Walk into any of Rome’s medieval basilicas, and your eyes are immediately drawn upwards to the rich ceilings, chapels, and altars. However, if you look down at your feet, you will discover an intricate tapestry of Carrara marble, glass and precious stones swirling in patterns of serpentine, circles and squares – the Cosmati floors.
There were many marble workers in Rome in the Middle Ages. However, the most well-known were the Cosmati, a family of four generations of marble workers who plied their art in the city between the 12th and 13th centuries.
While the use of mosaic decoration was common in the Roman Empire, Lorenzo Cosmati, the patriarch of the family, initially learned his skills from Greek marble workers. However, he soon developed his own style, evolving from the Byzantine art of mosaics that used stones of a uniform shape and size, to an intricate, multi-material production. In the process, in a period of lavish church building across the city, Lorenzo ushered in an entirely new form of church decoration. His sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons followed in his footsteps.
Their work was in such high demand that when the Abbot of Westminster visited the Pope in the 13th century, he brought marble workers back to London with him to create a Cosmati floor in Westminster Abbey.
WHAT ARE COSMATI or COSMATESQUE FLOORS?
Cosmati (or Cosmatesque) floors are a style of decorative stonework characterized by white marble backgrounds inlaid with geometric shapes (including squares, circles, triangles, and serpentine) cut from colored marble, stones, and glass.
The Cosmati repurposed much of the material they used from ancient Roman sites, which had fallen into disrepair. Thin slices were cut off the old columns to form the circular roundels. The most often used stones were porphyry (purple), serpentine (green) and giallo antico (orange), in addition to bits of glass and gold tesserae.
According to legend, the stone patterns are not just decorative but reflect elements of philosophy from Plato and Aristotle about the universe and also include Christian symbolism. For example, the circle represents divinity and the circle of life while the square represents humanity.
Each Cosmati floor is unique in that it is designed to match the plan of the basilica. For example, in some basilicas, you will see a serpentine (symbol of the power of creation) where endless figures of eight (symbol of infinity and rebirth) lead you down the center of the nave to the altar. In others, triangles (symbol of the Holy Trinity or the connection between Heaven and Earth) are the main feature.
When they were first made, the floors were a mass of colors, sparkling in the filtered sunlight and the soft glow of candlelight. Today, they bear the scars of the centuries, worn down by the millions of feet that have crossed them and by poor attempts at repair. Nevertheless, they are an important and intriguing part of Medieval church architecture in Rome and beyond. So don’t forget to look down!
WHERE TO SEE and PHOTOGRAPH COSMATI DECORATIONS IN ROME
The best examples of Cosmati art in Rome may be found in the following basilicas of the city:
Santa Prassede, the chapel of San Zeno (to the left as you enter), built by Pope Pascal II as a mausoleum for his mother. The pavement is probably the oldest example of a Cosmati floor;
The pavement in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill;
The pavement in the central nave of Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the four patriarchal basilicas);
The pavement of Santa Maria in Cosmedin;
The pavement of Santa Maria in Trastevere (the first church where Christians were able to worship openly);
The pavement of San Crisogono in Trastevere;
The pavement of Basilica of San Clemente (built over a pagan shrine);
Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati (The San Silvestro Chapel as well as the main basilica);
The pavement at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme;
The pavement of the Basilica of Giovanni e Paolo;
San Giovanni in Laterano (including the main basilica and the cloisters) (one of the four patriarchal basilicas);
The Cloisters of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (one of the four patriarchal basilicas);
The Sistine Chapel (no photography is permitted).
For more photographs of Cosmati floors in Rome, visit the Rome Gallery at https://www.allegriaphotos.com