Vatican Corner 11-01-2020

When you enter St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the whole building’s design is intended to direct your gaze upward towards the ceiling where you are basically shown the promise of heaven. But you may be missing something extra special if you don’t also look down at the floors of the Basilica and Vatican museum. The floors are fascinating with their intricate inlaid marble mosaics, from ones with simple geometric patterns to those depicting scenes made from thousands of little chunks of different colored marble which together create a picture. Many of the intricate floors are roped off and protected from the feet of tourists. But also many are just right beneath you. The floors as well as the buildings date back to the late Renaissance, but many of the stones that make the floors are scavenged and repurposed material. One such stone is rose porphyry; an extremely hard and heavy stone imported from a single mine in Egypt. It was used by the Romans as a decorative accent for tiled floors, colored columns, or occasionally carved into vase or sculpture. It is associated with the Royal purple worn by Roman magistrates and was a symbol of the Caesars. After the fall of Rome, in the later centuries, everyone wanted that Roman porphyry stone for their buildings, and that included the popes. So the popes used the old buildings like the Forum and Coliseum as their quarries explaining their pilfering as “all for the greater glory of God.” Some Vatican floors have magnificent geometric patterns using the Cosmati style, named after the Cosma family, who for generations produced mosaics during the 12th and 13th centuries. They used red porphyry, green serpentine, and white marbles making incredibly complex patterns. The Vatican’s Round Room has a floor that was taken piece by piece from an ancient bathhouse in the old port of Rome. The mosaic floor tells the story of the mythic battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The crossed key symbol appears in many in of the floors in the Vatican and represents the pontificate. One floor has a room sized menu showing pictures of the foods available in this dining room of a rich Roman house. In the Vatican’s Profane Museum there is a mosaic floor that shows olive pits, food scraps, lobster shells, fruit rinds, etc. thrown around and includes the item’s shadows. It was a floor pattern called “unswept room” commonly used in dining rooms in ancient Rome. The reason for depicting trash on the floor was apparently to show off the spoils of the Roman Empire. Many Vatican visitors often completely ignore the floors at the Vatican, and frequently there are just too many tourists, with an average of 17,000 a day, making viewing and studying the floors difficult. But if someday you find yourself a Vatican visitor, give your neck a rest and check out the floors that you are walking on. They could be just as interesting and beautiful as anything else in the building.