Rome: The complex of ruins on the Palatine has discouraged many a visitor

The complex of ruins on the Palatine has discouraged many a visitor, and the varying array of names applied to the palaces has added to the bewilderment. Yet these names need not clash with enjoyment; they are merely convenient ways of identifying the different parts of a maze of structures.

On the northwest corner of the hill overlooking the Roman Forum stand the ruins known as the Palace of Tiberius from the emperor who began it. The rest of the imperial buildings are often called, as a whole, the Augustan Palace, though this name is usually reserved for the residential palace which Domitian, third of the Flavian emperors, built on the southeastern part of the hill. Flavian Palace, a name met frequently, is sometimes used both of this and of Domitian's official or state palace in the centre. More generally, however, it is applied to the official palace only, and is so used here.

By the Middle Ages, differences between the various palaces had been forgotten. The hill was occupied by churches and their gardens, nestled among the spreading ruin. Medieval men, in general, spoke of only one palace on this hill--the Greater Palace, or Palazzo Maggiore. This was 'the Palace of the Monarchy of the Earth, wherein is the capital seat of the whole world', wrote the compiler of the Graphia Aureae Urbis Romae, the Description of the Golden City of Rome, in the twelfth or thirteenth century. The Mirabilia calls it simply 'The Greater Palace in the Pallantean Hill'. The authors of both books probably meant the whole complex of ruins which, by then, were crumbling into one tangled labyrinth. Medieval views show a generalized mass labelled palatium maius or Palazzo Maggiore, with rows of conventionalized arches which probably represented the substructures of Septimius Severus.

These, looking much as they do today, rise in the background of Marten van Heemskerck's drawing, though the foreground emphasis is on one of Rome's completely vanished 'marvels', the Septizonium. This was a great façade built by Severus to screen the substructures from travellers approaching from the south along the Via Appia and to impress, his chronicler says, those coming to Rome from the emperor's native Africa. What other purpose it may have served is unknown. Its very name is a puzzle; if ever it had seven floors, as the term implies, all but three had disappeared before any artist drew it. It may, perhaps, have been dedicated to the seven planets. Medieval Romans saw in it some connection with the heavens, for besides calling it 'the Seven Floors' they referred to it as 'the temple of the Sun and Moon'. So thoroughly did the workmen of Sixtus V carry out its final destruction in 1588-1589 that it is likely to remain one of archaeology's unsolved problems.

When, in the sixteenth century, Roman nobles and princes of the Church began to build villas and lay out gardens in the centre and on the northern side of the Palatine, this southeastern angle with the immense arches surrounding it remained in the hands of churches and convents. So, comparatively unchanged by casual excavators, it slept in quiet until the more thorough explorations of the late nineteenth century.

The romantic spirit in which this century began took special delight in stressing the mystery of ruins just as scientific archaeology was preparing to dispel it. The early years of excavation, indeed, increased the public bewilderment, for theories and identifications changed almost overnight, and each had its passionate defenders. Through most of the century the name 'Palace of the Caesars' was as vague as 'Greater Palace' had been in the Middle Ages, meaning sometimes the buildings of Severus, sometimes the Palace of Tiberius, and sometimes all the buildings on the hill.

Romantic feeling for the Palatine found its perfect expression in the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold, written in 1817 shortly after Byron's brief Roman visit in the spring of that year:

'Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and massed together, hillocks heaped
On what were chambers, arch crushed, column strown
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescoes steeped
In subterranean damps, where the owl peeped
Deeming it midnight:--Temples, baths, or halls
Pronounce who can: for all that Learning reaped
From her research hath been, that these are walls--
Behold the Imperial Mount! 'Tis thus the mighty falls.'

A paragraph of prose is devoted to precisely the same conclusion by one of the most entertaining travel writers of the time. The Englishwoman, Charlotte Eaton, though unknown to fame, was possessed of an inquiring mind and an observant eye as well as a romantic fancy. 'I have made repeated visits to this hill, she wrote in Rome in the Nineteenth Century, the outcome of a long visit in 1817 and 1818. 'I have spent whole days upon it: I have been there with the most renowned antiquaries, professional and unprofessional: I have read and thought and inquired about it; and all I have gained by puzzling my own brains, and those of other people, is the simple fact I knew at first--that it is covered with the walls of the Palace of the Caesars.'

The very guidebooks of the nineteenth century shared the romantic fondness for the vague and picturesque. Murray Handbook for 1869 led visitors to the Palace of the Caesars 'from the side of the Circus Maximus, through a house on the Via de' Cerchi', to the substructures of Severus with the enticing statement that 'these magnificent ruins, clothed in ivy and other creeping plants, diversified by laurels and ilex, will supply the artist with varied combinations for his pencil'.

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