Always Look Up: The Heights of Santa Croce

This may seem like a strange image in a post about looking up. But it tells a story, a story of the 1966 flood that devastated Florence, destroying or damaging millions of books and manuscripts and countless works of art.

Look up to the highest label on the wall. That is the high water mark, about 22 ft., on November 4, 1966. Lower sections of buildings and damaged art works are still undergoing restoration.

The frescoes in the chancel above the high altar and its vaulte dome are beautiful.

The Baroncelli Chapel, by Taddeo Gaddi, shows scenes from the life of Mary. The three following photos show details from the frescoes.

Transept and side chapels have ceiling frescoes depicting the lives of the saints and the four evangelists.

The central dome of the Pazzi Chapel and its chancel dome. Designed by Brunelleschi but not finished until after his death, (1443-1478), the chapel is one of the earliest Florentine Renaissance structures.

The giant crucifix wooden by Cimabue (c. 1265) was heavily damaged in the flood. Over 60 percent of the paint was lost. Even after extensive restoration, damage is still visible. It is considered one of greatest losses from the flood. It now hangs high in the sacristy.

The Renaissance arches of the second cloister.

The Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Galatina, Italy

In the late 14th century, Raimondello Orsini del Balzo visited the Holy Land, including the monastery of St. Catherine. In his desire to possess a relic of the saint, he bent down to kiss the mummified body and bit off one of her fingers, which still wore a ring.

On his return to Italy, he built a church to house the relic in Galatina between 1384-1391.

The church building is a combination of the Apulian Romanesque and Gothic.

The interior frescoes, commissioned by Raimondo’s wife, tell the stories of the Apocalypse, the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, stories of Genesis, and other subjects.

Ceiling vaults. Part of the cycles about the seven Sacraments and the hierarchy of angels.

Detail of decoration in the nave. Scenes from the Apocalypse to the right.

The side aisles were also frescoed.

Reliquery of St. Catherine’s finger. The green stone of her ring is visible.

The basilica is a hidden gem. Well woth a visit if you are in the heel of Italy.

Noah’s Ark and the bodies of the unfaithful.

Square Perspectve #16

Walking With Nero

The Octagonal Dining Room with Domed Ceiling. Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy. Concrete was used for the dome construction.


The Golden House

The Golden House of Nero, Domus Aurea, a magnificent palace in ancient Rome, was constructed by the emperor Nero between AD 64 and 68. The palace and its grounds were laid out as a park with porticoes, pavilions, baths, and fountains, with an artificial lake in the center. (Under the emperor Vespasian the lake was drained for the site of the Colosseum). The Golden House was never finished and survived only four years, until June 9, A.D.68, when Nero committed suicide. The complex is historically significant  because it introduced aesthetics of monumental architecture developed in the imperial style of Roman architecture under DomitianTrajan, and Hadrian. It was also one of the first building do use concrete for fine architecture.

Little survives of the palace but excavations have revealed hints of its grandeur and size. It is said to have had over 300 rooms, none of which were bedrooms. Nothing remains of the palace’s second storey. Much of the excavated structure was built into the hills or was built over by the Baths of Trajan. After years of restoration, part of the palace was opened to the public in 1999. Heavy rains in 2006 weakened the structure and forced the site to close. Happily, the Domus Aurea was again open to the public when I visited Rome in November 2019. About 30 of 100 excavated rooms are opened to the public. Each room generally takes its name from the decorative elements that remain: the Room of the Vault of the Owls (sala della volta delle civette) and, the most famous, the Room of the Golden Vault” (sala della volta dorata). Admittance is by appointment only on a guided tour that is all underground. It was one of the highlights of my five weeks in Italy. If you are interested in Roman history, art, or architecture, or the genesis of Renaissance painting, I highly recommend visiting. Demand is high and space is limited, so book ahead.


Frescoed Vaulted Ceiling, Room of Achilles on Skyros (Room 119), Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Room of Achilles on Skyros (Room 119)

Much of the palace decoration is related to mythology and the Homeric poems, especially the Illiad. The Room of Achilles at Skyros is said to be the work of the painter Fabullus. The center panel of the barrel vault depicts Achilles, with spear and shield in hand, surrounded by the daughters Lycomedes, the king of the island of Syros. Achilles, who had been disguised as a girl, has just revealed his true identity to Odysseus.


Frescoed Vault, Central Octagonal Decoration Set into Mosaic Ceiling Room 42, Ceiling, Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Nymphaeum of Polyphemus (Room 42)

The ceiling and walls of a rectangular nymphaeum were originally covered by colorful mosaics and marble sheathing, which were stripped for reuse after Nero’s death. The nymphaeum had a waterfall fountain on the bottom and water was conveyed into a central basin. The lower part of the walls were originally covered with marble.   Four vault medallions and a central octagonal medallion are partially preserved. The central scene show Polyphemus,  one of the Cyclopes described in Homer’s Odyssey, receiving the cup of wine from the hands of Ulysses.

Central Passageway, Frescoed Wall, cleaning test section, Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Grand Passage/Grande Criptoportico (Room 92)

A small section of the surviving wall painting has been cleaned as a test to give an approximation of the original. This passageway, which is set into the hill, was used by servants to move throughout the palace. It is a massive space with frescoed walls and ceiling vaults almost 36 feet high. It shows some of the painting motifs that became part of the Renaissance vocabulary following the discovery of the palace by Renaissance painters.


Damaged Frescoed Ceiling, Room of the Golden Vault, (Sala della Volta Dorata), Used to enter the room during and after the 15th centery by artists who studied the painting on the ceiling and upper walls.  Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Room of the Golden Vault

Floors, walls, and ceilings were originally covered with the sumptuous wall paintings, mosaics, and stucco decorations or sheathed in marble, precious stones, ivory, and gold. Following Nero’s death, the palace was stripped of its marble and most of its decorative elements. Over the centuries, the internal space was filled with rubble or used as foundations for later buildings, which helped to preserve at least some of the palace structures. Since before the Renaissance, holes have been cut into the Domus Aurea’s ceiling so that people might descend inside to see its spectacular decorations, such as those in the Room of the Golden Vaults  and as part of the construction of a park (top right) in the 1930s. In the 16th century Raphael and his followers were inspired by the wall paintings in the grotte, or caverns, of the palace, especially the tiny grotesques, which became an intricate part of many Renaissance frescoes. (The grotesque decoration generally depicts monsters and hybrid characters, often represented as a mix of different figures, surrounded by natural or geometrical decorations, in a very symmetrical structure, on a white or one colour background. The characters represented are not connected to any specific story, but represented in a very simple and basic way.) Many artists were inspired by the grottos of the Domus Aurea and some, such as Raffaello, Ghirlandaio and Pinturicchio, left their signature on the walls. Unfortunately, the holes and other breaches of the palace allowed water and roots to infiltrate and damaged both the structure and the frescoes. Humidity has caused serious deterioration to the frescoes.


Renaissance Fresco Detail, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Italy

Renaissance grotesque decorations from one of the rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

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