When traveling through the Mediterranean world one encounters many examples of cultures utilizing the ruins of earlier civilizations for their own purposes. This brief article focuses on a few examples of this practice from two of the most often visited destinations of antiquity and the modern world, Rome and Athens.
Possibly my favorite single spot in all of Rome is the Capitoline Hill, with its mix of ancient Roman sculpture, Renaissance architecture and planning, and symbolic power across three thousand years of history. One of three buildings surrounding Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio at the heart of the Capitoline Hill is the Palazzo Senatorio, used by the Roman Senate starting in the 13th century and now housing the Mayor’s office. While most visitors enter the Capitoline Museums on the north and south sides of the Piazza, few take time to examine the largely hidden north-east wall of the Palazzo. There one finds a curious jumble of relief sculpture from the late Republic, the Roman Imperial age and even Egyptian-inspired reliefs of the Roman period. The Palazzo stands atop the very spot where the ancient Tabularium or City archive of Rome once stood. Many blocks from this structure were reused in the Palazzo’s construction. In 1453 Pope Nicholas V built a tower on the north-eastern corner of the building. Fragments of ancient reliefs amidst Baroque-era Papal inscriptions were placed on the wall of the tower during reconstruction work in 1655, forming a monument to Scipio.
Piazza della Bocca della Verita is named for the famous “Mouth of Truth” located inside the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which has foundations going back to the 6th Century. According to a many centuries old tradition, visitors inserting their hand in the mouth would lose the hand by the mouth snapping shut if the visitor had told lies. The Mouth was made all the more famous by a scene in the 1953 film ‘Roman Holiday” with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. In fact, this huge white marble disc with the face of a river god may simply have been a large drain cover during the Roman imperial period. Set into the wall of the Church during the middle ages, it was simply a large and unusual piece of construction material that took on a life of its own.
One of the most remarkable achievements of ancient Roman engineering was the transport of dozens of complete Egyptian obelisks across the Mediterranean by sea from Egypt, to be re-erected in the Eternal City. A modest but tasteful example of this is the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, just across the square from the Pantheon. Originally erected in Heliopolis, Egypt by Ramses II in the 13th Century BC, it was brought to Rome and re-erected for the public benefit in the 1st or 2nd Century AD. Much later, as the ancient Roman city was re-emerging during the periods of Renaissance and Baroque construction, it was moved by Pope Clement XI, taking its present position as the center of a fountain, in 1711. Its peak is decorated with the Clement’s papal arms.
While many buildings from Roman antiquity have been reused wholesale, converted to churches during the Middle Ages, for example, close observation of many structures built after the collapse of the western Roman Empire show clear evidence of the salvage and reuse of elements from now vanished or ruined ancient buildings. In the photo detail below, the porch of the 12th Century Church of San Clemente incorporates columns and column capitals that do not constitute a matching set. These were salvaged from older structures, possibly including the original 4th Century church on the same site and probably other ancient Roman buildings, as well. In fact, a 1st Century AD Roman temple to the god Mithras is preserved under the current building.
In many of Rome’s later Medieval churches, one finds floors, tomb monuments, pulpits, fonts and other elements decorated with detailed bands of colored marbles in a mosaic technique. Very different from the figural mosaics of antiquity with their small tessarae, these works were the product of the Cosmati family, craftsmen active in Rome during the 12th and 13th centuries. Utilizing the abundance of abandoned exotic marble columns and other architectural elements that littered large tracts of Rome and its surroundings during the middle ages, the Cosmati created a dazzling and rich new style that even gained popularity in other parts of Italy. Ancient columns in exotic stones could be sliced, carved, ground down and otherwise manipulated to create designs that suited tastes of that era, thus creating what became known as the Cosmatesque style.
Much like the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the Acropolis of Athens offers many often overlooked examples of antiquity being recycled for new uses in new ages. During the early Byzantine period, Athens was reduced to the status of modest provincial town. The Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion were converted into churches. Beginning in the late 19th century, restoration, reconstruction and excavation on the Acropolis hill cleared away many substantial remains of the Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Turkish periods, leaving us with the impression that the classical Greek monuments seen by today’s visitor are all that has ever stood atop the hill.
To dispel this impression I offer two images: one is a very large marble block from classical antiquity today resting about three-quarters of the way up the slope of the Acropolis Hill, carved with crosses and acanthus leaves in the style of late antiquity. The other is an even large marble block from classical antiquity also resting on the slopes of the Acropolis Hill that was re-carved with a lengthy Turkish inscription dating to the 16th or 17th century.
I hope this article will inspire the archaeological tourist to view the monuments of antiquity not so much as timeless icons of single cultures but as parts of a greater flow of history, often re-used, sometimes abused but always useful to those who found new ways of utilizing their materials, contexts or images.
This article is an expanded version of a brief “Travelogue” entry on the Clio website, For many more travelogue entries visit: http://www.clioancientart.com/id22.html