Rome > Medieval Cloisters

Medieval Cloisters

Medieval Cloisters

The cloister, from the Latin claustrum meaning  "closed place” is a large quadrangular courtyard, surrounded by arcades, situated within a monastery.
Developed in the early Middle Ages for essentially practical purposes, since it had to connect the various rooms of the monastic complex, it derives in style from the peristyle of Roman houses. Initially devoid of particular ornamentation, the cloisters came to be executed with increasingly greater care and were enriched with precious and refined decorative elements. Through this itinerary it will be possible to rediscover these places which, in a city like Rome, are true oases of peace and tranquility since the medieval atmosphere is kept intact

The cloister of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, in addition to being one of the most beautiful, is the largest in Rome, with each side measuring 36 metres. An undisputed masterpiece by the Vassalletto family, Roman marble workers, the cloister was built between 1215 and 1231.

Normally we use the term “cosmatesque” to define architectural elements or religious furnishings (tabernacles, ambos, candelabra, portals, pavements, columns) executed with geometric-pattern inlays of white marble and polychrome stones. The word ”cosmatesque” derives from the name of the Cosmati family, who were particularly active in this field between the 12th and 13th centuries. They were, however, only one of the approximately 60 families who did fine marble work. The shops of the “marmorari”, very widespread in 12th- and 13th-century Rome, worked by skillfully combining the classical heritage with Byzantine and early Christian styles.

The rich repertoire of ornamental motifs, due to the inexhaustible imagination of the artists, shows the most varied influences: medieval bestiaries, classical sources and Egyptian traditions, observable in the pairs of crouching sphinxes marking the passageways into the internal garden. The marvelous external band is finished at the top by a cornice in which leonine heads alternate with human ones, including, along the northern side, what are probably portraits of the artists, with their 13th-century hairstyles and very open, realistic facial expressions. Among the numerous remains of the ancient basilica, exhibited along the four arms of the cloister, much Curiosity is aroused by the sight of the so-called "stercoral chair”, .probably a Roman-age chair used the baths and characterized by a crescent snaped cleft. lt was one of the three chairs used .in the complicated ceremony of the coronation of the pope, who was made to sit there as the clergy sang a psalm in which it was remembered that God can raise the elected from the lowest condition (from dung) to glory. Immediately after wards the pope could on the "porphyritic Chair” where he received the insignia of power. For the people, however, this Chair with such a particular shape was used to verify if the pope was really a man.

The Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati, which stands on the offshoots of the Caelian Hill, is reached easily by taking, from Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, the long, narrow Via dei SS. Quattro.

The complex, preceded by the oldest bell tower in Rome (9th century), is dedicated to four Dalmatian sculptors who allegedly refused to carve the statues of pagan deities and were thus martyred by the Emperor Diocletian.

The atmospheric cloister, the smallest in Rome, dates from the early 1200s and is characterized by an extremely sober, modest decoration which has a certain charm. Observing the masonry, it can be seen that the cloister suffered the impact of the church's construction vicissitudes. ln fact, the original 9th-century building was larger but when, in the 12th century, the church was rebuilt of a smaller size, part of the side aisle became the side of the cloister next to the church. The lovely fountain in the centre of the garden dates from the 9th century and once adorned the entrance atrium to the church, serving as a lustral basin for ablutions.

Descending from the Caelian Hill towards the Colosseum, and turning to the left, after a lovely walk across Via di San Gregorio and the Circus Maximus, we ascend to the Aventine Hill where, along the street of the same name, stands the Basilica of Santa Sabina. This splendid church, which has magically kept its 5th-century early Christian plan intact, is closely tied to the figure of St. Dominic who presented the rule of his order to Pope Honorius III here. The pope decided to donate the church and connected buildings to the saint and his brothers in 1222; they were then greatly modified to adapt them to the needs of the monastic life. This is the context within which the cloister, very large but extremely simple from the decorative standpoint was built. In fact, the elements typical of the cosmati workers are absent, but a strong affinity with cotemporary Cistercian construction sites can be seen.

Of an entirely different appearance is the cloister of the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura (St. Paul's Outside the Walls), easily reached with the B line of the underground. Miraculously spared by the terrible fire that almost totally destroyed the basilica in 1823, the cloister is a splendid example of the activity of the Roman marble workers. Compared to the cloister of St. John Lateran, there is less homogeneity because of the fact that three sides were built between 1208 and 1214, while the fourth, the one adjacent to the church, was completed only around 15 years later. This last side, unanimously attributed to a member of the Vasselletto family, shows a greater decorative richness. lt is not possible to recognize a precise iconological plan, since the artist shows influences of the medieval, classical, Byzantine, and even Etruscan traditions - observable in the portrayal of the chimera, the mythological fire-breathing monster with a lion's head, goat's body, and the tail of a serpent. ln some scenes it is, however, definitely possible to note a precise intention to admonish the monks, as in the amusing representation of the episode of the "wolf at school”, visible in the third outside pendentive of the first right-hand bay. Even though it has been chiselled, in the scene it is possible to recognize a wolf dressed as a monk who, as he is learning the alphabet, immediately associates the letter "A" with the image of a lamb ("agnello” in italian), clearly referring to the monks’ heedlessness of the vows imposed by the monastic life. On the other hand, the entire beautiful inscription, in blue letters on a gold ground, running along the three sides of the cloister not adjacent to the church is perhaps the best description of the function and meaning given to this place, where”... the monks study, read and pray. The cloister enclosing the monks takes its name from “to close" and, in exultation with Christ, the pious throng of brothers is shut in...”