Ancient residence, prayer room opens in Rome’s Baths of Caracalla

ROME (AP) — One of the most spectacular examples of ancient Roman baths, the Baths of Caracalla, just got even more spectacular. On Thursday, authorities in Rome opened to the public a unique private residence on the grounds in front of the baths, with frescoed ceilings and a prayer room dedicated to Roman and Egyptian gods.

This two-story residence or “domus” was built around AD 134-138 during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It was partially destroyed to make way for the construction of the public baths of Caracalla, which opened in 216 AD. The ruins today are a tourist attraction for the multi-layered brick remains of the Roman imperial baths, library and gymnasium, as well as the marble mosaics that adorned the floors.

Considering the quality of the frescoes, the dwelling is believed to belong to a wealthy merchant family and thus represents the condition of the same site before the baths and shows how the city evolved in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Roman archaeologist Dean Daniela Porro said at the opening ceremony.

The domus ruins were first discovered in the mid-19th century and are located approximately 10 meters (yards) below the current ground level of the baths. About a century later, they were excavated and fragments of the interior prayer room and frescoed dining room ceiling were removed for restoration and conservation.

The prayer room was briefly on display but has been closed to the public for 30 years. It reopened on Thursday alongside some never-before-seen fragments of the ceiling, which feature images of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and agriculture, using precious Egyptian blue and cinnabar red pigments, conservationists said.

“The subject type and peculiarity of the painting are unique in Hadrian’s panorama of Rome,” said Mirella Serlorenzi, curator of the Caracalla site.

One wall of the nave features images of the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and the other has silhouettes of the Egyptian gods Isis and Anubis, evidence of religious “fusion” – The fusion of different belief systems – this is in the Roman public monuments, but not in the domestic monuments of the period.

“This is the first time we’ve found anything like it in Rome, but also in the world because there aren’t many of them,” Serlorenzi said.

She pointed out that what experts know about paintings from the Roman era comes mainly from the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii near Naples, which were destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and their remains are preserved in layers beneath the volcanic material.

“So Roman painting after the 1st century AD has always been a mystery, because we haven’t had such a well-preserved room down to the ceiling,” Serlorenzi said.

The domus exhibition entitled “Before the Baths: The House where the Gods Live Together” is now a permanent part of Caracalla’s itinerary.

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