Under Your Feet in Rome: Centuries of Ancient Roman Life

In Rome, it’s easy to find something marvelous to admire when you lose your way. Traipse down some cobblestone alley off a main square intending to take a short cut and chances are you’ll find yourself enthralled by something not on any tourist map. Maybe it’s a cascade of bougainvillea tumbling over a railing of a terrazzino in passionate pink, or an untamed branch of wisteria in all its lilac, sweet lushness. Or the sound of water splashing playfully from some fanciful architecture, like the fountain with turtle statues in a tiny square near medieval palazzi and close to the old Jewish Quarter’s history-drenched main street.

Even Romans sometimes are startled by something seemingly new in their Eternal City. You can’t blame Rome commuters if for decades, hurrying to metro stop called Piramide, they paid scant attention to one on Rome’s ancient glories. The Cestia Pyramid, which lends its name to the bustling subway stop, is the only one of four pyramids built in Roman empire times, reflecting a fad then for Egyptian culture. But for years more than a glory it bordered on being an eyesore. Grime and exhaust coughed up by cars, buses and trucks in one of the city’s busiest intersections had coated the 1st-century A.D. monument, constructed during the glory days of the Augustine Emperor, a dingy gray. The layers of dirt and dust covered the rich, creamy white Carrara marble that adorned the exterior of the 120-foot-high pyramid, built as final resting place for a Roman politician to honor his wishes in his last testament.

The monument had a depressing air – tourists barely paid it heed.

Then, a few years ago, a Japanese textile and clothing magnate donated $2 million to clean the Pyramid. When the scaffolding came off – ahead of schedule, a rare feat in a city which always runs late, and likely reflecting Japanese fondness for efficiency – the Pyramid seemed startling new.

Inside the monument, accessible by crouching through a low-sitting tunnel, is a frescoed space where the praetor’s burial urn once stood. Restoration workers inside the burial chamber – frescoed in Pompeii style – explored a tunnel that archaeologists believe was used by grave-robbers –tombaroli they are called in Italian now – to ransack the burial place in medieval times.

Small guided tours are give on two Saturday’s month, reservations only. Those on the tour will step across a modest stone “doormat” inscribed with the Japanese patron’s name.
While you will need to look up to admire the restored splendor of the Pyramid, other marvels in Rome are sometimes tucked away behind something as mundane as construction barriers. In Piazza Venezia, the traffic-clogged heart of modern Rome, the remains of a medieval building were unearthed during construction work to expand Rome’s quite modest subway system.

Peer over the fencing in a corner of the Piazza close to Trajan’s Colum, and you can see the fruits of archaeologists, who were alerted to the discovery by construction engineers — a fairly commonplace event in Rome. The city Romans on today was largely built atop layers of past centuries and civilizations. Buried under Renaissance era buildings are streets and apartments from medieval days, and farther down that layer, digging often reveals an ancient Roman domus or dwelling, sometimes several of them.

In the case of Piazza Venezia’s dig, that’s what happened. Nearest to street level are parts of Renaissance Rome. Under that is part of a medieval street road which ran through the city. And under that, archaeologists found pavement from the 8th century.
Other finds during construction work for the subway include a 6th-century copper factory and medieval kitchens with their pots and pans.
The discovery scuttled planner’s goal of putting subway entrances and exits right on the square, meaning when the extension of the subway ever does get completed, Romans will have to walk a bit out of their way to access it.

You can’t walk through this archaeological discovery, but right around the corner, you can go subterranean.

There, under 16th-century Palazzo Valentini, which now is open to the public doing businesses in offices of Rome’s province, is an extensively excavated Roman domus. Tours in English, and in small groups, are currently given three times daily, with reservations strongly recommended. Tourists can admire the residence of a powerful family in Imperial times, perhaps of a senator. Mosaics, wall decorations, multi-colored floors, and peristyles are among the sights. The tour was recently extended to include the underground area opposite Trajan’s Column, including the remains of what was once a monumental public or perhaps sacred building.

It’s a fascinating world, a silent attraction below the chaotic bustle of Piazza Venezia. Many Romans are unaware of its existence as they dash for buses or cabs at the taxi stand in the square.