The red carpet was rolled out yesterday at one of Rome’s more unusual archaeological sites, while a discreet police presence also surrounded the visit of the president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano to Palazzo Valentini. President of the Province of Rome, Nicola Zingaretti, called it an historic day, as Palazzo Valentini prepared to open its doors to visitors to the Roman archaeological complex and multi-media museum beneath it opening today for a limited time to the public.
Zingaretti said: It is a unique place, where cultural heritage comes together with a structure in every-day use. The occasion for Napolitano’s visit was the opening of an area between the two Roman houses underneath Palazzo Valentini and the area of Trajan’s Column.
The site, a stone’s throw from Trajan’s Column and the Roman Forum, is an underground archaeological complex of two luxurious Roman houses and baths, which have been re-opened to the public today following four years of excavation. The site was first discovered beneath the 16th century Palazzo Valentini in 2004 during building work.
The site was originally opened in late 2007 after the initial phase of excavations, and attracted some 45,000 visitors. The second phase of excavations began in March 2009 and have uncovered new areas of the thermal baths, named ‘Trajan’s Small Baths’ (Piccole Terme di Trajano), including a frigidarium with a large cold-water bath.
The site’s archaeologists believe that the houses and baths are evidence of an exclusive residential area behind Trajan’s Forum. Two large walls have also been found in the complex, which archaeologists believe to have been part of a large public building. They think this could be the temple to Divus Trajan, which is cited in historical sources, but has never been located.
Luxury Roman Houses
The first domus found at the site dates from 150 AD, which is probably when the first domus was built (although it would have been subsequently developed). The second domus was build during the time of emperors Commodus (176-192 AD) and Septimius Severus (193-211 AD). The two Roman houses show signs of several stages of development until the fifth century.
The most remarkable thing about the houses is their luxury marble flooring. The expensive marble sheets would have been imported into Rome from various parts of the empire, including Africa, and have been cut into geometric shapes to form a colourful tessellated pattern, using the ‘opus sectile’ technique. The marble used for the floors of the complex include porphyry, serpentine, ‘giallo antico’ (a yellow-coloured marble) as well as African marble. The precious marble used is thought to have been reclaimed marble from other sites.
Large sculptures have also been found at the site. The archaeologists working on the site are in no doubt that these were the houses of some of Rome’s elite citizens possibly even senators or other dignitaries.
Professor Eugenio La Rocca, an archaeologist involved in the site and museum, emphasises that the two houses were certainly the abode of some important Roman citizens. He said: Probably a prefect of the city would have lived here because it’s so near the forum. We are still examining the relationship between Trajan’s forum, the Roman houses and the roads that connect the sites. This is an opportunity to evaluate the excavation and is a unique site, really exceptional.
End Days: From Luxury Domus to City Dump
So what happened to these sumptuously decorated Roman houses, with their spacious rooms, luxury flooring and views over Trajan’s Column? There are signs of two natural disasters, either of which could have spelled the end for the rich patrician families living there. There are signs of a violent earthquake seen in the cracked marble flooring, which is consistent with earthquake damage rather than other kinds of wear-and-tear. There is also evidence of a large fire during late imperial times. It is believed that the fire would have been the final event that drove the inhabitants from the house.
The end of the Roman era saw the two luxury domus fall into disuse. It was also a time, according to Professor Eugenio La Rocca, when the population of Rome was shrinking, from a city of about one million inhabitants, it is thought to have dwindled to about 10,000 after the collapse of the Roman empire.
The two domuses were abandoned during the fifth century AD and from the end of the fourth century to the seventh, the area became slowly buried with daily waste material. The houses were transformed from highly-desirable patrician homes, into a city rubbish dump, with the consumer waste of the day ending up piled inside the walls of the house. The rubbish itself provides a fascinating insight into consumer habits of the day. It includes amphorae from Africa, Calabria, Sicily, as well as bottles, glass and preserved foodstuffs. Building materials were also dumped at the house, as well as pieces of marble statue a marble head was found among the rubble and has been left in its place of discovery. The site was even used as a burial at one stage.
Palazzo Valentini: A Building with History
Palazzo Valentini, built in 1585, is named after the Prussian banker, Vincenzo Valentini, who bought the building in 1827. He lived there and also carried out architectural improvements, while also housing his art collection there. Since 1873, Palazzo Valentini has been the headquarters of the local authority, Provincia di Roma.
An air-raid shelter was built underneath Palazzo Valentini in 1939, to protect the employees of the Provincia di Roma from allied bombs during the Second World War. Since Palazzo Valentini is near Piazza Venezia and only about a 100 metres or so from Mussolini’s headquarters at Palazzo Venezia, it was thought that it could be a target.
The bunker now forms part of the exhibition space and is on the visitor’s route from the main archaeological site to the view of Trajan’s Column.
Zingaretti also added that the archaeological complex beneath Palazzo Valentini is very near to works for the new metro line in Rome.
Don’t Miss it: Open 4 December to 6 January
The archaeological area and museum will be open between 4 December and 6 January, from 10am to 5pm. Visitors will be admitted in groups at 15 minute intervals booking ahead is advised by phoning +39 06 32810 (there is a booked fee of 1.50). Tickets costs 6.50, or 4.50 for those aged 6-25 years or over 65, or for those with a Provinz card. Free entry for children under 6 and for people with a disability and their carer. The site will be open from 10am to 1.30pm on 24 and 31 December and will be closed on 25 December and 1 January.
Photos by Provincia di Roma.