Mysterious Mausoleum

The Mausoleum of Constantia, one of the eeriest and most evocative spots in the city, is what inspires me to write today. Constantia (sometimes called Constantina) was the daughter of Emperor Constantine and his second wife Fausta. Despite a medieval legend that would have her devoutly praying at the tomb of St. Agnes (now the site of the magnificent basilica, Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura), miraculously curing her of leprosy (curiously, a legend nearly identical to one associated with her father Constantine), she was by most accounts a vicious, greedy and not particularly religious person. However, due to her miraculous cure, she was venerated (but it seems never canonized) as a saint, although she is not recognized as one by the church. Nevertheless, her 4th-century mausoleum was later consecrated as the Santa Costanza church, and is attached to the same basilica of Sant’Agnese associated with the legend. Both are located northeast of the historic center, off of Via Nomentana.

The mausoleum is cylindrical, like the Pantheon, with exposed brick walls and intricate mosaic ceilings around the outer ring, or ambulatory. A double row of columns separates the ambulatory from the heart of the mausoleum where the altar sits, and the streaming light from the high windows above contributes to the spooky atmosphere. Perhaps the dark, gloominess of the ambulatory in direct contrast with the light, airy space beneath the dome is what makes this space so mysterious.

A rather shabby copy of Constantia’s imposing porphyry sarcophagus sits where the original (now housed in the Vatican Museums, pictured here) once stood. Much more painful is what has become of the domed ceiling. The original mosaics that once filled the dome were sadly destroyed in 1620, to be replaced with mediocre Baroque frescoes.

The 4th-century mosaics are without a doubt the most interesting detail of the mausoleum. While the 5th-7th century mosaics in the apses depict Christian scenes, the barrel vaulted ambulatory mosaics are much more pagan in style, depicting mostly flora and fauna or geometrical shapes in deep colors (mostly reds and greens) on an off-white background. My favorite section of mosaic is a puzzle of interlocking crosses, hexagons and octagons. For any other lovers of Roman art and architecture out there, does it look familiar? Is there another spot in Rome (hint: much more recent) where this same pattern is repeated? I am curious to see if anyone recognizes it. Please comment if you do!!

This mausoleum-turned-church was one of the few contenders when I was first considering where to get married, a very long 18 months ago. I loved the idea of getting married in a circular space, with the guests seated all around us. The way the light streams in from the upper windows is breathtaking, not to mention the rich detail of the mosaics I love so much. What eventually deterred me were the morbid connotations of getting married in what was once a mausoleum, and the fact that I was determined to wed in the historic center. The church we eventually chose was perfect for our wedding, and before long I will write a post on that loveliest of all churches.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3