Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna restored

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

The restored Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna, RomeThe Barcaccia fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna reopened to the public Monday after a 10-month restoration. The restoration cost 209,960 euro ($268,000) and was funded entirely by the sale of advertising space on site during eight months of the work. According to Paola Conti, technical director of Technicon, the firm contracted to restore the fountain, the most time-consuming aspect was removing the calcification that in just 15 years since the last restoration had grown up to a centimeter thick. They also had to remove biological organisms that thrive in the wet, light-filled environment. Old plaster from past repairs was replaced and finally the entire structure painted with a protective coating.

The fountain was built between 1627 and 1629 by Pietro Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose architecture and sculpture would come to define Baroque Rome, in the shape of the low flat-bottomed river boats used to carry cargo across the Tiber in the 17th century. This was a very unusual approach in Mannerist Rome, more sculptural than architectural, a naturalistic, deceptively simple design that symbolized the fruitfulness and plenty of a boat low in the water, laden with bounty. Legend has it that during the devastating flood of Christmas 1598, the high waters, which reached a top mark of 20 meters above sea level, carried a boat all the way to the Piazza di Spagna. When the waters receded, the boat was stranded in the exact spot of the fountain. Ostensibly that’s why Bernini built the fountain in the shape of a boat 30 years later.

Barcaccia before restorationPope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini to build the fountain as part of a program envisioned by earlier popes that would place fountains in every major piazza in Rome. Urban also wanted to celebrate his restoration of the great Acqua Vergine aqueduct, originally built in 19 B.C. by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ son-in-law and right hand man. The pope had appointed the elder Bernini architect of the aqueduct in 1623, so having him build a new fountain to take advantage of the refreshed water source was a fitting bookend.

The Acqua Vergine is unique among Rome’s aqueducts in that it was the only one that continued to work even in the devastated Medieval city through the Renaissance revival of public works. In the 14th century, when almost the entire city population was clustered on the malarial and flood-prone banks of the Tiber because they were bound by the range of the professional water carriers, only rione Trevi, the district at the foot of the Quirinal hill blessed with a fountain fed by the Acqua Vergine, had a significant population relatively distant from the Tiber. That Trevi fountain was not the one you see today with the giant statue of Oceanus guarding ever so many tourist coins. The current fountain was built in 1762. The Medieval one was a modest affair, a rectangle with three basins, enlarged in the 15th century to a wide trough fed by three spouts.

The old Trevi Fountain in "Descrittione di Roma antica e moderna" by Federico Franzini, 1643The aqueduct was regularly maintained and repaired during the heyday of the Western Empire, but even after the Goths sacked the city in 537 A.D., specifically targeting the aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine kept trucking. This is mainly attributable to its nearby source and the predominance of underground tunnels. The water starts as rainfall in the Alban Hills, then filters through volcanic tuff before springing up in a town about eight miles east of Rome called Salone. The aqueduct starts at Salone, so it doesn’t have far to go to get to Rome, and since it was intended to water the lower-lying areas of the city, the pathways stay down low too. It was restored once in the 8th century by Pope Hadrian I and that seems to have kept it going until the 15th century when Pope Nicholas V commissioned a restoration project.

There were always issues, mind you. It needed repair and cleaning on the regular to keep the water flowing, and the city magistrates passed all kinds of laws to keep people from tainting it by bathing their livestock and doing their laundry in the Trevi basin. Then there were all the individuals illegally tapping into the conduit to water their personal homes and gardens. A pope was one of the greatest offenders on that score: Pope Julius III, who swallowed up so much Acqua Vergine for his new home, the Villa Julia (built in 1553) and its elaborate grounds and entrance fountain, that by 1559 the Trevi fountain ran dry. To address the choked supply, in 1570 Pope Pius V had the Acqua Vergine restored all the way back to Salone. Urban VIII’s intervention in 1623 extended the path of the aqueduct to supply the growing city. It was this restoration that brought the water to the location of the current Fountain of Trevi.

Piazza di Spagna; the Keats-Shelley Memorial where Keats died is the buff-colored palazzo to the right of the Spanish StepsThe Barcaccia played a more poignant historical role 200 years later. The poet John Keats lived the last few months of his life in a house on the Spanish Steps. So devastated by tuberculosis that he often cried upon waking to find himself still alive, Keats took comfort from the soothing sound of the Barcaccia’s flowing water. It made him think of a line from the Jacobean play Philaster by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher: “As you are living, all your better deeds / Shall be in water writ.” Inspired by that line, Keats asked that his tombstone be inscribed solely “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” no name, no date. When the tuberculosis finally claimed his life on February 23rd, 1821, his friend and carer Joseph Severn couldn’t quite bring himself to comply with Keats’ final wish. Instead, he took the opportunity to castigate the critics who had never appreciated Keats’ genius in life.

“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

Although the fountain was inaccessible to visitors during the restoration, it and the conservators were visible thanks to an innovative plexiglass enclosure. Seeing is nice, but the Barcaccia is an interactive experience. It was specifically designed for people to drink from. The pure and delicious Acqua Vergine springs from jets at the bow and stern. Travertine platforms at each end of the boat give you a place to stand, albeit a rather damp place, so you can stretch out and quaff mightily from the water’s spouts. At Monday’s inauguration of the pristine fountain, the mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, culture councillor Giovanna Marinelli and the Capitoline Superintendent Claudio Parisi Presicce were the first to drink from the newly reactivated water. They used a plastic cup, though, which is just wrong, in my opinion. They should have stretched out like the rest of us, sashes and suits be damned. Virgin Water in a plastic cup? I mean really.

You can see the fountain cleaned and the waters turned back on in this Italian news story about Monday’s inauguration:

 

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New burials found at Ostia necropolis

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Excavations in Ostia, the ancient Roman harbour town at the mouth of the Tiber, have unearthed a group of more than 12 tombs from the 3rd-4th century A.D. Underscoring the cultural diversity of the port city, the necropolis includes inhumations and cremations, some right next to each other. The newly unearthed tombs are early Christian and surround a central tomb that belonged to someone of religious or social significance. The central tomb is a circular mausoleum lined in travertine that was originally built in the late Republican era and was reused in late antiquity. Archaeologists believe it may be an extended family unit who wanted to be buried at an important location, perhaps associated with one of the saints buried in early Christian Ostia.

The area being excavated, Parco dei Ravennati, was a suburb of the ancient city of Ostia on the left bank of the Tiber, now long since silted over. The area was used as a necropolis from the early imperial era through the 5th century when a basilica was built around the nearby tomb of 3rd century martyr Saint Aurea, patron saint of Ostia. The church was extensively renovated over the centuries; the current building was built by the Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, commissioner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the 15th century. Another important saint, Saint Monica, mother of Saint Augustine, died in Ostia in the late 4th century and was buried there. Her remains were moved to the Saint Aurea church in the 6th century before moving again to the Church of Saint Augustine in Rome.

There may be more information on the burials forthcoming courtesy of some inscriptions.

Additionally, several tombs had funerary inscriptions and archaeologists found a possible tabella defixionum, a lead curse tablet intended to protect the dead and bring anathema to tomb desecrators.

“They were really horrible curses to protect the dead”, Paola Germoni, head of Ostia’s archaeological superintendency, added.

Studies remain ongoing, according to Michele Raddi, excavation co-director, who said “we found a number of fragmentary inscriptions in the tombs as well as a possible tabella defixionum, but we need to evaluate its context and see if it has an inscription”.

Parco dei Ravennati wasn’t just a necropolis, however. Multiple domestic spaces have been unearthed, including an elaborate opus sectile marble inlay floor from the late 4th century. This season’s excavations have found even more of that aristocratic home, a space adjacent to the opus sectile room that was paved with paving stones and converted to commercial use. The discovery of hooks and lead weights from fishing nets suggest the elegant home was re-purposed for fish processing in the early Middle Ages. Ancient sources and earlier archaeology pointed to Ostia being in steep decline as a commercial center starting in the reign of Constantine I (306-337 A.D.), so the discovery of active businesses from the early Middle Ages is going to change what we know about Ostia.

“What’s amazing is that you have continual use in this park straight through from republic and imperial times through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, its giving us precious information about the later periods and how it relates to Ostia Antica”, [director of the American Institute for Roman Culture Darius] Arya said.

“The discoveries in the Parco dei Ravennati underlines the extraordinary continuity of life and activity along the Tiber River banks, in Ostia Antica’s suburbs”

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Rome pyramid restoration ahead of schedule

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

In December of 2011, Japanese retail clothing mogul Yuzo Yagi offered to donate €1 million to restore the tomb of Gaius Cestius, a pointy marble-clad vanity pyramid built in Rome in the 1st century B.C. At the time, the agreement was scheduled to be signed in January of 2012 and work to start in April, but the donation agreement didn’t get signed until March, the scaffolding didn’t begin to go up until November and it wasn’t finished until February. Actual restoration work began in March of 2013. Then in a shocking twist, it was completed five months early.

The Culture Ministry contacted Yuzo Yagi and asked him to donate another million euros for a second stage of restoration that would return the Carrara marble cladding to its original whiteness as opposed to its longstanding grimy gray. White happens to be Mr. Yagi’s favorite color — he is known for his stylish all-white ensembles — so he was happy to double his original donation.

In December of 2013 he signed a second donation agreement, again requiring nothing more than a discreet plaque near, not on, the pyramid, naming him as the donor. Even during the restoration the only signs on the pyramid are informational billboards at ground level and white banners assigning themes to each side — the mystical side, the scientific side, the historical side and the secret side. The billboards explain the history of the pyramid through these four themes. Yagi’s company gets credit for his patronage on the billboards, but just in discreet text lines. No logos or glaring anything. The images of the pyramid and information of its background dominate completely. Masterpiece Theater is more cluttered than that, like by a lot.

Now phase two is well on the way to being finished and they’re ahead of schedule again. Restorers expect to be done three months before the expected November deadline. The early finish means Yagi isn’t ready for an inauguration ceremony. He’s thinking of just waiting until next summer and making a big event. He’s also so pleased with how this venture has gone that he’s contemplating donating more money for the preservation of another monument.

Yuzo Yagi toured the pyramid on Tuesday, accompanied by Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who took the opportunity to promote Mr. Yagi’s dignified generosity as a model for future donors and to tout the state’s new tax incentives for businesses who donate to cultural heritage projects.

You can see how great the pyramid looks inside and out in this news story on Mr. Yagi’s visit:

Oh man, I want to wear a hardhat and go inside! If the burial chamber looks modest it’s because Augustus’ sumptuary law of 18 B.C. forbade ostentatious luxury in tombs. Unlike the Egyptians whose tombs he modeled his own after, Gaius Cestius was not buried with lavish treasures to accompany him to the afterlife. He got white walls with small frescoes of alternating winged Victories and ceremonial vessels, plus a few bronze statues of him outside the pyramid.

The frescoes were in serious danger from water leaking through the marble slabs into the brick and concrete structure. Those leaks have all been plugged now. Also gone are the severe microorganism infestation that was making a meal of the marble and the copious vegetation sprouting through the damaged exterior walls. The pyramid hasn’t looked this good or been this healthy since it was built, I wager.

Here’s a 3D animation of a point cloud generated from laser scan data before the scaffolding went up. It gave restorers a clear picture of the condition of all four sides, the deterioration of the marble cladding, any unevenness in the surface or cracks and evidence of shear.

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Mausoleum of Romulus reopens after 20 years

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Front entrance of Mausoleum of RomulusThe Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus, son of the Roman Emperor Maxentius, reopened to the public Monday after 20 years of restoration. The large circular structure was built by Maxentius in the early 4th century, probably as a family tomb, on the Appian Way. When his young son died around 309 A.D. — he is said to have drowned in the Tiber — he was buried in the mausoleum.

Sarcophagus niche off circular corridorThe tomb was part of a large imperial complex that included Maxentius’ palace and a circus for chariot racing. Little of the palace is still standing, while the mausoleum has lost its second level but is still an impressive structure, inside and out. It is surrounded by a quadroporticus on the outside with its main entrance on the Via Appia and two smaller entrances facing the palace and the circus. On the mausoleum itself, the main entrance facing the Appia was walled up centuries ago. It has now been reopened in the recent restoration. Inside, the crypt has a large central pillar with a circular corridor onto which open niches where the sarcophagi of the royal family would have been deposited. A spacious vestibule connected to the corridor probably once led to the second floor.

Side of mausoleum with 18th century house attachedThere’s an 18th century brick home attached to the back of the mausoleum that was originally a farmhouse for use when the property was dedicated to agricultural purposes. It was later converted into a home for personal use by the princely Torlonia family, who owned the land before it was requisitioned by the Fascist government in 1943.

The circus, while in ruins, is the best preserved of its kind, with pieces of all its major architectural components extant. Two of its gate towers have survived, as have the remains of the starting gates, the spina (the central median around which the chariots turned), and a triumphal arch. It’s also the second largest circus after the Circus Maximus at 500 meters (1640 feet) long and 90 meters (295 feet) wide. There was room in the stands for as many as 10,000 spectators to watch the races.

Circus of Maxentius engraving, 1750Parts of the circus were excavated by archaeologist Antonio Nibby in 1825, who unearthed a marble inscription dedicating the inaugural games to the deified Valerius Romulus, clarissimus puer (most highly regarded boy), nobilissimus vir (most noble man), twice consul of Rome, son of Maxentius the undefeated Augustus, grandson of the divine Maximian. Before that discovery, the circus was thought to have been Caracalla’s doing.

Mausoleum of Romulus interiorMaxentius would have been very put out to find his construction project attributed to another emperor. The Appia complex was part of a major effort on his part to legitimize his usurpation of the throne through the revival of great building in the city of Rome. In the years before the Praetorian Guard made Maxentius, formerly a Caesar or junior emperor, Augustus, emperors like Diocletian, Maximian and Galerius had focused imperial construction on other cities: Nicomedia for Diocletian, Milan for Maximian, Salonica for Galerius. They brought the imperial court and administration to these cities, diminishing Rome’s political and architectural importance.

With that in mind, Maxentius moved to build anew in Rome. The Appian Way complex was intended to be a new administrative center, not just a compound for private fun. The choice to place it on the Appia, outside of the formal boundary of the city of Rome where the tombs of the wealthy had for centuries dotted the roadside, was a break with tradition. He may have decided to build out there because he wanted his dynastic tomb to be part of the complex, and according to Roman custom, all bodies had to be buried outside the city.

You can take a look around the complex via satellite on Google Maps. To the right of the red marker are the circus ruins. Slightly up and to the left is the mausoleum.


View Larger Map

 

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One of the oldest temples in Rome unearthed

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

A team of archaeologists excavating the site of Sant’Omobono in the historic center of Rome have unearthed the foundations of one of the oldest temples in Rome. In the shadow of the 15th century church of Sant’Omobono just east of the Tiberine Island, archaeologists and students from the University of Michigan, the University of Calabria, the Museum of London Archaeology and the City of Rome dug a trench 15 feet deep to reveal the remains of an archaic temple from the 6th century B.C. when Rome was still ruled by Etruscan kings. Along with the remains of the first temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, also built under the reign of the kings in the 6th century B.C. and destroyed in 83 B.C. during Sulla’s second civil war, these are the oldest temple ruins found in Rome.

Because the depth of the trench was seven and a half feet below the water table, the walls had to be shored up with metal sheeting and multiple sump pumps to allow the team to dig through the ancient layers. That’s why Alison Telfer, the Museum of London Archaeology expert, joined the team this season, because of her expertise in excavating waterlogged environments thanks to years of digging in soggy London.

After weeks of excavation, the team found three levels of masonry and a step. The stonework is exceptional, dry wall construction of precision-cut volcanic tufa blocks that are still beautifully flush even after millennia.

Terrenato says the archaeologists had to fight claustrophobia to be able to spend as much as 8 hours a day at the bottom of that trench.

“You’re in a very deep hole, and although you know in theory that the sheeting is going to hold everything up, there is a primal part of your brain that tells you to get out of there, if the walls come closing in there’s not going to be any way out for you,” he says.

The foundations of the temple of Fortuna were visible for only three days — for security reasons, the team could not leave the trench open and it had to be filled up again.

To the west of the temple remains was discovered a large bank of clay that is so straight is can’t have been formed by human hands. Archaeologists believe it may have been built up against a vertical structure that is now gone, perhaps a wooden form that was removed or wall that has long since decayed. It could have been a river wall to protect the temple from flooding or perhaps used during the construction of the temple. About halfway down the clay bank, the team unearthed a group of vessels that are thought to have been votive offerings, sacrifices to the gods that were placed on the site when the bank was being built.

The area in which the temple remains were discovered was known as the Forum Boarium, meaning “cattle market,” a center of trade on a bend in the river that was both a natural harbour and a crossing point of the Tiber. When the temple was built, Rome was already trading with the likes of Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt as well as Italian peoples including the Latins, Etruscans and Sabines. The temple was deliberately built on the harbour so that it would welcome visitors and merchants, standing as a symbol of good will and fair trade guaranteed by the deity.

Archaeologists believe the temple was dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. It was dismantled in the early Republican period, around the 5th century B.C., and replaced with twin temples dedicated to Fortuna and Mater Matuta, a Latin mother goddess whose temples have been found on other ports. The temples were added to and rebuilt over the centuries through at least the second century A.D. In the sixth century an early Christian church was built on the site. The podium of the twin temples, made out of tufa slabs, still survives. It is now part of the foundation of the church of Sant’Omobono.

And that’s not all this archaeological site has to offer. Since it was first discovered during the burst of Fascist construction in the city center in the 1930s, the Sant’Omobono area has revealed evidence from 17 different phases of human occupation, from pottery sherds that date to between the 16th and the 12th centuries B.C., some of the earliest artifacts ever found indicating human habitation of the spot that would become Rome, to the remains of wattle and daub structures from the seventh century B.C.

To read Alison Telfer’s short and ever so sweet weekly reports on the dig, see the Museum of London Archaeology website. Keep an eye on the Sant’Omobono Project’s publications page for upcoming papers on the newly discovered temple and other finds from the season.

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The Dying Gaul in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

One of the most famous masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture, The Dying Gaul, has taken its first trip abroad since 1816 when it returned to Rome from 20 years’ exile in Paris, a sentence suffered by so much of Italy’s historical patrimony at Napoleon’s grasping hand. It is on view through March 16th, 2014, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., star of its own exhibition, The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome. The sculpture has been beautifully situated in a rotunda modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, underneath a banner with a detail of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ancient Rome, a capriccio, aka a fantasy scene in which all of ancient Rome’s greatest art and architecture is on display in a single gallery with The Dying Gaul in the left foreground.

This exhibition is the only time the masterpiece has ever been to the United States and it won’t be traveling to any other museums. If you want to see this incredible portrait of mortally wounded strength and nobility, you have three months to get to D.C.

The Dying Gaul is a 1st or 2nd century A.D. marble copy of what was probably a Hellenistic bronze original made between 230 B.C. and 220 B.C. to celebrate the victory of King Attalus I of Pergamon over the Celtic tribes of Galatia, an area of central Anatolia, now in Turkey. Gauls had immigrated there from Thrace after their invasion of the Balkans in 279 B.C. They had a reputation as fierce warriors and often sold their soldiering services to the squabbling factions of Asia Minor. Attalus’ defeat of them was considered a great victory because of their reputed strength in battle and the theme of defeated Gauls, stoic and powerful to the end, became a popular motif in Hellenistic art for several decades.

Pliny mentions in his Natural History that Epigonus, court sculptor to the Attalid kings of Pergamon, created a group of bronze sculptures of dying Gauls to decorate the terrace of the Temple of Athena Nikephoros in honor of Attalus’ victory. The original Dying Gaul is thought to have been one of them, as is the original of Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife. The Roman copies of both of those pieces were documented for the first time on the November 2nd, 1623, inventory of the Ludovisi collection. The estate of the powerful papal Ludovisi family corresponded with the famed Gardens of Sallust, a property outside of Rome that had once belonged to Julius Caesar and was later purchased by the Roman historian Sallust who made it into a lush garden so beautiful it was confiscated by Roman emperors and maintained for centuries as a public garden.

When the Ludovisi family began building their complex on the grounds in the early 17th century, they dug up Roman sculptures in impressive quantities and even more impressive quality. (See this entry for more about the Ludovisi collection and its painful dispersion in the 19th century.) The Dying Gaul, then thought to be a dying gladiator, was recognized as a masterpiece right away. Artist Ippolito Buzzi restored it with a comparatively light hand, more modest and respectful of the original than many of the other 17th and 18th century restorations. On March 29th, 1737, Pope Clement XII bought The Dying Gaul for 6,000 scudi, a huge amount at the time, and installed it in the Capitoline Museums.

There it remained for 60 years until Napoleon stepped into the picture. By the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino, the 1797 peace treaty between Directory France and the Papal States, all the art French troops had looted became official French property. the treaty also gave French officials the untrammeled right to literally walk into any building in the territory and pick whatever they wanted to send back to France. Napoleon had experts on the scene to ensure Italy’s greatest treasures would become France’s for the duration of his rule. After Napoleon’s final defeat, the Tolentino plunder was returned to Italy.

The timing was perfect for The Dying Gaul to seduce the flocks of Romantic artists and Grand Tourists. Lord Byron wrote about him in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto IV, Stanza CXL) just two years after the statue’s return to the Capitoline Museum.

I see before me the Gladiator lie:
He leans upon his hand — his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his droop’d head sinks gradually low –
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him — he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.

Many literary luminaries followed in his wake. Mark Twain gave The Dying Gaul a rare unsarcastic positive review in Innocents Abroad. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun opens on the sculpture. Henry James called it the “lion of the collection” in The Portrait of a Lady. The Gaul even gets a passing reference in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (bottom of the page here).

Because one of the greatest works of ancient art surviving doesn’t budge unless compelled by terms of sale or at bayonet-point, copies of The Dying Gaul are in museums, institutions of higher learning and private collections all over the world. Smugglerius is my personal favorite. Until his debut at the NGA last Thursday, that was as close as anybody outside of Italy was going to get to seeing him.

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Cirencester Roman cockerel cleans up real purty

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

The enamelled bronze figurine of a cockerel unearthed in a child’s grave during a 2011 excavation of a Roman-era cemetery in Cirencester has been cleaned and conserved. Even caked with dirt you could see that it was a beautiful piece, inlaid with blue and light green enamel diamonds on a proudly puffed chest. Now that it has been liberated from its loamy cage, the decorative detail and quality of construction mark it as one of the finest pieces of its kind ever discovered.

Dating to the middle of the 2nd century A.D., the figurine is five inches tall with the stretched neck and open beak of a cockerel mid-crow. It has enamel inlay on the breast, wings, comb, tail and forming each wide eye. The enamel inlay is shaped to match the part, so while enamel on the chest is diamond-shaped, around the edges of sides it is elongated and curved like long feathers. The enamel in the comb is three mounds following the bronze shape, and on the back/wing they’re closely set crescents in columns. The tail has a swirly openwork decoration with matching enamel accents. The enamel is shades of blue, green and yellow, but may have had a brighter palette including red when new.

The construction is ingenious. Much like Gaul, it is divided into three parts. The main body is hollow, with the back/wing plate and the tail created separately and then soldered to the body. This saved metal and made it easier to craft and to decorate. Each part could be enameled individually and then put together.

There are only eight Roman cockerels of this kind known to have survived. Four were discovered in Britain and are similar in construction and enamel styles. They may have been a examples of a trend in figurines, or they have been created by the same artist or workshop. The Cirencester figurine is the only one of the cockerels found in Britain to have been excavated from a grave and the only one whose tail has survived.

The other cockerels were found in Germany and the Netherlands, but may have also originated from Britain which was a center of fine enamelwork. One particular workshop in Castleford, West Yorkshire, northern England, was renown for its high quality enamel and may well have produced the Cirencester piece. Cirencester is in the south, so if cockerel was from Castleford, it would have been an expensive import on top of the expense of production.

Archaeologist Neil Holbrook, from Cotswold Archaeology, said the work had “exceeded expectations”, particularly for highlighting its fine enamel detail.

“It reinforces what a fantastic article this is and how highly prized and expensive it must have been,” he said. “This must have cost, in current money, thousands of pounds to buy and countless hours to make, and so to actually put this into the grave of a two or three-year-old child is not something that you would do lightly.

“It really shows that this was a very wealthy, important family, and signifies the love that the parents had for the dead child.”

The cockerel was one of the attributes of the god Mercury, the messenger of the gods who guided the souls of the death to Hades. The parents of the child probably included the expensive and beautiful cockerel figurine as a tribute to the god to secure a safe trip to the afterlife for their beloved child.

The Corinium Museum in Cirencester is hoping to secure the cockerel for permanent display. While talks continue, the figurine will be on public view for the first time on March 27th in Bingham Hall on King Street, Cirencester. The cockerel will be exhibited during the Cotswold Archaeology Annual Lecture which this year is about childhood in ancient Rome. Professor Ray Laurence of Kent University will be the lecturer. Admission is free.

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Seven Augustan era statues found in Ciampino

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Archaeologists with the regional superintendence of Lazio have unearthed seven statues from the 1st century B.C. on the site of the villa of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, consul of Rome and patron of the poet of Ovid. The statues are larger than life at around 2 meters (6.5 feet) high and they represent characters from the myth of Niobe, a story Ovid told in Book VI of Metamorphoses.

Niobe’s story is a classic cautionary tale about hubris. She was the daughter of Tantalus, wife of Amphion, ruler of Thebes, and mother of 14 children known as the Niobids. She unwisely bragged about her fertility at a festival in Thebes celebrating Latona, mother of Apollo and Artemis, questioning why the assembled were worshiping a woman they had never seen who had only two measly offspring when she had seven sons and seven daughters. To punish her pride, Artemis killed her daughters and Apollo killed all her sons. Niobe returned to her birthplace on Mount Sipylus (now in Turkey), turned to stone and wept rivers. There’s a rock formation on Mount Sipylus known as the Weeping Rock which has been identified as the crying Niobe since at least the 3rd century.

This was a popular literary theme in antiquity, mentioned in Greek texts from Homer to Sophocles. Niobid groups were also popular sculptural figures. Although several Roman ones have survived, this is the first relatively intact group that has been discovered in situ during a proper archaeological excavation.

The discovery was actually made last summer but is only being announced now. In June and July 2012, archaeologists from the superintendence were surveying the site in the town of Ciampino on the outskirts of Rome in anticipation of new construction. They unearthed a thermal bath complex whose pipes were stamped “Valerii Messallae,” identifying the villa as Messalla’s. It also matches the location of the consul’s country estate mentioned in ancient sources.

Next to the baths was a swimming pool that could be as long as 20 meters (around 66 feet). The statues were found inside the swimming pool, probably toppled by an earthquake in the 2nd century A.D. Experts believe they once decorated the four sides of the pool and possibly a centerpiece in the middle of the pool. They have survived in impressively complete condition considering they were knocked into a pool with a herringbone brick floor by an earthquake. There are detached heads and some evidence of earlier repairs, but seven statues are basically intact. A number of fragments of other pieces were also discovered, and archaeologists believe they can be reassembled.

The richness of the find will add to the known iconography of the Niobe story. According to Alessandro Betori, director of the excavation, there are two male youths in the group who are aghast watching the massacre of their brothers. These figures haven’t been seen before in any previously discovered Niobid groups.

There’s also all kinds of excitement about Messalla’s link to Ovid. The poet would have spent time at that villa. Perhaps the statues inspired his version of the tale, or perhaps his patron commissioned the statues after Ovid’s story. That’s purely a speculative romp, however. There’s no reason to assume a connection between Ovid and these statues. Niobe’s long artistic history was reason enough from Messalla to commission the group and for Ovid to write his version of it entirely independent of each other.

Messalla was a staunch republican who because of his republican ideals found himself on the wrong side of Octavian after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He fled Rome and followed the army of Brutus and Cassius. After their defeat in the Battle of Philippi and subsequent suicide in 42 B.C., Messalla at first switched his allegiance to Mark Antony and then to Octavian. He took Antony’s place as co-consul in 31 B.C. when Antony was stripped of the title and war broke out between Octavian one one side and Antony and Cleopatra on the other. Messalla fought for Octavian at the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra’s final defeat.

There’s a decent slideshow of the statues, mosaics and site here, and a couple of other pictures worth seeing in this slideshow.

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Tomb of man who inspired Gladiator to be reburied

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Four years ago, archaeologists surveying a future construction site near the Via Flaminia road just north of Rome discovered the remains of a monumental tomb. Latin inscriptions on marble identified the mausoleum as that of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a Roman general from the 2nd century A.D. whose military successes against the Germanic tribes and role as adviser and battle companion of emperor Marcus Aurelius helped inspire the Maximus character in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Of course the Gladiator connection made the biggest PR splash at the time, but even setting that aside the discovery was enormously significant.

Archaeologists had every expectation of finding something because the ancient sources suggested the site would intersect with the ancient Roman version of the Via Flaminia, a major road first built by censor Gaius Flaminius around 220 B.C. which heads north from Rome through the Apennines ending at Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The road was used continuously by friend and foe from the time of its construction under the Roman Republic through World War II. Several major battles were fought along its path.

The discovery of so grand a tomb, however, with large, exquisitely carved architectural elements still in good condition, was not expected. Many important marble remains were quarried in post-Roman times for reuse in other buildings or crushed to make lime. What saved this mausoleum was also what destroyed it: a Tiber flood. The banks of the Tiber are a few tens of yards away. At some point after the tomb’s construction, the river burst its banks and tore the structure down. Safely buried in warm Tiber mud, the architectural components of the tomb remained exactly as the river left them, undisturbed for centuries.

The good condition and copious quantity of remains dangled the exciting prospect before the regional ministry of archaeology that the tomb could be reconstructed. The foundations of the structure were still in place, so it would be a matter of reassembling the columns, friezes, lintels, tympana and arches toppled by the flood. A heroic nude statue found along with some marble blocks during Tiber embankment work in 1956 in the same area as the tomb might also have been part of the mausoleum, perhaps even representing General Marcus Nonius Macrinus himself.

What we know of Macrinus comes almost entirely from epigraphic evidence, including a number of inscriptions found in Brescia, Macrinus’ birthplace and the hometown of the prominent Nonius family. Macrinus climbed the cursus honorum, the traditional ladder of senatorial politics, starting at a bracingly young age. Antoninus Pius was emperor when he began. He was a senator by the age of around 25 in 138 A.D. and consul 16 years later in 154 A.D. Marcus Aurelius succeeded Pius after his death in 161 A.D. and at the end of that decade fought with Macrinus against the Quadi and Marcomanni who had invaded Italy, the first Germanic tribes to do so since Gaius Marius soundly spanked the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae in 101 B.C.

One inscription from the base of a statue found in the agora of Ephesus, Greece, covers almost Macrinus’ entire career:

M[arcus Nonius] Macrinus, consul of Rome, proconsul of Asia, quindecimvir sacris faciundis [(the priestly college in charge of guarding the Sibylline Books)], entered by appointment in the college of the closest friends as a sodalis Antoninianus Verianus [(the religious association dedicated to the deified emperor Antoninus Pius, adopted father of Marcus Aurelius)], legate and campaign companion of the very great emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, consular governor of Upper Pannonia, governor of Lower Pannonia, curator of the Tiber and of its two banks, commander of the XIV legion, praetor of Rome, tribune of the plebs, Asian legate , quaestor, laticlave tribune [(i.e., second in command)] of the XVII legion [(this is a mistake; Legio XVII was destroyed in the infamous Battle of Teutoburg Forest under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus and was never reconstituted because of the abysmally bad luck associated with it; Marcinus' laticlave tribunate was probably of the XVI legion)], decemvir stlitibus iudicandis [(one of ten judges assigned to adjudicate capitol cases in the imperial era)], savior of the province.

I can’t find a transcript of the inscriptions discovered at the mausoleum, but it was doubtless much of the same material. More than 10 inscriptions detail his life and works and note that the tomb was built by his son to honor the father. Junior wasn’t stingy about it, either. Archaeologists estimate that one row of columns was at least 50 feet long, so you can imagine what a massive structure this was.

With its impressive size and inscriptions clearly marking it as the final resting place of an illustrious Roman connected to a hugely popular Oscar-winning sword-and-sandal movie, the reconstructed tomb would become the centerpiece of an archaeological park along the ancient Via Flaminia. The park would also include a series tombs discovered on the sixth mile of the road and the villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, famed for its frescoes and as the discovery spot of the Augustus of Prima Porta which now resides in the Vatican Museums. State archaeologist Daniela Rossi called the tomb the most important Roman find of the past 20 or 30 years.

Fast forward to 2012 and with government budgets slashed by austerity, not only is there no chance of the mausoleum being rebuilt, but they can’t even afford to maintain the site anymore. Archaeological superintendent Mariarosaria Barbera announced Tuesday that they have made the painful decision to rebury the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus. Her announcement as quoted in the Italian daily La Repubblica:

It’s a question of security. The superintendence has invested its own funds in additional excavation and study. Now unfortunately the time has come to rebury the area. The site will be temporarily covered to preserve the artifacts that cannot stand another winter in the open exposed to the elements. It’s December; it’s cold; soon it will freeze. The marbles cannot stand another year in these conditions. At the moment there are no funds for any development solutions. It’s painful to cover them up, but it would be even more painful to think that they might not withstand the cold and that they run the risk of falling apart and deteriorating completely.

The site won’t be entirely reburied. The remains will be partially covered, enough to protect them while still making future interventions relatively easy. The dream of the park has not been abandoned. They’re probably going to need private donors, however, to make it happen.

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Men seek cat, find catacomb

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Mirko Curti and Raimondo Turnu in front of the newly exposed side of the caveOn the night of Tuesday, October 16th, 25-year-old bartender Mirko Curti left his apartment building at 196 Via di Pietralata in the Tiburtina neighborhood of Rome with his friend Raimondo Turnu in search of a missing cat. They heard meowing and followed the sound to an aperture that, due to heavy rains, had recently appeared in a low volcanic tufa cliff nearby. It was the entrance to a cave. Inside they found a number of human bones and a wall of niches called a columbarium which once held the ashes of Roman dead. “It was impressive,” said Curti. “I felt like an explorer. You go behind your house and you end up feeling like Indiana Jones.”

You might think this sort of thing happens all the time in a city as ancient and layered as Rome, but it really doesn’t, hence their elation. Tiburtina is within the current boundaries of the city, not in the historic center. It’s a relatively modern residential neighborhood, outside of the pomerium, the ancient sacred boundary that marked what was Rome and what was just land Rome owned. It was prime real estate for burials, though, since by law people could not be buried inside the pomerium. Plenty of archaeological finds have been made in the area (especially along the ancient Roman road), but you wouldn’t expect to stumble on one while looking for your cat behind your building.

Opening in the wall they slipped throughDespite their excitement at having stumbled onto an Indy moment of their own, the young men did the proper thing and left, calling the police to alert them to the find. (Sadly, there’s no word on whether they found the cat too.) The next day, the police called in various authorities, including municipal agents and firefighters, but first on the scene were archaeologists from the city Superintendence of Cultural Goods. Their preliminary findings indicate that the columbarium is of early Imperial date and was violated long ago. The human bones appear to have come from a higher level burial. They probably collapsed to their current location as a result of an earthquake or a landslide.

The area is susceptible to that kind of thing because tufa is very soft rock, which makes it easy to dig for necropolis purposes and makes it vulnerable to the elements. The ancients carved many caves into the Tiburtina cliffs, and recent rains caused stones and earth obscuring the large entrance of the cave to collapse. The city Superintendence has fenced off the cave entrance and closed off the small opening for now out of concern for public safety given the precariousness of the walls and roof of the structure.

Colombario of Pomponio Hylas on the Appia AnticaWith the premises secured, now the state archaeologists are examining the contents. According to their assessment, the columbarium dates from the 1st century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D., an era when this style of burial was very popular among Romans of modest means. They would make monthly payments to a collegium, a burial society, which would then foot the bill for cremation, an urn and a dignified burial with all the proper rites in a communal columbarium for members and their families. More prosperous families would sometimes team up to share a columbarium, or one family would purchase one for themselves and sell any leftover spots to individuals.

Because of the landslides, the recently discovered columbarium has a mound of earth obscuring most of the niches. When the cave is stabilized (which may be a while because Rome is expecting heavy rains in the upcoming days and weeks), archaeologists will excavate to reveal the full wall as well as recover the scattered bones. The finders estimate that there were at least 100 loose bones. Archaeologists expect that they will be of later date, although there could be overlap on the more recent end of the estimate. Inhumation was becoming increasingly fashionable by the second half of the 2nd century A.D. It would make cremation virtually obsolete by the fourth.

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