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19.11.08 Bolgia, Reclaiming the Roman Capitol

19.11.08 Bolgia, Reclaiming the Roman Capitol

In her timely and impressive monograph Reclaiming the Roman Capitol, Claudia Bolgia has brought her near-encyclopedic knowledge of Santa Maria in Aracoeli's extremely complicated architectural past and extensive documentary sources on medieval Rome together to provide scholars with new and important insight into its evolution into Franciscan Order's headquarters in Rome, and its involvement in Roman social and cultural life. The monograph encompasses the history of the site from Republican Rome through the fifteenth century, focusing on the Franciscan redevelopment of the site in the later Middle Ages. Plentiful images, site plans and an appendix of 40 color plates illustrate the detailed architectural and art historical evidence upon which many of the work's interventions rely.

Bolgia's tome, weighty in both the physical and scholastic sense, contains a number of significant contributions to Franciscan scholarship. Her meticulous architectural analysis is leavened by the ease with which she integrates literary and archival evidence to contextualize her argument: that the Aracoeli, far from being a staid basilica assigned to the Order with some signs of re-use, was intentionally sought after, developed and promoted by the Franciscans as a symbolic and physical representation of their place in the legacy and power structure of the Church and the city. To the contrary, its architecture reflects a sensitive treatment of the site's complex past and the Order's adaptation of old cults, as well as attempts to respond to the political and pastoral needs of fourteenth-century Rome while reflecting the aspirations of an Order with ties across Europe and beyond.

While there have been numerous mentions of the Aracoeli by art historians, and many studies of Franciscan art and architecture, none has examined the interactions between Rome and the Order, or the effects of Franciscan occupation. Bolgia's interdisciplinary approach to the Franciscan occupation of the site is engaged with exciting trends among historians and art historians investigating medieval religious institutions and individuals' inter-relations with laity and lay space.

The book begins at the beginning, with the edifice's Republican predecessors atop the Capitoline Hill: a temple to Isis and aristocratic domus. With an impressive command of both archeological and literary sources, Bolgia dissects the complex history of the site and its many iterations, from the site of the Altar of Augustus and numerous Roman temples through the Carolingian church erected there, its Benedictine convent, and the monastery's acquisition by the Franciscan Order in 1249. The major contribution in this section is the way in which the author's reconstruction of Franciscan-era changes throw into relief previously unknown detail about the Benedictine complex that stood there from the tenth century as Santa Maria in Capitolio.

Each of the four chapters contains multiple re-interpretations of the site, introducing new evidence and untangling historiographical errors and misunderstandings to reach a clear picture of the basilica's life and decoration in the Carolingian period, the twelfth century, and under the Franciscans. One of the most significant early revelations is that, contrary to historiographical tradition that the friars were assigned the site, the Franciscan Order actively sought possession of the monastery of Santa Maria in Capitolio. Previously unknown architectural elements indicate they promoted the legend of the Altar of Augustus through the building's reconstruction.

The book's first chapter incorporates fresh architectural evidence of earlier walls and foundations, which allows the author to make important corrections to the assessment of the current building's fabric made by Krautheimer and Malmstrom. She dates the belltower to the earlier Benedictine complex, and uses new physical evidence and a re-interpretation of previously known spolia to posit a new reconstruction of the earlier church and the now-lost cloisters. Bolgia's recreation enables her to reconstruct part of the late eighth-early ninth century church, and propose major revisions to scholars' understanding of the twelfth-century church on the site, drawing important parallels with other twelfth-century Roman restorations and with Benedictine architectural styles at S Paolo and Montecassino. The chapter includes meticulous tracking of fragmented spolia throughout the church and the museums of the city for evidence of the site's earlier furnishings. The church appears to have been part of the renewals of the twelfth century, which sought to restore other major basilicas including St Paul's outside the walls to make a strongly idealized 'early Christian' impression upon the visitor.

Turning to the early years of the Franciscans' presence at the site, in the second chapter Bolgia provides the first detailed analysis of the Order's changes to the convent in its turbulent early centuries. Early Franciscan history has been a booming field for decades, and it is rare that scholars can provide truly new information on the period. What Bolgia accomplishes is to bring together new architectural evidence and address flaws in the literature in two fields critically important to understanding the Order's material legacy, but which have rarely crossed in the literature: the art historical contributions of the Order, and the history of late medieval Rome. The friars made apt use of the ara coeli and its legend, and it is here that the study moves toward its major contributions to scholarship on the early Order. One might wish that the author had taken the opportunity to discuss the conflict within the Order over such grand buildings, especially as she cites the work of David Burr, the premier authority on the Spiritual Franciscans who protested such edifices in vain.

The third chapter is the longest and the most ambitious, as it aims to reconstruct the appearance, function and community of the Franciscan site in its liturgical, social and cultural functions within the city. The friars' embrace of the traditional basilica form has obscured their use of other, more innovative forms, such as a new type of main chapel designed to evoke the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, connecting the geography of Christ's life with the relics of Francis' companions buried on the site. In making this connection, the chapter draws further threads between the friars' intentional design and their close relationship with the papacy, which was then making determined plans to recover the lost Crusader States. Exterior architectural details, now extant only in fragments, suggest the friars emphasized the Order's support for the Church and papal authority by promoting Innocent III's dream, in which St Francis held up the crumbling Lateran basilica. Bolgia also humanizes the workforce behind the façade design, observing that the artisans who worked on it were Romans aware of transalpine styles in the late thirteenth century, evoking a possible connection with the Roman workforce involved in Westminster Abbey in that period. The building's fabric also echoes strong connections to the baronial families who patronized it, including powerful families like the Savelli and Colonna, whose devices echo the fluted columns provided to the basilica. Alterations to meet the needs of the laity, and lay interventions in the space, are shown to have been greater than previously anticipated.

The fourth chapter returns to the archeological and art historical evidence, uniting evidence of changes to the space with the Order's expanding social functions in preaching and burial, and documentary evidence of the site's civic uses. The Aracoeli's connections to baronial, papal and communal politics, and the expansion of church space into the public square of the Capitoline, entangled it in every major event of the early fourteenth century. It was the church of the notaries, and a place of peacemaking ceremonies. It also housed military preparations against Emperor Henry VII, and its bell was used to summon forces as a call to action at moments of upheaval. The basilica's exterior was a sensitive public space, used for preaching and religious tribunals, but also assemblies and court proceedings. Bolgia here debunks the idea that the building's civic use was connected with its Franciscan inhabitants, as the earliest records of courts being held there predate the Order's occupation of the premises. She also corrects a long-standing misconception that senatorial tribunals were held within the church's side chapels, based on an erroneous reading by Colasanti replicated in the historiography. In fact, numerous judges of lower rank held court outside the building, primarily those concerned with widows' guardianship and with female defendants, as a space associated with the Marian cult and with a long tradition of judicial proceedings.

The basilica's political importance was such that, when the Colonna opposed Cola di Rienzo at mid-century, he barred them from burial in their own chapel in the church as a highly symbolic refutation of their power. One of the friars was even crowned as the antipope Nicholas V by Ludwig of Bavaria in the late 1320s, amidst the breakdown of papal-Franciscan relations following John XXII's ruling on apostolic poverty. Parts of the church were highly privatized, especially the family burial chapels added to the basilica from the turn of the fourteenth century: Bolgia argues that the history of monumental burial and glorification on the Capitoline made the Aracoeli more susceptible to this trend than other Franciscan churches. Extensive analysis of several tombs, including Matthew of Acquasparta, and the innovations of the Felici tabernacle provide further insight into the topography of power and politics within the basilica's sacred space. The final chapter closes by extending the basilica's space and influence beyond the city, briefly considering the legend of the Aracoeli icon in late medieval Siena. The conclusion admirably evokes the late medieval visitor's gaze and impression of the façade, with its translation of northern designs by local artisans, contrasted with the highly symbolic and deliberately antiquated interior evocative of an early Christian site, highlighting the legend and presence of the Altar of Augustus.

Overall, the book is a welcome and necessary expansion and corrective to the Aracoeli's brief appearance in surveys such as Krautheimer, flawed analysis by Brancia di Apricena and some errors by Malmstrom. There are a few inaccuracies: the sisters of San Lorenzo in Panisperna were Minoresses in the fourteenth century, and only became Claresses several centuries later, for instance (101 n76) and Ubertino da Casale was never Minister General of the Franciscan Order, as a glancing reference implies (335). However, these are not important to the main argument or analysis, and the overall quality and fidelity of the work is excellent.

Bolgia's exhaustively researched and extremely readable work will, I am convinced, stand as the seminal work on the Aracoeli, and an important contribution to the flourishing field of scholarship on the political and cultural environs of late medieval Rome. Scholars of the Franciscan Order, of medieval Rome, and of the art and architecture of late medieval Italy will no doubt find it a rewarding read.