LoveItaly’s Tracy Roberts took me to Rome's Colle Oppio, up behind the Colosseum. The new excavations are already legendary, but a visit by the President of the American University of Myanmar, Craig Klefter, provided the perfect excuse for an outing.
Next to Nero’s Golden House are the stupendous Baths of Trajan. An emperor whose vaunting ambition at home and abroad sought parallel with Augustus, these baths involved remodelling the Colle Oppio.
Enter through an old padlocked gate, into an anonymous yard and as if by magic treasures appear.
Nearly two decades ago – now described in an elegant report in The Memoirs of the American Academy 61 (2017) - Prof. Rita Volpe began venturing deep below the gargantuan terracing supporting Trajan’s baths. Dating to the generation or so after Nero’s great fire, a huge palatial building with an eye-watering covering of wall mosaics has been unearthed. The wall’s bottom is yet to be found but the expansive registers of mythic figures in coloured mosaic are the Colle Oppio’s first treasure.
Professor Rita Volpe below the Trajan Baths
Next treasure, thanks to scrupulous excavation is an earthen stairway from the early 2nd century construction. Accompanying this are graffiti on the side walls left by Rome's literate workmen. One couplet reads:
QVISQVIS AMAT VALEAT PE-
REAT QVIS NESCIT AMAREM [sic]
BIS TANTO PEREAT QVIS AMARE VETAT
(Who loves lives, the loveless live death! And love dies twice when it is denied.)
In deeper and Rita Volpe has found a third treasure. The remains of a huge vaulted room, its end wall is decorated not by a mosaic but a limpid wall-painting depicting a densely packed cityscape. A theatre, dwellings, roads and fortifications in this magisterial rendering remind one of the painting in La Dolce Vita. Here for an instant, then gone, hauntingly beautiful. Except this remains to the joy of art historians who believe it to one of the very first paintings of a city.
Professor Rita Volpe with the hauntingly beautiful cityscape
The Colle Oppio’s treasures have been stabilised by Volpe’s team. Good, solid pathways exist into the darkened vaults. Now, LoveItaly is trying to facilitate how to support opening this wonder from Rome’s golden age to the public. Diffusing the current overwhelming armies of visitors to the Roman Forum must be a priority if the city and Italy want to grow tourism sensibly to help the economy.
LoveItaly’s Tracy Roberts, in her indefatigable excitement, is looking to help Rita Volpe do lasting justice to this extraordinary archaeology. There is more to dig and to surprise us too. Expect to hear much more about the Colle Oppio!
The extraordinary later 1st-c wall mosaic under Trajan’s baths