At Large  February 28, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

New Capitoline Museums Exhibit Will Delight Archaeologists, Not Tourists

Courtesy Christopher Siwicki

Terracotta votives from the sanctuary of Minerva Medica, between 4th to 1st centuries BC.

‘Rome of the Republic: The Story of Archaeology’ is a new exhibition at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. On display are fragments of the pediment of Temple A in Largo Argentina, an array of anthropomorphic statuettes from the votive deposit at Minerva Medica, and some exceptional architectural terracottas from a temple on the via Latina.

Perhaps all of this doesn’t mean much to you? I’m not surprised. This is an exhibition for specialists in Roman archeology, and it makes few concessions to those who arrive without a solid understanding of its history. 

This is a shame, because some of the pieces in the exhibition are excellent, with many never having been on public view before. The displays are artfully curated, and the quality of the information is extremely high, with well-informed, original analysis. If only it were communicated better to those not already in the know.

Courtesy Christopher Siwicki

Bronze vessel with inscription in Greek ‘property of King Antiochus III’, perhaps taken from his court after Rome defeated his Seleucid empire in the 2nd century BC

The exhibition aims to chart ‘the characters and transformations of Roman society’ in the Republican period. In this, the curators have set themselves an ambitious task. The Roman Republic spanned five centuries and included significant cultural, artistic, and societal changes that any curator would be challenged to cover. To tackle the subject, the displays are divided into four themes ‘Sanctuaries’, ‘Palaces and Urban Infrastructure’, ‘Production and Trades’, and ‘Manifestations of Identity, Prestige and Social Ascendancy’.

It is too much. The section ‘Sanctuaries’ is the most comprehensive and successful, including a mixture of personal devotional objects as well as decorative elements of public temples. ‘Palaces and Urban Infrastructure’ purports to examine the evidence for water supply in Rome before the construction of the aqueducts, but the focus is more on the pottery that was found dumped in the various wells rather than on water per se. The ‘Palaces’ element is represented solely by some pieces of early mosaic flooring from houses underneath the Tabularium – interesting to those who study Roman architecture, but no doubt of less obvious interest to those who don’t know what the Tabularium was.

Courtesy Christopher Siwicki

Reconstructed statues of the gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva from a temple on the via Latina (1st century BC).

It is frustrating when exhibitions dumb down information on an unfounded belief that people need or want to be told things in clichés and with a conversational tone. “Imagine you were an ancient Roman, how would you feel?” But assuming too high a degree of specialist knowledge makes a narrative difficult to follow and engage with, like instruction manuals written by the very technicians who build the devices. ‘Rome of the Republic’ falls into the latter of these types.

The analysis provided in the panels is of a high standard, filled with detailed information and up-to-date, thoughtful interpretation. In some places, it is closer to the text of an academic journal article than a public exhibition. Citations of ancient authors are included – “Livius 41,2,7” – without reference to what they said or who they were. There are statements such as “As is well-known, the opening of Via dell’Impero (today’s via Fori Imperiali), between 1931 and 1932, led to the excavation of the Velian Hill” – but is this well-known? To Roman archaeologists, maybe. But to a regular visitor or tourist, unlikely. Such exposition would be better reserved in the catalogue, although this is yet to materialize.

Courtesy Christopher Siwicki

Assemblage of items from the cemetery on the Esquiline Hill (5th to 1st centuries BC)

‘The story of archaeology’ is the second part of the title of the exhibition. The majority of the objects on display were excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Rome underwent a dramatic urban expansion which necessitated the hasty excavation of large areas of the city. Much of the material remained hidden away in storerooms for decades and ‘Rome of the Republic’ continues a highly commendable trend in recent exhibitions by the Capitoline Museums to study, converse and display parts of this treasure trove

This is why Roman archaeologists should be excited about the exhibition. The pieces included in it are fantastic, historically significant, and rarely or never seen. Likewise, the displays – which include backlit display cabinets for votive offerings, and colorful reconstructions of temple pediments – are visually appealing. 

But there is a lingering feeling that maybe the casual visitor was not meant to see the show. Unlike some of the other recent exhibitions at the Capitoline Museums, which have been housed in the refurbished ground floor space, finding ‘Rome of the Republic’ requires a concerted effort. After entering the museum, you need to cross the courtyard and head to an inconspicuous stairwell; ascend three floors; wander through a series of rooms with no obvious signage to guide you; walk past the security guard and leave the museum into the café; continue through the café and up another flight of stairs and there you’ll find the show.

It is worth the effort, but it is an effort. 

La Roma della Repubblica. Il racconto dell’Archeologia is at the Capitoline Museums from January 13th to September 24th 2023 and is curated by Claudio Parisi Presicce and Isabella Damiani

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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