Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Raiders of Alaric’s lost tomb

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Anybody who thought that appeal of the witch trial was a waste of state resources better get their Valium dispensers locked and loaded. At a press conference on Wednesday, October 21st, a committee of politicians and scientists announced they’ll be searching for the legendary treasure-filled tomb of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, under a river flowing through Cosenza, a city in the region of Calabria near the toe of Italy’s boot.

“It’s a real-life Indiana Jones hunt,” said Francesco Sisci, the project coordinator.

“You have a legend of long-lost treasure, even the Nazis – Heinrich Himmler came here in 1937 to try to find the hoard for Hitler. He stayed in a Swabian castle. This is the stuff of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg.

“If there really is 25 tons of gold, it would be worth around one billion euros at today’s prices,” he said.

When the project coordinator invokes Indiana Jones, you know it’s legit. This scheme is the brain child of a committee formed last year by the municipality of Cosenza to develop new cultural and touristic events around the legend of Alaric. The tomb doesn’t actually have to be found, therefore, in order for the search to fulfill its ultimate goal of promoting Consenza’s greatest claim to fame. Which is a good thing, because the odds of finding said tomb are so miniscule they make the Richard III parking lot excavation look like a sure shot.

Alaric, once a leader of a band of Gothic foederati (irregular troops who fought with the Roman army) under Emperor Theodosius I, has gone down in history as the first invader to sack Rome in 800 years, since the Gaul Brennus 387 B.C. Rome wasn’t actually the capital anymore when Alaric took it in 410 A.D., however. It hadn’t been since 286 when Diocletian made Mediolanum (modern-day Milan) the capital of the Western Empire.

Alaric besieged Mediolanum during his first invasion of Italy in 401, spurring the young and feckless Western Roman emperor Honorius to move the capital to Ravenna in 402 because it was surrounded by marshes, well-fortified and had direct access to the Adriatic, ideal should a hasty escape become necessary. His personal safety was his only interest. The new capital was horribly situated to protect Italy from barbarian invaders. It was only through the efforts of Flavius Stilicho, Honorius’ top general and former regent during the emperor’s minority, that Alaric’s army was kept at bay on multiple occasions from 401 until 408 when Honorius had Stilicho arrested and executed, ostensibly for conspiring to overthrow him.

In the first decade of the 5th century, Alaric besieged Rome three times, but he wasn’t just in it for the pillage and loot. He wanted the emperor to appoint him commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army and grant him huge tracts of land in Pannonia. Putting pressure on Rome, which while no longer the capital was still seat of the Senate and the symbolic center of the empire, was a means to those ends. The first siege after Stilicho’s death in late 408, ended with a massive payoff. According to Zosimus’ New History, the Senate gave Alaric 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk robes, 3,000 fleeces dyed scarlet in exchange for him lifting the siege.

One year later Alaric’s forces besieged Rome again after the failure of negotiations with Honorius. This time only the proclamation of a new emperor would do to get Alaric to lift the siege, and so Priscus Attalus was installed as puppet. While Attalus and Alaric had some military successes in Italy, enough to scare Honorius into preparing a flight to Constantinople, they soon hit the wall and Alaric dumped his puppet less than a year after installing him. He tried negotiating with Honorius again, but gave up for good after a sneak attack from Honorius’ Goth ally Sarus when Alaric was waiting to meet the emperor at the appointed time.

On August 24th, 410 A.D., the Visigoths reached the Salarian Gate of Rome. This time there was no siege. Alaric’s army spent three days sacking Rome, but it was quite respectful, as sacks go. They didn’t set it on fire — only a few public buildings were burned down for strategic reasons — and they spared the churches of Saint Peter and Paul. They didn’t indiscriminately kill people either, although they enslaved thousands.

Laden with the treasures of 800 years of Roman history, the Visigoths turned south where Alaric hoped to cross over into Sicily and from there to Africa, the granary of the empire. His fleet destroyed by storms, he never did make it to Sicily. A few months after the sack, Alaric suddenly became ill and died in Consentia. Jordanes describes the aftermath in his 6th century history of the Gothic people Getica:

His people mourned for him with the utmost affection. Then turning from its course the river Busentus near the city of Consentia — for this stream flows with its wholesome waters from the foot of a mountain near that city — they led a band of captives into the midst of its bed to dig out a place for his grave. In the depths of this pit they buried Alaric, together with many treasures, and then turned the waters back into their channel. And that none might ever know the place, they put to death all the diggers.

So. That is what the Cosenza search is up against: a tomb rumored to have been dug underneath a river in a location known only to slaves killed before they could share that knowledge. Past attempts to find the fabled treasure have all involved digging along the riverbank, a blind, clumsy approach that this new effort will eschew in favor of the latest technology.

By matching contemporary accounts by Roman historians with the local geography, the researchers have found five places where they think the treasure may lie. They include a 1.5 mile stretch of river that runs through Cosenza but also caves near the nearby village of Mendicino. [...]

The latest technology will be used to search for rectangle-shaped “anomalies” underground in the hunt for the fabled tomb of Alaric, said Amerigo Giuseppe Rota, the geologist leading the project.

“We think Alaric was buried at least five to six metres underground. But in the last 1,500 years the river bed has risen by about 1.5 metres, so his tomb could be up to eight metres below ground now,” he said.

Sure, why not? It could be. It could also not exist at all. The whole diverted river story could be a legend written 140 years after the events it purports to describe. The idea that there are 25 tons of gold under the Busento River is fanciful at best. The Visigoths would not have buried all of their Roman loot with Alaric. Even if the sources are correct that he was buried with his horse and treasure according to pagan custom (Alaric was an Arian Christian, but he held to some of his people’s traditional religious practices as well), they would have been grave goods, not tons and tons of gold.

Anyway the caper isn’t expected to cost much. The early geophysical surveys were funded by private donors and while there’s talk of the government in Rome chipping in, public funding isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.


Imperial ramp of Domitian opens to public

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

For the first time since it was discovered in 1900, a monumental ramp built by Emperor Domitian in Rome opened to the public on Tuesday, October 20th. Domitian built the ramp in the second half of the 1st century A.D. to connect the Roman Forum, the administrative and political heart of the city, to the imperial palace complex of the Palatine, the city’s center of power. With high walls flanked by storerooms, the imperial ramp went up seven levels with six turns between them and was as much as 35 meters (115 feet) high. Of the seven original ramps levels, four remain, but they are more than sufficient to convey the majesty of the space and the symbolic significance of the steep ascension from popular politics to imperial might. Visitors who walk the ramp will emerge atop the Palatine to a breathtaking view of the Roman Forum that before now regular folks haven’t had the chance to experience.

Also restored is a great hall which in the early Middle Ages was converted into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Built no later than the 8th century, the Oratorio is adjacent to the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua, famed for its rare frescoes, and signficant portions of the Oratorio’s original Byzantine frescoes have survived as well. They date to the 8th and 9th centuries and depict a procession of saints and possibly St. Anthony of Egypt. The floor is made of repurposed marble fragments in a random jigsaw arrangement. The Oratorio has been accessible to the public in a limited way before, but just on its own. The new restoration has reintegrated it into the ramp, making it the entrance to Domitian’s complex.

The ramp was discovered by architect, engineer and archaeologist Giacomo Boni. Boni was appointed director of excavations of the Roman Forum in 1898 and he dug until works were interrupted by World War I in 1916. The years between 1899 and 1905 were particularly intensive. Boni made major discoveries during this time, among them the Lapis Niger and Vulcanal, the Regia, the Aedes Vestae (shrine of Vesta), an archaic necropolis next to the temple of Antoninus and Faustina and the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

When he unearthed the imperial ramp of Domitian, he set about restoring it almost as soon as he found it, rebuilding the fallen brickwork of the vast vaulted ceilings of the first two levels and clearing the path all the way through to its connecting point with the Clivus Victoriae, a sloping road that went uphill from the Velabro, a former swamp between the Tiber and the Forum, to the top of the Palatine. The section of the ramp linking to the Clivus is still undergoing work, but is scheduled to open to visitors in March.

A temporary exhibition (it ends January 10th, 2016) inside the ramp puts on display a selection of the most important ancient artifacts discovered during the excavation of the Forum. Also on display will be surviving 17th century wall frescos Boni stripped from the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice before demolishing it to expose the more ancient and glamorous Santa Maria Antiqua which had been part of Domitian’s imperial palace complex before being converted to a Christian church in the 6th century. The hall that would be transformed into the Oratorio of the Forty Martyrs, in fact, was just underneath Santa Maria Liberatrice.

This short clip from the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome has a few images of the 1900 excavation and the ramp as it is today.


6th c. B.C. home rewrites map of archaic Rome

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

The remains of a home from the early 6th century B.C. discovered under a palazzo on the Quirinal Hill indicate the archaic city of Rome was much larger than previously thought. Built during the putative reign of legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius (578–535 B.C.), it is one of the most ancient homes ever found in Rome and is uniquely well preserved.

The domus was built on a rectangular floor plan 3.5 by 10 meters (11.5 by 33 feet) with was divided into two rooms. The entry point was probably an attached porch. The foundation of the home was tufa, a soft volcanic stone Romans used to build everything from temples to the Cloaca Maxima. The walls were wood covered in clay plaster and about 10 feet tall; the roof was tile.

Palazzo Canevari, built in 1885 to house the Royal Geological Office and its vast natural history collection, is on the Largo di Santa Susanna, close to a mile northeast of the Roman Forum. Just before the Palazzo Canevari was purchased by a real estate firm in 2004, preventative archaeological surveys began. Initial excavations revealed a large block of tufa that was initially thought to be part of the Servian Wall, a section of which is still visible above ground in the Large of Santa Susanna.

A 2013 excavation unearthed more of the structure and determined it was part of the walls of a large 5th century B.C. temple complex. Judging from the extant sections of the walls, the temple was at least 25 meters (82 feet) wide and 40 meters (131 feet) long, which would have made it one of the largest temples in Rome. No evidence was found of which god the temple was dedicated to, but ancient sources record two temples on the Quirinale Hill: a temple of Quirinus and the Capitolium Vetus sanctuary dedicated to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva.

Underneath the temple remains was found the skeleton of a newborn infant dating to the 7th century B.C. The temple and the burial fit with what archaeologists believed the Quirinale area was used for in the archaic period: a sacred precinct with temples and a necropolis. The discovery of the domus upends that belief.

“This building is basically absent in archaic Rome, and there are only traces in the Forum area. The home was probably used for about 50-60 years prior to when the temple was built that was discovered in 2013,” Mirella Serlorenzi said during a press visit, who directed the excavations on behalf of the superintendent’s office.

“The position of the house near the temple hints at it being a sacred area, and that whoever lived there was watching over what happened therein. But it is even more important that we can now retro-date the urbanization of the Quirinal zone. The Servian Walls encircled an area that was already inhabited and not a necropolis.” “This means that Rome at the beginning of the sixth century was much larger than what we expected and not closed in around the Forum,” she added, stressing that “the excavations will continue for months more. But everything depends on what we find.”

Today the building is owned by the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti bank who are planning on using it for office space. It’s not certain what they’d do about the archaeological treasure in the basement, but it will not be infilled. Other palazzi in Rome have full-on archaeological museums underneath them, like the Palazzo Valentini, for example.


Pieces of triumphal Arch of Titus found in Circus Maximus

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Arch of Titus relief of Roman soldiers carrying spoils from the Temple in JerusalemThe Arch of Titus which still stands today at the end of the Via Sacra next to the Roman Forum, famous for its period depiction of spoils from the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., is an honorific arch commemorating the emperor’s greatest deeds and apotheosis, not a triumphal arch. Built by his brother Domitian in 82 A.D., the year after Titus’ death and deification, it’s often called a triumphal arch because of the high relief depictions of Roman soldiers carrying the treasures of the Second Temple — the seven-branched Menorah, the silver trumpets, the Table of the Shew Bread — in Titus’ triumphal procession of 71 A.D.

Apotheosis of Titus relief on the vault of the Arch of TitusThat’s just one motif, however. The central panel in the single arch’s soffit relief depicts Titus being carried to the heavens by an eagle. The inscription also emphasizes the recently deceased emperor’s divinity: “SENATUS/ POPULUSQUE ROMANUS/ DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ilio)/ VESPASIANO AUGUSTO” (The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian).

Titus’ real triumphal arch was erected in 81 A.D., the year he died, at the curved east end of the Circus Maximus. The triple arch was explicitly dedicated to Titus’ conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. It’s not very well known today because in the Middle Ages it fell victim to the Roman thirst for building materials, leaving only old epigraphic records, coins and drawings testifying to its existence. It was still standing with a relatively intact capital Codex Einsiedelnsis, page 71v with inscription from the triumphal Arch of Titus at the eastern curve of the Circus Maximus, author unknown, ca. 800 A.D.when one of the anonymous authors of the Codex Einsidlensis (Einsiedeln manuscript no. 326) recorded the inscription in Inscriptiones Urbis Romae, an invaluable record of pagan and Christian epigraphy on monuments in the city of Rome that was written in the late 8th, early 9th century.

A marked contrast with the inscription on the extant arch, the wording on the Circus Maximus arch’s inscription leaves no doubt that it was a genuine triumphal arch:

Senatus populusque Romanus imp(eratori) Tito Ceasari divi Vespasiani f(ilio) Vespasiani Augusto pontif(ici) max(imo), trib(unicia) pot(estate) x, imp(eratori) XVII, [c]o(n)s(uli) VIII, p(atri) p(atriae), principi suo, quod praeceptis patri(is) consiliisq(ue) et auspiciis gentem Iudaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam, omnibus ante se ducibus regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem(p)tatam, delevit.

The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the Emperor Titus [snip many titles], because by his father’s counsel and good auspices, he conquered the people of Judaea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all of the generals, kings, and peoples before him had either failed to do or even to attempt.

In the 12th century the central arch was used as part of the Mariana aqueduct that Pope Calixtus II built to convey fresh water to the city in 1122. A few years later the powerful Frangipani family had control of the Circus Maximus. They built a mill powered by the Mariana and a tower, the Torre della Moletta, was integrated into the Frangipani’s defensive fortifications extending up the Palatine. Modest homes and squatters’ huts grew up all over what had once been a triumphal arch. The grounds of the Circus Maximus were converted to agricultural use, irrigated by the Mariana.

Engraving of Circus Maximus in antiquity, Arch of Titus right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600.
Engraving of Circus Maximus ca. 1560 when it was irrigated farmland, mill, tower, dwellings and decaying fortifactions right, as printed in "De ludis circensibus" by Onofrio Panvinio, etchings by Étienne Dupérac, published 1600

After the Unification of Italy in 1870, construction of the huge retaining walls along the banks of the Tiber and the Lungotevere boulevards cut off the Mariana or drove it underground into culverts. Most of the medieval construction around the Arch of Titus was demolished in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving only the tower, where Saint Francis of Assisi reputedly stayed on his last trip to Rome in 1223 as guest of the Graziano Frangipani’s widow and Franciscan lay sister Jacopa, still standing. Excavations at the time revealed medieval canals and walls made of ancient marbles pilfered from the arch.

Remains of Arch of Titus at Circus MaximusNow archaeologists excavating the eastern hemicycle of the Circus Maximus have found large blocks of Carrara marble (marmor lunensis) that were part of the ​​attic, entablature and columns of the Arch.

Archaeologists found more than 300 marble fragments of the monument, some of them the size of a small car.

They discovered the bases of the four giant columns that formed the front of the arch, as well as the plinths on which they rested and traces of the original travertine pavement.

From the remains experts were able to calculate the arch’s original dimensions. It was 17 meters (56 feet) wide, 15 meters (49 feet) deep with columns 10 meters (33 feet) high. The full height including the attic has yet to be determined. In antiquity there was the monumental bronze sculpture of a quadriga on top of the arch which would have added significant vertical heft.

Excavation is difficult because the remains were found about 10 feet below ground level, which is on the wrong side of the water table. Further digging is going to require blocking off the water in the area, a particular challenge considering a river literally ran through the arch and its ruins for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists want to reconstruct as much of the arch as possible using the technique of anastylosis which attempts to put the ancient pieces back together as accurately as possible with only the modern materials necessary for structural stability. In order to do that, they’ll have to find a solution to the water seepage problem and a million euros, two daunting prospects. Since that’s sure to take time, the foundations will be reburied shortly for their own protection. Meanwhile, archaeologists are working on a virtual model of the triumphal Arch of Titus.

Here’s a puny slideshow of the site. The only really good views of the waterlogged excavation I could find are in this unembeddable ( :angry: ) Italian TV news story.



Restored Berthouville Treasure at the Getty

Monday, February 9th, 2015

For the first time since it was discovered in 1830, the entire Berthouville Treasure, a group of exceptional Roman silver objects, has left France and is on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville exhibits the complete 93-piece treasure — which includes a statue of Mercury, elaborately decorated silver pitchers and cups, a repoussé silver jug, plain silver beakers, a spoon collection and a number broken handles, rims and fittings — along with a selection of luxurious jewels, like the eight gold, emerald, pearl and amethyst necklaces of the Treasure of Naix, all on loan from the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (the department of coins, medals and antiques) of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

On March 21st, 1830, farmer Prosper Taurin was working his field in Berthouville, near Bernay, Normandy, when his plowshare jammed against an ancient Roman tile. Once dislodged, the tile was found to be protecting a trove of 95 or so Roman silver and gold objects buried only eight inches beneath the soil. Weighing a total of 55 pounds, the stand-out pieces were two statuettes of the god Mercury and about 60 vessels.

Several of the vessels were incscribed with votive dedications to Mercury, including a group of nine ultra deluxe gilded silver vessels — a pair of wine pitchers with scenes from the Trojan War, a pair of drinking cups decorated with scenes of centaurs, a pair of drinking cups with masks, a silver and gold beaker with scenes from the story of Corinth and Isthmia, a large bowl with a central medallion of Omphale and Eros laying on Hercules’ Nemean lion skin and a ladle decorated with Mercury, a goat and a tree — made in the 1st century. These nine pieces all bear the inscription “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO,” or “To August Mercury from Quintus Domitius Tutus as vowed,” and are superlatively high quality silver and gold work from 1st century Italy.

Subsequent archaeological excavations of the site in 1861 and 1896 found two temples, a theater and hypocaust-heated rooms: a Gallo-Roman sanctuary built in at least two stages. One of the temples was dedicated to the important Romanized Gallic deity Mercury Canetonensis, the same god name-checked in the vessels’ votive inscriptions. The other was dedicated either to his mother Maia or his wife Rosmerta. The hoard was buried under the brick paving in the gallery of the sanctuary.

Archaeologists did not encounter evidence of a town or cemetery in the vicinity of the sanctuary, so it seems likely to have been a pilgrimage site. The objects date from the 1st to the late 2nd centuries A.D. and are therefore thought to have been buried in the late 2nd, early 3rd century. They could have been buried for their own preservation during turbulent times, but given the context they may have been cached for ritual purposes rather than under extremis.

Taurin put the treasure in the hands of a local nobleman who prevented archaeologists from examining it. An expert from the Louvre and one from the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Royale, today the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, were allowed access to the group to arrange a sale. The Cabinet acquired the treasure for 15,000 francs, a modest sum even then. At the library in Paris the objects were cleaned and the fragments that could be puzzled back together were. There the Berthouville Treasure remained (with some individual pieces taking occasional short trips elsewhere in France) for 180 years.

In December of 2010, the whole treasure was shipped to the Getty Villa for an extensive program of documentation, analysis, research, cleaning and conservation. Each of the 93 objects (plus four unrelated platters from late antiquity in the Cabinet collection) were photographed and X-rayed to assess their condition and for evidence of how they were manufactured. After a metallurgic study, conservators began to clean the surface of the vessels with simple damp cotton swabs. The grime and dust removal promptly revealed gilding and inscription details that had long been obscured. Further progress was made with mild cleansers and solvents like acetone and ethanol which were able to remove the thick tarnish layers, accretions and corrosion that the 19th century conservation had been unable to budge.

The restoration project took four years to complete and the beautiful results are now on display in California. The exhibition runs at the Getty Villa through August 17th, 2015, after which it returns to Paris whose citoyens will get a chance to see the treasure clean and shiny for the first time.

Here’s a nifty video from the Getty conservation team on how Roman silversmiths would have made the Cup of the Centaurs.


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:



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”


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.


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



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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