Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Scala Sancta unboxed

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

The 28 white marble stairs said to have been trod upon by Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate have been unveiled for the first time in three centuries. Church tradition holds that the staircase led to the prætorium of Pilate and was brought from Jerusalem to Rome by Helen, mother of Constantine, in 326 A.D.

(There’s no way they were the authentic prætorium stairs, just for the record. There was no marble in Palestine, and Rome would certainly have not gone to the expense of importing the high quality Aegean marble these stairs were made of for a backwater governor’s headquarters. Besides, Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Pilate’s prætorium included. Helen was sold many, many “relics” on her tour of the Holy Land.)

They were installed in the Lateran Palace, the ancient domus of the Plautii Laterani family on the Caelian Hill which was given to the Pope by Constantine around 313 A.D., leading up to a hall near the Chapel of St. Sylvester. They were protected with a dedicated roof and regular steps were built on either side for non-ceremonial use.

The Lateran Palace was the primary residence of the popes until the 14th century when the papal court was moved to Avignon. By the time the long Babylonian Captivity was over and the papacy returned to Rome in 1377, the Lateran had suffered extensive damage in two major fires and the popes looked elsewhere for digs, eventually winding up in the Vatican.

Today, the Scala Sancta leads to the Sancta Sanctorum, the first private papal chapel which is known as the Holiest of Holies due to the numerous relics secreted there none of which have been seen since the early 16th century. The sanctuary is one of several buildings of the Lateran complex which includes the palace and the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, the titular seat of the Bishop of Rome. The Sancta Sanctorum is the only surviving section of the original ancient Lateran Palace, demolished by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 to make way for the much smaller one that stands there today. (Sixtus V was notorious for razing ancient monuments to the ground for use as raw material in his ambitious programs of architectural modernization.) He had the steps moved to the base of the Sancta Sanctorum and opened them to the public for the first time.

The steps and chapel became a major site of pilgrimage, with pilgrims ascending the stairs on their knees, kissing three spots marked with a cross said to be stained with droplets of Christ’s blood. So many pilgrim knees rubbed against the marble that they eroded deep troughs across the full width of each step. To keep the stairs from whittling down to nothing, in 1723 Innocent XIII had them covered them with walnut wood for their protection. Those casings remained in place for close to 300 years.

Restoration of the Holy Stairs began in January of 2018. Both the marble and the wood coverings required conservation, as did the frescoes on the side walls, so the Scala Sancta has been closed since work began. When restorers removed the wood, they were surprised to find deep furrows in the center of the steps. They realized these marks were left by the tips of millions of pilgrim shoes pushing up to the next step.

The conservation of the wood is not finished yet. The work on the marble steps, however, is complete, so Church authorities decided to open them to the public for a very short period from April 11th until June 9th, the day of Pentecost. Orthopedists can go ahead and buy that new Mercedes, because pilgrims are flocking to the Scala Sancta to take advantage of the opportunity. Oh, and there are plenary indulgences on the line for anyone who goes up the stairs on the knees in prayer after taking Communion and Confession.

 Three medieval crosses, set into the marble to commemorate that event, will now become visible again: the first in porphyry at the beginning of the staircase, another in bronze at the end, and the third on the eleventh stair, where according to tradition Jesus fell, breaking the marble with His knee.

Under the technical and scientific direction of the Vatican Museums, with the contribution of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, the restorers have brought to light the ancient marble, gathering from under the wooden cover a multitude of written notes, ex voto, coins and photographs left by the faithful, and now conserved by the Passionist Fathers who since 1853 have safeguarded the Shrine, at the behest of Pope Pius IX.

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Nero’s Domus Transitoria opens to public

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

Nero was so closely associated with his insanely huge Golden Palace on the Oppian Hill that his previous abode, the Domus Transitoria, was entirely eclipsed by its successor. It was called the Transit House because it extended from the Esquiline to the Palatine so the imperial family could move from one hill to the other moving solely through the buildings, gardens and pools of his private 9,000 square foot palace. It too was constructed of opulent materials from patrician estates that had gradually fallen into imperial hands and was considered obscenely luxurious when it was built in the 50s A.D. It burned down in fire of 64 A.D. and Nero took advantage of the destruction of large swaths of the city to build the Domus Aurea by way of replacement.

The first remains of the Domus Transitoria were discovered in 1721 by the noble Farnese family. Like with the Domus Aurea, it was the surviving frescoes that caught the eye, their small fantastical details inspiring artists in the grottesque style. The Farnese helped themselves to whatever they wanted and what they wanted was those frescoes. They were chiseled off the walls and wound up in the collection of the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Most of what’s left of the palace — a triclium surrounded by porphyry columns, opus sectile floors, vaulted ceilings, an elegant nymphaeum, a communal latrine facility that sat 50 and is believed to have been built for the work crews who built the Domus Aurea after the fire — was excavated by Giacomo Boni in the 1910s.

The Domus Transitoria has never been open to visitors before, but after a decade-long program of structural reinforcement and renovation, you can now descend into the ruins of palatial rooms and gardens that were once ground level. As with the phenomenal Domus Aurea tour, there’s a virtual reality component here too.

Visitors receive virtual reality goggles which bring the dank chambers to life, showing them as they were 2,000 years ago – part of a huge palace decorated with marble pillars, lavish frescoes, mosaic floors and fountains.

The walls were painted with garden scenes, including trees, flowers and song birds.

Inspiration for the design of the sumptuous residence came from a palace built for the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy in Alexandria, said Alfonsina Russo, the director of the archeological zone that encompasses the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.

“It reflects the personality of Nero, one of the most controversial figures of the Roman Empire,” said Prof Russo.

The Archaeological Museum of Naples has loaned the frescoes looted from the palace in the 18th century for the reopening. The Palatine Museum just a few steps away has a few frescoes of its own removed in the 1950s as well as statues and other decorative pieces recovered from the Domus Transitoria.

The tour of the Domus is included in the new Roman Forum-Palatine ticket (16 euro) which is valid for a day. The Domus Transitoria can only be visited from Friday to Monday. Included in the price of the ticket is entry to the Palatine Museum, the Neronian Cryptoporticus, the Domus of Augustus, the Domus of Livia, the Temple of Romulus, Santa Maria Antiqua and the imperial ramp of Domitian. You have no idea how hard I tried to get into Santa Maria Antiqua and Domitian’s ramp my last two visits to Rome. No one’s keeping me away next time.

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Restored baker and his wife back on display

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019

Between 50 and 20 B.C., in the late Republic, early Imperial period, a man named Eurysaces built a tomb outside the eastern boundary of Rome. Part of what is today called the Porta Maggiore after the nearby Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Two inscriptions identify the tomb’s owner. The complete one says: EST HOC MONIMENTUM MARGEI VERGILEI EURSYACIS PISTORIS REDEMPTORIS APPARET, meaning “This is the monument of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker contractor, public servant. His name, the Latin nomen and Greek cognomen, could be indications that he was a freedman, a manumitted slave who became a wealthy and successful baker. His name is not followed by L or LIB for libertinus to denote freedman status, however. It wasn’t a requirement that freedmen identify themselves this way, but it was a widespread practice. He could also have just been a poor immigrant who made good and wanted to broadcast as much in his own stab at immortality with a tomb dedicated to his success in business.

The three surviving facades of the tomb feature a unique design: three rows in five columns of hollow circles in the third story. It is sui generis as tomb design, but could represent dolia frumentaria, massive round-mouth earthenware jars that had capacities in the hundreds of gallons and were used to store grain for commercial enterprises. (Dolia were used to store pretty much every foodstuff, liquid and solid — wine, oil, fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, salted ham, fish, fish guts in the fermentation of garum. They’ve been found on shipwrecks and buried in rows up to their shoulders in industrial and commercial neighborhoods.)

A far more literal representation of the baker’s craft is sculpted in a frieze below the cornice. Every stage of commercial bread-making is depicted, from the milling of grain on the south façade to the baking of the loaves on the north façade to the weighing and sale of the bread on the west.

The tomb survived construction of the Aqua Claudia in the middle of the 1st century. The soaring arches of the aqueduct loomed over and all around it, but it remained intact. The construction of the Aurelian Walls in the 3rd century took a march larger toll, absorbing the tomb into the new defensive perimeter. The east façade was destroyed when the tomb was built into a tower of the Porta Praenestina. Finally the tomb was fully enclosed in reinforcements of the wall built by the emperor Honorius.

In 1838, the structures built by Honorius were demolished by order of Pope Gregory XVI who had a notion that stripping later modifications would return the gate to Cladius’ original. During the works, the baker’s tomb was rediscovered. The Pope let it stand despite his pet project and today it remains in place at the Porta Maggiore.

Restored relief of Eurysaces and Atistia with epitaph at their feet. Photo courtesy Centrale Montemartini.There was more to it than the parts of the structure that are still standing. Crews discovered fragments of inscriptions and sculptural elements that had fallen off the tomb or been knocked down. The most significant was a full-length marble relief portrait of an adult man and woman. Expertly carved wearing the highly draped traditional Roman garb of tunic and toga (for him) and tunic and palla (for her), the figures look dignified and expensive, not unlike the family portraits of Augustus and Livia on the Ara Pacis. The woman is even wearing her hair like Livia’s.

An epitaph found in the rubble appears to match this relief. It reads: FUIT ATISTIA UXOR MIHEI FEMINA OPITUMA VEIXSIT QUOIUS CORPORIS RELIQUAE QUOD SUPERANT SUNT IN HOC PANARIO, meaning “Atistia was my wife; a most excellent lady in life; the surviving remains of her body are in this breadbasket.” A cinerary urn in the shape of a cylindrical basket was found near the tomb during the 1838 demolition. It is now lost and we have only drawings of it to go by, but this shape and type of urn was common at that time,
(see this early Imperial urn in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a very similar example), so it’s possible Atistia’s remains were kept in a breadbasket-like urn and placed in the tomb.

It’s likely that the relief and inscription adorned the lost eastern façade of the tomb. Eurysaces, described in such detail on the surviving facades, is the man in the relief and the speaker in the inscription. He created the epitaph and relief to give his wife a tiny sliver of the credit he gives himself on the rest of the building.

The relief portrait has long been out of public view, but after an extensive restoration project that included creating a plaster replacement head for Atistia whose original head was stolen in 1934, it is back on display at the Sala Colonna of the Centrale Montemartini museum. For the occasion, the marble epitaph has been loaned by the Museo Nazionale Romano, and a miniature plaster replica of the tomb as it was when it was intact on loan from the Museo della Civiltà Romana.

On a peronal note, I missed all four of the eastern gates of the Aurelian Wall during my epic wall walks in Rome last October. Next time I’m going full Wrath of Khan on them. They task me. They task me and I shall have them.

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Ball in the Stone Part III: The Treasure

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

The journey’s twists and turns had taken their toll. Mainly on my feet. Sitting on a bench near Keat’s grave, looking at the pyramid and the Porta San Paolo under the warm sunlight, I was weary but content. I realized that my half-formed idea of walking as much of the Aurelian Wall as remained would be too ambitious for a week-long trip, but I had done the full south perimeter and that felt like a real accomplishment.

Only the matter of the cannonball remained. I still wanted badly to capture it even though walking around the wall up to the north gates was no longer an option at this point. The Piramide metro station rose up to play the part of my Merlin, cutting through the city to deliver me north to Castro Pretorio where I could pick up the trail of the wall again and walk along it towards the Porta Pinciana and the Borghese Gardens where my quest had been so cruelly interrupted coming from the other direction.

My busted feets were revitalized by the sheer happiness of walking a new stretch of wall, one I had never ever seen before when I lived in Rome. Castro Pretorio station is named after the Praetorian Guard barracks whose remains are embedded in the wall. I was delighted to find modern-day offices and barracks of the Italian military adjacent to the Metro station. One does enjoy a 2,000-year-old recurring theme.

For a length I was able to walk directly under the looming shadow of the wall, one section of which was topped with razor wire, as if it were still a bulwark against all manner of barbarians overunning the city’s defenses (or at least foolhardy idiots trying to scale a particularly unstable piece). While I soon had to cross the insanely busy multi-lane Corso d’Italia instead of walking directly under it, I had every hope that I would be able to spot the cannonball in the tower. I greeted the Porta Pia with a jaunty how-de-do. I doffed my cap to the late Porta Salaria, demolished in 1921. I stopped short, foot brakes squealing Looney Tunes-style, at the church of Saint Teresa of Avila. This was the marker. Across the Corso d’Italia, now split into lanes on either side of an underpass, somewhere in that section of wall the treasure awaited me.

Crossing the small lane to the fence keeping traffic vehicular and pedestrian from falling into the underpass, I gazed hungrily at the towering heights of brickwork. And there it was. A large hole like so many areas of wear and tear I had seen on my journey along the walls. The cannonball itself was barely visible. The sun was in my eyes and it is so much smaller than the hole it carved out for itself in 1870. It was a dark curve more than anything.

Click to claim your reward.The reward had to be brought back for the benefit of mankind. Them’s the rules of the hero’s journey. Even a dark curve would count as long as the camera could capture it. One shot. Then another. Is that…? If I zoom in can it be…? And so it came to pass as I had scarce dared hope. The Ball in the Stone was mine. Now it is yours too.

I all but flew to the Porta Pinciana and strutted down the Via Veneto living the history nerd’s most dolce vita. Okay so the wings kinda gave out and I snagged a bus at the bottom of the street, but the shine of my final tally of seven gates, miles of largely uninterrupted walls and one precious cannonball picture could not be dulled.

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I can’t believe I missed this

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

A famous medieval icon of the Madonna and Child traditionally held to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist has been conclusively identified as the work of late 13th century artist Filippo Rusuti, creator of the grand upper facade of St. Mary Major. That mosaic depicting Christ enthroned among angels, saints and the symbols of the Evangelists actually bears the artist’s signature in mosaic tiles. The facade is today mostly hidden by the 18th century loggia built over it, but the verisimilitude of the signature made it possible for experts to confirm the one on the icon.

Art historians had previously attributed it to the Master of San Saba due to some stylistic similarities to frescoes in the nave of the Church of San Saba. A restoration that began in 2017 used the latest technology to analyze the panel painting (canvas mounted on walnut). That’s how the previously invisible signature of the artist was discovered. Like the mosaic, the icon is Byzantine in style with rigid figures imbued with symbolism rather than naturalistic postures and affect.

The icon’s permanent home is the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to which it has deep ties extending back to the 13th century. The church’s founding and early history is hazy — many church records were destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome — but it does appear on a list of Roman churches from the late 1220s, early 1230s. The physical structure as it exists today is largely Baroque, an expansion and reconstruction designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the mid-17th century that drastically altered its 15th century predecessor. The greatest international claim to fame and tourist attraction of Santa Maria del Popolo today, the Cerasi Chapel with its two Caravaggio masterpieces, Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus, dates to the Baroque reconstruction.

Long before the Caravaggio pilgrims lined up on the church steps waiting for it to open, however, pilgrims seeking the blessings of the Madonna traveled to Santa Maria del Popolo to venerate the icon. Legend dates its miraculous reputation back to the earliest records of the church. The story goes that the icon of Virgin and Child was painted by the very hand of St. Luke the Evangelist and kept with the rest of the most important relics in Christendom in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace, the Pope’s residence. In 1230, the Tiber overflowed its banks, as it was wont to do, and with the flood came plague. To cure the city of this pestilence, the Pope led the city in a procession carrying aloft the icon to Santa Maria del Popolo. The plague ended and the Madonna of San Luca became one the most venerated icons in Rome.

Several Popes and cardinals were passionately devoted to the icon. The high altar of Santa Maria del Popolo was commissioned, likely by Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, in 1473 to showcase it. One of those popes, Sixtus V, put Santa Maria del Popolo on the list of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome in 1586, replacing the church of Saint Sebastian on the Appia outside the walls, solely because of the importance of icon.

I came so close to seeing the restored icon last week, darn it. It is currently on display at the Castel Sant’Angelo through November 18th. I didn’t even realize it was there and I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it even if I had known because I’ve seen the icon at Santa Maria, albeit not within such close view. I did have the Castel Sant’Angelo’s exhibition of arms and armature on the short list, however, and saw the other half of that show at the Palazzo Venezia. Time got away with me is all, what with all the questing and wall walking.

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Ball in the Stone Part II: the Call of the Wall

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

The plan was to go back to the Appia Antica, walk the ecological park of Valle di Carafella, check out its various columbaria and nymphae, maybe hit a catacomb or two. The Museo delle Mura had been such a treat on Sunday that I didn’t get very far down the ancient road after going through the Appian Gate. So Tuesday I set off bright and early going largely the same way. A rhino was spotted and it was good. Instead of taking Via di San Sebastiano, however, which leads directly to the gate and the museum, for variety’s sake I decided to take the Via di Porta Latina which diverged left to go to a different, much smaller gate a short distance from the big one. It’s a pretty road with large walled villas on either side, walls I hugged more than once when cars barreled down the tiny cobblestone street.

The gate in sight, I stopped to read the info panel about the wee church of San Giovanni in Oleo, a Renaissance structure (original design attributed Bramante, current roof by Borromini), built on the site of a 5th century church which ostensibly marked the spot where John the Evangelist was martyred by Domitian by being boiled in a vat oil. Well, almost martyred. It didn’t take, so alive and unboiled, John was exiled to Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation.

An obstacle arose here too in the form of a tour group that would not move the hell on so I could get a picture of the Porta Latina. Patience, which I hear is a virtue although I wouldn’t know from personal experience, paid off eventually. Proof:

After stepping through the gate, I was visited by a vision of the Aurelian Wall extending down the hill in the opposite direction from the Porta Appia. It called to me, a stone and brick siren 30 feet high and a half-mile long. I had to follow its call. That whole stretch of wall from the Porta Latina to the Porta Metronia is a park, a peaceful green space on the perimeter of a residential neighborhood. There were more dogs than people.

It was so wonderful a walk that I would have gone on to the next gate, the Porta San Giovanni, had not dark forces prevented me. The dark force in this case was the construction of Metro Line C whose high scaffolding was wrapped tight like an anti-present blocking the view of the wall and access to the street under it. I could have continued nonetheless, heading in that direction even if not at the foot of the wall or even in view of it, but I didn’t know when I’d get back to proper wall walking. I turned back, going on to the Porta Appia to resume my original trajectory.

And so I reached the Valle di Carafella, embarking on an exploration of its archaeological sites. There was just one problem. Most of the sites of note are way at the end of the park. I enjoy an ecological preserve, mind you, and had I not had a very specific brief, I would have gladly spent the day hiking the whole thing. Instead, I reached the working farm, received the blessing of Juno’s representative, and then turned back.

It was the wall, you see. Its call could not be denied. Facing the Porta Appia, I turned left and walked. And walked. And walked some more. I reached the Porta Ardeatina and the Christoforo Colombo, the large thoroughfare that took us home/to town so often when I was a child. I kept going. And going. At one point I found some stairs and climbed them. They took me to a high road (far more modern) that tracked the inside of the wall. It was from the internal wall perimeter that I saw the gate. It was the Porta San Paolo.

When I walked through it, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius welcomed me. The marble cladding, mottled grey and white, gleamed in the sun. Never once, when I was little, did I imagine the blackened, weed-choked pyramid could ever look like this. It’s one of the best restorations I’ve ever seen. It was a little thin on cats, however. They used to colonize the base of the pyramid and there were zero cats to be found. Thankfully the Cimitero Accatolico, the non-Catholic cemetery best known as the final resting place of John Keats, “one whose name was writ in water,” was as catty as I recalled.

With such a broad stretch of Aurelian Wall under my belt, my quest for the cannonball was reinvigorated. It would be mine. Oh yes, it would be mine. Stay tuned for Part III wherein your faithful narrator’s journey comes to its explosive (unexploded, actually) conclusion.

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The quest for the ball in the stone: Part I

Monday, October 29th, 2018

I didn’t set out to go on a hero’s journey, complete with call to adventure, ordeal by forces of supernatural power, abyss-despair-failure, overcoming all hardships to gain the reward, but that’s what ended up happening. This is the final part of the quest, wherein I return with the treasure to benefit humanity. So, like, you guys.

The story begins on September 20th, 1870, when the army of the Kingdom of Italy, then less than a decade old, breached the ancient Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia to wrest Rome from the white-knuckle grip of Pope Pius IX and make it the capital of a truly unified Italy. The date and the breach of the walls has gone down in history with a spin that’s more legend than fact. The army did “besiege” the city, but the siege amounted to three hours of cannon fire against the walls.

If you’re thinking that maybe it’s not all that remarkable that a few hours of cannon fire would breach a 1600-year-old wall peppered with holes, cave-ins, crumbling ramparts and patchwork repairs, you are wise. The Pope’s resistance was token. He knew it was over; he just didn’t want to go down without some pretense at fighting back. After those three hours of artillery lobbed at Porta Pia, 72 troops — 53 Italian and 19 papal — were dead and the kingdom’s forces made their triumphal entry down the Via Pia, today named Via XX Settembre after that momentous day.

Nowadays, the Aurelian Wall at Porta Pia is a snarl of traffic with the modern version of the ancient consular roads transporting an endless parade of cars, motorini and buses both tourist and public. The Corso d’Italia, fat with lanes and divides and over and underpasses, runs along the outside of the wall past the former Porta Salaria (demolished in 1921) to the Porta Pinciana.

Somewhere between the Porta Pia and Pinciana, embedded high on a tower of the Aurelian Wall is a single cannon ball that was shot during the siege of September 20th. As I had already determined to walk as many tracts of the ancient wall I could manage, I thought it would be groovy to cap one of those walks with a picture of the 1870 cannon ball in the 270s wall. I knew from my childhood days that the Borghese Gallery is right across from the Pinciana Gate north of the city, its massive park stretching out below the villa itself practically all the way down to the Porta del Popolo, the gate adjacent to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo famous for its Caravaggio paintings. The stretch of Aurelian Wall that goes up the hill from the Porta del Popolo towards the Porta Pinciana still stands. It’s called the Muro Torto (crooked wall, after a sharp dogleg east) and when I was a kid, I had a distinct fixation with it, staring at the looming structure whenever we drove by it. I was looking forward to experiencing that looming feeling even more keenly walking at its feet.

Such was my call to adventure. The ordeals began with a “sidewalk” that could only have been designed by forces of supernatural malignity. Sometimes it was wide enough for two feet. Sometimes it wasn’t. More than once it was a line painted on asphalt, literally forcing my back against the wall, hands clutching the clammy grunge of masonry and brick as cars sped past me so fast they made a laser-like “pew!” sound. When there was sufficient sidewalk to lower the risk from almost certainly deadly to “danger Will Robinson” flailing, new enemies sprang up in the form of weeds. The embankments and sides of the walls were choked with vegetation, so much so that I feared I’d miss the cannon ball hidden in cascades of wild plants.

But the obstacle that would defeat me, seemingly ending my quest, was road work. I wasn’t even at the top of the hill when the sidewalk and right lane were taped off for some pressing infrastructure modification project. Being in Rome, I did as any Roman would do and simply ducked under the tape to continue on my not-so-merry way. I was chased out by a supernatural apparition only spoken of in hushed tones in this city but never seen: an actual worker working.

Now I was on the street, a target for high-speed vehicles and their eardrum-shattering horns. Again I had to walk feet splayed outwards, heels together, in the few inches of gutter space that made the difference between life and death. If the cannonball had appeared during that stretch, there was no way I could have seen it.

Finally at the top of the hill but not even at the Porta Pia yet, the wall disappeared. The last I could see of it ended in a piney private park far above me. I had to admit defeat. Crushed, bereft of cannonballs, I lost hope and had to find a new reason to go on. I walked heavily down the steps to the Spagna Metro station and made my way to the patrician domuses under the Palazzo Valentini in Trajan’s Forum where I had booked a tour.

It turned out to be an epic tour and will be a topic for its own chanson de geste, but it could not erase the memory of my lost cannonball. It would be the Aurelian Wall itself that would resuscitate the deceased hope that I might achieve my quest after all.

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How’s this for a view from your office?

Friday, October 26th, 2018

Heading south in the historic center shortly before one encounters a rhino in front of a quadrifons arch, there’s a lovely palazzo off Piazza Campitelli on the Via Montanara. The first time I happened past it was when I went to the Museo della Mura at the Porta Appia. That was Sunday and the portellone (big ol’ door) was closed so it was just a felicitously located building. I barely noted it because it was clearly new (well, new for Rome).

When I returned down that path for the Wednesday excursion which took me past the rhino, the portellone was wide open and I saw a beautiful courtyard with a fountain and a few handsome pieces of ancient marble work. That was notable and how. I popped in to have a quick look around, as one does in open doors in Rome, and I saw this:

That is what the employees of the Municipal Department of Culture see every morning when they trudge in to the office. The door was open for randos like me to wander in because there’s a little information booth with a bunch of pamphlets about cultural activities sponsored by the city and oh yeah, a freaking incredible view of three important ancient sites and a cool Renaissance building.

The view from the courtyard stretches from the slopes of the Capitoline to the Velabrum valley. This was always a busy area, even before the Cloaca drained the marsh, because it’s where the Isola Tiberina divides the Tiber making a convenient ford for a commercial harbor. The remains of the first bridge built on the river, the Ponte Rotto, still stand in front of the island.

Once the marshes were dried up, the area filled with temples and monumental structures. The Theater of Marcellus was built in by August in 13 or 11 B.C. in memory of his beloved nephew who died at a young age under suspicious circumstances (did Livia poison him?). It was originally three levels high, the first level supported by Doric columns, the second Ionic and the third adorned by Corinthian pilasters. It seated 15,000.

A Temple of Apollo was first built on the site in 431 B.C. by consul Gnaeus Iulius Mento in thanks for the conclusion of a plague. It was the first and for centuries the only temple to Apollo in the city. The remains visible today date to a rebuild of the site during the Augustan period, a rebuild made necessary by various demolitions done to accommodate the Theater of Marcellus.

You will not be surprised to hear that the theater, like sooo many other ancient Roman buildings, was converted into a fortress by local potentates. In the Renaissance the fortress got an architectural upgrade into a palace, designed by Baldassarre Peruzzi for the noble Savelli family, later owned by the Orsini.

In the 1930s, the Fascist thirst for creating a grandiose vision of the ancient Caput Mundi led to the demolition of much of the medieval and Renaissance construction in the area. The columns from the Temple of Apollo, incorporated into a later building, were reconstructed in their original location and raised on April 21st, 1940, Rome’s birthday. Other remains were released from the bondage of the structures built on top of them.

So what you see from the courtyard is a remarkable cross-section of Roman history. The tower in the left middle ground is the Torre dei Pierleoni, a medieval defensive tower once linked to all the fortressification of the Theater of Marcellus. A block or so behind it, past the tree, is the facade of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, of Bocca della Verita’ fame. On the right is the Theater of Marcellus, only two of its original three ancient storeys remaining, with the Renaissance palazzo taking up the third storey now. The columns and hill they’re on are the site of the Temple of Apollo. The mass against the fence in the left foreground is the podium of the Temple of Bellona, originally erected in 296 B.C. to celebrate a victory over the Etruscans and also reconstructed under Augustus (5-15 B.C.). The building with the tile roof overlooking the Temple of Apollo is the Albergo della Catena, an active inn from at least the 16th century until 1931 when it was bought by the city of Rome.

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Random arch rhinos

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

In the Forum Boarium across from the Theater of Marcellus and a block or so from Santa Maria in Cosmedin where crazy people who have seen Roman Holiday one too many times line up for hours to get a picture of themselves putting their hands in an ancient manhole cover, lies one of those gems that is so large it’s weird to call it hidden. And yet it is, at least in the sense of being little known these days.

It is the only surviving quadrifrons arch in Rome. Quadrifons literally means “four fronts” and that’s how the arch was designed: four pylons supporting a cross vault, like the way you set up the central double wicket in croquet. That gives it the look of a cube with a gate on each side. It’s the four faces that earned it the appellation Arch of Janus, a deity sometimes depicted in Roman iconography in the form of Ianus Quadrifons, so with four faces instead of two. The arch wasn’t dedicated to him. The Latin word for door, “ianua,” is derived from the god and is the likely reference in the name.

There are no records of it going by the Arch of Janus in antiquity. Historians think it might be the “arcum divi Constantini” listed as one of the monuments in the Velabrum in the regionary Notitia urbis Romae in which case it would have been dedicated to Constantine or his one of his sons Constantine II, Constans or Constantius II.

The arch was built in the second half of the 4th century A.D. in the Velabrum, the valley connecting the Roman Forum with the Forum Boarium (the cattle market). Once a marsh fed by the Tiber, the area was drained by the construction of the Cloaca Maxima, and the arch straddles the large drain leading to the great sewer. It was constructed of concrete and faced with marble taken from earlier structures. The marble cladding of the pylons have two rows of three niches on each side. Empty now, they originally contained statues. Today the only figural decoration remaining is a different goddess on each keystone: Roma on the east pylon, Minerva on the north, and possibly Juno and Ceres on the remaining two (identification is uncertain).

In the Middle Ages the Frangipani family occupied it, filling in the gates and using it as a fortress. Those alterations were corrected in 1827-1830 and the arch became an arch again. There was just one wee little problem. The restorers mistakenly believed that an attic atop the arch was a Frangipani addition and tore the whole thing off. It was original, part of the ancient arch now lost forever.

Through the opening of the gates you can see the church of San Giorgio al Velabro right behind it. In 1993, a car bomb went off in front of the church, after which the arch was fenced in and visitors locked out. While other buildings in the Velabrum were restored in the 90s and early 2000s, the arch alone remained untouched, blackening under the constant assault of Roman traffic. It was included in the World Monuments Fund 2014 World Monuments Watch, and with funding from private sponsors, the WMF and the Superintendency for the Coliseum were able to start an in-depth study and restoration of the arch.

In May of 2017, visitors were invited to see the work in progress at a WMF-organized Watch Day. This video shows tantalizing but not satisfying snippets of the restoration.

A year and a half has passed since that Watch Day, and as of 9:00 AM October 24th, 2018, the Arch of Janus is still fenced in. A sign on the gate warns that visitors are not allowed due to the ongoing restoration work. There was no work visible. No workers. No scaffolding. There was, however, a rhino.

Rome, ladies and gentlemen.

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Random street marbles

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

This morning was all about the city of Rome as an easily accessible museum with no tickets to buy. After the de rigeur breakfast caffe’ at Sant’Eustachio, which, just by the by, is a miracle wondercoffee touched by the gods, it was off to see a couple of little things plopped in the middle of random alleyways in the centro storico. First up: a lump of marble with what looks like a cut in it. According to legend, that cut was put there by the Roland, knight of Charlemagne and hero of France’s national epic, the chanson de geste The Song of Roland. This is why the tiny, otherwise unremarkable alleyway is called Vicolo della Spada d’Orlando (Alley of the Sword of Roland).

There are actually two legends attendant this lump, both star not just Roland, but his trusty sword, Durendal. Durendal was the sharpest sword in the world and unbreakable because it was filled with the power of four relics: one tooth of Saint Peter’s, some blood from Saint Basil, a piece of the Virgin Mary’s robe and a hair from Saint Denis. Charlemagne had received it directly from an angel and gave it to his loyal warlord Roland.

Roland was fighting a Muslim ambush at Roncesvalles in northern Spain, slaughtering thousands with his great skill in combat and his unbreakable, sharpest of sharp sword. Even so, the Franks were tremendously outnumbered and when he saw that he was about to be overrun, Roland tried to destroy Durendal to keep such a powerful weapon out of their hands. He struck a powerful blow against a solid marble column. The sword did not break. It just cut the column instead. Roland would die at Roncesvalles from blowing his horn Oliphant, calling to Charlemagne’s forces that they avenge him. He blew so hard his temples exploded and his brains popped out. Somehow, the piece of marble with the cut in it made its way to a Roman alley. That niggling detail is not recorded in this iteration of the legend.

The second version cuts the whole mysterious transport of a column chunk out of the picture and instead simply declares that Roland was in Rome this one time. He was attacked and in defending himself against said attackers, he slashed vigorously in all directions at his many enemies, inadvertently cutting through a nearby column.

Now, it is reasonable that a whole column might have been in that wee streetlet, because the remains of a wall have been found there that once belonged the Temple of Matidia, a temple built by Hadrian in 119 A.D. dedicated to his mother-in-law Salonia Matidia, niece of Trajan. Almost none of that temple remains, but there are a couple of columns embedded into a palazzo at the end of the alley in Piazza Capranica. That Roland happened to be walking by only to be beset upon by foes and stabbed his invincible sword in the stone may be less reasonable but it’s even more awesome.

Amusing anecdote typical of Rome: there were three workmen lounging around at the entrance to the alley. They were very busily engaged in smoking in conversation. I bid them good morning and stepped between them to sidle into the Vicolo. One of them told me there was no entry. I pointed out that I had already entered, really, and only wanted to catch a glimpse of the Roland thingy. He was all “Eh. Might as well go through since you’re there.” AGREED, KIND SIR!

After all that ado, here is the mark of the spada d’Orlando, one as I found it with a tiny (empty) bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin on top, one as I left it, garbage removed.

The second stop on the random alleyway tour was Via del Pie’ di Marmo, Way of the Marble Foot. I wrote about that marble foot more than seven years ago when it got a shiny new pedicure transforming it from the gunky blackened thing I remembered from childhood to a clean white. The news accounts at the time said it had a new fence around it, and so it does, a simple black iron square band. It’s not as bright white as it was seven years ago, but frankly I think the lived-in look suits it better. I’m happy it got some attention amidst the unstoppable avalanche of work that always needs doing in so ancient a city.

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