The modern remains of the Quirinal hill temple of the Sun / Serapis – map and photographs

I’ve written a few posts now about the vast temple whose remains may still be seen on the Quirinal hill in Rome (but only if you know where to look, and can get into the gardens of the Palazzo Colonna).  Early engravers considered that this is the remains of Aurelian’s temple of the sun; German scholars of the early 20th century that it is the remains of Caracalla’s temple of Serapis; but the truth is unknown.

If you go to Rome, and walk over the Quirinal hill, as I have done, it is remarkably hard to work out just where it was.  So I was very pleased to come across a very useful map, on p.376 of Ernest Nash’s Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1961).  Here it is:

Map of the location of Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun / Serapis, with the Baths of Constantine.

The temple faced what is now the Quirinal piazza, and the long square box at the back is the stairways down to the plain.  Substantial remains exist of the outer walls of these staircases, which appear within the grounds of the Gregorian University, to the left, and the gardens of the Colonna Palace to the right.  I have never been able to get into either, I should add.

Nash’s entry is brief:

SERAPIS, Templum. The ruins of a building on the west slope of the Quirinal have been identified as the Temple of Serapis (CIL VI, 570), which was built by Caracalla in the VI Region (CodTop I, p. 107). Part of the ruins lies in the gardens of the Palazzo Colonna, and part in the Universita Gregoriana Pontificia. Until early in the 17th century, part of the rear wall of the temple cella was still standing, and it is known to us from numerous 16th century drawings as “Torre Mesa”, “Torre di Mecenate”, or ‘Frontispizio di Nerone” (s. Egger, Römische Veduten II, 86 88). A corner-piece of the marble pediment of the rear wall, and a fragment of the marble frieze, have lain in the gardens of the Palazzo Colonna since about 1630 when the wall was destroyed. A monumental double-stairway led down from the temple on the Quirinal to the Campus Martius; part of its enclosure walls and sections of four partition walls are still preserved.

A. Palladio, I quattro libri dell’architettura, 1570, I, pp. 64, 66; IV, pp. 41-47; A. Nibby, Rom Ant II, p. 715 f.; R. Lanciani, NSc, 1878. pp. 92, 369; L. Urlichs, RM III, 1888, p. 98; Ch. Hülsen, RhM XLIX, 1894, pp. 392-396; id., BCom XXIII, 1895, pp. 39 59; R. Lanciani, BCom XXII. 1894, pp. 297-307; XXIII, 1895, pp. 94-101; id., Ruins, pp. 428-432 (Bibl; p. 432); id., Storia II, pp. 154 f., 249 f.; III, pp. 203 205; IV, pp. 97 f., 155 f.; H. Jordan, Top I, 3, pp. 421 423; M. Marchetti, BCom XLII, 1914, p. 374; G. Cultrera, MemLinc 5, XVIII, 1923. p. 528 f.; Röm Gebalke I, pp. 73-84; Th. Ashby, The years work in class. studies XX, 1926-27, p. 103; P-A, pp. 487, 491 f; H, Kahler, RM LI1, 1937, p. 94 f.; G. Lugli, Mon III, pp. 279, 304-307; M. Santangelo, Quirinale, pp. 154-177; L. Crema, ArchRom, p. 521.

As we have seen, Palladio is definitely online, and doubtless most of the older items are too, although I have not looked.

Where Nash really scores is in a series of monochrome detailed photographs of the surviving walls of the temple stairwell.  I would really recommend consulting a printed copy – my copies are not very good quality.  But, such as they are, here they are:

Stairwell – the northern outer wall, from outside
The same northern outer wall, end on, and a transverse partition wall

The arch visible in the partition wall is also depicted in the views of the structure from the 16th century. This shows the northern wall to the left, the southern wall to the right (of which more in a moment), the now destroyed corner of the temple at the top right.  But it also shows the arches in the transverse, joining left and right.  How fascinating to know that these still exist!

The next photo must relate to the northern outer wall, but I’m not clear how!

Substructure of the stairways, visible in the Universita Gregoriana

It’s not quite clear to me where this “substructure” stuff is, except that it must be outside the northern outer wall of the staircase.  A bit mysterious, this.

The other side of the stairwell wall is also preserved, in the Colonna gardens:

Southern outer wall of the staircase and terraces

This is more intelligible if we look at a couple of old drawings, which Nash helpfully reproduces:

Southern outer wall, in old pictures

An image that I found online shows that, prior to 1630, at least one of the temple columns was preserved.  I’m not sure who this drawing is by – if it is Giovanello, I did not see it in the copy that I inspected – but I found it here.  It also shows the fragment of the rear of the temple, the transverse arches along the back of the temple, and the southern outer wall of the temple.

The decoration of the pediment and frieze is clearly shown; and fragments of both are preserved, in blocks too massive to be easily destroyed, in the Colonna gardens:

Temple of the Sun, fragments of the pediment and frieze

Since these items are extant, there ought to be modern photographs.  The first is a view of the ruins from the “scuderie” of the Quirinal palace – the stables, which stand much where the temple did, via Wikipedia here.  The brick pillar must be part of the old Colonna palace shown in the drawing.

Remains of the temple of Serapis, looking from the Quirinal stables building

Here’s a picture from here (a great collection of photos of the Colonna gardens) of the southern outer wall, with part of the old Colonna palace depicted in the drawing above:

The southern outer wall of the stairwell, and part of the old Colonna palace

There are a few photographs from the Gregorian University of the North Stairway wall.  Here’s the first, via here:

Tempio di Serapide Gregoriana.jpg

Next up is the northern outer wall, plus the surviving transverse.  This looks towards the Quirinal palace, to the upper left.  Via here.

Gregoriana Tempio di Serapide 4 verso Quirinale

Wikipedia has a nice collection of modern photographs here.  But I think we should stop at this point!

Also indicated on the plan, very usefully, is the location of the now vanished Baths of Constantine.  I believe that some foundations of these may still be seen in the palazzo built over them.  But that’s another story!


6 thoughts on “The modern remains of the Quirinal hill temple of the Sun / Serapis – map and photographs

  1. Great article and images. You did a lot of research on this, thank you. How tragic that a rare example of a Dodecastyle (12-column wide) temple was destroyed – so massive – it must have been spectacular. Hard to believe so little remains, but time is not kind to ancient buildings.

  2. It is a shame. Even more so that the last bit of it was pulled down in the renaissance – it was clearly a landmark.

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