When visiting Rome, a friendly advise. Dedicate one morning to an early walk, from 6 to 7 am
For a lover of Ancient Rome entering this museum is like opening the gates of paradise. Furthermore, of an uncrowded one. As I wrote in the previous post I’m quite fond of peaceful spots and this is one indeed. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme hosts an extraordinary collection of Roman statues, mosaics and frescoes discovered from the XIXth century during works in the city.
My favourite statue is “the boxer”, a greek bronze from the IV century B.C., probably work of Lisipo, and discovered in the Quirinal Hill when excavating the Therms of Constantine.
In this close-up you can see the details (check out this vid for more close-ups) with which the artist has portrayed the fighter. The wounds (the blood is represented using copper) in his face, the swollen eyes, the broken lip, the mashed ears. The athlete is resting, it is not the usual image of victory; maybe he’s gathering his strength to continue the fight, or has been defeated and turns to an unknown referee, waiting for mercy or the victory veredict. Waiting, as the statue had for hundreds of years. This picture, taken when the statue was discovered in the XIXth century, touches me deeply.
In the third floor of the museum you can see the frescoes and mosaics that decorated the rooms in some patrician villas. My favourite place is the reconstruction of the “summer dinner room” in the Villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus.
The villa was in the Flaminian road, ad gallinas albas (“where the white chickens”). When Livia married Octavian, a prodigy occurred. An eagle dropped a white chicken in her lap; the bird had a twig of laurel with berries in its beak. Following the soothsayers advice, the chicken and its offspring were raised in the villa, and a forest of laurel oaks was planted around its perimetre. The leaves of these trees were used as crowns in the imperial triumphs, and the withering of the plants was considered an ill omen. It is said that before the death of Nero, the whole forest and all the chickens in the villa died.
It has always fascinated me how superstitious the romans were. The days were divided in favourable and ill-fated ones. No public activity could take place during the second ones and a serious military defeat or a disastrous event turned some days from fasti to nefasti. For instance, July 18th was the day of the Clades Gallica (the Gallian disaster), to commemorate the defeat, near the river Allia, of the Roman army against the gauls in the year 387 BC.
Soldiers are an extraordinary race of men: tough as shield leather, superstitious as egyptians, and as sentimental as Sabine grandmothers.
Robert Graves, “I, Claudius”
To come back to the Museum, what makes this room special (I usually sit for half an hour in the central couch and I like to hear the Ah! and Oh! of people entering) is the illumination.
Lights increase and decrease in intensity to reproduce the real light during different hours of the day, from dawn to sunset, that Livia’s dinner guests witnessed a couple of thousands years ago. The effect is absolutely marvellous; the paintings in the dining room were ripped off from the original walls, transferred and reconstructed in this area. Although I have seen several times the process of tearing off frescoes it keeps son sounding like magic to me. There are many other masterpieces in the Museum. The remaining bronzes of Nemi’s ships, reproductions of famous greek sculptures…
A beautiful Antinous…
… and some quite known mosaics, as these one representing the four teams of the chariot races: green, red, white and blue. The charioteers conducted the horses with the reins, not only with the hands, but also with the movement of their body check this relief. They were taller and bulkier than nowadays jockeys, for instance. One of the main dangers during the races was to remain trapped under the horses or the chariot while tied to them, that’s why they had a knife between the leather strips of the bodice. If they were quick enough they could save themselves cutting the reins, but it’s no wonder that charioteers, even if well paid and adored by the masses as modern football players, often died very young.
All this and many more in my favourite museum in Rome. Another of my favourite pieces is this ivory mask. The pic is not mine (click for source) as it is very delicate is held in very particular light conditions. It was recovered by the Carabinieri group specialized on Art smuggling.
This is a extraordinary tool developed by Stanford University: Orbis. Select place of origin, destination and season of the year and you will know how many days were necessary, and the cost, to make an specific travel during the Roman Empire. Needless to say that I am using it when writing my long and neverending Roman times fanfic.
They looked back when they have gone a few paces, and saw him standing as they had left him, already dimmed with mist, and outlined against the drifting mist beyond. A half-naked, wild-haired tribesman, with a savage dog against his knee; but the wide, well-drilled movement of his arm as he raised it in greeting and farewell was all Rome. It was the parade-ground and the clipped voice of trumpets, the iron discipline and the pride. In that instant Marcus seemed to see, not the barbarian hunter, but the young centurion, proud in his first command, before ever the shadow of the doomed legion fell on him. It was to that centurion that he saluted in reply
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Eagle of the Ninth
I will write just a very quick note about my reading of “The Eagle of the Ninth”: it is a very good book and I cannot but ask myself why the movie based on it had so little to do with the original story. In the book, as Servetus commented in my post regarding the film, all those things that look absurd and difficult to understand in the movie are clear, starting with the relationship between Marcus and Esca. Their relationship has been absurdely twisted for the sake of I have not understood very well what. The story makes much more sense as written by Rosemary Sutcliff, who was a superb writer. One more consideration: in 1954 this was considered “children’s literature”.
Hubby has told me that, even if he will understand one word out of ten (an optimistic guess), he would like to see a theatre play in London and that next year we could spend a weekend there on that purpose.
I feel like Scarlett O’hara in her honeymoon, when she’s trying to hush the hunger she has suffered during the years of the civil war eating everything the waiter brings.
Preparations begin, I’m following now more than twelve different twitter accounts of London theatres. Therefore, next spring I will go back to London to watch a play and to see the the remains of the Roman amphitheatre (in May I arrived there ten minutes after the closure) and other Londinium sites.
What thrills me more when visiting museums exihibiting pieces coming from the Roman Empire times are the everyday objects.
For instance that beautiful woman’s slipper, belonging probably to the wife of the prefect of Vindolanda’s camp.
How many nights the commander of the fort held this cup in his hands while yearning for the sun of his native land during the cold northern winter nights?
And how dissapointed his wife was when opening the wooden boxes containing this pottery service from Gaul that arrived to destination broken to pieces?
Who combed their hair with these?
How many wounds were healed with these surgical instruments?
The particular chemical composition of Vindolanda’s soil, very poor in oxigen, has allowed the conservation of objects in leather and wood. I am sorry that the picture does not render the idea, but the leather bag above has a very modern design and is quite functional. You can see also an absolute up-to-date backpack below.
Maybe one of the Vindolanda letters were written with one of these. You can read them here
For instance, the famous letter of Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina
“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. (Back, 1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.”