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.

Giant gilded Hercules regains his shine

The largest surviving bronze statue from antiquity is undergoing a comprehensive restoration program in public view at the Vatican Museums in Rome. The Hercules Mastai Righetti is more than 13 feet tall and is gilded head to toe, an incredibly rare survival of a colossal bronze and even more incredibly rare survival of the full gold layer on a gilded ancient statue. Its otherworldly shine has dulled over the years, however, darkened by coatings of wax applied in the initial restoration after its discovery in the 19th century.

The statue first came to light in 1864 during work on the foundations of the Palazzo Pio Righetti, a 15th century palace on the Campo de’ Fiori that had recently been acquired by wealthy banker Pietro Righetti. Under the palace courtyard, workmen encountered an ancient wall and a bronze finger. The finger was so big that the statue it was attached to had to have been monumental in scale.

A subsequent excavation dug down 15 feet to find a wall of peperino (a grey volcanic tuff) flanked by columns believed to have been part of the foundation of the temple of Venus Victrix built by Pompey as a religious pretext to construct the first permanent theater in Rome attached to it.

(Today the remains of Pompey’s Theater underneath the Palazzo Pio Righetti have been incorporated into a restaurant that serves traditional Roman food in what is basically an underground archaeological park. I recommend the oxtail.)

Inside a ditch surrounded by travertine slabs was the colossal gilded bronze statue lying on its side. His feet were broken and the back of his head was missing, as were his genitals. It likely dates to between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 3rd, and is believed to be a copy of a Greek original from the late 4th century B.C.

Under the statue the diggers founds fragment of the skin of the Nemean lion, the broken right foot, fragments of the club Hercules used to slay the lion and a triangular slab of travertine inscribed “F C S.” The initials stand for “fulgor conditum summanium,” meaning “here lies a lightning bolt from Summanus.” These three little letters are a key clue to the statue’s fate: it had been struck by a thunderbolt at night (Summanus was the god of nocturnal thunder), which, according to an ancient Roman belief descended from the Etruscans, rendered the strike site a sacred area where any electrocuted objects had to be buried immediately.

Three months after its discovery, the bronze was bought by Pope Pius IX for the Vatican Museums collection. In 1866, the Hercules Mastai Righetti was installed in the Round Hall of the Pio Clementino Museum and has been there ever since. Visitors to the museum now have the opportunity to see Hercules’ shine restored before their eyes.

“The original gilding is exceptionally well-preserved, especially for the consistency and homogeneity,” Vatican Museum restorer Alice Baltera said. […]

The burial protected the gilding, but also caused dirt to build up on the statue, which Baltera said is very delicate and painstaking to remove. “The only way is to work precisely with special magnifying glasses, removing all the small encrustations one by one,” she said.

The work to remove the wax and other materials that were applied during the 19th-century restoration is complete. Going forward, restorers plan to make fresh casts out of resin to replace the plaster patches that covered missing pieces, including on part of the nape of the neck and the pubis.

The most astonishing finding to emerge during the preliminary phase of the restoration was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury to gold, making the gilded surface more enduring.

“The history of this work is told by its gilding. … It is one of the most compact and solid gildings found to date,’’ said Ulderico Santamaria, a University of Tuscia professor who is head of the Vatican Museums’ scientific research laboratory.

Hoard of Roman Republic denarii on display

A hoard of 175 silver denarii from the Roman Republic has gone on display for the first time a year and a half after it was discovered near Livorno, Tuscany. The coins, all but one struck by the mint in Rome, date to between 157 and 82 B.C. Except for two that are fragmented, they are intact and in excellent condition. The terracotta pot they were buried in was also found, making this an extremely rare complete Republican-era coin hoard that was archaeologically excavated upon discovery.

The coins were first discovered in November 2021 by Alberto Cecio while hiking the Tenuta Bellavista Insuese, an organic farm, agritourism destination and natural preserve a few miles north of Livorno. Cecio was looking for mushrooms in a forested area where the underbrush had recently been cleared and a few trees felled when he spotted a two potsherds each containing a small round clod. He brushed off some of the soil and realized the rounds were coins. As a member of the volunteer cultural organization the Paleontological Archaeological Group of Livorno, he understood they might be of archaeological significance so he immediately notified the local Superintendency of Archaeology and waited for six hours for their archaeologists to arrive. (His selflessness continued after the hoard was recovered and assessed. Cecio chose to forgo the discovery prize of 25% of the value of the find, about €6,250 in this case.)

The subsequent excavation found the rest of the coins and the ceramic vessel in which they were buried in the 1st century B.C. The discovery was kept secret while archaeologists catalogued, conserved and researched the treasure. The dates, quantity and consistency of denomination suggest it may have been the nest egg of a Roman legionary. Soldiers were paid in silver denarii, and 175 of them would have been a legionary’s pay for a year and a half.

The dates of the most recent coins suggest the hoard was buried in the turbulent era of the Social War (91-88 B.C.), when Rome’s former Italian allies revolted against it, and the subsequent civil war between the forces of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (83-82 B.C.). It was Gaius Marius who in 107 B.C. first pushed through the enlistment of the capite censi (the head count), the lowest class of Roman citizens who owned no property, in the army. A landless soldier who saved his pay may well have returned to the country with his nest egg planning to buy land or do business, only to bury it for safekeeping when things got hairy.

The hoard and pot are on display in a new exhibition at the Museum of Natural History of the Mediterranean in Livorno through July 2nd.