Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Navicella

Francesco Berretta and Guido Ubaldo Abbatini
Baroque copy of Giotto di Bondone (1267 -1337)
Navicella (1628 and 1649),
Oil on canvas, 740 x 990 cm
Fabbrica di San Pietro, Rome

Parri Spinelli`s (ca. 1387-1453) drawing of Giotto's mosaic Navicella and verso
c. 1412-19
Pen on paper, 274 x 388 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Parri Spinelli`s (ca. 1387-1453) drawing of Giotto's mosaic Navicella
c. 1412-19
Pen on paper 26.9 x 39.7cm
Musée Condé, Chantilly

Parri Spinelli`s (ca. 1387-1453) drawing of Giotto's mosaic Navicella entitled "La pêche miraculeuse"
c. 1412-19
Pen on paper 24.2 x 19 cm
Musée Bonnat de Bayonne

Giotto di Bondone (1267 -1337)
Tondo with Angel
c. 1310
Mosaic, diameter 65,5 cm
S. Pietro Ispano, Boville Ernica, Rome
Although heavily restored, this fragment of the Navicella conveys an impression of the splendour of the original mosaic.

"Weak, exhausted by fasting and illness, [St Catherine of Siena] came every day to St. Peter's, the former basilica. In the porch there was a garden, on the facade a famous mosaic, painted by Giotto for the 1300 jubilee, and called The Barque [The Navicella] (now a copy of it appears inside the porch of the new basilica).

It reproduced the scene of Peter's boat, tossed by the night storm, and it represented the apostle daring to move towards Christ who has appeared walking on the waves; a symbol of life that is always in danger and always miraculously saved by the divine mysterious Master.

One day, it was 29th January 1380, about Vesper time, Sexagesima Sunday, and it was Catherine's last visit to St. Peter's; it seemed to Catherine, caught up in ecstasy, that Jesus stepped out of the mosaic and came up to her, placing the barque on her weak shoulders; the heavy, storm-tossed barque of the Church; and Catherine, collapsing under the weight, fell to the ground unconscious.

Historically, Catherine's sacrifice seemed to fail.

But who can say that burning love of hers disappeared in vain if myriads of virgin souls and hosts of priestly spirits and of faithful and industrious laymen, made it their own; and it still blazes in Catherine's words: "Sweet Jesus, darling Jesus"?

And may that fire be ours, too, may it give us the strength to repeat Catherine's words and gift. "I have given my life for Holy Church" (Raimondo da Capua, Vita, III, 4). "

(Pope Paul VI, General Audience on Wednesday April 30th, 1969)

"The mosaic of Navicella in the atrium of the Old St. Peter's in Rome, now almost totally lost, is attributed to Giotto. It was commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi, without a doubt the leading artistic patron in the papal court of the first half of the fourteenth century. Originally in Rome under Boniface VIII, then in Avignon after the move there of the papacy, he was responsible for some of the most important artistic undertakings of the day.

The giant mosaic was originally situated on the eastern porch of the old St. Peter's basilica and occupied the whole of the wall above the entrance arcade facing the courtyard. It measured approximately 13,5 x 9.5 m, and depicted on its uninterrupted surface St. Peter walking on the waters. Unfortunately, this extraordinary work has been destroyed in the course of its history.

During the construction of the new St. Peter's in the 17th century it was moved several times to a different location, resulting in smaller and greater losses. First, the inscription disappeared, and only two fragments of the framework survived - an angel in the Vatican Grottos, restored almost beyond recognition, and another equally heavily restored angel in the church of St. Peter at Boville Ernica. Even greater losses among the figures followed - especially that of Peter - until the mosaic was finally installed inside the church in 1628 to protect it from the effects of the weather.

Prior to this, Francesco Berretta was commissioned to make an exact copy in paint. But the mosaic did not stay for long even on the interior facade of St. Peter's. Another change of location, its ultimate loss and a Baroque reproduction mark the further fate of the work up till 1674.

Today it is the Baroque version of the Navicella that we see in the entrance area of St. Peter's. The mosaic was already called the Navicella, or "little ship" when a copy appeared in the church of St. Peter in Strasbourg in 1320, or when it was drawn by Parri Spinelli about 80 years later.

From the 14th century on, many pilgrim guides mentioned it by this name. People were impressed by the large boat, which dominated the scene, and whose sail, filled by the storm, loomed over the horizon. Such a natural representation of a seascape and of a ship in trouble was known only from ancient works of art, if at all. Together with the mosaic's brightness, the effect must have been overwhelming - enthusiastic reports of the Navicella by worshippers testify that this was so.