A room from the House of Gryphons on the Palatine Hill.
A carving from the House of Gryphons.
A fresco that has been relocated to the Loggia Mattei on the Palatine.
Often, after the initial news media fanfare that usually accompanies such finds and their restoration, many of the ancient habitats have returned to the obscurity from which they emerged. There just aren’t enough custodians to monitor these important archaeological sites, and so they are off limits to the public.
But this summer — except in August, when it’s too hot — Rome’s archaeological authority has reallocated money so that it can provide staffs for five monuments in the ancient heart of Rome that are usually closed. The initiative will also allow nighttime visits to the Colosseum and offer free after-hours concerts in the museums that house the state’s collection of ancient Roman art.
Like art institutions elsewhere in a time of financial instability, Italy’s principal archaeological sites have had to cope with significant financial cuts that have affected accessibility and new excavations. The openings are the archaeological authority’s response to those budget woes.
“The shortage of guards is a huge problem that really must be resolved,” said Maria Antonietta Tomei, director of the Palatine and Roman Forum, as she strode purposefully around the site. On a good day, she said, only about a quarter of the approximately 80 security guards assigned to the area are on the job (holidays, illness and days off account for the absences), “and that’s just not enough.” But there’s no money to hire any more.
“Even when we restore buildings, we usually only manage to keep them open for a few days, even if the restorations have been long and complex and costly,” she said. “Then we only open them up to scholars.”
The chance to see previously closed sites is being made possible with state money that is usually set aside for staff bonuses and special projects, Ms. Tomei said. Normally cantankerous unions have also signed on.
Among the attractions that await visitors is the House of Livia, once the home of the wife of the emperor Augustus. The two-story structure has been closed for more than two decades, but until October it will be open every Tuesday.
By later imperial standards, the house, with its panels of architectonic motifs and flowery festoons, might even be described as modest. “Augustus didn’t love waste,” Ms. Tomei said. “He lived in the same rooms for 40 years.”
(One Italian visitor said with a snort on Tuesday, “Unlike Italy’s current head of government,” referring to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose supposed antics in his palatial residence — complete with a model of an erupting volcano — on the island of Sardinia have fueled gossip magazines and mainstream newspapers here for weeks.)
The Colosseum, Palatine and Roman Forum, which can be visited with one ticket, are Italy’s biggest tourist draw, and in 2008 nearly five million visitors brought in more than $50 million. But the financial crisis has had an effect on tourism. Hotel occupancy was down about 8 percent in March from the year before, according to the most recent statistics available from Rome’s municipal tourist office. (It’s too soon to know whether the Colosseum numbers have changed.)
New monuments to visit might be one way to lure tourists. For example, buried under the ruins of the Domus Flavia, built by Nero and Domitian, are the remains of the so-called House of Gryphons, one of the most important residences of Republican Rome. Excavated in 1912, it is virtually unknown outside academic circles. It too is now open on Tuesdays.
Behind its massive original bronze doors, the misnamed Temple of Romulus in the Roman Forum (it was probably the Temple of Jupiter Stator) shows evidence of the gradual merging of pagan religions with the Christian usurper. Like the so-called Oratory of the 40 Martyrs, decorated with eighth-century frescoes of soldiers who perished in frozen waters in Armenia, the temple is now open on Fridays.
One relatively modern attraction is the Loggia Mattei, which dates from the Renaissance, when some aristocratic families colonized the Palatine with landscaped gardens and small villas, often absorbing Roman ruins. Frescoes from a hall dedicated to the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, have been brought here from another site on the Palatine. The loggia, built in the 16th century, was briefly open in 1997, Ms. Tomei said, “but even then we didn’t have enough custodians. Since then it’s fallen into oblivion.”
The ancient frescoes abut the newer loggia, which was painted by the workshop of Baldassare Peruzzi with mythological scenes. The decoration includes 12 roundels with signs of the Zodiac, panels that belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
Published: July 3, 2009 , New York Times OnlinePhoto’s courtesy of the Photographic Archive Soprintendenza