Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Scala Sancta unboxed

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nero’s Domus Transitoria opens to public

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Restored baker and his wife back on display

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ball in the Stone Part III: The Treasure

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I can’t believe I missed this

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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