The Navicella mosaic

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.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 2 minutes):
Gregorian sequence

Preview Picture Data File Info Comment
Oil on canvas, 740 x 990 cm
Fabbrica di San Pietro, Rome

True Color
150 Kb

Pen on paper, 274 x 388 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

156 Kb

Navicella (mosaic fragment)
Mosaic, diameter 66 cm
San Pietro Ispano, Boville Ernica

True Color
210 Kb

Navicella (mosaic fragment)
Vatican Grotto, Rome

True Color
205 Kb

Summary of paintings by Giotto
Frescoes in San Francesco, Assisi
Upper Church: Legend of St Francis | New Testament scenes | Lower Church
Frescoes in Arena Chapel, Padua
Life of Joachim | Life of Virgin | Life of Christ | Angels | Heads
Last Judgment | Heads
Vault frescoes | Virtues and Vices | Decorative elements
Frescoes in Santa Croce, Florence
Frescoes in Peruzzi Chapel | Frescoes in Bardi Chapel
Panel paintings
Crucifix | Maestŕ and others | Polyptych panels | Stefaneschi Altarpiece | Baroncelli Polyptych
Miscellaneous works
Navicella mosaic | Campanile of the Florence Cathedral