Portus – Ancient Rome’s Lost Harbor

Built on the north of the mouth of the Tiber, Portus was constructed by Roman emperor Claudius. It was one of the main ports during the Imperial period (27 B.C. to A.D. 565), providing a conduit for different merchandise such as glass, ceramics, slaves and wild animals for the Colosseum. As a result, it was considered a hub of commerce for the largest urban population in the ancient world.

The History of Portus

Roman Emperor Claudius, Roger Ulrich, Flickr Commons

Roman Emperor Claudius, Roger Ulrich, Flickr Commons

Claudius constructed the first harbor on the site to provide protection against the prevalent southwest wind. In the inscription he erected in AD 46, he boasted that he freed Rome from the danger of inundation. However, Tacitus wrote in AD 62 that numerous grain ships sank in the harbor due to violent storms. By AD 103, Trajan constructed another harbor a little further inland. The newer Portus features a hexagonal basin of a 97 acre area and canals connecting it to the harbor of Claudius and the Tiber. This made the port gain a great reputation matching that of Carthage or Alexandria.

It was not until recently that the mystery of the port’s disappearance was solved. According to dig director Simon Keay of the University of Southampton, Portus was destroyed by the Byzantines during a war with the Ostrogoths to control Rome. “By the 6th century, the Byzantines felt the port could be a threat as it was vulnerable to being occupied by the Ostrogoths, so they took the decision to destroy it themselves,” he said. After gaining and losing control of the port during the war, the Byzantines decided to destroy it altogether. This was not an easy task since the structures were solid and would have required a “firm decision and the Byzantines’ will” to be carried out.

Portus in Modern Times

Many of the port’s ruins are still intact, especially the second century hexagonal basin (known as Lago Traiano due to the reeds growing there), third century brickwork warehouses, and an early Christian basilica. Italy’s Cultural Heritage minister Dario Franceschini and the Mayor of Fiumicino Esterino Montino intend to make the site accessible by 2016, allowing 30,000 visitors to the site. However, it may take more than that since only a part of Portus has been excavated and experts believe that the site has more potential.

For instance, in 2011, an ancient Roman shipyard was unearthed in the area. Measuring 475 feet long and 200 feet wide, the shipyard building was made of large 10 feet concrete pillars, eight parallel bays, and wooden roofs. Keay commented, “This was a vast structure, which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building leads us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities.”

Before this massive find, archeologists uncovered the remains of an imperial palace and an amphitheater. Another important finding was a mosaic that depicts a building such as the one uncovered with a ship in each bay. It is currently on display in the Vatican Museum, but more are expected to be exhibited along once the excavation stops in the area.

241c1bcNora 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 Walk through the Ancient Roman Amphitheater in Lucca

The city of Lucca is a commune in Tuscany that is perched on the river Serchio. While famed for its resilient Renaissance-era walls, it is one of the important Roman colonies in 180 BC. Though it has been plundered and conquered several times, many of its original glory remains. One look at the ruins of its famed amphitheater in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is bound to confirm this.

Piero Masia Flickr Commons

Piero Masia Flickr Commons

The amphitheater was constructed under Emperor Claudius in the 1st century AD, but it was not until the Flavian period that construction was concluded. According to an honorary inscription uncovered in the 1800s, Quintus Vibius, a rich citizen with a knight’s rank, generously donated 10,000 sestertii over ten years to complete the project. Once inaugurated, the structure allowed up to 10,000 spectators to watch gladiators and beasts fight till the death. Experts believe that it had two rows of arches adorned with marble and columns.

However, it did not take long for the Romans to change its purpose later on. The Romans feared that the amphitheater’s size and position outside the city would threaten the well-being of the town if it fell in the enemy’s hands. Therefore, during the Byzantine invasions, Lucca’s Roman amphitheater was transformed into a fortress. All of its embellishments disappeared and its outer arches were shut.

During the medieval times, the structure’s foundations were used for making houses and the arena itself became home to multiple vegetable lots used for domestic use. Later on, the amphitheater was used as a prison and then a salt warehouse. By the beginning of the 18th century, it was Lucca’s public slaughterhouse. Luckily, Carlo Ludovico decided to spare the one-glorified structure and commissioned famous architect Lorenzo Nottolini to restore the square to the ancient Roman attraction.

The buildings created in the arena were demolished and an oval space with the same perimeter and volumes of the ancient building was constructed. Dedicated to the town market, the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro retained the original amphitheater’s structures two meters below the road surface whereas arches and vaults emerged at the shops facing the plaza. However, the area is bustling with life thanks to numerous shops and cafes, making it the center of cultural activities and music festivals. International performers such as Van Morrison and The Eagles have had their concerts in the area.

Due to the numerous restoration efforts across the amphitheater, visitors may be disappointed at the lack of ruins. However, if you close your eyes long enough, you can hear some of the echoes of the past, including the lions and gladiators fighting.

241c1bcNora 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.

Bronze Statues of Riace – Greek Masterpieces Withstanding Time

Bronzi di Riace, or the Riace bronzes, are two life-sized statues depicting naked, bearded Greek warriors. Experts date them to the era between 490 and 450 B.C.E. as they are made of bronze and flaunt a good amount of detail. These characteristics are common in the Severe or Early Classical style, which substituted the austere style and became the norm in the sixth century B.C.E. However, while most agree that the statues were created 30 years apart, some argue that they were produced together after 100 B.C.E. to pay homage to the Early Classical iconography embraced during the Hellenistic period.

The Discovery of the Statues

photography by Ken Mayer, Flickr Commons

Ken Mayer, Flickr Commons

The Riace warriors were discovered in August 1972 when Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was fishing underwater at Monasterace. Diving 200 meters from Riace, he noticed the left arm of Statue A protruding from the sand. Suspecting that it was a dead body, he went closer only to discover that the arm was made of bronze. Pushing the sand away, he discovered Statue B and called the police. On August 21 and 22, the Archaeological Superintendence of Reggio Calabria and the police recovered the two statues. While the bronzes of Riace were in good shape, it took ten years for experts to study and restore them to their former glory. However, the visitors and residents of Florence and Rome never lost interest in them, queuing for hours to see the majestic bronzes which embodied both strength and beauty. What further made them interesting was the fact that they may be missing parts. The shape of the head indicates that they wore helmets whereas the position of the arms shows that they may have held spears and shields. However, the statues did manage to hold on to their calcite eyes, silver teeth, and copper lips and nipples.

A Closer Look at the Riace Bronzes

Closely studying Statue A, the 198-centimeter masterpiece depicts a younger warrior than Statue B. Experts believe that he wore a helmet crowned by a wreath and had weapons in hand due to his stance. What makes him a marvelous piece of art is the care given to creating curls and ringlets in his hair and beard. Analyzing the soil inside the statue, it seems that A was cast in Argos. Greek and Roman art historian Professor Moreno believes that the statue represents Tydeus, a hero of Aetolia, son of Areas and protégée of Athena. As for Statue B, it depicts an older warrior standing at 197-centimeters. Like the other bronze, it its bearded and crafted to show the contrapposto stance (nonsymmetrical, relaxed stance) despite having its feet closer together. The soil particles retrieved from this statue hints that it may depict the warrior Amphiaraus, who prophesized his death beneath the walls of Thebes. Based on these, Bronze A could have been crafted by Hageladas, an Argos sculptor who worked in the mid-fifth century B.C. at the sanctuary of Delphi. Comparing the statue with the other works featured in the temple of Zeus of Olympia, similarities are visible. As for Statue B, it may have been sculpted by Lemnos native Alcamenes. As for their purpose, archeologists believe that they were made by the Athenians to celebrate their victory against Starta in battle and to immortalize the glory of Thebes. To discover the beauty of the Riace bronzes firsthand, visit their new home in Calabria, which is 1,000 kilometers north to Milan.

241c1bcNora 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 the Ancient City of Velia and its Archeological Sites

A province of Salerno that is currently part of the Mediterranean scrub and olive trees, Velia was a coastal city in the south of Italy. Located along the Tarentine Gulf, it was heavily populated by Greek settlers from Phocacea in the 8th century. Its popularity ensured its reputation as a trade hub, especially for salted and scented oils. Moreover, the city was the home of philosophers Parmenides and Zeno of Elea. Velia was also where the Eleatic school was established, attracting pre-Socratic philosophers early as the 5th century. However, it is the archeological site of Elea-Velia that makes the city an important tourist destination in Cilento Coast, reeling in 34,000 individuals annually.

AsceaVeliaDownsizedDeclared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the archeological site has undergone exploration for the past century and half. The picturesque city is yet to be fully uncovered though, indicating that there is much more to see in this beautiful city founded by the Greek refugees. Experts estimate the ancient city to be around 90 hectares and organized in districts along the natural slope of a hill. As a result, Velia flaunts one of the most complex defensive systems in the ancient world.

Visitors to Parco Archeologico di Velia (Archeological Park of Velia) enter the area from the southern sector from Porta Marina. Defended by a massive square tower, it leads to a paved road which visitors can use to head to the three-arm cryptoportico building dating to the Augustan period (BC 31 – AD 14). It is believed that the building may have been a gym, medical or sacellum, used for imperial purposes since it contained statues and herms (pillars topped with a carved head) depicting imperial family members and local doctors.

To the left of Porta Marina is a block which flaunts both a residential and commercial character. Four houses belonging to the Imperial Age were discovered in the area. These flaunted the architectural norms of the area, which were a central compartment and a tub of water to collect rain water. Moving further, visitors will come across la Masseria Cobellis, which is a public building that boasts symmetrical design across its two levels. A lot of the marble slabs covering the original brick stairs have been partially preserved, proving the lavish reputation which Velia flaunted over the years.

Tours of the area also include the baths on the end of Porta Rosa, where visitors can marvel at the beautiful mosaic with black and white tiles depicting animals and monsters. From there, they ascend to the Agora, which was recently acknowledged as a sanctuary dedicated to the medical and healing god Asclepius. The structure is distributed on three levels; the first is a larger rectangular body surrounded by a portico on three sides while the entrance is decorated with a fountain.

Parco archeologico di Velia has more to offer, such as the medieval tower of Velia which was built out of a Greek temple. Beyond the park, visitors can discover the seaside tourist destination Ascea, which is an enchanting sandy beach next to a clear sea. The area has attracted many historic Roman figures in the past, including Augustus while returning from the Orient. Therefore, a quick tour of the park’s home will never be a bad idea.

241c1bcNora 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 Discovery of an Ancient Roman Port in Napoli

Naples is one of the oldest Italian cities, dating back to 2,700 years. Its archeological sites have helped Roman historians and architecture enthusiasts alike understand the once-grand Roman Empire. However, Napoli’s archeologists actually learned more about the city’s famous commercial port through an excavation site at Piazza Municipio. Previously dug to accommodate the new metro system Metropolitana’s tracks, the site contains the remains of the port of Roman Neapolis and, most importantly, the hulls of three Roman ships dating back to first-century AD.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????According to archeologists, the ships and the port were covered in sand and mud that slid from a nearby hill. By the fifth century AD, the marine sand and silt completely hid the port until it was discovered over 2,000 years later. Excited by their find, experts spent around five months excavating around the ships, uncovering personal belongings that once belonged to the ships’ sailors. Dice, sewing needles, baskets and even pairs of leather shoes were taken away and preserved to be put on display later.

Examining the conventionally designed “shell-first” mortise and tenon (an ancient method for joining ship beams) ships closely, archeologists identified two of them to be oneraria, which were trade ships used for relatively short trips such as to Rome’s port Ostia. The third ship, on the other hand, is a unique horeia, which is an in-harbor shuttle. Therefore, while experts believe that the first two ships were sunk intentionally, they suspect that the rare vessel was sunk by a storm, especially since it contained a generous shipment of lime.

To further examine the ships and continue building the subway, removing the ships became necessary. The process was a delicate one as the ships had to be excavated from thick layers of mud which formed the bottom of the Roman port. Therefore, huge sheets of fabric were used to lift the ships. Interestingly, beneath the ships were traces of the first harbor dredging, which is estimated to date all the way back to 326 BC. Moreover, artifacts belonging to the second century BC showed the changes that took place when Puteoli became the main commercial port. Cargoes of utilitarian objects such as ceramic lamps were replaced with luxury goods like goblets and bucchero pottery from Greece and Spain. All of these valuables became necessities of the elite living in villas along Napoli’s beautiful coastline.

In 2008, the ships were stored in fiberglass tubs filled with cold water within a climate-controlled building in Piscinola. Anyone entering the building was instructed to talk in hushed tones to avoid damaging the fragile ships. In addition, to create a pressure similar to that of the mud and silt, the tubs were covered with green plastic mesh.

Expert archeologists and conservators from Germany and San Rossore, Pisa have been invited to help Napoli’s experts learn more about the era and even conserve the wood. Unfortunately, the lack of funds has been delaying the process so far. However, once the several million euros necessary are provided, the ships are to move to special desalinization tanks before finally finding a home at a Piazza Municipio museum built for this excavation’s discoveries.

241c1bcNora 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 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.

241c1bcNora 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.

241c1bcNora 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.