small, more or less uniform size pieces of colored stone and glass called tesserae.  The progression from mosaic to Cosmatesque reflects both technical discoveries and evolved tastes in decoration.

Pompeiian mosaic above and floor below.

On its way toward opus sectile, a countertop in Herculaneum, 1st century.
The characteristics of Cosmati work include: 
1) Complex assemblies of simple shapes like triangles and squares in repetitive designs, often featuring red and green stone;

Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Roma.
(Cosmedin derives from the Greek word for decorate, kosmoún.)

2) Interweaving, sinuous ribbons (known as guilloché) filled with geometric patterns, that link large circles; 

S.M. in Cosmedin.

San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma.

S.M. in Trastevere

3) A large circular stone surrounded by four smaller rounds, unified by ribbons—a pattern called a quincunx

San Benedetto in Piscinula, said to be the only 12th-century Cosmatesco floor in Rome
 that has never been re-laid.  Note the small size of the white marble pieces
 compared to the repaired floors in the photos below.
San Crisogono, Trastevere, Roma.
San Giovanni in Laterano.

4) Wide bands of white marble between the colored features to make them stand out;

San Crisogono, above and below.

5) Peripheral infill and rectangular sections of fantastically varied patterns using stones of many colors.

S. Maria in Cosmedin, above and below.

San Giovanni in Laterano.

Why are they called Cosmati?
In the later 12th century an artisan in decorative stone near Rome named Lorenzo di Tebaldo adapted Byzantine and ancient Roman styles of geometric floor design to produce a distinctive style.  At least, he and several further generations of his family were credited by 19th-century art historians with developing the style, which was named Cosmatesque after Lorenzo’s grandson, Cosma—apparently Cosma’s name appeared on many of the works studied at that time.  Despite later scholarship that has brought to light the earlier workshops of Magister Paulus (from about AD 1100) and other early marblers (marmorari), and the existence of older work in Sicily, for better or worse the collective name for artists in this arresting art form is now Cosmati.  (Cosma himself was apparently named for Saint Cosma, not for the Greek word that means decoration.)

Church of the Martorana, Palermo. AD 1143.
S. Benedetto in Piscinula, Roma. 12th century.

Why did Cosmati work develop in Rome?
In medieval times when the Cosmati were at work, their marble and other stone came from the ruined temples and buildings of ancient Rome.  The extraordinary disks that mark their work come from salvaged columns carefully sliced.  Buried statues, fallen slabs and inscription panels were dug up and turned into millions of pattern pieces and frames.  Aside from creamy whites, the primary stones used were both green and reddish purple porphyry, though yellow  giallo antico and many other colored marbles show up as well.   The designs and patterns used are very similar to those found in Constantinople and other Byzantine sites.  It is thought that Eastern mosaic craftsmen brought in to decorate the Monastery of Monte Cassino south of Rome in the late 11th century may have inspired the style that became known as Cosmati work.  So perhaps it’s no coincidence that Magister Paulus had his workshop nearby in Ferentino.

S. Maria in Trastevere, porphyry disk.
San Crisogono.
Granite disk, red and green porphyry and giallo antico .

Is all Cosmati work in Italy?
No, though most is south of the Alps.  But in the last few years an extraordinary Cosmati floor in Westminster Abbey in London has been restored.  It was originally installed in 1268 by a Roman marbler named Pietro Oderisi, who may have brought most of the pattern stones with him pre-cut for efficiency.  One big difference from the typical Italian work is that instead of white background framing marble, the Westminster floor uses dark Purbeck marble from the south of England.   Uniquely, the Great Pavement at Westminster also came with inlaid brass inscriptions.   Aside from the date and dedication it provides a chronology for the end of the world and reveals some of the symbolism entailed in the stone patterns.  More about the floor restoration and its cosmic patterns and symbolism can be found at the Abbey website and elsewhere on YouTube.

Views of the Great Pavement in Westminster Abbey.
Photos ©Dean and Chapter, Westminster Abbey.

Why do I like this patterned work so much?  
I’ve always been a sucker for color, so I love the beautiful stone combinations spilling across the floor.  The swirling ribbons and unexpected complexity of the fillings make a concise orderliness on the large scale from an otherwise chaotic diversity of small designs.  In some ways it reminds me of a Baroque fugue in which small musical segments swirl together to create a satisfying and perhaps profound unity.  Beyond those esthetic charms, having worked with marble and granite I appreciate the labor, skill and precision embodied in those millions of hand-cut, hand-set and hand-polished rocks, most of which had a previous life in some Imperial Roman monument or statue.  It is some of the most pleasing and exquisite recycling you’re likely to find anywhere.


Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Capodanno—New Year’s Day

Janus, the Roman god who sees both comings and goings.

After wishing the baristi at Baylon Cafè buon anno this morning, we are spending the first day of 2012 mostly in repose, being cheerful, eating sweets and doing a bit of work to set the tone for the year to come.  These are all Roman traditions dating back at least two millennia as recorded in the Fasti, a long poetic work by Ovid from about A.D. 8.   On the kalends of ianuarius, January 1st, the poet has a conversation with the god Janus (who gives his name to the first month of the year) discussing the meanings and reasons for various customs of the day.

A prosperous day dawns: favour our thoughts and speech!     
Let auspicious words be said on this auspicious day.
Let our ears be free of lawsuits then, and banish
Mad disputes now: you, malicious tongues, cease wagging!
‘But, why are joyful words spoken on the Kalends,
And why do we give and receive good wishes?’ [Ovid asks.]
Then leaning on the staff he gripped in his right hand,
[Janus] answered: ‘Omens attend upon beginnings.
Anxious, your ears are alert at the first word,
And the augur interprets the first bird that he sees.’     

Italians wish you tanti auguri (much good fortune) deriving from the ancient Roman augur, the official interpreter of signs and portents—the auspices—who would forecast your good fortune (or bad).  So, many of the customs for the new year strive to align as many omens in your favor as possible, in the belief that what happens on the first day of the year will be repeated throughout the coming months.  So you want happiness not discord, food not hunger, and fulfilling work not idleness.

Ovid does not explain why it is good luck to see a stooped old man but bad to see a priest or child in your first encounter with another person in the new year.  Nor does he cover the now popular practice of wearing new red underwear on New Year’s Eve then throwing them away, though other Italian traditions say that red wards off the evil eye, malocchio.  But he does ask Janus about gifts of sweets and money.  For money, the 2000-year-old answer hits amazingly true to our times.

‘What do the gifts of dates and dried figs mean’,
I said, ‘And the honey glistening in a snow-white jar?’
‘For the omen,’ he said, ‘so that events match the savour,
So the course of the year might be sweet as its start.’
‘I see why sweet things are given. Explain the reason
For gifts of money, so I mistake no part of your festival.’
He laughed and said: ‘How little you know of your age,
If you think that honey’s sweeter to it than gold!
I’ve hardly seen anyone, even in Saturn’s reign,
Who in his heart didn’t find money sweet.
Love of it grew with time, and is now at its height,
Since it would be hard put to increase much further.
Wealth is valued more highly now, than in those times
When people were poor, and Rome was new....
But ever since Fortune, here, has raised her head,
And Rome has brushed the heavens with her brow,
Wealth has increased, and the frantic lust for riches,
So that those who possess the most seek for more.
They seek to spend, compete to acquire what’s spent,
And so their alternating vices are nourished.
Like one whose belly is swollen with dropsy
The more they drink, they thirstier they become.
Wealth is the value now: riches bring honours,
Friendship too: everywhere the poor are hidden. 

Thus, one Italian custom is to not take anything out of your house on capodanno, only to bring things in so that the pattern of accrual is set up for the year, not loss.  And many of the traditional foods in holiday meals are symbolic of money or increase—salami slice “coins," lentils that look like tiny ancient coins, and rice that swells as it cooks.

Trastevere residents line up for cheese, salumi and bread.

But yesterday was a different story from this capodanno day of ease, instead, a time to finish up shopping for the classic big feast, il cenone, and the New Year’s party,  il Veglione di Capodanno.  At night the city of Rome threw a big public party on the Via Foro Imperiali, just north of the Colosseum.  There was a giant stage, music and comedy acts and il sindaco, the mayor, to pop the cork from a bottle of spumante at midnight.  Then they had a big fireworks show, fuochi artificiali.  
A food truck stocked with bottles of bubbly, ready for the night's celebration.

We decided to skip the loud music, hundreds of thousands of people and the long walk there and back.  Instead, just out our door is the Gianicolo, the Janiculum Hill (also named for Janus, the god of doors and arches, because it was the portal from ancient Rome to Etruria).  It has any number of vista points overlooking the city, ideal for watching fireworks.  We weren’t sure quite what to expect as we walked up to the Acqua Paolo or Fontenone near the Spanish ambassador’s villa.  Firecrackers (botti) had been going off for days, with increasing frequency and force as the 31st neared.  The TV news had shown enormous caches of illicit explosives confiscated in recent days and some rather alarmingly large firecrackers for sale.  And we had read of the lively amateur fireworks activity on New Year’s Eve throughout Italy, so we weren’t too surprised by the bangs and booms reverberating off stone walls and occasional small bottle rockets whizzing into the frigid night.  The crowd near the big fountain was large but good-natured, with frequent bursts of botti and occasional spurts of Roman candles or sparkly fireworks fountains set off in the street. 

Sparklers while the crowd waits.

A fountain of sparks at the Fontenone.

But the Spanish enclave buildings and the entrenched crowd were blocking our view, so we went back down to the terrace in front of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, where all of Rome was erupting before us.  It was amazing.

Neighborhood preview.
They had started even before mezzanotte with some pretty serious aerial rockets from scattered places around the city.  At the stroke of the new year pandemonium broke out with the big official aerial bombs from down in the Roman Forum area plus thousands—maybe millions—of firecrackers, Roman candles, firework fountains and massive private rocket launches from every direction across Rome.  We were astounded at how many rockets were going off, some even from rooftops across from our building and intersections just down our block.  I made a short video which will give you a hint of what it was like.  I should have taken more but I was entranced by the scene, which included many groups around us popping prosecco or spumante corks and eating pandoro in the midst of the joyous din.  Every few minutes there would be a resounding explosion, about like a 5” artillery shell at close range.  [If the video doesn't show up below or won't play, go to this link.]

The city’s show had lots of colorful bursts including about six in a row that exploded to form happy faces.  Toward the end of the program there were a long series in patriotic Italian red, white and green.  But when the official show stopped, the rest of the city kept firing all across our field of view.  We kept watching for half an hour, but finally the cold started penetrating even the thermal underwear. (Cinzia claims that she was even colder one July 4th while watching fireworks in San Francisco.)  The firecrackers continued for hours, but we went home and ate some panettone and drifted off to sleep, happy to have been part of the spectacle welcoming in duemiladodici.

The morning after, down the street at Piazza di San Cosimato.