Itinerary VII, Porta S. Pancrazio to porta Maggiore, fifth part

Starting point: Temple of Saturn, Forum Romanum


Einsiedeln instructions:

In sinistra:                                                  In dextra:

Per arcum.

Vmbilicum.                                             Sancta Maria Antiqua

                    Sancti Hadriani

Equus Constantini


My dear itinerarists!

When we last met, we had reached the medieval Forum Romanum, more precisely the Forum of the late 8th or early 9th century, and we had just started to explore its monuments. We are now standing at the corner of the temple of Saturn – whose inscription, as I mentioned in the last itinerary, the Einsiedeln manuscript preserves – and are now immensely curious about what we will encounter next. The stones beneath our feet belong to the ancient vicus Iugarius, which a bit ahead of us conjuncts with via Sacra, ’the holy way’, the procession way across the Forum from the arch of Septimius Severus to the arch of Titus. But our task today is to get right across this part of the Forum, to reach the ancient Subura region, or Rione Monti of today. And some of the monuments we will pass by here – or find gone – are indeed some of the most exciting in this itinerary.

First, the itinerary suggests that we should pass right through the arch of Septimius Severus – written out in the middle of the manuscript page to indicate its centrality on our way. Vicus Iugarius now goes straight ahead towards the west side of the arch, so we should pass through it from west to east. The arch was made for the emperor Septimius Severus in 203 CE in honour of his victories against the Parthians; the long honorary inscription that you can see on its upper part is a dedication to Severus and his sons ob rem publicam restitutam imperiumque populi Romani propagatum, ’for having restored the state and the enlarged the empire of the Roman people’ (CIL VI, 1033). Much to our interest and admiration, the text is quite accurately transcribed in the Einsiedeln manuscript: the unknown author managed to read it all out, including the many honorary titles and the much-abbreviated language of the inscription. Whoever our author was, he or she was not only an arduous itinerarist, but also a skilled Latinist – something rather unusual in our medieval period.

The arch of Severus in a painting by Canaletto from 1742. (Wikimedia Commons)

The arch of Severus in a painting by Canaletto from 1742. (Wikimedia Commons)

The image above shows the arch in the 18th century, before the large-scale excavations of the Forum. Here you can see how the ground level had increased significantly compared with the antique level; the more severe decay from inundations and  increasingly ruinous buildings did not, however, take place until the mid 9th century, and so, perhaps our Latinist itinerarist could pass through a still rather lofty central arch. In the later Middle Ages, the arch became part of a fortress for the wealthy family of the Cimini, and was probably not longer possible to walk through – the indication in the Einsiedeln itinerary could thus point to a pre-fortified state of the arch.

The itinerary then places the Umbilicum to our left. The location of this monument is  immediately before the arch of Severus from where we came, and it is plausible that the indications in the manuscript are a bit vague here – perhaps the author was not quite sure exactly where the Umbilicus was located or what it looked like. But what was it, then? Literally ’the navel of Rome’, this monument marked out the symbolical centre of Rome and thus of the world. Today, only the humble brick core of the Roman navel remains.

Umbilicus Urbis Romae. (Wikimedia Commons)

Umbilicus Urbis Romae with the side of the arch of Septimius Severus right behind it. (Wikimedia Commons)

To our right, we shall now have the church of S. Maria Antiqua. Situated in the south-east part of the Forum, at the foot of the Palatine hill, it is not immediately close to where we now stand, but it must nevertheless have been well visible from here: as depicted in the 18th century engraving below, we must imagine the central part of the Forum not very crowded by buildings. The church was built already in the fifth century, and so it is the oldest Christian monument at the Forum. Inside, it was covered by frescoes from the 5th–8th centuries, many of which still can be seen, if you manage to get inside – the site reopened some time ago after long restoration works, but the access is limited and has to be booked in advance.

S. Maria Antiqua in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (18th century) (Wikimedia Commons)

S. Maria Antiqua in an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (18th century) (Wikimedia Commons)

Fresco from S. Maria Antiqua (Wikimedia Commons)

Fresco from S. Maria Antiqua (Wikimedia Commons)

When looking at the frescoes, one can easily imagine the awe of the medieval visitor (if the medieval counterpart to the Soprintendenza was benign when it came to accessibility…). In the general desertion of the Forum in the mid-9th century, also S. Maria Antiqua was abandoned. In the 17th century, the church S. Maria Liberatrice (as seen in the engraving above) was built upon the ruins of the older church, but was demolished in the early 20th century to reconstruct the old church and its frescoes.

To our left, the itinerary now points out another important church in the Forum area: S. Hadrianus. Located close by the arch of Severus, this church was once the ancient Curia Senatus, the late Antique building that hosted the meetings of the Roman senate. In the 7th century, pope Honorius I let a church be built in the old Senate house to the martyr Hadrian of Nicomedia. A hundred years later, during the late 8th century, the church was made into a deaconry by the homonymous pope Hadrian I. Today, no traces of its medieval appearance can be seen – in the early 20th century, the church was deconsecrated in order to restore the ancient appearance of the Curia, and further, a lot of what is seen today is modern reconstruction. In the image below, you can see the façade of the church in the early 16th century, with the arch of Severus to the left, sunken into the ground. An attentive eye can spot the discreet romanic bell-tower that reveals that the church underwent some rebuilding in the 12th century.

S. Adriano in the early 15th century in an engraving by Etienne Duperac (Wikimedia Commons)

S. Adriano in the early 15th century in an engraving by Etienne Duperac (Wikimedia Commons)

But now, ladies and gentlemen, popes and peasants, poets and promenaders, the moment has come to introduce the most intriguing and thrilling monument of the medieval Forum – the one which is no longer there. Equus Constantini – ’the horse of Constantine’. The Einsiedeln manuscript is the only source for the theory that an equestrian statue of Constantine once was situated in the Forum, rather close to the arch of Severus. No mention in the literary sources – no remains of the statue – nothing at all, except for this mention in a single manuscript in a monastery in Switzerland. So what are we supposed to make out of this?

The only preserved antique equestrian statue in Rome is the one of emperor Marcus Aurelius, now in the piazza on the Capitoline hill – or actually, nowadays, even inside the Musei Capitolini, and replaced by a copy in its original Renaissance setting in the piazza designed by Michelangelo. The statue was moved there from the papal palace at the Lateran in the 16th century, where it had been standing, as it is believed – and as seen from late medieval and early Renaissance depictions – all through the Middle Ages, and it is described in the Mirabilia texts of the 12th century as placed at the Lateran palace. No mentions of the Marcus Aurelius statue are known before the 12th century. But why am I going on at length about the Marcus Aurelius statue, when all we want to know about is the Constantine statue? Because in the Middle Ages, the Marcus Aurelius statue was believed to depict Constantine. This, it has been argued, was the reason for locating it at the Lateran, in honour of Rome’s first Christian emperor.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini (Wikimedia Commons)

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini (Wikimedia Commons)

When first reading the words Equus Constantini in the Einsiedeln itinerary, this was the association I made immediately. Further, when looking at which monuments the manuscript describes at the Lateran, only the papal palace is mentioned. And how could the author of the manuscript have failed to report this magnificent statue of ’Constantine’ if it would have been at the Lateran at the time? What if the statue of Marcus Aurelius/’Constantine’ originally stood in the Forum, and then was moved to the papal palace because myth then had it that it was Constantine? An animated debate even broke out on Twitter, where I got valuable suggestions from the Twitter-oracle when it comes to Roman topography, @ste_trombetti, and for a while my theory seemed to be, well, at least not totally unthinkable.

Then, I went through the collection of inscriptions preserved in the Einsiedeln manuscript – and my theory fell. The mention of the Equus in the itinerary is not the only source in the manuscript for an equestrian statue of Constantine in the Forum. There is also an inscription, reported as in basi Constantini, ’on the base of the Constantine [statue]’ (CIL VI, 1141). And the inscription – which clearly is dedicated to Constantine, and noone else – in connection with the notion of the Equus seemed to discard my beautiful idea completely. There was an equestrian statue of Constantine in the Forum, and it was not the same as the Marcus Aurelius statue. But – the text of the inscription does not in any way indicate what kind of statue of Constantine that once crowned its base. It could not be excluded, then, that it was just an ’ordinary’ statue – no horse – and that the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius stood near it. So the case is not altogether settled yet! (Parenthetically, it can be noted that also the fragmentary core of what was once the base of the equestrian Constantine statue is believed to have been found, excavated near the arch of Severus. The evidence for this identification? Nothing else than the mention in the Einsiedeln manuscript! You can see it below in a photograph from Ernest Nash’s Bildlexikon zur Topographie des antiken Rom.)

What is believe to be the base of the equestrian statue of Constantine in the Forum. From Ernest Nash,

What is believe to be the base of the equestrian statue of Constantine in the Forum. From Ernest Nash, Bildlexikon zur Topographie des antiken Rom, page 388.

A little shocked by the whole story, we’d perhaps better sit down for a moment before we continue and leave the Forum. At the corner of via Sacra just by the church of S. Adriano stands a cherry tree, and it is always one of the first among the Roman cherry trees to bloom in early spring. So if we are lucky, and the season is right, we can rest beneath its blushing shade and, deservingly, forget everything about horses and statues for a little while.

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