Saintes Day

This is a little look at a whirlwind day out in Saintes, with lots and lots of Romans. After an early start from Bordeaux, I arrived in Saintes at about 9am and set about looking for some of the remains of the Roman town, Mediolanum Santonum.

Stage 1: The arch. On its own.

The Arch of Germanicus, dating from 18-19 CE,  originally stood at the end of the bridge across the Charente River, marking the entry to the city. Now it’s on its own on a stretch of embankment near the Tourist Information Office.

The inscription tells us about the donor, a wealthy citizen of Mediolanum Santonum by the name of C. Julius Rufus. He seems to have been a pretty important man, locally at least, and the inscription lists his lineage to four generations: ‘Caius Julius Rufus, son of Caius Julius Otuaneunus, grandson of Caius Julius Gedemo, great-grandson of Epotsovirid(i)us’, his position in society: ‘priest of Rome and of Augustus at the altar at Confluens’, and his title: ‘prefect of works’.* He paid for the construction of the arch in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus. 

Looking rather festive on my visit, the arch we see today is actually a reconstruction. It was dismantled in the 19th century when the old bridge was demolished but later restored in its present location.

Stage 2: The city wall. Mind your step.

As with many Roman cities, the turbulence of the third century prompted the building of additional fortifications and there is a short stretch of the city wall remaining in-situ.

Now, I quite like France, but there’s one thing in particular that I really really hate about France. Dog-shit. There’s dog-shit everywhere. No-one cleans up after their dog. This means that some patches of grass are an absolute minefield (shitfield?), this one included. After weighing up the odds, I decided that I wasn’t going to risk it. The combination of sloping ground, lots of rain making slippery grass and naughty inconsiderate dog owners made this particular patch of grass no-woman’s land (seriously, there was shit everywhere). I stayed up on the pavement and took what pictures I could from there.

But you can still see the large, well-shaped stone blocks that the wall was built from. There are a few bits of reused stone that I can see amongst the rectangular blocks which indicates that by the time the wall was built, older buildings, shrines and memorials were considered expendable.

Stage 3: The amphitheatre. A hidden gem.

Heading up the hill, cross the main road near the bus stops, turn right and then left up a residential street, walk along a bit, turn left and…the surprise of seeing the entrance to an enormous amphitheatre was not at all dulled by the fact that I was actually looking for an enormous amphitheatre.

And it is enormous, originally seating about 12,000-15,000 spectators (although possibly up to 20,000) and with all the features expected of a well appointed 1st century entertainment venue. Built in 40-50 AD, construction began under Tiberius and was completed under Claudius, this is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in France. It’s set in a natural bowl-shaped valley and the seating (cavae) takes advantage of the natural slopes most of the way round.

From the ticket office, you can walk most of the way round the outside where the upper levels of seating would have been. A lot of the original seating had gone and it looks like some of the stonework is actually modern concrete, but it give a good impression of how the seating looked. You can walk up the steps of some of the vomitoria to get the views over the arena.

The two ends of the amphitheatre still have the remains of two striking features. At the east end, the East Gate.

This is the main entrance facing the town and processions (pompa) would make their way up from the town to the amphitheatre, entering through this gate. This is the way by which victorious gladiators would also leave the amphitheatre, hence it’s alternative name, Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of the Living’.

Opposite the east gate is the dark and slightly intimidating Porta Libitinensis, ‘the Gate of the Dead’. This where the bodies of vanquished gladiators were carried out of the arena.

When I visit some types of Roman site; bathhouses, forums, paved streets and amphitheatres, I’m always on the lookout for the remains of Roman games. Sometimes, etched into the stone paving, you can see gaming boards for such games as ludus duodecim scriptorum and Nine Men’s Morris. I did take the time to look along all the remaining seating, but the only one I found was this not-so-ancient one…

Stage 4: The bathhouse. Just a little bit.

Ten minute’s walk from the amphitheatre, on a corner just outside the cemetery that’s just up the road from the church of St. Vivien are the remains of the Thermal Baths of St Saloine.

These baths dated from the second half of the first century, during a second phase of development in Mediolanum Santonum, and were abandoned as the city contracted in the fourth century. The baths were fed by the aqueduct which brought water from as far away as Font-Morillon (in the village of Fontcouverte).

There isn’t a huge amount of it left but it is still possible to identify the caldarium (hot room),

with its retaining wall, with these large niches.

A few other wall lines have also been identified however, most of the building has been destroyed, either used as a quarry or in the later uses of the site, which was converted into a church and cemetery.

Stage 5: The museum. Small but perfectly formed.

Back towards the Arch of Germanicus and, next door to the tourist information office is the Musee Archeologique de Saintes. The entrance fee is included in the ticket price for the amphitheatre. Bargain!

It’s a wee little museum, just one room, but every case is a winner. I was going to post a few images here but there are so many very cool things to share that this post is in danger of becoming an epic, so I’ve decided to add those as a supplementary post.  Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite.

So on a Roman level, Saintes was a bit of a success. As well as all these brilliant sites to visit, I also spotted random bits of suspiciously Roman-looking stonework, reused here and there in walls and the like.

I also had the most fantastic cappuccino ever. Not only did it look like a work of Spiderman-influenced art, it also tasted fantastic and wasn’t overly milky. Yum yum, and thank you Thes et Cafes, my recommendation for sustenance and fortification in Saintes.

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The Office de Tourisme is a good source of information about what to see and do in and around Saintes. And for the archaeology, the Société d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de la Charente-Maritime .

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Germanicus

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Senlis – Into the woods

Ok, I didn’t actually go into the woods. It was raining, I had a cold, it’s about 4 miles away and there’s no regular bus, plus I needed to catch the 3.15 bus in order to get back to Paris. So no, I didn’t actually go into the woods. But I did go into the museum, which is just as good, because in the museum is this:

So what’s the deal with the woods then? Well, in 1825, in the Foret d’Halatte, a temple was discovered.

Early investigations in 1873-4 uncovered the general size and shape of the small temple and precinct, and also recovered 297 stone ex-voto figures, and statues, now in the collection of the Musee d’arte et d’archaeologie.

Built in the mid-1st century, on what was then grassland, and abandoned by the early 5th, the temple was lost to view as the forest grew and established itself. As many of the ex-voto figures display genitals or breasts, the temple has been interpreted as a temple of healing, possibly with a focus on sexual health, conception and pregnancy.

This incomplete statue is of a female figure who appears to be pregnant. Maybe she is some sort of protective mother-goddess.

And there are numerous infant figures, so perhaps supplicants went to the temple to ask the gods for safe deliveries and to protect their babies from childhood diseases, the need for protection being more keenly felt during times of high infant mortality.

There are even animal figures. Perhaps these gods were thought to have the power to ensure healthy livestock and crops as well as protecting the human population.

During excavations in 1996-9, a further 66 ex-voto figures were discovered, as well as a deposit consisting of a pot and the skull of a ~40 year old man buried under the floor of the cela, the inner sanctum. This has been interpreted as a possible foundation deposit, drawing on ancient tribal customs even well into the Gallo-Roman period.

Also found in the cela were the seven gallic coins in the image above. The deposition of coins in sacred spaces  is not unusual. The copper-alloy votive objects (below), several of them phallic or otherwise relating to reproduction, sexual organs or child-rearing, were also found at the site.

Although the museum is home to archaeological collections and art collections, I’m afraid that I spent so much time in the basement looking at the temple archive that I hardly had time to do much else, but I would still encourage a visit to the museum at Senlis the next time you’re in the area. It’s an easy trip from Paris, although you do need to check the bus times to and from the nearest train station at Chantilly.

Link: www.persee.fr/doc/pica_1272-6117_2000_hos_18_1_2479 (in French)

The future of the past

Have you ever seen those programmes and films from the ’50s and ’60s that were concerned with how we would be living in the future? Futuristic cities in the sky, hover cars, and jet packs. Lots and lots of jet packs.

EUR, a southern suburb of Rome is a bit like that.

But perhaps a bit more fascistic.

The genius of the sport, Italo Griselli

Planned and begun under Mussolini as the intended site of the Esposizione Universale Roma, a world fair to celebrate the beginning of the Fascist era. Designed as a modern echo of the ancient city, construction began in 1939 but was abandoned due to the entrance of Italy into the second world war. Works stopped in 1942 and the site was more or less abandoned until the 1950s, when the authorities recommenced building works with the intention of creating a new business district for modern Rome.

The Palazzo dei Congressi (formally the Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e dei Congressi), now with added BMXer

Although it has had its ups and downs, the recent renovation of some of the buildings has resulted in a resurgence of interest in the area.

I was visiting on a Saturday and, in the usual way with business districts, the area was half deserted. I did run into little clusters of people around particular buildings and there was constant traffic on the main road but many of the streets and piazzas were completely devoid of people. This made me think of those futuristic but bleakly apocalyptic films in which all the people disappear due to alien invasion or as the result of human folly.

 

My initial interest in the area was because it’s where the Museo Nazionale dellAlto Medioevo, the medieval museum, is situated. In a city with so many sights, museums and historic buildings, this museum seems to get a little overlooked, possibly due to its location away from the tourist centre. The museum concentrates on the period from the late-antique to the medieval; 4th-14th centuries and contains a range of religious, household, military and decorative objects.

I’m not going to post lots of photos from the museum here, I’ll link a separate post later because the collection is really worth a look. It’s only about 20 minutes on the metro from Termini and a short walk to visit this museum so do make the effort if you can. It’s worth it.

When I left the museum I headed west to have a look at some of the fascist-era and other 20th century buildings. Many of the buildings, open spaces and public art have been designed as a sort of echo of Rome’s ancient imperial and renaissance past. So buildings are arcaded; there are curving colonades; there are monumental statues, friezes, mosaics, pools and fountains.

Materials used in construction are mainly travertine marble, granite and tuff, giving the area a gleaming whiteness, echoing ideas of classical purity (though not the more colourful reality of the ancient world).

Right next to the museum, in the middle of the, frankly, lethal road*, the Via Cristoforo Colombo, is the Obelisco di Marconi. Built in 1959, for the 1960 Summer Olympics, this obelisk is decorated with scenes from Marconi’s career and achievements.

Just along the road is the Piazza dell Nazione Unite. Begun in 1938 but not completed until 1952, this consists of two large semi-circular arcades on either side of the main road,

 

On the external walls are these high relief panels.

Quite a bit of this was boarded up when I visited and it looks, generally, like a number of the buildings are either in the process of, or waiting for renovation.

Next I walked over to a really nice, relaxing, cooling spot by the Salone delle Fontane, there are these cool lines of water fountains, flanked with near-spherical bushes. It’s all very very architectural but with just enough greenery to soften its edges.

In the pool there are mosaics, mimicking the monochrome mosaics seen at Ostia Antica. These are, unfortunately, quite faded and difficult to photograph, but you can get at least an idea of how they look.

  

This one looks like a map of the area.

Standing in a wooded area nearby, the Parco del Ninfeo, is this statue of a youth, apparently called ‘The fields are redeemed’.

This statue is interesting because, even though it’s a modern rendition, it looks like the sculptor has consciously mimicked the look of a bronze statue created using the lost-wax technique.

 

The building here is the Palazzo degli Uffici di EUR and the entrance at the end of the fountained pool is flanked by this monumental bas relief panel by Publio Morbiducci; ‘The History of Rome through its buildings’.

   

This is a really interesting artwork, taking modern Rome and mixing it with its ancient counterpart, presenting them as the same. It shows events, building works, industry, notable people; it’s like Mussolini’s very own ‘Trajan’s column’.

And so to the really iconic building of EUR; the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, also known as the Colosseo Quadrato (Square Colosseum).

Designed in 1937 by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano, the building works were begun in 1938 and finished in 1943 but, due to the cancellation of the trade fair, the building remained empty for over a decade. It has been used on and off over the years since 1953 but its latest incarnation is as the headquarters of the Italian fashion house Fendi.

 

It sort of echoes the tiers of regular arches on the Colosseum and the ground level is lined with classical-esque statues and flanked by sculptures. The inscription at the top of all four sides is taken from one of Mussolini’s speeches, made on 2 October 1935: “Un popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di pensatori, di scienziati, di navigatori, di trasmigratori”, trans: ‘a nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of migrants’.

Fendi has restored the  building to it former glory and hosts public exhibitions as part of its programme of ‘giving something back’. Fendi has also funded the renovation of several other sites in Rome, including the Trevi Fountain.

The ground level of the building is populated with ‘classical’ statues, emphasising Roman virtues such as industry, commerce, invention and so on, again emphasizing the connection between modern and ancient Rome

And so I spent a short afternoon in EUR. Not enough time at all, as there was much more to see, but it was good to at least have a brief look at the area. As so much of this trip was spent looking at ancient Rome, this area provided a really interesting counterpoint.

EUR can be reached by taking the Metro, Line B south from Termini or the historic centre. I got off at EUR Fermi for the museum. There are also plenty of buses from other parts of the city.

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* there are several roadside shrines attesting to the lethal nature of this road.

Bread and circuses. But mainly bread.

After a week in Italy with a couple of friends, my last few hours before my flight were spent scouting around a few minor sites by myself, failing to get into some (because they’re churches and it was a Sunday in Rome), wandering the streets looking at this and that, and hanging around on a roundabout surrounded by trams.
That last doesn’t sound very glamorous but there was a very particular reason to be on this particular roundabout.*

This is the Porta Maggiore, the ‘Larger Gate’ on the eastern side of the third-century CE Aurelian Wall. Over time, this ‘gate’ has served several purposes. Built in the year 52, under the Emperor Claudius, as a support for two of the aqueducts bringing water into Rome, the Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus, the arches were later incorporated into the city wall built under Marcus Aurelius in 271.

At the top of the central section, the two water channels are still visible.

But before all that, before the aqueduct and the wall and the gate, there was this:

Positioned at the intersection of two key roads leading into the City, the Via Praenestina and Via Labicana, this is the Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker and (possibly) his wife Atistia.

Wealthy merchants, freedmen, and prominent citizens of all classes were always keen to be remembered after their deaths, and  so set up tombs, sometimes very large and elaborate ones, at key positions along the roads leading into the City. A walk along the roads leading into the City takes in reams of memorials vying for attention and this tomb occupies a particularly prominent spot where the two major  roads meet.

The memorial is a tower tomb type, with much of the height now below ground level. Its trapezoidal ground plan (rather than square or rectangular) was necessary to fit it into the available space. It’s built of concrete faced with travertine on a tufa base and on one side, where the facing has gone, you can see the brick interior filled with a concrete and rubble core.

It’s a bit of an odd-looking structure. Sort-of classical but a bit squiffily classical.

The (surviving part of the) inscription tells us that Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces was a baker, a contractor and a public servant.

EST HOC MONIMENTVM MARCEI VERGILEI EVRYSACIS PISTORIS REDEMPTORIS APPARET,

The ‘contractor’ bit suggests that Eurysaces held government supply contracts, perhaps to supply the army with bread.

As is often the case with the tombs of wealthy tradespeople, the tomb displays the source of his wealth, with the decorative frieze around the top section depicting various stages of the bread-production process.

sorting and grinding grain; kneading; weighing; baking; transporting and selling.

The pilasters and pairs of engaged columns are squashed in tightly together.

But, undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of the tomb is the weird circular features on each face. It has been suggested that these may represent pieces of bakers’ equipment, probably grain measures.

In Roman society, social mobility was possible. People whom circumstances had dumped at or near the bottom of the social structure could, through hard work and dumb luck, rise in wealth and status and end their lives wealthy, important and influential. it’s very possible that Eurysaces was such a man. Although the tomb inscription is not conclusive, Eurysaces may have been a Freedman; an ex-slave who had been able to work his way out of slavery and end up a very rich man.

The tomb’s later history is a bit inauspicious but probably saved it for posterity. As the city of Rome declined and succumbed to invasions from the north, the tomb was utilized as the base for a fortified tower. Only in the nineteenth century was it uncovered again as the result of the archeological interests of Pope Gregory XVI.

And now it’s stuck on a traffic island at a tram stop, but this tomb has done its job in ensuring that Eurysaces the Baker hasn’t been entirely forgotten. You do have to exercise care getting across the road to see it, or just catch the tram!

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*Some of the photos are a little fuzzy because I had to take them with a long-ish lens. I wasn’t able to get as close as I’d have liked as that would have involved jumping a fence in plain sight of all the people waiting for their trams :/

Gold for the price of silver

This blog post is dedicated to Lady Trowelsworthy, without whom none of this would have been possible. Your Ladyship, you are a star

This weekend, the madness overtook me.

This happens sometimes.

Awesome mosaic museum, but it’s 2000 miles away in Gaziantep? No problem. Really cool and rarely-played play being produced, but it’s in Newcastle? Be rude not to. Loop playing…well, most places. Yep. I’m going to see them in Yorkshire, Liverpool, Glasgow (if I can get a ticket) and Iceland!

This time it was the combination of the opening on an infamous and long-inaccessible Roman archaeological site, and the fact that two of my friends were going, making me chew my knuckles with envy. But it was in 5 days time…in Rome.

Oh well, why not.

My two digging buddies, Kathryn and Badger happened to be on holiday in Rome at the same time (not together) and were meeting up to pay this visit. This is like a solar eclipse, the perfect alignment of two entities, in this case, one from Canada and the other from the US. Even better, there are few people I’d rather visit an infamous and long-inaccessible Roman archaeological site with so it was just too good to pass up, especially when Badger started taunting me on Facebook.

So off I went. On a day trip to Rome. This does actually sound crazier than it was in the end. Yes, I had to leave home at stupid o’clock to catch an early flight and, yes, it was a long day, but actually it was fine, if a little tiring.

And this is what it was all for.

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The Domus Aurea. The Golden Palace of Nero. You remember Nero; barking mad, played the fiddle, bit of a pyromaniac*.

The Domus Aurea is what you get to do if you happen to be the master of all you survey. You take over great swathes of land, in the middle of the metropolis no less, and build yourself a giant, ostentatious, marble-clad pleasure palace. Expense!? Pah! Inconvenience!? Phooey!

The land on which Nero built had previously been occupied by a smaller palace and by the urban villas of Roman families but the great fire that tore through Rome in 64CE swept all that away leaving a convenient area for this new Imperial pied-à-terre. There have long been stories about Nero’s possible involvement in that fire so perhaps this should be considered it a little suspicious.**

Suetonius, that arch Roman gossip-monger, reports (60 or so years after the fact):

There was nothing however in which he was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage, but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.***

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So it was pretty big.

There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals. **

This “pond” took up the area that is now home to the Colosseum so, clearly, “pond” is a relative term.

Anyway, our visit. Together with Kathryn, Lord Trowelsworthy, and assorted family members, we donned our hard hats and headed in.

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In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of‑pearl. There were dining-rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes.***

Ok, the gold, marble, ivory fretwork and perfume sprinklers no longer exist, but an amazing quantity of beautifully painted plaster survives.

There is also moulded plaster appliqué, much of which would originally have been gilded, and ceiling mosaics.

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This is all the more amazing because conditions  in the site are far from ideal. Following Nero’s death, the Domus Aurea was a bit of an embarrassment to the new Flavian Emperors, so they stripped out all the costly materials for use elsewhere, had the ground levelled and built large new public buildings on the site. As well as the aforementioned Flavian Amphitheatre known as The Colosseum, these also included the great Baths of Titus.

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The remaining buildings were preserved by being buried under these later constructions but since their rediscovery in the fifteenth century, water ingress has caused increasing damage. The site has suffered even further as, during the Facist era, Mussolini had a public park built around the Baths of Titus, i.e. right over the top of the Domus Aurea, and the roots of the many trees planted in this park have opened up holes through which water makes its way into the building below. The site is plagued by damp and running water, causing the frescos to decay and to become dislodged, so it’s unclear how much longer it would survive without significant intervention.

Running water was visible in a number of places and at one point we seemed to be in a little rain shower.

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The hard hats were necessary because the condition of the structure is pretty poor, with chunks having actually fallen out of the walls.

The site has actually been closed to visitors since 2008, having been open periodically before then, and it is now only open at weekends until August. The plan over the next four years or so is to completely remove the overlying park and carry out emergency repairs and ongoing resoration in order to safeguard the future of this important Roman building. If you want to see it this year, you’ll need to get a wriggle on.

When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.***

Phew! It sounds like Trimalchio’s Feast!

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So was it worth hopping a flight to Rome for? Of course 🙂 It’s only 900 miles, or 2.5 hours, so what the heck****. And I was lucky enough to have two of the best people to make this visit with. Kathryn and Lord T, I salute you both and wish you a smashing rest-of-holiday 😀

Oh yeah, and that tree near the site entrance is a loquat tree.

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* this is all slander, innuendo and outright invention. Probably. Possibly.

**Again, this is almost certainly slander of the most slanderous type. The fire was accidental and a not-uncommon occurrence in ancient cities. The really notable thing about this particular fire was the sheer extent of the damage caused.

*** http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Nero*.html

**** Please don’t hate me for this. I’m well aware of how lucky I am to be in a position to be able to do this. It’s just that I believe in taking legitimate opportunities where they arise. It could all go horribly wrong next week and then I’ll have to go back to not being able to do this.

For more information on the project to save and restore the site see here http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/cantieredomusaurea/en/