"Temple of Minerva Medica"

The building known as the “Temple of Minerva Medica” is one of the most impressive ancient monuments on the Esquiline hill. Even today, though it is confined between the traffic of Via Turati and the railway tracks into Termini Station, its size is eye-catching: a vast decagonal hall 25 metres in diameter and originally 32 metres high, covered by a huge coffered dome. The latter was depicted on several occasions by Renaissance artists in their engravings before its partial collapse in 1828. Traditionally, this place has had a wide variety of names: in the fourteenth century the building was known as the Therme de Caluce; from this name came the increasingly imaginative “Therme Gallutie”, “Basilica Gai et Luci”, the “Temple of Hercules Callaicus”, until eventually the whole area came to be known as “Le Galluzze”. The erroneous attribution to Minerva Medica was made by Pirro Ligorio, who mistakenly identified this as the place where a statue of the goddess was discovered. Later on, in the seventeenth century, the building came to be interpreted as the surviving portion of one of the luxurious residences occupying this part of the Esquiline between the imperial period and late antiquity. It was ascribed to the Horti Liciniani, the palace of the emperor Licinius Gallienus built in the mid-third century AD: this hypothesis was supported and disseminated in the nineteenth century by Nibby, an eminent scholar of ancient Rome, and long remained virtually unchallenged. In recent years, research on the boundaries between the vast estates in this area has called into question the theory that the Horti Liciniani, located by the sources much further north, reached this far. This area was probably part of the “Horti Spei Veteris”, the luxurious residence built by Septimius Severus, which even comprised a circus and an amphitheatre.

This vast estate was long left in a state of partial abandonment, until the emperor Constantine resumed construction of some unfinished buildings and added some new ones, establishing his residence, the Palatium Sessorianum, here. The palace comprised public buildings located around the Basilica Hyerusalem, the present-day Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme built by Constantine’s mother, and a residential area where the emperor lived with his family, perhaps in the area of ​​the “Temple of Minerva Medica”. Surrounding the hall still visible today, excavations have brought to light the remains of numerous rooms, most with the curvilinear floor plans typical of the period. From one of these rooms, perhaps a huge portico, comes a beautiful mosaic with hunting scenes now on display at the Museo della Centrale Montemartini. The vast hall that has survived until the present – with the third-largest dome in Rome after those of the Pantheon and the Baths of Caracalla – features a decidedly bold architectural style, typical of the period of Constantine. Each of the ten sides of the decagon hosts a deep alcove and is rendered lighter at the top by a huge window. The walls were covered with a sumptuous marble decoration, and the dome and the vault of the niches with rich mosaics, of which only traces of the preparatory layer now survive. This is an exceptional example of late antique architecture, in which more complex floor plans with curved lines prevailed over the austere lines of the past, and large apertures illuminated the interiors. Unfortunately, this bold architectural experiment, which had clearly failed to consider problems of stability, forced architects to intervene on the structure already in the fourth century, and throughout the following century. It was reinforced on the outside with massive buttresses and the construction of two large exhedras and a bi-apsidal hall, intended to counter the forces of the dome and in part still visible today.