Fiesole’s small but interesting archaeological museum is located right within the city’s archaeological area, where one can find the remains of an Etruscan wall, a Roman temple, Roman public baths and a Roman theatre that is still used for performances during the summer. Fiesole has had an archaeological museum since 1878. It was originally housed in one of the rooms of the Palazzo Pretorio in the Piazza Mino da Fiesole, now the city hall. In 1914, the entire collection was moved to a new location, a neo-Classical building constructed by the architect Ezio Cerpi (1868-1958). The museum has been at this location – a copy of an Ionian temple – for over a century now. The museum’s name in Latin – MVSEVM FAESVLANVM – can be found below the tympanum.
Since the beginning, the museum has focussed on local archaeological finds, and on the cultures that lived in and around Fiesole. On display are objects from the early Iron Age Villanovan culture, from Etruscan Fiesole (when the city was called Vipsul), from Roman Fiesole (when it was called Faesulae) and from the age of the Longobards, who entered Italy in the sixth century. One can admire coins, jewellery, ceramics and many bronze and stone items of all sorts. The museum also offers several reconstructions of Longobard tombs.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, many objects were donated to the museum by the French marquis Edoardo Albites di San Paterniano, who had a villa in Fiesole. In 1987, the museum acquired the so-called Collezione Costantini, a collection of precious Greek and Etruscan ceramics that was donated to the museum by a professor Alfiero Costantini (if you Google his name, a professor of urology with the same name comes up; I somehow doubt this is the same Costantini).
The museum has only about a dozen rooms. Among the most interesting object is an Etruscan stele of “Larth Aninies”. It is a large rectangular plaster slab, rounded at the top, which depicts a long-haired warrior armed with a spear. He is carrying an axe as a secondary weapon in his belt. The stele can be dated to the seventh or sixth century BCE.
Among the Etruscan objects in the museum are also several cinerary urns. The urn of which an image is included in this post has a relief showing a magistrate riding in his chariot. On the lid is an effigy of the deceased, truncated in the usual (and yet somewhat creepy) Etruscan style. It can be dated, according to the caption, to the end of the second or the beginning of the first century BCE.
Also of interest are busts of the empress Vibia Sabina (ca. 83-137), wife of the emperor Hadrianus, and of her (half-)sister, Vibia Matidia. These can be dated to the first half of the second century CE. The ladies’ hairdos are quite spectacular. Creating such a head full of curls would have taken an awful lot of time. Fortunately, as aristocratic ladies, Sabina and Matidia had all the time in the world.
Even better than the museum is the archaeological area (Area Archeologica) outside. Here one can walk among the remains of several buildings and learn a lot about local Etruscan and Roman history. Fiesole was founded in the late eighth or early seventh century, around the year 700 BCE. It became a powerful city state, but this power steadily declined because of the rise of a new giant to the south: the city of Rome. Fiesole came under Roman influence in the early third century, but it seems to have rebelled during the Social War (91-88 BCE). This rebellion was defeated in 90 BCE by the Roman commander Lucius Porcius Cato, whose victory probably helped him in winning the consulship the next year. Regretfully for Cato, he was defeated and killed in his next battle.
Cato’s men may have stormed and sacked Fiesole, and there is certainly evidence that the temple excavated in the archaeological area was destroyed by a fire and subsequently rebuilt. An Etruscan temple was built at this location as early as the sixth century BCE. It was presumably destroyed or fell into disrepair at some point, because a new Hellenistic-style temple was constructed over it in the fourth century BCE. When this temple was destroyed around 90 BCE, the Romans built a new and larger temple in its place, incorporating what remained of the old temple into the new building. It is possible that the temple was dedicated to the goddess Minerva. Not much of it remains today, but a set of stairs and an altar are still visible.
The Romans were also responsible for the construction of the public baths, which can be found in the eastern part of the archaeological area. The baths were built in the first century BCE. The complex, although not nearly as large as for instance the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, is nevertheless sizeable. Judging by the information panel in the area, the whole complex measured some 70 by 50 metres.
The complex had everything to please the bathers. There were two swimming pools, one of which is visible in the picture included in this post, on the left. The rectangular hole behind the pool is a cistern. To the right are – from south to north – the familiar hot, medium and cold baths (caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium). Behind the caldarium and tepidarium one can find remains of the furnaces that were used to heat the water. There must have been dressing rooms as well, and perhaps a field for outdoor exercises. Of course, the baths had toilets, so that visitors could answer the call of nature in a civilised way. The baths were renovated in the course of the third century, but seem to have been abandoned a century later.
The most impressive part of the archaeological area is the Roman theatre, which has been preserved and restored so well that it can still be used – and is still used – for theatrical performances. It offers seating for about 3.000 spectators. The theatre was built between the end of the first century BCE and the beginning of the first century CE. Parts of the theatre were still visible centuries after it had been abandoned, so it was not surprising that systematic archaeological excavations in the Area Archeologica started here in the second half of the nineteenth century.