Auditorium of Maecenas

Maecenas, the famous advisor to the Emperor Augustus, a friend of artists and poets to the extent that his name has become a byword for a patron of the arts, was the owner of a luxurious domus (house) on the Esquiline, on the eastern side of the Oppian Hill. In around the mid-first century BC, Maecenas decided to expand his estate towards the east and began construction of the so-called horti novi; we could say that Maecenas triggered a radical transformation of the entire Esquiline hill that was to characterize the district for centuries, making it a favoured place of residence for the wealthy classes and the emperors. By this time, the Servian walls had been abandoned and had probably partly collapsed; the area immediately outside them was occupied by the cemetery of the poor, which may even have encroached upon the ancient ditch next to the walls. According to the poet Horace, this area of the city had been reduced to a rubbish tip, a meeting place for witches, travellers and vagrants. Maecenas’s project involved extending the residential complex to the east, a task accomplished by covering an area of 11,500 square metres between today’s Teatro Brancaccio and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele with a layer of earth up to six metres thick. Horace describes the result as follows: “Now you can live on the Esquiline, made healthy once again, and stroll in the sun on the rampart, where lately you sadly contemplated a formless landscape of bleached bones”.

Maecenas’s luxurious residence thus stood within a wonderful park dotted with separate pavilions, used as banqueting halls, small theatres, porticoes and nymphaea. The only structure belonging to the horti of Maecenas to have survived until the present after the earthworks of the late nineteenth century is the so-called auditorium, an apsidal hall built over the old walls. The hall, which was always partially underground, was accessed by a ramp that still preserves its original herringbone floor. The interpretation of the room as an auditorium, proposed by its discoverers, has now been abandoned due to the very limited size of the steps reserved for spectators. Rather, the hall – kept cool by its underground location – seems to have been a summer triclinium, one of the typical rooms of wealthy domus of this period, where guests dined reclining on a triclinium, a sort of couch, entertained by songs, music and recitals. The cultural climate that reigned within the circle of intellectuals gathered around Maecenas, probably habitual visitors to this place, is indicated by the verses painted on the outside of the apse, a passionate hymn to love and wine. A background of valuable red cinnabar was chosen to decorate the walls of the room. Into them opened a series of niches whose interiors were painted with scenes of lush gardens dotted with ponds and fountains, and full of flying birds. This sense of perfect continuity between the interior of the room and the surrounding garden was completed by the cooling and gently murmuring fountain in the apse. Here the water ran down the steps like a small waterfall and was then collected in an artificial stream, a euripus, at the centre of the room.
On his death, Maecenas left his properties to Augustus and they thus became part of the imperial estate.