Understanding Rome

Mathematicians measure the form of things with their minds alone, separated from matter. We, who wish things to be seen, shall rely on the services of a chubbier Minerva – Leon Battista Alberti

Moving Mountains: A geological map of Empire at the Centrale Montemartini.

A couple of weeks ago I was once again invited to be involved in Context Travel’s admirable series of Tours in the Public Interest. The focus of this year’s series is on museums which are regularly open to the public, but which get far fewer visitors than they deserve. I chose the Centrale Montemartini (about which this from 2013), a former thermo-electric power station converted in the late 1990s into an outpost of the Capitoline Museums; a splendidly evocative juxtaposition of early 20th century technology and ancient sculpture.

My brief was to choose three (ish) things, and a thread to connect them. Given the massive and material nature of the machines which provide the backdrop to the collection, I chose to consider the matter from which the ancient art displayed was itself made. The quality and types of stones used in Roman buildings, and in sculptural and architectural decorations, tell us a great deal about those buildings: their status, for whom they were made, and Rome’s fortunes at the time.

From the early use of rough local tufa (the compacted volcanic ash which forms Rome’s “seven hills”) to the importation of red porphyry from the eastern deserts of Egypt, the very stuff from which the city was built can be seen as a prism through which to view its expansions and triumphs. Chapter 36 of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the “Natural History of Stones”, is one of the great sources of information regarding the types of stones used in Roman decorations, even though Pliny himself is, with a rather waspish tone, disapproving of the fondness for exotic decorations which he describes as “the leading folly of the day”. (The 38 ft columns of Lucullan marble imported from Asia Minor for the house of M. Scaurus c.60 BC are described as “a first essay in vice”).

Pediment sculptures from the temple of Apollo Sosianus. Parian marble.

Pediment sculptures from the temple of Apollo Sosianus. Parian marble.

First dedicated in 431 BC to Apollo the healer in the Prata Flamina (where later the Theatre of Marcellus would be built), the temple was rebuilt by Gaius Sosius in the Augustan period. It was probably during this period that the pedimental decoration was “borrowed” from Greece (possibly the sanctuary at Eretria). It dates to the mid fifth century (making it roughly contemporary with the Parthenon marbles, to which it is analogous in style) and is made of marble from the island of Paros in the Cyclades. Here we see not just the importing of raw materials, but of works of art which were “ancient” for the builders of Sosius’ new temple. A reminder that for a period the very best Roman art was in fact Greek art. As Horace (alive at the time of the building of Sosius’ temple, and the addition of these imported sculptures) said:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intuit agresti Latio 

(Captive Greece took captive her own rude conqueror, and brought the arts to rustic Latium).


Basanite statue of Agrippina Minor, found on the Caelian Hill in the late 19th century.

Basanite statue of Agrippina Minor, found on the Caelian Hill in the late 19th century.

This statue of Agrippina the Younger was found in the area of the temple dedicated to her husband (and uncle) the Divine Claudius on the Caelian Hill. She is shown in the guise of pious widow despite the assertions of several sources (Suetonius, Tacitus and Pliny for starters) that she had poisoned poor doomed Claudius with mushrooms. Thus she would place her teenage son by a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. Five years after he came to power Nero would hatch an elaborate plot to murder his mother. All very Game of Thrones.

The statue is made from basanite, an igneous volcanic rock rich in iron which takes its name from the Greek verb “to test”, an etymology which originated in Egypt where the rock was used as a touchstone. The quarries of basanite were at Wadhi Hammamet in Egypt’s eastern desert, and are mentioned in the earliest known geological map (now at the Egyptian Museum in Turin) drawn up for Rameses IV in the twelfth century BC.


Overview of mosaic from Horti Licinii, 4th century

The early twentieth century building of the underpass behind Santa Bibbiana (a Baroque rebuilding of an ancient church with a sculpture by Bernini and frescoes by Pietro da Cortona nestling stoically amid railway lines) yielded a mosaic showing the capture of wild animals for the venationes (animal hunts) staged in amphitheatres.

mosaic detail: a bear lured into a trap with a ham

The mosaic dates to the fourth century and once decorated the opulent Horti Licinii, a sprawling villa/garden complex of great prestige on the Esquiline Hill which had belonged to the family of the third century emperor Gallienus. Even in a period of Imperial decline, its palette uses colours from the far reaches of Empire: serpentine of Greece, Numidian yellow from Tunisia, Aswan pink granite from Egypt and more.

mosaic detail: wild boar hunt

Rather as the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) being captured evoked an sense of the exotic expanse of Empire to the citizenry at the Colosseum, so the art and architecture of Rome provide us with what we might think of as a geological map of Empire.


Centrale Montemartini

via Ostiense 106

9 am – 7 pm, closed Mondays, 1 Jan, 1 May, 25 December. 7.50 euros, 16 euros for a combined ticket with the Capitoline Museums.

On the cusp of Christendom: The architecture of the mausoleum of Constantina.

The first version of this post was written for the fabulous, but now sadly defunct, 3 Pipe Problem blog. It was run by the fearsomely energetic Hasan Nayazi who died suddenly and prematurely last year. I met him in person once, on his only visit to Rome two years ago, and I had the great fortune to visit the Villa Farnesina and the Vatican Museums with him, retracing the steps of his hero, Raphael.

Piranesi's elevation of the site

Piranesi’s elevation of the site at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, showing the mausoleum of Constantina and the buttressing of the Constantinian basilica of St Agnes

On the via Nomentana, two miles outside the walls hurriedly thrown up by the Emperor Aurelian between 271 and 275, is the place where the young martyr Agnes is believed to be buried. Her life (and death) is one of myth and contradiction. Tradition says she was executed following her refusal to marry a Roman nobleman. Whether this took place during the furious mid-third-century persecutions of Christians ordered by the Emperors Decius, Gallus, or Valerian, or perhaps those of Diocletian at the very beginning of the fourth century, is uncertain. These doubts notwithstanding she is a key figure in the early church, the Depositio Martyrum of 336 referring to the celebration of her feast day; the “XII Kal. Feb. Agnetis, in Nomentana”. She is clearly also a favourite of St Ambrose, who lauded her in his De Virginibus (337), his De officiis of c.391, and to whom the hymn “Agnes Beatae Virginis” is attributed.

The circus basilica of St Agnes on the left, the mausoleum of Costanza on the right. (image courtesy of prolocoroma.it)

The circus basilica of St Agnes on the left, the mausoleum of Costanza on the right. (image courtesy of prolocoroma.it)

The Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, with the edict he issued at Milan in 313, saw a spate of church building in the capital. A series of “cemetery basilicas” were built close to the burial areas of the early martyrs. Often described as “circus-shaped”, they evoke the shape of the Roman race-track, rectangular at one end, semi-circular at the other (apse) end, with an ambulatory running around the edge. The floors of these basilicas contained large numbers of tombs on several levels, with the burial areas closest to the believed places of the martyrs being especially in demand. Sadly these cemetery-basilicas do not survive intact, but fragments of the fourth-century basilica of Saint Agnes (replaced by a nearby church in the seventh century) can still be seen, its scale especially visible from the modern piazza Annibaliana where buttressing supports the significant earthworks which had created the terrace from the hillside.

The Liber Pontificalis (the book of papal biographies said to have been begun by St Jerome, but certainly later in date) refers in a sixth-century note to the church of St Agnes which it says was built by Constantina, daughter of Constantine. It speaks of Constantina “who is devoted to God and Christ [and] has with all humility taken all costs [for the building] upon herself and … dedicated this sanctuary to the victorious virgin Agnes”. The land on which the basilica was built was Imperial property, and Constantina also commissioned the construction of her own mausoleum here, abutting the long side of the basilica of St. Agnes and originally connected to it by an apsidal porch. The building of a mausoleum attached to a cemetery-basilica was not without precedent in the Imperial family; Constantina’s father Constantine had himself been buried in a mausoleum attached to the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, as had his mother Helena at the Roman basilica of Saints Marcellus and Peter on the via Labicana.

Interior view, Mausoleum of Constantina

Interior view, Mausoleum of Constantina

The mausoleum was probably begun following the murder of Constantina’s first husband, her cousin Hannibalianus, King of Pontus and Cappadocia, in 337, and before her marriage in 351 to another cousin, Constantius Gallus. Modifications to the original modestly sized trefoil plan saw it enlarged, befitting a mausoleum for several members of the Imperial dynasty, and given the circular form we see today. These changes are believed to have taken place after Constantina’s second marriage, and before the death of her brother Constantius, probably the sponsor of the project, in 361. The fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus speaks of Constantina’s body being buried on the Imperial property outside the city walls on the via Nomentana following her death in Bithnya in 351, when she would have been about forty years old. He also tells us that Constantina’s sister Helena was buried here in 360, further evidence that the grander scale of the mausoleum was designed with members of the family other than Constantina in mind.

The building was certainly used as a church by the mid-ninth century, and in 865 it is referred to as a church dedicated to Saint Constance. If we are to believe the Liber Pontificalis, Constantina appears to have been a Christian, an interpretation absolutely supported by the location of her mausoleum. However there is no evidence whatsoever for her canonization, and she is no longer recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless it is the mausoleum’s consecration as a church, in great part the product of the confusion surrounding the figure of Constantina, which is at the heart of the building’s survival; as a church it was not only deemed sacred but was simply in use and thus not subject to the same levels of looting of materials that befell other structures.

The building is circular, 22.5 metres in diameter, with a central concrete dome resting on a clerestory above a ring of twelve pairs of columns with composite capitals. That these capitals are not exact matches, and were “recycled” from earlier structures belies the decline that Rome found herself in. Some two decades after Constantine had founded Constantinople as his new administrative capital in a desperate bid to reclaim control of the fragmenting eastern provinces, the Caput Mundi was feeling the strain. Most of the illumination which is such an important part of the building is provided by twelve windows set into the drum of the dome, one above each of the arches. The ring of columns is surrounded by a barrel-vaulted ambulatory with fourteen niches inset into the exterior wall. Originally a colonnaded portico (which no longer survives) ran around the exterior wall. Like the portico around a classical temple it did not offer access to the interior, but rather served both structurally as an additional support (in this case for the concrete dome), and ideologically as a buffer zone between the worldly and the sacred. Also now missing is the entrance porch which archeological investigations have revealed, like that of the early fourth-century temple of Romulus in the Roman Forum, to have been convex in form.

The mausoleum of Constantina can be seen as heir to a long tradition of centrally-planned funerary structures. Circular and conical forms are among the most archaic (piles of stones to mark an important location; the huts of the Bronze Age). This atavistic architectural impulse, coupled with the elegance of the circular form, and its innate connotations of the infinite, led centrally planned buildings to become associated in a Christian context not only with martyria but also with baptisteries.

Pantheon Floor plan

Pantheon Floor plan

Two centuries after the construction of the Pantheon, at the mausoleum of Constantina we witness an important moment in the development of the centrally-planned building. The study of the floor plans of the buildings along this journey can be viewed as stills from a time-lapsed film of biological development. We begin with the purely cylindrical (tumuli, Cecilia Metella) before the space gradually opens out (Mausoleum of Hadrian), and begins to be alleviated by a series of niches (reaching its apotheosis at the Pantheon). These niches then continue to reach outwards, breaking through the perimeter wall like buds on a dividing cell. They leave behind the dots of columns which trace the original cylindrical form and support a vaulted ambulatory around the domed central space. This ambulatory (which one can consider as a sort of circular aisle) is a new development in Roman architecture, and its earliest surviving form is seen at Santa Costanza.

Floor plan of the mausoleum of Constantina

Floor plan of the mausoleum of Constantina

Through this organic development a structure develops in which, as in nature, every element works together as part as a coherent whole. Like all great buildings it is governed by its past, but is also charged with a present which both defines and enriches it.

The mausoleum of Constantina thus heralds a key point in the ever greater ornamentation and dilation of space which paves the way for the centrally-planned place of Christian worship, as would be seen at the rotonda of the Anastasis at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jersualem (dome completed late fourth century), and at San Vitale in Ravenna (completed 546).

San Vitale, Ravenna

San Vitale, Ravenna

When Bramante created what is now seen as the first building of the High Renaissance over a millennium later, the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, he turned once again to the harmony of the central plan.

Mausoleum of Constantina (Church of Santa Costanza)
Sant’Agnese fuori le mura
Via Nomentana 349
9am-12noon; 4pm-6pm (unless religious services are taking place. Saturdays in June are best avoided as it’s a favourite for weddings)

When in Rome… : A Visit to the Mausoleum of Augustus


Last month saw a momentous anniversary of the sort that doesn’t happen often; on the 19 August it was 2000 years exactly since the death of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.

Much hand-wringing was employed over Rome’s lack of festivities, and it is true that while there have been many events over the course of the year (for example this exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, this light show at the Forum of Augustus amongst others) if one hadn’t known the importance of the date already one could easily have wandered Rome on the 19 August with no idea of the occasion.

If I’m honest, part of me rather likes this. Far lesser anniversaries are elsewhere trumpeted from every municipal outpost. But not in Rome, which looks on with a languid seen-it-all-before gaze.

Mausoleum of Augustus on the left, Mussolini's Piazza Augusto Imperatore on the right.

Mausoleum of Augustus on the left, Mussolini’s Piazza Augusto Imperatore on the right.

And so it was on the 19th August, having finished a tour at the Vatican, that I thought I’d zip by the Mausoleum of Augustus which was, unusually, open for pre-booked guided tours in the morning. I scootered up at 11.45, 15 minutes after the last official entry slot. Helmet and city guide’s badge in hand I spoke to the chap on the, rather rusty, gate in my best Roman. Did I have a reservation? No, but would you possibly be so kind…? It’s never open…. Oh go on then, he said, grinning, and in I slipped. I walked past the group, and the moat created by a pipe which had commemorated the auspicious occasion by bursting, and down the slope into the final resting place of Rome’s first emperor. Which I had all to myself for five minutes, amid epigraphic rubble and scaffolding pipes and cascading caper plants. Selfish I may be, but this was an evocative moment only enhanced by the absence of visitor centre and ticket booths; it was just the sort of slightly dizzying and unlikely experience that Rome does so very well. Having paid my respects I thanked the fellow at the gate, put my helmet back on and went off to do the shopping.


Mausoleum of Augustus, interior view.

Mausoleum of Augustus
Piazza Augusto Imperatore

Almost never open, for now.

Peacocks and Fountains: Villa Poppaea at Oplontis

Last week my sister, visiting from London, and I made a brief foray southwards. We hadn’t been to Pompeii in years, and – shamefully, inexplicably – neither of us had ever visited Herculaneum. There was also a desire to lend solidity to all of those intangible and fleeting images that flicker in the mind’s eye when I think of Campania; an ephemeral palimpsest of myth and legend by way of Pliny and Virgil, filtered through the lens of the Grand Tourists.

View from the Temple of Apollo at Cumae

The view from the Temple of Apollo at Cumae

Whilst I’ve been to the glorious Amalfi coast countless times, both from land and sea, the bay of Baiae where Hadrian expired and the Phlegrean Fields where Aeneas consulted the Sybil had proved ever elusive.

So this time our journey took us to fabulous Pompeii and Herculaneum, but we also said hello to the Sybil at Cumae and stopped by the entrance to Hades at Lake Avernus. We stood in the triclinia of grand villas at Stabia, where the masters of the universe once nibbled dormice whilst idly gazing out across the bay to the looming mountain which would prove them mortal.

Villa Poppaea, Torre Annunziata

Villa Poppaea, Torre Annunziata

Among all of the places we visited the most astounding, perhaps because I had least expected it, was the villa believed to have belonged to the family of Poppaea, doomed wife of the Emperor Nero, at Oplontis. Also buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, the Villa Poppaea nestles in the urban dystopia of modern Torre Annunziata, part of the extensive and amorphous Neapolitan hinterland and a town which is, sadly, chiefly famed for reasons other than its UNESCO World Heritage Site. Valiant banners near the entrance to the site quote Goethe’s Italian Journey:

“We lunched at Torre Annunziata at a table on the beach. Everyone was happy to live in that place, some maintained that without a sea view it would be impossible to survive”


The quality of the paintings is mind-boggling; if the finest decorations from Pompeii and Herculaneum show us the decor of the haut bourgeoisie, this is on an altogether different level. In situ, these splendid frescoes combine with a sense of space which gives a real idea of the juxtaposition of the interior and exterior in the Roman villa. It told of the way these rooms and courtyards worked as a whole, a fluid progression from light into shade and back again, of internal gardens glimpsed through windows and columns, in a way that no study of architectural plans can ever render.






via dei Sepolcri, Torre Annunziata

1 April – 31 October 8.30am – 7.30pm

1 November – 31 March 8.30am – 5pm


Hippopotamuses and Lotus flowers: The Nile mosaic at Palestrina

Last week a visiting friend and I braved the torrential rain to run an errand in Zagarolo. Our mission accomplished, we stopped for a spot of lunch before meandering to Palestrina. Snaking our way through the medieval streets, in a car as wide as the roads, we eventually emerged, unscathed, at the Palazzo Barberini. A spectacular example of palimpsest, the Palazzo Barberini (once Colonna, its change of name indicative of the “good” marriage made by Taddeo Barberini to Princess Anna Colonna) is built upon the vast complex of the temple of Fortuna Primagenia which cascades down the hill.

Temple of Fortuna Primagenia, Palestrina, reconstruction drawn by Andrea Palladio in his "Four Books of Architecture" (pub. 1570)

Temple of Fortuna Primagenia, Palestrina, reconstruction drawn by Andrea Palladio in his “Four Books of Architecture” (pub. 1570)

Fortuna Primagenia was a local manifestation of the goddess of Fortune. Literally meaning “the First Bearer”, and especially associated with fertility, she was linked to the oracle of the sortes Praenestinae. These “sortes” were pieces of wood with prophetic powers said to have been found in a well at the bottom of the site and which would be consulted until Theodosius outlawed non-Christian religious practices is 393 AD.

Praeneste occupies a strategic position above the corridor which once connected the Greek world, to the south, with the Etruscans, to the north, while to the west the valley led to the Tyrrhenian. First at war, and then allied, with Rome, Praeneste would eventually fall victim to the ruthless wrath of Sulla, and was settled as a Roman military colony after his massacre of 82 BC.

It was under the rule of Sulla that the great temple was redeveloped, extending the structure of the second century BC over a total of five levels. Although dating is varied, the Nile mosaic at Prenestina, the town’s greatest treasure is sometimes thought to date from this period. Pliny the Elder tells us,

“Mosaics came into use in Sulla’s time. At any rate there still exists a mosaic floor, made from very small tesserae, which Sulla commissioned for the Temple of Fortune at Praeneste.” [XXXVI, 189]

Nile mosaic, Palestrina

Nile mosaic, Palestrina

The work of craftsmen from Alexandria, its tiny tiles create a vast (about 5.8m x 4.3 m or 19ft x 14 ft for those of you who like numbers) landscape detailing elements of the Nile.

The mosaic is almost overwhelmingly rich in detail as verdant flora jostles with exotic fauna knitted together in umpteen vibrant vignettes: a fishing boat casts its shadow as a hippopotamus comes up for air; soldiers give an illustrious visitor a triumphant reception; a religious procession sees a bier carried as musicians follow; a man punts a canoe as an opulent scene plays out under a bower dripping with grapes.






Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Palestrina

Palazzo Barberini

Piazza della Cortina

9am – 8pm possible reduction of opening hours on Sundays, check here.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme: the stoicism of the Hellenistic Boxer

Right by Rome’s Termini central station is one of my favourite museums of ancient Roman art, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (home to these spectacular Roman frescoes). Palazzo Massimo is part of the National Roman Museum which has four locations (can a museum have branches?) which are all super, and the 10 euro entrance ticket gives you access to all of them over a three day period so it’s also jolly good value.

One of the museum’s too often overlooked superstars recently returned from a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York where he was received with great pomp. But you can usually have him all to yourself, a long forgotten hero in Room 7.

The Boxer at the site of his excavation, 1885

The Boxer at the site of his excavation, 1885

The Boxer was found in 1885 as large sections of the Quirinal Hill were being cleared to make way for the building boom of the new capital city. As entire neighbourhoods were being built to house the ministries, and the mandarins, which were the cogs in the new machines of state, archeological work was hurried. But as areas of the former Baths of Constantine were being cleared the extraordinary figure revealed himself to have been sitting, patiently, under the rubble and mud and filth of centuries.

The archeologist who was responsible for saving so much of what might have otherwise been lost in the rush to build the new capital, Rodolfo Lanciani, was present at the excavation:

“I have witnessed, in my long career in the active field of archeology, many discoveries; I have experienced surprise after surprise; I have sometimes and most unexpectedly met with real masterpieces; but I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights.”

The Boxer, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

This glorious 1st century BC bronze is one of the most poignant sculptures I can think of in Rome. At first we see a muscular figure seated in apparent relaxation, his hands bound indicating that he is a boxer. But look closer and his head, turned towards something we cannot see, tells us this is no triumphant athlete. His cheek is split and his head is bleeding from very recent wounds, superimposed upon older injuries, the details engraved and picked out in applied copper.

The Boxer, detail.

His nose has been broken and re-broken, and his misshapen ears bear the signs of multiple fights. This is no generic exaltation of athleticism but an extraordinary psychological study of an ageing boxer nearing the end of his career, as we see him called back into the ring once again.

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A guided tour of Palazzo Massimo would offer a wealth of riches for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of Imperial Rome. It could also be combined with other sites on the Esquiline Hill, such as what remains of the Baths of Diocletian.

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme,

piazza del Cinquecento

9am – 6pm closed Mondays

10 euros


From Virgil to Vitruvius: some thoughts on the House of Augustus.

This year is a big anniversary for all things Augustus; the two thousandth anniversary of the death of the first Emperor of Rome. To mark the occasion I was asked to write this short blog post for AIRC. The thing is, verbose as I am, on my way to completing my brief I got side-tracked down all sorts of alleyways. So I thought I’d write a longer version here.

The exploitation of art, religion, legend, history, poetry, dodgy family trees, you name it, in the relentlessly sophisticated propaganda machine of Octavian/Augustus is something I’ve always found incredibly interesting.

It was Octavian’s close friend Maecenas who sponsored Virgil whose epic poem, the Aeneid, detailed the heroic journey made by Aeneas, son of Venus, following the Achaean destruction of the city of Troy. Aeneas’ long and meandering journey across the Mediterranean knowingly echoed the voyage of Ulysses, and eventually he arrived on the western coast of central Italy. It is said that he landed a few miles south of the arrival point of many modern visitors, the wildly unromantic Fiumicino Airport. Aeneas had long been claimed as the distant (and divine) ancestor not only of Romulus, legendary founder of Rome, but also of the Julii, the family of both Caesar and Octavian.

Contemporaneously, Titus Livy wrote his Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City), a history of Rome which knitted the legends of the founding of the city together into a narrative which ran up until Livy’s own time, culminating in the inevitability of the rise of the “Golden Age” of Augustus.

In the works of Virgil and Livy, poetry and history distill legend. All roads lead to a justification of the inexorable and divine right to rule of Caesar’s heir, and they are the great spin-doctors of their time; large cogs in the powerful machine of Augustan propaganda.

Geography was also to become an integral part of this programme. Throughout the centuries of the Republic, the Palatine hill had been the smart part of town, and indeed aristocratic Octavian had been born on its slopes.

According to Suetonius, writing a century or so after Octavian was first proclaimed Augustus,

“… [Octavian] lived at first near the Forum Romanum, above the stairs of the ring-makers, in a house which had once belonged to the orator Calvus…” [Suetonius, Divus Augustus, LXXII/LXXIII]

Presumably this house was not high enough on the slopes of the hill to be referred to as in Palatio. Suetonius continues, however, telling us that

“…afterwards [he lived] on the Palatine, but in the no less modest dwelling of Hortensius, which was remarkable neither for size nor elegance…”

This house had been confiscated in the wake of the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), in which Hortensius’ son had allied with Brutus. It may have been relatively modest, but its postition was not; Octavian now lived close to the site which was held to be the site of Rome’s very foundation, the Roma Quadrata of Romulus.

View today from the Palatine Hill, looking towards the Capitoline

View today from the Palatine Hill, looking towards the Capitoline

Around the time of Sextus Pompey’s defeat off the coast of Sicily at Naulochus, in September of 36 BC, work began on a new domus befitting Octavian’s rising status.

According to Cassius Dio, two centuries later,

“…The people at this time resolved that a house should be presented to Caesar at public expense; for he had made public property of the place on the Palatine which he had bought for the purpose of erecting a residence upon it, and had consecrated it to Apollo, after a thunderbolt had descended upon it. …”

Thus the Palatine began its shift from residential district to seat of power. The lines between religion and state began to blur; Apollo, protector of Troy and so of the Julii was to be venerated on the very site of Octavian’s residence. Vowed after the Battle of Naulochus, the temple was dedicated in 28 BC, after Octavian’s definitive victory at Actium (31 BC) over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. A year later he would be proclaimed Augustus.

Painted decoration with architectural motifs in the "House of Augustus"

Painted decoration with architectural motifs in the “House of Augustus”

The divinity pervading Augustus’ palace (named for the hill on which it stood) is referred to by Augustus’ contemporary Ovid. In his mournful Tristia, written from his exile in the distant and bleak land of Tomis (on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Romania), a homesick and repentant Ovid imagines his book making a voyage to Rome, and being shown the sights of the city:

“Gazing around, I saw prominent doorposts hung

with gleaming weapons, and a house fit for a god.

‘And is this Jove’s house?’ I said, a wreath of oak

prompting that thought in my mind.

When I learnt its owner, ‘No error there,’ I said,

this is truly the house of mighty Jove’

But why do laurels veil the door in front,

their dark leaves circling the august ones?

Is it because this house earned unending triumph,

or because it’s loved by Apollo of Actium forever?

Is it because it’s joyful, and makes all things joyful?

Is it a mark of the peace it’s given the world?

Does it possess everlasting glory, as the laurel

is evergreen, without a single withered leaf to gather?”

In the 1960s excavations discovered several painted rooms, believed to be part of this House of Augustus. Richly painted by extremely skilled artists, they are, however, lacking in the bling of applied exotic stones which were to be found in the palaces of later emperors.

Painted decorations at the "House of Augustus"

Painted decorations at the “House of Augustus”

Presumably it is this contrast which Suetonius has in mind when he speaks of the house’s modest decorations:

“The simplicity of his furniture and household goods may be seen from couches and tables still in existence, many of which are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen. They say that he always slept on a low and plainly furnished bed.” [Suetonius, LXXIII]

Indeed Suetonius’ insistence of the humble nature of Augustus’ residence is somewhat belied by calculations that the residence covered an area of some 25,000 sq m (92,000 sq ft).

There is a room which he mentions which has, tantalisingly if spuriously, been identified with one visible today. This is the room known as the “Emperor’s Study”, today visible (when the wildly variable opening hours of this side of the site permit) by climbing a modern steel staircase and peering through the glass opening which protects the room from humidity and our breath.

Upper cubiculum, "House of Augustus".

Upper cubiculum, “House of Augustus”.

Suetonius tells us:

“If ever he planned to do anything in private or without interruption, he had a retired place at the top of the house, which he called “Syracuse” and “technyphion.”

“Syracuse” is perhaps a reference to the study of Archimedes in that city, “technyphion” a diminutive of the Greek meaning “workshop”.

Of the rooms which are today accessible this has the most refined and elegant decoration, clearly influenced by Alexandria with stylized obelisks, gryphons, and sophisticated interweavings of vegetal elements and the architectonic.

Upper cubiculum, House of Augustus, detail

Upper cubiculum, House of Augustus, detail

This last element is just the sort of thing which angered Augustus’ architect Vitruvius enormously. In his Ten Books of Architecture he described the stage set painted by Apaturius of Alabanda for the theatre of Tralles in Lydia. The replacement of architectural elements with vegetation incited the wrath of the mathematician Licymnius who had ordered that it be repainted, incapable as it was of supporting any  in the face of similar modishly Eastern decoration poor pragmatic Vitruvius grumbled,

“Would to God that Licymnius could come to life again and reform the present condition of folly and mistaken practices in fresco painting!” [Vitruvius VII]

His laments were to go ignored, and Roman painting would become ever more fanciful throughout the first century. 

A visit to the House of Augustus can be included, upon request, in my “Heart of Ancient Rome” itinerary, where opening hours permit.

The Carafa Chapel, St Thomas Aquinas, and an earnestness of young monks

This week my parents were in town and on Tuesday I was wandering around churches with my pa and Anthony Blunt’s book on Roman Baroque churches. (We did 16 that day, that’s where I get it from…).

The last of the day was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, not Baroque, but it was right there, and a peek at the wonderful Carafa Chapel (about which I wrote this) is too good to miss.

Annunciation, Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel

Annunciation, Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel

It was especially glorious, gleaming in the gloaming of the vast church. The altar was crammed with (real) candles and, best of all, the gate over which one normally has to peer was open, giving an excellent opportunity to view the frescoes. An earnestness of young robed monks (surely the correct collective noun?) took photos of themselves on their phones, a charming anachronism which jolted us out of the late 15th century.

Their selfies focused less on the exquisite paintings of Filippino Lippi and more on a reliquary containing what purported to be an arm bone (“perhaps an ulna, at a push”, said my father, doubtfully) of St Thomas Aquinas, one of the chapel’s dedications. A quick check of my phone and indeed it was the feast of Thomas Aquinas, who had provided us with a splendid bit of theatre before we slipped past the tomb of Beato Angelico and out of the back door into the evening.


Reliquary containing an arm bone of St Thomas Aquinas

Crest of the Carafa, with putti

Crest of the Carafa, with putti

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, Carafa Chapel.

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, Carafa Chapel.

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, detail showing the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran Palace

St Thomas Aquinas crushing heresy, detail showing the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Lateran Palace



The Donation of Constantine

In the mid 8th century, a beleaguered Pope named Stephen “found” a document of inestimable value. Purporting to have been written over three centuries earlier, in it the Emperor Constantine handed over complete power of the city of Rome, amongst other territories, to the reigning pope, Sylvester.

With the letter in his hand, Stephen crossed the Alps – in winter, a sign of his desperation – and sought the help of Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. In return for Pepin’s help in defending lands which the document claimed to be the true property of the Church from the fearsome Lombards, Stephen would give divine blessing to Pepin’s somewhat dubious claim to the throne.

Five and a half centuries later this document, known as the “Donation of Constantine”, would be revealed to be a fake by the humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla, who detailed the multiple anachronisms in his treatise De Falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione (Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine).

However, this was but a trifling fact which had little effect on the representation of the scene in paintings, and it remained a subject to fall back on when times were tough. Two fine examples can be seen in Rome.

The first, painted in the mid-13th century is in the chapel of Saint Sylvester at the Church of the Four Crowned Saints (Ss. Quattro Coronati) on the slopes of the glorious Caelian Hill.

The grill and the "ruota degli innocenti" (wheel of the innocents) where access to the Chapel of Saint Sylvester is granted

The grill and the “ruota degli innocenti” (wheel of the innocents) where access to the Chapel of Saint Sylvester is granted

Visiting the chapel has a rather exciting air of improbability; one rings a buzzer next to a rotating compartment where abandoned children could once be left anonymously, and a nun appears at the grill and asks for a donation before buzzing open the door.

Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Consecrated 1247.

Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Consecrated 1247.

Decorated with scenes from the life of Sylvester, one panel shows the Emperor Constantine kneeling before, and below, Pope Sylvester. Imperial power is shown bowing in submission before spiritual power, a direct allusion to the recent excommunication of the troublesome Emperor Frederick II. The legendary historical event is seen through contemporary eyes.

Donation of Constantine, Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Mid 13th century.

Donation of Constantine, Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati. Mid 13th century.

The second was painted 300 years later, in the Vatican Palace. The vast Hall of Constantine, painted by Raphael’s most successful student Giulio Romano after Raphael’s untimely death, tells the legend of Constantine’s miraculous conversion to Christianity. The paintings show Constantine’s vision of the cross, his victory over Maxentius, his baptism, and his subsequent donation of Rome to Sylvester.

The Hall of Constantine, Vatican Palace

The Hall of Constantine, Vatican Palace

Once again Constantine kneels before the Pope, here shown in the Constantian “Old” St Peter’s.

Donation of Constantine,  Giulio Romano. 1524.

Donation of Constantine, Giulio Romano. 1524.

The fresco was completed in 1524, eighty years after Lorenzo Valla’s treatise. The subject was commissioned by Clement VII, who knew only to well that this was a scene which had never happened. No matter, here was a meeting room outside the Pope’s private apartments being painted as the threat of the Protestant Reformation grew ever more apparent. Once again the scene is morale boosting decoration in a very troubled time for the Roman Church.

Chapel of Saint Sylvester, Basilica dei Ss Quattro Coronati,

via dei Querceti

Every day 10am-11.45am, 4-5.45pm

No entrance fee, but a donation is required

Hall of Constantine,

Vatican Museums

viale Vaticano

closed Sundays and Catholic holidays 9am-6pm, last entrance 4.20pm.

15 euros (20 euros with reservation)

Paradise regained: the painted garden of Livia at Palazzo Massimo

In a city filled with extraordinary works of ancient art, perhaps one of the most breathtaking is one of the least visited and one of my favourites. After visiting the “Monsters” exhibition (excellent, go) at Palazzo Massimo today I went to the top floor to say hello to the dining room of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus.

Triclinium paintings from the villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Triclinium paintings from the villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

The room was discovered at the Villa of Livia ad gallinas albas (by the white hen) in the area now known as Prima Porta on 30th April of 1863, just ten days after the celebrated statue of Augustus had also been found close by. The existence and location of the villa is well-documented, amongst others by Pliny and Cassius Dio. They tell us that its name came from a white hen which fell, alive, from the clutches of an eagle into Livia’s lap. The hen, it is said, held a branch of laurel in its beak which was planted and grew with such vigour that it would provide the wreaths for the triumphs of generations to come.

The report of the Pontifical Ministry of Public Works (Rome was still, just, under papal control) recorded that a room

“with painted walls in good condition representing fruit trees and flowers with various birds. The ceiling had entirely collapsed and the stucco decoration which once decorated the vault was found among the rubble which filled the room.”

detail, triclinium of Livia

detail, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Such was the state of disrepair of the site that in 1951 the drastic decision was taken to detach the frescoes, and in 1998 they found their way to their present collocation in a room built to the dimensions of the original.

Painted c. 30-20 BC, Livia’s triclinium (dining rooms were so called for the couches arranged in groups of three) was partially underground, a common setting for rooms which were to be used in the scorching summer months. Instead of looking out onto the real gardens of the villa, a garden of the imagination was painted on its walls, just beyond a painted perimeter wall.

detail, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

detail, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

The scene is a natural impossibility: fruiting pomegranates and quinces jostle with flowering irises and camomile; palms, pines, and oaks flourish while partridges, doves, and goldfinches feast on their fruit and rest on their branches. Only one bird does not fly free, enclosed in a gilded cage resting on the low wall.

detail showing bird cage, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

detail showing bird cage, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

The scene is one of timeless and exotic fecundity; each species frozen in its own moment of glory. We are, the painting tells us, ensconced in the perpetual spring of the glorious reign of Augustus.

detail showing partially eaten pomegranate, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

detail showing partially eaten pomegranate, triclinium of Livia, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

A guided tour of Palazzo Massimo would offer a wealth of riches for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of Imperial Rome. It could also be combined with other sites on the Esquiline Hill, such as what remains of the Baths of Diocletian.

National Roman Museum

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Largo di Villa Peretti

Tues – Sun 9am – 6pm

10 euros

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