Exciting Palatine. Interview with Clementina Panella
by Paolo Mattei
You can tell she fills with excitement when she has the chance to show an important archaeological find, such as a colored fragment from an 7th-century decoration or a small, sculpted face featuring an enigmatic “archaic smile”. And just listening to her, we could not help but feel the same excitement.
Clementina Panella is professor of Archaeological Research Methodology and Techniques at the Literature and Philosophy Faculty of Rome’s “La Sapienza” university. For over fifteen years, she has carried out excavations and research in an area between the valley of the Colosseum, the northeastern side of the Palatine Hill and the southeastern side of the Velia (from the Arch of Constantine to the Arch of Titus, in the Archaeological area of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill).
This was the area where the history of Rome began in the 8th century BC, chosen by Romulus – or some other historical figure – to establish the new city. It is not by chance that the Italian word “palazzo” (and the English “palace”), a symbol and place of power, comes from the toponym “Palatino”.
According to professor Panella, “While digging, archaeologists are in fact leafing through the great book of human history, just reading it from the last page – usually written in the language of gas pipes and electrical cables, placed in the uppermost layer. In the past fifteen years of stratigraphic excavation, we have reached the first page of the wonderful book about the history of Rome and its inhabitants. And the story we are reading confirms people have lived here since the late Bronze Age, around the 14th century BC. The words of that faraway time are sometimes minuscule fragments that might have no aesthetic importance, but are still of great value to us.”
Value that has been appreciated by “Loveitaly!”, a non-profit association that gathers funds through an international crowdfunding platform, attracting big and small donations from around the world with the overarching goal of protecting and promoting Italy’s historical and artistic masterpieces.
“Loveitaly!” started supporting Panella’s team a few months ago, with help from CISTeC (La Sapienza’s Research Center for Science and Technology for the Conservation of Historical and Architectural Heritage) and under the direction of professor Maria Laura Santarelli.
The team is hard at work, not only excavating but also backfilling, protecting structures, restoring and analyzing finds made of metal, glass, terracotta and other materials. “Loveitaly!” raises funds to cover all of these activities (as described in detail here).
In her career, professor Panella has directed important excavation sites both in Italy and abroad: the Swimmer’s Thermal Baths in Ostia, the “Centuria A” in Carthage and, in Rome, the “Porticus Liviae” and the “Meta Sudans” in Piazza del Colosseo. She met us at the former Vetreria Sciarra, now one of the buildings of the Literature and Philosophy Faculty of “La Sapienza”, in the San Lorenzo district.
We visited the workshops where young researchers from her team are busy analyzing a huge number of finds, and took the chance to ask her a few questions.
What are the oldest finds from the area where you were working?
The oldest building remains we found are from Iron Age huts near the Arch of Titus, which date back to the 10th century BC – so even before the foundation of Rome, which is traditionally dated 753 BC. It was an important find, because – although we already knew that there were people on the Palatine in the proto-historic age – it was a crucial element in studying the history of the settlements that predated and led to the city that developed from the 8th BC on.
You also studied the “Curiae Veteres”. What is it?
It is a sanctuary, a sacred area that ancient authors place at one of the four corners of the Square City founded by Romulus. Citizens periodically gathered in the “Curiae Veteres” – which were renovated under Augustus (7 AD) and Claudius (51 AD).
What did they do there?
Well, first of all they ate together. We found many remains of animal bones. Varro, a 1st-century, Augustan-age author, explains how there used to be two types of “Curiae”: “Curia Senatus” where people took care of public administration, and “Curiae Veteres” where they celebrated their common goddess Iuno Curitis (although they were originally divided into thirty curiae, similar to today’s municipalities). The other cities that orbited around Rome only had a place for public administration: only Rome had this shared, civic space where all citizens could meet regardless of their rank or class, celebrate rituals together and eat in conviviality and solidarity.
But at one point Rome abandoned this space too…
Yes. Ancient literature sources record the building of some “Curiae Novae” at one point. They have never been found, but were likely located near the Caelian Hill. Four to seven curiae refused to move however, so the area of the “Curiae Veteres” remained important for its original function throughout Rome’s history, until the ancient world’s traditions died out. Some 4th-century catalogs still mention the “Curiae Veteres”, making them one of the places with the longest-lived human presence in history. Perhaps only the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter can compete in terms of persistent use.
You also made an important discovery about the “Meta Sudans”, which you had studied in the past…
Yes, we resumed our studies in 2001. The “Meta Sudans” was an 18-meter-tall conical fountain from the Flavian Age – that is the late 1st century AD, so the same time when the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum were built. It stood in front of the latter until the 1930s, when it was dismantled in order to make room for the “Via dei Trionfi” that Mussolini ordered. Experts had always though, mostly due to its location, that it had replaced an older “Meta”, a monument dating back to the Augustan age, which represented the vertex of certain “Regiones” defined with an administrative division set by Augustus in 7 BC. It was a “Meta” before the “Meta”… and we found it in 2002. It was a huge satisfaction.
It seems like you had quite a few successes in the past fifteen years.
We have made a number of important discoveries. Amongst other things, we found the remains of another sanctuary at the foot of the Velia, five meters underground, built in the period when the city was founded. There was also a temple that had been destroyed in a fire in 50 or 51 AD, rebuilt by Claudius in the three following years. Then we found the Claudian-age “Brass instrument players’ aedicula”, with marble slabs in which a 50-meter-long Imperial age inscription was carved. And an aristocratic domus that could be the one where Augustus was born in 63 BC…
And the imperial insignia belonging to Maxentius…
Yes, we found four parade spears, four banner-carrying spears and three scepters from the 4th century, which could have belonged to Maxentius. They were likely hidden after he was killed by Constantine in 312 during the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Unfortunately right now they are kept in the National Roman Museum in Palazzo Massimo…
Why is that unfortunate?
Because I wish they could be restored and showcased in the context where they were found. Some of our most important finds from the Palatine are now scattered in the city’s various museums. I think the large archaeological area in central Rome should be opened up to the public, taking away the barriers and gates that can only lead to a new kind of neglect: antiquity can only come to life with new use.
We need a broader and more complex vision, aiming to recreate a unified area including the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, the eastern side of the Temple of Venus and Roma, the base of the Colossus, and the Flavian “Meta”. Sure, we are happy that finds are displayed in museums for everyone to appreciate; but I believe there should be a more rational vision for their conservation and display. Suffice it to say that we had to give up the finders’ prize in order to continue with our work…
Because otherwise the State would not have granted us the permit to excavate. It’s a paradox. Our job is made even harder by bureaucracy: you do it out of passion and thanks to people’s generosity – and thanks to many young people who have worked with us over the years, motivating us with their efforts, enthusiasm and intelligence, pushing us to continue our research even in the toughest times.
To contribute to the “Palatine Excavations” crowdfunding project, visit “Loveitaly!”.