Brescia: Capitolium and Roman theatre

The Capitolium.

It must have been one of the most beautiful buildings in Colonia Civica Augusta Brixia: the Capitolium of the town, i.e. the temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on the northern side of the Roman forum. When the first excavations were launched at this spot in 1823, only one column of the portico or pronaos of the temple was still standing. Thanks to a modern reconstruction, much more of the building has now been made visible to the public. In 2011, the Roman forum of Brescia was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage, together with the monastic complex of Santa Giulia (discussed previously) and as one of seven Longobard Places of Power. Now it should be noted that, in itself, the Roman forum has fairly little to do with the Longobards. After all, it was constructed hundreds of years before this Germanic people invaded Italy. The reason to nevertheless include it among the Longobard Places of Power is that close to the temple kilns have been excavated which were used to produce Longobard pottery. Furthermore, the site was used for burials and the Roman theatre (see below) became a place for public meetings. So the Longobard connection is tenuous at best, but the Roman forum certainly deserves a place on the UNESCO heritage list.

The Capitolium and the forum

In an older post, I had already explained that Brixia was the principal town of the Cenomani, a Celtic people. The inhabitants were on friendly terms with the Romans, which in 89 BCE resulted in the grant of Latin status under the Lex Pompeia de Transpadanis. This grant may have prompted construction of the first large sanctuary at the foot of the Colle Cidneo. This sanctuary was composed of four rooms or cellae, and the cella on the far left can still be visited (see the slideshow below). To see the room, visitors descend underground. The beautiful Hellenistic frescoes are vulnerable and are therefore kept in a room that is climate-controlled. To get used to this climate, visitors usually have to wait for a few minutes and watch a short movie about the complex before the doors to the exhibition rooms are opened. The movie is quite informative and provides the visitor with information about the various phases the complex has been through, from primitive huts to architectural gems from the Roman Imperial era.

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Once the doors are open, we first enter a sort of vestibule where several objects which have been dug up have been put on display. Here we find an inscription on a piece of black marble about the emperor Caligula (37-41; see the slideshow above). In the Roman era, the letters used in inscriptions were often dyed red: the original meaning of the verb ‘to rubricate’(rubricare) is ‘to make red’, from Latin ruber. The interesting thing about the Brescian inscription is that the red of the letters has been preserved very well. Another object is a fine comb, made of bone, from the second half of the sixth or early seventh century. It was a burial gift for a woman. Above, I have already mentioned that the former Roman forum was used as a cemetery during the Longobard era (568-774), and the comb provides us with hard evidence.

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Cella dedicated to Minerva, part of the temple built by Vespasianus.

A flight of stairs then gives us access to the left cella, of which the mosaic floor and the wall frescoes are still original (see the images above). This temple was completed in about 75 BCE and workmen from Central and Southern Italy were hired to build it. In the frescoes we recognise elements from the so-called first and second Pompeian styles of Roman painting. The walls have been painted as if they have been made of marble and other precious types of stone, and we also see painted columns and curtains. To make the frescoes look even more realistic they have been polished with beeswax and olive oil after completion. This has given them a certain glow.

In 49 BCE the inhabitants of Brixia were granted full Roman citizenship and between 27 and 8 BCE their city was given the status of a colonia. In the year 73, the Roman emperor Vespasianus (69-79) provided Colonia Civica Augusta Brixia with an entirely new forum. He had a brand new temple, dedicated to the Capitoline triad – Jupiter, Juno and Minerva –, built over the old sanctuary with its four cellae. This temple covered the northern side of the forum; at the southern end a large basilica was erected and both long sides of the forum were closed off with colonnades. Nowadays it is the name of the Piazza del Foro that reminds us that in Antiquity this was the spot where the Roman forum was to be found. Around us we may still see traces from the Roman era. If we leave the Via dei Musei – the old decumanus maximus of Roman Brescia – and walk south across the Piazza del Foro for about forty metres, we can spot the scant remains of the eastern colonnade near the Vicolo Lungo. Still further to the south, on the Piazzetta Giovanni Labus, remains from the Roman basilica have been incorporated into modern buildings (see this picture). If you want to get a better idea of what the forum complex used to look like almost 2.000 years ago, visit the Museo di Santa Giulia, which has a pretty good scale model.

Scale model of the Roman forum.

Cella dedicated to Jupiter.

At the end of the fourth century, the area around the Roman forum fell into disrepair. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west it was mostly used as a quarry from which all the precious materials were taken to be used elsewhere. The remains of the temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were covered by a thick layer of mud which had slid down the Colle Cidneo. Only a small piece of a Corinthian column was still visible and provided excavators with a valuable clue that an important building had once stood here. This building was uncovered between 1823 and 1830 and then partially reconstructed. The reconstruction was subsequently used to accommodate the first municipal museum, the Museo Patrio. The excavations also led to the discovery of several valuable bronze items, the famous winged Victoria (Vittoria alata) and six bronze busts. These can now all be admired in the Museo di Santa Giulia.

When we visited the Capitolium at the end of July of 2019, two of three cellae were open to the public. The cella on the left was dedicated to Minerva (see the image above), the one on the right to Juno and the cella in the centre to Jupiter. Only the base of the three rooms is still original. The floors, executed in opus sectile, were made from original material, but they have been re-laid in the nineteenth century. The central cella once had a statue of a seated Jupiter which was 4,7 metres high. Unfortunately it has not been preserved. The cella is now used as an exhibition room for archaeological finds. Among the objects that have been put on display we see three altars and the remains of a large candelabra (see the image on the right). The walls have been decorated with dozens of inscriptions that have been found in the vicinity. The rubricated (i.e. reddened) letters are often still intact.

The Roman theatre

Remains of the Roman theatre.

Colonia Civica Augusta Brixia had a theatre as early as the Augustan age (27 BCE – 14 CE). However, the immense theatre that stood directly east of the Capitolium must be attributed to Vespasianus, who had it built in 73 as part of his forum project. It has been estimated that it could accommodate about 15.000 spectators, which makes it one of the largest in Northern Italy. The theatre was remodelled under the Severan emperors of the third century and was used for large public assemblies until well after the year 1000 – according to one source until 1076, according to another until 1173. Fairly large chunks of the seating section of the theatre, the cavea, have been preserved, but the permanent background, the scaenae frons, is completely gone. In the fourteenth century, the nice-looking Palazzo Maggi Gambara was built over the left side of the scaenae frons and the stage. If we study the right side of the building, we will see how elements from the Roman theatre were incorporated into the foundations of the palazzo.

Sources

  • Information panels at the Capitolium and theatre;
  • UNESCO nomination file, p. 119, p. 136-138, p. 244-246;
  • Articles on Italian Wikipedia (1, 2, 3).

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