The subterranean Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio is set to open this spring following a $3.5 million excavation.
Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Cultural Activities and Tourism (MiBACT) plans to open the gardens of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula to the public. The imperial gardens, originally known as the Horti Lamiani, now lie below street level in Rome. The subterranean gallery will be known as the Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio.
Caligula’s imperial residence was situated on the Esquiline Hill, then at the edge of the city, now lying beneath the area around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. The Horti Lamiani were originally commissioned by a wealthy senator and consul, Lucius Aelius Lamia, who bequeathed the property to the bloodthirsty emperor. The compound included a range of villas, halls and shrines, set amongst a heavily curated ‘natural’ landscape of orchards, terraces and water features. Exotic animals were kept; some of which featured in the circus games at the Colosseum.
$3.5 million archaeological project
Historians had feared that the compound would never be recovered. However when pension management company Enpam bought a condemned 19th century apartment complex, they agreed to an archaeological dig at the same time as they were rebuilding above ground. The company also paid for the $3.5 million excavation which began in 2006 and continued until 2015. Archaeologists discovered a rich array of finds, including ceramics, glass, gems and coins. They also unearthed evidence of the natural life of the gardens – seeds of plants and trees imported from Asia, and the bones of lions, bears, deer and ostriches.
“The ruins tell extraordinary stories,” said Mirella Serlorenzi, the ministry’s director of excavations, talking to the New York Times. “It is not hard to imagine animals, some caged and some running wild, in this enchanted setting.”
A portrayal of wealth, power and opulence
The museum will offer fresh insights into the opulence of Caligula’s life. Elaborate mosaics and frescoes will be on display. The emperor’s bathhouse, in particular, was highly ornate, featuring marble sourced from all around the Mediterranean. A marble staircase and coloured marble and limestone pillars also attest to the lavish lifestyle of the emperor – even more extravagant than scholars had expected. “The frescoes are incredibly ornate and of a very high decorative standard,” said historian Daisy Dunn, in the NYT. “Given the descriptions of Caligula’s licentious lifestyle and appetite for luxury, we might have expected the designs to be quite gauche.”
Dunn hopes the gardens will bring new insights into Caligula’s life. “I doubt these new discoveries will do much to rehabilitate his character,” she says. “But they should open up new vistas on his world, and reveal it to be every bit as paradisiacal as he desired it to be.”
According to the ancient Roman historian Suetonius, the gardens are haunted by the ghost of Caligula, adding an extra frisson to the experience.