by Roderick Conway Morris

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Roman Gates and Railings

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 June 2022
Wrought-iron gates of Capella Clementina at St. John Lateran, Rome, 1691-1737



'I found a city of brick and left it of marble,' said the Emperor Augustus according to Suetonius. But it was not until the Baroque era over a millennium and half later that Rome began to be furnished with the magnificent wrought-iron gates and railings that adorn many of its ancient and more modern monuments.

Gates in the ancient Roman world were typically made of wood with bands and bosses in bronze and iron. During the Middle Ages gates sometimes become so heavily embossed with metal as to resemble iron portals. Meanwhile, the baluster, or vertical rail, with a horizontal bar to form a balustrade was imported from the Islamic world via Spain - giving birth to the familiar combination of the balustrade structure and geometric patterns and panels that characterized subsequent gates and railings.

With so much else to study in Rome's ancient, medieval and later periods, little attention has been given to the city's ironwork, even in its finest manifestations. This neglect is now remedied by Massimo Vico Fallani's immaculately researched and illustrated 'Le Cancellate romane sette-ottocentesche' (Roman Railings of the 18th and 19th century), which embraces key examples from the 17th through to the first decades of the 20th century. Despite its specialist theme, the book is also surprisingly informative not only regarding the applied arts but also some wider economic and social aspects of Rome during the period.

The territories of the Papal states had exceptionally rich sources of iron ore, notably at Terni and Tolfa, which nurtured practical and decorative ironwork (and in due course the manufacture of iron rails for trains). The wrought-iron gates of the Basilica of St. Peter's became the paradigm for monumental metalwork for churches and institutional buildings throughout the city. The gates were commissioned by Paolo V Borghese (1605-1621), Urbano VIII Barberini (1623-1644) and Pius VI Braschi (1775-1799). Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini were the first artist-architects to take a serious interest in designing ironwork, the latter making his mark in this field at St. Peter's while still working as a stone mason on the site.

A distinctive style of Roman decorative ironwork emerged, eclectically drawing on Italian and French Baroque models and ancient Roman motifs, notably in finials on railings in the form of lance- and arrow-heads and, most distinctively Roman of all, the sphere crowned with a spike. The function of these often elaborately decorative gates and railings was primarily to protect the doors, porticos and steps of monumental buildings. During the 19th century there were demands to enclose ever more of them, to save them from the daily threat of damage and prevent them from becoming - in the words of one letter-writer to a local newspaper in 1896 - the resort 'of layabouts, ambulant vendors of roasted melon seeds and lupin beans, domestics, children and street urchins.'

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024