Behind the Design – Oculus

Following a very nice comment on Ravelry on the Oculus Hat, I was asked if I would elaborate on the background of this design. On the pattern page I mention the following information…

In the ruins of the Baths of Emperor Diocletian in Rome, now stands the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs). In 2000, a glass skylight was added to the dome. The skylight, designed by the artist Narcissus Quagliata, casts wonderful colours around the building.

As many of you may realise I am a classical archaeologist and ancient historian by training (and occupation for several years), so inevitably I pick up elements of this in my knitting and other pursuits.

This includes a not insignificant amount of travel in the Mediterranean – and for the previous few years, this has taken me across the continent to Rome.

I first visited the city very briefly back in 1999, with a longer trip as part of an undergraduate trip in 2002. When I revisited the city in 2011 and 2012 I did not get the opportunity to go back to one of the sites I remembered from that University trip. However, in 2013 I did.

There is something fascinating about the scale of the Imperial bath complexes in Rome, although the Baths of Caracalla are unsurpassed in my opinion, they are ruins and can leave something to the imagination. The Baths of Diocletian (built from 306 AD onwards) however, survived partially intact due to their reuse for other purposes following their end in the 6th Century AD. The complex is enormous, and consists of a vast number of rooms besides the baths themselves. This is not unusual, a significant number of baths include libraries, theatres, even a planetarium.

Groundplan of the Baths of Diocletian – the blue areas represent the pools where people could bath or swim, as you can see there is a vast number of rooms – these would include changing rooms, gymnasia, gardens, libraries and other entertainment areas. It also does not show any of the supporting infrastructure – the aqueducts, the tunnels beneath the complex for supply/work purposes or the heating systems amongst others. (Public Domain Image from Wikipedia).

In the modern city, the complex incorporates one of the wings of the National Roman Museum (Nazionale Museo Romano), the Church of San Bernardo alle Terme (St Bernard’s of the Baths) and the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs). And it is in the latter church that the inspiration for the hat appears.


The interior of the church retains some of the original groundplan and structure of the baths. This image gives you an idea of the areas used by the church (line up the round towers and the curved wall (7 on the plan above). The rotunda (2 on the plan above) is now the dome of the church.



Originally this would have had an open space at the top (like the Pantheon in Rome), to allow light and rain to fall into the building. However, in 2000 a glass skylight was added. This was designed by the artist Narcissus Quagliata. Narcissus works primarily glass and light, and the new skylight casts coloured-light into the church.

When I first saw the skylight, I was immediately drawn to the clean lines and the colours of the piece. I can remember thinking it would be an interesting piece to translate into knitwear. Obviously there are restrictions on what can be accomplished in knitted fabric. I had to omit the clear vertical lines in the hat, but inco rporated a number in black instead to give a similar illusion. The small spots of orange and gold similarly had to be eliminated. The colours, on the other hand, I tried to follow as closely as possible in the Jamieson & Smith version I knitted up. I had to simplify, but chose a sequence of deep blue, blue-green, red-pink, soft gray, white/cream and a gold-yellow. The hat is much richer and deeper in overall tone, and lacks the soft variation seen in the window, with the colours shifting effortlessly from blue to purple to pink, but the final effect is still pleasing to the eye.


Interested in more by the artist? An e-book/PDF of Quagliata’s work is available online here.