Rome, at the Baths of Caracalla a frescoed domus is again visible

After 30 years, a richly frescoed domus from the Hadrianic period returns to public view at the Baths of Caracalla.

In Rome, the Baths of Caracalla are expanding their tour route, thanks to the efforts and work of the Special Superintendence of Rome, which is reopening the environment of a domus from the Hadrianic age, proposing an important new feature. In the large frescoed room, visitors will be able to admire two overlapping decorations: the first, typical of the Hadrianic age, reproduces architectural perspectives populated by human figures, statues, and rampant felines; some 50 years later, the second presents figures of deities from the Greco-Roman and Egyptian pantheon.

The frescoed room that is once again open to visitors after about thirty years belonged to a luxurious domus of the Hadrianic age that, to make room for the mighty terracing of the foundation of the great complex of the Baths of Caracalla, was partially destroyed and covered with earth along with the entire neighborhood adjacent to Porta Capena in 206 AD. Discovered during excavations conducted between 1858 and 1869 by the Honorary Inspector of Ancient Monuments Giovan Battista Guidi on the southeast side of the baths, the building despite the spoliation in ancient times preserved the pictorial and mosaic decorative apparatus, part of which was in opus sectile. Re-covered, the building starting in 1970 underwent new investigations that lasted five years, when the Superintendence detached and secured some frescoes belonging to two rooms, including those now newly exposed.

Thanks to the excavations in the 1970s, it was also possible to establish that the complex was at least on two floors, had undergone renovations, expansions with changes of use, and remakes of the decorations. In addition, the discovery of a workshop next to the vestibule, an independent staircase that led from the outside to the upper floors, and the development of the building on the southern side suggested that the building had been transformed by renovations into an insula with apartments on the upper floors of the middle and upper classes and a stately domus on the ground and second floors, which featured a porticoed courtyard and rooms arranged on three sides, including a triclinium and services, that opened to an ambulatory. Most of the rooms were richly decorated in frescoes with a wide variety of subjects and themes. The walls were generally scanned in architectural panels with human figures, isolated objects, and panels with small landscape scenes, according to a style widespread from the mid-2nd century AD. The decorative apparatus suggests that the owners of the building belonged to a very high class. The building constitutes one of the rare testimonies in Rome of this type of dwelling - stately domus and apartments on the upper floors of the middle and upper classes, as well as being a valuable testimony to the topography of the area before the construction of the Baths of Caracalla.

In 1975 the Superintendence, for the purpose of preserving the frescoes, carried out the detachment of the pictorial decoration from some rooms of the domus. The frescoes that are returning to visit belong to two rooms: the first dedicated to worship is the best preserved, the other is a triclinium whose ceiling was found in collapse. Initially defined as a lararium, the first room upon careful interpretation of the paintings appears to be a place of a devotion with Roman and Eastern cults. On the walls and vault, in fact, there are two pictorial decorations on top of each other. The oldest dating from the Hadrianic age (134-138 AD) reproduces architectural perspectives populated by human figures, statues, rampant felines and Dionysian symbols not pertinent to a place of devotion. Above the previous one a new decoration, painted in the final decades of the second century AD, instead preserves traces of life-size anthropomorphic figures, identifiable with deities belonging to different religions.

In addition to the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), the silhouettes of Anubis, a dog-headed underworld deity, and Isis-Demeter, with a lotus flower and feathers on her head, while barely visible is her husband Serapis. The coexistence of deities from two different pantheons, the Greco-Roman and the Egyptian, is an expression of the religious syncretism that had characterized Rome from its origins and that was becoming increasingly established in the capital of the empire in those decades, as is also shown by the great mithraeum built inside the Baths of Caracalla itself. At the same time as the second decoration a small podium was built on one wall, which probably earned this room the name lararium. A doubly precious environment becomes visible again: because it is characterized by two decorative phases of a period, the Hadrianic-Antonine age, of which there is little evidence in Rome, and shrouded in the mystery of the cult that was practiced inside it. In addition to the reconstruction with newly restored frescoes of this room, the spiccato of the triclinium’s frescoed vault is exhibited for the first time. It is a foretaste of the ceiling of this room dedicated to conviviality that was found in hundreds of pieces in excavations in the 1970s and is now being studied, reconstructed and restored, to be opened to the public.

“The frescoes that now return to view,” says Daniela Porro, Special Superintendent of Rome, “belonged to a building located in a neighborhood that in the early third century was destroyed to make way for the Baths of Caracalla. In this way visitors, in addition to the beauty and interest of these paintings, will be able to grasp a piece of history and the transformations of the ancient city. We also present a preview: a small part of the precious ceiling of a room that has never been exhibited before and will soon be open to the public. This is one more piece that will enrich the space of the Baths of Caracalla, a feather in the cap of this Superintendency and the city.”

“The presence in the same environment of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva together with Anubis, Isis and probably Serapis,” explains Mirella Serlorenzi, director of the Baths of Caracalla, “is a sign of that religious syncretism typical of ancient Rome since its foundation. But the rooms we now open are also of great interest because they show at a distance of a few meters the microcosm of a private home and the macrocosm of a great imperial facility, the Baths of Caracalla. A comparison full of suggestions that prompts us to present a small preview of the ceiling of a second room of the domus, the Triclinium now being studied and researched for its overall restoration.”

Rome, at the Baths of Caracalla a frescoed domus is again visible
Rome, at the Baths of Caracalla a frescoed domus is again visible