Baths of Caracalla archaeological museum – Rome

Viale delle Terme di Caracalla n° 52 , Roma
Lazio, Italy
closed on: Monday afternoons
Museum Type: Archaeology

The Baths of Caracalla (Italian: Terme di Caracalla) is both a museum and one of the largest archaeological sites in Rome open to the public.


The Baths, whose construction begun 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 an 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 a 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 on December, 2012 on 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.


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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 an impressive background scenery.

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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 and the libraries.
The subterranean exhibition displays 45 marble artefacts 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 (swimming pool), as well as fragments of a large bas-relief, which Caracalla had crafted to commemorate his martial activities, modelled 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 shown for the first time in the tunnels originally constructed to serve the baths primarily focusses 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 most to offer in this sense.
The underground floors were originally fitted with overhead windows for air flow 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 artefacts could be presented to the public again.

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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 colour effect with which the precious water should flow, a colour that could even appear soiled, but with a depth that would reflect the columns and reinforce their strength: this colour was “glauco” (blue green).
To create the desired effect, the coloured 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 perspective.
The exhibition shelves, showing fragments of the frieze from the gyms, call to mind a natural biological cataloguing system, rather than a mere carrier construction. For storage of the artefacts, 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 emphasises 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 honouring 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.

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All photos by Oscar Ferrari – www.oscarferrari.com

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Museums of archaeology and archaeological sites around the world

Museums of archaeology and archaeological sites around the world

Museums of archaeology and archaeological sites around the world


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