The History and Architecture of the Palatine Hill

One of the Seven Hills of Rome and home to some of the ancient parts of the city, the Palatine Hill stands tall at 40 meters above the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus. According to archeological digs, this Roman landmark was once inhabited during the 10th century BC. This explains the belief that the origin of Rome is on the Palatine.

IMG_0639However, long before archeologists discovered signs of life on the hill, Roman mythology hailed it as the origin of Romans. The Palatine is believed to be the location of the Lupercal cave, which is where Romulus and Remus were raised by the she-wolf Lupa. Later, the shepherd Faustulus found the babies and raised them with his wife Acca Larentia. Once they became adults, the boys killed their great uncle and planned to build a new city on the River Tiber. However, Romulus killed Remus after a violent argument, which is how Rome received its name.

Mythology aside, Rome’s Republican era flourished on the Palatine Hill. Marc Anthony, Augustus and Cicero have all built homes on the hill due to its beautiful views of the city below. In addition, historians report that the cleaner air was also an incentive for emperors as it protected them from diseases festering in the working class. Regardless, the entire hill is covered by architectural beauties, ranging from Ancient Roman palaces to churches and convents from the Middle Ages.

Entering the Palatine Hill, visitors will be greeted by the Farnese Gardens, which were laid out for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese by Vignola and later Raialdi in the 16th century. The gardens, terraces and pavilions were designed to accommodate gatherings of like-minded people such as The Arcadia literary academy. Attracting art lovers are the fountains and stucco decoration of the gardens. However, with excavation underway, the remains of the palace of Tiberius may be added to the area’s attractions.

However, the oldest architectural structure on the hill so far is the Temple of Cybele, which was built in 204 BC. Part of the Farnese Garden, the temple houses the Black Stone of the goddess Magna Mater (the Great Mother). With evidence of life in front of the temple, historians have christened the dwelling site as the House of Romulus.

Other structures worth investigating are the House of Livia, the Palace of the Flavians, and Baths of Septimius Severus. The House of Livia is part of the palace of Augustus; like the rest of the palace, its external buildings are simple while the interior reflects the comfortable lifestyle of Romans during the era of Christ. In fact, ceramic pipes in the walls provided central heating to rooms decorated with Pompeian paintings. As for the House of Augustus, the two and three story building remains a monumental structure on the hill as it was home to many dignitaries of the Empire over the years.

Finally, the Palace of the Flavians is in the center of the Palatine Hill. Built by renowned architect Rabirius by the first century AD for Domitian, the structure is famous for its Domus Flavia. The dome added a sense of splendor to the building, complementing the large pillared courtyard, large dining room, marvelous throne room, and shrine.

Visitors can head to the Palatine Hill for guided visits between February and October, engulfing themselves in the most beautiful artifacts and architecture left behind by the Roman Empire.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

Exploring the Roman Forum

Nestled between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, or the Forum Magnum, is one of the top Italian attractions and an important archeological site. It was built over 2,000 years ago when the Roman Empire was at its peak, flaunting various marble temples, basilicas and vibrant public spaces.  There are two triumphant arches in the Forum which are significant.  However, just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Roman forum took time to develop gradually over many centuries despite the efforts of great emperors including Caesar and Augustus.

RomanForumDownsizedThe government masonry and cut stone structure flaunts a Roman classical style that would have gone extinct had an anonymous 8th century traveler not reported its deterioration. It wasn’t until 1367 that ancient monuments received the attention they deserved. At the time, Pope Urban V had returned from Avignon and was inspired to excavate the monuments buried under the debris for their moral lessons and building new structures in Rome. Due to different excavation efforts and quarrying projects, today’s Forum features remains from different centuries.

Regardless, the Forum is a testimony to Roman builders’ skills. Originally, the site it was built on was a marshy lake that contained the water from surrounding hills. The fifth emperor of Rome Lucius Tarquinius Priscus relied on the sewage system, the Cloaca Maxima, in Ancient Rome Cloaca Maxima to drain the lake. Then, whenever sediments collected and the ground surrounding the building would rise, residents would either remove them or pave over the debris.

In addition to the 130 by 50 meter rectangle structure, a number of major monuments, buildings and ruins attract Roman architecture enthusiasts to the area — including the Roman Senate, the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, and the Rostra-which was a very important podium in which an orator would announce the day’s news. Temples were a must with forums, which is why the ruins of numerous religious structures can be seen till this day at the Forum Magnum. One example is that of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which was built in 495 BC as an offering to the twins of Gemini following Romans’ victory at the battle of Lake Regillus. The octostyle temple featured eight Corinthian columns on the short sides and eleven on the longer ones. It had a single cella decorated with mosaics while the building itself was covered with tufa slabs.

As basilicae were also common around government structures, the Roman Forum had its fair share. Only two stand today: Basilica Aemelia and Basilica Julia. Both were famous for their beautiful materials and decorations. However, they shared the same architectural features of other Roman basilica, which are numerous columns to support a truss roof, a central aisle or nave, and clerestory that allows windows down the length of the nave walls.

Complementing these are state buildings, such as the Tabularium. Founded in 78 BC, the building was constructed to house official state archives before it was turned into a salt store. The Tabularium is famous for its trapezium shape and eleven arches. Basalt rocks rise from the pedestals to create a façade, the latter which can be accessed through three large entrances shaped as an arcade and lined with half columns (Doric columns). However, storing salt there caused the once-magnificent structure to corrode with time.

Unfortunately, the delay in preserving these architectural beauties and others within the Forum has caused them to become ruins. However, the masterpieces of artists such as Van Heemskerck, Pannini and Lorrain have managed to immortalize some structures prior to their deterioration. The Forum itself has become a work of art thanks to Giambattista Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma etchings. Therefore, viewing these artistic creations may actually give people an idea of how these structures looked like during their glory years.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

The Preservation of Wood in Herculaneum

Herculaneum was an ancient Roman city that resides in modern day Ercolano in the region of Campania.

At one time in history, it was lost with neighboring cities Pompeii, Stabiae, Boscoreale, and Oplontis after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed it in AD 79. However, while Pompeii was buried under ash and pumice from the volcanic eruption, Herculaneum was affected by the volcanic pyroclastic flows. As a result, wooden objects have been preserved till date.

How Herculaneum’s Wood Withstood Time

HerculaneumWoodPreservationDownsizeThe extreme high temperatures of the volcanic materials caused different wooden elements to carbonize, conserving them for centuries later. However, during the state-sponsored Bourbon Excavations between 1784 and 1815, many structures were destroyed due to inadequate conservation methods. A few days after they were discovered, the pieces would crumble during the drying process. It was not until 1927 when Amedeo Maiuri started began open-air investigations that a recovery system was found.

Currently, archeologists resort to consolidating carbonized wooden items with paraffin, preventing contraction induced by drying. Strips of modern wood are used to support the structures while coal dust and antique wood are combined to fill the gaps created by missing parts. On the other hand, salvaging roof beams and flat arches requires using I-beams or reinforced concrete, which is held by metallic nets that anchor carbonized wood layers.

Later, by 1982, the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome adopted other techniques for preserving wood. One of these was used on a 10-meter long Roman boat that was discovered on the beach. To protect it from the same fate of previously damaged wooden artifacts, archeologists covered it with silicone and closed it in a fiberglass shell containing ethylene silicate.

Prominent Wooden Artifacts Available Today

The Herculaneum Conservation Project continues to uncover different artifacts from the area, including massive wooden beams, joists and rafters. Unlike most carbonized wooden items, most of these were smashed into wet sand and preserved by the pyroclastic flows hardened into air-tight rock. Visitors can view some of these through the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit at the British Museum. The museum’s most prized Herculaneum wooden artifact is a wooden cradle with a bowed base, which was discovered with the remains of a baby wrapped in what is assumed to be a woolen blanket.

Other artifacts – such as wooden beds, tables, ‘laràriums’ and furniture – can be seen in the Herculaneum ruins in Naples. With the help of a guide, visitors to the area can receive a tour of the perfectly preserved city. However, this may not be a good idea for the weak hearted since a considerable number of skeletons belonging to the 4,000 people inhabiting this fishing town can still be seen.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

Touring Ostia Antica, Harbor City of Ancient Rome

Ostia, which is Latin for “mouth”, is a city located at the mouth of the Tiber River, around 30 kilometers from the west of Rome. Legend has it that it was established by King Ancus Marcuisto in the 7th century B.C. that the city changed from a naval base and military harbor to a commercial harbor. Today, it serves as a reminder of how Ancient Romans built cities as visitors can stroll through many historic buildings like a bakery or a public toilet.

OstiaAnticaDownsizedWhile it is interesting to know that Ostia Antica served as Rome’s first port, it is fascinating to realize that the port that followed sits under Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, today. As Ostia acted as a major port to Rome, one could only imagine the diverse variety of goods and products that poured into this rich society. In Ostia, it is possible to view a multitude of small sectional rooms that sit side by side. These rooms acted as a station or stall where the vendor would sell his goods. Depending upon what the vendor’s specialty was, the marble mosaic flooring in his room would display just this. Thus, if he sold fish, the mosaic would display a beautifully-patterned fish in the form of a mosaic (These artistic floors represent only a fraction of the many that exist in Ostia).

Interestingly, most of the buildings visible in Ostia Antica were actually built before the city’s decline after the Severan dynasty’s political chaos. Once the economy collapsed, the city’s building activity decreased. Old bricks, inscriptions and marble facing were dug up later during the Middle Ages and Renaissance period to be reused in making new buildings. Therefore, even the relatively newer buildings are actually still old.

In the fifteenth century, the Castle of Gregoriopolis was rebuilt by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere to protect Rome. However, his efforts were deemed useless when the Tiber changed its course, cutting the castle off. This old branch is now filled with mud, inspiring residents to call it Fiume Morto or the Dead River. From then and all the way to the eighteenth century, the area was pillaged and many inscriptions and statues from the ruins ended up in private collections across Europe and later in national museums.

As Ostia belonged to the Vatican at the time, the first excavations were initiated by Pope Pius VII. Following his lead, other popes like Pius IX set up hunts for treasure, adding inscriptions, statues, mosaics and paintings to the Vatican and Lateran museums whereas marble and granite were used for building purposes.

Now a long-abandoned city and an active hub for archaeologists, the older part of Ostia Antica is easier to access by downtown Rome. While close to the modern town of Ostia, it feels remote and is void of modern sights and sounds. Its historic apartment buildings are four or five stories high, easily accommodating the 50,000 residents previously in the city. The cramped space yet intelligent architecture gives visitors a peek into how the people of Rome as well lived at the century B.C. to protect Rome from attacks from the sea. It was later in the time.

Moving on, visitors can walk through the fire department of Ostia Antica, which was also used as a police station with 300 “officers” who were rotated in from Rome for three months. The city is also home to stone countertop restaurants, inviting wine bars with mosaic flooring, primitive “laundries” with built-in tubs where people jumped on their clothes to wash them, and a small forum where legal business transactions as well as pagan worship took place. Over the years, however, the city welcomed other religions, a fact visible by a synagogue which features a menorah and shofar.

The ruins still remain the focus point of Ostia Antica, especially since restoration projects have been set up to restore and preserve whatever is left of the Ancient Roman buildings of the area.  Visitors are welcome to the excavation sites in the city and can easily book guided tours so that they can learn about the history and meaning of what they see. They can also head to the Portus harbor district, which was built by Emperors Cladius and Trajan in the north of Ostia to substitute the once grand harbor.

Ostia Antica is one of the main cities to visit and enjoy the beauty of Ancient Rome’s architecture. While it may seem like a ghost town due to its sparse population, it’s the perfect location to revel in the changes of time over what was once a major city and harbor.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

Exploring the Pantheon

Considered one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings, the Pantheon has undergone many changes over approximately the period of 2,000 years. It was destroyed and rebuilt twice, allowing the Temple of All the Gods to change from the rectangular structure commissioned in 27 A.D. by Marcus Agrippa, to the domed building standing today thanks to Emperor Hadrian’s restorative efforts in 126 A.D.

PantheonDownsizedThe Pantheon was built as a temple and sacrificial altar, where many animals were sacrificed, only survived when it was turned into a church in about 609 A.D. (Churches need to be maintained, and so the Pantheon lives on). A blessing to all of us whom wish for a better understanding of Roman history and architecture.

Praised by Michelangelo as an “angelic and not human design”, the Pantheon’s design combines the religious, technical and architectural aspects of the Greek, Egyptian and Roman cultures.

The Greek influence can be seen in the geometric perfection of the round building as only the Greeks believed in the spherical nature of the universe. The portico and pediment also hint to this culture’s influence.  118 years later Hadrian built on the same foundations where the temple had been destroyed by a fire.  That new temple, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, was named Agrippa.

Like the Colosseum, bits and pieces were taken from the Pantheon, to create objects of the Renaissance period. Such an example, was the bronze that was taken from the more decorated portico ceiling of the Pantheon, and re-distributed within the “Baldacchino,” a magnificent piece that was designed by the famed Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and that sits today as a center piece in Saint Peter’s Basillica.

Also a testimony to the Romans advanced and ingenious contributions is that the oculus is believed to act as a giant sundial. Meanwhile, the portico’s sixteen 60-ton columns leading to the temple have been inspired by the hypostyle (hall of columns) most seen in Egyptian temples, which is why they were quarried in Egypt and transported to Rome through barges and vessels. The Egyptian effect may also be felt through the concept of bringing the heavens to earth via the Roman arch and dome. This is the opposite of Egyptians’ beliefs in building their pyramids to take the Pharaoh’s soul to the heavens, but it’s related since the Romans didn’t have such a concept earlier.

Also on the outside is brickwork laid on the perimeter wall. Inbuilt arches can also be seen, which, in addition to serving decorative purposes, channel the weight of the dome downwards.

Interestingly, despite being re-built by Hadrian, the Pantheon still features the original dedication to Agrippa, which reads: ‘M. AGRIPPA.L.F.COSTERTIUM.FECIT” or “Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius, having been consul three times made it”. Above it, the pediment  (triangle on top of the inscription) remains blank, but it may have featured a sculpture depicting the Battle of the Titans. Below the inscription is a set of bronze doors which may have been covered in gold in the past.

Stepping into the Pantheon, visitors will note the numerous cavities and chambers visible in the round, 25-foot thick wall across multiple levels. Structurally, the wall has been considered to be a series of concrete piers separated by eight large equally-spaced niches. Most of the niches are semi-circular in shape whereas the one at the main door is more square-like. What’s interesting is that these niches are the resting places of two great Italian kings and the poet Raphael.

At the top of the wall and niches is the famous dome. Boasting a 43.4 meters diameter, it’s considered the world’s largest reinforced solid concrete dome. It’s also one of the most difficult aspects to describe as its configuration is unusual. The radii of the dome are about 71 ft. according to the original design whereas Italian engineer G. Cozzo believes them to be around 82 ft.

That aside, the ceiling of the dome features five symmetrical rows of 28 sunken panels or coffers and an oculus in the center. While most believe them to be decorative only, the ceiling’s design actually helps in reducing the weight load of the roof. This is important as the Pantheon’s walls were built with concrete of varying densities. The base is made of extremely thick concrete of a density of 20 ft. whereas the top near the oculus is only 7.5 ft. thick. All of this, was considered “a stroke of genius,” or an engineering feat for this historical time period.

The beautiful yet functional design of the Pantheon has inspired many builders over the years, driving them to create similar structures such as the Villa Almerico-Capra in Italy, the U.S. Capitol Building, and the Jefferson Memorial-“Monticello” in Washington DC. With an architecture created to last for centuries to come, the Pantheon will continue flaunting the genius of Ancient Rome.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

The Art of Roman Architecture Discovered at the Villa of Hadrian

Villa Adriana, or Hadrian’s Villa, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by Emperor Hadrian in 117 A.D. in Tivoli. Destined to be the emperor’s home, it was constructed on top of his wife Vibia Sabina’s villa approximately 28 kilometers from the Capital on the Monti Tiburtini.

VillaAdrianaDownsizedAccessible via the ancient roads Tiburtina and Prenestina or the River Aniene, the emperor chose the location based on its proximity to the water, especially the four aqueducts linked to Rome: Anio Vetus, Aqua Marcia, Aqua Claudia, and Anio Nobus. It was also close to the Acque Albule sulphir water springs which the emperor enjoyed.

In terms of size, Villa Adriana is spread across an area twice as large as Pompeii. The 120-hectares-long complex consists of interdependent and inter-locking structures with different purposes: the Nymph Stadium, the Praetors’ (Roman bodygaurds’) vestibule, the thermal water baths, a fishing area, a structure with three exedrae, and a four-sided portico. All are connected to ensure the security and privacy of the emperor. However, none of these flaunt symmetry as builders had to follow the shape of the terrain surrounding the villa. Regardless, the area flaunts a novel form of planning and visual invention that continues to awe Western architects.

Aside from the special sections, certain parts of this complex were named after famous buildings and palaces which the emperor visited. For instance, inspired by his visit to Alexandria, the emperor created part of the villa to match the Egyptian Canopus and named it the same. By doing so, he followed the Roman trend of recreating famous buildings to flaunt culture and knowledge.

The central part of the Villa of Hadrian features a traditionally structured villa overlooking the nearby valley. What makes this area special is the Poecile, a garden surrounded by an arcade with a swimming pool. Surrounding the central region are the Greek and Latin library, certain residential areas of the palace, and the Golden Court a little further away.

The guestrooms, or the hospitalia, were in the northeast of the palace whereas the west was home to Canopus, the bath and a number of administrative buildings such as the Praetoeium Pavilion. Connecting all 30 structures was a network of corridors and underground passages, but these were mainly used by servants to avoid disturbing the royals and official functions taking place at the villa.

Today, visitors can enjoy strolling through the better preserved areas, which include the accademia, the stadio (arena), the Philosopher’s Room, the Greek Theatre, and the Piazzo d’oro. The Teatro Marittimo (Maritime Theatre) is also open to tourists. Known as the Island.

Enclosure, it’s a large circular enclosure with a ring of forty Ionic columns inside. Further inside is an island of sorts which required retractable wooden bridges to reach. There, the emperor would be surrounded with peace and tranquil to think over important matters.  Complementing these structures were thousands of statues, portraits and mosaics.

Unfortunately, these have been stolen over the years. While some haven’t been recovered, a few have made their way from private collections to a number of museums. Bearing the efforts Hadrian put into designing his unique villa, nothing less than unique art and perfection should be expected from the decorative pieces used throughout the whole structure.

As one of the beautiful works of Roman architecture, Villa Adriana has inspired many designers, especially during the Renaissance period. Even Raphael had the palace in mind while creating the designs for Villa Madama on the slopes of Monte Mario near the Tiber valley. Therefore, despite being ruins today, the Villa of Hadrian will continue inspiring and motivating many architects in the future.



Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

A Trip to the Colosseum of Rome

One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Roman Colosseum is one of the greatest works of architecture and engineering in Italy. It is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome that was built on the site of an artificial lake in Nero’s park and near the Golden Palace (Domus Aurea) in A.D. 70. It was opened after a very quick decade of construction with a festival that featured 100 days of games. Measuring approximately 620 by 513 feet, the Colosseum was designed to be the largest amphitheater in the Roman world and it still holds that title centuries later.

ColosseumInteriorDownsizedIn Roman times the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphitheater for the Emperor who built it, and whose family name was Flavius, hence the name Flavian.  It only became known as the Colosseum in later times, due to the colossal golden statue of Emperor Nero that stood alongside it.  Next to the Colosseum is a “marked” physical spot where the statue stood.

The Colosseum was made from travertine stone extracted from the quarries of Albulae near Tivoli. It was clad in marble and more than 150 large statues were placed on the arches of the upper floors. Complementing these is the free standing structure’s three stories of arched entrances, all supported by around 80 semi-circular columns. What’s interesting is the fact that each story’s columns feature a different style. The bottom features the Doric order, followed by Ionic and topped by the Corinthian order. On sunny and rainy days, the structure would be covered with a large awning known as the velarium. The awning required a team of a thousand men to install it, a task divided into attaching it to the large poles on top of the structure and anchoring it to the ground using large ropes. To this day, one can view the pillars that sit outside the east side of the Colosseum, that were used to anchor the ropes for its operation. It is believed that the Roman sailors, from the Roman naval headquarters in Misenum, operated the velarium.

From the exterior, when viewing each individual entryway into the Colosseum, above each arch is the very faded memory of Roman numerals. This remarkable feature informed the ticket (made of pottery shards) holder of long ago, that this was the proper portico to enter into the stadium to find one’s seat.

On the inside, 55,000 spectators would be divided across four stories, the top dedicated to lower classes and women whereas the bottom was reserved for influential and prominent Romans. To be more precise, priests, senators and the Vestal Virgins sat four meters above the arena, followed by 14 rows for noblemen and knights (ima cavea section), a block for the Roman citizens (media cavea), a block for the poor, foreigners and slaves (summa cavea section), and an area under the colonnade for the wives and daughters of Roman citizens. Meanwhile, the Emperor and his court were seated in the imperial box in the northern corner of the arena. Opposite him was the box dedicated to the empress and her female followers. The Colosseum was known for both wild animal hunts and mock see battles.

What’s most interesting is the hypogeum, which is the area beneath the arena. Whereas most visitors expect a smooth, sandy patch, the floor of the Colosseum is actually a number of masonry walls made from concentric rings and chambers. Recently renovated for $1.4 million, the hypogeum has been cleared of centuries of dirt, rubble, vegetation and dumped animal dung. Since recent times, visitors are now able to walk in the underground of this magnificent structure to discover some of the finest examples of Roman technology, such as the compact yet strong elevator system responsible for delivering wild beast and equipment into the arena.

In addition to helping with the wild beasts and gladiators, the mechanisms of the hypogeum were used for creating illusions.  The Roman poet Martial, who was in the audience of the inaugural games, wrote about the magical executions which were inspired from Roman mythology. “Rocks have crept along,” he wrote, “And, marvelous sight! A wood, such as the grove of the Hesperides [nymphs who guarded the mythical golden apples] is believed to have been, has run.”

The Colosseum aside, different buildings were built in the vicinity. To the east was the Ludus Magnus, which was a training school for gladiators. Other schools were the Lusu Matutinus and the Dacian and Gallic Schools. Near the structure were the Armamentarium (armory storage), the Summum Choragium (machinery storage), Sanitarium (infirmary for wounded gladiators), and Spoliarium (morgue for dead gladiators).  Immediately next to the Colosseum remains what is left of the fountain structure where the Gladiators washed up after their battles.

Currently, the Colosseum is undergoing different renovation programs to counter the damages of lightning, earthquakes and other natural phenomena, primarily through the efforts and funding of Diego Della Valle (Tod’s.) Even though many of its stones were used in major building projects such as the cathedral of St. Peter, and various Renaissance projects, it still stands strong and continues attracting thousands of tourists from all over the world.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.