The smell of bread in ancient Rome was similar to what could be enjoyed along the streets of most Italian cities until the 1980s, and which still lingers in smaller towns, enticing you to leave the house early in the morning, when the air is fresh and the streets are still deserted.
It is the smell of Genzano or Altamura bread, the only two types of bread that have been granted PDO/PGI status by the European Community, guaranteeing they are made strictly according to tradition. Altamura bread is made from natural yeast starters and the flour of durum wheat grown in the area of Altamura, in Apulia; Genzano bread, made from natural yeast starters as well, must be baked by burning chestnut wood only.
But from Ferrara’s typical sourdough bread twisted in a knot to Sicily’s sesame-seed-covered loaves, from Venice’s poppy seed bread to the many variations on ‘focaccia’, the most famous one being Liguria’s – there are many ancient, time-honored traditions in Italian bread making. Traditions that date back at least to ancient Rome, where the numerous bakeries in the city would come to life at dawn, and you would see the ‘cascherini’ (bread porters) go house to house to deliver warm and fragrant loaves. Some of those loaves were even found, fossilized, during excavations at Pompeii.
‘Cascherini’ were called ‘fornareti’ in Venice. In the city on the lagoon, at the time of the ‘dogi’, a herald warned the judges before they pronounced any death sentence, “ricordateve del fornareto” (“remember the ‘fornareto’”). That reminded them about the tragic case of a man who had been unjustly sentenced to death – by decapitation, between the two high and mighty columns of Piazzetta di San Marco – for murdering a gentleman, whose lifeless body he had simply found as he went about the deserted city at dawn, to deliver bread.
Ancient Rome’s bread, instead, is behind a very important and unique monument that has reached our time: the tomb of Eurysaces. It is still well preserved, in its imposing height, next to the arches of the aqueduct built by Emperor Claudius, which was subsequently incorporated into a section of the Aurelian Walls.
The tomb is a masterpiece of aesthetic synthesis, as it recalls all the elements in ancient Rome’s bakeries: the cylinders in the lower half of the tomb look like sacks of wheat and flour, while the framed holes in the upper half were inspired both by the openings in the ‘doli’, where wheat and flour were stocked, and by ovens’ vents, as we see in Pompeii.
Under the tomb’s projecting cornice there are invaluable historic reliefs, striking in their expressive liveliness: they document the phases of bread making, from harvesting to stocking precious wheat kernels, from transporting bags to the wheels turned by blindfolded donkeys to making flour, kneaded and shaped into loaves, placed in hot ovens with wooden peels, and finally delivered to retail sellers.
Who was Eurysaces? He was buried in this eclectic monument with his wife Atinia towards the end of the 1st century BC, and as rich and famous as he was, he was still only a mere baker in Rome. Eurysaces was the main bread supplier for the barracks of the soldiers quartered in Rome: he was a wholesale supplier for the Roman State. Hence his great fortune, and his ambitious dream to go down in history for his work, by erecting a monument for himself that still attracts the attention of the most curious of Rome’s visitors.
Why wasn’t Eurysaces’s tomb torn down with the construction of the Aurelian Walls? Its presence next to the fortification would weaken the latter’s security, because while outside the perimeter, the tomb would still be close enough to offer the enemy a foothold. The walls had already come up to the two aqueducts that Emperor Caligula had begun, and Claudius had completed. Being too important for the city’s water supply, they had been incorporated in the walls by turning two of their arches into doors, corresponding to Via Prenestina and Via Labicana (later called Casilina), the roads along which ancient Romans used to build the tombs of the city’s most prominent men.
So why was Eurysaces’s tomb not tore down? Because it was considered sacred to the world of the dead, and thus nobody felt it could be destroyed as lightly as so many other structures that had been in the walls’ way.
Alberto Manodori Sagredo