a Closer look over Rome at the Caesar’s time

The Architectural Model of Ancient Rome is the main attraction of the Museum of Roman Civilization. It represents the most realistic and detailed reconstruction of the Rome of Caesars at the time of its greatest expansion under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century a.C.

Its construction is based on the main archaeological knowledge of the years when was made, starting from the Forma Urbis Severiana by Rodolfo Lanciani (published in 1893) under a project by an extraordinary architect who was Italo Gismondi (with the help of the architects Gatti and Colini) and the unparalleled hand of the moldmalker Piero di Carlo (1906-1992).

The construction of the model took place at the laboratory of the old Museo dell’Impero Romano in Piazza Bocca della Verità, near the Circus Maximus, first in partial size, to be exposed to the Mostra augustea della Romanità held at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in 1937, and then continuously expanded with additions as a result of updated studies and new discoveries.

Piero di Carlo making the model, 1934.

The Museum of Roman Civilization preserves countless architectural models of individual buildings, archaeological sites and architectural complexes of ancient Rome and the provinces of the empire, for the most part made by the skilled hand of Piero di Carlo.
The main thing that surprises while visiting the model of Ancient Rome is the effect of surprise and wonder that literally leaves breathless anyone is lucky enough to see it for the first time. In an enormous room is a bird’s eye view of the Roman capital from a large balcony. Every single monument in its place appears as an indivisible element from the rest of the urban area belong to. The seven hills and the Tiber in their natural topography perfectly scaled are easily recognizable. At a glance it is immediately clear the topographical organization of the ancient city in comparison to the current one.

the Colosseum with on the left the Temple of Venus and Rome and the Basilica of Maxentius.
On the right the Temple of Caesars

the Colosseum from an opposite view with the Temple of Claudius on the left.
On the right the Terme of Trains and Terme of Titus

Circus Maximus, Domus Augustana and the Palatine. On the right the Septizodium

the Tiber with the Island and bridges Cestio and Fabricio. On the left the Marcello’s Theatre

After being surprised by the amazing impact  you start to recognize, neighborhood after neighborhood, monument after monument, the total extension of the city and the succession of monumental groups took place under the generosity of the sovereigns who succeeded one another over the centuries. The connection between the urban system and the architecture of the city are faithfully represented, offering a rare opportunity to study them immediately.
In contemplation of the magnificence of the ancient city in miniature and in admiration of the individual monuments represented in their original splendor you get lost in an enchanted and absorbed eye typical of children. In this state of grace to most people escape a detail really very important, that the Plastic Model in Plaster is a real Work of Art itself.

the Mausoleum of Hadrian (today Casted Sant’Angelo) and the Elio’s Bridge (Ponte Sant’Angelo)

the stadium of Domitian (today Piazza Navona) and the Domitian Odeon

I had visited the museum several times and admired the Ancient Rome Architectural Model since my younger age, but I wanted to organize another visit, divided into two different days, just to appreciate and investigate the plastic model in two ways, the historical one and the technical one.
The Ancient Rome Architectural Model technically is a rare work of great craftsmanship engineering. The great skill of its author Piero di Carlo, joined by his grandson Mario since 1964, emerges by analyzing the making details, the skill and knowledge needed to obtain a result of such a quality and care.
Piero di Carlo brought in three-dimensional scale the intricate drawings produced by Italo Gismondi, starting from the ground reproduced by the topographic contours. The plastic model has been realized totally in alabaster gypsum, strengthened by vegetable fibers of Manilla and Canvas Jute, above the fir wood frames. Totally it consists of as many as 160 chassis of various shapes that are fit perfectly between them, without leaving unfinished spaces, usually along the roads. The most subtle and delicate elements, such as columns, obelisks, trees contains thin metal armor.

Piero di Carlo making the model, 1934

Much attention was also given to the color rendering with which they tried to reproduce in outline what was to be the chromatic identity of the city and monuments at that time.
The map was reproduced in scale 1: 250 but with some minor technical corrections. Some heights were increased by 15-20% compared to the original ground floor, to improve the overall vision.
Piero di Carlo practiced from an early age his apprenticeship in the workshop of Luigi Bucci active since 1915 in Rome for the production of plaster casts of mostly decorative character. Pierino accompanied the school studies with crafts activity later becoming an expert and caught plasticista in his first workshop in Via Giulia.
In 1933 he won with full marks the competition to make the large architectural model of Rome to be exhibited at the Mostra Augustea della Romanità inaugurated on 23 September 1937. The model was built on the workshop of the former Pasta Factory Pantanella near the Circo Massimo by Di Carlo with his assistants.
After the Mostra Augustea, Di Carlo continued to work passionately on his architectural model until 1941 when the project was abruptly interrupted due to the war. Fortunately, after the war the work on the model started with new funding in some rooms of Mercati Traianei and then, in 1955, it was finally placed in the new Museo della Civiltà Romana in Europe district (EUR) where it is still in its magnificent balcony room purposely built.
With the hope that the museum will reopen soon, after some upcoming technical adjustment works, I advice to visit starting from the overview of each of the four sides of the balcony, pausing also to the perspective visual of the four corners. Prepare an archaeological map of the city which help to quickly locate the less famous monuments, also some illustrated captions accompanying the exhibition on each side of the large balcony. Then it is only right to continue the visit with a closer approach. The descent of the lower floor, facilitated by two scales, offers the opportunity to appreciate many monuments in detail, and most importantly, lowering with the look, will appreciate the geographical pattern of the seven hills, the Tiber valley and the major architectural works in a very perspective realistic and exciting.

the Baths of Caracalla and the aqueduct on the back

the Pompeus Theatre in Campo Marzio

Like the long realization also the maintenance and preservation of large architectural model have always required great efforts and a constant care. During the mid-eighties the numerous and robust wooden support elements of many of the model sections were irremediably attacked by termites seriously threatening the entire structure and the city model itself which was suffering damage. It was initiated a restoration project which provided a complex work with the floor excavation under the plaster model with progressive replacement of all wooden supports with new metal telescopic supports, by Mario Di Carlo and the restorer of the museum who carry out a successful operation .
The work of Pierino di Carlo was to build wooden frames on which fix the plaster plans of the floor, following the level dimensions in the project. So, constructing each monument, always faithfully respecting the scale drawings, proceeding to the assembly of walls, columns, arches, vaults and roofs and any other element. Each part was constructed with the ancient technique of modine, obtaining the plaster pieces using silhouettes of the templates specially shaped profiles repeatedly passes over the fresh plaster up to the setting. The gypsum plasterboards with the exact shape were individually cut and joined together to build up each part of the buildings. The work was extremely complex and required a thorough and careful approach to avoid serious errors or inconsistencies between the various sections of the model over the detailed drawings. The greatest and more complex monuments requiring much work and planning had to be made very well before follow the assembly program.
The big model, which covers an area of approximately 200 square meters, also requires a constant conservation and dusting program. For this purpose it is still used a special cart-crane specially built during the 40’s or 50’s, provided with wheels, counterbalances with sandbags, wooden walkway and tie rods made of steel wire, allowing the operator to reach the central areas remaining suspended in the air a few centimeters from the buildings. A truly exciting point of view, I wonder if I ever get lucky enough to use it in a future.

an Overview on the Ancient Rome from north

Today, after more than eighty years after the start of the making the Architectural Model of Ancient Rome still keeps an irrepressible charm and historic-scientific value. Shows itself with all rich contents of great educational value, not complain about it the signs of aging and threats of new technologies. The Model of Ancient Rome retains an extraordinary character like museum object really unique. There is no similar works of art elsewhere even an equally exciting opportunity to visit does not in Rome and elsewhere.

All photos are by A. Felice 2017 and may not be reproduced and published without permission of the author.
Useful Bibliography:
-Roma Antica Com’era, storia e tecnica costruttiva del grande plastico dell’Urbe nel Museo della Civiltà Romana. Carlo Pavia, 2006
-Il Plastico di Roma Antica nel Museo della Civiltà Romana, R. A. Staccioli, 1964
-Ricostruire l’Antico prima del Virtuale. Italo Gismondi un architetto per l’Archeologia (1887-1974), mostra 2007

All Photos by Andrea Felice 2017 ©