A Painted City Under Rome

NOTE: WordPress seems to be having difficulty handling images taken on my older camera.  Please click on the placeholder icons that appear in this post to see the full-size images.  I am inserting their captions in bold in the body of the text.

Also, because of the fragility of the ancient painting, my photographs of the fresco were taken in low-light conditions.   I have adjusted the last two  images in Photoshop in order to make the details more readable.

Excedra of the Baths of Trajan

My friend and colleague Angeline Chiu of the University of Vermont sent me a link today to a nice piece of reporting on the restoration efforts on a mosaic discovered in the tunnels beneath the Baths of Trajan, near the Colosseum in Rome.

(To see that piece, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DfvkcH03lk&feature=youtu.be).

View to the Colosseum from the Baths of Trajan

This reminded me that in the summer of 2005, I also had the opportunity to visit the baths and the tunnel beneath them, with a group from the American Academy in Rome.  The main purpose of our visit was not to see the mosaics, which I believe had not yet been uncovered, but to visit an incredible fresco, known to archaeologists only as Città Dipinta, the Painted City.

Tunnel beneath the Baths of Trajan, 2005.  Photo by author.

This magnificent fresco was first discovered in 1997, and study and restoration work have continued for some years.The fresco actually predates both the mosaics discussed in the video above and the Baths of Trajan themselves.

Professor Nic Terrenato (University of Michigan) by the "Painted City" fresco. Photo by author.

Based on archaeological evidence, it was probably painted during the reign of the emperor Vespasian, between 69 and 79 A.D.  At that time, the area was a bustling sector of the city; only during later construction was it buried and used as part of the supporting substructure for Trajan’s massive baths.  The fresco was painted high on an exterior wall of a house, facing the street, where it undoubtedly would have impressed the crowds passing by.

Detail of the "Painted City." Photo by author

The fresco is large – 10 meters square (about 108 square feet).  It depicts a birds-eye view of a city, in which many structures can be seen clearly: temples, porticoes, theaters, houses and even statues are visible.  The city also has a port with docks and a series of canals.  There has been much debate about the identification of the city.  Suggestions have included London, Antioch, and even Rome itself, but none of those ancient cities match precisely what is depicted in the fresco.  It is possible that the scene is of an ancient Italian port with which we are not familiar, but it is also possible that it shows an imaginary, ideal city.

Detail of the “Painted City” fresco.  Photo by author.


Whatever the subject matter, the fresco is unusual.  Classical wall painting tended to represent bucolic landscapes, not city streets.  Eugenio la Rocca, former Superintendent of Cultural Heritage for the Municipality of Rome, has called it a “unique survivor.”  Perhaps when it is completely stabilized, along with the structure of the tunnel in which it was found, it may be made accessible for tourists to enjoy.

Detail of the “Painted City” fresco.  Photo by author.

Those who would like more information on the tunnel and the fresco can consult Rocca’s 2001 article “The Newly Discovered Fresco from Trajan’s Baths, Rome” in the journal Imago Mundi, volume 53, pages 121-24.

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