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Finding the Medieval in Rome I: ruins and cats

Given the state of things in the UK at the moment, and with the work to get ready for term very much upon me, it’s actually quite nice that my blog backlog means I can write about and remember happier times. So, as promised last week, I have some photographs for you! You may remember that just before the academic year 2016/17 began, I ran off to Istanbul for an emergency holiday. That worked so well that we had decided to do it again for 2017/18, and having gone to New Rome the year before, it was really time we got round to the old one, to which, to my shame, I had never been. So we did.

Entrance of San Teodoro di Roman

If we left the flat where we stayed, and turned left, at the end of the road was this, which is the church of San Teodoro, probably sixth-century and since 2004 used by the Orthodox community of Rome, so a good place to start for an occasional Byzantinist

I can take no credit for this, but we could really not have been better located.

The ruins of the Horrea Agrippiana, in Rome

The ruins of the Republican Horrea Agrippiana (Granaries of Agrippa), into which Sant Teodoro was built and therefore just next door

Now, obviously Rome is more famous for its ancient history than its medieval history, I don’t think anyone would deny. Nonetheless, this is a medieval blog and the thing about the Middle Ages is that because they occurred after Antiquity, their ruins and remains are on top of its. What this means is that there’s two ways to see a view like this, which was just round the corner from the previous…

View into the Forum Romanum

View into the Forum Romanum, with the Arch of Septimius Severus most visible in the middle ground next to the Column of Phocas, which is of course Byzantine so practically medieval

Either, this is a set of Classical ruins with later stuff blocking the view. Or, it’s the landscape through which medieval Romans also picked, with some of their buildings around the edges. Perhaps more has fallen down from way back when than had in their times, but nonetheless, I think it’s arguable that we’re seeing here a more medieval landscape than a Classical one. And whether or not that’s true, it’s the argument I shall hang these posts upon.

Tempio di Portuno, Rome

The Tempio di Portuno

So, this is a Classical building, sure; but it’s also a medieval one, in as much as it was also there in the Middle Ages and part of the medieval city. But this kind of untouched, or even touched up, survival through the ages is pretty rare in Rome. Instead, while Istanbul repeatedly struck me as having piled layers of time up on top of one another, in Rome they often seem to have collided violently after some time fighting each other off.

The Teatro di Marcello, Rome

Roman and later building on the Teatro Marcello, which was partly demolished, I learn, as early as the 4th century, but to which much worse things have been done since, mostly not visible in this picture

Sometimes, I will grant you, the collision of periods is only quite recent, though again, the underworks of this unfortunate episode of residential housing must have also been there in the Middle Ages. But by way of a focus on one site, below is what’s currently visible of the Largo di Torre Argentina, which is among other things supposedly where Julius Cæsar was assassinated.

View of the Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome

Obviously, then, like anywhere in the city proper I suppose, there is Classical history wot happened here. And the column bases you see there are, indeed, the remains of one of four Roman Republican temples which once stood in this area. But you’ll note the two round roofed structures at the back of the temple. These are, more or less, medieval buildings.

The two towers of the Largo di Torre Argentina

If I have this right, which I may not—corrections welcome, as ever!—the smaller of the two is attributed to Pope Anacletus II, whom history prefers to remember as an anti-pope even though he was elected by a majority of the cardinals and died in office—really, the main reason he isn’t remembered as pope is that his rival, Innocent II, was still going when Anacletus died and so was able righteously to claim the office. Admittedly, most people outside Italy were against Anacletus, but I feel like if their candidate had died they might still have struggled to sustain their case.1 Anyway, be that as it may, he is supposed to have built the smaller of these towers, from which he presumably sometimes looked out over the ruins of four pagan temples and the theatre where Cæsar was killed and wondered what he’d ever done to get into this much trouble.

The Torre Argentina in the Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome

The actual Torre Argentina

The larger of the two is the Torre Argentina, for which the square is now named, and that, admittedly, is not quite medieval in as much as it was built in 1503 for the papal master of ceremonies, Jacob Burckhardt, who came from Strasbourg (Latin name Argentoratum).2 But it’s doing the same kind of thing, and again we have the way in which these spaces were not dead but being used and lived in throughout the period.

One of the ruined Republican temples in the Largo di Torre Argentina

One of the ruined temples, dating to the third century BC I think, but with a medieval altar standing in it from the erstwhile church next door (see below)

Now, subsequent conservation and restoration has, as is normal if not necessarily as is natural, favoured the Classical structures, and they are indeed quite elaborate.

Exposed subterranean chambers in the Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome

Exposed subterranean chambers under the erstwhile church of San Nicolò, itself on the site of a Republican-period temple

One wonders what was stored in these chambers during the Middle Ages, or if they were invisible under the earth, and doubtless if I read more about the place I’d know. Apart from anything else, the structure above them was in fact converted into a church in the (probably) Carolingian period, so (a) it was standing in some fashion as late as that, and (b) it was rededicated to Saint Nicholas in 1130 by none other than Pope Anacletus II, so I assume that it was either his private chapel or that that fact is why the small tower is attributed to him. It’s now no less reduced than the Roman stuff, and I didn’t know what it was so didn’t get a good picture, but happily Wikimedia Commons can provide.

View of the Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome

Largo di Torre Argentina, by Wknight94own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. The church of San Nicolà di Calcarario is the floor and brick wall led up to from the stone steps in the middle foreground.

Ruins of two of the temples in the Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome

This was the best I did, looking from the back of the same structures with the south wall and floor of the church visible at right

So this was all used space in the Middle Ages, I think we can see. It’s perhaps weird to find it now out of use, you might think, except that it’s actually not. When we visited, this was in fact and I think for now still is the site of the Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina, or in other words, it’s a cat sanctuary.

Cats in the Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina, Rome

Two of the ‘gatti di Roma’ in repose

Cats in the Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina, Roma

And three more, rather more reposed

The whole area was due to be cleared up, conserved and restored as of February 2019. I don’t know where that would have left the Gatti di Roma, but a very small positive outcome of the awful path Covid-19 has cut through Italy is that the city of Rome has had higher priorities than evicting a bunch of cats from their erstwhile Roman temple over the last year, and so there, as far as I can tell from their website, they remain. But you get my general schtick, anyway: medieval Rome probably looked not unlike Rome does to us, but with less dug up and exposed and more still in use, as well as more of a much more ephemeral nature built on top of it. (And probably also cats.) As with the Classical remains, what we have left visible now is only the massively over-built stuff or the churches; such is survival bias. But to think this way, I submit, does make one look slightly differently at the monuments. For example, in the other direction from the junction at the end of the road where we stayed, only a short walk away, was the Circus Maximus, or what’s left of it, which is mainly space.

View down the Circo Massimo, Rome

View down the space where chariots once raced and vegetables were once grown (not in the same centuries)

But what is that down there at the end, I perhaps hear you ask?

Structures at the south-east end of the Circo Massimo

Structures at the south-east end

Well, some of it is about all that’s left of the stepped rows of stone benches on which people once sat to watch the Roman races in the best Ben Hur style. Apparently there is a lot more, under the soil that piled up during its medieval uses, but there is also that there tower. Wikipedia is currently impressively uninterested in this, not mentioning the tower in any of its long article on the Circus except in a apology in a photo caption. However, a helpful medievalist student explains that this is the Torre della Moletta, which apparently belonged to the Frangipani family and was put up in the twelfth century to guard and oversee a water-mill among the gardens that were here then.3 It’s hard to say that any period is really being commemorated in the limited conservation of the site now, so I’m not sure the Middle Ages has lost out in any obvious way. But I suppose what I’m getting at, without meaning it to be good or bad or one thing or the other, is that it was busier in the Middle Ages than it is now, but looked more like this than this looks like Roman times. And this is a theme that as a medievalist, one can repeat in perhaps one or two more focused photo posts upcoming…


1. My default for such things is Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy (Oxford 1984), which covers this pp. 182-184, but a quick websearch suggests that the juicy details are more fully recounted in Mary Stroll, Symbols as Power: the Papacy following the Investiture Contest (Leiden 1991), esp. pp. 93-105.

2. This, I admit, I got straight from Wikipedia. Sorry, even Homer sometimes nods, and I ain’t him.

3. Lindsay Brandt, “The Medieval Circus Maximus” in Victoria Morse (ed.), Carleton Guide to Medieval Rome, online here.

4 responses to “Finding the Medieval in Rome I: ruins and cats

  1. How rude of us all to fail to say hello recently.

    Do you know the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, 1605-1682?

    His “old Families last not three Oaks” is a wonderful remark. It would prove to be roughly right about the Stewarts/Stuarts, Kings and Queens from 1371 to 1714.

    Another three-oaker is the House of Plantagenet, reigning 1154 to 1485.

    The telly favourites, the Tudors, lasted about one oak.

    How about your Catalans?

    (I’m assuming that a century old oak is likely to be felled for building or ship-building.)

    • Equally rude of me not to post anything, but I’m afraid term and life are leaving me very little opportunity to! I don’t know as much Browne as I ought to, given how excellent the few quotes of his I’ve seen are. This one seems fair, but, I didn’t expect it to be right for ‘my Catalans’. Guifré the Hairy of Barcelona died in 898; descendants of his were still Counts of Barcelona until much much later, but, there was a skip to the female line in 1412. So, three long-lived oaks?

  2. Though if your pigs enjoy its acorns might you let it live longer?

  3. Thank you for the look at classical Rome through medieval Rome. In my first & only trip there, like all greedy tourists I looked at the former and not the latter. Given your pictures, I’m hoping to rectify this when & if we can travel again.

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