Santa Costanza is a 4th century ancient Roman mausoleum converted into a church at Via Nomentana 349 in the Trieste district, next to the basilica Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to a putative St Constantia or Constance, a confected and historically chimerical personage.
Bibliographical note Edit
The historical treatment of the complex given here, relies in main on a paper published in Byzantion in 1997:
Mackie, Gillian: A New Look at the Patronage of Santa Costanza, Rome.
The church was originally a part of the imperial funerary complex established here by the family of Emperor Constantine I, which may have been originally intended for the emperor himself. For a wider treatment of this complex, see Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Constantiniana.
After an archaeological excavation in 1992, the status of this church has been under review. The traditional historical analysis was that it was built between 351 and 357 as a joint mausoleum for Constantina, a daughter of the emperor, and Fausta, who was resident at Rome at the time but who died at Bithynia in Asia Minor in 354. However, her body was brought back and interred here in a sarcophagus of imperial porphyry quarried at Mons Porphyrites in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. She was later joined by her sister Helena, who died in 360 and who had been the wife of Emperor Julian the Apostate. Another, smaller sarcophagus was duly provided for Helena.
The excavation revealed an earlier building on the site, in the form of a small (ten metres wide) triconch (clover-leaf shaped) edifice attached to the Basilica Constantina and entered from it. Hence, the present mausoleum cannot have been built as part of the original funerary complex but the triconch was, as its fabric was integral with that of the basilica.
The revisionist thesis is that Constantina had been buried within this triconch, in the smaller sarcophagus that used to be ascribed to Helena. After the latter empress died, the present building and the larger sarcophagus were then provided for her by Emperor Julian. This would push the date of the structure back to after 360, when Helena's body was brought back from Gaul where she had died. A tentative terminus ad quem for construction is the late 370's, based on stylistic evidence provided by the mosaics.
The building survived the collapse of ancient Roman civilization intact. It first appears in mediaeval history when Pope Nicholas I celebrated Mass here in 865, and this occasion was also the first time that the erroneous name Sanctae Constantiae appeared. So, by this time a legend had grown up identifying Constantina as a saint called Constantia, who was an alleged (non-existent) daughter of Constantine and a hermit at the catacombs of St Agnes. Flavia Julia Constantia was actually the half-sister of the emperor. Although the Roman martyrology never listed this St Constantia, who is the source of the English name Constance, she was to be celebrated at the church with a feast-day on February 25th.
The mausoleum was only formally converted into a church in 1256 by Pope Alexander IV, when he consecrated it. In the process he took the alleged relics of "St Constantia" from the larger sarcophagus and installed them under the central altar; unfortunately, these are very likely to belong to the empress Helena wife of Julian!
Antiquarian interest Edit
Antiquarian interest in the edifice re-awakened in the Renaissance, and visitors began to arrive who were excited about an intact ancient Roman edifice rather than a saint's shrine. Unfortunately, such interest was invariably associated with the pillaging of moveable antiquities. The massive larger sarcophagus was (somehow) moved from here to the piazza in front of the church of San Marco after 1467 and before 1471.
Between the years 1538 and 1540, Francesco de Holanda executed water-colour paintings of the mosaics in the interior of the dome. These are of the first importance, since these mosaics were later destroyed in interventions and restorations that began in the 17th century.
Firstly, the smaller porphyry tub-shaped sarcophagus "of Helena" (most likely of Constantina) was removed in 1606 to the left transept of St Peter's. Then a major restoration was ordered in 1620 by Cardinal Fabrizio Verallo, and during this much of the dome mosaic was removed (it was apparently already falling off, and may have simply disintegrated in the process of repair).
From the early 16th century until 1720, the church was the focus of attention by the Bentvueghels who were a group of Low Countries artists resident at Rome. They nicknamed it the "Temple of Bacchus" after a relief of that god on the sarcophagus, and used to have drunken al-fresco parties there. These became notorious, and Pope Clement XI ordered their suppression.
The other, larger sarcophagus (now thought to be that of Helena) was removed to the Vatican Museums in 1790 from outside San Marco, and somebody had the bright idea of making a plaster copy and putting it in what was thought to have been its original location.
Modern times Edit
There was another restoration in the 19th century, when the remnants of the dome mosaic were removed and replaced with a fresco which has not aged well. Since then, only repairs have been performed on the church.
In 1992 there was an archaeological excavation which revealed several previously unknown details of the building's history.
It only ever was a pilgrimage church with no pastoral responsibility, and at present has mostly the status of an ancient monument. However, it is popular for weddings -which may make visits over the weekend difficult.
The church is a centrally planned structure in brick, with a diameter of 22.5 metres. The plan is based on two concentric rings, the inner zone emerging at a higher level than the outer. These create an ambulatory within, surrounding a central space which used to focus on the sarcophagi of the empresses, emphasizing their imperial status. This void is surmounted by a ribbed brick saucer dome pierced by twelve round-headed windows. These have mullions made up of little arches. The exterior walling is rough brickwork which was almost certainly originally rendered or revetted. There is, however, a 17th century marble doorcase.
The mausoleum used to be surrounded by a pillared porticus or loggia which disappeared centuries ago. Also, it used to be joined by a wide, shallow apsidal porch on its north-east side (where the doorway now is) to the so-called Basilica Constantiniana, the remains of which can be seen around the field to the right of the entrance path approaching the church. This vast structure is now regarded as an aisled funerary enclosure, not a basilical church.
The lost porch had little apses at either end. It seems to have been the model for the very similar layout at the porch of the baptistery at San Giovanni in Laterano.
On entering the church, you see the Baroque altar straight ahead beneath the dome, where it is thought that the sarcophagi would have been originally. This has inlaid polychrome marble decoration typical of the style.
The arcade is made up of twelve pairs of ancient granite columns in red and grey with Composite marble capitals, each pair arranged radially and having its own architrave. They enclose the central area, which is 11 metres across.
The walls would originally have been covered with mosaics and marble revetting. Most of the former and all of the latter have been lost.
The niche furthest from the entrance now contains the replica larger sarcophagus made of plaster, but this placement might be wrong. It is believed that the two sarcophagi would have been originally under the dome (although there is debate about this). You need to visit the Vatican Museums to see the original of the plaster copy, which is carved in relief in very hard stone. The sarcophagus is decorated on all four sides with garlands and grape vines, large acanthus scrolls and cupids treading grapes. Below there are two peacocks, a ram and a cupid with a garland. The lid is decorated with festoons of greenery tied to masks.
The dome vault is 19 metres high and has a badly faded 18th century fresco, restored in the 19th century (the restored areas are obvious). It depicts scenes from the legends of SS Constance, Agnes and Emerentiana.
This fresco replaced the spectacular dome mosaic, which was apparently already falling off by the time of the 1620 restoration. Drawings and paintings of this survive, and their witness indicate that there were two tiers of Biblical scenes, a lower one based on the Old Testament and a higher one on the New. The panels depicting the Old Testament scenes were separated by caryatids emerging from acanthus scrolls.
Along the bottom edge of the dome was a charming scene of marine activity involving fish, birds, octopodes and amorini engaged in boating and fishing. The last named were the pagan equivalents of putti. A 16th century note has survived that mentions one of the boats containing "two seated saintly figures".
Similarly, a note of the same period describes the niche containing the plaster sarcophagus, as having a mosaic depicting two women robed in white.
Ambulatory -Vault mosaicEdit
The ambulatory has a barrel vault, which is covered by its original 4th century mosaic somewhat restored in 1840 by Carmuccini. This does not display overtly religious scenes, but rather images that are symbolic of early Christian as well as pagan Roman belief.
There are eleven separate panels, those nearest the door having a simple geometic design involving dolphins and octopodes. The figurative themes on the other panels feature flowers, fruit, birds and amorini picking grapes. The peacocks symbolize rebirth and also invoke the godess Juno, and the vintage scenes evoke death and resurrection. There are two of these, one showing grapes being trod in the winepress and the other, wagons bringing the vintage to Rome. This decorative scheme was repeated, or inspired by, that on the sarcophagi.
The third panels to the right and left respectively bear portrait busts traditionally described as depicting a man and a woman, who may be Constantina and her first husband Hannibalianus, or alternatively Helena and Julian. However, Mackie suggests that they actually depict Constantina and Helena, with the former having been depicted as middle-aged and badly restored to look like a man.
Apart from this detail, the mosaic in the left hand ambulatory and the right hand one is identical, so if you are in a hurry you only need to examine one side.
The eleventh panel, furthest from the entrance, is badly damaged but has a star motif with hints of a Chi-rho in gold.
Ambulatory -niche mosaicsEdit
The ambulatory has eleven niches in its outer wall, alternatively rectangular and semi-circular, and 5th century (or perhaps 7th) originally decorated these. Two survive, showing Christ the Pantocrator in lavish gold and purple robes indicating his regal status. In one, he is shown as a young man between SS Peter and Paul, holding a scroll saying Dominus pacem (per legem) dat or "The Lord gives peace by the Law". The sheep in front of him indicates his role as the pastor ruling his flock. The other niche shows him as an older man giving the keys of Heaven and Earth to St Peter, with Jerusalem in the background.
The execution of these mosaics is inferior to that of the vault, indicating perhaps that they are later. However they have been badly restored, and only the richly decorated borders are reliably original work.
Amadio, Adele Anna. I mosaic di S. Costanza: disegni, incision, e documenti dal XV al XIX secolo. (Roma: De Luca, 1986)
Anno August, Michel Rudolf. Die mosaiken bo n Santa Costanza in Rom. (Leipzig, Druck von G. Kreysing, 1911)
Argan, Giulio Carlo. L’ architettura protocuristiana, preromania e romanica. (Edison Dedala, 1993 (1978)
Bettini, Sergio. Lo spazio architettura de Roma a Bisanzio. (1995)
Coarelli, Filippo. Rome and Environs, An Archaeological Guide. English trans. (University of California, 2007)
D’Onofrio. II nartece protrebbe essser inuea l’elemento di racerdo con la navata laterale della scomparse basilica constantiniana di Santa Agnese. (Roma, 2001)
D’Onofrio. “II Rinescimentoriscopre L’antico. Mausoleo di Contantina attraverso; disengi del Rinascimento”. In Rima Salaria. (Roma, 2001) Deckers, Johannes G. Constantine the Great and Early Christian Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007
Gough, Michael. The Origins of Christian Art. New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1973
Lehmann, Karl. Sta. Costanza: An Addendum. Vol. 37, Art B ulletin. New York: College Art Association, 1955
Lowden, John. Early Christian & Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997
Lowrie, Walter. Monuments of the Early Church. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1923
MacDonald, William L. Early Christian & Byzantine Architecture. New York: George Braziller. Inc., 1962
Mackie, Gillian: A New Look at the Patronage of Santa Costanza, Rome. In Byzantion, 1997
Monneret de Villard, Ugo. Le chiese de Roma I (Milano: E Bonomi, 1910)
Rasch, Jürgen – Arbeiter, Achim, Das Mausoleum der Constantin in Rom (Zabern 2007)
Ricci, Antonio. Consolatiane nella morte. Sopra et doppo’l morire della prvdentiss S. Costanza Austria Gonzaga contessa di Nouellara…(Ferrara, V. Panizza, 1564)
Schmarsow, August. Die mosaiken von Santa Costanza in Rom und der lichtgaden altohristlicher Basiliken. (Leipzig (Edelmann), 1904)
Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986
- Official diocesan web-page
- Italian Wikipedia page
- Photo gallery at Kunsthistorie
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr
- Dolphins and Mortar Dating -Santa Costanza Reconsidered (PDF)
- Santa Costanza -Original Dome Mosaic
- Info.roma web-page
- Roma SPQR web-page with gallery
- "Sacred-destinations" web-page
- Costanza "Romeartlover" web-page
- Parish website's web-page