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‘Notes from the Underground’ sent by Italy’s ancient Brescia

by Marco Carminati

In the heart of Brescia stand the stately ruins of ancient Roman Brixia, complete with Capitol, Theater and Forum. After ten years' restoration work and redevelopment, the entire area has now become the “Archaeological Park of Roman Brixia,” set in the urban fabric of the medieval and Renaissance city.

The archaeological park, covering 4,200 square meters (over 45,200 square feet), may be visited from the underground upwards, thus allowing tourists to time-travel from the Republican to the Imperial era, from the park's subterranean treasures to the overt structure and buildings.

In 2013, local authorities reopened the city's ancient Capitolium – a temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad Jove, Juno and Minerva, or the top three gods worshipped by the Romans on the Capitoline Hill.

The temple's three inner chambers are now visible, with the original polychrome floors and fragments of the colossal statues venerated by the Brescia population of two thousand years ago.

In the fall of 2014, the tour was extended to the Roman Theater flanking the Capitolium, which is considered one of the largest in northern Italy.

The Capitol we can see today dates from the year 73 AD. It was built by Emperor Vespasian above a pre-existing Republican shrine of the first century BC. The latter was made up of four small temples laid out side by side; rather than have them razed to the ground, Vespasian had them filled up and used as a foundation for the new Capitol. When archaeologists dug into the subsoil, one of the older sanctuary's four inner chambers or cellae was uncovered, nearly intact – the westernmost cella.

Entering this surviving inner chamber, called Cella IV, is a breathtaking experience. You suddenly find yourself treading the original floor, a large mosaic of white tesserae with a black frame, irregularly laid in order to create a “rush matting” effect. The wall decorations have come down to us in perfect condition, with very bright, lively colors: the painters of 89-75 BC created the airy illusion of a fringe curtain along the lower half of the wall, hanging from the temple's columns and adorned with garlands, ribbons and red wave patterns, opening onto glimpses of the underlying squared-block masonry surface (green ashlar).

The time-traveling itinerary continues above-ground, where visitors enter Vespasian's Capitol Temple with its amazing original floors in opus sectile – marble floor inlay in various types and colors (ancient yellow, Pavonazzo marble and African marble), its skirting board – also original – in cipolin (another kind of marble); as well as fragments of an enormous statue representing Jove, which was worshipped in the central chamber of the temple.

Leaving the thrills of the Capitol behind, visitors can go on to the Roman Theater of the Augustan era (late first century BC, early first century AD). The theater, at the foot of Mount Cidnus (actually more of a hill), was in use until the 5th century AD. Subsequently, it collapsed in several places and was repeatedly plundered, eventually turning into an open quarry that provided stones and marble used in building medieval Brescia.