Putting up Ancient Columns in Rome

Christopher Siwicki

The Emperor Trajans Basilica Ulpia with the columns second storey of columns being installed 

Historical sites aren’t always what they seem. Many famous, seemingly well-preserved historic monuments, such as those on the Acropolis at Athens, are the product of anastylosis – the practice of restoring old buildings using the original material. Structures that have long fallen down are rebuilt from surviving fragments, in combination with new elements that were necessary.

Archaeological sites, as first excavated, often present a cluttered and fragmentary mass of material. Partially re-erecting structures help visitors understand what they are looking at and arguably increase the attractiveness of the site. It can also have an ideological dimension – Mussolini in Rome and Saddam Hussein in Babylon both utilized the restoration of ancient buildings for propagandistic ends.

Christopher Siwicki

The restored grey granite columns of the Basilica Ulpia with brick repairs in the foreground

Restoration can be controversial. How much of a building should be put back up? How much new material is it appropriate to include alongside the original elements? Should the new material be subtly integrated or made visually distinct from the old? Go too far and there is a danger of creating something misleading; be too restrained, and it risks leaving the remains incomplete and unsightly.

In the city of Rome, the practice of anastylosis goes back two centuries and continues today. One such program is nearing completion at the Basilica Ulpia, a once monumental structure intended to house legal trials and built by the emperor Trajan in AD 112.

The restoration project was planned in 2015 and made possible through a 1.5-million-euro private donation, although work only got underway in 2021 and in 2022 the donor was sanctioned by the EU following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Christopher Siwicki

The Emperor Trajan_s Basilica Ulpia with the columns second storey of columns being installed (1)

It involves placing three cipollino marble columns on top of four already standing granite ones, although these themselves were put back up in the previous century when the basilica was excavated. The result will therefore recreate the second-story height of the ancient structure.

The architrave separating the two orders of columns is entirely new, created from reinforced concrete and steel, which will be masked when completed.

The missing parts of the ancient marble column shafts have been repaired with brick inserts in order to differentiate what is new and old. This decision follows the technique employed for the early 20th-century restoration of the granite columns at the site but is anything but attractive.

Christopher Siwicki

For comparison, the columns of the portico of the Temple of Peace in Rome which were put back up in 2015

Whatever misgivings there might be about whether this is in some way faking history or if partially rebuilding a structure is the best use of funds when so many other ancient monuments are in need of repair, the result is impressive and effective in conveying a new appreciation for the sheer height of the basilica. All historical sites are to some degree curated, artificial presentations of the past. Too often archaeologists have left sites with little planning for what should happen after they finish digging, at least here they are now doing something.

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).

Subscribe to our free e-letter!


Latest News

10 Must-See Works at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A “must see” during any visit to

Charles III Reveals His First Official Portrait As King

Britain’s Charles III has unveiled his first official

Petrit Halilaj’s Exhibit of Play Ascends the Met’s Rooftop

Petrit Halilaj dedicates his new installation, 

Nasher Sculpture Center Exhibition: Haas Brothers Illuminations

Born in Austin, Texas in 1984, the Haas Brothers— twins,…

Christie's Website Hacked Days Leading Up To Major Auctions

There typically would be great anticipation leading up to

Art and Object Marketplace - A Curated Art Marketplace