Article on Ostia Antica

Published: September 30, 2008

OSTIA ANTICA, Italy —The ruins of Ostia, an
ancient Roman port, have never captured the public imagination in the
same way as those of Pompeii, perhaps because Ostia met with a less
cataclysmic fate.

Yet past archaeological digs here have yielded evidence of majestic
public halls and even multistory apartment buildings that challenge
Pompeii’s primacy. Now officials hope that the decade-long restoration
of four dwellings lavishly decorated with frescoes will focus new
attention on this once-bustling port about 15 miles west of Rome.

Last
week the second-century insulae, or housing complexes, were presented
to the public through the European Heritage Days program, in which each
member country of the Council of Europe promotes new cultural assets
and sites that have mainly been closed to the public.

“Over all,
this is the most important ensemble of second- and third-century
frescoes in the world,” Angelo Pellegrino, the director of excavations
at the site, now called Ostia Antica, said in an interview.

At
its peak in the second century, Ostia sat at the mouth of the Tiber and
served as the main shipping point for goods traveling to and from Rome.
(Over the centuries deposited sediment has caused the ancient town to
recede several miles inland.) Prosperous Ostians liked to embellish
their homes, and traces of art have emerged on crumbling walls around
the site. But the frescoes in the insulae are among the best preserved,
officials say.

Ethereal floating figures dance against a red
backdrop in the House of Lucceia Primitiva. (A graffito with that
woman’s name was recently uncovered in the dwelling.) The nine Muses
hold court in a house that bears their names; a small, erotic panel
decorates what experts say was probably a bedroom in the House of the
Painted Vaults.

“They’re exceptional indicators of the emerging
merchant class and the economic and political well-being of the city in
the second century,” said Flora Panariti, an archaeologist who
participated in the restoration.

Stella Falzone, an expert in
mural painting at Sapienza University in Rome, described the dwellings
and their decorations as “a reliable mirror of Rome” during that
period, especially precious for archaeologists and art historians
because so little from that era survives in Rome.

Popular colors
of the time, red and yellow, dominate the House of the Yellow Walls,
for example. “It’s no coincidence that these are the colors of the Roma
soccer team,” Ms. Panariti said.

Unlike Rome, which cannibalized
much of its heritage over the centuries, or Pompeii, which was buried
in volcanic ash in A.D. 79 and was not systematically excavated until
the 18th century, Ostia remained mostly untouched until the early 20th
century.

The multistory dwellings were first excavated in the
1960s, but work stopped when the archaeologist leading the dig left for
another job. They remained largely unknown to the public and to many
scholars until archaeological administrators at Ostia Antica resolved
to recover them.

The buildings, in the western part of the
ancient city, were built around A.D. 128 in a housing boom during
Emperor Hadrian’s reign. With demand for accommodations growing, new
multilevel homes resolved issues of space and expansion. Although only
the ground floors remain, evidence that buildings stood taller than one
story has emerged from the rubble.

If it weren’t for Ostia Antica
and its multistory houses and apartments, “it would be difficult for
people to imagine how people lived in that era,” said Norbert
Zimmermann, president of an international association for ancient mural
painting.

Like Pompeii, Ostia Antica faces problems common to
many of the sprawling archaeological sites in Italy. Money is scarce,
the site is understaffed, and surveillance is spotty. But the biggest
challenge here is high humidity resulting from the high groundwater
level.

“We try to dig as little as possible nowadays, because
we can barely deal with caring for what’s emerged,” said Mr.
Pellegrino, the excavations director. It took nine years to restore the
four buildings, he noted, in an effort that was possible only because
of a private donation of about $150,000.

In the House of the
Painted Vaults Ms. Panariti pointed to a delicately painted human form
high on a wall. “These figures are disappearing again even though they
were only restored two years ago,” she said sadly.

Humidity has
forced conservators to detach many frescoes from walls and transfer
them onto panels before returning them to their original locations.
“It’s necessary, but it causes immense sorrow whenever we have to do
that,” Mr. Pellegrino said.

Only a limited number of visitors
will be allowed to tour the four dwellings, and reservations are
required. (Officials have not worked out the details.)

Ostia
Antica has not given up all its secrets. On Friday, in a different
section of the ancient city, students were cleaning colorful frescoes
in the House of Jupiter and Ganymede, named for the chief Roman god and
the Trojan prince he anointed as cup bearer.

“We’re constantly restoring the site,” Mr. Pellegrino said, “as long as we can afford to.”

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