Tiberian Palace reopens on the Palatine

More than 50 years after it was closed due to concerns over its structural integrity, the 1st century Tiberian Palace has reopened to visitors. Millions of tourists have looked up from the Roman Forum to admire the dramatic monumental brick arches on several levels on the slope of the Palatine, but they’ve had to be content to observe from afar as the massive structures were in danger of sliding down the hill.

The Domus Tiberiana was the first of the imperial palaces to be planned and constructed as a single comprehensive unit. The palace was built on the northwest corner of the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum and the Imperial Forum. The imperial residence was only one part of the complex which included gardens, baths, religious sanctuaries, restaurants, service buildings, barracks for the Praetorian Guards and a whole neighborhood of artisans and craftsmen dedicated to the construction and maintenance of the palace.

Although named after the emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37 A.D.), it was built by a later Julian-Claudian emperor. The earliest archaeological evidence suggests it was actually Nero who had it built in the aftermath of the great fire of 64 A.D. at the same time he was building his even more extravagant personal residence, the Domus Aurea. It underwent several phases of expansion and reconstruction, most notably under Domitian (81-96 A.D.) and Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). At its largest extent, it covered an area of four hectares.

After the end of the Western Empire, the palace remained in sporadic use, administered on behalf of the Byzantine emperor. It was still in such good condition that Pope John VII (r. 705-707 A.D.), whose father had been curator of the Palatine for Emperors Constantine IV and Justinian II, had it restored and used it as his residence. By the 10th century, however, the palace was in ruin and was pillaged for its stone, its prized marbles ground up to make lime. In the late 13th century, the ruins were used for burials.

The site was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1550 who filled in the monumental remains and built a splendid pleasure garden, the first private botanical gardens in Europe. He imported rare plants from all over the world and built a wonderland of aviaries, grottos, terraces and staircases rising from what had once been the Forum but for centuries had been grazing pasture for cattle. The cardinal also installed ancient statuary he’d discovered on his properties and acquired from impoverished Roman nobility. The Farnese Gardens became a must-see stop on the Grand Tour.

After the demise of the last Farnese of the male line in 1731, the family fortune was inherited by the Bourbon kings of Naples who helped themselves to all the statuary and let the villa and gardens fall into decay. What was left of the gardens was acquired by the newly-unified Italian state in 1870 and the focus shifted to excavating the ancient structures Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had built his terrestrial paradise on top of.

Excavations in the late 19th century uncovered a loggia composed of two rows of arches more than 50 feet high with a marble parapet and rich remains of frescoes and decorative stuccos on the ceiling of interior rooms. Archaeologists at the time attributed this structure to Caligula based on a comment in Suetonius that Caligula built a bridge between the Palatine and Capitoline, but in fact this loggia dates to the reconstruction of the palace under Domitian.

Since the site was closed in 1970, archaeologists have worked to stabilize and restore the palace. Excavations have revealed a more accurate timeline of the site and multidisciplinary studies have combined information from stratigraphy with the findings of the anthropological, faunal and paleobotanical research to shed new light on centuries of life at the Domus Tiberiana.

The reopened palace is accessed through the ramp of Domitian, the path trod by the emperor and his entourage to reach his private residence. A new permanent exhibition, Imago Imperi, displays artifacts illustrating the history of the palace in 13 rooms that open along the ramp. Statuary (including the looted head of Pan that was recently repatriated), coins, metal, glass, ceramics and more discovered in decades of excavations at the site showcase how the complex was used over the centuries. Among the notable new discoveries are three sanctuaries dedicated to different mystery cults (Dionysus, Isis and Mithras) and a fresco from the Augustan era that is the first known representation of a lemon in Italy.

Nero’s theater discovered in Rome

The remains of the Emperor Nero’s private theater have been discovered under the internal courtyard of the 15th century Palazzo della Rovere in Vatican City. Thus far, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the left side of the semicircular cavea (the seating section) and of the scaenae frons, the architectural background of the Roman stage. In this area archaeologists have also unearthed finely-worked Ionic columns made of precious white and colored marbles and elegant stucco adorned with gold leaf — a type of decoration also found in Nero’s Domus Aurea. A second structure perpendicular to the stage area had service rooms, perhaps used to store scenery and costumes.

The sumptuousness of the architectural elements, the exceptional quality of the craftsmanship and the makers’ stamps on the bricks identify the building as a Julio-Claudian theater that must have been commissioned by a client of the highest rank. The stratigraphic evidence indicates it was only used as a theater for a short time. By the first decades of the 2nd century, the theater complex was already being systematically dismantled so its valuable materials could be reused. The Theatrum Neronis is the only candidate to fit the bill.

The Palazzo della Rovere was built in the late 15th century over the site of the ancient Horti Agrippinae, the gardens of the villa of Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus, mother of the emperor Caligula and grandmother of Nero. It was a grand suburban villa outside the walls of Rome on the left bank of the Tiber and its gardens covered much of what is now Vatican City. After his mother’s death, Caligula built a circus in the gardens to stage chariot races. Nero used it to stage executions of Christians after the Great Fire of 64 A.D., including the crucifixion of Saint Peter. He was buried just a few hundred feet from the Circus on the Via Cornelia. His burial became a shrine and major pilgrimage site. Constantine built the first St. Peter’s Basilica over the shrine and remains of the Circus. The Egyptian obelisk now in St. Peter’s Square was on the spina (the central spine) of Caligula’s Circus and is revered as a witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Nero added a theater next to the circus so he could have a dedicated space to perform his dubious poetry and songs before his adoring public. Or not so adoring, if Suetonius is anything to go by:

While [Nero] was singing no one was allowed to leave the theatre even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall,​ since the gates at the entrance​ were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial.

Only this reference and a couple of others by Pliny the Elder and Tacitus mention Nero’s theater, and they are vague as to location. Over the centuries the theater had taken on a semi-legendary quality, especially since the ancient sources focus heavily on Nero’s excesses, even to the point of exaggeration.

The streets and piazzas around St. Peter’s were drastically altered during the Fascist redesign of Rome in the 1930s. Construction on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad boulevard leading directly from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the basilica, began in 1936 and numerous palaces and churches were demolished or moved to make room for the wide thoroughfare. The Palazzo della Rovere managed to survive the destruction and its façade now looks onto the Via della Conciliazione.

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem was given the palace as their new headquarters by Pope Pius XII in 1940. The order has recently leased the palazzo to the Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts group and the building and grounds are undergoing renovations with a planned grand opening in 2025, a Jubilee year. Obviously the site is archaeologically important, so excavations were a requirement in advance of construction.

Archaeologists also found medieval remains at the site, evidence of its popularity as a pilgrimage site due to the connection to St. Peter.

Among the discoveries are 10th century AD glass coloured goblets and pottery pieces that are unusual because so little is known about this period in Rome. […]

Marzia Di Mento, the site’s chief archaeologist, noted that previously only seven glass chalices of the era had been found, and that the excavations of this one site turned up seven more.

All of the portable artifacts will be removed and conserved for eventual museum display. The current plan is to cover up the remains of the theater, but I’m crossing my fingers that the hotel business people are at least as smart as the fast food and grocery people and they’ll cover it with a clear protective layer to make their courtyard into an archaeological park.

Intact statue head found at Augustus’ Mausoleum

The intact marble head of a female deity has been discovered during redevelopment works of the Mausoleum of Augustus and the surrounding Piazzale Augusto Imperatore. The life-sized head is finely carved out of Parian marble, a bright white, flawless stone quarried from the Greek island of Paros. Parian marble was highly prized for its fine grain and skin-like semi-translucency; the greatest Greek sculptors of the classical era used Parian marble for their masterpieces. This head therefore keeps illustrious company with the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the statue of Augustus from Prima Porta.

Her wavy hair is tied at the back of her head with a taenia, a flat hair ribbon (and not coincidentally the scientific name for the tapeworm family), that meets in a knot at the top of her head. This hairstyle is frequently seen in statues of Aphrodite. The carving style dates it to the Augustan era (1st c. A.D.)

It was not found in a 1st century context, however. It was discovered in the area surrounding the Mausoleum where crews are currently constructing two cordons leading up to the monument. It had been incorporated into the foundations of a wall from Late Antiquity (ca. 4th-6th c. A.D.). Even parts of elegant statues like this one were used as spolia (old material repurposed for new construction), and in this case the practice is what preserved the head in such good condition even though it was face-down. Her facial features, fragile nose included, are perfectly intact, protected for two millennia in the clay bank the wall was built over.

The head has been removed to a laboratory for cleaning and conservation. When the works on the piazza are completed (scheduled for spring 2024), the head will go on display inside the Mausoleum of Augustus itself, along with the Claudian-era pomerial marker found there in 2021.

Video tour of new Largo Argentina site

Ancient Rome Live has just uploaded a great video tour of the refurbished Largo Argentina site guided by Darius Arya. The ten-minute video gives an overview of the stages of the site, highlighting each of the four Republican temples, the smattering of remains from the Curia of Pompey where Caesar was stabbed to death (albeit not actually on that spot) and the remains of medieval residential and church buildings. 

The cats get their due first, of course — priorities — and then Darius walks through of the site in a couple of different directions, highlighting the layers of Rome from different eras on view in this one archaeological park. They cut in a couple of fascinating photographs taken when the site was first excavated in the 1920s, including the exceptional discovery of the marble head of a colossal acrolithic statue. (Acroliths had wooden bodies with the head and extremities not covered by clothes made of marble or stone.) The tour ends with the newly-opened space under the current street, previously storage areas inaccessible to the public, now converted into a gembox of a museum exhibiting artifacts discovered there and explaining the site’s layered history.

Here’s something I didn’t know courtesy of Darius’ narration: the section of the Curia Pompeiana that overlapped with what would become the square in the middle of Large Argentina was destroyed in the imperial era, replaced by a public latrine. A really nice one too! Long and roomy to accommodate many a Roman call of nature at once. 

Temple of Venus and Roma reopens

The remains of the Temple of Venus and Rome, the largest sacred building ever constructed in the Eternal City, have reopened to the public after a major restoration project funded by fashion house Maison Fendi.

The Temple of Venus and Rome was personally designed by Emperor Hadrian and constructed at his command between 121 and 137 A.D. on a high platform on the Velia hill overlooking the Colosseum. The colossus that gives the Flavian Amphitheater its name today stood on that site, originally placed there by Nero. Hadrian had it moved to a new location aside the Colosseum to make way for his massive new temple. It took 24 elephants to move the statue.

Hadrian’s innovative idea to celebrate the goddesses Venus Felix and Roma Aeterna was to build the two cellae (the sacred rooms where the statues of the goddesses sat and only the clergy were allowed) back-to-back instead of the traditional side-to-side configuration. Trajan’s famous architect Apollodorus of Damascus was not a fan, so naturally Hadrian had him killed.

Maxentius ditched Hadrian’s cella design when he rebuilt the temple after it was devastated by fire in 307 A.D. He reconstructed it with two apses covered by coffered vault roofs made of stone instead of the original wood ceilings. He also added porphyry columns to the Proconnesian marble columns in the porticoes and the grey granite columns in the peristyle.

The temple was converted into an oratory dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul in the 8th century, but most of the immense structure was destroyed by an earthquake in the 9th century. The church of Santa Maria Nova, and later Santa Francesca Romana, rose from the ruins.

Today the remains left standing on the platform are from Maxentius’ reconstruction. The porphyry columns and marble inlay floors and walls were reassembled from fragments in the 1930s. There’s also a convent and the offices of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum integrated into the site.

The Colosseum Park has put together a great video that explains the history (narration is in Italian but captions are bilingual in English and Italian) and virtually reconstructs the enormous temple, placing it in the context of the modern city.