In the modern basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, the high altar is at the west end. The same was true of the basilica built in the 4th century by Constantine.
By the south door of the basilica stood two large round buildings, which ran in a line west-east. The western-most of these was demolished as part of the construction of the new basilica, but the other stood until the 18th century, when it too was demolished. It is sometimes known as the Vatican rotunda.
To the east of them both, on the same line, stood the Vatican obelisk. This item from ancient Egypt now stands in the piazza before St Peter’s.
The following 19th century reconstruction, depicting a magnificence that the old basilica probably never possessed, indicates what was where:
Another image of the Vatican rotunda has reached me. This time it appears in a painting by Giorgio Vasari (d. 1574), “Pope Paul III Farnese directing the continuance of St Peter’s”, available here. A detail of this shows the new basilica under construction, the Vatican rotunda to the right, and the obelisk (surely in the wrong place?) beyond it.
The rotunda was clearly not a particularly attractive building. It looks as if it was a vast circular building, on top of which a structure with windows had been constructed.
One reason why the rotunda was so simple is that it was probably, originally, a massive, circular 3rd century Roman tomb. The land around it was raised by Constantine’s architects, in order to provide a platform for the basilica; and the obelisk ended up with its lower section underground.
The archaeology clearly indicates that a circular building was constructed on this site in the early 3rd century, in the Severan period. It is not quite clear whether the rotunda is the same building, or a replacement on the same site at a somewhat higher level.
The obelisk stood on the spina of the Circus of Gaius and Nero. The presence of tombs on the same site indicates that the circus had gone out of use in the same period, as the Vatican cemetery spread down the hill towards it.
The archaeology is not as clear as might be desired, because the site can only be excavated with small pit trenches. So there is much uncertainty in all this.
Another marvellous find by @ste_trombetti at the Bibliotheque Nationale here; – a large map depicting Rome in 1557! Here is an excerpt (click on the image to see it all)
I have ventured to highlight, in this excerpt, three monuments, all now vanished. Near the Palatine, the remains of the monumental entrance to the Palatine, known as the Septizonium. On the Quirinal hill, the remains of the Temple of the Sun. And, over on the Vatican, the Constantinian basilica of Old St Peter’s, with the circular centre of the new basilica arising at the west end, and the obelisk still in its original position on the south side (for St. Peter’s, remember, faces east, rather than west as modern churches do).
Recens rursus post omnes omnium description. urbs Romae …; Éditeur : Formis Anton. Lafrerii (Rome); Date d’édition : 1557; Type : image fixe,estampe; Langue : Italien; Format : 1 est. : en coul. ; 35 x 47 cm↩
We’ve been looking at old pictures of Old St Peter’s in Rome, and thinking about the Circus of Nero nearby, and other structures from ancient Rome.
Last week Brent Nongbri very kindly sent me an extract from one of those tourist books, which the Italians do so well, about the pagan tombs under the Vatican, which contains some interesting diagrams. In it, my eye was drawn to some splendid old pictures, which the author had reproduced from Carlo Fontana, Il Tempio Vaticano e la sua origine, Roma, 1694.
The book is mainly about New St Peter’s. It has details of how the Vatican obelisk was moved (with pictures!). But it also contains plans and reconstructions of the older basilica, and the area around it. I thought that these would be known to few, and deserved to be better known.
Here are some of them. Click on the image to get the full-size picture. (They’re all small) I apologise for the cut-off to the right; the blog software doesn’t handle this very well.
Today I came across this picture here, clearly of a model, of the “Circus of Caligula / Circus of Nero” on the Vatican. Whether the two circuses were indeed the same I do not know. But the model-maker was clearly aware of the construction of a large circular building on the spina of the circus in the Severan period, which tooks terribly out of place in the model. The ground level was artificially increased by something like 15 feet, and apparently the circular church of St Andrew had a basement level.
Anyway I thought that I would share the image with you. I wonder where it comes from?
And a 1911 map of Rome by Platner from here, showing the supposed location of the circus:Note that I have now found an account of the modern excavations, by F.Magi, from which the “modern” plan of the circus derives, here.
John H. Humphrey, Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing, University of California Press, 1986, p.545 f.; on p.683 n.29 the article is given as F. Magi, “Il circo Vaticano in base alla piu recenti scoperte, il suo obelisco e i suoi ‘carceres’, Rendiconti della Pontificia Academia Romana di Archeologia 45, 1972-3 , 37-73. This also gives the “Castagnoli” reference: F. Castagnoli, “Il circo di Nerone in Vaticano”, RendPontAcc 32 (1960), 97-121. The Humphrey book can be read with difficulty at the UC Press website here.↩
The Vatican hill is famous today for the great basilica of St Peters, constructed in the third decade of the fourth century by Constantine, and demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century. A collection of essays on this building appeared in 2013, edited by R. McKitterick, which contains various interesting snippets.
Few today are familiar with the layout of the church, so the diagram at the side is useful. A flight of steps led up to a gatehouse, behind which was a courtyard. This later contained the immense bronze pine-cone now in the Vatican museum. Behind this was the church proper, with a nave and two aisles. The transept gave access to two circular structures, the mausoleum of Honorius (which was turned into the chapel of St Petronilla during the early Dark Ages) and the chapel of St Andrew.
Around the church were all sorts of structures, not depicted on this diagram. The church was the constant resort of beggars, seeking alms, and doubtless many of the dwellings were hovels. Theodoric ordered the distribution of grain to them in the late 5th century; Pope Symmachus had shelters constructed for them near the church, and the Dialogues of Gregory the Great record a crippled girl who more or lived in the church until she was healed by a miracle.
A plan of the church by Alfarano, who had been associated with the church since the 1540’s, was published as an etching by Natale Bonifacio in 1590, when construction on the western end of the new basilica was well advanced. It shows the new construction as a ghost under the old.
Tiberio Alfarano drew the plan in 1571, and the hand-drawn original, known as the Ichnographia, is extant in the archive of the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro. Comparison shows that the printed version tinkered with the original in various ways, and that not every architectural feature on the drawing appears in the etching.
On the south side of the basilica were two circular structures, the chapel of St. Petronilla, actually the Mausoleum of the emperor Honorius; and the chapel of St. Andrew. Beyond these was the obelisk which now dominates St Peter’s square.
The function of the structure as a mausoleum was remembered as late as the 8th century, but thereafter forgotten until 1458 when a splendid late Roman burial was discovered under the floor, possibly of Galla Placidia and her child. Another was found in 1519, and finally in 1544 the intact sarcophagus of the empress Maria, wife of Honorius, complete with 180 precious objects in two silver chests, all of which were dispersed or melted down. The depiction of the basilica in the Nuremberg chronicle of 1493 depicts a round, squat building, which was doubtless the mausoleum.
The structure to the east of it, labelled “Vatican rotunda” in the plan, must predate the basilica as it appears in a gem of the 3rd century. It was converted by Pope Symmachus in the 5th century into a chapel of St Andrew.
I have also seen a paper suggesting that the “mausoleum of Honorius” was itself a 3rd century tomb, as was the Rotunda di Sant’Andrea. The mausoleum was demolished during the building of New St Peter’s, but the Rotunda remained until the 18th century, becoming the church of Santa Maria della Febbre. A 1629 painting of it, still behind the obelisk (which was surely moved by then?) and with New St Peter’s half-built behind it is available online:
And another 18th century drawing by Piranesi shows it nestling next to the basilica, when it was used as a sacristy:
The obelisk is an interesting feature, since it is quite unlikely that it was placed there by Constantine. We learn from Pliny’s Natural History that Caligula erected an obelisk from Heliopolis on the spina of his Circus, in the Horti Agrippinae on the Vatican. There is apparently consensus, among interested scholars, that the only certain fact about the location and orientation of the circus is that this obelisk was in the centre of it..
Two different circus plans appear online. I don’t know the source of the second one.
What can be said with certainty is that material from the circus was found during excavations in St Peter’s square, some 5 metres down.
Somewhere nearby, in all this, is the temple of Cybele and Attis, the Vatican Phrygianum. That such a temple existed in 160 A.D. is recorded by an inscription from Lyons which reads:
Taurobolio Matris d(eum) m(agnae) I(daeae) / quod factum est ex imperio ma tris deum /pro salute imperatoris Caes(aris) T(iti) Aeli Hadriani Antonini Aug(usti) Pii p(atris) p(atriae) / liberorum eius /et status coloniae Lugdun(ensium) / L(ucius) Aemilius Carpus IIIIIIvr Aug(ustalis) item / dendrophorus / uires excepit et a Vaticano trans/tulit ara(m) et bucranium /suo inpendio consacrauit / sacerdote / Q(uinto) Samnio Secondo ab XVuiris /occabo et corona exornato / cui sanctissimus ordo Lugdunens(ium) perpetuitatem sacerdoti(i) decreuit / App(io) Annio Atilio Bradua T(ito) Clod(io) Vibo / Varo co(n)s(ulibus). 
Various inscriptions from the end of the 4th century consist of dedications to Cybele by the last holdouts of the pagan aristocracy, suggesting that perhaps the temple was still in use in this period, and recording that the ritual of the taurobolium – being bathed in bulls’ blood – was taking place here.
Pensabene states that the 1959-60 excavations by Castagnoli – I don’t have a reference for these – revealed that there were major works in this area during the Severan period. The ground level was artificially raised by several metres and a large circular building was constructed whose foundations were contiguous with the obelisk. The foundations of this building contained Severan stamps from the first quarter of the 3rd century A.D. The suggestion is that this was to allow the building of a new Phrygianum, and that this was done under Elagabalus, who was enthusiastic for the cult.
The text is accompanied with a very poor quality image which appears to suggest that the Rotonda di Sant’Andrea stands on the site of the Phrygianum, and that the building was originally circular, with a south-facing portico:
My Italian is not good enough to work out whether Pensabene is suggesting that the Rotondo was, in fact, the carcase of the Phrygianum, stripped of its portico and reused for something else. But if so, this would certainly be very cramped, next to the basilica, and the presence of the vile eunuch priests and their revolting sacrifices right by the south door sounds rather unlikely to me. Even if it was a state cult, which Constantine might have been unwilling to interfere with, this seems improbable.
R. McKitterick, Old Saint Peters, (British School at Rome Studies), 2013. “Look Inside” on Amazon here.↩
For these details I am indebted to Paulo Liverani’s paper “St Peter’s and the City of Rome” in the McKitterick volume, of which I was able to read parts via the Amazon “Look Inside”. The material may be found on p.26; Gregory, Dialogues I, 3.25.1, 108; Life of Symmachus, 53, c. 7, in the Liber Pontificalis I 262; Theodoric in Procopius, Anecdota 26.29.↩
These details appear in the front matter of the McKitterick book, whose footnotes were sadly inaccessible to me.↩
Meaghan McEvoy, “Chapter 6: The mausoleum of Honorius” in: R. McKitterick &c., p.119 f. Accessible via Google Books preview here.↩
Plin. NH XVI.201; XXXVI.74; CIL VI.882 = 31191. All these references I owe to a remarkable discussion in the Ancient Coins forum here.↩
Patrizio Pensabene, “Culto di Cibele e Attis tra Palatino e Vaticano”, Bollettino di Archeologia 2010, Online at http://www.archeologia.beniculturali.it/pages/pubblicazioni.html; except that, at the time of writing, this is offline and I was only able to access the article via the Google cache. UPDATE: Later I found it at Academia.edu here.↩
The first is from R. Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, 1892, and appears on Wikimedia Commons here. Both have been copied from here.↩
Or so it claims on this website; it would be interesting to have proper details of these excavations.↩
But I learn that a detailed set of drawings and plans was made by Martino Ferrabosco, just before the demolition of the old church. His very detailed and labelled plan is here (warning: the zoomable online reader caused my eyes to malfunction for 10 minutes with flickering zigzag lines):
Old St Peters in Rome was not demolished until the end of the 16th century, so there ought to be quite a number of engravings and artists’ depictions of it. I confess, tho, that I know little about early engravers, and so don’t know where to look.
The following item, from 1575, is by Giovanni Battista De’Cavalieri, and shows the drum of the new basilica rising behind the old portico. Thankfully the British Museum make it available online here, with the explanation “The ceremony of the opening of the Porta Santa for the Jubilee of 1575, with crowds of pilgrims standing in the Piazza San Pietro with the new cathedral rising behind the old one.”
What I don’t know is how this engraving was originally issued. Was it really a free-standing item? Or part of a book?
It’s very interesting to see, all the same. That portico at the front is conspicuous in all the engravings.
UPDATE: Joseph Yarbrough has sent me a link to De Cavalieri’s book Urbis Romae aedificorum illustriumque on Archive.org here. This has marvellous images of the Roman monuments in his day (although not this print).
I stumbled across the following sketch here. It shows Old St Peters (left). On the right is the wall that leads even today to the Castell Sant’Angelo, so the viewpoint is more or less that of every modern photograph of St Peters.
From this, it is easy to see why the old basilica was not impressive enough for the renaissance popes. It reminds one rather of the church of the holy tomb in Jerusalem.