Museum  July 1, 2024  Christopher Siwicki

Rome’s "Drugstore Museum" is a Hidden Archaeological Gem

Photo by Christopher Siwicki

The large family tomb, cut into the rock of the hillside, with painted frescoes and mosaic paving.

To the much overused truism about death and taxes, another certainty can be added: dig anywhere in Rome and you will find ancient ruins. Within the basements of modern city apartment blocks, restaurants, and churches, the walls and floors of earlier buildings are found in abundance. 

This rings true outside the historic center as well. The sprawling suburbs of the ancient capital mean that even where today’s urban development stretches beyond the 3rd century AD circuit of walls, the remains of Roman tombs and villas are ever-present. 

Photo by Christopher Siwicki

The large family tomb (right), cut into the hillshide, with a smaller second tomb to the left.

Increasingly, there is a move towards making the archaeology found during construction accessible to the public. For example, the gym of a new hotel shares its space with an ancient porticus; arches of an aqueduct, built by Marcus Agrippa in 19 BC, can be found amid the lines of designer goods in a high-end department store.

Where opportunity (and money) allow, particular sites are even turned into small museums. Beneath the headquarters of a healthcare insurance organization, Museo Ninfeo showcases an ancient, luxury garden complex, belonging at one time to the emperor Caligula.

A similar opening, out in the suburbs and much less publicized, was “The Drugstore Museum” in Rome’s Portuense neighborhood, on the far bank of the River Tiber. 

Photo by Christopher Siwicki

The painted frescoes of the large family tomb, showing a banquet of bread and fish.

The museum’s name—  a reference to the 20th century building’s former use— is unhelpful in conveying what actually lies within. The commercial building was constructed over an ancient necropolis, a vast cemetery on the outskirts of Rome along the Via Campana road, and sunk into its floor are the remains of five Roman tombs. 

These funerary monuments date between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD and evidence both the Roman practices of cremation and inhumation (burial of the body intact). The largest is a family tomb, dating AD 80-120, cut into the volcanic rock of the hillside. At its back is a large niche, probably intended to house an urn containing the burnt remains of the head of the family, although restructured at a later date to accommodate someone else’s burial

Photo by Christopher Siwicki

A selection of amphorae, ancient storage vessels for foodstuffs.

To either side are frescoes depicting fish and bread, items common to ritual funerary banquets. On the floor, a mosaic in black and white tesserae was added in a second phase. 

This mosaic shows the mythological story of Lycurgus (King of the Greek city of Thrace) assailing the nymph Ambrosia, who is turned into a vine by the god Dionysus, allowing her to ensnare the axe-wielding attacker. Both Dionysus and representations of metamorphosis were popular subjects for the decoration of tombs.

Just to the left and attached to this large tomb is a smaller, brick shrine with an entrance flanked by two elegant pilasters moulded from lime plaster. The interior was painted with frescoes imitating marble, and the remains of four individuals, sealed in their cinerary urns, were found within.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki

The smaller tomb with pilasters moulded from plaster and painted interior.

Elsewhere in the museum is a large columbarium— a communal tomb. Only one side is preserved and has space for 40-50 cremations, so we might anticipate the monument was originally intended to hold up to 200. The walls are painted in a simple white wash, with red bands framing the niches, which held the deceased's ashes. 

Scratched above one is the name “Ianuriae.” Again, evidence for changing burial practices in Ancient Rome, and the reuse of tombs over generations, is indicated by the later placing of four sarcophagi containing full (unburnt) bodies within the monument, one of which actually contained two skeletons.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki

The partially-finished marble bust of a woman, likely from a sarcophagus.

These tombs are displayed in-situ (they have never been moved), but placed around the museum are finds from other recent excavations. This includes a charming, but unfinished, bust of a woman, likely from a sarcophagus, carved in Proconessian marble from Marmara Island near Turkery. Also on display is a selection of terracotta amphorae (storage and transportation vessels) which brought food, wine, and oil from across the Roman Empire

The museum is small and well-curated (although the decision to bathe the ruins in blue and purple lighting is baffling). Free to enter, it seeks to encourage community interest in local heritage, repurposing a defunct commercial building to show that exceptional archaeological remains exist beyond the historic center of the city.

Next to the museum, mounds of earth indicate ongoing excavations in other parts of the necropolis and the hope that more will be revealed in the future.

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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