Thursday, 17 August 2006

Rule Britannia!

During my flying visit to Rome earlier this month I popped into the Venerable English College, my alma mater. The summer vacation meant that the College was full of workmen, taking advantage of the lack of students to maintain the seventeenth century buildings (it has some older bits - the College complex dates back to 1362 and the foundation of the English Hospice of St Thomas on the site). This year they made an amazing discovery in the College refectory. When they took down the large painting of Mary Magdalen washing the feet of Our Lord, they found the remains of a fresco dating from the 1680s, probably by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709) or a member of his school. This Jesuit lay brother is more famous for the frescoes in S Ignazio in Rome. He also provided a ceiling fresco of St George for the College refectory and of the Assumption for the nearby Martyrs' Chapel. Here's the newly discovered fresco:

It's hard to make out the painting but to the right of centre is a lunette with the figure of Britannia. Here is an enhanced image from my digital camera:

This must be one of the earliest depictions of Britannia overseas. She had been revived as an idealized personification of Great Britain during the reign of Elizabeth I; in 1672 she appeared on the farthing coin and, it was said, based on the features of the Duchess of Richmond, then mistress of the crypto-Catholic Charles II. Her presence in the refectory would have reminded the English seminarists of their distant home, where they faced legal penalties and an underground existence. Still, Britannia is not really the sort of image you expect to find in the panting heart of Rome!


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