AncientChurches

San Clemente and Santa Sabina retain much of their original character,
giving the visitor an insight into how early Catholic churches looked before
the ornamentation of the Baroque period transformed them. San Clemente
was built over a 4th century church, which was itself built over a 1st century
house church where meetings were held in secret due to persecutions.
Santa Sabina is an early 5th century basilica that retains its original
look, and was a prototype of later Christian basilicas (its design
was derived from the secular basilicas of Imperial Rome).

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San Clemente

Entrance and Artifacts

Schola Cantorum and Apse
12th century Apse Mosaics

St. Clement in Glory Fresco

Left Aisle and Baroque Ceiling

San Clemente Arch Fresco

Santa Sabina

Side Entrance and Narthex
5th century Cypress Door
Nave and Vitruvian Arcade
Triumphal Arch and Apse

Madonna of the Rosary
Cappella d’Elci Dome
Tombs of the Cardinals
Santa Sabina Cloisters
Giardino degli Aranci

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Direct Link to the Gallery with images of Ancient Churches of Rome

There are a number of images in this section that are not yet on the Photoshelter site.
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San Clemente

Originally a 1st century clandestine house church, then a 4th century church which
incorporated a 2nd century Mithraeum and the original house, San Clemente has
a long history, all of which can be seen below the church following excavations
that were done in the 19th century. The current church was built 1080-1099
and has a magnificent 12th century apse mosaic along with some parts
of the 4th century church (and a few Baroque-era modifications).

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San Clemente Entrance Marker 8220
1350 x 990 (423 KB)

The entrance marker next to the Atrium door (which is shown further below).

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San Clemente Early Christian Artifacts 8221
1500 x 1092 (648 KB)

Artifacts displayed inside the entrance with early Christian symbols.

Originally a private Roman home where clandestine Christian meetings were held (the religion was outlawed at the time as a Jewish sect), the site was also used in the 2nd century as a Mithraic cult temple. The house belonged to the first Roman of the Senatorial class to convert, Titus Flavius Clemens.

Titus Flavius Clemens  was a great nephew of Vespasian, and a second cousin to Titus and Domitian. Clemens married Vespasian’s granddaughter, Flavia Domitilla. Roman Consul in 95 AD, Clemens and Domitilla had two sons (both Titus Flavius) who were adopted by Domitian as his heirs.

The current church was built in 1080-1099 over a 4th century church dedicated to St. Clement. There are two traditions regarding Clement, one Jewish and one Christian (both have Consul Clemens killed by Emperor Domitian).

The Christian tradition says that Clemens told Domitian he had converted to Christianity to put off the Senate vote on the edict Domitian had issued for the extermination of all Jews and Christians in the Empire. Domitian immediately went to the Senate, denounced him, and had him put to death. Stephanus, the servant who killed Domitian (the steward to Clemens’ wife Flavia Domitilla. niece of Emperor Domitian), was supposedly exacting revenge for Clemens’ death.

The Jewish tradition states that Clemens was introduced to the non-Roman religion by Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, whom he had befriended on a ship returning to Rome from the Middle East (the Rabbi was bringing the newly-appointed Emperor Domitian a gift of soil from the Temple Mount).

Domitian was not impressed with what he saw as a chest of dirt, and sentenced the Rabbi to death for the perceived insult. Clemens explained to Domitian that as Holy soil, it could be useful in defeating the Chatti (a central German tribe who were attacking Mogontiacum (Mainz). The Rabbi was allowed to stay with Clemens while Domitian tested the ‘power’ of the dirt (his armies were successful in the defense).

Clemens later converted to Judaism, and when Domitian issued an edict to have all Jews and Christians in the Empire killed, Clemens went to Domitian as Consul and told him he was a Jew. Domitian immediately went to the Senate and denounced Clemens, and the Senate sentenced him to death.

This may have directly led to Domitian’s assassination, as the chief conspirators in the killing of Domitian were Stephanus and Parthenius, Domitian’s chamberlain. Both were enlisted by Marcus Cocceius Nerva (the Senator that would become the next Emperor, and who had planned the assassination).

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San Clemente Entrance 8218
795 x 1290 (406 KB)

The entrance to the atrium of San Clemente
(the entrance marker can be seen just left of the columns).

A 2nd c. insula (apartments) under the church was used as a Mithraeum. In the 4th century, the former Clemens home was converted to a church, including the insula and other buildings.

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San Clemente Schola Cantorum Apse 8228 M
1000 x 1600 (581 KB)

The Schola Cantorum, rebuilt in the 12th c. using marble from the earlier church, and the 12th century mosaics in the apse, surmounted by the gilded, coffered ceiling built in 1719.

The golden apse mosaics are detailed below. Created in the 12th century (using an earlier style), they are considered to be some of the best mosaics in Rome.

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San Clemente Schola Cantorum detail 8228 M
1500 x 1250 (495 KB)

The Schola Cantorum dates from the 6th century, donated by Pope John II (533-535)
to the 4th c. basilica. It was brought up from below and rebuilt using the original marble
in the 12th century when the church below was filled in with rubble and rebuilt in the current
location. The earlier (4th c.) church had been badly damaged in the Norman sack of Rome
in 1084. It had earlier been deemed unsafe due to age and its location five meters below
the contemporary street level, so the 4th c. church was filled in to the level of the columns
and a slightly smaller church was built above using materials from the earlier church.

  A Pashal Candlestick stands at the left in front of the apse, and on the right is a
medieval tabernacle, in French Gothic style by Arnolfo di Cambio (1299)
with a portrait of Pope Boniface VIII. The Cosmatesque pavement was
added in the 12th c. The 6th century baldachino over the altar was
brought from the 4th c. church along with the Schola Cantorum.
The Baldachino is supported by four columns of pavonazzetto,
(Phrygian marble) which has so many colors that it was named
“Peacock Marble” by the Romans. It is a brecchia from Phrygia
(Turkey) and was saved for the finest works (e.g. the Pantheon).

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San Clemente Ceiling Apse 8232 M
967 x 1600 (737 KB)

Detail of the mosaics of the apsidal vault and arch, and the deeply coffered ceiling (1719). Detail of the ceiling is shown further below, and a description of the apse mosaics is in the caption under the images at right and below.

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San Clemente Apse 8237 M
1000 x 1600 (705 KB)

The lowest section of the apse is panels with papal keys and other decorative elements, such as the Agnus Dei. Above that is a frescoed floral motif, then a 14th c. fresco of Christ, the Virgin and the Apostles. The description is continued below the next image, which provides detail of the upper sections.

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San Clemente Apse detail 8237 M
1500 x 1325 (1085 KB)

  Note the file size  —  highly detailed image 

Above the frescoed figures is a cornice, then the mosaic begins with Christ and the Apostles
represented as the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and twelve sheep, followed by an inscription which
describes the mosaic. Above the inscription are people and animals by a river which represents
the Garden of Eden. Above this is a central Acanthus plant with spreading tendrils which swirl
through the mosaic. Above the Acanthus is a Crucifixion scene, with the Virgin and St. John
Evangelist flanking the cross. Above the cross, the Hand of God emerges from a wreath.
The Doves on the cross represent the 12 Apostles (one is obscured by the Acanthus).

At the top of the apsidal arch is Christ Pantokrator, flanked by symbols of the four Evangelists (an Angel and an Eagle carrying large wreaths (left and right center), and in the upper corners a winged leopard (left) and a winged bull (right), both are holding books). Below Christ, under the keystone of the arch, is the Chi-Rho symbol with Alpha and Omega, an early Christian symbol often seen on the older mosaics.

On the left side of the arch, St Lawrence is receiving instruction from St Paul. St Lawrence is sitting with his feet on an iron grille, the instrument of his martyrdom. Paul is identified by the inscription AGIOS PAULUS. Agios = Saint in Greek. On the right are Saints Peter and Clement (the inscription AGIOS PETRUS is Saint Peter, and the inscription below is partially obscured by elements of the ship, but Clemens is clearly visible). Below these are the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, both holding scrolls.

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San Clemente Ceiling Apse 8248 M
954 x 1600 (795 KB)

Pope Clement XI had Carlo Stefano Fontana (the nephew of papal architect Carlo Fontana) renovate parts of the church in the early 1700s (primarily the ceiling and facade). The Papal Coat of Arms and heraldic devices of Clement XI are in deep coffers in the ceiling, proclaiming Clement’s role in the work.

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San Clemente in Glory Chiari 8229 M
1000 x 1600 (534 KB)

During the renovations by Clement XI, this Baroque painting of "St. Clement in Glory" (1715) was painted by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, the primary pupil of Carlo Maratta and the head of the Accademia di San Luca (the Roman Painter's Guild). Below, I have provided two M-sized images showing finer detail of the upper and lower halves of Chiari’s work.

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San Clemente in Glory Chiari (detail 1) 8230 M
1000 x 1600 (458 KB)

Detail of the upper section of “St. Clement in Glory”
by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari (1715).

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San Clemente in Glory Chiari (detail 2) 8230 M
1000 x 1650 (447 KB)

Detail of the lower section of “St. Clement in Glory”.

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San Clemente Left Aisle 8235
771 x 1290 (366 KB)

In early Christian churches, the men and women were often separated, either in their own aisles or with the women in a "Matroneum" (derived from "matron"). This is the left aisle of San Clemente (the men's aisle), with its gilded coffered ceiling from the 18th century reconstruction by Clement XI.

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San Clemente Ceiling detail 8238
780 x 1290 (541 KB)

Ceiling detail from the nave. This is the loggia over the entrance (with the fish-hook symbol between the columns and the papal tiara in the lunette). The crowned frescoes depict St. Clement and St. Ignatius, and the ornate Papal Coat of Arms and heraldic devices are those of Pope Clement XI.

SanClemente_Ceiling_detail_8238M


San Clemente Ceiling detail 8238 M
1500 x 1290 (890 KB)

  Note the file size  —  highly detailed image 

Detail of the Papal Coat of Arms and heraldic devices of Pope Clement XI in the coffered ceiling.

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San Clemente Fresco 8242 M
1000 x 1650 (521 KB)

The arch fresco depicts St. Clement offering the Enthroned Christ a model of the church,
with two cherubs, the Dove, six angels, and the Heavenly Father occupying the arch above.

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Images in this section are in a number of different Galleries on the Photoshelter website.
The Banner below leads to the Rome Collections page where a Gallery can be selected.

Direct Link to the Gallery with images of Ancient Churches of Rome

There are a number of images in this section that are not yet on the Photoshelter site.
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Santa Sabina all’Aventino
(Santa Sabina at the Aventine)

Santa Sabina at the Aventine (all’Aventino) was built at the site of the original
Titulus Sabinae, a church in the home of Sabina, who was martyred (c. 114 AD).
The tituli were the first parish churches of Rome. Santa Sabina, unlike most of the
Roman churches, retains the character it had when it was first built in the 5th century.
It has restored 9th c. windows (very large, made of selenite, a gypsum crystal) that
provide quite a bit of light (most early churches walled up their windows as they
thought that less light would be more conducive to introspection and prayer).
I arrived near sunset, so it was still pretty dark, but brighter than expected.

It has its original 5th c. door, the early style of simple horizontal wooden ceiling,
and Rome’s only surviving mosaic tomb (dated 1300) in the center of the nave.
Everything about Santa Sabina evokes a feeling of being in an earlier time.

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Santa Sabina Side Entrance Fresco 6834
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The fresco over the side entrance (detail shown below).

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Santa Sabina Narthex Artifacts 6888
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Ancient Christian artifacts in the Narthex (portico).

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Santa Sabina Side Entrance Fresco detail 6834c
1275 x 1083 (360 KB)

A detail crop of the fresco over the side entrance to Santa Sabina.

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Santa Sabina Narthex Sarcophagus 6887
1500 x 1092 (470 KB)

The ancient sarcophagus and various tomb-marker fragments in the narthex of Santa Sabina.

Santa Sabina, built between 422-432 AD atop the Aventine Hill, is a classical rectangular basilica.
The narthex (one of the four arms of the ancient portico) leads to the main door, shown below.

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Santa Sabina Madonna Child 6838
780 x 1290 (248 KB)

Statue at the end of the Narthex, beside the entrance.

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Santa Sabina Door 6842
863 x 1290 (390 KB)

This is the original cypress door (430-432 AD). It exhibits some of the earliest existing Christian iconography, including the oldest representation of the Crucifixion. The detail crop below is captioned with information on the upper 16 panels.

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Santa Sabina Door detail 6842 M
1350 x 1430 (535 KB)

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This is the largest surviving ancient Roman wooden sculpture in existence.
It was restored in 1836, but only 18 of the original 28 panels survived. The
panels are not in the original order (some grouped panels were separated).

The upper 16 panels are described left to right, grouped by rows, top to bottom:

            Crucifixion Orants (the earliest existing depiction of the Crucifixion)
            The Empty Tomb (Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas see an Angel at the tomb)
            Adoration of the Magi (Mary sits on a chair atop six steps as the Magi offer gifts)
            Peter, Jesus and Paul (Christ holds a pearl, standing between Peter and Paul)

            Miracles of Jesus (Resurrection of Lazarus; Loaves and Fishes; Water to Wine, top to bottom)
            Life of Moses (Moses in the Desert; Feasts of Quail and Manna; Miracle of the Rock, top to bottom)
            Ascension of Christ (Christ is pulled upward by a group of angels)
            Uncertain meaning (possibly the Second Coming; three figures reach towards the Ascended Christ)

            Resurrected Christ appears to Disciples (Christ at left with a Chi-Rho symbol behind his head)
            Christ appears to the Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas on the road
            Christ Predicts Peter's Denial (a rooster is atop a column on the right)
            Abduction of Habakkuk (an angel flying overhead grabs Habakkuk by the hair)

            Moses Receiving Commandments; Removing Sandals; Angel in Burning Bush; Moses Tending Sheep
            Undetermined (roofs with a cross; orant and angel in chlamys; six figures in acclamation postures)
            Exodus scene; Pharaoh's Army Drowning; Aaron Controlling the Serpents
            Ascension of Elijah (Angel overhead lifts Elijah with a long staff, chariot visible on the right)

While the clerestory windows let in quite a bit of light, it was near sunset and
this area was dark. I had to underexpose by two stops to get 1/40 sec. at f/2,
then push the exposure back in processing. Some detail was lost in the effort.

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Santa Sabina Priest 6844
788 x 1290 (332 KB)

A Dominican priest walks down the nave past Rome’s only surviving floor tomb (far right). The Proconnesian marble columns were taken from the Temple of Juno on the Aventine. They support an arcade decorated with chalices and opus sectile designs meant to resemble ashlar masonry. The selenite windows in the clerestory are clearly visible.

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Santa Sabina Arcade detail 6844 M
1000 x 1600 (373 KB)

Detail of the Vitruvian Arcade. The proportions of the arcade are exactly as described by Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, c. 75-15 BC), the Roman architect/engineer who wrote “De Architectura”, the seminal early work on architecture and proportions. His text inspired a number of early Renaissance architects such as Brunelleschi, Alberti, Michelangelo and da Vinci, whose drawing of the “Vitruvian Man” is well-known.

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Santa Sabina Apse Triumphal Arch 6849
1500 x 1056 (407 KB)

The Triumphal Arch mosaic was replaced in 1559 by a fresco painted by Taddeo Zuccari
which retained the design motif of the original mosaic. The columns are ancient Proconnesian
marble with matched Corinthian columns and bases from the Temple of Juno Regina (Aventine).
The spandrels between the columns are inlaid with green and purple marble chalices. Note the
mosaic windows of selenite (gypsum crystal) and the marble chancel furniture (built c. 825).
This Schola Cantorum was rebuilt in 1936 using the original marble during a restoration
of the original configuration, reversing Renaissance and Baroque modifications.

The chained-off area near the chancel is Rome’s only surviving mosaic tomb (dated 1300).

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Santa Sabina Apse Triumphal Arch 6855 M
1033 x 1600 (439 KB)

Detail of the Apse, with its three Selenite windows
and Taddeo Zuccari’s fresco in the vault (1559-60).

Taddeo Zuccari’s fresco of “Jesus, the Apostles and Saints buried in the Basilica” was painted using the motif of the original mosaic decoration in the apse. Note the chalices surrounding the Selenite windows in the apse, continuing the pattern displayed in the spandrels over the columns. The front of the marble altar is decorated with a red porphyry slab. The figures shown in the medallions on the Triumphal Arch are Christ in the center, flanked by Apostles, Prophets and Popes frescoed in sepia in 1919-1920 by Eugenio Cisterna based on descriptions of the originals from the 17th century, when the original mosaic medallions were replaced with Baroque painted copies. The towers on either side of the Triumphal Arch represent Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Like most early churches, there used to be mosaics on the Triumphal Arch and in the apse, as well as above the arcade, but these were removed (probably during the Baroque-era modifications, when Zuccari painted the current apse fresco using the same motif as the original mosaic). These mosaics were said to have been spectacular, but during the Baroque era many churches were modified to the tastes of the period, destroying numerous Byzantine and early-Renaissance artists work. Some of these works were recovered in churches where they were simply plastered over, but the loss of these mosaics is permanent.

During the early 20th century restoration, a large number of the original window grates were recovered and were reproduced to allow a consistent reconstruction of all of the windows around the nave. Santa Sabina is one of the few churches that did not have the windows walled up when it was decided that darker churches were more suited to prayer and introspection. The churches of Rome are notoriously dark, and  the character of the light in Santa Sabina was a welcome relief, especially as I had arrived near sunset, when most other churches in Rome would have been as dark as a cave (many Roman churches are not much brighter even in full daylight).

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Santa Sabina Cappella d'Elci 6862
795 x 1375 (359 KB)

Cardinal Rainero d’Elci had this chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena built in 1671 by Giovanni Battista Contini, a pupil of Bernini, after he became the Bishop of Sabina. It features the 1643 “Madonna of the Rosary”, the masterwork of Giovanni Battista Salvi (Sassoferrato).

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Madonna of the Rosary Cappella d'Elci 6862 M
1000 x 1600 (476 KB)

A large detail crop of the Cappella d’Elci altar.

Mary holds the infant Jesus on her left knee and hands a rosary to St. Dominic with her right hand (Santa Sabina is a Dominican basilica). Jesus hands a rosary to St. Catherine, who is kneeling to Mary’s left. Angels are hovering overhead in an arc, and hazy figures are looking down from a cloud.

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Santa Sabina Cappella d'Elci Dome 6860
1500 x 1092 (496 KB)

The dome of Cappella d’Elci features the “Triumph of St. Catherine of Siena”
by Giovanni Odazzi. A closer detail crop of the fresco is shown below.

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Triumph of St. Catherine Cappella d'Elci Dome 6860M
1500 x 1290 (508 KB)

Detail of Odazzi’s “Triumph of St. Catherine of Siena” in the Cappella d’Elci dome.

SantaSabina_Cappella_d'Elci_SpandrelFrescoes_6868


Santa Sabina Cappella d'Elci Spandrel Frescoes 6868
1500 x 1150 (511 KB)

The spandrel frescoes by Giovanni Odazzi depict “St. Catherine in Glory” (left)
and “The Coronation of St. Catherine” (right). Large detail crops are below.

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St. Catherine in Glory Spandrel Fresco 6868 M
1200 x 1600 (428 KB)

Detail of Giovanni Odazzi’s spandrel fresco:
“St. Catherine in Glory” (left spandrel).

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St. Catherine Coronation Spandrel Fresco 6868 M
1200 x 1600 (441 KB)

Detail of Giovanni Odazzi’s spandrel fresco:
“The Coronation of St. Catherine”.

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Santa Sabina Tomb Alessandro Bichi 6851
774 x 1290 (331 KB)

Cardinal titular of Santa Sabina from 1637, Alessandro Bichi came from a prominent banking family in Siena. Bichi was the Papal Nuncio to France. He participated in the conclave of 1644 that elected Innocent X. Bichi was at odds with Innocent X’s powerful sister-in-law (Olimpia Maidalchini) and stated that they had elected a female Pope. He also participated in the 1655 conclave (Alexander VII). He died in 1657.

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Santa Sabina Tomb Filippo Spinola 6852
776 x 1290 (288 KB)

Cardinal titular of Santa Sabina from 1584, Filippo Spinola was the 3rd son of the Count of Tassarolo (Genoa). Spinola was the co-Crown Cardinal Protector of the Holy Roman Empire (served as the HRE’s representative before the Pope and in conclaves). He participated in the papal conclaves of 1585 (Sixtus V), 1590 (Urban VII, Gregory XIV), 1591 (Innocent IX) and 1592 (Clement VIII). He died in 1593.

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Santa Sabina Cloister 6869
800 x 1290 (386 KB)

A cloister is a rectangular courtyard with perimeter arcade walkways that connect monastic rooms. The cloister at Santa Sabina is one of Rome’s largest and was built in the 1200s.

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Santa Sabina Cloister Window 6873
795 x 1290 (368 KB)

An ornamental stone mullion with trefoil cusped arches over a window in the cloister. The window was obviously replaced. The mullion may have supported the original window structure.

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Nuns Santa Sabina Cloister 6879
795 x 1290 (343 KB)

Nuns walking in the cloisters. They aren’t moving very fast, but there is a bit of motion-blurring. The cloisters were quite dark, and even by underexposing 1.3 stops, I had a shutter speed of 1/10 at f/4 (a very difficult hand-held shot).

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Nuns Santa Sabina Cloister 6884
795 x 1290 (288 KB)

Another pair of nuns in the cloisters. These two are wearing white scapulars. The inclusion of the nuns in these two images made the shots far more interesting (if the nuns had not been there, the scenes would not have justified taking a shot at all).

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Santa Sabina Cloister Cypress and Well 6874
795 x 1290 (556 KB)

Ancient cypress trees and well within the cloister courtyard.

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Giardino degli Aranci Gate 6902
795 x 1290 (572 KB)

A gate of the 13th c. Savelli fortress, now an orange garden.

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Giardino degli Aranci Cypress 6900
1500 x 1092 (526 KB)

A beautiful old cypress tree in Giardino degli Aranci next to Santa Sabina.

The Giardino degli Aranci (Orange Garden) in Parco Savello next to Santa Sabina occupies land
 which was part of the medieval fortress of the Savelli family (Popes Benedict II and Gregory II (8th c.),
Eugene II (9th c.), Honorius III and Honorius IV (13th c.), and several other prominent members). They
built their fortress on the older (10th c.) castle of the Crecenzi family. The Savelli were among the most
powerful of the Roman families in the 11th to 13th centuries, and Honorius IV held his papal court in the
family fortress. The fortress was finally dismantled under Sixtus V to reduce the potential of resistance
against the papal authority (and to reduce fighting amongst the Roman Patrician families). The land
was given to the monastery of Santa Sabina. In 1932, the Dominicans donated some of the land
as a public park, which was enhanced by designer Raffaele de Vico. It offers panoramic views
of Rome, some of which can be seen on the Assorted Scenery page (Sunset Views section).

Through_theKeyhole_6906


Through the Keyhole 6906
800 x 1290 (304 KB)

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta owns a building just down the hill from Giardino degli Aranci
at Parco Savello. As a sovereignty, this view through the keyhole of their building allows you to see
across three sovereign nations: The Sovereignty of the Knights of Malta; Italy; and the Vatican (the
view past the rows of trees is St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which is also a sovereign country).

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There are a number of images in this section that are not yet on the Photoshelter site.
If an image you want is not yet uploaded, contact Ron Reznick (info at bottom of page).

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There are 18 Galleries in the Photoshelter Rome Collection

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