Rome Tours: Look Down. Rome’s Precious Cosmatesque History
Rome isn’t short of a church. Around 900 (of all denominations) to be precise. I’m not a devout Catholic but I do love walking into churches in Rome. Many of which feature beautiful architecture, interesting relics, stunning mosaics and frescoes.
A while back, I took some visiting friends into my local Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and whilst I pointed out the resplendent gold work and mosaics on the ceiling, one of them kept their head down, saying to me, “Everyone looks up when they walk into churches in Rome. But I look down. The floor is just as beautiful.”
I’ve carried those words with me and do that whenever I walk into a palace, a museum and especially a church or cathedral.
When I found out Personalized Italy offer Rome’s only Cosmatesque tour, I was intrigued and was dying to try it. This tour agency is the brainchild of my super talented friend Annie and her husband Giovanni. They run Rome’s most successful Vespa tour company, Scooteroma but with their passion for all things unique, they’ve grown to offer carefully personalized and bespoke itineraries across Rome and beyond, Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Florence and Tuscany, and Venice. So not just your run-of-the-mill Vatican and Colosseum tours (although if that’s what you want, they can organise that too!) but things like city photo walks and personal shopping experiences, all private and customised to your liking. The Cosmatesque: A Path to Knowledge tour is special in that it’s the only one of it’s kind. I mean, how special is that! Our talented and friendly guide, Alessandra is a Middle Ages history major and one of the few experts in Cosmatesque pavement style. Walking around with her was like taking a walk with a friend – but not just any friend: a friend who captivates your attention for 3 hours, weaving a tale about Popes and marble and symbols and recycled materials from the fall of the Roman Empire.
You may not know exactly what Cosmatesque style is or even heard of the term (I confess I hadn’t until recently) but I’ll bet that if you’ve visited Rome, the majority of you will have come across it (or walked over it!). If you’ve walked through the Sistine Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria in Trastevere or even San Giovanni in Laterano (the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, hence the Pope!), I rest my case. The term Cosmatesque takes its name from the Cosmati family in Rome – a leading family of marble craftsmen – and is a geometric decorative style of stonework used mainly to adorn church floors. While it dates back to the Middle Ages where 12th century Cosmati were the craftsmen of the style, history suggests that workers from Constantinople, influenced by Byzantine floor mosaics, may have used a similar style to decorate the flooring of the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino. The Cosmati technique differs from this however, in that Cosmati artists distinctly utilised recycled materials from Ancient Rome, like the large round marble pieces which are cross segments of old columns. Their masterpieces were created by mixing two mosaic techniques: opus sectile (cut work) and opus alexandrium (byzantine).
Their style eventually spread throughout Europe and even the floor of Westminster Abbey is decorated with a Cosmatesque marble floor. Pieces and patterns vary in size, shape and colour but there is a strict and precise code around their symbolism. For instance, some represent man, others the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Each work tells a story and for the most part, symbolise the Catholic journey to salvation. The highlight for me was finding out about the various symbols and linkages; the way they tell a story and whisper secrets of the past. You get to see with your own eyes that not one aspect of architecture or design in Rome is by chance and as Alessandra pointed out things that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, it all started coming together like an enormous (and exquisitely beautiful) jigsaw puzzle.
To know more you’ll just have to experience the tour for yourself so you can see why these precious works of art should be appreciated and not just walked over! Personalized Italy’s Cosmatesque: A Path to Knowledge, tour takes you through four churches and / or significant religious sites. Namely, San Giovanni, the Santa Scala (holy staircase), the ancient basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati and the basilica of San Clemente, which boasts underground excavations that’ll have you walking on the ground level of Rome in the first century AD!
Each site visited is significant in the history and make up of this ancient design style.
I highly recommend this to any first time visitor with a curiosity and interest in symbolism and theology, architecture and history buffs and anyone who is an old hand at Rome and is looking for something truly unique to do.
Cosmatesque: A Path to Knowledge is run by Personalized Italy. All their tours are private and customised so you get the special VIP treatment. This tour is approximately 3 hours in duration and can generally be booked any day of the week. Prices available on request and vary on number of persons in group. Appropriate clothing is required given the tour visits sacred / religious sites. Visit www.personalizeditaly.com for more info and bookings and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (@personalitaly).
Signing off from Trastevere,
Note: I was a guest of Personalized Italy but nobody tells me what to write (not even Annie!) and all thoughts expressed are my own.2