The dismanteling of the Septizonium and the reuse of its construction materials
The Septizonium, built under the rule of Septimius Severus (193 – 211 A.D.), dedicated in 203, and completely destroyed under Pope Sixtus V in 1588, is considered one of the most important monuments of ancient Rome. The reconstruction of the original design of the building, in particular, has interested research from the 19th century to the present. Along with current archaeological findings, the pictorial and written sources created from Antiquity through the Renaissance and their later copies convey an image of this multifaceted building.
The dissertation project “The dismantling of the Septizonium and the reuse of its construction materials” concentrates essentially on two starting points. First, the monument will be grasped on the archaeological level in its parts – few of them extant, most of them lost – and as detailed and accurate a picture of the function and original shape of the Septizonium will be traced. Here, the specific spatial-topographical context of axially laid-out imperial Rome serves as the basis and template within which the construction is to be read and located. Second, the aim on the material level is to find those parts of the Septizonium that were reused as spolia in post-ancient times, to demonstrate this in detail, and to reveal their original function in the Septizonium. In a broader sense, this also raises the many-layered question of the material, semantic, historical, and also aesthetic content of the spolia in their respective contexts of transposition. This thematic field will be unpacked and elaborated in detail on the basis of a spatial reference system of the spolia as well as with the aid of a new contextualization of them – first, within the individual site and monument, their reuse; and second, within the urban cityscape of Rome.
The project thereby touches on deep spatial matters on various levels: the traces and paths of the construction parts and fragments from the Septizonium to the site of their subsequent transposition initially form a widely branching network across the urban territory of Rome. On a higher level, a picture of Rome at the time of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) develops, which can be read in terms of space and topography as well as in terms of history and perception. Like a topographically arranged city map, emphases, structures of connection, and the emergence and shifting of peripheral areas crystallize here. The spatial dimensions of the dissertation project, however, emerge on the respectively next level of investigation, because then the individual spolia lay a three-dimensional grid over the respective sites of their transposition – monuments, constructions, squares, and streets. This entails a shift in habits of seeing, which initially affects the recipient’s spatial-historical perception, but then also leads to starting and connecting points of a newly forming structure of thought and perception in the Renaissance. Finally, the shifting of the fragments during the dismantling of the Septizonium, as well as their categorization and the calculation of their volume by the architect entrusted with their dismantling, Domenico Fontana, and their subsequent recombination pose a complex puzzle with spatial dimensions. The mobility of the spolia, their decontextualization, and their suitability for a recontextualization offer multiple starting points for exploring the material-historical structure of spaces. The existence and present location of dismantled materials as spolia of the ancient Septizonium in a new construction context present additional indications on a historical-factual level of the original design and function of the ancient building.
Another emphasis of the dissertation project is the interpretation and reinterpretation of the semantic content of the monument. The connection of the sites that can be made out today where spolia were brought, on the one hand, and the topography of Rome at the time of Sixtus V, on the other, plays an important role thereby. For these sites and their spatial and semantic connotations have a reciprocal effect on the post-ancient perception of the Septizonium itself. Accordingly, its vanished splendor and historical significance are mirrored in the post-ancient, spolia-adorned buildings and sites. The fragmentary seeming, but sudden and unexpected appearance of the lost glory of Antiquity in the form of spolia, like “flashes of genius from Antiquity”, initiate in such sites a “process of gentrification”, to speak in the jargon of sociology. The newer buildings gain more own importance by means of the transformation and accumulation of the semantic layers of the ancient monument that has been lost. The spatial dimension elaborated here, on both the material-factual and the semantic level, makes a crucial contribution to decoding the Septizonium and its spolia. A level shaped primarily by perceptual aspects comes into play that goes beyond a purely materially oriented archaeology of the factual.
A philosophical-perceptual dimension also opens up. The spatial transformation of fragments of a past culture, whose memory is nonetheless omnipresent in Rome, is reflected in a special way in the spolia of an ancient building. In their new surroundings and function, these construction elements often seem strange or like foreign bodies, initially raising questions in the viewer. On the epistemological level, they thereby also raise the question of uncovering the view of such ancient pieces. The way habits of seeing and aesthetic feeling differed between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is extremely interesting. Here, the effect and method of mounting, fitting, and material matching provide a basis upon which the composition of lines to develop the gaze backward or forward can be grasped. In this area, a connection develops to the aesthetic feeling of what is perceived, which is shown, developed, and evidenced in detail on the architectonic level in the example of the spolia of the Septizonium.
Methodologically, the analytic instruments of a historically critical study of the sources and an architectural research analysis of materials and details will be employed. The evaluation and interpretation of the sources will be carried out in relation to both pictorial and written testimony. The pictorial documents comprise above all architectural, panorama, ground plan, frontal, and detail drawings of the Septizonium executed by Renaissance artists and architects, as well as – and this is new – their architectural and detail studies of the sites and monuments into which the spolia and fragments of the dismantled Septizonium were integrated. Here, the methodology will be a detailed and rigorous analysis and interpretation of the drawings, in order to grasp the construction and material changes and the de- and recontextualization of the fragments and spolia.
The complex of written documents consists, first, of the already known sources and written evidence from Antiquity to the Renaissance on the building and its functional, material, and semantic perception, which are evaluated above all in terms of historical construction research and possible interpretations toward an archaeological reconstruction of the monument. Second, there is the extensive written documentation of the dismantling of the Septizonium and the transposition and reuse of its parts in various monuments and buildings within Rome. This documentation includes the sources in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano and the Archivio di Stato di Roma, which hold the already known construction documents of Domenico Fontana as well as various newly discovered documents on the transport and measuring of the spolia. The insertion of spolia, evidenced in documents for the respective sites and monuments of their transposition, is especially interesting and calls for precise study.
3D laser scan technology, common in the archaeological analysis of construction and monuments, will be used. This method is justified by its precise determination of the details and dimensions of the installed materials, as is found in the reused spolia of the Septizonium. The mounting of individual building components in inaccessible heights and monument-protected complexes justifies registering the dimensions and surface structure of the spolia by means of laser scan technology. This allows conclusions about the material of the spolia and can lay foundations for a precise matching with the statements of the Renaissance architects and transporters of the construction materials to the spolia. The further processing of the 3D photos of the spolia also permits their inclusion in an overarching 3D model of the possible ancient form of the Septizonium, as recreated by construction research and archaeology. The 3D laser scan campaign to photograph and survey the spolia of the Septizonium carried out from May to July 2009 could be carried out as a collaborative project of TOPOI Berlin with the DAAD RISE-Project (Research Internship in Science and Engineering) and the John Hopkins University of Baltimore.
The study of spolia – the constructive or deconstructive reuse of materials from earlier buildings – was problematic in research for a long time, because neither art historians nor archaeologists felt fully responsible for the area. In addition, the study of art concentrated primarily on remnants reused aesthetically or ideally in their new site of presentation.
The goal of the dissertation to be written is to break up this limited way of viewing the subject and grasp the matter of spolia in its important historical and architecture-historical meaning, in the example of the construction of the New St. Peter’s in Rome. Unlike the spolia research that has been conducted up till now, both the ancient spaces and monuments from which spolia were taken in Rome and the affected spaces and ideas of space in the Renaissance and their changes will be examined.
A basic idea of the project is thus the expansion of research approaches in spolia studies with the aid of object-oriented archaeology.
The city of Rome takes central importance in this project. The great construction projects in the Renaissance required vast amounts of material, substantial portions of which were taken from ancient building substance. In addition, the relatively extensive documentation of the construction of the New St. Peter’s offers an outstanding starting point for studying the use of spolia.
Thus, for example, documents from the construction shed of St. Peter’s, the Archivio della Reverendissima Fabbrica di San Pietro, provide the record of a removal of spolia from a large number of ancient monuments in Rome. The monuments and spaces named therein can be archaeologically examined more thoroughly in regard to their ancient structure; also, the state of these sites during the Renaissance can be analyzed, thereby supplementing the topographical image of Rome in Antiquity and in the Renaissance.
The central question – how have these spaces changed because of the removal of spolia and were the spolia removed by plan or on coincidental occasions? – must be investigated in direct connection with other fields of problems. These include legal issues (Who had access to the spolia? Who owned the remnants of ancient monuments? How were excavating licenses issued?), technical and archaeological aspects (How were these massive materials transported? Were only selected pieces used? Do the spolia provide indications of the appearance and construction of the ancient monuments?), and cultural-historical matters (What respect did Antiquity enjoy when it came to exploiting the monuments?).
Initially, knowledge of the sources on the spaces in question will be expanded and deepened. The list of sites and monuments derived from the written records of the Fabbrica di San Pietro will be supplemented with pictorial evidence on the monuments from Renaissance-era drawings. To this end, the databank of the Census will be used. In a favorable case, this will already permit the determination of changes in the construction substance and the confirmation of the written sources.
After the topographical stock is registered, the focus will shift to external circumstances affecting the buildings. Additional contemporaneous sources (legal texts, Papal Bulls, communal tax lists, city maps, etc.) will be used to determine who owned the remnants of the monuments and how the Vatican behaved, for example in regard to preserving monuments. Central aspects of this include Renaissance excavation activity and the trade in spolia that resulted from it.
In the end, the obtained results will be brought together to understand the significance of the use of spolia in Renaissance Rome in an overall view and to discover the change in spaces and sites caused by the transposition of the material, whether by intent or due to economic constraints. Finally, the new use of the spolia in New St. Peter’s will be examined; in individual cases, for example the columns, this will surely be possible.
Seen together with other works on spolia and the other sub-areas of Research Area E I of the Topoi project, the dissertation project with the examination of the material reuse and redesign of the ancient legacies in specific spaces will contribute to triggering a “spatial turn” in research on spolia.
Carmen Marcks-Jacobs studied Classical Archaeology at the Philipps-Universität Marburg, and the Universität zu Köln. She is a member of the Excellence Cluster 264 Topoi since 2008. First she worked as coordinator of Research Group E-I, and since October 2011 she coordinates work in Research Area B. As a member of the group E-I and part of a team that deals with the subject “Spoliierung und Transposition. Kategorien und Methoden einer objektorientierten Archäologie antiker und antikisierender Räume und Raumvorstellungen” she concentrated her research work on phenomena of reuse of ancient buildings and monuments in Early Islamic Spain and focused on questions like the tradition of knowledge and the continuity of function in context of urban transformation. Her main fields of interest are the archaeology of the Iberian Peninsula, Roman sculpture and history of collection of antiquities.
Since November 2011 she is coordinator for the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies (BerGSAS) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Bernhard Fritsch is research assistant associated with the Einstein Fellowship of Liba Taub and works on digital acquisition, documenting and archiving of material objects as part of the Berlin Sundials Project.
His project includes the use of various tecniques as Structured-light 3D and Laser-Scanning as well as Structure-from-Motion and the open availibility of this data.
Research Group E-I aims to investigate the (re-)construction and transformation of ancient spaces and spatial concepts in the arts in post-ancient times. The group is to examine different forms of artistic transformation through imagination, construction, and resemantization, focused on the period between the early Middle Ages and the middle of the 19th century. There are four issues of central interest: the transposition of spolia; the interplay between factography and imagination in travelogues; the fictionalization and resemantization of ancient spaces in medieval literature; and finally the representation of the afterlife, based on ancient spatial concepts.