Mithraeum Reopening to the Public

From the Art Newspaper:

Few people have ever visited the long network of underground tunnels under the public baths of Caracalla, which date back to the third century AD and are considered by many archaeologists to be the grandest public baths in Rome. This underground network, which is due to be reopened in December, is also home to a separate structure, the largest Mithraeum in the Roman Empire, according to its director Marina Piranomonte. The Mithraeum has just reopened after a year of restoration work which cost the city’s archaeological authorities around €360,000.

To celebrate the reopening, Michelangelo Pistoletto has installed his conceptual work Il Terzo Paradiso (the third heaven), which he first presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale, in the gardens surrounding the public baths. The work, made of ancient stone fragments and pieces of columns arranged in a triple loop, represents the harmonious union of the natural and technological worlds, according to the artist. It will be on view until 6 January 2013.

Mithraeums were places of worship for initiates of the religious cult of Mithraism, which was centred around the Persian god Mithra and practiced throughout the Roman empire from around the first to the fourth centuries AD. A Mithraeum would usually exist underground, either in a cavern or beneath existing buildings, and was traditionally dark and windowless.

The conservation problems began when skylights were installed. The presence of sunlight coupled with the circulation of air altered the underground microclimate and caused algae to grow on the walls as well as water gathering in the 25 metre-long central hall. During the works the skylights were sealed shut, a collapsed vault was restored and the walls and flooring were cleaned. A lighting system was also been installed to compensate for the closure of the skylights.

The Mithraeum was discovered a century ago and was almost entirely devoid of decoration. Only a small and poorly conserved fresco of Mithra remained, although the site had other significant features including the fossa sanguinis, a two-and-a half-metres-deep square pit in which new initiates would be lowered to receive the blood of a specially sacrificed bull.

The Mithraeum is due to be connected with the other branches of the underground network to form a single visitors route, although two further adjacent spaces have still to be restored before this can happen. Restoration work is expected to take around two more years.

One thing I’ve been meaning to look into is to try to get a handle on how many “Mithraeums” there were in Rome … just a stone’s throw away from this one (I think) is one near the Circus Maximus.

Documentary of the Day: Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome (2004)

As always, not sure how long this one will stay up:

Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome (IMDB)

This documentary is not bad/pretty good and looks at the Circus Maximus, Trajan’s Forum and Market, Aqueducts, the Baths of Caracalla, Roman Roads, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum. When it is just talking about the buildings and their construction, it is very good, but in obvious places it tends towards sensationalism and seems obsessed with the idea that assorted emperors were doing these things to mend tarnished reputations with the people. There is an obsession, it seems, with ‘impressive statistics’, the sources of which are unclear to me. It also is kind of ‘blurry’ chronologically at times.

Despite that, there is a good list of talking heads:

My random notes as I watched:

Circus Maximus

- focus on Trajan and the spina (“the broken back of Rome’s enemies”)

- “newly discovered miracle building material” (!)

- assorted events

- 50 died every year (source?)

- charioteer celebrities, e.g. Scorpus, colours, and betting

Trajan’s Forum and Market … first the Forum

- Apollodorus the architect

- funded by the Dacian campaign

… then the Market

- construction methods (brick, rubble, concrete)

- corn dole on the 5th floor (source?)

Aquaducts

- 900 million litres of water to Rome a day

- Vitruvius, Frontinus

- 416 km network; purification tanks

- all about the arch and how it was made

Baths of Caracalla

- built to reverse a failing image

- soundbite from the psychiatrist declaring Caracalla a “genuine psychopath”

- a big list of statistics; not sure where they’re from

- strange shots of Pompeii frescoes under water when talking about mosaics in the baths

-  the hypocaust system

- what folks did there

Roads

- Appian Way

- 288,000 km network, eventually

- claim that 1/2 a km a day was being built at one time

- “core of Roman communication system” (but not explained)

- how road was built

Pantheon

- built by Hadrian (no mention of Agrippa!)

- Hadrian’s architectural obsession (including his villa)

- repeated mention that we don’t really know the Pantheon’s function

- five types of cement

- Hadrian and Apollodorus didn’t get along (executed)

Colosseum

- “the most infamous building in the world”

- Vespasian had to win back public support after Nero (?)

- usual stuff about building, seating, the awning

- V dies before completion; Titus’ opening games (usual)

- usual gladiatorial stuff; claim that 700,000 died there

Some good potential excerpts on Roman construction techniques, but not one which you’d probably show in its entirety to a class ..

Baths of Caracalla and Malaria

These are only semi-related, so first, the Royal Ontario Museum has put up a nice little video about the Baths of Caracalla with commentary by socialite-Classical-archaeologist Trinity Jackman:

… in which she mentions the prevalence of malaria at Rome. I wanted to know more of course, but discovered that Sallares’ book on the subject (Malaria and Rome) is prohibitively expensive, even in a Kindle edition, but I did manage to track down a very informative article by Sallares (et al) from Medical History: