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Ancient Cityscape Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998
by Andrew L. Slayman

 [image] Newfound Roman fresco depicts an entire city. (Giovanni Lattanzi) [LARGER IMAGE]

A bird's eye view of an ancient city has been discovered at the Baths of Trajan in Rome. Measuring about nine by 12 feet, the exposed portion of the fresco shows a theater, temples, other public buildings, and houses surrounded by a towered stone wall. Eugenio La Rocca, Rome's superintendent of monuments, was quoted in the Italian daily La Repubblica as saying that the new find is the largest known Roman fresco with an image of a city.

According to excavators, the wall beneath the fresco dates from the first century A.D. The date and location suggest that the wall belongs to Nero's palace, the Domus Aurea, begun in A.D. 64, which stood on the site until Trajan began construction of his baths in 104. Parts of the Domus Aurea were reused in the baths; an early second-century wall abutting that on which the fresco is painted was presumably added by Trajan. The fresco was probably painted between these dates, in the last third of the first century.

Scholars are rushing to claim the city their own; votes have been cast for Rome, Ostia, Naples, and an ideal, imaginary city. Romanists see in the fresco the city's hills and the Tiburtine island, Ostians the wall with the sea beyond, and Neapolitans the theater and statue of Apollo. But the fresco has not been cleaned, and what seem to be statues or hills might only be smudges of dirt. Furthermore, the exposed portion is six feet from the floor, and more fresco could be hidden by rubble below. The artwork was found during a 600 million lire ($350,000) program to turn the area into an archaeological park.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America