Some of you may already know that an archeological site exists within the compound of the US Embassy in Rome. In 1950, part of an ancient Roman cryptoporticus was discovered during the construction of a garage for embassy vehicles. The cryptoporticus is a frescoed underground passageway dating from the last half of the first century and early second century AD.
Two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar owned the land and gardens where the American Embassy now stands. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, title to the land passed to his nephew Octavius, later known as Octavian, and still later as Caesar Augustus. Octavius sold the land to his political ally and historian, Caius Sallustius Crispus, known to history as Sallust. Sallust transformed Julius Caesar's formerly rather simple villa into wondrous botanical gardens and embellished the property with classical sculptural masterpieces, beautiful fountains, and elegant structures.
The magnificent splendor of the Horti Sallustiani (Gardens of Sallust) soon became proverbial as Sallust competed with another Augustus ally, Caius Maecenas, whose own gardens were nearby. The Sallustian Gardens passed back into the imperial family in 20 AD during the reign of Tiberius. He and subsequent emperors built "country" residences there: in summer they could enjoy the lush gardens in the slightly cooler temperatures of the slightly higher terrain outside and north of the city walls. Later emperors delighted in both sets of gardens -- Nero, Vespasian, Nerva, and Aurelian particularly favored those of Sallust.
Among the many ornaments that the emperors brought to the Sallustian Gardens was the obelisk Hadrian raised, which was later moved to its present location at the top of the Spanish Steps, and a thousand foot long covered colonnade, which Aurelian used for equestrian practice, and, of course, the cryptoporticus. It is not known exactly when the cryptoporticus was built or who built it, but for many years, starting around the last quarter of the first century, it was the cool private passageway that connected the palaces of the emperors to other parts of the Gardens of Sallust.
Excavation and conservation of the cryptoporticus was carried out between 1996 and 1998 in cooperation with the office of Rome's Superintendent of Archeology, under the supervision of world renowned restorers, Paolo and Laura Mora. The restored section of the main passageway is approximately 10.9 meters long and 4.2 meters wide. Stretching in a northeast-southwest direction, it is about 2.5 meters below street level. An excavation to the left of the entrance reveals the depth of the Roman wall's foundation. Three of the corridor's original windows are visible, which once opened on the ancient Roman Road, Via Porta Salaria. Widows of this type were designated "gola di lupo" or "throat of the wolf", because of their tapered shape, widening toward the inside -- supposedly easy to get into but much harder to get out. Actually, the tapering was designed to allow maximum penetration of outside light. More importantly, the windows provided circulation of fresh air in the underground passageway.
The Roman frescoes in the main corridor are of the Antoninian-Severan period (160-220 AD) and are painted in what is now called Roman "Second Style", i.e., the second of several styles of painting discovered in early excavations at Pompeii. With their relatively simple perspectives, they create the illusion of an architectural setting. Linear bands and geometric elements frame mythological images, and men clad in togas are depicted in the postures of Greek orators. Flowering vines and vases also decorate the frescoes. Originally, marble panels covered the walls of the corridor below the frescoes. A few pieces of the marble remain as reminders of the once opulent interior.
At the far end of the excavated part of the corridor, the 1996-97 investigators found two partially frescoed rooms, situated opposite one another. Over the entrance to the room on the left is an antique marble lintel engraved with geometric designs. The frescoes in that room seem to pre-date those in the main passageway. In the back of the room is a small well, and on the opposite wall, behind a modern steel supporting girder, is a Renaissance era graffito of what appears to be a processional scene. In the room to the right of the main corridor, there are remnants of frescoes including a reclining female figure, a portion of a vase, and a brightly colored leaf decoration. These frescoes are of the same period as those in the main corridor.
During the excavation and restoration, evidence came to light that the cryptoporticus served other purposes down through the centuries. This is further evidenced by a burn on the left frescoed wall, caused by a hanging brazier, near the end of the excavated part of the passageway.
Close examination of the frescoed parts of the walls reveals some interesting paleo-Christian graffiti, evidence of a Christian presence in the passageway between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD, when clandestine (or at least private) gatherings may have been held here. There were periodic "persecutions" starting from the time of Nero when he used the Christian community as a scapegoat after the fire. Christians sought seclusion and privacy in underground passages and catacombs. Inscriptions scratched in the frescoes of the cryptoporticus indicate that the gallery may have served as an ancient Christian chapel and that it may have been dedicated to the memory of an unnamed martyr. Christian symbols, including the "chi-rho" (which looks like an overlaid P and X) are clearly visible and may have been incised about 220-250 AD. The word "martyr" is also scratched into the wall.
Some rare Roman-level fragments, including green serpentine designs and yellow African marble are exhibited along the sides of the passageway below the frescoes. A vitrine in the entrance to the Embassy Chancery Building displays some ceramic, glass, marble and terracotta pieces from both the 2nd century Roman and Renaissance periods.
The destruction of the Horti Sallustiani and the summer imperial residences occurred in 410 AD. The invading Visigoths under Alaric entered Rome through Porta Salaria (Porta Pinciana) after camping for 18 months during the siege in what are now the grounds of the Villa Borghese. It is hard to say who was hungrier, the besieged or the besiegers. Christians and pagans alike fled before the looting Visigoths. The Visigoths were also nominally Christian, so there was little rape nor was there plunder of churches. But those niceties did not prevent the wholesale demolition of the Sallustian Gardens.
They did not recover until the Renaissance period, when the area was first planted with vineyards and crops under the ownership of the Orsini family. Excavations in the cryptoporticus revealed Renaissance era pottery, glass fragments, and animal bones, indicating that perhaps the viniculturists had access to the cryptoporticus. In the small room to the right of the passageway is a small drain, which is believed to have connected with a Renaissance sewer system. There is also, of course, that Renaissance charcoal(?) graffito of the triumphal procession, mentioned above.
The Orsini vineyards, in the course of time, became the Villa Ludovisi: in the 1620s, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi quickly and sumptuously redesigned -- and even expanded -- the Sallustian Gardens. The property stayed in the Ludovisi family only until the last year of that century when it was settled by inheritance on the former Ippolita Ludovisi, who was, by then, the wife of Gregorio II Boncompagni. The family name lived on, however, in the hyphenated Boncompagni-Ludovisi line.
The gardens and its accumulated art, the newly built Palazzo Piombino (another of the Boncompagni-Ludovisi family's titles/names), and the by-then-forgotten cryptoporticus were all bought by the Banca d'IItalia and other purchasers in 1892 when Prince Rudolfo Boncompagni-Ludovisi found himself short of cash. The cryptoporticus was part of the Banca d'Italia sale, although nobody knew it was there. The Italian Government bought the Palazzo Piombino as a residence for Queen Margherita after the assassination of her husband, King Umberto 1 in 1900. Thereafter the property was called the Palazzo Margherita. The US government acquired the property by purchase after World War 2.
The Horti Sallustiani: http://www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/.Texts/PLATOP*/Horti_Sallustiani.html
Alaric and the Visigoths: http://www.mmdtkw.org/VAlaric.html
P.S.: 1. Why make a porticus "crypto", that is, why build it under the ground rather than on the top like a normal porticus? Well, there were several possible reasons. Underground passages were cooler, at least if you got the ventilaton right. The Romans knew how to do this. You could also run a cryptoporticus under other structures, which makes for better traffic patterns and less disturbance to the denizens of those other buildings. Finally, and often most importantly, a cryptoporticus did not block the view. Scenic vistas were something that the Emperors valued.
2. This article is an expanded version of a difficult to obtain US Embassy brochure about the ancient Roman cryptoporticus of the Horti Sallustiani. If you have this article, you don't need to search for the brochure.
Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2002.html for other articles.