Archive for July, 2022

“Pregnant mummy” not pregnant after all

Sunday, July 31st, 2022

The pregnancy of the 1st century B.C. mummy in the collection of the University of Warsaw turns out to have been a false alarm. The (premature) pregnancy announcement was made in an April 2021 article by some members of the Warsaw Mummy Project who based their conclusions on their analysis of new high resolution X-rays and CT scans. The results were questioned at the time by other scientists, including the WMP co-founder Kamila Braulińska and the radiologist who CT scanned the mummy, Dr. Łukasz Kownacki.

Now another team from the Warsaw Mummy Project has published a paper that decidedly contradicts the pregnancy interpretation. They contend that what looked like a head, arms and legs of third term fetus are actually bundles of mummification material, and they have the receipts in full-color and 3D.

“Our article contains a number of spectacular images and links to films depicting the interior of an ancient mummy, including those made with the use of holographic techniques, which are the latest trend in medicine” – told PAP the main author of the publication – bioarchaeologist, co-founder of the WMP – Kamila Braulińska from the University of Warsaw .

The researchers found that there is no fetus in the pelvis at all – as suggested by the authors of the 2021 report – but four bundles.

“They were placed there by ancient embalmerists. In the bundles there is probably at least one mummified organ of the deceased. It is a well-known practice in ancient Egypt” – emphasized Braulińska. The remaining ones may contain body fragments or other remnants of the mummification process.

The authors of the new publication think the first team misinterpreted three of the bundles as fetus parts because they did not consult an expert in radiology to interpret the images. Perhaps in part because of this lack of specific expertise, they were not able to extract the richest, most detailed models from the imaging data, even though both teams used the same data and the same software.

“In this way, we showed how much the analysis of three-dimensional effects and their interpretation depend on the skills of the software user, who can achieve excellent visualization effects also without being a radiologist” – Dr. Kownacki told PAP.

For the needs of the latest study, the possibilities of radiological analyzes available at the Imaging Diagnostics Department of the European Health Center Otwock were used, including unique medical holographic software for the so-called Mixed Reality, as well as radiological server solutions.

Muses in the Getty lab

Saturday, July 30th, 2022

The J. Paul Getty Museum has created a fascinating online exhibit about the challenging conservation of a group of reliefs from a lost Roman sarcophagus. Muses in the Lab: Conserving a Roman Sarcophagus on Google Arts & Culture is an easily scrollable, annotated and illustrated play-by-play of the conservation of a fragmentary high relief from a large sarcophagus that features a woman seated next to three standing muses.

The seated woman was likely the deceased. Facing her is Terpsichore, muse of dancing and choral song holding a lyre. Beside her in the center of the composition is Thalia, muse of comedy, holding the top of a comic mask. She wears a netted catsuit similar to ones seen in sculpture of comedic actors in costume. On the right is Euterpe, muse of music and lyric poetry, holding her double-pipes in both hands.

A second group of fragments from this sarcophagus are from the right front corner. Melpomene, muse of tragedy, stands in front of a draped curtain holding a tragic mask. The right end of the sarcophagus is attached to this fragment. It features a low relief of a beaded man holding a book roll. There’s also a bundle of book rolls at his feet, suggesting he may be a representation of a writer, likely a tragic poet given his location next to Melpomene.

The main group is 54 inches high by 88 inches wide and would have been the central scene in the front of a massive sarcophagus.  Its style dates it to the mid-3rd century A.D. The Getty acquired it from a New York art dealer in 1972. They knew nothing of his history before that and there is still no information about its origin. Both the front scene and the right corner were on display together from 1974 until the 1980s when they were taken down and put in storage.

Conservators revisited the reliefs in 2018 as part of the reinstallation of the museum’s antiquities collection. They found that the quality of the carving was exceptional, almost entirely in the round and every single surface, even the ones in the background behind the figures, is polished and shaped. The marble sculpting is so extraordinary that conservators believe it was done in Rome itself. If that is true, it would be the largest sarcophagus of its type known to have been produced in Rome.

Unfortunately, the fragments had not fared well in storage. They were in poor condition, with cracked, discolored joins from all kinds of different materials applied in past restorations. The pinning methods used to hold the reliefs together had damaged the marble and were no longer stable.

In order the correct past mistakes and reassemble the reliefs with modern conservatorial principles of non-invasive reversibility, the Getty team had to separate all of the fragments, remove the bad joins and pins, then put it all back together again. There were almost 50 fragments so it was a challenging job. During the painstaking cleaning of the fragments, conservators were delighted to discover the remains of the ancient polychromy, mostly purple, that added detail and vivacity to the sculpture.

When it came time to piece the fragments back together again, the conservation team took an innovative approach. They inserted steel sleeves into the already existing holes and fitted pins into the sleeves. Magnets were placed inside the ends of the pins and the sleeves. That way the fragments connect via the magnetic pins, meaning there is no need for adhesives and the fragments can be dismantled in minutes. Lastly, they created a custom mount that works with the new pinning system to keep the group secured.

The right corner group with Melpomene and the bearded man was not added to the display for practical reasons. The corner piece would make it necessary to block out a display place the equivalent of the large sarcophagus, most of that empty space. The group of four are discretely mounted to the wall.

The online exhibit lays out the complications of the restoration process, how conservators have to devise new solutions to fix their predecessors’ mistakes, the role modern design and technology can play to improve the display and long-term care of formerly abused antiquities.

4,000-year old shell tools found in Taiwan

Friday, July 29th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a 4,000-year-old burial ground and shell tool processing site in Kenting National Park on the southernmost tip of Taiwan. This is the first prehistoric shell tool processing site discovered in Taiwan, and the oldest and largest found in any Pacific island.

The site was discovered in 2017 during a renewal project to convert the crumbling shopfronts in Eluanbi Park into new green buildings. Contractors stumbled onto human remains, some in slate coffins, and shell tools just under the surface of the soil. Construction work was stopped while archaeologists from National Tsing Hua University’s (NTHU) Institute of Anthropology surveyed the site.

Between 2019 and 2021, the team unearthed a large number of relics and artifacts, including 51 skeletons, 10 of which were buried in slate coffins with coral funeral objects, [Chiu Hung-lin, NTHU Institute of Anthropology associate professor] said.

Among the findings were several finished and unfinished shell tools, as well as relics that indicated it was a site for making those tools, which provided proof that the early inhabitants of Eluanbi used “unique” shell-crafting techniques, Chiu said.

The site also offered insights into the funeral customs of the people in those times, he said, adding that anthropologists could also make new discoveries by studying the human remains found at the site.

The processed shell finds range widely in design and function. There are practical tools like a shell adze used for cutting, as well as ornaments like shell and shark tooth pendants. The presence of intermediate stages — semi-finished objects, blanks — and processing waste is evidence of an extensive manufacturing operation.

Bed burials in England may be tied to Christian conversion

Thursday, July 28th, 2022

A new study of bed burials in early medieval Europe has found evidence that the practice may have been imported by Christian women from the Continent who traveled to England to convert the 7th century Anglo-Saxon elite.

Bed burials, a funerary ritual in which the dead were laid in a bed rather than a coffin, are rare in terms of numbers, but they have been found across a wide geographic range, as far west as England to Slovakia in the east and Scandinavia in the north. Most of them date to the 6th and 7th centuries, with the earliest dating to the early 5th century and the last to the early 10th century. Wooden bed frames were a luxury only the wealthy could afford in life. Burying a bed, whether it be one the deceased had slept in or one custom-made for funerary purposes, was downright extravagant, so bed burials had to have been solely the province of the elite.

Previous studies of bed burials have focused on a selection of well-preserved examples from Continental Europe, primarily southern Germany where anaerobic conditions preserved the organic remains of beds in excellent condition. The recent study by University of Cambridge researcher Emma Brownlee compares 72 bed burials found across Europe, including 17 of them in England.

There are marked differences between continental examples and English ones. Beds found in continental Europe are of two types — crate beds (basically boxes) and baluster beds (turned corner posts with side balusters) — both identified from extensive surviving wood elements. The beds from the burials in England, on the other hand, are identified by their surviving metal fittings because very little of the wood is preserved. English beds had headboards. The bases of the English beds were not constructed of wood planks but of a net or lattice suspended from metal eyelets.

Bed burials on the Continent are diverse. Men, women, adults and children were buried in beds in Germany and Scandinavia, but the bed burials in England are all of women, either adults or, as in the case of the Trumpington bed burial, a teenager but old enough to have passed a cultural line into adulthood and therefore be laid to rest in an adult bed.

That the burials in England are so much more restricted in date range and exclusive to women suggests the practice was imported by women on the move. In the 7th century, conversion was a major motivator for women’s mobility, as high-status Christian women were wed to elite/royal men who either hadn’t converted yet or were freshly converted. Christian women also moved from their hometowns to enter religious communities in other countries.

There is a possibility that the unusually restricted nature of the rite in England is related to women’s mobility, that bed burial was not a local rite, but one introduced by women who migrated to England, possibly as part of a system of exogamy. There is plenty of evidence for high rates of feminine mobility; isotope studies have shown higher feminine mobility than masculine in some cemeteries, and written and epigraphic sources also support narratives of women moving long distances for marriage, across Frankia, Alamannia, Scandinavia, England, and as far east as the Carpathian Basin.84 Women’s movement may also be related to networks of religious houses that existed in the 7th century, with elite women moving between Frankia and England to join religious establishments. […]

At the same time as burials of women in beds appeared in England, the continental Church was rapidly growing in influence. Bed burials appeared in England alongside the appearance of small numbers of other richly furnished feminine burials, such as at Rollright Stones, and Westfield Farm, Ely. This appearance of rich feminine burials has been linked to a wider change in the role of women associated with Christianity. In conversion narratives across the early medieval world, queens and elite women played an important role by marrying into non-Christian families. It is possible that the women’s bed burials in England represent migrants in a Christian context, who were buried according to a rite which was common in their place of origin.

Matthew Paris’ Book of St Albans digitized

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

The Library of Trinity College Dublin has digitized one of the greatest medieval masterpieces in its collection: The Book of St. Albans, handwritten and illustrated by chronicler, scribe and illuminator Matthew Paris. The artwork and verse text was previously only available in a black-and-white facsimile edition made in 1924 that cannot begin to convey the bright colors of the original.

Born in England, Matthew Paris was still a teenager when he entered monastic life as a monk at the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans in Hertofordshire. He lived at St. Albans from 1217 until his death in 1259, where he wrote all of his known works including his seminal history of the world, the Chronica Majora (ca. 1240-53) and the Book of St. Albans (ca. 1230-1259).

Alban lived in the 4th century and is venerated as the first English Christian martyr. The monastery dedicated to him was founded by King Offa of Mercia at the end of the 8th century. It was an important site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, attracting the nobility and aristocracy of England. They even offered accommodations for royal women, the only monastic house in England to do so.

The Book of St. Albans, which included also a Life of St Amphibalus (according to some sources the man who converted Alban) and other writings about the history of the abbey, is composed of 77 leaves with 54 illustrations. Matthew’s drawings are narrative scenes that take up a third of the top of the page. Some are in comic book-style double panels. He enhanced his line drawings by coloring them with washes of green, red, blue and silver and gold accents. The colors are brilliantly preserved in the manuscript.

Each scene is peopled with human figures in dynamic motion, and they are not just saints, kings and extras. Matthew Paris included people from all walks of life — sailors, soldiers, bell ringers and builders. His illustration of Offa directing the construction of the first St. Albans church is a unique graphic representation of medieval construction techniques, tools and materials. It also features some solid gore like Alban’s severed head and his executioner’s eyeballs falling out into his hand.

The text is in both Anglo-Norman French, the language of the secular ruling class, and in Latin, the language of the clergy. It is a small enough volume to be portable, and there is evidence the monastery did lend it to important patrons. A note on Folio 2r records that the volume was loaned on one occasion to Sanchia of Provence (d.1261), the Countess of Cornwall, who was the sister of Queen Eleanor of Provence (1223-1291).

The note says she kept the book until Whitsuntide and must have returned it because the manuscript remained at St. Albans Abbey until the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Unlike the relics of saints Alban and Amphibalus, the manuscript survived the orgy of destruction. It was owned by astronomer John Dee (1527-1609) at some point, and then by Bishop James Ussher who bought it in 1626. (Ussher’s claim to fame is having counted up the generations in the Bible to determine conclusively that the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C.) Ussher bequeathed his library to Trinity College and the Matthew Paris manuscript officially entered the library’s rare book collection in 1661.

Browse the digitized Book of St. Albans here.

1,765-square-foot Herakles mosaic found

Tuesday, July 26th, 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a 1,765-square-foot floor mosaic depicting the 12 Labours of Hercules in the Roman baths of the ancient city of Syedra on the southern coast of Turkey. It dates to the 2nd century A.D. and is unique for the life-sized dimensions of the human figures. Every one of Hercules’ contests against an assortment of man-eating creatures and enormous quantities of cow manure get a scene in the mosaic, although some parts were destroyed in antiquity. The sections that remain are in good condition.

The mosaic was first unearthed in 2019, but the excavation was not completed at that time and the art work was reburied for its protection. The excavation resumed in late 2020 and the full extent of the mosaic revealed, 26 feet in width and 72 feet in length. It fills a rectangular room with a semicircular recess at one end like an apse. This design is typical of the caldarium (the hot room) in other baths.

Syedra was founded by Greek colonists in the 7th century B.C., but first makes an appearance in written records in the 1st century as the location of Pompey’s final war council in 48 B.C. The epic poet Lucan and the historian Florus mention his stop-over in Syedra, “on a lonely rock in Cilicia,” where he met with the handful of senators who still stuck by him after he was defeated by Julius Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus. The topic of discussion was whether Pompey should go to Egypt or Parthia to seek sanctuary and support against Caesar. According to Lucan, Pompey wanted to go to Parthia, but was browbeaten by Lucius Cornelius Lentulus into going to Egypt instead and securing the aid of boy king Ptolemy XIII. Pompey had barely set foot on Egyptian shores when Ptolemy had him killed and decapitated in a doomed attempt to curry favor with Caesar.

The small port city rose to greater prominence in the 2nd century. It sided with Emperor Septimius Severus against Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow Severus in 193 A.D. When Severus crushed Niger at Issus in May 194 A.D., he punished the cities who had supported Niger by removing their privileges and titles while rewarding his own supporters (or former opponents who hurriedly shipped him enormous sums of appeasement money). In the 1990s, an excavation unearthed fragments of a stele inscribed with a letter from Septimius Severus wrote to the loyal people of Syedra in the second half of 194. Now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Alanya, the reconstructed stele reads:

Imperator Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax Augustus, Pater Patriae, Pontifex Maximus, in the second year of his tribunician power, imperator for the fourth time, consul for the second time, proconsul, to the magistrates, council and people of the Seydrans, greetings.

How much zeal you displayed in resisting the attack of those impious and godless men who, using Super [an officer of Niger’s] as their guide to the route, turned aside to your city too, I previously learned and praised you for your perseverance. However, Super has already incurred his due punishment, having paid for the wrongs he committed against you, and the centurions who, you say, also accompanied Super will not escape unpunished either.

But it is fitting that you, since matters have gone as they have, and your fellow citizens who at that time were forcibly torn from their ancestral city [ie, conscripted into Niger’s army] but have now for the time being returned and are residing with you, should sacrifice and feast and take pride in the acts of bravery that you previously performed, reflecting that you have made yourselves more glorious by such actions, and that you have confirmed your already existing goodwill towards the Romans.

The city reached its peak of prosperity during this time. New defensive walls were built, as was the great public bathhouse, a temple, water cisterns and a theater. The population rose to about 5,000, which was a lot to fit on a lonely rock in Cilicia, but still rather petite by Roman urban standards. Its richly-appointed baths are a testament to how much wealth was passing through even so small a city when it was in imperial favor.

Recycled glass mosaic tiles point to ancient city’s revival

Monday, July 25th, 2022

A new analysis of Late Roman-era mosaic floors discovered in Bodrum, on the southwest coast of Turkey, has found evidence that the ancient city of Halicarnassus experienced a revival of good fortune at the very end of the Roman Empire.

Halicarnassus was famous in antiquity for the Tomb of Mausolus, so famous that the name of its owner entered the vernacular as a generic word for a grand above-ground tomb. Completed in 350 B.C., the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that drew tourists from around the Hellestic world and was still standing in the Middle Ages. Today only a smattering of ruins remain.

The city had been part of the Achaemenid Persian satrapy of Caria since the 6th century B.C., but the kings and queens of Halicarnassus were native Greek-Carian and operated more as autonomous allies. The reign of Mausolos (377–353 B.C.) and his sister/wife/successor Artemisia II was considered the golden age of Halicarnassus. They made it the capital of Caria and poured money into improving its infrastructure, dredging and deepening the harbor, paving the streets and building high defensive walls and towers. They built a theater, temples, public buildings and clad them all in gleaming white marble.

The city continued to prosper during the reigns of their sister and brother (who were also married) and their children, but the golden age of Halicarnassus came to an abrupt end when the Persians set fire to the city before retreating from the besieging forces of Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. According to Cicero, Halicarnassus never recovered from the Persian destruction and was all but deserted in his day (1st century B.C.) Natural disasters and attacks from Mediterranean pirates damaged the city even further in Late Antiquity and while the city had importance as a bishopric under Byzantine rule, it no longer bore any resemblance to Mausolos’ and Artemisia’s gleaming marble city. In the early 15th century, what the earthquakes hadn’t taken of the great Mausoleum, the Knights Hospitaller helped themselves to. They used its stone to build a fortress, Bodrum Castle, which still stands today.

The post-Alexandrian decline of Halicarnassus was the received historical wisdom until recently. The first hint that this might be inaccurate was the discovery of a luxurious late Roman villa built on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. Mosaics from what would later be identified as the House of Charidemos were first unearthed in 1856. Unfortunately the archaeologist who excavated it, Charles T. Newton, who also excavated the paltry remains of the Mausoleum, pried the floors up and shipped them to the British Museum. Archaeologists returned to the site in the 1990s and uncovered more rooms decorated with a variety of mosaics, including geometric motifs, Europa and the Bull, Aphrodite being conveyed in a cockleshell, Dido and Aeneas, a nymph riding an ichthyocentaur (like a centaur only with a fish body/tail instead of horse body), and a dedication to the homeowner, which is how we know his name. The modern excavations also dated the villa to the mid-5th century, a period when tumbleweeds were supposedly rolling down the empty streets of Halicarnassus.

The new study examined 19 of the tesserae from the House of Charidemos’ mosaics using archaeometric analyses to learn more about what the tiles were made of and how they were produced. Seven of them were glass, 11 were stone and samples were selected from a range of colors. Analysis found that six of the seven glass tesserae were made of recycled glass.

The characterisation of the glass, stone, and ceramic tesserae from the House of Charidemos in Halikarnassos shows that a diversity of the materials were used for the production of the mosaics in private contexts during the late Roman–early Byzantine period in Anatolia. The comparison of the glass composition with other sites in Anatolia showed similarities in the use of base glass materials. […] The very tight elemental distributions between the samples of similar colours reflecting the same base glass composition could support a hypothesis of secondary workshops specialised in the production of certain colour of tesserae.

That suggests Halicarnassus either never was a ghost town or it recovered rather well since the bad ol’ days Cicero describes. The fact that so luxurious a villa with such high-end decorative arts was built in the city using city artisans and recycled raw materials even at the threshold of the demise of the Western Empire, indicates the city was experiencing something of a revival of fortune, in fact.

Frozen-in-time cobalt mine found

Sunday, July 24th, 2022

Cavers exploring the mining tunnels at Alderley Edge in Cheshire have discovered a cobalt mine preserved exactly as it was when it was abandoned in around 1810. Members of the Derbyshire Caving Club, who have a special lease from the National Trust to explore the Alderley Edge mines, found the historic cobalt mine last fall. The mine was in a state of suspended animation, replete with the miners’ personal objects, mining gear and graffiti they’d left on the walls. They have been exploring the labyrinthine tunnel network since then.

Leather shoes, clay pipes, a metal button from a jacket, along with inscriptions written in candle soot, and mine machinery, were among the objects that were found.

Also uncovered was a clay bowl that had been buried in a wall, a practice that may have been followed by superstitious miners as an offering of thanks for a good vein of mineral. Other discoveries include clearly defined fingerprints in clay used to hold candles, and the imprint of corduroy from a worker’s clothing where he leaned against a wall.

Among the larger abandoned items was a windlass, a piece of equipment used to shift large weights or quantities of raw materials. This is the first time such a piece has been uncovered at Alderley Edge. […]

Ed [Coghlan of the Derbyshire Caving Club] continued: “One of the objects which we had not unearthed in this area before, was the windlass. This was an important piece of mining equipment which we would have expected the workers to have taken with them for use at another mine. It does suggest they were told without much warning to collect their tools and move on, which is not surprising once the cobalt was exhausted, since each day there was a day paying wages.”

Cobalt mining had a very brief history at Alderley Edge. It began during the Napoleonic Wars when Continental sources of cobalt to make blue glass and pottery glaze dried up. Sir John Stanley, 7th Baronet of Alderley Hall, leased cobalt extraction rights to the Alderley Edge mines. The bottom dropped out of the English cobalt market after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, and the Alderley Edge cobalt mines were closed by 1817. The discovery of this mine frozen in time sheds new light on the brief history of cobalt extraction in Alderley Edge’s 4,000-year history of being mined. 

The objects in the mine have been photographed and documented in situ, but they have not been and will not be removed. They will remain in the environment that has conserved them for 210 years. The National Trust has  created a virtual 3D fly-through of the mine created with data from laser scanning, submarine ROV and photogrammetry technology. Explore it below:

Scepter mold, ivory siren found in Selinunte

Saturday, July 23rd, 2022

Archaeologists have unearthed fascinating new clues to the 6th century B.C. history of ancient Greco-Sicilian city of Selinunte in excavations of its agora and acropolis.

The agora, the city’s central square, was built on a plateau overlooking the ocean. More than eight acres in area, twice the size of Rome’s Piazza del Popola, the agora of Selinunte was the largest in the ancient world. Today it is a wide open space, recently cleared of invasive vegetation to deliver the unobstructed view of the agora surrounded by temples that the Selinunteans would have enjoyed. Excavations have previously revealed only one archaeological feature under the agora: an empty tomb in the middle of the square, perhaps that of the founder.

This year’s dig in an area just south of the acropolis began in June with the aim of more precisely dating the newest of the acropolis temples, A and O, which were long believed to have been built at the same time. The dig found evidence that A actually predates O, and that O was never completed because construction was interrupted by a landslide.

The team leaped over their modest initial aims when they found an aquifer under the foundations of Temple A. The ancient infrastructure is evidence that the first colonists settled the site on the south side of what would become the acropolis. Under Temple R, which is older than A, dating to the 6th century B.C., archaeologists unearthed the walls of a ritual enclosure dating to 610 B.C., just a few decades after the founding of the city.

Inside Temple R the team also discovered a large fragment of a stone mold used to cast what looks like a bronze scepter. Once it was cast, the two halves of the matrix were deposited in different locations. The first half was found nearby ten years ago. Two other objects of note were found in Temple R: an Egyptian blue figurine of the sky god Horus dating to the late 7th century B.C. and a siren figurine carved in ivory. The quality of the carving is very high, comparable to the votives found at one of the ancient world’s most powerful religious centers, the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi. Archaeologists thus believe the siren was likely imported from Greece.

Founded in 628 B.C. by colonists from the Greek city of Megara Hyblaea on the southeastern coast of Sicily, Selinunte reached its peak of population, wealth and power in the 5th century B.C. The monumental area of Selinunte was largely built at that time. Today it comprises more than 270 acres of temples and other civic structures. The wider archaeological park, which includes important sites outside of the ancient city center, is the largest archaeological park in Europe at 667 acres.

“Second Sistine Chapel” restored at Europe’s oldest hospital

Friday, July 22nd, 2022

The magnificent Renaissance ward of the oldest hospital in Europe, the complex of Santo Spirito in Saxia on the Vatican banks of the Tiber in Rome, has been restored. Two years of work have repaired the carved wooden ceiling, the masonry and the interior and exterior plaster, reviving the huge expanse of frescoes and polychrome painted wood architectural elements.

The hospital started out as more of a hostel. The Schola Saxonum was founded in 727 by King Ine of Wessex on the ancient site of the pleasure gardens of the villa of Agrippina the Elder, daughter of  Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia, daughter of Augustus. Located on the Tiber under the shadow of Constantine’s ancient basilica of St. Peter’s, the schola provided accomodation and assistance to English travelers on pilgrimage ad limina apostolorum (“to the threshold of the apostles”). No fewer than 10 English kings, Alfred the Great among them, are known to have lived there for extended stays when they made their pilgrimages to Rome. In 794, one of those kings, Offa of Mercia, funded the addition of a xenodochio, a small building where strangers could get a little food and sleep, to the schola’s church.

Damaged by repeated fires and Saracen raids in the 9th century, the Schola Saxonum was repaired around 850 and again in the 11th century, but its use as accommodations for the crowned heads of Northern Europe was over by then. There were no Anglo-Saxon crowned heads after the Norman Conquest of England, for one thing, and Rome was no longer the only game in town when it came to major relics and martyrdom sites. Santiago de Compostela drew in huge numbers of pilgrims to venerate the relics of Saint James the Apostle. By the end of the 12th century, Canturbury was the premier destination for English pilgrims, drawn by the martyrdom site and miraculous relics of Saint Thomas Becket, and the schola in Rome languished from neglect.

Then Innocent III had a dream. Several, actually. In 1198, the Pope was plagued by a series of recurring dreams in which fishermen on the Tiber drew up the bodies of infants in their nets, illegitimate babies thrown into the river by adulterous women seeking to eliminate the living evidence of their sin. The fishermen presented the corpses of these drowned babies to the horrified pope. An angel then commanded Innocent to build a hospice for exposed babies.

He rebuilt the schola and xenodochio into a hospital dedicated to the care of abandoned infants, the sick and indigent. Built into one of the exterior walls was a “wheel of the exposed,” a wooden lazy susan behind a little door on which infants could be placed anonymously.

In 1471, the hospital was ravaged by a fire that left it in shambles. The newly-elected Pope Sixtus IV visited the hospital and decried its dark, airless, crumbling environment. He ordered a full reconstruction of the facilities in anticipation of the upcoming 1475 jubilee year. The resulting structure, dubbed the Corsie Sistine (“Sistine Wards”), was the first example of Renaissance civic architecture built in Rome.

The hall is 120 meters (394 feet) long and 12 meters (39 feet) wide. It is divided into two spaces by an octagonal tiburio (a tower or lantern over the crossing of the galleries). Under the tiburio in the center of the Corsie is a ciborium (a canopy built four columns over an altar) that is the only known work in Rome of Renaissance master architect Andrea Palladio. The long walls facing each other are frescoed with more than 60 scenes depicting the founding of the hospital by Innocent III on one side and the life of Sixtus IV on the other. That’s 13,000 square feet of frescoes. You can see why it’s compared to the other Sistine Chapel, also built by Sixtus IV (although that one was famously frescoed under the papacy of his nephew, Julius II).

Soon hospitals built on the model of Santo Spirito in Saxia sprang up all over Europe. Before Innocent III’s dream, there were no hospitals dedicated to the care of the indigent and abandoned babies. By the end of the 15th century, there were 1,000 of them. Today the Renaissance ward is part of the modern Santo Spirito hospital complex and care and maintenance of the historic building played second fiddle to the hospital’s primary focus on patient care and medical research.

Financed by the Lazio Region for the ASL Roma 1, the restoration work has also focused on the ciborium which over the centuries, says the restorer Maria Rosaria Di Napoli, was “marked by dirt and [water] percolation from above. The greatest difficulty is balancing the different materials , because this is a jewel: we have polychrome and gilded wood, stucco, canvas, marbles. The colors were hardly seen anymore. Even the lantern, all made of wood, due to the water, had lost a lot of pictorial surface.

The Corsie Sistine is now open to visitors. In future, more historic hospitals in Italy are slated for restoration in a new initiative by the culture ministry to promote their extraordinarily deep bench of architecture and art off the beaten path of museums, churches and grand palazzi.





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