Garden of the Flavian Imperial Palace
Italia, Regio I (Pleiades)
Mons Palatinus (Pleiades)
Garden of the Flavian Imperial Palace, Palatine
- altar (religious fixture)
- amphora (storage vessel)
- canal (waterway)
- column (architectural element)
- lead (metal)
- piping (plumbing system component)
- marble (decorative element)
- niche (architectural element)
During the period of Domitian (81-96 CE), a large artificial platform with massive substructures at the north, east and west was completed at the site of the Vigna Barberini. On this platform stood a large structure with a curvilinear plan at the south, and with colonnaded aisles on the east and west (the north is not excavated) that enclosed a vast garden (Figs. 1-2). Over one-third of this garden area has been partly explored, another third was irrevocably destroyed when the later Temple of Elagabalus (Elagabalium) was built, and the final third, at the north, remains to be excavated.
Only a few elements of the ancient garden were found in place. In particular, a large rectangular basin (measuring 8.70 meters by 5.30 meters), ornamented with alternating rectangular and semi-circular niches faced in marble, was on axis with the center of the curved façade. Shortly after construction, settling of the soil used to create the artificial terrace caused a rapid degradation of the whole northern section of the garden. During Hadrian’s reign, refurbishment and re-construction was undertaken, the results of which lasted up to the end of the second century CE. This second phase is better recorded than the first, but it is possible that care was taken to preserve at least some trees of the Flavian period.
The garden was enclosed by a portico, presumably an ambulatio - a common feature of Roman gardens (Figs. 3-4). Running parallel to the east and west colonnades was a wide, clay-paved allée bordered by medium-sized trees, possibly laurels. The existence of these plants and their original position are attested by pits left when the plants were dug out at the time of the destruction of the northern section of the palace. Running parallel with these allées, the central axis of the garden terminates at the wide bay in the center of the curved façade at the south. Approaching the central garden axis, which terminates at the wide bay in the center of the curved southern façade, the hedge follows the curve then ends, on each side, at a small fountain. These two fountains flank the central axis and frame the experience of visitors entering or exiting through the main doors. Only their bases were preserved, consisting of a marble slab constituting a shallow basin to receive the water flowing from the fountain (Fig. 5). What remains of this fountain is a circular print measuring 0.69 meters in diameter. At the center of the slab is a hole for a lead pipe that fed the fountain. The water flowed down onto the base and out through an opening bored into the marble edge. From there, it flowed into a canal connected to the main water collecting system.
Terminating the central walk near the fountains is an arrangement of other ornamental features (Fig. 4). A small masonry element is found at the center, with only the base preserved; possibly that of an altar. It is flanked by two masonry blocks covered with white marble, marking the limits of the central allée. Six further, similar elements have been uncovered slightly farther north, where the central walk crosses transversal ones (Fig. 4). These masonry blocks, whose lower part alone is preserved, differ from one another by their shape and plan level, which is at times square and at times rectangular, suggesting that they served to support garden statues, rather than a pergola.
The central area, framed by peripheral paths and bordered by the laurel (?) hedge is subdivided by a network of paths, already briefly mentioned when describing the ornamental features that are mainly positioned at the start of the median, north-south allée. A parallel allée has been identified during the excavations, and a third can be therefore assumed to lie to the east of the median allée. The excavations have allowed identifying two further allées laid orthogonally to the former (Fig. 4). We do not know whether this kind of layout extended to the entire area of the garden, but it is the hypothesis we propose to adopt. The clay-paved allées, many times re-paved over time, define flowerbeds where Jean-Paul Morel uncovered several large amphorae used as flowerpots. Purpose-made ollae perforatae, or planting pots, are also present in this 2nd century garden (Fig. 6). Some were positioned at the corners of the masonry bases located at the start of the central allée (see above). Should we revive an area planted with tall trees, they would presumably be in the section of the garden not explored so far.
The imprints from lead pipes identified during the excavations, as well as the study of the sewer network, lead to the restitution (?) of a third fountain, presumably of greater importance, positioned on the central axis (possibly on the spot of the future Temple of Elagabalus or further north). On the same axis, the excavation has brought to light the remains of a building widely cut off (or truncated) by the construction of the Severan Temple, then by early excavations. The few wall fragments that have escaped the destructions do not allow us to reconstruct their plan. These walls, rather thin, suggest a light architecture – presumably a garden kiosk –richly adorned, as evidenced by two column bases with carved leaves and shells.
The water conveyed by the drain associated with the fountains flowed into a large sewer set up at the foot of the portico’s colonnade, around the garden. At its top, a 1.80 meter wide canal, reveted in marble and bordered by a plinth, gathered the rainwater flowing from the roof (Fig. 7). It may also have been used to cool the air on hot days and for purely decorative purposes to create a reflecting pool in which the portico and the vegetation were mirrored. This could presumably be achieved by closing the manholes: it is in fact the limited number of manholes that suggest the above hypothesis.
All through the 2nd century, a series of refurbishments took place that aimed to slow down the degradation of the Flavian buildings, which were threatened by the instability of the level fills of the terrace. Despite such efforts, this complex of buildings was destroyed as a consequence of the fire that raged in the heart of Rome in 191/192 CE, and the construction of a new monumental complex was undertaken.
OTHER PHASES OF THE VIGNA BARBERINI SITE:
Garden of the Peristyle of the Julio-Claudian Domus
Garden of the Temple of Elagabalus
1st century - 2nd century CE
- M. Royo, Domus Imperatoriae, Topographie, formation et imaginaire des palais impériaux du Palatin, Rome, 1999. (worldcat)
- F. Villedieu and N. André, Propositions pour une reconstitution de l'édifice flavien et de l'ensemble monumental tardif de la Vigna Barberini (Rome, Palatin), Actes du Colloque: Rome An 2000 (Caen, 2003). (worldcat)
- J.-L Desnier, “Una borsa persa durante i lavori di terrazzamento” in F. Villedieu, ed., Il giardino dei Cesari, Exhibition catalogue (Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano, Oct. 2001- Jan. 2002), Rome, 2001, pp. 57-58. (worldcat)
- F. Villedieu, “Il corpo settentrionale e i giardini del palazzo imperiale flavio” in F. Villedieu, ed., Il giardino dei Cesari, Exhibition catalogue (Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano, Oct. 2001- Jan. 2002), Rome, 2001, pp. 59-71. (worldcat)
- J.-P Morel, “Il giardino adrianeo” in F. Villedieu, ed., Il giardino dei Cesari, Exhibition catalogue (Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano, Oct. 2001- Jan. 2002), Rome, 2001, pp. 73-75. (worldcat)
- S. Leo, “Vasi da fiori” in F. Villedieu, ed., Il giardino dei Cesari, Exhibition catalogue (Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano, Oct. 2001- Jan. 2002), Rome, 2001, pp. 75-76. (worldcat)
- F. Villedieu, La Vigna Barberini II- Domus, palais impérial et temples: stratigraphie du secteur nord-est du Palatin, Rome, 2007 (RomaAntica, 6). (worldcat)
17 April 2021