A PYRAMID INSIDE THE VATICAN

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Many people know one of the great, most curious, ancient roman ruins, the pyramid where Cestius was buried (first century BC). Yet this is not the only monument of this kind to have been built in ancient Rome.

Piramide Cestia

The Piramide Cestia in Rome

A very similar one once stood in the Vatican area, just outside the north-western boundary of the city. Of this second pyramid, whose size was similar to the surviving one, if not even larger, no trace at all has survived. Whether it was older than the aforesaid tomb of Gaius Cestius cannot be told, nor what was its purpose, although it may have likely been another tomb, as well. We know about the monument mostly from scanty descriptions found in guides of Rome dating back to the 12th-14th centuries, written in medieval Latin and in early Italian, for the benefit of pilgrims and travellers. Unfortunately, these accounts were not very detailed, but still give us an idea of what the monument looked like, and where it was located.

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The Horti Agrippinae (Gardens of Agrippina) were an open area on the western bank of the Tiber, once outside the city boundary, bordered by the river itself (to the east), the Vatican Hill (to the west) and the Janiculum Hill (to the south), which today corresponds to Borgo district and the Vatican City. There stood the circus built by emperors Gaius (better known as Caligula) and Nero. Not far away, at the bank of the majestic river stood the Mausoleum of Hadrian, renamed Castel Sant’Angelo after being transformed into a fortification. The pyramid was built between these two large buildings at the intersection of two main streets , just across the bridge of Nero.

Roma - S Pietro, Castel Sant'Angelo, Palazzo di giustizia

During the Middle Ages the grandeur of the white pyramid certainly captured the attention of the common people, who related them to Romulus, the mythical founder and first king of Rome, and to his brother Remus and known as Meta Romuli. Some sources speak explicitly of the monument in terms of “Tomb of Romulus”.

The Meta Romuli survived as a whole until 1499. In that year, pope Alexander VI had the main street of Borgo district straightened, and renamed via Alexandrina after himself. For this reason about one half of the pyramid, which obstructed the street, was sacrificed. The remaining part disappeared a few decades later, in 1564, when the nearby church of Santa Maria in Traspontina was taken down and rebuilt 100 metres off the original spot, where it still stands today.

Several depictions of the Meta Romuli exist in works of art, spanning from the 13th to the 17th centuries, most of which are reliable, as they date back to times when the monument was still standing. One of the earliest examples is a fresco by Cimabue (1280 A.D.), in the Upper Basilica in Assisi, unfortunately in a poor state of preservation.

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Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Cimabue

The Vatican Pyramid is also featured in the fresco The Vision of the Cross (1520-24) inside Vatican Rooms, by Giulio Romano and other assistants of Raphael, whose landscape in the background also includes Hadrian’s tomb.

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THE SOLAR SASH OF THE KINGS

The Balteus, the standard belt worn by the Roman legionary, used to tuck clothing into or to hold weapons, is one of the typical ornaments of kings, dignitaries and winners. Why has this accessory become a symbol of greatness?

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One more time, I’ll try to give an astronomical-astrological explanation of this symbol. The Sun, King of Gods in ancient Tradition, goes from East to West, during the day, and, like the planets, moves around the Zodiac. In fact, the Sun does not wander all over the sky but is confined to a narrow strip, dividing it in half. Stars along that strip (the ecliptic) are traditionally divided into the 12 constellations. The ecliptic plane is tilted 23.5° with respect to the plane of the celestial equator since the Earth’s spin axis is tilted 23.5° with respect to its orbit around the Sun. The name, related to “zoo,” comes because most of these constellations are named for animals–Leo the lion, Aries the ram, Scorpio the scorpion, Cancer the crab, Pisces the fish, Capricorn the goat and Taurus the bull.

Il percorso del Sole e dei segni zodiacali lungo l'eclittica solare inclinata

The path of the Sun and Zodiacal Signs along the tilted ecliptic

The Zodiacal Belt was often depicted on handicrafts and on clothes in order to symbolize the relationship between the man wearing it and the Sun, and to link him with it. Nowadays it is still possible to see an example at Vatican Museum, in Rome: the Helios Chiaramonti.

Helios Chiaramonti - Musei Vaticani - Roma

Helios Chiaramonti – Vatican Museum – Rome

Helios, the Sun God, is wearing a Zodiacal Balteus, with the Zodiacal Signs, from the right shoulder to the left hip and represents the Sun and its bound path along the ecliptic.

Kircher and the mystery of the fourth hidden side of Obeliscus Panphili

L'Obelisco della Minerva

Obelisk of Minerva

In 1615 Pietro della Valle, roman knight  and patrician, found in Cairo an old Coptic-Arabic dictionary. He broght it to Rom.

In Rome, Nicolaus Fabricius, senator in Aquisgrana, asked Athanasius Kircher, his good friend, for translating it into Latin. Kircher accepted and pope Urbano VII called him in Rome to do the work. Kircher’s translations have always considered incorrect by scholars. In 1821 the french scholar Jean-François Champollion would interpret correctly hieroglyphic writing.

La Stele di Rosetta (British Museum di Londra)

Rosetta’s Stone

Kircher method for interpreting hieroglyphic writing was completely different from what nowadays considered correct: Kircher believed that each symbol had infinite meanings, revealed directly from God to writer.

Nonetheless, in 1665,  a fact happened hard to explain:

Dominican monks discovered in their garden, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a little obelisk, in excellent condition. Kircher, director of the near Collegio Romano is the top-expert in hieroglyphic writing and they called him. He couldn’t go and examine the obelisk because he was going to have his yearly retreat at Mentorella’s shrine.

Padre Giuseppe Petrucci, a Jesuit and his personal collaborator went, agreeing to inform the director. When he came to the Dominican garden, the obelisk lay still down and only three of its four sides were visible. He drew the three sides of the obelisk and sent the drafts to his director.

When  Padre Petrucci, some weeks later, received Kircher’s answer, got astounded: Kircher had sent him a sketch of the forth side of obelisk and was absolutely corresponding to the just unveiled one.

I quattro lati dell'obelisco disegnati da Athanasius Kircher

The four sides of Obelisks Panphili by Athanasius Kircher

Kircher managed to imagine hieroglyphic symbols of forth side of obelisk after seeing the other three. Is it so granted that Kircher’s magical and strange method to interpret hieroglyphic writing couldn’t permit him to deeply understand the sacred Egyptian writing?

Hiding The Truth in Plain Sight (“The Vatican Heresy”)

[…] Let me quickly get to the point: it is often stated by historians of art and architecture that the Piazza St. Peter’s at the Vatican was designed to represent “the open arms of Mother Church.” This, in fact, is indeed claimed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself, the architect responsible for the design.

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We believe it to be a truth, but not the whole truth. Truth often comes in many layers. Revealing only one layer yet dissimulating another will make this partial truth seem to be something very different indeed. This is why today a person on the stand in a court of law will be sworn in to tell not only the truth, but rather the whole truth. We believe that there is another, far more important layer in which rests the whole truth behind Bernini’s grandiose design. This whole truth he, nonetheless, took to his grave, for it was such an unspeakable truth, such a taboo, such a forbidden fruit in his time that the mere mention of it might have brought down the whole edifice of Mother Church— that is to say, the Vatican itself. Yet the amazing daringness of Bernini’s ploy was to hide the truth in plain sight for all to see. Indeed, so well did he do this that everyone who looked—and there have been millions since—did not see it all.

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And when finally some did see it, so outrageous, so fantastic was its implication that they simply preferred to dismiss it as mere coincidence.

Bernini clearly intended it to be a sort of intellectual time bomb meant to be detonated not in his time but when the time was right, when its revelation would not bring down the Vatican, but do, instead, the opposite. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this revelation, and to make our case worthy of the most serious consideration, we had to undertake a chase across nearly two millennia of history, from Greco-Roman Alexandria to Renaissance Rome, sometimes moving at breakneck speed, making Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons seem like a Sunday stroll in the park. It was a thrilling undertaking and, most of all, an amazing eye-opener. No matter what one may think of it, one thing is certain: Christianity and Western culture will never seem the same again.

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Zicari & Bauval at Piazza St Peter’s

But enough said. The die is cast. You have the evidence in your hands. No need to tarry.

We are ready to present our case . . .

 

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The Jesuit and the Uroboros

Dettaglio dell'obelisco kircheriano per Cristina di Svezia

Detail of Kircher’s obelisk for Christina of Sweden

Detail of the Uroboros on the Obelisk designed by jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher for queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) in 1654. “Great Christina, Isis Reborn, erects, delivers and consecrates this obelisk on which the secret marks of Egypt are inscribed.”(‘Visconti’ College’s museum in Rome – Jesuit Collegium Romanum before).

In October 1633 the German Jesuit scholar and Egyptologist Athanasius Kircher, now aged thirty-two, arrived in Rome. Soon after his arrival in Rome, Kircher joined the famous Collegio Romano as a teacher of mathematics, astronomy, and Hebrew. Kircher would become a close friend of Bernini and would collaborate with him on some architectural projects, including a fountain in Piazza Navona involving ancient Egyptian obelisks.

Christina, in 1654, would shock the whole of Protestant Europe by converting to Catholicism, then abdicating and going to Rome to live under the protection of Pope Alexander VII. Christina was a living encyclopedia and, to occult-minded scholars such as Kircher, an incarnation of ‘Divina Sapienza’ (Divine Wisdom). Christina is one of the only two women to be buried in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

 

(From “The Vatican Heresy – Bernini and the Building of the Hermetic Temple of the Sun”, 2014)

 

The last Bernini is the Salvator Mundi (by Pina Baglioni)

 

“In 1633 Christina inherited the throne of Sweden. She was only seven years old. Later, in 1654, she would shock the whole of Protestant Europe by converting to Catholicism, then abdicating and going to Rome to live under the protection of Pope Alexander VII. Christina would become one of Bernini’s closest friends.  Of Bernini she once said, “Whoever does not esteem Bernini is not worthy of esteem himself!” Bernini was to remain very close to Queen Christina until his death in 1680; indeed, he would ask for her to come to his deathbed to pray for his soul.” (From “The Vatican Heresy”, Bauval, Hohenzollern, Zicari, 2013).

Cristo Salvatore di G.L. Bernini (Basilica S. Sebastiano, Roma)

Cristo Salvatore di G.L. Bernini (Basilica S. Sebastiano, Roma)

 

Two hundred years after its disappearance the last masterpiece of Bernini has been found in Rome. A marble bust representing the Savior, which the artist sculpted shortly before his death “out of his devotion”. He described it as his “Darling” (by Pina Baglioni)

The shoulders wrapped in a mantle with the effect of satin, the very beautiful face framed by flowing hair and the right hand raised in blessing, a marble bust representing the Lord was hidden in the dimness of a niche. Carved in the wall of a small entrance to the monastery of Saint Sebastian outside the Walls, along the Via Appia Antica in Rome.
It seems that it is not just any old statue. Thanks to some lucky coincidences, in August 2001 some art historians recognized it as the Salvator mundi, the last work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the «great director of the Baroque», the “global” artist capable of warning whomsoever with a peremptory: «Don’t speak to me about anything small». Who, however, «at the end of his extraordinary existence», writes Claudio Strinati, specialist in seventeenth century Rome, as well as Superintendent of the Artistic and Historical Heritage of Rome, «closes his parabola in a silent meditation». So much so as to create «out of his devotion» a most beautiful bust of Christ considered affectionately by the old artist as his “Darling”.
But at the end of the 19th century this extraordinary work disappeared. In over thirty years of studies, at least since 1972, the conviction that it had been rediscovered occurred more than once. And so the journey which ended in front of the threshold of the Rome monastery of Saint Sebastian was rather tortuous.
In February last the Salvator mundi was shown for the first time as a genuine Bernini in the exhibition “Velázquez, Bernini, Luca Giordano. The Courts of the Baroque” at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. Once the exhibition was over, the bust representing Christ made its return to its obscure and solitary residence on the Appia Antica, removed once again from public gaze.
When and why did Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpt the Salvator mundi? « …And now […] it was the 82nd year of his life […] in excellent health having worked in marble until his 81st year, which he finished with a Savior out of his devotion». So runs a Bernini biography, compiled in 1680 by the son of the artist Pier Filippo and now in the National Library of Paris. The reference, considered for the first time in studies of the Savior, was kindly anticipated to 30Days by the architect Francesco Petrucci, the custodian of Palazzo Chigi in Ariccia, a locality a few kilometers from Rome. The new document is included in Petrucci’s article entitled Il busto del Salvatore di Gian Lorenzo Bernini: un capolavoro ritrovato [The bust of the Savior by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: a rediscovered masterpiece], soon to be published in the Bolletino d’Arte.
Bernini died at the age of eighty-two on 28 November 1680, and sculpted the statue a year earlier. In another biography, written by Filippo Baldinucci in 1682, it is sustained that the statue was created for Queen Cristina of Sweden but she, even though appreciating it, refused it because she could not give an object of equal value to Bernini. On the death of the artist, Cristina inherited the Salvator mundi in any case. Baldinucci writes that the artist in that last period of his life, dedicated «more to the attainment of eternal repose, than to the increase of new worldly glory… set himself with great studiousness to portray… our Savior Jesus Christ, a work which since it was described by him to be his “Darling”, was thus also the last which his hand gave to the world… in this Divine Semblance he employed all the powers of his Christian piety». And again from another biography by his son Domenico, published in 1713, we know that «by now the Knight, close to death… wants to illuminate his life… by representing a work… with which to end his days. This was the half-length Image of Our Savior, but larger than natural, with the right hand raised somewhat, as in the act of blessing. In it he summed up and compressed all his Art».
The sculpture was therefore left in inheritance to Queen Cristina of Sweden, a great friend of Bernini. The queen, who died in 1689, left it in turn to Pope Innocent XI Odescalchi.
The last “sighting” of the Salvator mundi goes back, according to Francesco Petrucci, to 1773, and not to 1713, as sustained in various studies on the issue: from recent research carried out in the archives of the Odescalchi family, the work turns out to be mentioned once more in the Perizia Odescalchi on 16 January 1773.
Then the curtain falls definitively on the celebrated statue.
The only traces of the masterpiece, a Study for the Bust of the Savior, in the Fondo Corsini at the Rome National Institute of Drawing, is a copy of Bernini’s own study commissioned by an unknown from the Frenchman Pierre Cureau de la Chambre, a friend of Bernini’s known since his Paris sojourn in 1665.

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Study for the “Salvator mundi”, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, charcoal on paper, circa 1679, National Institute for Drawing, Rome

 

The Salvator mundi : one, two and three
In 1972 the Salvator mundi began to be talked about again as a result of the work of the American academic Irving Lavin, Professor of the Art History at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. It was indeed his insights and discoveries that reopened the “case” of the bust of the Salvator. In an essay of 1972 which appeared in the Art Bulletin review, Lavin gave news of the presence, at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, in the United States (in Virginia), of «a marble bust representing Christ blessing which corresponds so perfectly to the descriptions in the sources and the Corsini drawing that it could be identified both with Cureau’s copy and with the original». The great scholar admits a certain clumsiness in the work compared to Bernini standards, defining it as «awkward». But he justifies the defects both by the advanced age of the artist as well as the problems with his right arm that afflicted Bernini in the last period of his life. Finally in conclusion: «these elements, which would apparently exclude it, testify to the authenticity of the Norfolk sculpture, if we consider the subject and the particular circumstances in which the Salvator was created».
With some exceptions, Lavin’s hypothesis was accepted unanimously by the critics. Only a year later, an important indication was given to the American academic by a colleague. Another bust of the Salvator mundi exists and is kept in the Cathedral of Sées, in Orne in Normandy. Irving Lavin, after he had seen it, wrote in a second essay: «it can almost certainly be identified with the lost copy of the Salvator mentioned by a contemporary source … the copy commissioned from Pierre Cureau de la Chambre (1640-1693), friend of the artist». Bernini’s French friend was the abbot of Saint-Barthèlemy, the church of the royal palace in Paris. The source of which Lavin speaks is the Eloge de M. la Cavalier Bernin written in February 1681 by Cureau after he had heard of the artist’s death. In a later writing, the French abbot made known that the copy of the Salvator was kept in the house. Not a word about the author of the copy nor of its provenance.
At the beginning of the ’seventies therefore, it was thought reasonably certain that the original of the Salvator mundi had been identified in the United States, and its copy in France. But at the end of the ’nineties, the famous statue became news again.
In May 1999, to celebrate the fourth centenary of the birth of Bernini, the exhibition “Gian Lorenzo Bernini director of the Baroque” opened in Venice, under the consultancy of Maurizio Fagiolo dell’ Arco, a recognized expert in the Roman Baroque and in Bernini. Francesco Petrucci also collaborated. A great surprise was on show. In the last small room of the exhibition’s itinerary, devoted to Bernini’s last years, the Salvator mundi from the Cathedral of Sées, in Normandy, was on show. The bust, that is, which Lavin considered a copy. But in the exhibition catalogue Fagiolo dell’ Arco and Francesco Petrucci suggested another hypothesis: the Sées bust is beautiful enough to be the original and not the copy.
The fact is that the Italian scholars wrote and published their pieces having only seen photographs of the bust. But when they saw it from close up, they began to have doubts. And during a conference, Fagiolo dell’ Arco expressed his perplexity: «Study of the work from close up, and not from photographs, convinced me I was faced with a work which, even if very beautiful, was from the artist’s workshop».

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The Salvator mundi never moved from Rome
The break-through in the investigations came in August 2001 in Urbino, where an exhibition devoted to Pope Clement XI Albani was in progress. Among the photos published in the catalogue there was one that reproduced a bust representing a statue of Christ. The related note, compiled by two young academics, gave its location as «the Monastery of Saint Sebastian outside the Walls, formerly in the Albani [Chapel] sacristy» and attributed it to a certain Pietro Papaleo, a sculptor from Palermo active in San Sebastiano outside the Walls between 1705 and 1710. Francesco Petrucci was also among those visiting the exhibition and leafing through the catalogue he was stunned by the photograph. The bust was too beautiful to have been sculpted by a mediocre artist like Papaleo. In the article soon to be published and anticipated to 30Days he recounts: «I arranged a joint visit [to the Monastery of San Sebastiano, ed.] with Fagiolo who shared my enthusiasm for the work, and which we recognized immediately as a supreme masterpiece worthy of the fame of Bernini’s lost Salvatore».
Of course, it was necessary to find out how and when the statue had arrived at the Monastery of Saint Sebastian. The history of the monastery is in fact rather complicated: during the Napoleonic period, the period in which the bust could have left the Odescalchi palace, the Cistercians who occupied it were evicted. Returning after the revolutionary storm, they left definitively in 1862 when Pope Leo XII entrusted the monastery in a definitive way to the Observing Friars Minor of the Province of Rome. In the aftermath of the Second World War the bust was to be found in the Albani sacristy, at the time a museum. Between 1954 and 1960 the area was annexed to the church of Saint Sebastian and the statue was transferred to an entrance to the monastery and placed in a niche. And there it remained in a semi-clandestine state until today.
Returning meanwhile to the business of the identification of the bust, in March 2002 Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco published a book: Berniniana. Novità sul regista del Barocco, in which he wrote:«the problem of the last monumental sculpture of Bernini, the Salvator mundi, still remains open, at least in my opinion». And referring to the statue identified in Rome, he considers it absolutely worthy of being introduced to the Bernini canon of studies because the elements in support of its authenticity are many: the prodigious treatment of the marble, typical of Bernini. The hand of Christ appears identical to that of the statue of Constantine in the Scala Regia of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and to that of the bust of Clement X in the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome; further the dimensions of the bust correspond to the millimeter with the Odescalchi inventory. In his Berniniana, Fagiolo dell’Arco announced that he would shortly present a scholarly publication of the work. Meanwhile he sent photographs of the Saint Sebastian Salvator mundi to Jennifer Montagu, an eminent specialist in Baroque sculpture. She replies on 25 March that she has been fascinated by the sculpture. According to the great scholar it was a masterpiece which, in quality and beauty, had nothing to do with the statue of Sées, and much less with that of Norfolk in Virginia.
Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco died on 11 May 2002, unfortunately without finishing his book on the Salvator mundi.
It was Irving Lavin who quickly made up his mind and declared without reserve a year later that Bernini’s original was indeed the bust in the monastery on the Apppia Antica. Disavowing what he had affirmed in 1972, that the original Salvator mundi was in Norfolk, Virginia.
In 2003 in fact, in the essay La mort de Bernin: vision de redemption contained in the catalogue for the exhibition Baroque vision jésuite. Du Tintoret à Rubens, (Somogy, Paris 2003, pp. 105-109), Lavin wrote of the Salvator mundi: «The original of this celebrated work, known thanks to a certain number of preparatory studies and to various copies, was considered lost for many years… This sculpture… was recently found in the sacristy of the chapel of Pope Clement XI Albani (1700-1721) in Saint Sebastian outside the Walls».
At this point, the case of the “paternity” of the Salvator mundi would seem to be resolved. Indepenedently of this, the story of the Salvator mundi gives us an unpublished, moving image of Gian Lorenzo Bernini: that of a very powerful man who held Rome in his hand for over half a century, loved, admired, cultivated by at least four popes, about ten cardinals and indeed by the Roi Soleil. And who at the end of his life wanted to do just one thing: to sculpt the image of Jesus, his Darling. Out of «his devotion». (Pina Baglioni)