Rare 3rd c. double-aureus found in Hungary

An extremely rare gold double-aureus from the reign of the Emperor Volusianus has been discovered in Hungary. Volusianus ruled as co-emperor with his father Trebonianus Gallus for less than two years (November 251 – August 253) before they were both assassinated by their own soldiers, so coins from his reign are already rare. Gold Volusianus coins are even more rare, with the rarest of all being the binio, double the weight and value of a standard aureus.

Minted in Rome, the coin weighs 5.62 grams and is 23 mm (.9 inches) in diameter. It features a draped and cuirassed bust of the emperor wearing a radiate crown on the obverse. The obverse legend reads IMP CAE C VIB VOLVSIANO AVG (Imperator Caesar Caius Vibius Volusianus Augustus). On the reverse is the deity Libertas standing with one bent leg in front the other leaning on a column. She wears a draped garment and holds a pileus (the freedman’s cap) in her right hand and a long scepter in her left. The reverse legend reads LIBERTAS AVGG, meaning Liberty of/as brought by the two emperors.

The coin was discovered by a volunteer metal detectorist working for the Rippl-Rónai Museum in an archaeological investigation at the site of highway expansion in Somogy County, southwestern Hungary. The excavation yielded bronze and silver coins, a round glass fibula with a checkerboard pattern, an inscribed silver ring and a bronze key.

Few Roman gold coins have been unearthed in Hungary, which was part of the province of Pannonia Superior when this binio was minted. The capital of the province was in Carnutum, now part of Austria, 200 miles northwest of the coin’s find site. Today Somogy County is the least densely populated county in Hungary, and it was even more remote in the 3rd century. Only one other Roman gold coin, minted under the Emperor Valens (r. 364-378), has been found in the county. An extremely valuable and rare coin like a double-aureus wasn’t likely to be owned by a local. It was probably lost by someone moving through the area.

The coin is now at the Rippl-Rónai Museum where it will be assayed to determine its gold content. It will then join the museum’s permanent collection of around 50 Roman coins, including the only other gold coin found in Somogy.

Marble inlay slabs found in Pompeii tool chest

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient stone worker’s supply chest in the large reception room of the House of the Library in Pompeii. The extraordinary remains of a large wooden chest containing slabs of giallo antico (ancient yellow) marble quarried in Numidia and of green serpentine porphyry from the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, among other fine marble imports, were unearthed still tidily arranged like hanging file folders.

The wooden chest was gone, but archaeologists were able to recreate a perfect model of it by making a plaster cast of the hole the chest left in the hardened ash when it decayed. Another object of organic materials, a basket that had been placed on top of the chest, was also captured in a plaster cast.

The villa was in the Insula Occidentalis neighborhood that was originally just outside Pompeii at the Porta Occidentalis gate. It was a multi-storey luxury home, one of four built into part of the city’s ancient walls overlooking the sparking blue waters of the Bay of Naples. The House of the Library had been partially excavated before, but large sections were still under the volcanic debris.

An excavation team opened up new ground in the villa as part of a project to restore and stabilize the buildings in the Insula Occidentalis. The dig revealed previously-unexplored parts of the mansion, unearthing the large reception room on the first floor. The room was elegantly appointed with a black-and-white floor mosaic of a wide meander border around a central panel of white tile. The detail work down the orientation of tesserae in the central white panel is of high quality.

Archaeologists believe the house was damaged in a major earthquake that struck the city in 62 A.D. and subsequent seismic swarms, one of the smaller side-effects of living under the shadow of an active volcano. Several rooms of the villa were affected and there were repairs and refurbishment works in progress. The marble slabs in the chest were neatly tucked against the wall on the outer perimeter of the mosaic. They were likely replacements for slabs that were broken in the earthquake, probably in rooms adjacent to the reception room that haven’t been excavated yet.

Republican-era bridge found outside Rome

The remains of an exceptionally rare Republican-era bridge have been discovered on the 12th kilometer of the Via Tiburtina, the ancient Roman road that leads northeast out of the Eternal City. Pottery findings and the type of masonry work seen on the large tufa blocks used in its construction date the bridge to the 2nd century B.C.

The bridge was discovered during a preventative archaeology investigation in advance of the enlargement of the Via Tiburtina within the municipality of Rome.  It crossed the Fosso di Pratolungo, a small tributary of the Aniene river. The one-time existence of an ancient bridge over the Fosso di Pratolungo was recorded by cartographers in the Renaissance, but its precise location was lost as this is the first time material remains of the Roman structure have been discovered.

The road, initially known as the Via Valeria, was first built around 300 B.C. by the censor M. Valerius Maximus. There are two surviving bridges on the Tiburtina, the Ponte Scutonico at the 58th kilometer, a single span arch bridge made of limestone blocks, and the Ponte San Giorgio at the 63rd kilometer. Both were built by the emperor Nerva when he restored the road in 97 A.D.

The newly-discovered bridge was built during the initial construction of the road, which makes it an incredibly rare example of a bridge from the middle Republic. By contrast, the oldest bridge in the city of Rome today is the Pons Fabricius which dates to 62 B.C. when the Republican era was almost at an end.

“This is a find of great archaeological interest,” declares Daniela Porro, Special Superintendent of Rome, “and historical and topographical as well. Investigations will continue in the next few days to obtain a more complete knowledge of the structure and its phases of use. Once again Rome gives us precious testimonies of its past, which will allow us to better understand its millenary history.”

The bridge will be mapped and surveyed in detail. After investigations are complete, it will be reburied for its own protection as the enlargement of the Tiburtina moves forward.

Ancient parasite eggs identify Roman chamber pot

Analysis of a ceramic pot from the 5th century A.D. discovered in Gerace, Sicily, has revealed the presence of whipworm eggs confirming that it originally contained human feces. This is the first direct evidence that this type of vessel was used a chamber pot in the Roman era.

Roman pottery shapes and sizes have been extensively documented and categorized since the 19th century, but the diverse typologies only began to include identifications of possible chamber pots in the 1990s based on discoveries made in bathroom-related archaeological contexts like ancient latrines. The chamber pot type is plain ware pottery of local production with sloped sides and a flat bottom, however there was no proof that they had been used to hold excreta rather than as storage vessels for grains or fluids, cinerary urns or as simple containers, as in the case of one pot that at some point at least held builder’s lime.

Archeologists at the University of Cambridge turned to mineralized concretions for answers. A small proportion of the sloped ceramic vessels contain mineral build-up that clung to the sides and bottoms of the pot over repeated usage. The team sampled concretions inside one of five vessels unearthed in the former bath-house of a Roman villa at Gerance in 2019. The bath house had been filled in after it was damaged severely in an earthquake in the mid-5th century. The five pots were part of the fill, which dates them to between 450 and 500 A.D.

The research team employed a digital light microscope to identify any intestinal parasite eggs trapped in the deposits. They were successful, discovering multiple parasite eggs. Based on the shape, color, size, smooth sutface and polar plugs of the eggs found, they were identified as the intestinal nematode Trichuris trichiura, ie, whipworm. This is the first time the presence of parasite eggs has been identified from concretions in a Roman ceramic vessel.

The success of the study opens up the possibility of a systematic analysis of all of the pots containing mineralized concretions. This new information could greatly expand our knowledge of the diet, health and hygiene of the people who pooped in these pots 1,500 years ago.

Met acquires Renaissance roundel 18 years after 1st attempt

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has at long last acquired an exceptional Renaissance parcel-gilt bronze roundel 18 years after it first tried and failed to buy it at auction. At 16.5 inches in diameter, rimmed and embellished with gilded accents and silver inlay, it is the largest bronze roundel known from the Renaissance, and one of the most if not the most technically sophisticated, which is why the Met was more than willing to pay 27 million dollars and wait a year to not let this masterpiece slip through its fingers again.

It depicts Venus and her lover Mars flirting while her husband Vulcan labors at the forge. Venus sits in the center with Cupid on her lap driving his arrow into her breast. She has wings, the right one outstretched and fully visible, the left mostly hidden behind Mars’ shield. Mars is armed with a sword and scabbard. Vulcan is making a helmet embossed with a horse, his hammer raised mid-strike.

In the exergue below the scene is a Latin inscription reading “CYPRIA MARS ET AMOR GAVDENT VVLCANE LABORAS,” meaning “Venus, Mars and Cupid enjoy themselves while Vulcan works.” This was a popular motif in the art of northern Italy in the late 15th, early 16th centuries.

The exceptional quality of the rendering from the masks on Venus’ sandals, Mars’ decorated scabbard, even the wrinkles on Vulcan’s face delicately gilded for emphasis indicate this work was cast by a master goldsmith. Metallurgic analysis of the bronze alloy found it has an unusually high copper content comparable to Renaissance medals now in the National Gallery in Washington.

There is no definitive information about its origins and ownership history. The roundel first burst on the scene in 2003 at a Christie’s auction in London. Appraisers discovered it, unpublished and unrecognized, in an estate belonging to the heirs of George Treby III, a lawyer and MP in the first half of the 18th century. Treby was an avid collector of art and antiquities and is known to have Grand Toured in Rome in 1746. There is no documentation of his acquisition of the roundel, but given that his descendants had it for centuries, he is almost certainly the source.

The 2003 sellers had no idea it was a Renaissance piece. They assumed it was of relatively late manufacture. Christie’s experts recognized it as having been made in the late 15th century for the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Italy. There are no other versions of it known to exist, nor any roundels of this size crafted by this hand. The only cognate is a plaster relief from the Bardini Collection in Florence, and its attribution is uncertain.

Christie’s leading candidate for the master craftsman who made the roundel was Gian Marco Cavalli, known from the documentary record as having made bronzes for the Gonzaga family, but there are no works firmly attributed to him. His details fit the bill, though. He was a goldsmith, he did a commission of four silver roundels with the signs of the zodiac for the Gonzaga. His last name may even appear on the roundel in disguise. “Cavalli” means horses, and he called himself “Cavallino” in one letter, so that disproportionately large rearing horse on the helmet Vulcan is hammering out may be a sort of secret signature.

Even with an unknown maker, the roundel roused enormous interest at the 2003 auction. The Met was an active bidder, but ultimately lost out to a private collector who bought it for £6.9 million, setting a new world record for a Renaissance bronze. The buyer’s family sold the roundel to a UK art dealer in 2019 for an undisclosed amount. The dealer gave the Met a second bite at the apple, and this time money was evidently no object because the museum dropped £17 million plus £3.4 million VAT) to buy the bronze, contingent on the granting of an export license.

The UK Ministry of Culture imposed a temporary export ban to give a British institution a chance to acquire the piece for the purchase price including VAT. When nobody could be found with such deep pockets by the end of 2021, the UK granted the export license.

“The bronze roundel is an absolute masterpiece, standing apart for its historical significance, artistic virtuosity, and unique composition,” said Max Hollein, the Museum’s Marina Kellen French Director. “It is a truly transformational acquisition for The Met’s collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture. We look forward to further studying and displaying this magnificent work, one that establishes Cavalli as one of the ingenious creators of the Gonzaga court style.”

Cavalli (born about 1454, died after 1508) collaborated for over 30 years with Andrea Mantegna (1430/31–1506), the principal painter to the Gonzaga court in Mantua, and with Antico (ca. 1460–1528), the Gonzaga family’s principal sculptor. Yet the attribution of works to Cavalli remained challenging until the discovery of the roundel in a British country house in 2003. The roundel may have been made for Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539), the most important woman patron of the Italian Renaissance.

Dr. Sarah E. Lawrence, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, stated, “While The Met is rich in paintings and prints by Mantegna, and holds the largest collection of Antico’s gilt and silvered bronze sculptures outside Europe, there was no equivalent example in bronze relief in our collection. With this exciting acquisition, The Met is now one of the only museums in the world that can illustrate the fundamental collaboration between Mantegna, Antico, and Cavalli under the patronage of Isabella d’Este.” Denise Allen, Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, added: “The Mantuan roundel’s sumptuous gilding, meticulously inlaid silvering, and masterfully varied chasing identify the roundel as a masterpiece in which Cavalli expressed his superlative abilities as a goldsmith and sculptor.”