This past Thursday, I was quite delighted to attend the inaugural re-opening of the Atrium Vestae, better known as the Vestal Virgins’ home, next to the Temple of Vesta and just below the impressive palatial remains of the Palatine, facing the Forum. Though uncovered in the Giacomo Boni campaigns at the end of the 19th century, the excavator of the site in recent decades has been Darby Scott of Bryn Mawr College. I was fortunate (and eternally grateful) to have my first excavation experience with him there in 1994.
The Vestals, of course, continue to capture the imagination– so it’s great that the paying public can finally experience the site; it’s incredible– today a field of green (most of the pavement levels have been ripped out) with 2 fountains refilled with water (I wonder about the goldfish that used to be there). These priestesses were always in the public eye, especially their role in seeing to Rome’s safety, managing the Vesta cult next door, remaining unmarried throughout their tenure (disobedience punishable by being buried alive). The site that you visit increased in size over time, from the earliest occupation of the Forum area until its ultimate abandonment in the reign of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century AD. A new on site PLAN details the activities in the complex– apartments for the priestesses, reception halls, access to the emperor’s palace, private baths, and kitchens and a mill, for grinding the ritual grain (mixed with brine for mola salsa used in state sacrifices).
The slide show below gives an idea of just how beautiful it was, with a sunny, cloudless sky. Not only is the site now accessible to all that gain entry to the Forum, but it also allows you to skip going back in the Forum area and along the Via Sacra, to ascend the Palatine hill. Now, instead, you can take the ancient staircase, as the Vestals once did, to head up to the palace of the emperor. street up a above is the VIA NOVA (though not much younger than the Via Sacra). Along the storage spaces that flank the road one glassed in space houses the spectacular find of an alabaster tiger found nearby. It originally would have been in a more prestigious settle, such as a garden or hall.
On the occasion re-opening of the site, museum directors and cultural ministry directors were present. It was a nice opportunity to see colleagues and friends. On the same occasion, after the press conference in the “Temple of Romulus” MIBAC (Italy’s Ministry of Culture– which you can now follow in English, in addition to Italian, both on Facebook and Twitter– though it’s relatively new), it was decided to give a taste of the future openings of the forum area– namely, Domitian’s ramp (that led you from Forum area to the palace) and nearby Santa Maria Antiqua. This church (reusing a portion of Domitian’s palace) has been described as a Pompeii-like site, with the wall paintings from the 6th to 9th centuries buried and left virtually undisturbed from the 9th century, until the early twentieth century (and the excavations of Giacomo Boni). Conservation work there has been going on for decades, funded by the Italian Minstry, and also the Kress fund– and more recently through the World Monuments Fund– which my organization (American Institute for Roman Culture) has been able to assist in its endeavors in Rome.