City blog. Rome based.

So lucky to find an early Renaissance masterpiece? Yes, if you’ve found the Cardinal Bessarione’s chapel

If we can admire one of the masterpieces of Roman Quattrocento is only thanks to an accident, which occurred only few decades ago.

Among fortuitous rediscovery of paintings believed as lost, and unattended characters, we start together a journey through the history. Once again I thank the FAI – Fondo Ambiente Italiano, for the event #cosaFAIoggi: it allowed the extraordinary opening of a place usually inaccessible during.

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Cet article est disponible en français.

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano.

  • Where: Chirch of Ss. XII Apostols, piazza dei XII Apostoli, Roma
  • When: the chapel us usually closed to public. For opening times and conditions, please contact at Cooperativa Spazio Libero
  • Why: this church is generally ignored from the masses. But you can find there other masterpieces, as we talked in this post

IMG_20160611_105449-1_miniUntil 1959 in the Basilica of Ss. XII Apostoli in Rome (another post about this church is here) there was no more trace of the funeral chapel wanted by Cardinal Bessarion shortly after the middle of the ‘400. We would have lost its memory, if we had not had the documents related to its realization. Suddenly, and quite by chance, in 1959 he was finally found, hidden, but still in place.

A gap of a few meters separates it from the visitors view of the Basilica of Ss. XII Apostoli, hidden by the Odescalchi chapel built between 1719 and 1723. For over two centuries the only visible part of the funerary chapel decorated by famous artists of the Roman Renaissance, was the center pane of the fresco, a painting on panel with Madonna and Child, which was moved in the modern Bonaventura chapel. The rest was considered lost. Forever.


We can therefore only imagine the surprise of the architect Clemente Busiri Vici when, in 1959 during renovations in the adjacent palazzo Colonna, mistakenly crashed through the wall with chapel, finding triumph of colors.

He had not take long to realize that it was the funeral chapel built by Cardinal Bessarion to contain his remains, and decorated by some of the most popular artists of his time: Antoniazzo Romano, Melozzo da Forli, Lorenzo da Viterbo.


Who the Cardinal Bessarion was?

Basil Bessarion was a high Oriental priest, monk of the Basilian order and then cardinal in Constantinople, during the most turbulent period of the Byzantine Empire. Highly educated man and humanist (he was a scholar of Latin and greek, and founder of the Academia Bressarionis, cultural circle of humanists committed to preserve and transmit the heritage of classical culture). he also was an important person for diplomatic relations between the churches of the East and the West. In Rome he lived as a greek, just next to the church where he was buried. In 1439 he was appointed titular cardinal of the Basilica of Ss. XII Apostoli in Rome by Pope Eugenius IV.

Stemma del cardinal Bessarione della basilica dei Ss. XII Apostoli (ph. credits http://www.gliscritti.it/blog/entry/1133)
Bessarione’s emblem, sculpted in the church os Ss. XII Apostles (ph. credits http://www.gliscritti.it/blog/entry/1133)

On the front lines to prevent the fall of Constantinople, during the Council of Ferrara he asked the intervention of Western troops in defense of Constantinople, and that way the surviving Roman Empire, which was about to fall (29 May 1453). He believed that the Byzantine empire’s capital could have still be a Christian city. Not surprisingly, that the cardinal’s emblem represents two hands grasping a cross from two sides, symbolizing the union and convergence of intents of East and West in the name of Christianity. Bessarion was advocate of the unity of the Christian world that had now lost, paving the way to the conquest by Mehmed II of the last bastion of the Roman Empire.

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Nel registro inferiore, le figure ai lati del riquadro centrale furono ridipinte. La qualità compositiva e pittorica è evidentemente inferiore
In the lower sections, the paintings on the sides of the central panel was strongly damaged. Re-painted, but with lower quality

In 1645 it was decided to plaster the decoration of the chapel, hiding it from view, because of damages due to the rise of water in the outer walls of the church (the area was in fact subject to the Tiber floods). But the cardinal’s will, written in 1464, gives us a detailed explanation of the decorative program of the chapel. The aspect, however, had to change soon because of the Tiber floods, which destroyed the lower register, leading to the complete repainting of the figures on either side of the center pane.

Dipinto di Madonna con Bambino attribuita ad Antoniazzo Romano. Nella cappella Bessarione è conservata una copia. Si possono notare le ridipinture delle figure laterali.
Painting on panel of Madonna with Child.

The artist.

The recent critics don’t completely agree with the traditional attribution of the paintings to Antoniazzo Romano. Although by comparing with the paintings of the same artist, it doesn’t seem to be made direct from him, the decoration is definitely attributable to his workshop: a group of artists with different cultures and backgrounds who worked under the direction of a boss. The general idea and plan of the decorative program would be related to Antoniazzo, while the direct work could be attribuited to his workshop. This procedure was indeed usual in artists’ workshops, where the master was called to develop his idea and to establish the guidelines of the works, while the real execution was assigned to the artists who worked for him. It was usual that in the workshops of main artists worked also some great artists, which often surpassed in ability their teacher too (please, remind that in the workshop of Verrocchio – already great Renaissance artist – worked Leonardo Da Vinci!).

Antoniazzo Romano was a painter known for the production of some Madonna painting considered miraculous, better known as Madonne delle Grazie, and for the reproduction of important eastern icons venerated in Rome: considering this “specialization” is not surprising that Bessarion’s choice has fallen on Antoniazzo, perhaps thanks to his work of recovery of the themes and iconography typical of his native culture (Byzantium). And we don’t have to underestimate the importance of a Byzantine revival in Rome in that period, due to the high presence in the city of people escaping from Constantinople, now fallen into Turkish hands.

La pala d'altare della Cappella Bessarione era un dipinto su tavola di Madonna con Bambino in una cornice marmorea
The main and central painting of the entire composition: Madonna with Child, by Antoniazzo Romano. It was a painting on panel with marble frame: in the Bessarione’s chapel is a copy (but the original is still in the church Ss. XII Apostles)

Which scenes are painted on the walls of the funeral chapel of Bessarione?

It is a kind of spiritual testament by Cardinal, the request and need of a last crusade to bring together, once and for all, the churches of East and West, and to save the Christian East and its cultural heritage.

Fragment of the mural painting, where we can recognize the Mont-Saint-Michel shrine (on the background), and the shells on the sand

In the upper section are two episodes of the stories of St. Michael the Archangel in two versions: the Italian (on the Mount Gargano) and French (on the Mount Tumba). The french one is the most interesting: on the background we recognize the sanctuary of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, founded on Mount Tumba in 708. The scene has been identified as that of Mont-Saint-Michel also thanks to the discovery of some shells on the sand that connects the mainland with the island that, as you know, you emerges during low tide, revealing the access routes to the shrine. The connection with France must be due to the request, made by the Bessarione, of France intervent in the war to defense Constantinople.

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Only few months ago, we talked about the church of Ss. Xii Apostles in this post, with an artwork by the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.


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