Showing posts with label Archaeology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Archaeology. Show all posts

25 April 2024

Giacomo Boni - archaeologist and architect

Venetian best known for his discoveries at the Forum in Rome

Giacomo Boni was born in Venice but lived in Rome for much of his adult life
Giacomo Boni was born in Venice but
lived in Rome for much of his adult life
The archaeologist Giacomo Boni, who was director of excavations at the Forum in Rome for 27 years until his death in 1925, was born on this day in 1859 in Venice.

His work within the ancient Roman site led to significant discoveries, including the Iron Age necropolis, the Lapis Niger, the Regia and other monuments.

Boni had a particular interest in stratigraphy, the branch of geology concerning subterranean layers of rock and other materials, and was among the first to apply the principles of stratigraphic excavation in the field of archaeological research.

The methods he employed in his work at the Forum still serve as a reference point today.

Boni was also an architect. In that area of his work, his masterpiece is considered to be the restoration of the Villa Blanc, a prestigious house that represents a unique example of eclectic art, a harmonious blend of elements and styles of different ages and cultures.

He served as a soldier during World War I, after which he embraced fascism, which he saw as an opportunity for the revival of ancient Roman religion and paganism, in which he had a keen interest. He joined the National Fascist Party, having become enthusiastic about Mussolini’s vision of a Fascist Italy as a kind of continuation of the Roman Empire. Mussolini in turn appointed him a senator in 1923. 

Boni grew up in a strongly patriotic household, his father, a naval captain, having refused to swear allegiance to the Austrian Emperor at considerable cost to his status.

Boni photographed near the
Arch of Trajan in 1907
His interest in architecture grew from his work, as a 19-year-old labourer, on the restoration of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. He enrolled at the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti to study architecture before moving to Rome, where he quickly obtained a series of important appointments.

In 1888 he was appointed secretary of the Royal Chalcography and, in 1890, inspector of monuments of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Fine Arts.  He assisted in the Pantheon excavation in 1892 with Luca Beltrami and the architect, Giuseppe Sacconi, who would later be known as the designer of the Victor Emmanuel monument. 

In 1895 he became director of the Regional Office of Monuments of Rome and, three years later, was appointed to direct the excavations of the Foro Romano, the Roman Forum.

Documents show that Boni’s research in the Forum was responsible for the discovery of the Lapis niger, the Regia, the Lacus Curtius, the Caesarian tunnels in the subsoil of the square, the archaic necropolis near the temple of Antoninus and Faustina and the church of Santa Maria Antiqua.

He demolished the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice in order to expose the ruins of Santa Maria Antiqua. His other discoveries included portions of the Column of Trajan.

Boni also worked on the slope of the Palatine Hill where he discovered the Mundus (tholos-cistern), a complex of tunnels leading to the Casa dei Grifi, the Aula Isiac and the Baths of Tiberius.

During his work on the renovation of Villa Blanc, a noble property set in parkland on the edge of the Trieste quarter to the northeast of Rome’s city centre, he also carried out some excavations that revealed the existence of a Roman mausoleum.

Boni’s embrace of Mussolini’s regime was short-lived, in the event.  Two years after being made a senator, he became ill and died at the age of 66. His body was buried within the Orti Farnesiani sul Palatino, the botanical gardens on the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Forum. 

The ruins of ancient Rome's Foro Romano are  visited by 4.5 million people every year
The ruins of ancient Rome's Foro Romano are 
visited by 4.5 million people every year
Travel tip:

Rome's historic Forum, situated between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum, was at the heart both of the ancient city of Rome and the Roman Empire itself, the nucleus of political affairs and commercial business, a place where elections took place and great speeches were made.  The site fell into disrepair with the fall of the Empire and over time buildings were dismantled for the stone and marble, with much debris left behind.  Eventually it was abandoned and became overgrown and was used mainly for grazing cattle.  Attempts at uncovering and restoring buildings began in the early 19th century and the process of excavating areas long buried continues today.  The impressive and extensive ruins are now one of Rome's major tourist attractions, drawing some 4.5 million visitors each year.

The Fontana delle Rane in Piazza Mincio in the Quartiere Coppedè in Rome's Trieste neighbourhood
The Fontana delle Rane in Piazza Mincio in the
Quartiere Coppedè in Rome's Trieste neighbourhood
Travel tip:

The Trieste quarter is the 17th quarter of Rome, located in the north-central area of the city. It borders the Aniene river to the north and northeast and is a neighbour of other notable quarters, such as Monte Sacro, Nomentano, Salario, and Parioli. It is an area with a rich history, one of its attractions being the ancient catacomb of Priscilla, a former quarry used for Christian burials from the late second century until the fourth century.  The Trieste quarter houses the Quartiere Coppedè, an architectural complex known for its eclectic style, and Villa Albani, which holds a collection of classical art. The eastern part of Trieste is referred to as the African Quarter, its streets named after the colonies of the Kingdom of Italy. The quarter was once famous for the Piper Club, a 1960s bar and music venue that hosted the debut of the Italian pop star Patty Pravo and performances by Pink Floyd, Nirvana and the Beatles among others. Combining historical charm with a vibrant community feel, Trieste can offer a pleasant escape from the more tourist-dominated areas of Rome.

Also on this day:

1472: The death of Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti

1815: The birth of inventor Giovanni Caselli

1973: The death of former World War I flying ace Ferruccio Ranza

Festa della Liberazione

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5 November 2021

Giovanni Battista Belzoni – archaeologist

The Great Belzoni’s powerful physique helped him remove Egyptian treasures

A portrait of Giovanni Belzoni during his time as an archaeologist in Egypt
A portrait of Giovanni Belzoni during
his time as an archaeologist in Egypt
Explorer and pioneer archaeologist of Egyptian antiquities, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, was born on this day in 1778 in Padua, which was then part of the Republic of Venice.

He became famous for his height and strength and his discovery and removal to England of the seven-ton bust of Ramesses II.

Belzoni was born into a poor family. At the age of 16 he went to find work in Rome and studied hydraulics. He was planning to take monastic vows but in 1798 French troops occupied the city and he moved to the Batavian Republic, now the Netherlands, where he earned his living as a barber.

He moved to England in 1803, allegedly to escape going to prison. He was six feet seven inches tall and had a powerful physique. For a while he earned his living as a circus strongman under the name, The Great Belzoni.

He also exhibited his models of hydraulic engines and went to Cairo in 1815 to offer hydraulic engines for use in irrigation to Muhammad Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt.

But two years later he embarked on another new career, excavating Egyptian tombs and temples for their treasures. It was said he damaged other less valuable objects in the process, which was later frowned upon.

The 6ft 7ins Belzoni pictured as a circus strongman in England
The 6ft 7ins Belzoni pictured
as a circus strongman in England
At Thebes he obtained the colossal sculpture of the head of Ramesses II for the British Museum. It took him 17 days and he had to use 130 men to help him tow it to the river where it was loaded on to a boat bound for England. In the nearby Valley of the Tombs of Kings, he discovered the tomb of Seti I and removed the aragonite sarcophagus for the Sir John Soane Museum in London. This became known as Belzoni’s Tomb.

While he was in the process of removing an obelisk from the Nile island of Philae, it was taken from him at gunpoint by men working for the French.

He explored an island in the Nile, known as Elephantine, and the temple of Edfu. He also cleared the entrance to the great temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. He was the first to penetrate the pyramid of Khafre at Giza and he identified the ruins of the city of Berenice on the Red Sea.

Belzoni returned to England in 1819 and published an account of his adventure – Narratives of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia. It was a two-volume work published in 1820.

The explorer and archaeologist died in 1823 at the age of 45 in Gwato, now called Ughoton, in Nigeria on his way to Timbuktu. In 1825 Belzoni’s widow exhibited his drawings and models of the Royal tombs of Thebes in London and Paris.

The Scrovegni Chapel is one of the many attractions of the city of Padua
The Scrovegni Chapel is one of the many
attractions of the city of Padua
Travel tip:

Padua in the Veneto is one of the most important centres for art in Italy and home to the country’s second oldest university. Padua has become acknowledged as the birthplace of modern art because of the Scrovegni Chapel, the inside of which is covered with frescoes by Giotto, an artistic genius who was the first to paint people with realistic facial expressions showing emotion. His scenes depicting the lives of Mary and Joseph, painted between 1303 and 1305, are considered his greatest achievement and one of the world’s most important works of art. At Palazzo Bo, where Padua’s university was founded in 1222, you can still see the original lectern used by Galileo and the world’s first anatomy theatre, where dissections were secretly carried out from 1594.

The Prato della Valle square in Padua was built on the site of a Roman theatre
The Prato della Valle square in Padua was
built on the site of a Roman theatre
Travel tip:

The elliptical Prato della Valle, one of Padua's principal squares, is built on the site of the Zairo theatre on land which fell into disuse and became flooded following the fall of the Roman Empire.  The land was drained in the 18th century and a canal crossed by four bridges was created around an island planted with trees and lawns, which was later lined by statues of 78 eminent citizens of Padua. Nearby is a restaurant, the Ristorante Zairo, which contains statues and wall decorations that recall the chariot races and other activities that would have taken place in the theatre. Diners can also see a 17th century fresco that came to light when renovations uncovered part of the structure of a former church.

Also on this day:

1666: The birth of composer Attilio Ariosti

1702: The birth of painter Pietro Longhi

1754: The birth explorer Alessandro Malaspina

1777: The birth of dancer Filippo Taglioni

1898: The birth of Francesco Domenico Chiarello, who would become one of the longest surviving victims of both world wars



23 February 2018

Giovanni Battista de Rossi - archaeologist

Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Grave niches were carved out of the rock in the  passageways of the Roman catacombs
Grave niches were carved out of the rock in the
passageways of the Roman catacombs
Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.

De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.

The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.

It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.

The archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi
The archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi
The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.  The last wave of removals took place in the 9th century, after which the entrances became overgrown, and new buildings were constructed or land cultivated on the site. 

De Rossi, however, whose fascination with Rome’s underground history had begun when he was a boy, felt their whereabouts needed to be known.

He devoted his life to expanding his knowledge, assembling a network of friends and contacts among archaeologists and museum curators across Europe to collate everything that was known from ancient discoveries and ultimately identified the probable location of several catacombs.

In 1849, he was given permission to tramp round a vineyard off the Appian Way, where he found a broken marble slab bearing an incomplete inscription “NELIUS. MARTYR”. Aware from his research that Pope St. Cornelius had been buried in the area he asked the incumbent pope, Pius IX, to buy the vineyard so that he could begin an excavation.

It was not long before he found the other half of Pope St Cornelius’s marble tombstone and through a painstaking process over the next few years De Rossi gradually revealed the wealth of history he had known for so long was waiting to be found.

The entrance to the Catacomb of St Callixtus as it is today
The entrance to the Catacomb of St Callixtus as it is today
De Rossi had been born in the Campo Marzio area of the 4th Rione and was baptized at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Academically gifted, he attended the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit college in Rome, where he studied philosophy, before graduating in law from the Sapienza University of Rome.

His interest in Roman history, and in particular of what lay beneath the ground, had been piqued at an early age, his father giving him a copy of Antonio Bosio’s vast history, La Roma Sotterranea - Underground Rome -  for his 11th birthday. As a teenager, he befriended Giuseppe Marchi, the city’s Superintendent of Sacred Relics and Cemeteries.

Marchi, who showed him inside one of the catacombs – of which there are thought to have been at least 40 around the city – taught De Rossi the value of studying archaeological finds in situ rather than removing them, so as not to lose sight of their context.

In his career, De Rossi also explored the catacombs of Praetextus, Thrason and Priscilla.

A plate from De Rossi's book shows a reconstruction of the Crypt of the Popes
A plate from De Rossi's book shows a
reconstruction of the Crypt of the Popes
De Rossi’s travels around Europe were made easier by managing to secure for himself an important although not particularly time-consuming position as Scriptor of the Vatican Library upon completing his degree studies, an appointment that required him to catalogue manuscripts in the library but allowed him plenty of opportunities to continue his private study.

Among his other discoveries was the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Bible in the Latin Vulgate version. He also made a substantial contribution to the literature of archaeological study.

He produced a four-volume work, of which the final manuscript was completed just before he died, entitled La Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, which was an updated Christian version of Bosio’s masterpiece that he had found so inspiring as a boy, and left details of much of his work to posterity in the regularly updated Bulletino di archeologia cristiana.

De Rossi died in 1894 at Castel Gandolfo, one of the Castelli Romani in the Alban Hills south of Rome, and where a summer residence allowed the popes to escape the city during the oppressively hot months of July and August.

Richard Meier's Museum of the Ara Pacis
Richard Meier's Museum of the Ara Pacis
Travel tip:

The Campo Marzio area of Rome, where De Rossi grew up, is a small section of the 4th Rione of the city, extending roughly from the Palazzo del Quirinale to the Piazza del Popolo, and bordering the Tiber river.  Among other buildings, it is the home of something rare in the historic centre of the city – a modern edifice. The Museum of the Ara Pacis was built in glass, travertine and steel to house the 1st century Ara Pacis of Augustus, a Roman altar dedicated to Pax, the goddess of peace, that was discovered under 13 metres of silt before being result in its present location in 1938.  The museum, which replaced a structure built to protect the arch in the Fascist era, was designed by the American architect Richard Meier.

Castel Gandolfo sits atop a hill overlooking Lago Albano
Castel Gandolfo sits atop a hill overlooking Lago Albano
Travel tip:

Castel Gandolfo, which overlooks Lago Albano from its wonderful position in the hills south of Rome, is one of the towns within the regional park of the Castelli Romani. It owes its fame to being the home of an Apostolic Palace, built in the 17th century by Carlo Maderno on behalf of Urban VIII, that was traditionally the incumbent pope’s summer residence, with commanding views over the lake. The palace ceased to be a papal residence in 2016 at the behest of Pope Francis, and visitors can now go inside and enjoy a guided tour of the papal apartments and grand reception rooms.

Hotels in Castel Gandolfo from

More reading:

Giuseppe Fiorelli - the archaeologist who saved Pompeii

Edward Gibbon's moment of inspiration

The Vesuvius eruption of AD79