Museum  January 20, 2022  Christopher Siwicki

At Museo Ninfeo Visitors Walk Through Ruins of Luxury Roman Garden

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Interior View of Museo Ninfeo.

Roman ruins are not normally found in the buildings of insurance companies. Yet in the Rome headquarters of Enpam—the National Insurance and Assistance Body for Doctors and Dentists—visitors descend below ground to the remains of an ancient luxury garden complex.

Opened to the public in November 2021 and located on Piazza Vittorio just south of Rome’s main railway station, the archaeological site and new museum, ‘Museo Ninfeo’, is the result of almost twenty years of work, the complexities of which involved constructing a carpark below the excavation and a multi-story building above it. It is an excellent example of how the sensitive preservation of archaeological remains in their original location and modern urban development are not mutually exclusive.

The displays of the Museo Ninfeo are incorporated into the archaeological area, meaning that visitors view objects found at the site as they walk over and through the ancient structures. The museum tells the history of this specific part of Rome from the fourth century BC, when it was still located outside of the Republican-era city, through to the ninth century AD, when it was largely abandoned after the end of antiquity.

In its earliest historical phase, traces of plowing and planting show that the area was given over to agriculture. Then, in the second century BC, the ground was quarried for pozzolana, a type of volcanic sand which was used for producing concrete and was instrumental in the construction of Roman buildings.

Between the final years of the first century BC and the first decades of the first century AD, the senator Lucius Aelius Lamia transformed the terrain by covering over the quarries and laying out an expansive garden, subsequently known at the horti Lamiani. Although the Latin word ‘hortus’ is often translated as ‘garden’, these large estates were more akin to luxurious, private parks. Artfully landscaped and adorned with pavilions, water features, works of art, flowers, trees, and animals, horti were places for the wealthy of Rome to withdraw to and relax, away from the densely populated center. Lamia was not alone in creating such a space, and the gardens of other Roman aristocrats girdled the ancient city with artificial countryside.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Fresco wall painting.

Over time, many of these horti were acquired, through fair means or foul, by emperors. The horti Lamiani were possibly left to the emperor Tiberius when Lamia died, and evidence for the garden becoming imperial property can be seen on a lead water pipe, which is stamped with the name of the emperor Claudius (reigned AD 41-54). The lead pipe itself is part of an impressive irrigation system that enabled the cultivation of trees and plants and was fed by aqueducts bringing water from outside of the city.

During this period the park was further enhanced, first with the construction of a marble staircase to link its terraces and then with a small nymphaeum (a monument connected to water and dedicated to nymphs), decorated with blue and glass mosaics and encrusted with seashells. A fifteen-meter long wall was embellished with an elegant fresco painting, parts of which have now been reconstructed from the 90,000 fragments uncovered.

Fragments of coloured marble wall decoration (opus sectile). . Photo by Christopher Siwicki.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki. 

Fragments of colored marble wall decoration (opus sectile).

Fragments of colored marble wall decoration (opus sectile). Photo by Christopher Siwicki.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Fragments of colored marble wall decoration (opus sectile).

Fragments of colored marble wall decoration (opus sectile). Photo by Christopher Siwicki.
 Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Fragments of colored marble wall decoration (opus sectile).

The complex reached its most monumental state in the third century AD, when a large square surrounded by walls but open to the sky was built. The structure was paved with marble slabs and the walls decorated with imported colored stones cut and arranged into intricate patterns, a technique known as opus sectile.

By the end of the fourth century AD, the garden was in decline and, in the subsequent centuries, much of the marble was removed to be used elsewhere. Smaller more rudimentary structures were constructed with the once elaborate square and the surrounding area was likely given back over to agriculture. All these different phases of development are visible when moving through the museum, which is built into and around the archaeology.

Over 100,000 items (or fragments of) were discovered in the excavation and around 3000 are on show. The displays of these objects narrate both the specific history of the site and provide insights into Roman culture and society more broadly. Cabinets of seeds, bones, and seashells attest to dietary habits among ancient inhabitants. A bear’s tooth and a bone from a lion’s paw also suggest that exotic animals were housed in the area.

Display of cookware, tableware, and glassware.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Display of cookware, tableware, and glassware.

Arrangement of amphorae from across the Mediterranean. Backed by a map with info on the orgins of these vessels.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Arrangement of amphorae from across the Mediterranean.

An arrangement of amphorae—storage vessels for transporting foodstuffs such as wine and olive oil—shows how goods were imported to Rome from across the Mediterranean. Evidence found on site attests to products coming from Southern France, Spain, North Africa, Greece, and the Middle East over a 1300-year period, from the sixth century BC to seventh century AD. Elsewhere in the museum, in a very different context, amphorae were found broken in half and reused as planters for the vegetation of the garden.

Rome’s many museums showcase an extraordinary, perhaps unparalleled, assemblage of ancient material. Yet most of these collections focus on decorative objects, aiming to highlight the quality of ancient artistic achievements and to tell a grander narrative of Roman culture. Museo Ninfeo is one of the few museums to give equal weight to displaying more mundane items in order to tell the rich narrative of the development over time of a single part of the city.

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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