Digging out Roman pasts from historical ruins in Italy

Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu
Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu
Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu

“Tazio, stai diventando un italiano,” said Gabriele, my Italian field director of the San Martino archaeological site after the fare­well diner. I laughed, remembering.

For a year, I lived an Italian life. Wine was my blood; tomato was my flesh; and mozzarella was my brain. I was so used to having dinner at 8:30 p.m., drinking exclusively espresso coffee and saying “ciao” instead of “hello.” Most important­ly, I ate one coneful of gelato a day.

I was in Italy to study, to dig, to travel. Lecce, Bologna and Rome saw me pulling all-nighters before finals; Torano heard me singing songs of rocks and dirt while pickaxing and shoveling; many other cities, prominent or obscure, bore my footprint over their skin. Among all the plac­es I have been to in Italy, the most fascinating ones were always the most dilapidated.

Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu
Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu

Praeneste, Lazio. Sweaty, exhausted, dehy­drated, woozy, I had lost all senses of direction after having climbed thousands of steps in a zigzag and elevating course. It was an ancient pilgrimage trail to the largest sacred complex in Italy, the Sanctuary of Fortuna. Finally I reached the gateway to the sanctuary, a narrow and long ramp which used to be a roofed windowless tun­nel. Untouched by sunlight and accompanied only by the sound of their own steps, pilgrims ascended to the light at the end of the tunnel. As soon as they exited, immediately their ears would be overwhelmed by people of different origins and languages chanting and consulting at the oracle, bargaining at the votive offering shops.

Meanwhile, pilgrims looking out would see the breath-taking panorama of the town proper of Praeneste, the Alban Hills and the plains lead­ing to Campania and looking up the majestic four terraces etched into the mountain crowned by the temple of Fortuna. Since the wooden roof and wall of the tunnel had already collapsed, I could only imagine myself stumbling about in the dark as I dragged myself upwards. At the end of the ramp, I looked out to the unchanged scenery of the surrounding mountains and plains, and looked up to the ruins: wall stripped of stucco, ceiling of frieze and floor of mosaics. Wild rabbits and weeds prevailed. No one talked besides the wind and the birds.

Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu
Courtesy of Tianqui Zhu

Baiae, Campania. Opus reticulatum, opus latericium, opus mixtum, opus vittatum, I man­aged to identify almost all kinds of Roman facing technique while running around the Ar­chaeological Park of Bacoli. All these different operes (plural of opus in Latin) pertain to dif­ferent periods in Roman architectural history, which suggests that whatever was in this park had been functioning at least from the first cen­tury BCE to the fourth century CE. However, the Romans wouldn’t have even noticed the mason­ry and the facing techniques that the Classics scholars are studying today. Back then, every­thing would be stuccoed, painted or paved with marble because this archaeological park actual­ly housed one of the most luxurious amusement parks in the ancient world. It occupied three terraces. The first terrace featured a bath sup­plied by natural sulfur springs. The water from it would fill the fountain on the second terrace, which was a semi-circular dining area. On the third terrace was an olympic-sized rectangular swimming pool, heated rooms, temples, one of which has a giant dome, the largest one prior to the construction of Pantheon in 128 AD. From each terrace, the wealthy Romans could enjoy the view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Mount Vesuvius and Capri.

Selinunte, Sicily. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, I was crawling in a sea of de­bris. I had to be careful to not fall into the slits between the pieces. Bushes grew out of those slits, making you believe that ground was un­derneath. It was much deeper because the de­bris belonged to a temple which doubled the size of the Parthenon. This temple was so badly destroyed by the Carthaginians in the First Pu­nic War that we don’t even know to what god it was dedicated. So we assigned it the letter G. Since then, the temple G’s debris has remained there in the wasteland. It is incredible but also disheartening to think that what had been the symbol of prosperity and spirituality for the cit­izens of Selinunte was still breathing under my feet. Sitting on a broken Doric column, I spotted a boat on the sea yellowed by the sunset. Am I becoming an Italian? I think so.

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