Fresco by Antoniazzo Romano from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

The Washington DC Chapter

Cerchia di Antoniazzo Romano; San Paolo, affresco staccato; sec. XV; Basilica di S. Paolo fuori le mura; Sala Gregoriana (Pinacoteca)

The fresco is located in an area of the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, accessible by way of Via Ostiense. Its particular concave lunette shape is due to its decorative function for a space that was originally a small apse.  In the architectural alterations of the latter centuries, it lost its function. Curiously, the work is now above the door of one of the small spaces in the passageway that, from the Gregorian Room, leads to the Baptistery and Transept. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, is rendered with his characteristic beard and elongated profile. He is reading a book, opened in his left hand, while his right hand wields a sword. The weapon is typical in iconographic depictions of the saint, who upon his conversion, no longer persecuted the Christians, but instead fought for their salvation and was eventually martyred, beheaded by the sword. Despite the current problematic state of conservation, underneath the efflorescence (salt migration on the surface) and below the incoherent deposits, the quality of the image can still be seen. The sacred solemnity of a medieval inspiration is fused with an organic, fluid rendering of the saint, already alluding to figurative elements of the Renaissance. This is a combination characteristic of the artistic hand of Antonio di Benedetto Aquili, better known as Antoniazzo Romano. It is also a style prevalent in painting cycles of the late 15th century, particularly in the 1480’s and 1490’s. Generally considered one of the most masterful interpreters of the Roman art scene of the second half of the 15th century, Antoniazzo is the only one to be mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his “Lives” as ‘one of the best that ever was in Rome’ and who had a flourishing workshop. The painting’s authorship was first attributed to Antoniazzo in 1909 by Bernhard Berenson (from the “Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance”).