BMCR 2005.04.15

The Appian Way: From its Foundation to the Middle Ages

, , , The Appian Way : from its foundation to the Middle Ages. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 240 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 27 cm. ISBN 0892367520. $39.95.

[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

This book journeys along the Appian Way from north to south, from Rome to Brindisi, from the road’s beginnings in 312 BCE until about the fourteenth century CE. Six major sections interweave history and topography, what remains and what has vanished. This book occupies an unusual niche. It has too many footnotes to be what used to be called a “coffee-table” book yet serves as an introduction to archaeological and topographical problems rather than an original contribution solving them. There are three possible audiences for this book: hard-core tourists who are interested in classics or history; undergraduate students on a study-abroad program; and beginning graduate students who are delving into new areas of topography, art history, or ancient/medieval Italian history. This book’s precursors on the Appian Way include collections of essays widely divergent in approach, archaeological publications on such specific sites as the Villa of Maxentius, outdated scholarly guidebooks, and books with less scope and visual ambition.1

The first major section, by Giuseppina Pisani Sartorio, provides an ambitious overview of the road’s construction and renovations, especially the work of Canina on the road and its tombs. The discussion (22-25) on the administration of Roman roads seems less systematic in comparison to the more chronological discussion of paving, renovating, or adding new features (e.g. the cut through Pisco Montano) (25-29).2 Pisani Sartorio also discusses travelers along the road, from Roman soldiers to Christian pilgrims to wealthy Europeans on the Grand Tour, and the structures established to serve them. She ends on a note of cautious hope for a giant archaeological preserve along the entire road. The press has chosen to omit from the English edition a more detailed discussion of conservation and “cultural patrimony” issues in Italian by Gaetano Benedetto, recent president of the existing archaeological park, perhaps because the intended readers are the Italian citizens who would vote and pay for it. Moreover, such issues are often hard to comprehend outside of the Italian political context.3

The second section, also by Pisani Sartorio, concentrates on the road as it leaves Rome. This section’s archaeological commentary takes into account the varied nature of different sections by first describing the look and feel of each section, both as it is and as it was, and then by pointing out specific sites and landmarks, usually portrayed in nearby photographs. Although some smaller tombs and monuments are omitted, the Cecilia Metella tomb, itself the subject of earlier monographs, deserves its prominent place here.4 The catacombs of S. Callisto and S. Sebastiano both receive good treatment of their sizes and structures, including the transition from pagan to Christian and even papal tombs (57- 58), but no Christian art made prior to the Edict of Milan appears. Toward the end of the chapter, the author skillfully emphasizes lesser-known tombs and features now lost to draw attention away from modern suburban Rome. In fine, this chapter contains a level of detail sufficient for a walking tour, unlike the subsequent sections, which refer to modern autostrade (153, 161).

The third section, by Francesca Ventre, ranges over a longer distance, twenty-two Roman miles from the Alban Hills to Cisterna Latina, which is halfway between Rome and Terracina. Ciceronians will appreciate the connection of Pro Milone to the remains of the Villa of Clodius (87-89). Nevertheless, Ovidians will long for a citation of Ovid, Met. 13.730-968 for the juxtaposition of Scylla and Polyphemus in the sculptural program of the Alban Villa of Domitian, duly paralleled in other sculptural groups from Tiberius to Hadrian (89-90). Side trips to Marino and Velletri along modern roads are justified by well-preserved Mithraic wall paintings (101-103) and a reconstruction of Etruscan and Volscian networks of travel and culture before the Roman conquest, in the same vein as an earlier discussion of the Latin shrine of Diana Nemorensis (99). Interest in pre-Roman Italy, long a feature of Italian scholarship with its regionally organized archaeological authorities, has now reached the pages of even National Geographic.5 The emerging new plotline is that many kinds of cultural movements endured or even flourished beneath the thin crust of Roman control.

The fourth section, also by Ventre, goes from Cisterna Latina to Benevento. As another pre-Roman and post-Roman inland detour occupies the beginning of this chapter, treatments of two Cistercian abbeys on this route, the Romanesque Valvisciolo and the mostly Gothic Fossanova (114-117), foreshadow the art-historical themes of the last two chapters. The most interesting discussion concerns the Decennovium (118-122), which could be traversed either by land or by a canal, and connects well to the poet Horace’s journey (J. Fuchs’ translation of Sat. 1.5 is given in full in an appendix). Because of the difficulty of maintaining two different yet parallel modes of travel, the Decennovium oscillated wildly between decrepitude and renovation well into the 17th century. The chapter ends with a superb treatment of the history of ancient Capua from the archaic worship of Mater Matuta to the Conocchia or “Distaff”, a medieval monument renovated and given Baroque curvature by the King of Naples in the 18th century (139-142).

The fifth section, by Ivana della Portella, goes from Benevento to Taranto along the section of the Via Appia superseded by the Via Traiana. Most of the remains are medieval and Romanesque, but with multiple layers and influences. The Romanesque monastic church of S. Sofia at Benevento, with its unusual geometry, influences ranging from Lombard to Byzantine, and numerous restorations, remains especially enigmatic (150-155). Later, in a millennium-spanning example ideal for this sort of book, della Portella leads her discussion through the area around the monastic church of Santissima Trinità (164- 170). After treating the well-preserved remains of a second-century AD Roman bath complex, she proceeds to the church itself and beautifully demonstrates the difference between an early Christian basilica and an (incomplete) Romanesque church. From the unfinished Romanesque ambulatory, marked off by pillars with elaborate capitals that have no arches or roof to support, one can see the small windows and doors of the basilica’s apse!

The final section on the Via Traiana, also by della Portella, heads almost straight for the Adriatic coast from Benevento rather than meeting the Gulf of Taranto, then ends at Brindisi with different landmarks. The quotations in this chapter, while occasionally overlong, evocatively range from Horace to Bernard of Clairvaux to the modern Italian writer Cesare Brandi. After a thorough discussion of the style and iconography of Trajan’s Arch at Benevento (186-190), Della Portella provides a good introduction to Apulian Romanesque cathedrals, which provides fruitful comparisons with the usual suspects in France and even England. The five Romanesque cathedrals treated here are Troia, Canosa, Ruvo, Bitonto, and S. Nicola in Bari, the prototype for Apulian Romanesque, with Ostuni as a contrasting example of elaborate late Gothic. Since there is not enough space to flesh out all the foreign influences adduced (Pisan, Byzantine, Dalmatian, Venetian), references to longer discussions of south Italian art and architecture might be pertinent here.6 Such longer discussions, however, would probably not solve the art-historical problem of the striking originality of the cathedra of S. Elia, whose sculptures show a “plasticity” that anticipates Gothic sculptural developments by at least a century (212 with 227-228 n. 51).

The name of the translator, Stephen Sartarelli, should appear on the cover, rather than in small type on the copyright page. To mystery buffs, he is primarily known as the translator of the Inspector Montalbano mysteries. While preserving nearly the same page breaks as the Italian original, the translator has shortened some of the more paratactically relaxed Italian sentences to yield clear, sure-footed English prose. He departs from this clarity only to make a point of capturing the impressionistic, “literary” style of a brief essay on literary and cinematic journeys by Vittorio Emiliani.

The photographer, Franco Mammana, has captured many breathtaking images, widely varied in angle, scale, and subject matter. Close-ups of sculpture (98) are as skillfully done as wide-angle landscape views (76-77). For variety’s sake, there are far fewer photographs of the road’s pavement (nine) than one might expect, and they are scattered throughout the book. The photographer has focused on beauty, but left room for whimsy, such as the pretzel-knot column of the cloister of the Church of S. Sofia in Benevento (155). The photographs in the American edition are identical to the Italian, but to my eye, the earth tones in the American edition are slightly brighter.

Even more significantly, the photographs lend strong support to the text, with minimal page turning necessary — an exemplary collaboration among editor, photographer, and press. For example, the discussion of the so-called “Sanctuary of Jupiter Anxur” is bolstered not only by a reconstruction drawing and a view of the cryptoporticus (126) but also by a view of its location at the top of Monte Sant’ Angelo (127) and a view from the temple of the coastal marshes which the Appian Way went inland to avoid (128). As for photography of details, two full-page photographs (214-215) illustrate the discussion of the cathedra of St. Elia, the Romanesque masterpiece mentioned above, and the first photo is clear and close-up enough to see chisel marks.

Finally, the book’s major contribution is to consider several things simultaneously — the road as it is and as it was, the road of Roman soldiers and of Christian pilgrims, the emperor restoring or improving the road and the Enlightenment man of culture trying to sketch or preserve its antiquities, Horace and Goethe. The book’s images and photographs make it a welcome addition to this Getty Museum series, characterized by rich, plentiful illustrations.

Quibbles. The only photograph that is less than amazing is the view of the entrance of the cathedral of Bitonto (204) — the entrance faces northwest across a wedge-shaped piazza and cannot be photographed in direct sunlight. The translator makes a small misstep in using the noun “abandon” instead of “neglect” (94, 125). Finally, the names of the ancient towns of Bovillae and Lanuvium sometimes appear as the modern Italian Boville and Lanuvio; the Italian consistently uses Boville while consistently italicizing the Latin form Lanuvium.


1. Essay collection: La Via Appia: decimo Incontro di studio del Comitato per l’archeologia laziale., ed. S. Quilici Gigli (Rome, 1990); site specific work: G. Pisani Sartorio and R. Calza, La villa di Massenzio sulla via Appia: il palazzo, le opere d’arte (Rome, 1976); guidebook: J. Ripostelli and H. Marucchi, Via Appia: à l’époque romaine et de nos jours : histoire et description (Repr. of 1908 ed. Amsterdam, 1967). The following work, generously sponsored by the Fondazione Memmo, has less text and no color photographs, although the sepia engravings of Labruzzi are beautifully reproduced: A. La Regina et al., Via Appia: sulle ruine della magnificenza antica, trans. A. Getzel (Milan, 1997).

2. For a more detailed chronological discussion of road maintenance, see W. Eck’s article in Quilici Gigli 1990, duly cited in the bibliography. For a view oriented towards economics and social history, see now R. Laurence, The roads of Roman Italy: mobility and cultural change (London, 1999).

3. For example, the 5000 squatters building illegal houses amid the ruins of Selinunte were described as numerous enough to form a political party by Stella Gian Antonio, “Il lido degli abusi,” Corriere della sera 23 Nov 2003.

4. Most recently, Via Appia: the tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Castrum Caetani, ed. R. Paris (Milan, 2000); H. Gerding, The tomb of Caecilia Metella : tumulus, tropaeum and thymele (Lund, Sweden, 2002).

5. E. Zwingle and O. Mazzatenta, “Italy Before the Romans,” National Geographic (Jan. 2005) 52-76, anticipated by F. Coarelli and A. la Regina, Abruzzo, Molise (Rome, 1984).

6. T. Garton, Early Romanesque sculpture in Apulia (New York, 1984), or D. Glass, Romanesque sculpture in Campania: patrons, programs, and style (University Park, PA, 1991).