The tireless Italian site Roma Ieri Oggi has found yet more vintage photographs of the eternal city. They are all worth looking at! This batch are all from the air, and were taken in 1918. Apparently they are part of an album which an admiral named Thaon di Revel left to the Museo del Risorgimento Italiano.
One of these in particular caught my eye. It shows the area around the Colosseum. The Meta Sudans is just visible beyond the Arch of Constantine, while above it is the rectangular platform on which the Colossus status once stood. No sign as yet of the Via del foro imperiali, which dominates this area of Rome!
This is simply amazing. We see the modern street scene, but mingled with it the figures of little French-looking soldiers, all of them long dead, all belonging to an army which is forgotten.
History is famously written by the winners. Well, these are the losers; the soldiers whom nobody wants to remember. It is tremendously moving to see them. They stand here, defending the papal state against the advancing forces of the northerners, soon to annex Rome to their new “Kingdom of Italy”.
Regular readers will be aware of my interest in monuments of ancient Rome which were visible, and drawn, during the renaissance, but have since vanished. Among these was a colossal temple on the Quirinal hill, often thought to be Aurelian’s temple of Sol Invictus, but today mainly thought to be a temple of Serapis. Much of this is now vanished; but some remains, I believe, are still to be seen. In particular there are said to be blocks from the temple in the “Colonna gardens”.
Today I came across an interesting page at milestonerome.com, here, which described how to visit the Colonna palace in Rome.
The historic Palazzo Colonna near the central piazza Venezia, a noble palace still belonging to one of the most important families in the history of Rome, shields a rare princely collection of invaluable art still in its original location.
Since the Middle Ages and over the centuries, various buildings belonging to the Colonna family developed in the area on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill, until an ambitious architectural project in the 17th century brought to the building of an imposing palace composed of several structures, designed by renowned architects …
The last time that I was in Rome, on a very hot August day, I walked around the Quirinal Hill, looking for some way into the Colonna Palace, or the gardens. I was out of luck. But the page indicates that access is possible to the “Galleria Colonna” by request, or … much better …every Saturday from 9:00-13:15. There is also a website here.
Whether you can get into the gardens I don’t know, but a tour would surely be worth taking. There ought to be drawings and paintings of the palace itself, perhaps with pictures of the vanished temple remains?
The excellent Ste Trombetti has discoveredonline a couple more drawings made in the days when more of ancient Rome existed than does now. This is really valuable, since locating such items is difficult for most of us.
These drawings are by G. B. Mercati, from 1629, from the series Alcune vedute et prospettive di luoghi dishabitati di Roma (Some Views and Perspectives of the Uninhabited places of Rome). They are online at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the series is visible here.
The two etchings given below depict the remains of the huge temple on the Quirinal hill, thought to be the Temple of the Sun built by Aurelian in 274 AD, but generally today believed to be the Temple of Serapis. Remains of it may, apparently, be found in the Colonna gardens even today, but I have yet to locate them.
The first one is of a view which is new to me (plate 26). You can click on the images below to get the full-size picture:
While looking for material about the Meta Sudans, I stumbled across something which very few people know.
Most people will know that the Colosseum is named after a colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby. Originally cast in bronze and stood outside the Domus Aurea, it was changed into a statue of the Sun by the Flavians, and moved slightly to stand near their new amphitheatre.
The bronze status is long gone. But how many people know that the base on which it stood still existed well into the 20th century? I certainly did not! Indeed there are photographs of it. It was demolished by Mussolini, in the course of constructing the Via del foro imperiali.
In the middle of the left hand side of the Colosseum is a dark rectangular base. This is where the Colossus stood. Note that the modern Via del foro imperiali is not on this photograph – it had yet to be built.
Next, a slightly fuzzy ground level photograph from the Wellcome Library, from about 1929:
The hill behind the base is the Velian Hill, and it isn’t there today: Mussolini bulldozed it. If we stood in the same location today, we would have the Colosseum at our back, and a view straight down the Via del Foro Imperiali to the Victor Emmanuel monument in front of us.
Next a couple of photos of the base from different angles, from a montage found online here in a set of flash cards:
A look at the area indicates just what alterations Mussolini made. This photograph shows that the Colosseum actually stood in a hollow of the hills, approached from the Circus Maximus:
The whole area was rather different:
Mussolini certainly changed all that.
Some may wish to know what the Colossus itself looked like. We have a medallion of Gordian III, which we already used for the Meta Sudans, which shows the Colossus standing behind it (via here):
Better than this is a depiction in a gem:
There is a useful 2001 article by Albertson on the Colossus which is available on JSTOR. He calculates that the Colossus was about 100 feet tall (31.524 m). The statue had a radiate crown, was nude, with the right hip jutting to the side, and the right arm supported by a rudder, while the left leans on a pillar. A globe supports the rudder.
Ste. Trombetti has continued to search through early books and prints for images of vanished Rome. Here is another example, from the 1565 work Dell’Antichita di Roma by Bernardo Gamucci. It depicts the remains of the monumental facade that Septimius Severus built across the end of the Palatine hill facing the Appian Way. Behind it we can see the Arch of Constantine, behind which stands the Colosseum. Known as the Septizonium, it was clearly falling down, and was shortly afterwards taken down for its materials.
Further on in the same volume, on p.123, we find a depiction of part of the “Temple of the Sun” or “House of Nero” on the Quirinal, which was most probably actually a temple of Serapis:
On p.151 is an image of the “Arch of Domitian”, which the text says may be the Arch of Claudius. This is also a long-demolished item, of which I have never seen any drawings. Does anybody know?
On page 195 there is a marvellous drawing made of the south side of St Peter’s; mostly Old St Peter’s, but with the new church rising in the distance. In front of us is the obelisk that now stands in St Peter’s square, but then stood, still, in its original position. Behind it stands a circular 3rd century tomb, the Vatican Rotunda, long since converted into a chapel of St Andrew.
B. Gamucci, Libri quattro dell’antichità della Citta di Roma: raccolte sotto breuita da diversi antichi et moderni scrittori, Venice: G. Varisco &c, 1565. Online at Google books here, or in better quality at Heidelberg here.↩
Old maps of Rome can contain very useful information. At this site is the 1748 reproduction of the 1551 Bufalini map of Rome. The original is here, but for some strange reason is upside down and nearly unreadable. (Both sites have annoyingly provided us with a “viewer” rather than a download of the whole map).
Let’s look at one or two locations. The first is to look at St Peter’s:
The “Templum S. Petri” has the modern plan at the western end, but the Old Constantinian basilica at the East, leading into the atrium, then down some steps and into the “Forum S. Petri”. The Palace of the Pontiff faces into that piazza, which can be entered from the north through the wall that runs east to Castell S. Angelo. The same entrance in the wall into St. Peter’s square is used by modern visitors, coming from the metro station.
A circle at the bottom of the “new” portion indicates the location of the Vatican rotunda, a 3rd century tomb converted into a chapel and only demolished a couple of centuries later. To the right of it is a speck, which is the Vatican obelisk that now stands in St Peter’s square but then stood where it had stood for centuries, on the spina of the vanished Circus of Gaius and Nero.
There are various renaissance depictions of all these monuments online, and elsewhere on this site – click on the link for “Old St Peters” at the end of the post – but a map is invaluable.
Next let’s look at the area to the south of the Colosseum:
The Colosseum is next to the Palatine hill; but note the little shaded rectangle to the left of “Septizonium Severi” at lower centre. That is the location of the remains of the Septizonium, the monumental arcade-entrance to the Palatine, built as a facade by Septimus Severus and demolished only a few years later than the map. And to the left of the Colosseum is the dot marking the fountain, the Meta Sudans, which survived until Mussolini demolished it in the 1930’s.
Off to the right of the Colosseum, and beyond the church of S. Clemente, are the immense ruins of the Baths of Titus (Thermae Titi):
Let’s now wander off to the Quirinal Hill, up and left.
Somewhere in those streets is the modern Trevi Fountain. But in the centre is the now vanished remains of the Templum Solis Aureliani – Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun. Below it and to the right are the Baths of Constantine, the last major bath complex of imperial Rome.
I hope you have enjoyed your ramble around a vanished Rome.
I descended the noble steps [from the church of St Gregory on the Caelian hill]. Every day of his life, I reflected, St Gregory while in Rome, and before he went to live at the Lateran Palace as Pope, must have seen the Colosseum; a few paces would take him past the Circus Maximus, already weed-grown and deserted, above which rose the imperial palaces, unoccupied for centuries but still capable of housing a stray Exarch from Ravenna. The last time they received an emperor was twenty-five years after Gregory’s death, in 629, when Heraclius visited Rome and was invested with the diadem in the throne room on the Palatine. What a ghostly moment that must have been; for the middle ages were ready to be born.
These words are from H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Rome, published in 1957.
I know nothing of that visit to Rome by Heraclius, I must say, but that portrait in words moves me to find out. Which, in a way, says that the book is doing its job!
I’m reading the book because it’s a gentle, restful book to read. For those unfamiliar with them, Morton’s books are a mixture of personal observation and material rewritten from books such as the popularisations of Lanciani, and are perfectly targeted at the educated but non-specialist reader. They are uneven; but the best are very good indeed.
But it is a wistful experience, reading Morton’s Through Lands of the Bible, where he travels through Palestine and Iraq in the 1930’s. It is a portrait of a peaceful, quiet world. Under the rule of the honest, efficient colonial powers, the region knew the first enlightened, progressive, civilised government that it had ever had.
How sad that it was also the last. I am by no means anti-American, but America has been the dominant power in the region since WW2, and the policies pursued by its ruling class, often well-intentioned but invariably counter-productive, have condemned its inhabitants to ceaseless, pointless strife, poverty and misery.
Let us take up the books written in better days, and dream of a better world than our own.
UPDATE: Later in the book Morton refers to a visit by Constans II to stay in the Palatine, some 20 years later than Heraclius. I have a feeling that his books were serialized, which may explain how episodic they sometimes can be; and mistakes like this!
By Methuen; In the 1984 paperback reprint this is p.208↩
Readers of twitter will be aware that I went to Rome last Friday, coming back Monday afternoon. I booked only a couple of weeks earlier, so I had to pay a large sum to the airline. But the hotel was cheap, relatively. Even so, the money seemed to vanish!
Going to Rome in August was a bit different. The traffic is much reduced. But the sun was truly brutal. It was 32C in the shade every day – although on Sunday night there was rain and a thunderstorm – which made it impossible to do much outdoors.
Sites close, also. I walked to the Trevi fountain on my first evening there, only to find it drained and empty. I had hoped to go and see the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca, which is open at 4pm on the 4th Sunday of the month; but it was closed because it is August.
I stayed at the Hotel Nerva, which is behind the ruins of the temple of Mars Ultor, and right on the imperial forums. I was shown to my garret – rooms in Rome always seem very small – but fortunately the aircon was on, if not as cool as I would have liked. I asked for, and got, a desktop fan as well, which helped quite a bit.
The staff ordered a number of items for me in advance, and also, at my request, asked for the ticket for Santa Prisca. This is useful if you don’t speak Italian. They ordered me a “Roma” pass which gave me free use of the underground (trains also airconditioned; stations not), as well as the train to Ostia. Interestingly I found that you can buy this pass in the arrivals hall at Ciampino, while waiting for your luggage. They also got me a ticket for the Vatican museums for 10:30 on Monday, although I could have bought this online and printed it off myself.
On Saturday I spent most of the morning at the Museo Nazionale in the Baths of Diocletian, opposite Termini railway station. It was air-conditioned, it had toilets – although not toilet seats, curiously -, a vending machine for bottled water and sweeties, and … practically no visitors. This made it ideal for photographing some of the exhibits. It was also very interesting to find that some exhibits which had been absent last year had returned, and vice versa. I took quite a collection of photos of the Mithras exhibits using the 10mp camera on my mobile phone. I’ve not yet done more than copy the photos to my hard disk, however.
For lunch I ventured out to one of the tourist bar-restaurants nearby, and was duly scalped for poor quality food. Avoid “steak” – I have twice been offered some mass of stringy fat with bits of meat interspersed in it. The bread was nice, but the waiter whisked it away before I could eat much of it!
After that, I headed downtown. For I had discovered that my 11 euro ticket for the museum would also admit me to the museum site at the Crypta Balbi, where I knew that there was a Mithraeum. This too was largely empty, and I was able to get myself onto an Italian-speaking tour of the basement areas, including the Mithraeum – rather disappointing, the latter. The staff were very helpful. But I must say that the printed materials were profoundly confusing, and it took quite some effort to get oriented! Upstairs there were Mithraic artefacts!
Then I walked up to the Pantheon, and then back to the hotel to snooze for a very necessary hour. Then in the evening I went out, bought a panini at a food shop, and then I sat in the shade next to the Colosseum, and watched the people go to and fro, until the sun went down.
On Sunday I used my Roma pass and took the tube to Pyramide, transferring from there to the train for Ostia Antica (also free). I have never seen a sign indicating which train is for Ostia Antica; but if you look inside, the tube-train-like panels above the doors indicate the stations to be visited. The train was airconditioned, which was nice. On arrival at the station, I walked to the ruins, and became aware how hot it was. It seemed an interminable walk from the ticket office to the cafeteria, which – and I recommend doing this – I visited first. It was empty, but I got some food, bought and drank more water, bought a 2 euro site plan in the bookshop, and then I looked to see where the Mithraea were.
Then I ventured out to see if I could find a particular site. It was bestially hot, and I quickly became aware that it was no fun at all. I was unable to locate the Mithraeum, and I realised that all I wanted to do was go back to Rome. So I did, getting back around noon. It was very good to get back to my nice cool room!
But the room had not been made up! So I ventured out, and ended up wandering up the backstreets, eventually emerging at Termini. There is a large Spar supermarket on the far side of the station, which is worth being aware of. Then back, and, after lying around a lot, out back to the Colosseum. It was rather threatening with rain. I walked down to where the Septizonium used to be, but couldn’t see much sign of it. Then back. I bought an umbrella from a street vendor, and sat near the Colosseum. Then it rained! Up went my umbrella, while everyone else ran for cover, except for a woman sitting not that far from me who got progressively drenched. For some reason she didn’t have, or buy, an umbrella. I felt a little sorry for her; but not enough to forgo my own umbrella! Eventually I spoke to her, and she turned out to be a sports journalist from Plymouth.
On the Monday I went to the Vatican museum. The pre-booked ticket meant that I could go through the entrance immediately without queuing; but the desks inside to exchange it for a ticket were a disaster. I emerged feeling very stressed. I went first to the Pio Christiano gallery, and found the statue of Hippolytus there. Fortunately this gallery was empty, and indeed was closed later. The bad news was that the statue was just a cast. Then to the cafeteria! Then I went in search of the Mithras monuments, which were in the “room of the animals”, but impossible to see from more than a distance. There were also some monuments in the Chiaramonti gallery. But on the whole the experience was awful – a great, sweaty crush of people in corridors too small for them, and no way out. I felt quite claustrophobic at one point, and eventually ducked under a rope and escaped!!
After that, I went back to the hotel, and got a car to the airport. I arrived 2 hours before hand, and it took an hour to get through baggage checkin and security. After sitting on a chair for half an hour, I went through and they were just boarding the priority passengers. So I had no real time to wait.
I don’t think that I would go to Rome in August again. It is just too hot to stand in the sun. But it was very interesting to see, all the same.
UPDATE: The Mithras tauroctonies in the Chiaramonti gallery are these. Unfortunately none of my photos came out well.