Fun facts about Rome: The great Forma Urbis Severiana
The Forma Urbis Severiana is a marble monument of the Imperial era - presumably dating back to the age of Septimius Severus - survived till nowadays in only few fragments that originally represented a revival of the urban plan of Rome. Here is everything you need to know about this often neglected work.
History and characteristics of the famous monument
It is known the marble plan of the Urbs was originally situated in a classroom of the Temple of Peace, precisely, in the Augustan age building near the Foro Romano. It is not casual it has been representing the main place where the fragments of the great Forma Urbis were found. The temple was reconstructed, or restored, during the age of the Flavian dynasty who changed its original function - somebody says it was the temple of suffering gods - to place the Land register there. Just for this peculiar function, there probably was a big plan on the Forum Pacis side, to coordinate the works ordered by Vespasian, since 74 A.D. Subsequently, around the 200 - date determining the attribution to the monument of the adjective "Severiana ", for its historical position during the dynasty of the Severus - the plan became a true marble monument.
According to the most reliable studies, the Forma Urbis was about 13 meters high and 18 in large, and it consisted in 150 rectangular plates - probably not all with identical dimensions - distributed on eleven levels. On these plates, - the first eight ones from the bottom were vertically or horizontally located, while the last three were exclusively horizontal - the plan of the building was engraved. The work so became the cover of the facade overlooking the Forum Urbis, blocked by support hooks, and mortar.
This building was transformed by Felix IV - Emperor of the East, between 526 and 530 A.D. - in the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. That's why the preservation of some remains until the collapse of the structure and consequent fragmentation of large Forma Urbis has been possible. Even today, if you visit the back of the Roman Forum, you can admire the facade of the building - now belonging to the church - on which the Forma Urbis was exposed.
The plan of the Forma Urbis
As already said, we can see just some fragments of this impressive work today, but it is however possible to collect a lot of information regarding the city map. It should be noted the shape largely differs from the plan performed during the age of the Flavian dinasty, since the fragments, compared with the remains still available, confirm its upgrade dating back to the time of Septimius Severus. This emperor actually made a new restyling of the urban planning since 203: moreover, the presence of the Settizonio - building inaugurated during the reign of the emperor, and sure before his death, in 211 - in the plan, as the presence of Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla's initials ("Severi Et... Tonini AV .. NN.. (brought back like Strict ET… Tonini AV. NN." meaning "of Severo and Antonino, our Augusti") confirm the dating of the medical report.
The modernization of the plan of the city has been moved on the Forma Urbis with various peculiar settings: one of these is the peculiar orientation of the map, changing the measurement system, from southwest to northeast, and dividing the regions according to the Severiana and Augustan period. In the Forma Urbis, instead, the north-south orientation is followed and as the barycentre is the Circus Maximus and its directives: Via Appia and the Settizonio. This is also confirmed by a few fragments of captions near the reliefs representing the main monuments of the ancient Rome and that had to accompany both the allocations between the city districts and the names of the main streets.
The average scale of the Forma Urbis had to approximately present a ratio 1:250: it was possible to calculate it believing the total area of the monument was of 360 square meters. This is confirmed by the discovery of the holes of the bronze harpoons withstanding individual panels of marble: matching each one to a fragment enables to recognize the number and the size of the different plates, so obtaining the approximate measurements of the entire work.
The discovery of the Forma Urbis
As repeatedly stated, the Forma Urbis remains are just a few - not more than the 15% of the total area - in about one thousand fragments. The first findings have taken place since 1562, when the first excavations were carried out to renovate what had actually become the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, commissioned by Pope Pius IV. According to the findings from the records of the architect Giovanni Antonio Dosio, the first fragments were even found on the wall of the building. They were subsequently exposed to the public and they were reproduced by Onofrio Panvinio in some drawings resulting from the Vatican codex. However, after the death of Panvinio, the remains - in the meantime moved to the Palazzo Farnese - were partly lost and forgotten, to be rediscovered once again by the Bishop Bianchini and moved to the Vatican and, finally, in the Capitoline Museum.
In the late 19th century, new works near the ancient Forum allowed the discovery of new fragments, both at the Palazzo Farnese in Via Giulia, as well as in the garden of the Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano.
Among them the most important are those depicting the baths of Trajan, the Roman aqueduct from the Claudius and Nero ages, the Circus Maximus, the Temple of Mars Ultor, the theater of Balbus, the baths of Agrippa, and so on. The importance of this document concerning the urban structure of Rome in the Imperial age is therefore the central structure: based on the fragments found it was actually possible to identify additional areas of excavation and discoveries of many completely forgotten works.
Where is the Forma Urbis today?
Currently, the fragments of the great Forma Urbis Severiana are almost all kept in the Museum of Roman Civilization, in the Eur district, waiting for a reconstruction that will allow to appreciate the lost greatness of this project. However, access to the work is currently reserved to scholars only, but thanks to the work of the Stanford University, by the digitization of more than 1,000 fragments found, you can find some reliable representations of this monument of inestimable value on the web.
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