Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gift of Learning Something New

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.

Close up view of the bronze meridian at Santa Maria degli Angeli.


The meridian line is 45 meters long and is a piece of bronze inlaid into the marble floor.

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.

This ellipse tracks the movement of the North Star from 1700-2500.


We managed to visit the church at solar noon to see the sun spot line up on the meridian.

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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15 Responses to “The Gift of Learning Something New”

  1. 1

    Jeff Titelius — December 11, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    A most fascinating read my friend. Reminds me of my post that I did about Saint Sulpice and the Gnomon used to predict the precise day of Easter as well as the winter and summer solstices. I find these measuring devices truly incredible and inspiring!

    • ehalvey replied: — December 11th, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

      After some Wiki-ing to double check the dates for this one, I saw that Saint Sulpice had something similar. Given my hatred for math, I will always be amazed at home people can design something so unusual yet so accurate.

  2. 2

    Lesley Peterson — December 11, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    I’m still amazed they put these “scientific” things in churches. Great pics!

    • ehalvey replied: — December 11th, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

      Astronomy and geometry have always played into the cosmology of the Church. I can’t even remember the complicated way of assigning when Easter is each year, something related to a full moon at some point in the calculations. At some point I knew it for a religion test…Science and faith don’t necessarily cancel each other out.

      I loved this in particular because you can actually see the passage of time and the movement of celestial bodies rather than the labyrinths in medieval churches that were allegorical ways to travel through space and time.

  3. 3

    Greg Simcic — December 11, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

    This is the most interesting thing I have read this month. I used to work at the Buhl Planetarium in the North Side of Pittsburgh and was a lways facinated by the huge pendulum that knocked the pegs down due to the earths rotaton. This device dwarfs that and instantly has become something I need to see in my lifetime.

    • ehalvey replied: — December 11th, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

      It’s actually pretty close to the Termini (the major train station in Rome). I should’ve included a photo that shows the opening in the corner of the wall where the sun shines through. Can’t wrap my brain around the math involved in designing this at all.

  4. 4

    Jenna — December 12, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

    Interesting! I never knew about this either. Next time I’m in Rome, it will be on my list. 🙂

    • ehalvey replied: — December 13th, 2011 @ 11:13 am

      It’s so cool to watch the sunlight move across the floor. And free!

  5. 5

    Patrick — December 13, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    And it’s even more awesome because the whole church used to be part of Diocletian’s baths!

  6. 6

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  8. 8

    Mary Jane Cryan — December 14, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Check out these books for more in depth info”Il Cielo in Basilica” by Mario Catamo & Cesare Lucarini and “L’evoluzione della misura oraria del tempo” by M.Catamo & Fiorella Proietti …and visit some of the other meridiani in Italy: in S. Petronio, Bologna even in little Formello, outside Rome.

    • ehalvey replied: — December 14th, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

      Thanks! I only knew of the other meridian in Bologna, will need to check out Formello as well.

  9. 9

    Suzy — December 29, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    Great find! I never knew about this calendar for your feet in Rome. I bet it must be fascinating to see the sun pass through each time in the marble.

    • ehalvey replied: — December 30th, 2011 @ 9:52 am

      It was so cool to watch the sunspot move across the floor, even during the quick tour. We probably would have never seen it if our hotel wasn’t in the area.

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