Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

VR bus drives back in time through ancient Rome

Thursday, June 23rd, 2022

On Thursday Rome debuted a new high-tech way to experience its monuments: the Virtual Reality Bus. The small fully electric bus takes a maximum of 14 passengers on a 30-minute circuit of ancient Rome’s most important sites, from Trajan’s Column through the Forums, the Colosseum, the Palatine, the Circus Maximus, to the Theater of Marcellus and back again. While driving by, the magic of VR will transport passengers back in time so they can see the city as it was before the ruins were ruins.

There are no headsets or viewing accessories of any kind required. A transparent 4K OLED screen has been installed in front of each window with a motorized curtain between the screen and the window. When passengers want to see the monuments of ancient Rome as they are today, they raise the curtain. When they want to see what it would have looked like if they drove by 2,000 years ago, they close the curtain for the virtual reality view.

A sophisticated network of 5G broadband synchronizes the 3D virtual models on the screens to the exact location of the bus. Three GPS on different locations on the bus, a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, a velocimeter and a surface laser document every jolt and jostle of the bus and realistic effects are then simulated in real time on the VR screens.

The bus is also equipped with digital speakers between every window and every other seat row, but to give the customers a truly immersive sensory system, they have taken a page from the great Smell-O-Vision stunts of the 1950s. A fragrance delivery system will evoke the scents of ancient Rome as the bus drives by temples, forums, the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. Inspired by the burned offerings to the gods and the assorted funks of the arena, a scent designed to match the site is released as you pass. Temples get you frankincense, myrrh, charcoal, guaiac wood, birch and vetiver grass. When you drive by the Colosseum, you’ll get hit with a wave of metallic aldehydes, civet musk, oud wood, costus, cistus labdanum resin and cumin. The Imperial Forums will serve oak moss, patchouli, sandalwood and amber balsam.

The bus runs every 40 minutes from 4:20PM to 7:40PM. English language tours are available only on the 5:00, 6:20 and 7:40 bus. The others are all in Italian. A regular tickets costs €16 and can be purchased online or at the ticket booth at Trajan’s Column.  Children younger than six ride for free.

Get a sneak peek at what this experience looks like in this video. Alas, there is no Smell-O-Vision on YouTube. Yet.


Cautionary tale and pristine balm tombs open to public

Friday, March 4th, 2022

The Mausoleums of Saxa Rubra, two ancient tombs on the northern outskirts of the modern city of Rome, are for the first time open to the public every third Thursday of the month. Surrounded by modern construction along the Via Flaminia, the 2nd century tombs are little known and easily missed in the bewildering density of historical sites in Rome, but they are of great archaeological significance.

The tombs are on the 8th kilometer of the Via Flaminia, the ancient Republican road leading north out of the city. They were both carved out of the red tufa outcroppings that Saxa Rubra (meaning “red cave”) was named after. 

An inscription identifies the larger of the two tombs as that of Quintus Nasonius Ambrosius, freedman of the Nasonian family, and his wife freedwoman Nasonia Urbica. It was discovered in 1674 during works in preparation for the Jubilee year of 1675. From the moment it was found it was treated in the worst possible way. The history of this tomb is a microcosm of how cultural patrimony can be obliterated by neglect, ignorance and greed. The information panels in the tomb tell the story.

The workers who found the tomb broke through its frescoed ceiling, putting a hole in it and destroying a section of the plaster. The front entrance to the funerary chamber was framed by a temple façade with four pilasters supporting a triangular pediment, also carved out of the same living rock.

Inside they found a rectangular funerary chamber with three niches on its long sides and one at the apex. The walls were divided into two registers separated by a cornice. The bottom register has the niches; the top register alternating lunettes and squares. It was adorned with mosaic floors and elaborate frescoes on every stuccoed surface of the walls, niches and ceiling.

Detailed drawings of the tomb and frescoes by painter and engraver Pietro Santi Bartoli published in 1680 document an absolute riot of richly detailed scenes from mythology (Oedipus and Sphinx, Orpheus charming the animals) and literature, as well as architectural trompe l’oeil (Corinthian columns, cornices, pediments, friezes), floral garlands, animals, urns, allegorical figures (the four seasons, happiness, and some amazing hunt scenes, including one with a pair of rather odd-looking lions attacking a party of shielded men and another with a pair of oversized leopards attacking the men attempting to entrap them, likely for the arena.

The fresco over the inscription referring to Nasonius and Nasonia depicts Ovid as poet laureate with the god Mercury and the Erato, muse of lyric and erotic poetry.  This is a bit of a name-drop by the owners of the tomb, associating themselves by implication with great Augustan-era poet Publius Ovidius Naso, author of the Ars Amatoria and Metamorphoses. There is no actual family connection between Nasonius and Ovid (Naso was a cognomen of the gens Ovidia; the freedman has adopted his former owner’s name (gens Nasonia) as his own).

The discovery was celebrated at the time, but not in any way protected. From the time of its discovery through the late 19th century, even after Rome was made capital of a unified Italy in 1870, the frescoes were pried off and sold piecemeal to a variety of willing buyers including the British Museum. The mosaics were torn up. By the turn of the century even the façade had been destroyed. The fraction of frescoes remaining were damaged and faded to the point of being almost unrecognizable as the works Bartoli had so meticulously recorded two centuries before.

The new information panels in the Tomb of the Nasonians recount the whole sad tale and use Bartoli’s drawings to give visitors a glimpse into what the tomb looked like when it was first discovered.

The second tomb is a soothing balm after the Tomb of the Nasonians. An inscribed marble slab at the door dedicates it to a woman named Fadilla from her loving husband. It was intact and in beautiful condition when it was discovered in 1923. It’s a smaller space but it is luxuriously appointed with a black-and-white mosaic floor with birds, meanders and other shapes in alternating octagons and squares. The walls and ceilings are fully stuccoed and frescoed with winged Cupids, deities, urns, animals (peacocks, antelopes), outlined in colored paint to create curved and polygonal sections.

Fadilla’s tomb was left unmolested, surviving Fascism, World War II and municiple neglect, which thankfully in this case turned out to be remarkably benign. The contrast between the two tombs is marked. This video’s auto-translated closed captions are terrible, but it’s worth watching even if you can’t understand Italian for the video tour of the two tombs.


Pomerial marker found in Rome

Friday, July 16th, 2021

A rare stone marking the pomerium, the sacred boundary line of Rome, dating from the reign of Emperor Claudius has been discovered during the excavation and restoration of Augustus’ Mausoleum in Rome. Known as a cippus, the travertine stone was found still fixed in the ground on the site of the family tomb where Claudius’ own cinerary remains were laid to rest. Only 10 other pomerial cippi have been discovered in Rome and it’s been 100 years since the last one was found.

According to the legend of the founding of Rome, the pomerium was the boundary line of the city ploughed by Romulus on April 21st, 753 B.C., Rome’s birthday. The furrow was ploughed in accordance with elaborate religious rites of Etruscan origin that took days to complete. The wall of the city would be built following the furrow and the strip of land between it and the wall would be considered the pomerium as well as the original furrow. This was a sacred space, dedicated to the city’s patron gods and essential to the protection of the city from supernatural threats. Romulus killed Remus for jumping over the furrow, a sacrilege so monstrous it justified immediate execution.

The urbs of Rome were inside the pomerium. No foreign ruler could cross its  boundary. Armed Romans couldn’t cross it either, including generals returning from war. They had to wait outside until granted a special dispensation for the triumph. Even the lictors, the protectors of the king/consul, could not bear the axes in their fasces within the pomerium. As the city grew, the pomerium remained unchanged since the 6th king of Rome, Servius Tullius, built the Servian wall around it. Sulla was the first to enlarge the pomerium in 80 B.C. when he was dictator, an absolutely massive power move that telegraphed in the clearest of terms that he was in charge and would not be bound even by Rome’s most ancient religious and political traditions.

Claudius’ expansion was, on paper anyway, less of a direct middle finger to the hallowed rules. Tacitus explains in his Annals:

The Caesar also enlarged the pomerium,​ in consonance with the old custom, by which an expansion of the empire​ confers the right to extend similarly the boundaries of the city: a right, however, which, even after the conquest of powerful nations, had been exercised by no Roman commander except Lucius Sulla and the deified Augustus.

(Okay that last part is not actually true. Vespasian had done it too. There are extant cippi from his expansion.)

The markers from the Claudian expansion of the pomerium in 49 A.D. confirm the justification Tacitus provides. The empire has expanded thanks to Claudius’ conquest of Britain, ergo, he has expanded the city’s sacred boundary.

The full inscription of Claudius’ pomerial cippi reads:










Tiberius Claudius

Son of Drusus, Caesar

Augustus Germanicus,

Supreme Pontiff, vested with the Tribunician power

for the 9th time, acclaimed Emperor 16 times, Consul for the fourth time,

Censor, Father of his Country,

due to the enlargement of the territory of the Roman people, increased and delimited the pomerium.

The one discovered at Piazzale Augusto Imperatore has lost the first five lines and only part of the next two lines survive. Only the last two are complete. That’s enough to identify it as a Claudian pomerial cippus.

On a side note, it gives you a glimpse of one of Claudius’ more arcane interests. He was an antiquarian and made a study of Etruscan language and history. As emperor, he actively pursued the reform of spelling to ensure the proper (ie, ancient) pronunciation of spoken Latin. The Ⅎ character seen twice in the last line was a character Claudius invented to represent the W sound of V to differentiate it from the U sound. (He added two other characters to the Latin alphabet; the usage of all three died with him.) The second line of the inscription has another one of his spelling reforms: the archaic “Caisar” in place of “Caesar.” In Claudius’ time, the AE sound had already shifted to away from the old “aye” closer to the “eh” sound of modern Italian’s “cesare,” and he was extra salty about his own family name being mispronounced, so he made it explicit by adopting the “ai” spelling.

It has gone on display in the Paladino Hall of the Ara Pacis Museum, literally across the street from the Mausoleum, next to a cast of a statue of Claudius.


Nemi ship mosaic/coffee table goes on display

Saturday, March 13th, 2021

A section of mosaic flooring from one of the Nemi Roman ships, lavish floating palaces built by the profligate Emperor Caligula, that for decades was used a coffee table by a couple in New York City has gone on permanent display at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi. Antique dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband Nereo acquired the opus sectile mosaic in Italy in the 1960s. The broker claimed it had belonged to the noble Barberini family, but there was no ownership record. The Fiorattis had it mounted in a marble frame and put it on a pedestal in their living room where it served as coffee table and much-admired conversation piece in their Park Avenue apartment for 40 years.

Its secret identity was first rediscovered in 2013 when Dario Del Bufalo, an expert in ancient marbles and author of several books on the subject, was in Manhattan for a book signing. His book on porphyry included an old photograph of the mosaic, which has unusual circular tiles made of the precious dark red marble. He was able to authenticate the panel as one of the luxurious decorations salvaged from the ships thanks to those circles of porphyry and a crack that had been restored. The museum that housed the Nemi ships burned down in 1944 in a battle between Allied forces and the Nazi troops occupying the museum. The hulls of the ships, raised in an arduous lake-draining operation the late 1920s and early 30s, were destroyed in the fire, an incalculable loss, as were many of its salvaged parts.

The mosaic was not in the museum at the time. It was removed before 1944 eventually, nobody knows how, wound up in an antiques shop in Rome couple of decades later. After a four-year investigation, the mosaic was seized by the Manhattan DA’s office and returned to the Italian consulate in October 2017. It has been displayed at temporary exhibits in Italy since its repatriation, but now has a permanent home with the other rare surviving artifacts from Caligula’s great floating palaces.

Lake Nemi was sacred to the goddess Diana. She was worshipped in a sacred grove on its slopes as far back as the 6th century B.C., and the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was built on the north shore around 300 B.C. By the time of Caligula, it was a popular pilgrimage site. By Roman law, no ship could sail on sacred waters. Caligula probably complied with the letter of the law by keeping them mostly anchored. He also built temples on board — both ships had rotating statue platforms believed to have been used for cult figures — which gave him another loophole to the no sailing on sacred waters law. As a devotee of Isis who was syncretically identified with Diana, he likely used his superyachts on her sacred lake to throw lavish parties for religious festivals like the Isidis Navigium, an annual celebration invoking the protection of Isis on sailors at the opening of the navigation season on March 5th.

Despite being built to the exacting standards of Roman seagoing vessels — their hulls were clad in lead sheets to prevent the depredations of shipworms which do not live in freshwater lakes and both ships were equipped with long steering oars — Caligula’s barges couldn’t have done much sailing on the lake even if hadn’t been a sacrilege to do so. Nemi is a small, roughly circular lake formed from the crater of an extinct volcano. Its average width is 1 kilometer. The barges were 73 x 24 meters and 70 x 20 meters, so it only would have taken a voyage of 14 ship lengths to cross its full width. They were lake palaces, not a means of transport, and if they left the shore at all, they were at most rowed (in the case of the smaller boat) and/or towed (the larger had no means of propulsion) to the center of the lake.

Suetonius cites Caligula’s opulent taste in ships as an example of his profligacy in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars:

He built two ships with ten banks of oars, after the Liburnian fashion, the poops of which blazed with jewels, and the sails were of various parti-colours. They were fitted up with ample baths, galleries, and saloons, and supplied with a great variety of vines and other fruit-trees. In these he would sail in the day-time along the coast of Campania, feasting amidst dancing and concerts of music.

The Nemi ships had the same luxurious decorations and amenities, even though they had nowhere to go, as attested to by the floor mosaic which is of highest quality in materials and craftsmanship. 

Today the museum houses 1/5th scale replicas of the ships, although last summer the mayor of Nemi was making noises about asking Germany to fund full-scale replicas by way of reparations. The problem with that notion is that there is no direct evidence that the Nazis burned the ships. Allied planes bombed the museum striking at the German anti-aircraft artillery nest which was deliberately installed there in the hope that priceless archaeological patrimony would act as a shield. The bomb drop did minimal damage to the exterior of the museum, and hours later museum staffers saw Nazi occupiers with torches walking around inside just before the fire broke out the night of May 31st. The Germans cleared out that night. US ground troops arrived four days later. 

Here’s a silent but deadly (in a good way) British Pathé newsreel documenting the exposure of one of the ships in 1930.


Mosaics from luxury Roman villa found under luxury Roman condos

Monday, October 12th, 2020

The Domus Aventino is a high-end condominium complex offering all technology, comfort, amenities, energy efficiency and round-the-clock of new construction in the historic surroundings of Piazza Albania at the foot of Rome’s Aventine Hill. Three buildings, built in the 1950s and for decades headquarters of a bank, were converted into 180 luxury apartments and penthouses. Installation of new earthquake-resistant foundations in 2014 revealed ancient remains which were excavated by archaeologists from the Special Superintendency of Rome. Elaborate mosaic floors from an Imperial-era villa demonstrated that the luxury dwellings of modern Rome stood on two hundred years of luxury dwellings of ancient Rome.

There is evidence of human occupation at the site going back to the prehistory of Rome, the 8th century B.C. when legend has it Romulus founded the city. The excavation also unearthed a wall of volcanic tufa blocks that may have bene the base of a guard tower built between the 4th and 3rd century B.C. when the Servian Wall was constructed looping around the foot of the Aventine Hill. Just a few steps away on the Viale Aventino is an extremely rare surviving archway from this wall in which a throwing weapon like a ballista or a catapult could be positioned to defend against marauders.

The site seems to have first changed from public defensive structure to private use around the middle of the 2nd century B.C., although the material from this period is too sparse to determine how it was used. Within this large perimeter, the floorplan of a domus emerged with identifiable areas for sleeping and for daytime use, storage areas and open-air gardens. Over the two centuries, six levels of floors were superimposed on each other. The full stratigraphic record was brought to light in one location of the house, and analysis of the six layers found that the home was restructured about every 30 years. Every generation put its stamp on this villa, altering it and refurbishing it to meet new needs and fashions.

The oldest mosaic floor dates to the late 1st century B.C. and features black and white tiles arranged in a hexagonal pattern. The next two chronologically date to the second half of the 1st century A.D. and the beginning of the 2nd. A partial inscription (the black tiles that formed the letters were reused in later renovations) dates to the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) and records three patrons of that particular mosaic pavement, suggesting it may have had a semi-public use at this time, as in for members of an association.

Black-and-white geometric mosaics from the era of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) were found in good condition, but the real stand-outs are five mosaics dating to the Antonine dynasty (150-175 A.D.). These were the first ones encountered by the finders and they are dazzling in their array of iconographic elements and color accents. One floor has a black-on-white figure eight pattern that has never been seen before. A few painted walls from this phase have also survived.

The Antonine mosaic floors undulate today, a result of centuries of earth movement culminating in structurally damaging subsidence that likely caused the abandonment of the villa in the early 3rd century. In addition to the floors of the domus, archaeologists discovered hundreds of artifacts including lacquered bowl fragments, a hairpin, a key and an amphora used to store garum, the fermented fish gut sauce that Romans put on everything.

The excavation, conservation of the mosaics and walls in situ and the creation of an exhibit environment to allow the public access to the exceptional remains were privately financed by the developers of the complex who are happily using the extreme coolness of their ancient basement in their promotional materials. The Hadrianic and Antonine mosaics are on display, enhanced by a light projection system that fills in some of the blanks in the mosaics and visually recreates lost frescoed walls and furnishings of the domus. They’re calling it an archaeological treasure chest, opened to the public two days a month, then closed back up to protect it (and the luxury penthouse owners).


Mystery underground basilica reopens in Rome

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

The earliest known religious basilica was a secret when it was first built in the 1st century A.D. It was ingenious constructed entirely underground by digging out the forms of the walls and pillars from the soft volcanic tufa, pouring concrete into them and then cutting away the tufa. They poured arches for the barrel vaulted and dome ceilings over the pillars and then cut out all the tufa left in the interior to create a basilica just like the ones used as public buildings above ground.

The public ones were used to do business, commercial, legal and governmental. It wasn’t until Constantine that the basilica design was used for the first churches in the 4th century. The one exception is this remarkable structure just outside the ancient walls of Rome at the Porta Maggiore. To this day we don’t know what exactly the space was used for. The mythology-heavy stucco reliefs and architectural proportions (all measurements relate to the number three) indicate it may have been a cult site for a Neopythagorean mystery religion. The dating of the mosaic floor indicate it two construction periods, one under Augustus, the second under Claudius.

When I first wrote about the magical mystery wonderland that is the Basilica Sotteranea at the Porta Maggiore in Rome, it had just opened to the public after 12 years of restoration. Visitors were allowed for the first time in decades to descend 30 feet under the Via Praenestina into the dromos, the long entrance gallery, and the atrium. They could gaze in away at the soaring walls decorated with delicate stucco figures and scenes from mythology and the barrel and dome vaults topping them.

Because of the complex environmental needs of the space — its structure and ornamentation is highly susceptible to heat, moisture and microorganism growth — only guided tours were allowed on the second and fourth Sundays of the month, reservations required. Alas, when I visited Rome two years later, the Basilica Sotterranea was no longer open. Now I know why: it was busily engaged in the next stages of conservation. Funded by the Swiss historic preservation non-profit Fondation Evergète, the vaults and apses have received much-needed attention. The entire north wall from floor to ceiling of the left nave has been restored to its stunning pristine whiteness.

Restoration is ongoing and the basilica is still an active worksite. Visitors are welcomed in the new “didactic room” in the atrium, where augmented reality visors will give people the opportunity to see the stucco reliefs and frescoes up close. On the agenda for 2020 is the full conservation of the south wall of the left nave and the installation of a new lighting system to illuminate the wall decorations.

This exceptional space has a lot in common with the Domus Aurea — dark, soaring underground spaces, fragile decorations, mythology, mosaics, endemic danger from water and invasive organisms — and that tour was such an awesome experience I did it two years in a row. Guided tours of the Basilica Sotterranea di Porta Maggiore run at 11AM on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Sunday of the month and are available in Italian only. Tickets can be purchased online here.


Marble torso found at Forum dig

Saturday, July 20th, 2019

The excavation of the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs from Trajan’s Forum to Nerva’s Forum in the heart of Imperial Rome, has turned up a large white marble torso. It is almost five feet high, even missing its head and lower body, and depicts a male figure wearing a draped garment.  Unlike the marble head that was unearthed on the same dig at the end of May, this piece was not recycled into a medieval wall, nor are the two statue parts related to each other in any way.

This one was found among rubble in an area that had been abandoned after a collapse during a period of demolitions that took place in the area in the 9th century. Previous excavations in 1998 and 2000 Archaeologists believe that the torso is from one of 60-70 statues of Dacian warriors that decorated Trajan’s Forum when it was built in the early 2nd century A.D.

Trajan’s Forum was the last, largest and most grandiose of the five imperial forums (Caesar 46 B.C., Augustus 2 B.C., of the Peace 75 A.D., Nerva (97 A.D.). There’s evidence that the plan for the new forum was actually conceived in the last years of the reign of Domitian (r. 81-97 A.D.), but if so, he only made a start at the job. The slopes of the Quirinal Hill had to be leveled to carve out the 4.2 hectares of space the Forum of Trajan would occupy. Its primary practical function was likely the administration of justice whose complexity had far outgrown its earlier spaces in the Caesar’s and Augustus’ fora. It was also a glorious reflection of Trajan’s victories against the Dacians (101-102 A.D., 105-106 A.D.). Trajan’s booty from the defeat of the Dacians funded the construction of the forum. It was completed in 112 A.D.

In the location where the Forum of Augustus and the Forum of Trajan was a courtyard with a columned portico on three sides richly decorated with colored marbles (the columns were veined green marble, the pavement slabs alternating green and pinkish-red). Above the columns was an architrave decorated with a bas relief of griffons and topped with gilded bronze inscription celebrating the construction of the forum by Trajan with the proceeds of the Dacian wars. The statues of the Dacian warriors adorned this portico.

The existence of a grand space connecting the old forum of Augustus with the shiny new forum Trajan built was only discovered during excavations in 1998-2000. Those excavations also unearthed pieces of statues very similar to the recently-unearthed one. They are now on display in the Market of Trajan – Museum of the Imperial Forums. The latest find will be conserved and studied and then will join its compatriots on display in the museum.

In tangentially related news, for the first time since I can remember, the forums are now open to visitors. Instead of having to stand at modern street level looking down over balconies, you can now go down the ever-gated stairs and walk four of the five Imperial Forums, plus the Republican-era Roman Forum. The new Forum Pass allows visitors to walk a three-mile route over footbridges. The single ticket costs 16 euros, purchased online or at the ticket office at the base of Trajan’s Column. From there you walk through Trajan’s Forum and then, through a series of medieval cellars that are all that remain of the buildings in the Alessandrino neighborhood that was destroyed in the 1930s of the Via dei Fori Imperiali above, you cross the street to the Forum of Caesar. From Caesar’s Forum you walk to the Forum of Nerva, then to the Curia and into the Roman Forum and the Palatine.

It’s an awesome walk, and for the longest time people weren’t allowed down to the ground levels of any of the fora. The loophole I found last year was a nighttime sounds and lights shows walking the same route. It was really fantastic, but it was, well, nighttime, so you’re experiencing less the pure archaeological site than the rare views of silhouetted ruins against the night sky and projected images that convey how the buildings looked in their heyday.


Imperial head found in medieval Rome

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

A beautiful larger-than-life white marble head of a statue from the Imperial era has been discovered in a late medieval wall. It was discovered Friday morning by archaeologists from the Capitoline Superintendence for Cultural Heritage excavating the Via Alessandrina, a 16th century road that runs between the Forums of Trajan, Augustus and Nerva. It was the main artery of the Alessandrino neighborhood, the first systematic urban renewal project in the area between the Forum of Nerva and Trajan’s Column. Beginning in 1570 at the behest of Cardinal Michele Bonelli, nephew of Pope Pius V, the site was reclaimed from water, scattered ancient remains and vegetation, raised and leveled for new construction. The road is all that remains of the neighborhood now. It was demolished between 1930 and 1933 to make way for the construction of what would become Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Archaeologists were excavating a wall from the early days of the Alessandrino neighborhood, dozens of feet above the ancient layers of the city, when they found the head of the statue face down in the wall. The head had been recycled by the medieval builders and plugged into the wall like a regular block of stone. The masons didn’t even attempt to make it more block-like, thankfully, and it’s in very good condition, despite its detachment from its body long ago, its stint as another brick in the wall above ground and below. 

The head bears a resemblance to the Ephesus group of Amazons carved in the 5th century B.C. by the greatest artists of the Classical period (Phidias, Polyclitus, Kresilas) and widely copied for the gardens and homes of the Roman elite. (Here’s one example in the Capitoline.) However, archaeologists believe it’s a representation of Dionysos who was often depicted as an androgynous youth. The figure wears a diadem of ivy leaves adorned with an ivy bloom, a characteristic Dionysian attribute, tying back the long, thick, wavy hair. The mouth is parted, the visage benevolent and unlined. The eye sockets are hollow now, but originally would have held eyes of glass or gemstone. That style of eye is typical of the first two centuries of the empire.

The sculpture has been transported to the Imperial Forums Museum where the remaining soil will be removed and the head conserved before being put on public display.

You can see how it was placed in the wall in this cool video of its discovery.


New frescoed room found at Domus Aurea

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Archaeologists, architects and restorers working on the Domus Aurea have discovered a new room decorated with elegant frescoes. It has been dubbed the Hall of the Sphinx after one of the mythological creatures painted on the walls.

Nero’s megalomaniacally huge palace was so associated with the emperor and his worst impulses — how he used the Great Fire of 64 A.D. as an opportunity for an enormous land grab, his profligacy, his massive ego, his slothfulness — that after his suicide in 68 A.D. the Golden House was destroyed by Vespasian. Forty years after that, the emperor Trajan used the ruins as the foundation for a great public bath complex. He stripped the walls and floors of all remaining valuable materials (marble, mosaics, frescoes) and filled the vast open spaces of the rooms with rubble. Fallen walls were rebuilt in brick.

When the palace remains were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody knew it was the Domus Aurea. They just thought they’d found caves (“grotte” in Italian), and, amazed by the delicacy and perspective of the frescoes, Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo lowered themselves in through holes in the ceiling to see the figures. The painting style inspired by the discovery of the palace became known as grotesque.

The tour of the Domus Aurea today, which I’ve done twice because I was so astonished by it the first time I went, includes a riveting virtual reality recreation of what the huge spaces of the palace looked like when the artists dropped in through an oculus to observe with wonder the ancient art on the walls. The Trajanic fill rose dozens of feet up the walls, leaving only the vaults empty. Many of those soaring spaces up to 36 feet high have been excavated since, and invaded with moisture, organic overgrowth and mineral deposits, the frescoes have lost much of the intensity that so inspired the Old Masters of the Renaissance. This find puts us in their shoes for the first time.

The hall was discovered during the installation of scaffolding to support the walls in Room 72. While up high, workers saw an aperture at the top of the north wall that was not visible from below. They looked through the hole, illuminating it with their lights, and saw a space filled with soil and rubble almost reaching its ceiling.

The room is rectangular, topped with a barrel vaulted ceiling. The ceiling and visible tops of the walls are decorated with frescoes in the grotesque style that inspired artists who had no idea they were in Nero’s ancient palace. Against the white background of the vault are panels outlined in ochre and red. The perimeter rectangle is yellow with foliate elements and curvilinear swirls at the four corners.

In center of the panels are figures painted in richly saturated lines: a man armed with a sword, quiver and shield confronting a panther, rampant centaurs, satyrs, fantastical aquatic creatures, garlands, branches covered in green, yellow and red leaves with birds perched on them. On the semi-circular lunette against the wall is an imaginary structure with columns topped by a gold patera (ceremonial dish). Beside it is a winged sphinx on a pedestal.

These types of figures and motifs are found in many other rooms of the Domus Aurea and can be identified as the output of Workshop A which was in operation between 65 and 68 A.D.  The artists from this workshop employed white backgrounds, light architectural designs and small figures to create a spacious, luminous effect even in small poorly-lit rooms. The position of the room in contrast to the overall planning of the Domus indicates that this is one of the older, less known spaces of the palace. They weren’t newly built by Nero, but rather refurbished by him. Originally they were part of a Claudian-era warehouse. Nero had them gussied up and integrated in the Domus.

At first glance, the frescoes appeared to be in good condition, but a more in depth examination found the decoration was obfuscated by layers of salts, carbonation and film of biological organisms. There has also been significant pigment loss and lifting of the plaster from the preparatory layers on the wall. Some sections were almost completely detached from the wall and in imminent danger of collapse.

Conservation was a challenge because of the complex microclimatic conditions of the Domus Aurea, the limited height of the space, the difficulty in accessing it and the almost complete lack of air circulation. Restorers had to wear harnesses and were constantly monitored by support staff in Room 72. They put an air replacement system in place, but even with that the team decided not to use solvents or biocidal products that could be dangerous in such an enclosed space and that could alter the heat and moisture balance of the environment.

Conservators triaged the frescoes and focused on the areas in most urgent need of stabilization. They repaired what they could using materials like grout that have good adhesive power with little fluidity to prevent any infiltration of the interior wall.

There are no plans to excavate the room. After almost 2000 years, that fill Trajan crammed in there is structural.


Farnesina wedding frescoes to be restored

Friday, April 26th, 2019

A High Renaissance fresco in the Farnesina palace in Rome will undergo a much-needed restoration this year. The Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma (the Sodomite), has suffered from its proximity to the rising damp and constant traffic of the Tiber. There are cracks, areas where the paint is lifting, surface deposits from water and grime and plaster loss. The cleaning, protective glazes, consolidation of plaster and paint, stucco repair and reconstruction of missing wood elements are expected to be completed within the calendar year.

Bazzi, a contemporary of Raphael and Pinturicchio, was particularly sought out for his frescoes. He counted two popes and the nobility of Siena and Rome among his patrons. The Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II, owner of an international monopoly in alum and the richest man in Rome, hired Il Sodoma along with the likes of Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo to decorate the interior of his villa in Trastevere.

Built as an bright and airy suburban palace, this home was planned and executed as a showpiece of untrammeled wealth. Unusually for his time, Chigi used it as a headquarters for his banking business as well as his personal home, and he wanted the design to convey all the grandeur money could buy. Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea and Cupid and Psyche cycles adorn the loggia on the ground floor.

The frescoes in the master bedroom on the first floor had a more private audience in mind. Sodoma painted scenes from the life of Alexander the Great: his marriage to Roxanne and his magnanimous reception of the family of Darius after the Persian defeat at the Battle of Issus. (Ten years later he would marry one of those family members, Darius daugther Stateira. Roxanne had her killed a year later after Alexander’s death.)

The principal scene is the wedding which occupies the north wall. Although it’s not really the wedding so much as the beginning of the honeymoon. Alexander holds out his crown, offering it to his new bride, while she sits on their marriage bed, eyes demurely downcast, body covered in name only by a gossamer drape of fabric, a winged Amorino at her shoulder and a bunch more at her feet.

Chigi commissioned the work in 1519 to welcome his own bride in High Renaissance style, and the symbolism of great king marrying the daughter of a minor Bactrian nobleman was pointed. Agostino’s love life had been checkered, to put it mildly. He had had been a lover of the celebrated courtesan Imperia, among many others, but his attempts at securing social advancement through marriage, most notably with Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of the Duke of Mantua Francesco Gonzaga, never came to fruition. In 1511, he met a pretty young girl in Venice. She was from a poor family, had none of the advantages of rank and wealth he was looking for in a spouse, but he fell in love with her and moved her into the villa to live with him. Over the next seven years, they had four children together.

Then, perhaps faced with an encroaching sense of his mortality, Agostino decided to make it legal. On August 28th, 1519, the feast of St. Augustine, his name day, Agostino Chigi wed Francesca Ordeaschi. Pope Leo X was the officiant. He threw in a little extra service when he legitimized Agostino and Francesca’s children after the wedding.

Agostino Chigi died in 1520. The villa was in 1580 by  Cardinal Alessandro Farnese the Younger who gave it his name (in explicit contravention of the terms of Chigi’s will). It remained in Farnese hands until 1735 when it was given to the Bourbon King Charles III of Spain and King of Naples and Sicily by his mother Elisabetta Farnese, Queen Consort of Spain. In 1927 the Farnesina was acquired by the Italian state. Today it is the seat of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, a prestigious national science academy.





June 2022


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