Finding what you are Looking for: Ostia, Palazzo Barberini & More .  Part 4 of 5

Ancient Mosaic in Baths , Ostia Antica . Image: Denise Meagher

I tossed and turned Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning but was none the less excited about our proposed site visits for Wednesday. Our day begins with a trip to Ostia Antica, a large archaeological site close to the modern town of Ostia , about 25 kilometres southwest of Rome. We had booked our train tickets for this  journey prior to leaving Ireland.

 “Ostia”  is a derivation of “os“, the Latin word for “mouth” – so in this context, the mouth of the River Tiber. As this then suggests Ostia was Ancient Rome ‘s seaport, but due to silting the site now lies three kilometres from the sea. The site is remarkable for its magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics. Some were used as a type of ‘shop front’, where ships could dock to offload products and these mosaics would identify the correct stopping point . You can see an example of this from my image below and another example – of the bath mosaics we saw, in the opening image.

‘Docking Shop Front’: Image: Denise Meagher

To refer again to an authority on Rome and its hinterlands, Amanda Claridge has several references to the importance of Ostia in her book and one relates to the housing and shop fronts. She writes that ‘Domus was the traditional town house of old Rome , occupied by a single wealthy family with their retinue of servants , containing an atrium in which the master of the household would receive clients and friends , generally at least one peristyle garden , and other courts. Insula can be broadly interpreted as a multi-storey apartment block accommodating several families or single individuals , the natural response to enormous influxes in population in the C2 BC.  Both might be built by speculators and rented out for profit and ground floor street frontage was frequently given over to shops or small workshops. Only fragments of either can be seen in the city but Ostia has many different examples, several preserved to the third floor’. (pp 58)

Ancient Kitchen Ostia town house: Image: Denise Meagher

As my readers will know I love to make breads so I was interested to look at this preserved kitchen we see in one of the town houses (above). This structure in the photograph is a thermopolium  – a hot food stall. It  interested me to note the ancient Romans used imagery relating to cooking in their kitchens as you can see from the piece hanging over the food stall.

However I discovered in our 17th Century Dutch module which we studied last term that in the Netherlands, in the 17th century at least, it was rare that one found art, connected to food, in the kitchen of Dutch homes from this period. This was most likely because rooms had a multi-functional role.

Rembrandt’s Kitchen . (Image Wikimedia)

In June I managed to go to Amsterdam for two days to see some museums and I will write about this in a later short blog, not in this series. I visited the former home of the famous artist Rembrandt (1606-1669) and the house where Anna Frank and her family lived (where they tried to hide to protect themselves from the Gestapo). In the image above , from the Rembrandt House Museum, you can see that there are no works of art that relate to food or cooking in the kitchen. There is a bed in the kitchen similar to the one made famous by his work of Saskia in bed, in the Salon of the house.

Returning to Italy and jumping to the 18th century – various ‘agents’ had licences from The Vatican to excavate sites such as this one in Ostia in search of ancient statues or other artifacts which were big in demand in Europe and could be sold by the agents to the young people travelling on their educational grand tours who wanted to bring items of antiquity back home on their return.  

Despite all the looting of antiquities, though obviously this was not how those procuring or buying of them interpreted their endeavours at the time, some sights in Ostia still have statues like at the Temple of Mitra . We were very  fortunate to gain access the Temple as usually this is not allowed. I won’t go into the details as to how this came about,  but suffice to say that sometimes ground maintenance and strimming can have very fortuitous reverberations for the art historical student!

‘Mithraeum of the Terme del Mitra’ Image: Denise Meagher

This is the Mithraeum di terme del Mitra which means it is the Mithraeum associated with ancient baths. It is an underground site with the skylight above the sculpture which you can see in my photograph. A central lane and benches on either side is the standard layout where the worshipers  of the Mithras could sit and /or eat a ceremonial meal.

 So, what is Mithraism I hear you ask?. It is of course the worship of Mithras, a religion that existed around the same time as Christianity and they both have quite a lot in common.  Mithraism, like Christianity, was an Eastern religion, probably originating in mid First Century AD.  Mithras had a miraculous birth. The God sprung to life from solid rock on the 25th of December.

In my photograph above and on the information board pictured below, you can see Mithras killing a bull – something that was common in Persian mythology and obviously represents some type of sacrificial ritual though this is much debated and as I am no expert on the subject, I would prefer to let those interested read more for themselves. The original of the statue is preserved in a museum for the same reasons Marcus Aurelius’ statue was taken from its original site for preservation purposes.


  Information Board: Image: Denise Meagher


Unlike Christianity however,  Mithraism was practiced by men, exclusively.  But then again most religious rituals would feature men in the main role which might say little about the reality of women and others equally involved on the periphery.

Below we see the theatre at Ostia , used for concerts, theatre and sometimes political use.

Theatre at Ostia Antica  . Image:  Denise Meagher


Coincidentally , on June 17th , I was at O’Connell House in Dublin for the  Madden- Rooney public Lecture in memory of the late Seamus Deane, delivered by Professor David Lloyd and the launch of Deane’s book Small World: Ireland  1798-2018 . Before this a former Professor of mine from NUIM Christopher Morash gave a lecture entitled ‘The Paradox of National Theatre’ and in his talk he made reference to an amphitheatre that reminded me immediately of the one pictured above we saw in Ostia – but this one was constructed in a place one might not expect: on Achill island.  The architect Noel Moffett (1912-1994) designed this outdoor theatre for a man called  Major Dermot Johnston Freyer (1883-1970) in 1941. Freyer had a house in Achill and was an Irish language and music enthusiast. Moffett was educated in Cork and Dublin and completed his BA Arch degree in the University of Liverpool . He returned to Ireland during the First world war and the two met through mutual artistic connections. Hence he got the contract.

Made from all natural materials from the bog and mountain area in Achill, it truly made for an amazing sight as you can see in this image below – modern landscape architecture at its best.

Noel Moffett Architect Open Air Theatre, Achill, Co. Mayo 1941 Image Irish Architectural Archive

Of course Moffett’s brilliant idea drew inspiration from similar Greek and Roman style amphitheatres like the one we sat in , at Ostia (pictured again, below) which too was styled on a Greek model . Though Ostia was built at a sea port rather than in a mountain, it struck me both theatres were deeply connected to the seascapes of their respective countries and were most probably conceived of, in these locations, to send a message to the broader world. In the Roman context, perhaps, as a symbol of its emerging Imperial ambitions in trade and politics (though they would have been a more common theatre design in Italy, obviously) and in the Irish case of the importance of our own ancient language and history, not to mention our recently acquired Independence.

Sitting in the Theatre listening to a colleague’s presentation: Image:  Dr. Philip Cottrell

Chris Morash quotes Seamus Deane in an essay from the book Chris edited with Nicholas Grene, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre ( 2016). In a chapter called “Places of Performance” he writes, ‘If, as Seamus Deane writes, ‘soil is what land becomes when it is ideologically constructed as a natal source’ this was a theatre of the soil’. Although owing more than a little debt to a classical Greek amphitheatre in its shape and later described as ‘one of the most eccentric architectural schemes ever undertaken in Ireland’ Moffett’s Achill theatre can still claim to be the purest attempt to produce an indigenous Irish place of performance in the first half of the twentieth century. It was however predictable doomed by West of Irish weather and demographics (the nearest town Keel, even today, has a population that would barely fill the seats); there are no records of performances in the space, and Moffett’s visionary performance space is now an indistinguishable hollow in the surrounding  heather completely reabsorbed by the materials from which it was built’ . (pp  434,  my emphasis).

Once again ,I am fascinated by the connections across time and space noted here – much to think on as we take the return train back into the city.

Trees that reach Ostia: Image: Denise Meagher.

In the early 20th century, under Mussolini, massive excavations were undertaken from 1939 to 1942 but these were interrupted when Italy became a major battlefield of  World War II. The trees they planted, (see image above) the umbrella pine trees,   form a type of corridor and come all the way out from the city to Ostia.

Our next stop, after a refreshing cappuccino is the Villa Giuila.  We visited many villas on the trip and I have yet to write about my favourite one – Villa d’Este, which I will in my final blog in the series.

Example of wall Fresco over door: Villa Giulia. Image: Denise Meagher

The Villa Giulia was built by that amazingly supportive patron of the arts I discussed in earlier blogs – Pope Julius II in 1551– 1553 on what was then, the edge of the city .

Nymphaeum at Villa Giulia: Image Denise Meagher

I am particularly struck by the nymphaeum and other garden structures. A nymphaeum in ancient Greece and Rome was a monument consecrated to the nymphs especially those of Springs. The nymphaea of the Roman period was not used in a sacral way but had only a purely recreational purpose.  The inspiration for them was borrowed from similar Hellenistic constructions and the majority of them were rotundas like this one , adorned with statues, paintings or mosaics. Note also the mosaics are quite similar to those we saw, in the baths, in Ostia.  

They  also had the practical use of being a relatively cool place to siesta on a  stifling summers day, something that Renaissance architects and in this case the patron Pope Julius 11 would have appreciated.

This villa was designed under the supervision of the Pope but also Giorgio Vasari, another name I mentioned before and it is understood Michelangelo worked here. Villa Giulia is considered a fine example of  Mannerist architecture.

Today  Villa Gulia  is publicly owned and houses a collection of  beautiful Etruscan art and artifacts .

Etruscan Vases at Villa Giulia: Image: Denise Meagher

The Etruscan’s territory (sometimes known as Etruria) , centred on the area  bounded on the north by the Arno River, on the south by the Tiber and on  the west by the Appennine mountain chain.  Their  urban civilization reached its height in the 6th century BC, i.e. before the rise of  the Romans. Many features of Etruscan culture were adopted by the Romans, their successors to power in the peninsula.

We move on to another famous landmark in Rome: The Spanish Steps.

The Spanish steps  (pictured below) were designed by Francesco De Sanctis (1679 – 1731) a late Baroque Italian architect, with  Architect and Engraver, Alessandro Specchi (1668 – 1729).  Some suggest they were intended to represent, figuratively and metaphorically, the close relationship between the Sacred and the Eternal city, shown through the elevation and vastness of the monument. I do not know the veracity of this. The longest and widest steps in Europe are also an important landmark in Rome as they host events and are home to Italian traditions.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta di Piazza di Spagna , from Veduti di Roma ,1750 Yale University Art Gallery

Piranesi , an example of whose work we saw in my last blog, was captivated by the antiquity of Rome from a very young age  – the temples, palaces, bridges, and other ancient monuments. The lavish spending  of the grand tourists of the 18th  Century stimulated the economy and offered opportunities for Piranesi.  He started his career in Rome with the traditional local trade of vedutismo. He incorporated the painterly techniques he had used to portray the Venetian landscape where he grew up with an approach he developed combining the anatomically correct view of a monument with the dramatic impact and emotional experience of the view the spectator might experience .We will see this again in the final blog when I discuss Hadrian’s Villa. Piranesi purposely misrepresented scale and proportion in order to replicate the intense emotional experience of what it would be like to view a place ,like the Spanish steps, in person. 


The Spanish Steps: Image : Denise Meagher

My humble photograph shows the lovely flowers that were in bloom when we were there in late April. We climb those steps now on route to our final stop of this day.

The Palazzo  Barberini, pictured below – an impressive sight to walk towards . A fine example of Baroque architecture , I loved the highly decorative and almost theatrical gates at the entrance, suggestive of what we will see inside the gates.

Palazzo Barberini  Entrance. Image: Denise Meagher


I am excited to see the famous ceiling by Pietro da Cortona Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power from 1639  that enhances the main ballroom of the building.  

Pietro da Cortona Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Powerfresco ceiling, Palazzo Barberini  Image : Wikimedia Commons

I am also eager to see some of the wonderful artwork the museum boasts such as paintings by Pompeo Batoni, Francesco Guardi , Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) among many others. As the baroque style would suggest the Palazzo Barberini  dates back to the 17th-century and faces the Piazza Barberini and today  it houses  the main national collection of older paintings in Rome. The main block of the palazzo presents three tiers of great arch-headed windows, like glazed arcades, a formula that was apparently more Venetian than Roman.  

Palazzo Barberini Facade (detail). Image: Denise Meagher

You can see more famous works by Caravaggio and Raphael , all names that have featured many times now in this blog series. Raphael’s La Fornarina is particularly beautiful, and many believe the woman portrayed was the one he deeply loved, though he was engaged to a Cardinal’s niece at the time.

 Rafael Sanzio de Urbino,  La Fornarina , 1518/1519.

It is also suggested that the positioning of the hands of La Fornarina are similar to those of the Capitoline Venus, a 2nd century AD statue which, as the name suggests, is at the Capitoline  Museum. This Roman statuette is inspired by the famous Greek statue from 350 BC, carved by Praxiteles whose work created a cult  in honor of this beautiful female nude , the Goddess Aphrodite, the Goddess of love. In the Hellenistic and Roman period many copies were made and the Romans renamed their version of the  Greek Goddess,  ‘Venus Genetrix’.

Capitoline Venus, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Interesting, and to relate this back to Ireland, there was a Venus from this period at Russborough House which the First  Earl of Milltown, an avid collector of antiquity pieces, Joseph Leeson bought back from one of his tours. It is no longer in Ireland but it is believed something quite similar resides in a museum in California. We have a long story of lost treasures in Ireland that space and speculation does not permit me to explore here.

Copy of Similar Venus now in Russborough
Image : Russborough Website

I am interested to reach the rooms showing some wonderful works by Venetian artists and on route this painting catches my eye, reminding me of our first day in Rome when we saw the statue of Marcus Aurelius. This is a capriccio by Panini , whose work we have seen before in this series.  

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Ruins with the Statue of Marcus Aurelius 1750~. Image: Denise Meagher

Another gem – an example of the work by the famous portrait artist Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) is the huge and very impressive portrait below and this brings us back to some of the characters I discussed in the first blog in the series.

Pompeo Batoni, Portrait of Senator Abbondio Rezzonico , 1766

This huge portrait depicts the newly appointed Senator of Rome, Abbondio Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII – brother to the Rezzonico who restored the building where I did my presentation in Venice. The portrait is beautifully detailed.  Abbondio ‘s position was a very important one in Rome – the highest civil magistracy, an appointment made directly by the Pope. His clothing is rich and luxurious in color and the fabric is golden brocade and red silk. He is holding a small regal ivory sceptre. The putto below, not something that often features in Batoni’s portraits,  holds a pair of scales adorned with an olive branch. This is a symbol of justice and the assurance of peace. The Gallery’s website states that: ‘  A lictor’s fasces lies on the floor, the emblem of authority in ancient Roman tradition. The artist has devised the setting in a stenographic and symbolic way, which is far from realistic’. The statue of the goddess Roma, with a spear and helmet behind Rezzonico actually stands at the entrance to the Palazzo Senatorio, whose façade can be glimpsed closing Piazza Campidoglio. But such improvisation was customary in portraiture of this time. It is a fine example of Batoni’s incredible skill , not just in capturing his sitters and their dress but his use of symbols from Rome in his work to really enhance the work. We can see Marcus Aurelius again here in the background.

All these hugely influential people in the history of art, I have mentioned so often ….start to seem familiar to me now, as though I walked these streets and sat in these magnificent palaces, with them. My mind wanders back to the Rezzonico family’s activities in Venice. Their influence may have waned there , when the Republic fell, but the Rezzonico family had wielded such power outside Venice for many decades.

Our day almost over I have decided to-night I reluctantly must return to the hotel and rest, and hard as it is , to leave the wonderful company of our group, and the art historical chat over our dinner, which I miss since the academic year ended, tonight I have to take time to think through many things. But as two of our colleagues from the Netherlands were celebrating their King’s birthday on this day ( a celebration that is customary in Netherlands) I manage to stay for a short while to clink a glass of wine with them, before departing.

Nina and Jöelle, celebrating the Birthday of Netherland’s King. Image: Denise Meagher  


We have one full day of site visits left and then on Friday, before going to the airport, we intend to see Villa Borghese and the Accademia di San Luca.

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