Baths of Caracalla – Rome
The Baths of Caracalla (Italian: Terme di Caracalla), also known as Termae Anthoninianae, is one of the largest archaeological sites in Rome, a museum and a monumental building dating back to the Roman Empire period.
The Baths, whose construction began under the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus and was completed in 216 AD by his son Caracalla, were both a place for body car, similarly to a modern SPA or a hammam, and a meeting, leisure, and cultural venue frequented by over 6,000 people daily.
The architectural complex of the Caracalla’s Baths was once enclosed into a rectangular precinct, whose sides were over 400 meters long, with the main access on its north side. The Baths, despite their monumental appearance, were mainly addressed to working-class people while affluent people usually had private baths in their homes.
The new Museo delle Terme di Caracalla was opened in December 2012 in the basement of the Baths of Caracalla archaeological site in Rome. The new gallery, funded by the Italian Governmental Department for Archaeology, accommodates forty-five large archaeological pieces, never publicly displayed before.
The museum’s permanent exhibition, designed by architect Fabio Fornasari, is aimed to depict how the thermal halls were once used by the people of Rome, by using elements, materials, and colors carefully selected to evoke the role and importance of water in ancient Roman baths.
Archaeological artifacts on view in the museum are carefully arranged into large metal frames so that the visitors can watch and study each piece in detail, but with the decorative apparatus of the Caracalla Baths as impressive background scenery.
The new archaeological museum of the Baths of Caracalla; text by George Frazzica
The new museum in the underground spaces of the Baths of Caracalla was inaugurated in December 2012. The exhibition is located in two parallel tunnels. Starting from the entrance stairs, visitors are first conducted to two exhibition islands concerned with the gyms and the frigidarium, and then on to the second tunnel with islands dedicated to the natatio (swimming pool) and the libraries.
The subterranean exhibition displays 45 marble artifacts expressly restored for this purpose, which have never been exhibited before. These include giant figurative capitals representing Hercules, Venus, and Mars found in the frigidarium (cold room) and natatio, as well as fragments of a large bas-relief, which Caracalla had crafted to commemorate his martial activities, modeled on the Column of Marcus Aurelius and Trajan’s Column. The bas-relief documented various campaigns against northern peoples in around 200 AD and showed scenes of battles and military life.
The exhibited material is shown for the first time in the tunnels originally constructed to serve the baths primarily focuses on the architectural decoration that, apart from possessing ornamental quality, is more or less significant in terms of ideological content. Two gyms were the areas with the most to offer in this sense.
The underground floors were originally fitted with overhead windows for airflow to prevent the stacked wood from rotting. There were also storage spaces for wood and furnaces to heat water for hot baths and saunas, as well as a water mill and a water regulation system: everything necessary for the comfort of the 6,000 to 8,000 people who visited the complex every day. The marble items were brought back from various different places in 1996. They were stored underground for fear of theft and 16 years passed before these valuable artifacts could be presented to the public again.
The architect Fabio Fornasari, responsible for the concept and curacy of the exhibition, provided an insight into his involvement in the project. When he first descended below ground, he suddenly found himself in a suggestive environment, full of opportunities – although at first glance like any old subterranean tunnel, without any indication of the complexity and intelligence of a gallery that allowed slaves to store, transport, and burn wood essential for the functioning of the baths.
The wet floor, water, and soil washed out of the walls gave rise to the idea to restore the former magnificence of the baths: the only missing element was the water itself. At this point, he decided to explore the Eternal City’s most evocative water – the water of the Fontana di Trevi. In the course of this, he discovered the specific color effect with which the precious water should flow, a color that could even appear soiled, but with a depth that would reflect the columns and reinforce their strength: this color was glauco (blue-green).
To create the desired effect, the colored parts were treated with a little dirt and a thin layer of resin with “glossy” chromatics, to give the symbolic water surface the appearance of movement.
Platforms lit from below and covered with the new foil, are partly used to illuminate the false columns with huge capitals of approx. 1.5 m resting on top. Originally located at heights of 20 m, the maximum height of the capitals is limited to 8 m in the galleries. With the help of ingenious lighting, the elements are however displayed in a dimensionally appropriate manner from a visitor’s perspective.
The exhibition shelves, showing fragments of the frieze from the gyms, call to mind a natural biological cataloging system, rather than a mere carrier construction. For storage of the artifacts, the architect designed a “wireframe” of time cells made of steel, representing the chapters of a story. Each cell places the work of art in a precise position within the whole structure (originally nearly 100 m long) and specifies the exact time in the historical narrative in this way (at a scale of 1:1). This emphasizes the educational dimension of the exhibition. Illuminated from below, the frame furthermore projects its own shadow on the barrel vault, accentuating geometry and depth, and honoring the complexity of the work accomplished by the Roman engineers.
The construction of the arrangement is the fruit of 20 years of work by Gunhild Jenewein of the Austrian Historical Institute in Rome.
All photos by Oscar Ferrari – www.oscarferrari.com
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