Donor gives €1 million to restore a pyramid in Rome

Pyramid of Gaius CestiusJapanese businessman Yuzo Yagi will donate €1 million ($1.3 million) to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a marble-clad pyramid built in Rome between 18 and 12 B.C. Egyptian style had become a fad in Rome following Octavian’s conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., and the wealthy Gaius Cestius, who in life had been praetor, tribune of the plebs and a member of the Septemviri Epulonum, a religious college responsible for throwing banquets for the gods, left instructions in his will that a pyramid be built in 330 days to house his remains.

Built out of brick-faced concrete on a foundation of travertine, Cestius’ pyramid is 100 Roman feet (about 97 imperial ones) square at the base and 125 Roman feet (about 120 imperial ones) high, making it an extremely acute pyramid with a very pointy top. White Carrara marble slabs face the exterior which was entirely sealed with no entrance point after Gaius Cestius’ burial. Inside is a frescoed burial chamber that held Cestius’ ashes; it was looted in antiquity and tunneled into by disappointed thieves during the Middle Ages.

Pyramid of Cestius in the Aurelian wall, Porta San Paolo on the rightThe pyramid was built at the intersection of two Roman roads outside of the city, but as the city expanded the entire structure was incorporated into the Aurelian walls during their construction between 271 and 275 A.D. It’s still embedded in a particularly well-preserved area of the wall next to the Porta San Paolo gate. Getting absorbed by the wall might have been the best thing that ever happened to the pyramid. None of the other crazy vanity pyramids ancient sources mention having been built in Rome have survived.

The other side of the pyramid abuts the Cimitero Acattolico (the non-Catholic cemetery, also known as the Protestant Cemetery though people of many faiths are buried there) where the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats slumber eternally. It’s one of the most beautiful and fantastical spots in Rome, a favorite of my childhood thanks to the huge colony of semi-feral cats who live at the pyramid’s base. Whenever we were in the area for the San Paolo market, I’d insist we stop so I could look over the railing at the cats.

Pyramid burial chamber, tunnels from the Middle AgesLike many of the most beautiful spots in Rome, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius is in dire need of maintenance. The marble exterior is pollution-blackened, cracked and bristling with vegetation. Water is seeping through the walls and damaging the frescoes, already faded and degraded from millennia of looters/hostile elements, in the burial chamber. Past restorations haven’t been kind to it either. The acid used to clean the exterior in the 1970s left the marble vulnerable to attacks from microorganisms and particulate matter.

Restoration work was last done in 2002. Advances in technology since then will allow restorers to use new organic products to clean the surface and protect it from future damage. They also plan to use steel beams 23 feet long to stabilize the marble blocks. While they’re at it, researchers will follow up on some ultrasound data from a few years ago which turned up anomalous blank spots on the inside. They will use endoscopes to explore the anomalies. They’re probably not secret chambers but everyone’s hoping for them anyway.

Yuzo Yagi is the owner of Tsusho Limited, an Osaka-based chain of 400 clothing outlets. He has been doing business in Italy, importing Italian clothes for his stores, for 40 years. All he asks in return for the donation is that a plaque with his name on it be placed near the pyramid. No advertising heinousness. He will sign the official agreement in January and work is slated to begin in April.

Keats' grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Pyramid of Cestius visible in the right backgroundAnd now, let’s usher in the new year with two wonderfully on-topic verses from Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Go thou to Rome–at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shatter’d mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation’s nakedness
Pass, till the spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who plann’d
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transform’d to marble ….

6 thoughts on “Donor gives €1 million to restore a pyramid in Rome

  1. Yugo Yazi(or is it Yuzo Yagi? My first fiddly intervention of the New Year… Auguri!)sounds like a real class number in his eschewal of advertising heinousness. In regard to which: When I saw the rubric, I immediately expected another Della Valle special (like the nearby Colosseum and the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.)

    1. I’m not surprised it’s a foreign national who has that level of respect for Rome’s history while the Italian feels free to get his in return for his money. If I had that kind of money, I’d be spreading it far and wide like a giant sprinkler and the act itself would be the hugest reward I could imagine. I have fantasized about this very scenario a million times.

  2. Did you hear that the new leaders of Egypt, the ‘moderate’ muslim brotherhood have declared that the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are ‘idols’ and should either be ‘destroyed’ or another suggestion was to ‘cover them in wax so they can’t be seen’ – islam is against all forms of idolatry so they consider states of Buddha, the crucifix, the cross, etc., as ‘idols’ that people worship.

    Maybe 400-500 years ago a muslim man is the one who broke the nose off the sphinx & tried to have the pyramids destroyed (it was too hard) but he did cause a lot of damage to one of the smaller pyramids. He had seen peasants making offerings to the sphinx (like an idol) and was enraged.

    1. One person, namely Nour Salafist party candidate Abd al-Moneim al-Shahat, suggested that the pyramids should be covered with wax to prevent people worshiping them as idols. In response, 1,000 Egyptians gathered in Giza to protest the idiotic notion. What religion do you imagine those 1000 people to be?

  3. Yuzo Yagi… I don’t know… to me, it seems like a partial anagram for “Yzio Augy”…. or: Ezio Auditore (da Firenze)! 🙂

    For those who either don’t know or who have never played it, in the computer/video game “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood”, the main protagonist, “Ezio Auditore” is presented with an option to buy and renovate the ‘Priamide Cestia’).

    Kidding aside, it’s awesome that someone who has been doing so much business in Italy for so long (40 years!) is actually willing to contribute so much towards the renovation/restoration of one of Italy’s own national, historical, and cultural treasures.

  4. From another famous poet who loved tu die in Rome at the pyramide – Goethe …

    “How very happy I am here in Rome when I think of the bad days
    Far back there in the north, wrapped in a grayish light.
    Over my head there the heavens weighed down so dismal and gloomy;
    Colorless, formless, that world round this exhausted man lay.
    Seeking myself in myself, an unsatisfied spirit, I brooded,
    Spying out pathways dark, lost in dreary reflection.
    Here in an ather more clear now a luster encircles my forehead.
    Phoebus the god evokes forms, clear are his colors by day.
    Bright with the stars comes the evening, ringing with songs that are tender,
    And the glow of the moon, brighter than northern sun.
    What blessedness mortals may know! Am I now dreaming? Or welcomes
    Jupiter, Father, as guest—me, to ambrosial halls?
    See, I lie here extending my arms toward your knees. I am praying:
    Hospitality’s god, Jupiter Xenius! Hear:
    How I am come to this place I no longer can say—I was
    Seized up by Hebe. ‘Twas she led to this sacred hill.
    Did you command her a hero to seek and deliver before you ?
    May be she erred. Then forgive. Let her mistake profit me!
    Does not Fortuna, your daughter, when strewing her glorious presents,
    After the manner of girls, yield to each passing whim?
    You, O hospitable god, will by no means now banish a stranger
    From your Olympian heights back to the base earth again.
    “Poet, come to your senses!”—Forgive me, Jupiter, is not
    Rome’s Capitoline Hill second Olympus to you?
    Suffer me, Jupiter, here and let Hermes guide me at last then
    Past Cestius’ Tomb gently to Orkus below.”

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