Over two and a half years ago, we went to Rome for our honeymoon. It was a great compromise of history, art, and food, and we had both taken an Italian course so we weren’t completely clueless. Even though I had a primary focus on medieval art and architecture for my major, I studied A LOT of Roman and Italian architecture. Ancient Roman through Baroque architecture in fact. So I was stoked to finally see what I studied in three courses. St. Peter’s was up there especially since I had to construct a model of an alternate blueprint for it that was pushed aside for the next architect’s plan. I knew I’d learn more about the culture, but I wasn’t expecting to learn something new when it came to art history.
I was invited by the Italy Roundtable bloggers to participate in the December theme of gifts related to Italy. Italy’s gift to me? Besides gelato, prosciutto, Nutella, Caravaggio, and Borromini? Bianchini’s meridian found in Michelangelo’s Santa Maria degli Angeli. We never covered this church in my classes, and I had never come across the concept of a meridian in any of my 8637846376493843907834567 pages of readings for class. I’m a self-admitted map nerd, so I was surprised to stumble across this new map-meets-calendar. It was built in 1702, which is later than the periods I studied, but you’d think it would have been mentioned at some point.
A meridian is like a sundial on steroids. Placed along Rome’s longitudinal line, this device measures time through the placement of the sun’s ray along the line. On the winter solstice, the sun hits the point on the line furthest from the wall, and on the summer solstice, it hits the point on the line closest to the wall. Pope Clement XI commissioned Bianchini to construct this meridian for several reasons. First, Bologna had one so Rome had to have a bigger one to retain primacy. Second, he wanted to test the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar to check if the Easter date calculations were correct. The Gregorian calendar change caused a ruckus in the Church during the Middle Ages because certain churches and monasteries argued their calculations were correct because their patron saint did them versus Rome, and Rome said their calculations were correct because the Pope is infallible in theological matters, and the Orthodox churches continued using the Julian calendar because they had broken away from Rome. Long story short, Clement wanted to see if the math was right.
The meridian also measures the Zodiac constellations along the meridian to show the movement of the earth through space. There are also giant concentric ellipses at the end of the meridian line that track the North Star’s movements from 1700-2500 AD. Think of it like the Mayan calendar laid on the floor of a church and stretched out. I was blown away by this astronomical calendar just sitting in a floor of a church that people don’t often visit. Thanks to our hotel’s location just a few blocks away, I was able to discover something I had never even heard of let alone seen in my art history courses. You never know what you might see on a church floor.
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