Novel Architecturale

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1999.05.21 11:24
May 21st - the Agonalia

Agonalia - a festival in honor of Janus celebrated in Rome on the 9th of January and the 21st of May.

Janus is my favorite Roman god.

Janus - an old Italian deity. He was represented with a face on the front and another on the back of his head. The month of January was sacred to him, as were all other beginnings. The myth makes him a king of Latium or Etruria, where he hospitably received Saturn when expelled by Jupiter from Crete. He had a small temple in the Forum, with two doors opposite to each other, which in time of war stood open and in time of peace were shut; the temple was trice closed on this account. With reference to his temple, the deity was called Janus Geminus or Janus Quirinus.

In its over 800 year history, Rome was at peace only three times?

I like Janus because he can see in front of him and he can see behind him--into the future and into the past? Also, I like to wonder whether Janus was "two faced" or was he schizophrenic?

Within his large plan of the Campo Marzio, Piranesi applies the label "Circus Agonalis sive Alexandri" to the original Circus of Domitian which is today Rome's Piazza Navona. Albeit obscure information, Piranesi was indeed correct in his designation because the emperor Alexander Severus rebuilt the Circus of Domitian and renamed it in honor of Janus. It is fun to imagine all the big goings-on over 1700 years ago today within what is now the Piazza Navona.

Another monument in honor of Janus that still stands in Rome today is the Arch of Janus Quadrifrons, which is in the Forum Boarium. It is one of those unique four-way arches, and, according to Banister Fletcher, is "of poor design." What is most interesting about this arch, however, is that it was constructed under Constantine the Great AFTER he sanctioned Christianity. I believe this signifies two important facts. First, the aristocratic and pagan population of Rome still had tremendous influence and power. Second, whoever designed this arch was extremely clever in that Janus, precisely because of his "two faced" nature, was the perfect god to reflect Constantine's own political position--exactly because of his sanctioning of Christianity, Constantine himself is Rome's ultimate Janus-like emperor. [Personally, I can't help but believe that it was Constantine's mother Helena [or mother-in-law Eutropia] that thought all this poignant symbolism through.] And, in an almost too good to be true sense, the Arch of Janus may well have predicted (looked towards) European architecture's next 1200 years: Banister Fletcher notes "it has a simple cross-vault with embedded brick box-ribs at the groins, affording a further instance of the progressive character of Roman construction techniques: such ribs are possibly the prototypes of Gothic rib vaults." [Fletcher is being a little two faced himself here--first the Arch of Janus is not good design, and then the arch is progressive construction!] Could it really be that the first ribbed cross-vaults ever were built in late antiquity? Do these vaults, built by ancient Rome's first Christian emperor, unwittingly and uncannily prophesies a whole new future era of Western architecture? [And is it possible that Helena, besides being the first master architect of Christianity, is also the world's proto-Gothic architect?]


World Monuments Fund

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