House of the Bucrania

Province

Italia
Italia (Pleiades)

Location

Ostia
Ostia (Pleiades)

Location Description

Ostia Antica, the port-city of Rome, was situated at the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber, where it flowed into the Tyrrhenian sea. Rome was situated further upriver, several kilometres from the sea. By its maritime position, Ostia also protected the landing at the mouth of the river; it controlled the trade that ran along it, and also the production of salt in the nearby salt works. Ancient historians believed that the city had been founded in the 7th century by king Ancus Marcius; archaeological evidence shows that the first settlement was founded as a colonia maritima in the 4th century BCE. and that it was already acting as the harbour of Rome in the 3rd century BCE.

From the 2nd century BCE Ostia (and later Portus) was the main port for the landing of wheat and other foodstuffs destined for the markets of Rome. It was a lively and cosmopolitan port city, where the great cargo ships unloaded produce from all over the Mediterranean and beyond. At Ostia the freight was transferred to riverboats to be sent upriver to Rome. This thriving commercial activity was accompanied by demographic and economic growth and by the presence of people coming from all over the known world.

Ostia is especially well known in archaeological and historical studies for its building history. The earliest Ostian houses are only known from sporadic traces, beginning from the 2nd century BCE. They were domus of traditional type, both in the simplest version, of direct Italic derivation, with rooms arranged round the atrium, and in the more complex Roman-Hellenistic form, in which the peristyle with the garden was added (e.g. the House of the Bucrania). They were single-family houses, generally single storied, or with an upper story limited to the height of the atrium.

The transition to a different type of house was marked by the so-called peristyle house, such as the House on the Via del Tempio Rotondo, which dates to the Augustan period, the one found below the Schola of Trajan (built 20-40 CE) and the House of the Thunderbolt, datable to the Vespasianic period (69-79 CE). In this latter type of house the rooms are laid out around a small central colonnaded courtyard, sometimes provided with a garden, more often paved. The later examples of this type include the first phase of the House of Fortuna Annonaria, with its garden (140-190 CE).

Ostia was heavily reconstructed in the 2nd century CE, under the pressure of the growth in population due to the completion of its ports. The new city followed new canons of utilitarian, high-density building, based on the multi-storied insula, which aimed at the efficient use of the little space available. A room with windows on the façade became a kind of atrium-room. The plan became enriched with smaller rooms and internal staircases that ascended to the private apartments of the upper floor. Independent stairways entered from the street provided access to the apartments on the second and upper floors. The most accomplished examples of this type of building date to the Hadrianic period, for example in some insulae that compose the so-called Garden Houses. In another type of insula the main source of light is not the street, but an inner arcaded courtyard.

The internal space was not always delimited by a portico; the Insula of the Paintings, comprising the houses of Jove and Ganymede, of the Infant Bacchus and of the Paintings, arranged according to an L-shaped plan, had its façade facing onto two streets, forming a corner, while its inner sides faced onto a fairly extensive garden, without porticoes.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the tenement houses of the less well-to-do fell into ruin or were patched up. Private building seemed limited to the erection of new patrician domus (e.g. the House of Amor and Psyche), built on the ground floor of already existing buildings and richly decorated with costly marbles. In these houses the gardens were chiefly an ornamental backdrop.

The internal garden of the house at Ostia described by St. Augustine (Confessions 9.10.23), which forms the setting for the conversation with his mother St. Monica in CE 388, is precisely of this type: a decorative backdrop that enhanced the peace and quiet of the interior of the house, an antithesis to the frenetic but vain life of the city outside.

Ostia gives us, all things considered, the idea of a heavily built-up city, which sacrificed much of its greenery in the attempt to exploit building land as intensively as possible. This must have been the case especially in the most intensive building phase in its history (1st-3rd century CE). As a consequence, the gardens laid out before this period were in large part destroyed by subsequent building activity. Later garden layouts, on the other hand, were wiped out by the frantic campaign of excavation in the years 1938-1942, conducted in preparation for the World Exhibition, never held due to the outbreak of the Second World War. But today, thanks to the new excavations being conducted at Ostia by Italian and international research groups, using the most modern methods of investigation, the gardens of the ancient city are finally being recovered. In all the cases so far ascertained, they were gardens laid out within peristyles/courtyards, associated with wells or fountains for irrigation. In some cases, the excavators found the classic perforated vases, in others large fragments of terracotta containers. As regards garden furniture, only the Domus of Fortuna Annonaria provided some reliable data.

Ostia in ancient times, however, must have been a good deal greener and richer in vegetation and flora than now seems the case; the ancient sources in fact speak of the flourishing cultivation of vegetables, leaks, melons and salads in Ostian territory. In the 5th century CE “the Isola Sacra is so lush and pleasant that it does not lack admirable grazing land, neither in the summer, nor in the winter months; in the spring, moreover, it is filled with such a profusion of roses and other flowers that it may be called, for its luscious flowering fragrance, the Lebanon of bountiful Venus” (Cosmographia: 25.25-30).

Location Plan

General Plan of Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica, General Plan.

Garden

House of the Bucrania

Keywords

Garden Description

In the summer of 2002 part of the hortus of the Domus with peristyle was excavated (in the west corner) (Fig. 1, d). At 80 cm under the present sea level, part of the garden of a Late Republican domus (called Domus with Bucrania) was revealed. The domus was built about 80-60 BCE and destroyed about 20-40 CE. A dark organic soil layer was found, at the same level as the floors of the building. A flower pot with four holes was found in this layer. The foundation of a low wall and several structures composed of splinters of tuff bound by bad quality mortar were probably part of the internal arrangement of the garden. Future excavation will certainly help to understand better these structures; the study of pollens and seeds is also in progress.

After the demolition of the House with Bucrania, the resulting consistent layer of debris was used to raise the ground level on which the House with Peristyle was going to be built, thus obliterating the garden. This layer was composed, among other finds, of a considerable number of painted plaster and stucco fragments of excellent quality that have made a reconstruction of the aspect of this area possible. There was a portico with brick columns, plastered and painted purple on the smooth socle, modelled with large flutings and painted white in the upper part; the portico was paved in opus signinum with inserted mosaic tesserae and chips of marble; its walls were painted in the second Pompeian style: large violet orthostats were delimited by brown fluted columns, surmounted by Doric capitals on which large green garlands with birds hung; above this there was a complex network of green and red header blocks and a frieze of yellow palm leaf on a violet ground. The ceiling was violet with an overpainted geometrical pattern. The architrave of the portico, open on the garden, was probably decorated by terracotta architectural plaques and a feline waterspout.

At present, this is the earliest hortus known in ancient Ostia.

Figures

Plan of the Schola of the Trajan

Figure 1: Plan (from Morard, Wavelet 2002).

Dates

80-60 BCE to 20-40 CE

Excavation Date

summer 2002

Bibliography

  • G. Calza, G. Becatti, I. Gismondi, G. De Angelis D’Ossat, H. Bloch, Topografia generale, Scavi di Ostia I, Rome, 1953.
  • R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia. (worldcat)
  • C. Pavolini, Ostia: Vita quotidiana. (worldcat)
  • Jean-Paul Descœudres, Ostia: Port et porte de la Rome antique. (worldcat)
  • E.J. Shepherd, P. Olivanti (eds), Giardini ostiensi, Bullettino della Commissione archeologica comunale di Roma, 109, 2008, pp. 69-98. (worldcat)
  • M. De Vico Fallani, C. Pavolini, E. J. Shepherd, M. Pileri, “Le sistemazioni a verde di Michele Busiri Vici per Ostia Antica: un caso di studio,” Rivista di Archeologia 43, 2019, pp. 165-176. (worldcat) (Rivista di Archeologia)
  • M. De Vico Fallani, C. Pavolini, E. J. Shepherd, M. Pileri, “Un sogno lasciato a metà: il progetto di Michele Busiri Vici per le sistemazioni arboree e per i giardini nella zona di Ostia Antica Scavi (1939-1941),” Bollettino d’Arte, in press. (worldcat)
  • T. Morard, Mélanges de l’École française de Rome: Antiquité Tome 115, No. 1 (2003), in press. (worldcat)
  • T. Morard, D. Wavelet, “Prolégomènes à l’étude du site de la Schola du Trajan à Ostie,” in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome: Antiquité, Tome 115, No. 2 (2002), pp. 759-815. (worldcat) (persée)

Pleiades ID

422995

TGN ID

7007018

Contributor

Thomas Morard

Publication date

21 Apr 2021