Nero’s Domus Aurea blew my mind.

October 21st, 2017

Technically it qualifies as one of Rome’s hidden gems simply because it so enormously overshadowed by its neighbor, the Colosseum, which was built on the site of an artificial lake that had provided a lovely prospect to Nero’s massive palace on the Oppian Hill above. It’s weird to think of it as hidden, however, because it was just so insanely huge in its day. Nero took advantage of the Great Fire of 64 A.D. to confiscate a stretch of land in central Rome more 80 hectares in area.

By the time of his death four years later, the palace almost entirely covered three of the seven hills and it wasn’t even finished yet. Lavish beyond anything that had been seen before, ingeniously designed to be cross-lit with windows and skylights galore, the palace was really a complex of pavillions linked by grand open spaces that could be used in a myriad ways. The interior was decorated with exquisite frescoes, marble inlays, mosaics and gilded stucco reliefs that relected the light to create dazzling optical illusions. It was this play of light and shine that gave the Domus Aurea its name.

Deliberately destroyed by Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) to erase the memory of Nero and his works from Roman history — it was Vespasian who had the lake drained to build the Colosseum as a symbolic return of Nero’s purloined property to the people of Rome — the ruins of the imperial palace were reused by Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) as the foundation for a great complex of public baths. He tore the marble inlays, mosaics and frescoes off the walls and floors and reused them in the baths. The damaged walls were rebuilt with tidy bricks and the open spaces filled with soil.

By the time the underground spaces were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody even remembered that the baths were Trajan’s (they were believed to be the Baths of Titus), and they certainly had no idea that the “grotte” (caves) underneath were part of the long-vanished Golden House. Still, what little was still visible of the Neronian structure had a great influence on Renaissance art. Treasure hunters and artists would lower themselves into the so-called caves and copy the delicate floral and figural frescoes on the walls by torchlight. They then used this newly discovered style in their own artwork when they decorated the walls of Renaissance palazzi. It became known as the grotesque style after the “grotta” in which the originals had been found. (Only centuries later did the term evolve into the grotesque figure as we know it today.)

The Domus Aurea and Trajan’s Baths began to be identified correctly starting in the 18th century and later excavations would ultimately reveal about 150 identifiable spaces from the Domus. For many years, including all the years I lived in room as a child and young adult, whatever was left of Nero’s famous Golden House was closed to visitors. It was structurally unsound, prone to sudden collapses and moisture seepage that sometimes reached the level of outright waterfalls. So when I read that parts of it were reopening for guided tours with a new virtual reality element that recreated how the palace had looked in its heyday, I was more than up for it.

To call this visit one of the highlights of my Romecoming is to vastly understate the case. It. Was. Amazing. Our guide was an archaeologist, deeply knowledgeable and brimming with love and enthusiasm for the incredible site. The site itself… It’s sublime. Even denuded of all of Nero’s vanities, it still cannot be denied. Huge. Beautiful. Frigidly cold. And the virtual reality element was like the most fantastic rollercoaster Octagonal room skylightride I’ve ever been on. Without a doubt it is the greatest combination of ancient setting and cutting edge technology I have ever had the fortune to witness. It takes you on a tour through time and even though you’re sitting down the whole time wearing a goofy VR helmet, you feel like you’re moving through time with it. I would do it every day if I could.

This short film shows you some of the 3D reconstructed elements seen in the introductory video (which they awesomely projected on the brick wall of the Trajanic-era entrance hall) and in the VR experience.

This is the money documentary that covers the four years of painstaking restoration done by hundreds of experts that made the reopening of the site possible. You can to use autotranslated closed captioning if you don’t speak Italian and as usual the translations are pretty bad, but if you can stand to deal with the gibberish, it is worth it for the views of the space alone.

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Paolina Borghese’s (unairconditioned) feet

October 20th, 2017

Set in the Mannerist splendour of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s villa on the Pincian Hill, today the Galleria Borghese is one of Rome’s most beautiful museums. Its owner spared no expense to create a suburban party palace that would set off his superlative collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. Frescoed ceilings and walls, inlaid marble floors and every other sumptuous architectural feature you can imagine serve as the backdrop to one of the greatest private collections of art ever amassed.

As the nephew of Camillo Borghese, Pope Paul V, Scipione benefitted handsomely from papal nepotism (not coincidentally, the English term derives from the Italian word for nephew), first garnering the elevation to the cardinalship and then a heap of other titles, benefices and revenues that would make the most exploitative Roman tax farmer blush. Much of those moneys he spent amassing an art collection worthy of the crowned heads of Europe. One of those crowned heads, in fact, the notoriously self-crowned head of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a large part of it from his wastrel brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in the early 19th century. It would form the nucleus of the Louvre’s collection.

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini.Before it was chipped away by his heirs after his death, the collection included 12, count them, 12 Caravaggios. Today that figure is reduced by half, still an incredible concentration of paintings by the master of dark and light in a single small museum. When Caravaggio’s Youth with a Basket of Fruit, The Young Bacchus Ill and David with the Head of Goliath come to life at night, they get to play Texas Hold ‘Em with the likes of Raphael’s La Fornarina and Woman with Unicorn, Corregio’s Danae, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and Boticelli’s Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist and Angels. If they need to sweeten the pot, they let figures by Rubens, Parmigianino, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pinturicchio, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, Perugino, chip in. If they’re really in the mood to party, Paolina Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and wife of Camillo Borghese, rises from the marble couch the sculptor Antonio Canova captured her on and brings the heat. Bernini’s extraordinary, almost unbelievable Apollo and Daphne are too realistically frozen in mythological time to play along.

With so many world class treasures of the arts to enjoy, the Galleria Borghese was an obvious addition to my itinerary, all the more so since it would allow me to post an update to a past story. Remember this story from 2013 about Paolina Borghese’s dainty shoes discovered in the University of Aberdeen museum archives? I was delighted to find that according to my viewcount stats, it has been consistently popular ever since, largely thanks to foot fetish websites. Well, for all you feet fans out there, here’s Canova’s representation of Princess Paolina’s doggies.

I thought I had posted about a distinctly less entertaining story, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives so I guess I never did. The Galleria Borghese needs a new climate control system. I read about this situation a couple of years ago, if I recall correctly, and it was dire then. The ancient air conditioning was so hobbled that it barely produced enough cool air to keep the areas around the units at proper temperature, so they had to leave windows open to let some of the heat out of the hot, humid rooms and institute reservation-only ticketing to control the numbers of people allowed in at any given time. When I read about it back then, they were raising money to replace and update the whole system, but it was an expensive proposition and the Italian government wasn’t exactly rushing to spend that dough.

It still hasn’t been fixed, and y’all, it was bad. I mean really, really bad. I was genuinely horrified to my core by what I saw and experienced. The larger rooms with the more popular works (mainly Renaissance Old Masters) were stultifying and you could actually see the moisture damage on the surface of oil paintings. One was so bad the paint was cracking in a line down the middle and bubbling up. Only a few of the works even had the protection of a glass panel covering the canvas. Only one of the 20-year-old air conditioners was blowing any air. I put my hand over it and it was lukewarm. It was deeply upsetting, so much so that almost wished I hadn’t gone because seriously they need to shut the doors to human bodies and the heat, dirt, bacteria and effluvia they inevitably bring into a space and fix this monstrous state of affairs immediately. It is a true state of emergency. I can only hope against hope that my ticket price might help right this terrible wrong.

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Finally some updates

October 19th, 2017

I’ve had the hardest time getting to things that I’ve written about in the past so I could post first-person updates. (The hours and availability of sites and museum exhibitions in Rome and environs are, let’s just say, fluid.) Finally today is the day.

Let’s start with everyone’s highest priority, the cat sanctuary at the Largo di Torre Argentina. When last we saw our feline overlords and their faithful staff, they were under threat of eviction by the city which had issues with the shelter having been set up in an excavated space under the street that is part of the ancient remains of a temple complex built at various times between the 4th and the 1st centuries B.C. The city had a solid case because the sanctuary was built without a permit on an ancient archaeological site and was therefore illegal. It also had a crap case because it claimed the sanctuary was a health hazard when in fact it has the most exacting sanitation standards I’ve ever heard of for an animal refuge, and that it compromised the ruins which weren’t in any kind of peril whatsoever from the small and discreet structure tucked away in what would otherwise be an empty overhang.

The potential loss of the invaluable services they provide to the city’s feral and abandoned cat population — hundreds of cats have been adopted, unadoptable ones virtually adopted and tens of thousands of cats in the colony have been spayed — was devastating to cat lovers and Rome lover alike. Petitions and phone calls protesting the proposed eviction ensued, but I hadn’t read any follow-up on the outcome.

I can now confirm that not only is the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary alive and kicking, but they are now the official tenders of the cats, city approved! Check out this sign:

They weren’t open when we stopped by so I couldn’t get inside the sanctuary itself, or inside the sunken temple site at all, for that matter, but I’ll take another stab at it if at all possible. Meanwhile, I was able to get a couple of paparazzi shots of the stars of the show. They were supremely unimpressed by my attempts to get their attention, and really just by my existence in general.

Just a few blocks away, today I got some shots of the ruins of the Athenaeum of Hadrian discovered in Piazza Venezia during construction of Metro Line C in 2009. It’s not like I hadn’t already walked by it about a dozen times already. I just failed to recognize what I was seeing until I drove by it on a bus last night, weirdly enough. When the excavation ended in 2012, the plan was to build the subway stop somewhere nearby in a sewer line and keep the ruins visible to public. There is no stop yet, but the ruins are visible to public. Well, sort of. You have to look through a couple of fences. I still managed to sneak the camera in between the links and get a decent pic or two.

Speaking of sneaking the camera in for a decent pic, I went to Piazzale Augusto Imperatore yesterday to check out the restoration work on Augustus’ long-neglected mausoleum, and even covered in scaffolding and construction mess, it still looks hella better than it did in the 80s when it was basically a weed-choked mound with some bricks around the edges/shooting gallery.

It is closed to the public for the duration of the restoration project, all the work done behind a tall barrier, but got lucky when one of the people working on the site was having a conversation with someone else working on the site and left the gate open for a moment. I rushed in, got a quick shot and hauled ass just before he slammed the gate shut on me. He was even more annoyed by my antics than the cats at Largo Argentina.

I shall close with my favorite update of them all, an entirely fortuitous encounter that went down today at the Capitoline Museums (which have been exceptionally renovated, by the by, but more on that later). There’s a tiny little three-room temporary exhibition going on there right now on reclaimed treasures. The first room has looted artifacts that were recovered by the Carabinieri Art Squad and guess wht was there? The Etruscan black-figure kalpis by the Micali Painter that was pried out of the clutches of the very, very unwilling Toledo Museum of Art in 2012, years after the unique piece was conclusively proven in court to have been stolen.

I didn’t know about the exhibition and I didn’t know the vase, which depicts pirates being turned into dolphins by Dionysus as punishment for their attempted kidnap of the god, would be at the Capitoline. I loved writing that article exposing the whole sordid backstory, I love the kalpis and I loved getting to see it in person, especially since the only pics I could find of it were scans from printed material where you can see the grain of the paper. I had to take it from the side to minimize the horror of flash glare, and yes, I did get yelled at by the guard for taking a prohibited indoor picture. I REGRET NOTHING.

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Another hidden gem Diocletian’s Stadium under Piazza Navona

October 18th, 2017

You may or may not have learned that the Roman Baroque masterpiece now known as Piazza Navona started out as a stadium built by the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.) in 86 A.D. to celebrate the Certamen Capitolino Iovi, a musical, theatrical and athletic performances dedicated to Jupiter. He modeled the new stadium and the accompanying odeon on the Greek model, but Domitian didn’t simply use the terrain of a natural hill to build the multi-tiered stands into the way the Greeks did with their stadia. He had the financial means, the labour and the technology to create everything from scratch, and boy did he. The site he selected was on the Campus Martius, a level field outside the ancient Servian Wall that had served for centuries as a military training ground when Roman law prohibited the presence of troops inside the official boundary of the city.

Measuring about 275 long and 106 meters wide (902×348 feet), the stadium had one curved end and one flat end with two long parallel sides. The entrances were in the middle of the curved end (the hemicycle) and the long side and like all Roman stadia, had meticulously arranged numbered archways and staircases for optimal traffic flow and access to the bleachers. Archaeologists estimate that it could seat around 30,000 people.

It was used temporarily to host gladiatorial games after a fire disabled the Colosseum in 217 A.D., and some years later it was restored by the Emperor Alexander Severus. We know it was still in use in the 4th century because the historian Amianus Marcellinus mentions it. Shortly thereafter it was abandoned and suffered the same fate as the Circus Maximus, Colosseum and other monumental feats of Roman architecture: it was used as a quarry to supply travertine and brick for new construction. As its building materials were stripped away, its entrances and arches were used as shops and stables.

Within three centuries of Marcellinus’ writing, Romans had already forgotten the very name of the stadium, calling it the Circus Flamineus, then the Circus Alexandri, then the Campus Agonis which was corrupted into Navoni and ultimately Navona, which happens to mean big ship. The coincidence of this linguistic evolution led to the birth of the urban legend that the Piazza Navona was named after the naumachia, sea battles staged in an artificial lake inside the Circus. This never happened. It wasn’t that kind of arena.

Once the Piazza Navona was built, following precisely the shape of its ancient progenitor which had been extensively built upon by that point, THEN it was flooded. Roman nobles got a big kick out of racing their carriages, some built in the shape of fantastical sea monsters but still pulled by regular terrestrial horses, poor things, through the flooded piazza every year.

Elements of travertine cladding, masonry and pozzolana structrure in the arches and walls around the staircase.With all the despoilation of Domitian’s original structure, the regular bouts of construction on top of and in the middle of whatever was left, it’s remarkable that any of it was left to rediscover in 1936 when Mussolini’s project to demolish, rebuild and modernize the area’s streets and houses ran into the remains of the cavea, including a large travertine-clad entrance arch from the hemicycle end. A few bits and pieces were known to have survived in the basements of some of the houses along the piazza and under the Church of St. Agnes, but the discoveries from the 30s were more extensive and complete.

Still, nobody gave much of a damn about them. When I was a kid growing up in Rome in the 80s, you could see exactly one part of Domitian’s Stadium from the street, the big entrance arch, and because ground level was so much higher than it had been in imperial times, you really had to look for it at ankle height. That finally changed in 2014 when a new archaeological area opened underneath the Piazza. It is a small, eminently manageable, phenomenally well-lit museum featuring large chunks of Domitian’s Stadium and a handful of statue fragments, inscriptions and building materials discovered during the dig. I didn’t even know it was there until I happened to walk by the sign and followed it like the yellow brick history nerd road it is, and I read about this kind of thing every day. It’s crazy that it’s so little known. It is the only surviving example of a masonry built stadium outside of the Greek world. People should be freaking out about it.

I mean, the rest rooms alone are worth the price of admission:

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Palazzo Venezia: a hidden gem in plain sight

October 17th, 2017

The only reason I even darkened the doorway of the 15th century Palazzo Venezia, most recognizable today from old newsreel footage of Benito Mussolini addressing the multitudes in the Piazza Venezia from the balcony, was to see if the Duce’s last secret bunker rediscovered in 2011 after decades hidden under the floor of a junk room, was open to visitors. It was not. I turned to leave. Then I happened to glance upward and this is what I saw:

Vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall of the Palazzo Venezia.

I left anyway because I had other things planned yesterday, but returned today, uncontrollably attracted by the promise of fine architectural and decorative features serving as the backdrop for what the website assured me was an exceptional collection of Renaissance bronze statuary, terracotta sculptures, silver decorative arts, panel paintings and carved wood pieces, majolica, Japanese and Chinese porcelains, Islamic art and woven textiles.

My reaction as I walked through the first few spaces, which are largely empty, was that the story of this museum is in the floors and ceilings. Check out the herringbone brick floor and the wood ceiling with frescoes at the top of the wall in the Loggia of the Blessings, so named because the original relatively modest structure was greatly expanded by order of Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the future Pope Paul II, who was born in Venice and wanted a dwelling worthy of his sumptuous tastes. It became a papal palace in 1469, five years after the election of Paul II to the Throne of Peter. He stood on the balcony of this loggia to deliver his weekly blessing to the faithful.


Here are some sweet floor tiles and a wood panel featuring Paul II’s symbols from rooms just off the loggia:

And then there’s the Hall of Hercules, named after the fresco series depicting his labours that line the top of the walls. My terrible pictures do it no justice whatsoever.

The glories of the Renaissance palazzo itself came to an apex in the Hall of the Globe (Sala del Mappamondo), which Mussolini picked as his headquarters as anybody would have in his place. Its stupendous decorative appeal was only enhanced in my nerdly eyes by the presence of active restorers working on one of the frescoes. Sure, there was a wall up blocking some of the view and the middle of the room was entirely cordoned off so the pictures I took are even more terrible than usual, but public restoration projects always fill my heart with joy, minor inconveniences be damned.

Up until this point the collection, a combination of Paul II’s legendary acquisitiveness and later purchases added after the palazzo became a national museum in the 1920s, was sparsely but handsomely represented. I soon realized this was a deliberate choice made to ensure the focus on the visitors would be on the beauty of the historic building itself instead of on the stuff it could be stuffed with, because y’all, they have some STUFF in the Palazzo Venezia. Here is but a tiny sampling of what it has to offer:



Then there’s the loggia with a Lapidarium (a collection of engraved stonework, reliefs, tombstones, etc. from antiquity through the Renaissance) that looks down on a magical courtyard.

I didn’t even get to the temporary exhibition of Japanese art in the basement due to a prior committment cutting my visit short. I could easily have stayed another hour and barely have scratched the surface. This museum is smack in the middle of one of the busiest tourist routes in the world. You are crushed by massive tour groups as you walk around the piazza to the Capitoline, the Roman fora, Colosseum and Palatine, and yet, there in the Palazzo Venezia, nary a soul so much as brushed up against me in the cool elegance of these magnificent rooms and loggias. Put it on the list, y’all. Put it on the list.

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Bronze Age burials found at British Army base

October 16th, 2017

Quick non-Roman one today because I’ve been having upload issues with the large images and I feel a pressing need to collapse in happy exhaustion. Thankfully I planned for just this eventuality and had some backup stories lined up.

A team from Wessex Archaeology, contractors who have been surveying the site of a new soccer field at the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill Garrisons in Wiltshire, has unearthed three inhumation burials from the Bronze Age. Because the camp is so close to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, all planned development sites get a thorough archaeological once-over before construction begins. Six trenches were dug into the natural chalk under the site and archaeological materials were found ranging in date from prehistoric to the World War II period.

The three Bronze Age burials are the oldest, although absolute dating of the human skeletal remains has not been done yet to confirm their ages. None of them contain grave goods which would have provided dates, but the types of burials, location and broken pottery found in the fill strongly suggests a Bronze Age origin.

Ruth Panes, the project manager for Wessex Archaeology, said: “Of the three burials, one was an infant and the other has been identified through osteological assessment as a teenage male aged 15 to 17.

“He would have been robust in appearance and his remains contained no obvious signs of pathology. The infant had been placed into a grave in an existing ditch and buried. Over time, the ditch gradually silted up and sealed the grave.

“Prehistoric pottery was found in the ditch fill which sealed the grave, which suggests the burial is also prehistoric. One body was placed in a crouched position and we know such burials typically date between 2400 to 1600 BC.”

Small samples of bone will be extracted from the remains for radiocarbon dating. Further osteological analysis of one of the three who appears to have been buried in a prone position, an unusual posture for an inhumation, should help determine age, sex, any health issues, the person’s lifestyle and perhaps cause of death. Because the positioning of the body of the grave is of particular interest, Wessex Archaeology has 3D scanned the burial in situ and made the model available to the public.

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The aquila has landed!

October 15th, 2017

The flight was terrible, as they always are these days, and departure was delayed over an hour, but it was all forgotten upon landing. (Okay, upon getting through security.) Sun and blue sky and Father Tiber welcomed me in their warm embrace and I hit the streets as soon as I dropped my crap off at the hotel. A quick jaunt to St. Peter’s where I hoped to catch the Pope canonizing some saintly types but alas, didn’t quite make it on time. That’s cool, though. I got to hear the Vatican band play the Italian national anthem and enjoyed the jaw-dropping view of how freaking clean the colonnade and facade of the basilica are. It never once looked anything near that ideal off-white when I lived there. And the fountains in St. Peter’s Square! In my day, whatever parts weren’t black as coal on them were coated in green algae slime. Not anymore. All that gunk has been replaced by pure travertine creaminess.

Follow in my footsteps.


Sono Pazzi Questi Romani manhole cover with original sampietrini basalt pavers. Murder on the shoes and just plain murder when they’re wet, but they are so quintessentially Rome. They’re gradually replaced with terrible modern replacements everywhere except on small streets and in the historic center to preserve its character.

Mascherone fountain is reduced to dribbling, I'm afraid. Drought is a concern. Photo by yours truly.

Just a charming little fountain at the end of a street near the Tiber. It’s drooling more than fountaining these days on account of water restrictions.


I crossed the Tiber on the Ponte Sisto and saw this in the distance. Makes it easy not to get lost even after so much time has passed.


I didn’t cross over to see the Castel Sant’Angelo up close and personal due to my hustling to get to St. Pete’s. Maybe I’ll go back to see it lit up tonight.


Almost there!


And here we are. So bright and creamy in the sunlight. The banners you see hanging from the church balcony celebrate the new saints, Cappuchin friar Angelo d’Acri (d. 1739), Manuel Míguez González, founder of the Daughters of the Divine Shepherdess (d. 1925), the 30 “Matryrs of Natal” who were killed by Dutch troops and their local allies under the direction of radical Calvinist Antonio Paraopaba in Natal, Brazil, in 1645, and the “Child Martyrs of Tlaxcala,” three indigenous Mexican 12 and 13-year-olds who were killed in the late 1520s (the Franciscan advance guard evangelizers only got there in 1524) for refusing to renounce their Catholicism.

That’s 35 saints made in one fell swoop! And I was there! (In time to hear the band wrap it up and watch the guys on the dais parade out solemly.)

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Gold rings, Roman coin found at Sandby Borg

October 14th, 2017

Archaeologists excavating the ringfort of Sandby Borg on the Swedish island of Öland have found two gold finger rings and a Roman gold coin. The three pieces were found nestled together next to large red limestone slab in the remains of a house in the southwest corner of the fort. The rings are small and were probably meant to be worn by a woman which is historically significant because so far no identifiably female human remains have been found at Sandby Borg.

The gold pieces were found in House 52, an unusual structure that has been the focus of excavations this year. The form of the house differs from the standard rectangle shapes of the other dwellings in the fort. The northern side of it is rounded and centered in the round area is the red limestone slab. Underneath the slab is layer of sand several inches thick. The floor is not this same sand, so that means it was deliberately packed underneath the slab, perhaps to elevate it for some ritual function. Another unique find made only in House 52 is a group of small glass shards. They are very thin, expensive examples of Roman glass and archaeologists think they were part of a small vessel. It’s the only glass that has been found yet in Sandby Borg.

“We haven’t found treasure like this before, though we have found jewellery deposits,” Helena Victor, the project leader, told The Local. “It’s always exciting to find gold – the team will always remember this day. It’s also important because we now know a lot more about the house where they were found. It seems to have had a special purpose, and it may have been the house of a chieftain or a minor king.” […]

“This discovery could help explain why the massacre took place – maybe these people had too much gold and jewellery. Archaeology is all about finding out about people, with a very long-term perspective, so we can also compare these finds to violence we see nowadays, and use them to discuss for example why humans are so brutal and hateful,” she added.

Unlike in the other houses, House 52 has no animal bones. The remains of an elderly man were found there last year — he had been killed and left over the fireplace — and this season the highly fragmented skull of a child was unearthed on the street just to the south of House 52.

The coin dates to the reign of the Western Emperor Valentinian III. The obverse bears his image while the reverse depicts the emperor with one foot on the head of a barbarian, a common motif in Roman coinage even in the declining years of the Empire when victories were scarce. Valentinian had Hunnic invasions to deal with as well as constant uprisings in Gaul, Hispania and the Germanic provinces.

The first professional archaeological investigation of the site in 2010, spurred by the appearance of two looting pits, discovered precious metals as well, including gilded silver brooches, buckles, rings and pendants. A gold Roman coin, another solidus of Valentinian III struck around 440-455 A.D., was found the next year in the first full excavation.

It was that first season of digs that revealed the ringfort was destroyed in a violent event in the 5th century A.D. during the turbulent Migration Period. Its thick, high walls were breached, the dwellings within razed and the people slaughtered. Since 2011, excavations have discovered the remains of 26 people, mostly adult men.

This video (Swedish narration only) has some neat footage of the discovery and excavation of the rings and coin:

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Colosseum’s vertiginous cheap seats to reopen

October 13th, 2017

The latest phase of the Colosseum restoration has made possible the reopening of what were once its cheapest seats and are now a vertigo-inducing thrill ride with the best view in town, 40 years after they were last open to the public.

Its structural issues and propensity to drop heavy stone blocks at unpredictable times for decades severely restricted what areas were accessible to the public. After nearly four years of restoration, visitors can already tour the subterranean level, where the gladiator cells were and the wild beasts were kept before the slaughter, the imperial terrace and I level (where the senators sat), the II level (where the knights sat) and the III level, a gallery never before opened to the public where painstaking cleaning revealed crown insignia in white plaster. That was where what we’d now call the middle class got to sit. The IV level was reserved for merchants and assorted petty bourgeoisie. Last and indubitably least were the denizens of the V level, the city’s poor who couldn’t afford a closer view of the carnage or fancy marble seats. (I’d take the wood benches any day, thanks.)

Starting next month, visitors, in guided tours of no more than 25 people at a time (for their own safety), will be able to view the fourth and fifth levels and a connecting hallway that has never been open to visitors. A lucky few got to visit the newly opened floors at a press preview on October 3rd.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini takes in the view. Photo by Andreas Solaro, AFP.Italy’s culture minister Dario Francheschini was on hand to visit the new levels, which during ancient Roman times were the cheap seats, since they were farthest away from the spectacle.

Today, however, the top two levels of the 52-metre (171-foot) high Colosseum offer priceless views of the stadium itself, as well as the nearby Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the rest of Rome.

The nosebleed seats will be open to the public come November 1st which turns out to be a bit of a bummer for me because guess where your friendly neighborhood history blogger is going. Oh, and at least I’m getting there while access to the Pantheon is still free. They’re planning on charging 3 euros a ticket for the most visited site in the city (an estimated 7.4 million visitors in 2016, a million more than the Colosseum) starting in January.

That’s right. The mothership is calling me home. I’m flying to Rome on Saturday and will be there through next Sunday! Since my days will be crammed full of extremely nerdy pursuits, my blogging will be reduced in terms of length and depth of research, but I still hope to post daily. Due to time constraints and the potential of connectivity contretemps, it will be more of a travelogue/postcards from Rome sort of deal, which I hope will provide you some enjoyment on its own merits. My general plan will be at long last to see in person things I’ve only posted about in the past (newly opened archaeological sites, museum exhibitions, etc.) and write eye-witness updates. With pictures. Lots and lots of big pictures.

All of this is hotel Wi-Fi permitting, of course, although I suppose nowadays it’s a simple matter to find free Wi-Fi out in the wild in Rome. The last time I was there you still needed a school email account and a floppy disk to use this series of tubes they call the internets. I saw a gluten-free pizzeria when I was checking out the historic center on Google Maps the other day. If there is anywhere in the world where you feel the passage of time more keenly than Rome, I don’t know of it. I shall wallow in it.

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Update 2: National Portrait Gallery bought Adams portrait

October 12th, 2017

The best-case scenario for history and museum nerds has come to pass! The buyer of the 1843 daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams sold at auction last week for $360,500 is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

John Quincy Adams silhouette by by Henry Williams, 1809. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian InstitutionThis could not be a more perfect fit. Collecting images of US presidents has been a key part of the NPG’s mission since the museum opened in 1968. Today it houses the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, from formal oil paintings by portrait masters like Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull to bronze sculptures of political cartoons, plaster casts of presidential body parts, medals, prints, silhouettes and of course, photographs. The Smithsonian already has two other daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams in its collections, one in the NPG taken a few months after the Haas portrait in August of 1843, the second in the National Museum of American History taken in 1846.

The Haas daguerreotype one will take pride of place because it is older than the others in the collection and indeed the earliest known surviving photographic portrait of an American president.

“John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the last President to have a direct tie back to the Founding generation, and the fact that he sat in front of a camera to have his portrait taken, is sort of remarkable,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “It confirms that in many ways America was born modern; embracing not only new government ideals but also the latest technologies that helped its leaders to become accessible to the public. To have acquired this unique piece of American history on the eve of our 50th anniversary has particular resonance because one of our goals is to remind people that the individual actions of our leaders and how we record their legacies impact the future.” […]

Adding to the significance of bringing this historic portrait to the museum is the crucial role Adams played in establishing the Smithsonian Institution. For over a decade, Adams tirelessly advocated for the implementation of James Smithson’s bequest to establish an institution dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. With this acquisition, the Portrait Gallery brings this singular treasure to its permanent collection and enriches the way the museum portrays Adams’ remarkable story as President, statesman and champion for the Smithsonian.

The newly acquired portrait of John Quincy Adams will go on public display next year in the National Portrait Gallery’s revamped America’s Presidents exhibition.

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