Among the early Christian catacombs in northern Rome, beyond the walls of the ancient city, are those of the Sant’Agnese fuori le mura complex. It is here along the via Nomentana that St Agnes of Rome is said to have been buried after her martyrdom in the early 4th century AD, and where a basilica dedicated to her was later built by Pope Honorius I (625-638).
Another female figure is associated with this site too – Constantina, the daughter of the emperor Constantine. A large circular structure was added along the southern side of an older, now ruined 4th-century basilica at the site; it would come to house the porphyry sarcophagus of Constantina, who died in Bithynia in AD 354.
The mausoleum, now known as Santa Costanza, still stands and is still decorated with many of its rich 4th-century mosaics, important examples of early Christian art. Those in the dome have been destroyed, however, and those that covered the barrel vault over the ambulatory were heavily restored in the early 19th century. These changes make the drawing on the right an interesting – if not entirely accurate – window into the building’s past.
In this depiction of a panel from the ambulatory, we see a lamb, griffin, cupids, winged female figures, flowers, and ten birds, each of a different species. Yet the corresponding mosaics have many more figures than this image, no griffin, and most of the female figures lack wings.
The drawing is one of several of Santa Costanza by Italian artist Francesco Bartoli (1670-1733) in the collection of the MP Richard Topham (1671-1730). Though it seems unlikely that Topham went on a Grand Tour, he was evidently interested in ancient Rome and amassed a substantial collection (now in Eton College Library) of prints and drawings of Roman mosaics, sculptures, reliefs, and frescoes, as well as architecture, jewellery, and coins, to form a sort of paper museum. This was not a unique ambition, but as Patricia Witts, author of a recently published catalogue of the drawings of mosaics, notes, Topham’s collection was ‘outstanding for its almost exclusively classical focus’.
Bartoli was one of the most prolific artists to work for Topham. While he may have taken a few liberties with his record of the Santa Costanza mosaics, they are certainly appealing images. Charming drawings like this in the Topham Collection served as a source of inspiration for British neoclassical architects.
Patricia Witts’ Drawings of Roman Mosaics in the Topham Collection, Eton College Library is published by BAR (ISBN 978-1407358987; £48).