The year I lived in Rome was one of the happiest and most adventurous of my life. I was not yet twenty-two when I arrived in the fall of 1986, armed with a trio of scholarships and a letter of introduction to the ancient Professor Richard Krautheimer who graciously allowed me to get a reader’s ticket at the Bibliotheca Hertziana over which he still presided in the Palazzo Zuccari at the top of the Spanish Steps. There I spent many sunny mornings reading my way into an impenetrable thicket, trying with minimal resources but much ambition to make sense of the Tavolette di San Bernardino at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. That group of panels I first knew in the somewhat unpromising form of several dusty old Arundel Society prints that hung in the corridor outside the office of the Warden of Trinity, the late and much lamented Evan Laurie Burge. The problem I set for myself was to come up with a hypothesis about the sequence in which the panels were originally installed in the Augustinian oratory for which they were intended; figure out what they meant; and who painted them. Essentially I failed in all three endeavors, but it was heaven. I had a job answering the telephone for the Ladies of Bethany, an order of Dutch nuns of whom only two elderly members remained en poste, living in considerable splendor in a very large apartment on the top floor of the Collegio Innocenziano in the Via di Sta. Maria dell’Anima, overlooking the Piazza Navona. And I enrolled as a part-time student of Latin at the Pontifica Universitas Gregoriana. It sounds busier than it actually was, because as far as I can remember I spent most of my time exploring the churches of Rome, of which there is a limitless supply, and in every one of which there is an abundance of treasure.
One of my favourite places, because of its scarcely conceivable antiquity, was the fortified monastery of SS. Quattro Coronati, which is tucked along an almost bucolic uphill lane just behind the Colosseum. In that complex, then and still now occupied by an enclosed order of especially ferocious nuns, the small chapel of S. Silvestro contains a cycle of early thirteenth-century frescoes depicting scenes from the lives of Pope Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine the Great. What is so fascinating about this monument is that, not surprisingly because of earthquakes, the frescoes were at intervals heavily restored (most recently towards the end of the nineteenth century), but evidently restored in the certain belief that the original paintings were far, far cruder in execution than was actually the case, and in conformity to the view that before Pietro Cavallino Roman painting of the dugento amounted to nothing. If there is one monument that should teach caution to those of us who concern ourselves with the repair and restoration of damaged works of art, it is the fresco cycle of S. Silvestro at SS. Quattro Coronati. However, we did not know this when I first knew S. Silvestro, because the art historian Andreina Draghi had not yet re-discovered an astounding further fresco program elsewhere in the same complex, in the aula gotica upstairs, that also dates from the early thirteenth century. This happened in 2002. That lost cycle was entirely covered with plaster probably at around the time of the Black Death around 1348 or 1349, presumably in a desperately prophylactic but useless gesture of penitence—which nevertheless and, at length, fortunately insured that many of the frescos have been preserved in almost pristine condition. The monument is a revelation, and shines entirely new light upon the artistic milieux of medieval Rome, far, far less like something out of the Flintstones than we previously assumed. These airy frescoes let us see as never before what early thirteenth-century Roman painters were capable of. They are amazing: subtle, intensely colored, brimming with life, energy, even choreography. And, equally remarkable, they are secular, a scheme of Twelve Months (May is illustrated here), representations of the Liberal Arts, the Four Seasons, and of the Zodiac—a kind of temporal pendant or counterpoint to the ecclesiological cycle that lurks underneath the crude reconstructions in the chapel of S. Silvestro downstairs. Thank goodness Professor Draghi was allowed to reveal and conserve these lost paintings in the Gothic hall, and to photograph and publish them in sumptuous detail, because those wretched sisters will not allow them to be seen by any visitors at all because of the strictly enclosed state of their order. Nevertheless the work that Professor Draghi has done now lets us see beyond the gluggy restorations, and hazard a guess at what S. Silvestro might once have looked like.