A visit to the Roman house at the Villa Negroni

Imagine that the year is 1777.  Let’s go to the open fields to the east of the Baths of Diocletian.   I hear that a Roman house has been discovered in the fields of the Villa Negroni!

The house lies between the Viminal and Esquiline hills.  As we approach from the north-east side, we can see the diggings.  Beyond, in the distance, is the convent of St. Eusebio.  An English artist is painting the scene…

Thomas Jones, "An Excavation of an Antique Building in a Cava in the Villa Negroni, Rome", 1777 or 1779.
Thomas Jones, “An Excavation of an Antique Building in a Cava in the Villa Negroni, Rome”, 1777 or 1779.

The artist is, in fact, a certain Thomas Jones.[1]  Jones recorded in his ‘Memoirs’ under 5 July 1777, that he went to see the excavation with Henry Tresham, an art dealer who acted for Lord Bristol:

 Went with Tresham to see the Antique Rooms just discovered, by digging for antient Bricks, in the Villa Negroni – The painted Ornaments much in the Chinese taste – figures of Cupids bathing &c and painted in fresco on the Stucco of the Walls – The Reds, purples, Blues & Yellows very bright – but had a dark & heavy effect – NB Tresham made a purchase of these paintings for 50 Crowns, to be taken off the walls at his Own Expence-.

The Tate Gallery catalogue also notes that:

Thomas Hardwick, another friend of Jones, made a ground-plan of the ‘antique Rooms’ and recorded the wall-paintings in a cross-section drawing (both in the RIBA collection).

I wonder where these are; indeed what the “RIBA collection” might be.

The plan of the house given by Count Massimo in 1836 is worth repeating here:

Floor plan of the ancient house discovered in 1777 at the Villa Negroni
Floor plan of the ancient house discovered in 1777 at the Villa Negroni

Unfortunately this does not indicate North; and even with the picture and the plan, it is not clear what we are looking at.

I’ve zoomed in a bit, and we can see some more details:

Thomas_Jones_-_Fouilles_à_la_Villa_Montalto_Negroni - excpt

Note the pair of columns in the right of centre.  From the map, these must be the pair at the entrance; or perhaps the pair at the entrance to room F.

But note also how the rooms have vaulted ceilings, so that the tops of the paintings must be semi-circular.

Finally note that the room to centre left is plainly not the ground floor – there is a further vault below it.  There is no mention in any source of anything much remaining of the upper floor, so this is not consistent with those accounts.

It’s very easy to see why scholars, faced with a mess like this, went on to demand proper scientific recording of such excavations.

  1. [1]Thomas Jones, 1742–1803.  Tate Gallery has information here (without photo) and the catalogue here.  The image given is from Wikimedia Commons here.

2 thoughts on “A visit to the Roman house at the Villa Negroni

  1. Thank you !

    “In later times the Villa Negroni was the residence of the poet Alfieri.
    The principal terrace ends near a reservoir which belonged to the baths of Diocletian.
    “As one looks from the Villa Negroni windows, one cannot fail to be impressed by the strange changes through which this wonderful city has passed. The very spot on which Nero, the insane emperor-artist, fiddled while Rome was burning, has now become a vast kitchen-garden, belonging to Prince Massimo (himself a descendant, as he claims, of Fabius Cunctator), where men no longer, but only lettuces, asparagus, and artichokes, are ruthlessly cut down. The inundations are not for mock sea-fights among slaves, but for the peaceful purposes of irriga- tion. In the bottom of the valley, a noble old villa, covered with frescoes, has been turned into a manufactory for bricks, and part of the Villa Negroni itself is now occupied by the railway station. Yet here the princely family of Negroni lived, and the very lady at whose house Lucrezia Borgia took her famous revenge may once have sauntered under the walls, which still glow with ripening oranges, to feed the gold fish in the fountain, — or walked with stately friends through the long alleys of clipped cypresses, or picnicked alia Giornata on laWns which are now but kitchen-gardens, dedicated to San Cavolo.” — Story’s Roba di Roma.
    The lower part of the Villa Negroni, and the slopes towards the Esquiline, were once celebrated as the Campus Esquilinus, a large pauper burial-ground, where bodies were thrown into pits called puticoli* as is still the custom at Naples. There were also tombs here of a somewhat pretentious character : ” those probably of rich well-to-do burgesses, yet not great enough to command the posthum- ous honour of a roadside mausoleum.” * Horace dwells on the horrors of this burial-ground, where he places the scene of Canidia’s incantations : —
    “Nee in sepulcris pauperum prudens anus Novemdiales dissipare pulveres.”
    Epod. xvii. 47.
    ‘ Has nullo perdere possum Nee prohibere modo, simul ac vaga luna decorum Protulit os, quin ossa legant, herbasque nocentes. Vidi egomet nigra succinctam vadere palla Canidiam, pedibus nudis passoque capillo, Cum Sagana majore ululantem ; pallor utrasque Fecerat horrendas aspectu,
    Serpentes atque videres Infernas errare canes ; lunamque rubentem, Ne foret his testis, post magna latere sepulcra.”
    Hor. Sai. i. 8.
    The place was considered very unhealthy until its purification by Maecenas…”

    Walks in Rome by Hare, Augustus J. C. (Augustus John Cuthbert), 1834-1903

    Publication date 1874

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