The stairs at the back of Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun

Relaxing in the bath after completing my last post, I had a sudden realisation.  I think that I know how the stair-complex worked at the back of the Temple of the Sun (or Temple of Serapis, as some think), on the Quirinal Hill in Rome.

The key to this is to think of the Spanish steps.  The height is about the same.  There’s no need for some complicated building.  All you have to do is to have the flights of steps on the hillside, going to and fro.

I’m no artist, but I hope this scribble will convey the idea:

Steps for “Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun” / “Temple of Serapis”, Quirinal Hill, Rome.

The steps start in the street at the foot of the hill.  Then they zigzag up the hillside, in pairs.  At the top, they go through the wall that ran behind the temple and encircled it.  On either side, the stairs are protected by two enormous walls, with arched openings in them to catch the breezes on a hot day.  There may not have been any roof.

If we look at the following image from the 16th century, we see very much what I have drawn above:

The source of this drawing is not known to me, but I was sent a photograph of it by a correspondent, who I believe saw it in the Colonna gardens.

Note how gentle the hill slope is!  There’s no need for some blocky building, such as this in the recent Atlas of Ancient Rome:

It’s just not that high a hill!  We don’t need all that superstructure.  (The little temple is imaginary).

This is where the artist has probably been misled by Palladio’s diagram:

This looks like a chunky building, with stair case above staircase.  But in reality we should think of these stairs as lying flat against the hill.  Because why wouldn’t you do that?

In fact this is what the Spanish Steps do, today:

This is, of course, only my suggestion.  But we do need to remember the slope is low, and gentle, and the walls alongside were long.  The squareish block-shape is contradicted by Palladio’s plan, and by common-sense.

Let’s refresh our memory with Palladio’s plan.

This seems baffling, especially when compared to Palladio’s diagram of the stairs.  But it does confirm the length of the stair building.

It’s a thought, anyway.  Probably an ignorant one, but certainly worth considering.

PS: Is “P129” perhaps “129 paces”?  If so, does that make the stairs 129 paces long?  And the temple building 203?  Is this plan actually foreshortened?

UPDATE: While searching for 16th century drawings, I found a new plan of the staircase by Sallustio Peruzzi.  This supports Palladio’s plan, and contradicts the picture of zigzag staircases utterly.  It is here.  I draw together the real picture here.

Palladio and the “Temple of the Sun” in Rome

I am not aware of any directory of sources for old prints and descriptions of Rome as it was in the 15-16th century.  This means that I discover such sources more or less by accident.  Earlier this week I came across another.

Palladio published in 1570 his book, I quattro libri, on architecture.  What I had not realised was that book 4 contains descriptions, with plans and measurements, of monuments in Rome.  This French site has downloads of the book, and also of a French translation.  The downloads are of inferior quality to the online images, for some strange reason.  Fortunately a later edition is accessible in high resolution at the Bavarian State Library.

The monuments of interest here are the so-called “Temple of the Sun” (often called the Temple of Serapis) on the Quirinal hill; and also the Baths of Constantine, next to them.  These were both standing to some extent in Palladio’s day.

The material on the Temple of the Sun is in book 4, starting on p.41.

Here is Palladio’s plan of the temple:The key appears on the preceding page.  As my French is better than my Italian, I shall translate that:

At Monte-Cavallo (formerly known as the Quirinal Hill), the remains of the next building are seen, near the palace of the noble Colonna family, which is known as the “Frontispiece of Nero”.  Some are of the opinion that this was the tower of Maecenas, and that from here Nero took pleasure in watching the city of Rome burning. But they are deceiving themselves, because the tower of Maecenas was on the Esquiline Hill, close to the Baths of Diocletian. Others have thought that it was the house of the Cornelii.  Myself I believe that it must have been a temple of Jupiter: because when I found myself formerly at Rome, I saw the foundations of this edifice being excavated, where some capitals of the Ionic order were discovered, which no doubt were used inside the temple; and it was even remarked that these were those of the corners of the colonnades, because the middle part, in my opinion, was still to be discovered. The appearance of this temple was that which Vitruvius calls Pseudodipteros, that is, with false wings: its manner Pycnostylos, with thick columns: the columns of the portico on the outside, of Corinthian order.  The architrave, frieze, and cornice made up a quarter of the height of the columns. The mouldings of the architrave were of a very fine invention. On two sides the frieze was full of foliage; but on the face, although nothing could be made out, it was nevertheless visible that it had carried some inscription.  The modillions[1] of the cornice are quatriform, and there is one exactly in the middle of each column.  The modillions of the cornice of the frontispiece are all vertical, and thus they must be made like that.  Inside the temple there were porticoes, as I depict in my illustration.  Around this temple there was a great courtyard adorned with columns and statues: and on the facade were these two great horses, one by the hand of Phidias, and the other by Praxiteles, which have given the name to the place where they are presently, which is called Monte Cavallo.  One ascends by very convenient steps to this temple, which, in my opinion, must be the largest and richest edifice that there was in Rome.

I have made six plates of it.  In the first is the map of the whole edifice, with the back part where were the stairs, which ascending from one to the other led into the courtyard of the temple.  The elevation of this manner of stairs, with the plan, is at the end of my first book, where I deal with various kinds of stairs.  In the second, is the side of the temple from outside.  In the third, is half of the facade of the temple from the outside.  In the fourth, is part of the inside: and in both these plates, a small portion of the ornaments of the courtyard is seen.  In the fifth, is the side of part of it, from the inside.  In the sixth, are the ornaments.

A.  Is the architrave, frieze, and cornice.

C.  Is the base.

E.  The capital of the columns of the portico.

D.  The base of the pilasters corresponding to the columns.

B.  The cornice that is around the courtyard.

F.  Is the acroterion.[2][3]

The depiction of the stairs is to be found in book 1, page 66, and looks like this:

Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun – staircases, as given by Palladio in 1570

Palladio’s text for this picture is:

In the same city, those of the Holy Apostles Church, near Monte Caval, are still very magnificent: these staircases were double, and they have been an example to several who have since imitated them: they led to a temple at the top of the mountain, as we shall see in my book treating of the Temples. And this is the last design of the stairs in this manner.[4]

This is a monster staircase indeed.  How much of it actually still existed in 1570 we cannot say, but of course portions of the walls are extant, nearly indestructible, even now.

UPDATE: In my next post, I discussed how this arrangement of zigzag stairs might really have looked.  It’s not consistent with Palladio’s own plan, after all.  But while searching for 16th century drawings, I found a new plan of the staircase by Sallustio Peruzzi.  This supports Palladio’s plan, and contradicts the picture of zigzag staircases utterly.  It is here.  I draw together the real picture here.

I will give a PDF with the other 5 plates that Palladio gives, in case you want ready access.  They are not exciting; and of course they are reconstructions.  How much was to be seen at that date we may wonder.

I must look further at Palladio.  One thing that I have not been able to work out is his measurements.  In an early plate these appear as “M” or “MO”.  What that might be, I do not know.

  1. [1]A projecting bracket under the corona of a cornice in the Corinthian and other orders – RP
  2. [2]An acroterion or acroterium or akroteria is an architectural ornament placed on a flat base called the acroter or plinth, and mounted at the apex of the pediment of a building in the classical style. – So Google.
  3. [3]Slightly modernised, the French reads: “A Monte-Cavallo (anciennement appelle le Mont-Quirinal) on void les vestiges de l’edifice suivant, vers le palais des seigneurs Colonnes, lequel se nomme le Frontispice de Néron. Quelques-uns sont d’opinion que c’etait la tour de Mecenas, & que de là Néron prit plaisir à voir brûler la ville de Rome: mais ils s’abusent, parce que la tour de Mecenas etait au mont Esquilin, allez prés des Thermes de Diocletian: d’autres ont cru que c’etait la maison des Cornelies. Pour moi j’estime que c’aura eté un temple de Jupiter: car me trouvant autrefois à Rome, je vis fouiller dans les fondemens de cét édifice, 0u l’on découvrit quelques chapiteaux d’ordre Ionique, qui servaient sans doute au dedans du temple; & memes on remarquait que c’etaient ceux des angles des loges, parce que la partie du milieu, à mon avis, devait etre découverte. L’aspect de ce temple etait celui que Vitruve nomme Pseudodipteros, c’est à dire, à fausses ailles: sa maniéré Pycnostylos, ou de colonnes pressées: & les colonnes du portique par le dehors, d’ordre Corinthien. Les architrave, frieze & corniche faisaient une quatrième partie de la hauteur des colonnes. La cymaise de l’architrave etait d’une tres-belle invention. Aux deux cotez la frieze etait pleine de feuillages; mais à la face, bien qu’il ne s’y vit plus rien d’entier, on remarquait neanmoins qu’elle avait porté quelque inscription. Les modillons de la corniche sont quarrez, & il s’en rencontre un justement sur le milieu de chaque colonne. Les modillons de la corniche du frontispice sont tous droits à plomb, & c’est ainsi que l’on les doit faire. Au dedans du temple il y avait des portiques, comme je fais voir en mon dessein. Autour de ce temple il y avait un grand cortil orné de colonnes, & de statues: & à la façade etaient ces deux grands chevaux, l’un de la main de Phidias, & l’autre de Praxiteles, lesquels ont donné le nom au lieu où ils sont presentement, qu’on appelle Monte-Cavallo. On montait par des degrez tres-commodes à ce temple, qui, à mon avis, devait etre le plus grand & le plus riche édifice qui fut dans Rome. L’en ai fait six planches.
    Dans la première, est le plan de tout l’edifice, avec la partie de derrière où etaient les escaliers, qui montant de l’un à l’autre conduisaient dans les cortils des costez du temple. L’élevation de cette maniéré d’escaliers, avec le plan, est sur la fin de mon premier livre, où je traitte des diverses sortes d’escaliers.
    Dans la seconde, est le flanc du temple par dehors.
    Dans la troisiéme, est la moitié de la façade du temple par le dehors.
    Dans la quatrième, est la partie du dedans : & en toutes ces deux planches on void une petite partie des ornemens du cortil.
    Dans la cinquième, est le flanc de la partie du dedans.
    Dans la sixiéme, sont les ornemens.
    A. Est l’architrave ,frize, & corniche.
    C. Est la base.
    E. Le chapiteau des colonnes du portique.
    D. La base des pilastres qui respondent aux colonnes.
    B. La corniche qui est autour des cortils.
    F. Est l’acrotere.
  4. [4]En la meme Ville, ceux de l’Eglise Sto Apostolo,vers Monte-Caval, sont encore tres-magnifiques: ces escaliers etaient doubles, & ils ont serui d’exemple à plusieurs qui les ont depuis imitez: ils conduisaient a un temple sis au haut du mont, comme on verra en mon livre traittant des Temples. Et c’eft ici le dernier dessein des escaliers de cette maniéré.

Some useful reconstructions of the vast “Temple of the Sun / Serapis” on the Quirinal

I have written before about the remains of a huge temple on the Quirinal hill in Rome.  The temple is often referred to as Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun.  Others prefer to say that it was a Temple of Serapis.  I’ve seen a suggestion that it was a Temple of Salus.  In short, nobody knows what it was.

The front of the temple faced what is now the Quirinal palace.  Next door, on the right, was the Baths of Constantine.  But at the back of the temple were a huge set of steps which descended the hill to the Campus Martius below.  The walls of this stairway are still extant, in the gardens of the Colonna palace, and in those of the Gregorian University which adjoins it.  A huge chunk of the rear of the temple was still visible in 1570, towering over the city; and a massive fragment of its entablature is still to be seen in the Colonna gardens.

A correspondent has kindly drawn my attention to some useful plans and images online for this mysterious edifice.  They are rather super!

Let’s start with a map of the area, showing the “Templum Solis” sticking into what is now the piazza outside the Quirinale, and the “scala” or stairs.

Click on the image to get the full size.  I got this from here.

Plan of the Quirinal hill in ancient times showing the Temple of the Sun and the Baths of Constantine.

The temple was square, with wings sticking out either side, and a colonnade.  (We know this from a plan drawn by Palladio, which I must also upload sometime.)

Next, a poor resolution reconstruction, from here.

Another reconstruction now, of a rear view of the monument, from here.  The mini-temple in the middle of the stairs is, apparently, the artist’s imagination.  The excellent drawing seems to be from the new, monster, monstrously expensive Atlas of Ancient Rome by Carandini.

But aside from the imaginary templet, this is a very sound reconstruction.  That said, the inset shows ten columns at the front, while the plan by Palladio definitely shows twelve columns.

Finally another reconstruction from an interesting page on the temple here (image here):

And another from the same site, showing the rear wall:

These are all very useful images.  Let me give also one that I have published before:

This shows the rear corner of the temple, still standing, facing the newly erected Quirinal palace, but looking along the back of the temple down some arcades.  I have never known where this comes from, tho, and the writing is too small to read.

The Bufalini map of Rome (1551)

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:

Buffalini (1551) - Plan of Old St Peter's
Buffalini (1551) – Plan of Old 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:

Bufalini (1551) - Location of Septizonium and Meta Sudans
Bufalini (1551) – Location of Septizonium and Meta Sudans

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):

Bufalini (1551) - Baths of Titus
Bufalini (1551) – Baths of Titus

Let’s now wander off to the Quirinal Hill, up and left.

Bufalini (1551) - Temple of the Sun
Bufalini (1551) – Temple of the Sun

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.

(H/T Anna Blennow)