At Large  April 8, 2022  Christopher Siwicki

Exhibition Highlights the Man Who Excavated Ancient Rome's Forum

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

View of the Roman Forum.

Up until the late nineteenth century, Rome’s forum—the political center of the ancient Roman world and now one of the most visited sites in the city—was still hidden, buried under meters of debris and earth.

After the end of antiquity, the area was gradually abandoned. The ancient buildings either fell into ruin, their materials were plundered, or they were reused as churches, houses, and fortifications. The ground level was raised and the central space, once occupied by statues and monuments, had become so rural that it was known from the sixteenth century as Campo Vaccino (the cow field) owing to the presence of a cattle market on the site.

The remains of some isolated ancient structures, such the three columns of the temple of Castor and Pollux, were visible above ground and, although the areas around some of these monuments were excavated in the 1800s, the appearance of the forum as a whole remained a mystery.

This changed after Rome was made the capital of the newly established Italian nation in 1871. Highlighting the majesty of Italy’s past became a political and cultural priority and resources were pumped into the excavation, restoration, and study of the capital’s history. The flagship project was to expose the ancient forum.

Today, a new exhibition at the site showcases the work of the lead archaeologist who undertook it, Giacomo Boni (1859-1925).

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Marble frieze from the basilica Aemilia.

The forum as we see it today is largely a product of Boni’s excavations, carried out between 1898 and 1925. Although subsequent work over the last century has continued to uncover more of the ancient levels, the central space was cleared under Boni’s supervision. Key structures that were uncovered at this time include the temple of Vesta and the spacious house of her priestesses, the voting area known as the comitium located in front of the senate house, the speaker’s platform (rostrum), the sacred spring of the nymph Juturna, and the basilica Aemilia, a large, arcaded building used for law courts.

Found near the last of these monuments were a series of sculpted marble panels from the first century AD. These depict stories from Rome’s legendary history and are on display in the exhibition.

Boni’s excavations not only transformed the understanding of the forum itself, but of Roman history more broadly—particularly its early past. The discovery of a cemetery with burials dating back to the  tenth century BC was evidence for the site having been inhabited several centuries before the, until then, supposed foundation of Rome in the eight century BC.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

View of a 10th century BC burial.

Digging in the area in front of the senate house revealed a bounded space four meters by three meters paved in black stone. This was known by ancient authors as the lapis niger and is believed by some to have been the site of where the father of Rome’s legendary founder was buried.

Rather than a grave, however, below this unusual feature was the partial remains of a stone marker (cippus) inscribed on all sides in archaic letters and dated to the mid-sixth century BC. One of the words was interpreted as meaning ‘king’ and the discovery sparked a renewed debate as to whether the often-doubted stories of Rome once being ruled by kings, before it became a republic, were actually grounded in reality.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Reproduction of the cippus with archaic lettering.

Boni was a pioneer in archaeological method. While some of his approaches to excavation now seem crude when compared to modern practices, he was an early adopter of the study of stratigraphy—the careful removal and analysis of successive layers of material as a means of dating historical phases. Likewise, he promoted the importance of written, drawn, and photographic documentation of onsite work. Indeed, he even borrowed a hot air balloon from the engineering corps and launched it over the forum to obtain birds eye images of the whole site.

The excavations were also controversial. The emphasis was primarily on the ancient past, with the buildings of later periods torn down so that the ground below could be dug up. This included homes, businesses, and even the Baroque church of Santa Maria Liberatrice, where high explosives were employed to uncover the earlier Byzantine church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

Boni’s excavations ruined the picturesque beauty of the forum as painted by J.M.W Turner, among many other artists. Although Boni partially reconstructed the remains of some ancient structures and the site has an undoubted charm, the forum today lacks coherence and it is incredibly difficult for visitors to understand the innumerable, scattered architectural fragments that are a legacy of the early excavations.

Wikimedia Commons.

J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino, 1839. The Getty Center.

The majority of pieces on display as part of the exhibition are in the recently restored forum antiquarium, a small onsite museum set up by Boni and which, after many years, is open to the public. The exhibition also continues up onto the Palatine Hill, the ancient residence of Rome’s emperors overlooking the forum. Here can be found a temporary installation showing a recreation of Boni’s studio, but also a more permanent monument to the archaeologist. Amid the low hedges of a small garden is Boni’s grave, fittingly, caved into the shape of an ancient Roman funerary altar.

Giacomo Boni. The Dawn of Modernity is curated by Alfonsina Russo, Roberta Alteri, and Andrea Paribeni, with Patrizia Fortini, Alessio De Cristofaro, and Anna De Santis.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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