Piazza dei Cinquecento

In the area of ​​today’s Piazza dei Cinquecento, between 1947 and 1949, works for the construction of line B of the Rome Metro uncovered an extraordinary building complex preserved beneath an artificial mound that had protected the ruins for centuries, the Monte della Giustizia. The remains had first been identified nearly a century before, in 1862, but only on this occasion was it possible to investigate the structures extensively; they occupied most of the square and were remarkably well preserved. The discoverers immediately interpreted the ruins that emerged as an entire residential district, designed and built all together during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138). The multi-storey buildings were made of brick and generally hosted private homes upstairs, whilst at street level there were workshops, warehouses for foodstuffs and even a small bath building. The narrow alleys between the various blocks still had their pavements and the sewer system, consisting of a large conduit in the centre of the roadstead, into which the pipes from individual homes flowed. To make room for the tunnel and service rooms of the new metro line, the structures were completely destroyed after a hasty excavation. Nonetheless, they were so well documented in notebooks, photos and designs by Luigi Pietrogrande, the archaeologist who directed the excavations, as to allow for a detailed reinterpretation in recent years.

The discoverers’ attention was drawn particularly to a triangular block hosting a rich domus and a bath building, adjacent to the main house but perhaps also open to the public. Such buildings – balnea – differed from the larger thermae, built and run by the state, because they were built and operated by private individuals. The Esquiline, a working-class neighbourhood with a very high population density, had many such baths. They were attended by people of all social classes, who spent hours of leisure time – the Roman otium – here, taking care of their hygiene and physical health alongside social relationships and business affairs. The comfortable and luxurious rooms that welcomed the patrons of the balnea in Piazza dei Cinquecento were decorated with frescoes depicting scenes of typical activities inside the baths. In one of the frescoes we see graceful women bathers, barely covered by a cloth and wearing simple sandals, accompanied by an attendant carrying a capsa, the cosmetics container of the time, which held balms, scented oils and everything else needed for bathing.

The quality of these decorations, highly luxurious in style and size, has led to the hypothesis that the owner of this part of the neighbourhood was extremely important, perhaps even a member of the imperial family. Before the demolition of the structures, the magnificent frescoes and the floor mosaics were detached and subjected to careful restoration; some of the rooms were then reconstructed in their original size inside the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo. The windows of the museum, overlooking Piazza dei Cinquecento, give visitors an excellent view of their place of discovery, now one of the busiest areas of the capital, home to the terminus of numerous buses, the two lines of the Metro and the main railway station.