Square, bluey-black when dry, bluey-grey and slippery when wet, the old paving stones in the medieval heart of Rome, or sampietrini, were originally a cheap way of paving the streets with off cuts from blocks of basalt used to pave ceremonial buildings. They wear better than paving bricks and rise, sink or tip with the movement of the earth beneath them without cracking. Water drains into the gaps between them and they are resilient but noisy when horseshoes clatter on then and iron-clad cartwheels bump loudly through the excited chatter of the passengers. I spent a summer in Trastevere and had my head cracked open by the noise of the tourist carriages on the sampietrini – all part of the unique atmosphere I was told.
What a joy it was to escape into one of the early Christian churches. This time I explored the Basilica of Santa Presside which is celebrating the 1200 years since it was founded soon after the coronation the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne’s coronation in Rome by the pope in 800. Traditionally it was built on the site of the house of Saint Pudens, who was the first Roman converted to Christianity by St. Peter. He and his daughters, Saint Prudentia and Saint Presside (Praxides), with his sons, saints Donatus (or Novatus) and Timothy, gave alms to the poor and collected the bones of early Christian martyrs to bury them on this site. This small basilica has a beautiful cosmatesque floor named after four generations of the 12th-century Roman family of the Cosmati. There is a lovely 13th-century one in Westminster Abbey, almost unique north of the Alps. I see their design as somehow connected with mazes as one pattern curves into another. They could have been developed in early southern Italian and Sicilian churches by the descendants of craftsmen who had worked on floor and wall decorations in late Roman villas and ceremonial buildings in the 4th and 5th centuries, such as Piazza Armerina in Sicily, famed for mosaics of girls in bikinis! Beneath one’s feet curving patterns are made in a large square, and filled with coloured stones, glazed pottery and glass. We even found a church in Rome with a cosmatesque pavement that had clear plastic chairs for the congregation. Through them you could follow the flow of the design while in Saint Prasside you can walk over the areas without pews.
In Santa Prasside everyone goes to marvel at Pope Pascal I’s superb mosaics. He rebuilt the church from 817 to 824 where the great mosaics in the apse of Christ and the apostles watch over us, somewhat obscured by what looks like a 19th-century canopy over the altar. All religions hallow a holy shrine or ceremony by placing or holding a canopy over it, but the greatest canopy is found in the little side chapel of Saint Zenon, also called the Garden of Paradise. In it four white-robed angels spring from the corners of the square chapel ceiling to hold a circle with Christ at the centre looking down at us. Over an arch in this tiny chapel, beside saints with circular golden haloes, is a man with a square blue shape behind his head. He is robed in gold and white and holds a church – his church – the church we are in. A square halo means that he was still alive while the mosaic artists were working in his church. Here is Pope Pascal the First still watching over his creation after 1194 years.