If Walls Could Talk: The Columns of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Amanda Reeves |

Roman Cultural Recycling Per Excellentiam


Interior of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere
   Interior of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere

In many of the churches throughout Rome, the classical and Christian world collide in jarring yet visually stunning ways. Minerva and Victoria appear intermingled with the holy men and women whose faith the churches immortalize. The shape of basilicas lend imagination to the ruins of ancient courtrooms from which their shapes derive. Mosaic inscriptions describing the life of saints dance in classical meters. While these divergent styles, cultures, and values co-exist in the single space of the early Roman church, they maintain distinct identities that produce a motley but fascinating result. This effect is perhaps no more evident than in a basilica’s columns, whose appearance in the churches speak to the collision of worldviews that occurred in late antiquity throughout the Roman empire.

While much care for both aesthetic and theological qualities is evident throughout the rest of the ornate decorations of basilicas, the columns appear to be almost an afterthought. In a single church, there may be a dozen different types of columns that show variation in material, style, height, and placement. A column made from ribbed marble and concealed inside of the wall can stand immediately next to a column a foot shorter, topped by an ornate Corinthian capital, made from an entirely different material. Across from these columns may be yet another five permutations that show the same degree of variatio. The result is almost a catalogue of the columns that existed in the former classical structures which were systematically deconstructed to provide the building materials for the early Christian churches. The columns in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere reveal some of the steps of the process that brought such an effect about.

The columns of Santa Maria in Trastevere were taken from the nearby Baths of Caracalla and were incorporated into the church during its construction in the 4th century AD. They show a similar degree of variation to other early Christian churches throughout Rome. Classic Corinthian capitals top some of the columns, while Ionic capitals top others. A few columns still show the faces of Egyptian deities, while others show the effects of Pope Pius IX’s systematic removal of pagan iconography from church structures. In spite of their apparent haphazardness, the columns serve their structural purpose. Compared to the cohesion of the rest of the decorations honoring the church’s namesake, however, the columns seem to be a triumph of function over form, placed out of structural necessity without concern for aesthetic taste. Yet their transformation from classical structure to ecclesiastical ornamentation lends fascinating insight into the process by which the classical world became the Christian world.

The practice in late antiquity of repurposing classical building materials to serve Christian purposes was widespread. The transformation of the empire from pagan to Christian worship left an extraordinary number of buildings with little to no functional purpose but a large amount of quality construction materials. As a result, it became common practice to incorporate classical elements into Christian spaces. As common as this practice was during the time in which Santa Maria in Trastevere was constructed, however, it was surprisingly unregulated. It wasn’t until the following century that official structures were put into place to ensure the protection of ancient sites from unnecessarily rapacious spoliation. In particular, the emperor Majorian composed a series of regulations concerning the reuse of classical building materials in his domestic policies entitled the Novellae Maioriani. The Latin reads:

Si quid sane aut propter publicam alterius operis constructionem aut propter desperatum reparationis usum necessaria consideratione deponendum est, hoc apud amplissimum venerandi senatus ordinem congruis instructionibus praecipimus adlegari et, cum ex deliberato fieri oportere censuerit, ad mansuetudinis nostrae conscientiam referatur, ut, quod reparari nullo modo viderimus posse, in alterius operis nihilominus publici transferri iubeamus ornatum…” — Majorian, Novels 4.1, “De Aedificiis Publicis”

“If something must be destroyed with necessary consideration either because of the public construction of another work or because of a desperate need of repair, we order this to be brought before the most distinguished order of the venerable senate with the suitable documentation and, when after deliberation it is decreed that this is to be done, let it be brought to the knowledge of our Clemency, so that, because we will have seen that is is no way able to be repaired, we might order that the ornamentation be nevertheless transferred into another public building…”

Legislation such as the one given here attempted to stem the practice of looting preexisting structures for building materials without care or concern for the significance or integrity of the classical site. The Novellae Maioriani clearly outline the proper authorities who were to arbitrate between the seemingly conflicting aims of preservation and useful destruction, starting with the senate and leading to the Clemency. It imposed a model through which the proper care could be given for both the old and the new building, in recognition of the value of maintaining history and yet progressing forward. Theoretically, such laws would ensure a desirable balance between maintenance and deconstruction of classical sites, and prevent the rampant looting that occurred prior to its enactment while lending structure to the economically prudent plan to repurpose functional but unused building material. Yet while these laws were able to provide arbitration between the physical elements of these many competing goals (i.e. who makes the final decision, what sites are fair game, etc.), they failed to clarify the parameters in which decisions of destruction or preservation could be made. This vagueness in the legislation meant that when material was reincorporated into a new site, such as with the columns in Santa Maria in Trastevere, there was little to no guidance given as to what exactly reincorporation meant. If repurposing building materials meant placing random columns from various sites into a single building without care for their original purpose or story, so be it. If it meant chiseling off sculptures to more closely match the ideological necessities of the building, chisel away. The laws ensured (at least to some degree) that there was a proper process by which a classical site could be incorporated into a Christian site, but offered no guidance about how to balance the different worldviews and histories that each represented. The result was a legal and less haphazard repurposing of classical sites in Christian settings, but also one that produced a jarring, visual representation of the at times incompatible idiosyncrasies of both.

While the history of interaction between the classical and Christian world is far more complex than these columns could ever say, they nonetheless provide a startling visual display of the awkward compromise at which the two worldviews eventually arrived. When we look at columns like the ones in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, we are seeing the coexistence of two ideologies that never fully understood what to make of the other. The classical form became Christian, but maintained a degree of distance between it and its new environment. The columns certainly serve the same purpose they always had before, but in their incongruence with the rest of their surroundings suggest that they are doing so in a setting for which they were never intended.


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Amanda Reeves

Amanda graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Greek and Latin. Her primary research interests include Greek philosophy, ancient language acquisition, and museum ethics, but really she is happy talking about any aspect of the ancient world over.


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