November’s been pretty eventful in terms of classroom activities, as you all have seen through my previous posts. Site visit after site visit and nothing but fun and exploration with every one of them! I’ve had three more in this past week alone, not to mention that I’m going to another one tomorrow (location yet to be determined). From man-made hills of pottery, to ruins of an ancient bath complex/villa, and even to an art auction, I’ve had the chance to see even more of Rome than I ever thought possible! Let the fun begin:
Have you ever accidentally created a large, hill-like mound almost completely made up of millions of fragments of broken ceramic oil vessels (amphorae), which, over time, also became the home of wild rams? Yea, neither have I.
Monte Testaccio is exactly just that, however, what started off as an accidental dump heap soon became a community project over the decades. As we learned on that site visit, Rome was (at the time*) the world’s leader in olive oil production, and as a result, the city would export approximately 1.5 billion gallons of oil to foreign countries. Each amphora could hold about 18 gallons; imagine one of those plastic storage containers that go on sale during the back-to-school and holiday seasons. Dumping at this site has been dated all the way to the 1st century BCE, with the latest pieces being from 250 CE. Each piece of broken amphorae, also called a sherd, was meticulously placed in layers and mixed in with dirt to create an artificial hill near the southwestern bank of the Tiber River. Over the centuries, the layers hardened and created a sturdy, earthy hill that’s filled with sherds from over 50 billion amphorae. What’s exceptionally cool about this hill is that once you get to the top, you can see tons of extra sherds lying around everywhere, however, we were warned by our professor that scorpions and other evil creatures live on the hill and take refuge underneath the pieces of ceramic, so as a precaution, we had to kick any piece we wanted to pick up before actually grabbing it.
One piece a classmate of mine found was particularly interesting because it depicted a potter’s stamp on it, which was very rare to find, according to our professor. Every amphora had its potter’s stamp embedded into its handle, which either read the person’s first name or a business’ label. Before each amphora could be shipped out of the city, logistics also had to be printed onto a surface of the vessel, which included the merchant’s name, the weight of the amphora (both empty and with its contents), its destination, and its farm of origin, in order to control trade and deter fraud.
Apparently in recent times, the hill has become the home of a flock of sheep; unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any on our visit that day. 😦
*According to the Spanish olive oil company, Aceites Maeva, Spain is the current (as of 2007) world leader in olive oil produciton. Italy trails at second. (http://www.aceitesmaeva.com/Welcome/Aceites_Maeva___Spain,_World_Leader_in_Olive_Oil_Production.html)
The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Domus Aurea, and the Baths of Trajan
My most anticipated site visit finally arrived this past Saturday when we made our way through the Palatine Hill and into the glories it holds! Our first stop was at the Roman Forum, where we held part of lecture for the day, delving into the details of public activities, courthouses, worships, and other town gatherings. I’ve explained this area a bit in detail in one of my previous posts, but just to give a quick description of it, the Roman Forum was the general meeting area and common ground of the Roman citizens of ancient times. This area held a marketplace, a courthouse, a basilica, the home of the Vestal Virgins, and an area for public meetings (since a forum is simply an open space).
We walked around the ruins and wound around the remains of the senate house and the Temple of Vesta, near the House of the Vestal Virgins. Vestal Virgins were essentially young girls sacrificed by their families in order to serve as goddesses of the hearth, or physical representations of the home. They vowed to remain chaste throughout their service and partook in public ceremonies and kept a sacred fire (the eternal flame) alive. After their service, they were freed and were allowed to get married and start their own families.
We basically ran up the Palatine Hill in order to make our appointment at the Domus Aurea (Golden House)/Baths of Trajan because we were able to gain access to a formerly closed-off section of the ruins! I keep typing the name with a forward slash because structures’ positions. The site was originally known as the Domus Aurea, a large villa built by/for Emperor Nero around 68 CE that included immense gardens, porticos everywhere, great views of Rome below, and a lake that was later built upon to erect the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum. Decades later in 104 CE after the fall of Nero (and his eventual damnatio memoriae*), Trajan built a set of luxurious baths in Rome above the remains of the Domus Aurea, which he filled with large amounts of earth in order to erase all evidence of this once glorious villa. We each donned a cool, yellow hard hat and walked into the freezing excavation site of the newly opened wing of the baths.
Ironically, what was meant as a means of damnatio memoriae ended up creating the opposite effect; since the Domus Aurea was filled with earth in order to completely forget and destroy any trace of Emperor Nero, some of the painted frescoes from the villa were actually saved thanks to large amounts of dirt that preserved the rooms dry kept the paintings intact.
Soon after our trek through the ruins of the Baths of Trajan, we finally made it to the Colosseum! We held our lecture outside of the amphitheater while sitting upon marble ruins that ran along the sides of the structure; not the most comfortable seats, but how many times can you say you’ve sat at the Colosseum for lecture? Most of what we learned the arena that day, I’ve previously mentioned in my earlier posts where I talked about the Colosseum for the first time, so I won’t go into detail about it because I’ll bore you with numbers and statistics again. Just know that going inside of this beauty doesn’t ever get boring, at all. Something new, however, did happen on this visit: I went up to the second floor! I’ll admit, I didn’t know you could go up there until this site visit, so I had been skipping it every time I went to the Colosseum previously. I know, face palm.
*Damnatio memoriae (“damnation of memory”) was the mental obliteration of a person from everyone’s memory. In Ancient Rome, whenever an emperor or any important political figure was regarded as a failure and unworthy of the people’s support, the current ruler would implement damnatio memoriae on that person by having any of their statues, signs, monuments, and inscriptions detailing their name and legacy altered in such an egregious manner that even though the person’s face or name may be carved away from object, the fact that people can clearly see the altered piece serves as a reminder to remember to forget the person in question. Nero had this done to him because various misfortunes (both his fault and uncontrollable) were attributed to the perceived notion that he was a poor ruler.
This was actually a last minute site visit, since we were only recently invited to attend this event. However, our professor told us that she promised the organizers of this auction that we were all (a class of 13) art history students interested in pursuing a career in the purchase and acquisition of art pieces; of course we all were, of course. 😉
In a room meant to fit about 40 people sat and stood about 80 that day, all gathered around to either purchase pieces of art for their personal collections or for a museum/business they were part of, or to find out how much money each piece (if purchased) sold for. I expected the auctioneer to speak faster, but then again, Italian is fast enough as it is so I can’t imagine what high-speed Italian would sound like. People were sticking up their bidding cards up in the air, raising a hand up, or simply shouting out a higher bid in the hopes of acquiring a precious work of art or a piece of jewelry. People who couldn’t even make it to the auction that day were still “there” via telephone, telling the operator what item they wished to bid on and how much they were willing to spend. I noticed that those who didn’t have bidding numbers simply held the catalog book, which contained the starting price of each piece in the auction, and jotted down what price the piece eventually sold for, if it was even bid on at all. The auction was pretty cool to see in action because the people in attendance seemed very knowledgeable and genuinely interested in every piece that popped up on the central monitor, with prices going as high as 9,500 euro! One of the weird things I found out about some of the art pieces is that many of them, as listed on the catalog, didn’t state how or from where the piece was acquired; many were simply listed as coming from a “private collector” or didn’t even mention anything at all. Not having a chronology of ownerships and locations, known as provenance, really can either demerit and discredit pieces of art or give it more of a following if people think it’s been in the hands of various people prior to their acquisition. Our class didn’t stay for the auction’s entirety, but we stayed long enough to get a feel of what the art business is like and how much pieces end up selling for, even if we don’t think they’re worth as much or if they should even be sold at an auction in the first place.
By the way, it just so happened that I turned a year older last week, on the 19th; no big deal! 🙂 I celebrated my 22nd birthday in class on Monte Testaccio and later on with friends at the best Chinese restaurant in town, Ci Lin!