BMCR 2013.09.30

San Lorenzo in Lucina: The Transformations of a Roman Quarter. Skrifter Utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Athen / Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae, 4, 61

, San Lorenzo in Lucina: The Transformations of a Roman Quarter. Skrifter Utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Athen / Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae, 4, 61. Stockholm: Swedish Institute in Rome, 2012. 382. ISBN 9789170421792 SEK 800.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

After an intermittent series of interim reports from the Swedish excavations at S. Lorenzo in Lucina in the northern Campus Martius in Rome, the appearance of the final monograph is a welcome sight. The church has interested Roman topographers since the sixteenth century for its long-held association with the Horologium Augusti.1 Investigations carried out below the basilica by the German Archaeological Institute and Soprintendenza Archeologica from 1982-1987, however, failed to find pieces of the pavement that was thought to lie north of the Horologium and instead found a large structure in opus latericium. In 1993, the Soprintendenza invited the Swedish Institute to participate in the excavations of the early Christian baptistery below the crypt of the Sala dei Canonici. The monograph reviewed here is meant to be the final publication of the 1993, 1995, and 1998 baptistery campaigns.

As promised by the title and subtitle, however, the essays are not limited to the baptistery excavations, but rather expand across a broader chronological and topographical arc to consider the Roman structures found in the earlier excavations, as well as medieval aspects of the basilica. The topographical surroundings of the structures on the site in each phase are frequently discussed to provide cohesive narrative of the site’s development within its broader urban context. The work as a whole steers away from the erroneous proposed links between the church and the Horologium and focuses on how the existing remains clarify the topographical evolution of the northern Campus Martius. In this sense, the volume reflects a project that has embraced the new directions in Roman topography that have developed over the course of the past generation. Unlike the more traditional focus on the monuments of the emperors, this monograph elucidates some of the less monumental topography of Rome, and the chronologically and topographically inclusive approach that the Swedish team has embraced is particularly successful in providing a more synthetic overview of larger urban regions where more extensive excavation is impossible.

The first section of the book presents the excavation reports of the 1985 campaign of the Soprintendenza below the basilica and the 1990s excavations of the Swedish Institute in the baptistery. Pasquali’s detailed publication of the 1985 Soprintendenza excavations below the basilica is especially important, since the work had only been summarily published until now.2 The stratigraphy is presented in clear and comprehensive detail, beginning with a single room from a now lost opus mixtum structure dated to the second century A.D. A large structure in opus latericium, here interpreted as an insula, was then built above the second-century structure in the early third century. The excavations, supported by archival documentation of similar remains elsewhere in the northern Campus Martius, demonstrated that the monumental nature of the area under the Julio-Claudians and Flavian emperors had been lost by the second-century, when it was gradually transformed into a residential and commercial zone with insulae and a rectilinear street system.

In his presentation of the Swedish baptistery excavations, Brandt demonstrates that the early Christian baptistery was built on top of a marble-clad basin within an outdoor area lying just west of or within a courtyard belonging to the insula. It also probably reused the water supply system that fed the basin. Steps were added to the original baptistery in the late eighth century, and it was completely remodeled in the fifteenth century when the entire space was converted into a chapel.

The second section of the book consists of more interpretive essays on each of the major building phases on the site. The pre-Christian phase is the subject of Boman’s contribution, which brings new and important attention to the often overlooked later history of the Campus Martius during which it was gradually converted to a residential and commercial area. The insula, once interpreted as a horreum, is reconstructed as having extended to the west, contrary to earlier proposals for the same remains, with an open courtyard containing the basin later replaced by the baptistery.3

Brandt’s discussion of the early Christian basilica constructed above the insula largely builds on the earlier study of the visible remains by Richard Krautheimer, which has remained the definitive treatment for over 50 years.4 Information about the baptistery, however, is new, and we learn that it was likely one of the largest in Rome at the time it was built in the fourth century. In dealing with the vexed issue of the date of the basilica’s foundation, Brandt combines the archaeological remains with the relevant epigraphic and literary sources, presenting the often complicated debates on each of them with ease. Ultimately, Brandt supports a mid-fourth-century construction date and proposes that the basilica was the one in which Damasus was proclaimed pope in 366. Such an early date negates the longstanding belief that a Christian community preceded the basilica at the site. Indeed, the new archaeological evidence shows a lack of continuity between the life of the insula and the existence of the church above it, since the insula was clearly abandoned and in serious disrepair before the basilica was constructed on top of it. Though unmentioned by Brandt, the same situation has been recently demonstrated for the pre-Christian structure below the fifth-century basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, as well.5

Von Ehrenheim’s discussion of the origins of the toponym in Lucina provides a helpful account of the many different sources in which lucina or a variant thereof appears. The author concludes that the toponym derived from the name of a donor—either male or female—and that the character of Lucina, who appears in ten passiones is derived from the toponym of the basilica. Unfortunately, the line of argumentation and its evidentiary foundation seems somewhat unclear here, particularly since the essay is sandwiched between others that are heavily archaeological. Two aspects of the post-antique phases are then addressed. Karahan dates a lost apse painting, replicated in a painting of the seventeenth century, to the twelfth century and reckons that it had a similar early Christian predecessor. She also presents new evidence for an early medieval fresco within the apse, twelfth-century paintings within two windows, and two other, undatable fresco fragments below the current apse. Magnusson attempts to reconstruct the medieval and Renaissance cardinal’s palace that lay within the modern Palazzo Fiano, proposing a location between the basilica and the Arco di Portogallo on the Via Lata. The reader gets only a schematic sense of the structure from his description, however, and he does not engage with plans of the interior of Palazzo Fiano that he includes in the article, thus missing an opportunity to decipher the historical structures that can still be detected in the modern palazzo.

The third section of the book contains essays dealing with the major categories of finds. Blennow presents four late second-century graffiti from the early second-century opus mixtum structure. These were incised on unfinished plaster, suggesting that the room remained in such a state for decades. She also presents the inscriptions, with contributions from Brandt, including their technical information, an edition of the text, translation, photograph, and discussion on technical and orthographical features and, when possible, the historical context.

Mols analyzes fresco and mosaic fragments largely from the second-century opus mixtum structure. The painted plaster mostly dates primarily to the Antonine period, while the black-and-white mosaic can be placed in the late second century. Whatever plans were envisaged for the room when the mosaic was installed were short-lived, however, since it was destroyed soon thereafter when the insula was constructed.

The pottery (Vaag et al.) and small finds from the insula, including the glass (Ingemark), stone and marble fragments (Helander), and the worked bone (Choyke) indicate both domestic and commercial and/or productive activity. The specific variety of the pottery from the insula interestingly suggests that the building may have played a role in the redistribution of goods that was known to have taken place in this zone of the city, while Choyke reconstructs a bone workshop on the ground floor of the insula.6 Her proposal that it belonged to an independent craftsman not connected with a centralized system for sourcing animals ties into to Vaag’s point that the insula may have hosted some of the activity of the forum suarium, the local meat market, as she suggests that butchers working here may have provided the bone for the workshop. The few fragments of glass primarily belong to serving and drinking vessels, with a much smaller number of them associated with storage or transport vessels.

Helander also presents the reused material visible in the foundation of the apse, which is characteristic of the late eighth and early ninth century building techniques. The work can be convincingly associated with an extensive rebuilding under Pope Hadrian I (772-795). The discussion of spolia as a concept and the brief presentation of the history of its use in Rome, however, are unnecessary, since she rightly concludes that the reused materials probably had little ideological value, having most likely been chosen because they were readily available.

The final section addresses conservation efforts. Freccero describes the minimal-intervention conservation of the marble fragments in the portico, which were coated with a black crust. Roman fresco fragments, which contained high-quality pigments, were also analyzed and conserved. Finally, Franzon confirms the twelfth-century date for the glass tesserae of the portico mosaics after preliminary investigations into their composition.

The texts are almost all richly illustrated with plans, drawings, and photographs. The graphic documentation of the excavations and finds is clear and professional, though Brandt’s labels on the plans of the baptistery are slightly too small. It also would have been helpful to have one of the many plans of the excavations as a large-format fold-out master plan to which all essays referred.

The book itself is of high quality, with an attractive jacket and clear layout of the sections and chapters. There are occasional oddities with the English, including some unusual capitalizations, punctuation, and syntactical constructions, but only rarely do these obfuscate the meaning of the sentence. An alternative, perhaps better, organizational scheme for the essays could have integrated the pottery and finds analyses among the appropriate chronological discussions of the major building phases, since important information about the life of the structure during a certain period, particularly the Roman one, comes from the finds that belong to it.

As a whole, the publication makes a significant contribution to the fields of Roman archaeology and topography. The high quality of the contributions is not surprising since Brandt’s earlier short reports provided tantalizing glimpses of what the final publication would offer. The final product is very much a model excavation report: one that not only presents the excavation methodology, results, and interpretation clearly, but also contextualizes information from one specific site within its wider urban setting.

Table of Contents

Preface – Barbro Iride Pasquali
Introduction – Olof Brandt
The Excavations
La chiesa di S. Lorenzo in Lucina nel Campo Marzio Settentrionale: scavo archeologico del 1985 e brevi considerazione sulla topografia antica della zona – Maria Iride Pasquali
The excavations in the baptistery of San Lorenzo in Lucina in 1993, 1995, and 1998 – Olof Brandt
The Roman and Late Antique period: History, buildings and topography
The remains of a third century insula beneath the basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina – Henrik Boman
The Early Christian basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina – Olof Brandt
The titulus Lucinae and St. Lucina – Hedvig von Ehrenheim
The Medieval and later phases
A lost medieval apse decoration and fragments of mural painting in San Lorenzo in Lucina – Anne Karahan
The cardinal’s palace at San Lorenzo in Lucina – Börge Magnusson
Inscriptions and graffiti in San Lorenzo in Lucina – Anna Blennow with contributions by Olaf Brandt
Ancient Roman decoration of floors, walls and ceilings found under San Lorenzo in Lucina – Stephan T.A.M. Mols
The pottery finds – Leif Erik Vaag, Kristian Göransson, Christina Helander and Masa Dizdar
The glass from San Lorenzo in Lucina – Dominic Ingemark
Marble and other stone fragments – Alice M. Choyke
The spolia in the apse of San Lorenzo in Lucina – Christina Helander
San Lorenzo in Lucina. Conservation of marble fragments in the portico: March 1-31, 2000 – Agneta Freccero
Fragments of Roman wall-paintings in San Lorenzo in Lucina – Agneta Freccero
A technical investigation of the mosaic fragments in the portico of San Lorenzo in Lucina – Maria Franzon


1. See most recently L.Haselberger, “A debate on the Horologium of Augustus: controversy and clarifications, with responses by P.J. Heslin and M. Schütz and additional remarks by R. Hannah and G. Alföldy.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 24 (2012): 47-98.

2. M. Bertoldi, “L’area archeological di San Lorenzo in Lucina a Roma.” Bollettino di archeologia 13-15 (1992): 127-134; F. Rakob, “Die Urbanisierung des nördlichen Marsfeldes. Neue Forschungen im Areal des Horologium Augusti,” in L’Urbs. Espace urbain et histoire, 687-712. Rome, 1987.

3. For the interpretation as a horreum, see F. De Caprariis, “I porti della città nel IV e V secolo d.C.,” in The Transformation of Urbs Roma in Late Anquity, ed. William Harris, 217-234. Portsmouth, RI, 1999.

4. R. Krautheimer, “S. Lorenzo in Lucina,” in R. Krautheimer, Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, vol. 2, 159-184. Vatican City, 1959.

5. P. Liverani, “Osservazioni sulla domus sotto S. Maria Maggiore a Roma e sulla sua relazione con la basilica.” Römische Mitteilungen 116 (2010): 459-467.

6. M. Torelli, “Topografia e iconologia. Arco di Portogallo, Ara Pacis, Ara Providentiae, Templum Solis.” Ostraka 1 (1992): 105-131.