Arezzo: Amphitheatre and National Archaeological Museum

Bronze spear tip and bronze Etruscan helmet.

Our ticket to the church of San Francesco allowed us to visit the National Archaeological Museum in Arezzo as well. The museum is special, because it is housed in a former monastery that was itself built into the remains of a Roman amphitheatre from the second century. We were short on time, but since the museum is located close to the railway station, we decided to give it a go and visit it during our last 45 minutes in Arezzo. The museum is named after Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (68-8 BCE), perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Arezzo in history. Maecenas was a close friend of the emperor Augustus and his name became a synonym for a wealthy patron of the arts. The museum probably could not have chosen a better name.

The Roman amphitheatre

Roman Arezzo was named Arretium. The city was Etruscan in origin and its original name seems to have been Aritim. Etruscan Aritim was subjugated by the Romans in the late fourth century BCE. The Roman conquest set in motion a process of gradual Romanisation. The city acquired its amphitheatre in the early second century CE, possibly during the reign of the emperor Hadrianus (117-138). This huge structure was located in the lower part of the city. It was about 122 metres long and 92 metres wide. The museum proudly declares that the arena floor measured 71.90 by 42.70 metres, making its central oval just a bit smaller than that of the world-famous Colosseum in Rome.[1] The Aretine amphitheatre was, however, only about half as high (some 22 metres) and offered seats for just 13.000 spectators. In this respect it was dwarfed by the Colosseum, which could accommodate at least 50.000 people.

Remains of the amphitheatre.

In 404, the Western emperor Honorius prohibited gladiatorial fights, which by this time were seen as blatantly un-Christian. By the time the Empire in the West fell, some 70 years later, the amphitheatre of Arretium was in ruins. In 1333, the terrain was purchased by the future saint Bernardo Tolomei (1272-1348), founder of the Olivetans, a branch of the Benedictines (see Florence: San Miniato al Monte). Tolomei had been christened Giovanni, but had taken the name Bernardo in honour of the famous monastic reformer Saint Bernardus of Clairvaux (1090-1153). After buying the premises and the remains of the amphitheatre, Tolomei had the church of San Bernardo and a monastery built over the ruins of the Roman arena. What is interesting is that the new buildings followed the curve of the ancient Roman structure.

Krater attributed to Euphronios.

The convent of San Bernardo was suppressed in 1866, after Italy had been unified. In 1937 an archaeological museum was opened in the former monastery. The complex was heavily damaged by Allied bombing raids during World War II, but reopened to the public in 1951. Today it has 26 rooms and an interesting collection of antiquities with a few exceptional pieces. I will focus on these top pieces.

The collection

The museum specialises in so-called sealed Arezzo ware, also known as Vasi Aretini. The term refers to Etruscan pottery from Arezzo which was famous for its quality. The collection of earthenware to be found in the museum is large and impressive, but the most prized possession is a large krater that is attributed to the Greek potter Euphronios, who lived in the sixth and fifth century BCE. The krater shows a naked Hercules and his companion Telamon fighting the Amazons. On the right, one of the Amazons is aiming an arrow at the Greek hero. Although the krater, or at least some parts of it, is attributed to the Attic master, it is actually not signed by him. The attribution therefore remains somewhat speculative.

Gold glass with the portrait of a man.

Even better than the krater is a gold glass featuring the portrait of a bearded man. The museum itself calls it “one of the most prestigious finds”. What we see is a very fine engraved sheet of gold which is locked between two pieces of glass. The man in the portrait is sometimes identified as Saint Ambrosius. Indeed, if one compares this portrait to the mosaic featuring this saint in the Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, the similarities are quite obvious. Unfortunately there are rather compelling reasons why the man simply cannot be Ambrosius. The gold glass is dated to the second half of the third century. Ambrosius was not born until about 340 and died in 397. The object therefore predates him by several decades. Nevertheless, the man in the portrait bears such an eerie resemblance to the saint that one is almost inclined to conclude that the two must have been related by blood.

Further reading

Note

[1] Depending on your perception of size of course. The central arena of the Colosseum measures some 87 by 55 metres.

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