By Jürgen J. Rasch and Achim Arbeiter. With contributions by Friedrich Wilhelm Deichmann and Jens Rohmann. Pp. xii + 352, figs. 38, b&w pls. 173, color pls. 8, plans 39. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2007. €149. ISBN 978-3-8053-3514-0 (cloth).
It could be argued that the Mausoleum of Constantina in Rome, currently the church of Santa Costanza, is one of the most important buildings of late antiquity. Its daring use of paired columns to support the weight of its drum and dome, which also open up the interior space, initiated a new trend in later Roman architecture that would find its fulfillment in Byzantine architecture. Its mosaic decoration, partially preserved and otherwise known from Renaissance drawings and descriptions, remains among the most important examples of fourth-century C.E. art. Given the special place this building holds in the history of Late Roman art and architecture, the lack of a thorough study of its architecture and mosaics was an enormous lacuna in the scholarship of the period. The Mausoleum of Constantina deserved special treatment, and Rasch and Arbeiter have finally provided it.
The book is part of a series on the Late Antique centrally planned buildings of Rome, a project begun by Friedrich Deichmann and others back in the 1950s but really only taking off under Rasch in the 1980s and after. Volumes on other monuments have appeared; all are solid and thorough studies, beautifully produced. The present volume, easily the largest, continues the high standards of the series.
The first half of the volume, written by Rasch, concerns the architecture. Following a brief discussion of the site and history of the building is a detailed description and analysis of its architecture, starting with the basilica to which it was attached and continuing to the now-destroyed narthex and the rotunda itself. From general design to each individual component, no detail is left out. Rasch is at his best here, demonstrating an eye for detail and a masterful understanding of Late Antique architecture. Numerous photographs and Rasch’s own beautifully rendered architectural drawings accompany the text, presenting a thorough examination of the building. His analysis of the metrology demonstrates how its design followed the usual pattern for Roman buildings of this period.
One might question his reconstruction of the original building in a few minor areas. For example, Rasch argues that the main niche opposite the entry contained a doorway giving access to the outer portico, while most have seen the obvious change in the brickwork as the result of a later opening of the wall to facilitate the later removal of the sarcophagus. He argues that the proof of the door’s existence in the original design is found in the fact that the barrel vault covering the niche actually extends through the wall. One might cite the relieving arches; they too, extensions of barrel vaults covering niches, are seen in the Pantheon’s exterior wall as evidence that Roman builders did not necessarily intend such arches to span openings. Also, although there is evidence that the dome was originally exposed externally, Rasch keeps the conical tile-roof covering as original in his reconstruction.
A full discussion of the recent theories concerning the date and patronage of the building is lacking, with only brief mention, and no analysis, of some more recent and provocative theories. Rasch argues that the basilica was constructed during the period of Constantine, that is, before his death in 337 C.E., a dating that finds support in recent studies of the church. He argues that the triconch structure under the vestibule of the present building—the foundation remnants of which were recently excavated—was never built beyond its foundations as plans evolved to construct the larger, circular structure, and that this building was constructed by Constantina before she left Rome in 350. While I agree that the triconch could well be a first design, soon abandoned, I do not believe that it is necessary for the rotunda to have been built before 350. As Kleinbauer (“Patronage of Constantius II,” Gesta 45  125–46) has argued, it is also possible for the rotunda to have been built, partially or entirely, by her brother Constantius II in the years following her death in 354. The fact is, there are not enough comparanda for either building’s masonry in Rome to argue too narrow a dating.
Part 2 concerns the mosaics, written by Arbeiter, best known for his work on the contemporary mosaics at Centcelles, Spain, in a building supposed by some (including this reviewer) to have been the mausoleum of Constantina’s brother, Constans. Arbeiter provides a thorough, well-documented, and illustrated description and discussion of the mosaics of the ambulatory vault. These mosaics are a jumble of original and heavily restored sections, and Arbeiter does an admirable job of wading through numerous documents and publications to present the clearest picture to date of these important mosaics. Equally important as early examples of Early Christian monumental art were the now lost mosaics of the dome and tower in front of the main niche. Using Renaissance drawings and descriptions, Arbeiter provides a detailed account and analysis and is the first scholar to provide a full transcription, with illustrations, of Ugonio’s important 16th-century description of those mosaics. He concludes that the mosaics date to the middle of the fourth century, strengthening Rasch’s dating of the structure.
Arbeiter is rightfully critical of scholars who have focused on portions of the mosaics to argue a Bacchic or syncretistic interpretation of the building, its decorative program, and its patron. He points out that, as an imperial mausoleum, a high-level team of designers would have been responsible for the overall program, which, notwithstanding putti picking grapes in two panels and on the sarcophagus, was clearly an expression of Christian belief—as seen especially in the lost Old and New Testament scenes of the dome and tower mosaics. Finally, the mausoleum was attached to (and, in fact, entered through) a church.
In summary, Rasch and Arbeiter have provided an extremely important and thorough study of a key monument of late antiquity. Their work summarizes and supercedes all previous scholarship on the Mausoleum of Constantina, especially in the areas of description and documentation. While other scholars will continue to debate interpretations of the building and its decoration, all who do so will now have a great foundation on which to base their own work. This book will be the standard reference for many decades to come.
Mark J. Johnson
Art History Program
Department of Visual Arts
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah 84602