The Museum of the Walls is an archaeological museum in Rome, Italy. It is housed in the first and second floors of the Porta San Sebastiano at the beginning of the Appian Way. It provides an exhibition on the walls of Rome and their building techniques, as well as the opportunity to walk along the inside of one of the best-preserved stretches of the Aurelian Wall. The museum is free of charge.
The museum in its present form, was officially opened in 1990. Prior to 1939, the Porta San Sebastiano (also known as the Porta Appia) had been open to the public but it was then taken over by Ettore Muti, the Secretary of the Italian Fascist Party. White-and-black mosaics in some rooms date back to that time. From 1970, there was a small museum connected to the internal parapet of the Aurelian Wall but this museum was only open to the public on Sundays, and, after a few years, was closed.
The Aurelian Walls
The Aurelian Walls were constructed between 270 and 275 AD at the behest of the Emperor Aurelian, as a defence for the city from the threatened invasion of barbarians from the North of Europe. The new enclosing wall had a perimeter of about 19 km and was constructed of sections of wall about 6.5m in hieght, with a parapet walkway along the top, punctuated every thirty metres by higher towers, covered by terraces.
Along the wall where the various roads left the city were also situated gates, whose form and size was determined by the relative importance of the roads. After the first restoration works in the IVth century under Maxentius, carried out only in a few places where they were greatly needed, at the beginning of the next century, during the reign of the emperor Honorius, the entire circuit of the walls was modified with radical structural interventions which doubled their height. Thus two walkways were created in the walls, one a covered gallery with arrow slits for archers, and above that a second, which was open, although provided with battlements for the placement of war machinery. In the towers a second operations room was added, covered by a sloping roof and communicating with the lower room by means of a masonry staircase.
The ancient sources attest restorations carried out during the course of the VIth century under Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, and by Belisarius, the general of the emperor Justinian. In the following centuries restoration works were conducted at the behest of various Popes who, from the Xvth century, left memorials of their work through the coats of arms and inscriptions located directly on the walls.
The S. Sebastiano Gate
The real name of this monumental gate, one of the largest and best conserved in the Aurelian Walls, was Appia, from the name of the important arterial road which it opened out onto. In the Middle Ages the name was corrupted into Daccia and Dazza, over which the name Porta S. Sebastiano eventually prevailed, in honour of the Christian martyr buried in the church on the Via Appia not far from the walls.
The present appearance of the Gate is the result of many architectural transformations, which succeeded each other through the course of the centuries, and which can be divided into five periods from the antique period onwards:
The Museum is situated inside the S. Sebastiano Gate of the Aurelian Walls and offers visitors an educational visit which was created in 1990, although the monument has been used in a more or less similar way since much earlier. In 1939, despite the contrary inclination of the Office of the Distribution of Antiquities and Fine Arts, which opposed the transformation of the monument, which had for many years been open to the public, into an artistic studio, various works were carried out in the rooms inside the gate, to adapt it for use as a living place and private studio of Ettore Muti, the secretary of the fascist party, who stayed there from 1941 to 1943
New attics were created as the masonry vaults had collapsed, new rooms with dividing walls were created, staircases were installed in wood and masonry, and the floors were reworked in travertine and brick, with two mosaics inserted on the first floor. The S. Sebastiano Gate
After the second world war, the Gate was reopened to the public by the Municipality, which also started drafting a project to create a museum of the walls. During the years, however, and due to various events, some of the rooms in the Gate were used as service rooms for the guard and his family. The other rooms were given in 1960 for the use of the Ministry of Public Education and the General Board of Antiquities and Fine Arts, in order to install a special office on the Via Appia Antica and then a museum on the Via Appia; with this aim, various transformatory works were carried out in several of the bays, but the planned Office never came into existence. The municipal administration reclaimed the monument in 1970, the next year the Office of the Distribution of Antiquities and Fine Arts installed a small museum of the walls, connecting it to the section of the covered parapet circuit up to Via C. Colombo.
The museum was only open to the public on Sundays, and, after several years, unfortunately, it was once again completely closed; it was not until 1984 that the gate was definitively reopened and internally reordered, for the “Underground Rome” exhibition. In 1989 the Museum of the Walls of Rome was officially instituted on the decision of the Municipal Council, according to the Regional Law of 1975, and the following year the current educational displat opened.
On the evening of the 15th April 2001 occured the collapse of a substantial section of the Aurelian Walls in the stretch between Porta S. Sebastiano and Via Cristoforo Colombo; a section 12 metres long, between towers 7 e 8. In consequence, the entire 400m walkway, running from the Museum of the Walls to the arched openings of the Via C. Colombo, were closed to the public
The collapse primarily involved the clay-brick curtain wall created by Innocent X Pamphili (1644-1655), which was never deeply integrated with original Aurelian and Honorian nucleus, and had become increasingly detached by the infiltration of rain water, causing the slippage and collapse of the Seventeenth century wall.
The coat of arms and inscription placed on this section of the clay-brick curtain wall to commemorate the restoration work of Innocent X were taken to the Museum after the collapse.
The conservation, development and restoration of the Aurelian wall circuit and the restoration works that need to be implemented, constitute a reason for great attention from the Municipal Administration, which, with an initial grant, from 2004 to 2006 was able to carry out reconstruction work in the collapsed section and restoration of the wall fabric as well as urgent strengthening work. As a result the entire “walkway on the walls” reopened to the public in July 2006, as a fitting conclusion to the Museum’s educational itinerary.
The museum display is on the first and second floor of the gate, and is divided into ancient, medieval and modern sections. It is made up of double-sided information panels, with texts in English and Italian, indispensably supported by color drawings and photographs.
The information room, in the west tower, provided with a projection screen, video for film segments and seats, also conserves a floor with a mosaic in three colours of travertine, created between 1940 and 1943, showing two deer and a tiger ambushing them from the surrounding vegetation.
This occupies the first floor of the structure with stands over the entrance arch of the Porta S. Sebastiano, connecting the tower massive side towers; here there are six panels about the ancient section, dedicated partly to Pomerio (the sacred area inside the city of Rome) and the oldest walls to encircle the ancient city in the VIth and IVth centuries BC. The other panels concern the Aurelian Walls, narrating the historical and political events which determined their construction, and the strategic reasons behind the path of the circuit. They additionally describe the building techniques used in their construction, the gate types, and the transformations and restorations carried out in subsequent IVth, Vth and VIth centuries. The last panel is dedicated to the machines of war used during sieges, both by defenders on top of the walls and the attackers below.
Along the walls are displayed plaster models of the crosses that were cut above the arches of several of the gates in the circuit, or made of brick in various sections of the wall’s path, just like the decorations of palms and sunrays: all of these date to the early Vth century AD, when the height of the walls was doubled. High up on the southern part remain the travertine shelves through which passed the ropes for manoeuvring the portcullis, which ran through a slit in the floor, which still exists, covered over with glass, and descended to close the gate. On the floor in the centre of the room is a black and white mosaic, showing a general on horseback surrounded by soldiers and weapons, which also dates from the early 1940s.
Situated in the East tower, this room holds four reconstructive models of the walls: in the center is a schematic plan of ancient Rome, showing the circuits of the royal, republican and Aurelian circuits; around it are three reproductions of the walls from the Aurelian age to the Honorius’ restorations in the Vth century AD.
This occupies a small area, flanking the West tower, and contains two panels. The first describes the architectural developments of the Porta S. Sebastiano (Porta Appia) from the IIIrd to the Vth centuries AD, as a result of which it acquired it monumental appearance that can still be admired today. The second begin a brief description of the other gates of the wall circuit, which is continued in another panel in the West tower. On the walls are four models, including one of the cross on the keystone of the arch of the Porta S. Sebastiano.
This room is located in the West tower and contains three panels and a reconstructive model: one panel concerns the gates of the walls, the others contain information about the Via Appia, and on the diverse building techniques used by the Romans subsequent to opus quadratum; the model reproduces the section of the wall between the Porta Asinaria and the Castrense amphitheater, whose architecture was adapted to overcome the very uneven ground in the area. This is the last room in the ancient section.
This occupies the second floor of the central body of the gate, above the entrance arch. In it are displayed six panels concerning the Medieval and Modern sections of the museum. They take up the narrative of the historical and architectural developments of the Aurelian Walls, showing the changing relationship in the Medieval period between the walls and dwellings, the latter shrinking due the progressive population decrease, and, in the XVIth to XXth centuries the most important restoration works accomplished by the various Popes, as well as modifications and new constructions.
This room is situated in the East tower and contains a model of the Ardeatine Fortress, a military work designed by Antonio da Sangallo the younger (1483-1546) to reinforce the circuit of the walls. It is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance military architecture, and is still visible from the West of the arches on Via C. Colombo. High up on the walls charcoal drawings can still be seen, possibly preparatory sketches of various scenes, subsequently created in the frescoes and sculptures of the Porta S. Sebastiano, on the occasion of the progress of Charles the Vth in 1536.
Terrace and walkway
The terrace of the Porta San Sebastiano can be visited together with a 350-meter stretch of the inside of the Aurelian Wall going west as far as the Via Cristoforo Colombo, in a covered gallery interrupted by ten towers. Remains of the original flooring can be noted. Arrow slits for archers can be seen, as well as staircases inside several of the towers which used to lead to the command rooms. Restoration work can be distinguished by the various types of construction technique. Squared arrow slits from 1848 can also be seen. These were the result of adaptations made to adapt the original slits for artillery.
From the museum it is possible to access a long section, about 350 metres, of the wall’s parapet walk, an integral part of the museum’s educational itinerary. The walk consists of a covered gallery, punctuated by ten towers, which ends with a high open walkway, which offers shelter to the blackbirds.
Masonry from the age of Honorius (early fifth century AD) is conserved along the walk, with arrow-slits for the archers within the niches, and huge open arcades opening out onto the city side of the wall, as well as staircases inside several of the towers which used to lead to the command rooms above, no longer in existence. Restoration work from several of the subsequent eras, from Medieval times to the XIX century, is visible, and can be distinguished by the various types of construction technique, or by the transformation of some of the wall structure, after parts of the wall collapsed in the course of the centuries. The squared arrow-slits dating to 1848 can also be seen, the result of transformations to adapt them for artillery during the gun battles of the Roman Republic.
Leaving the third tower on the walkway the remains of the original floor should be particularly noted: a central crevice marks the line where the Aurelian structure and the enlargements made by Honorius meet; above in the lunette of the tower’s exit bay is a picture of the Madonna and Child, a reminder of the tower’s use as a hermit’s retreat, perhaps in the Medieval period.
The terrace above the central body of the gate, between the two towers, which offers a central view along the route of the Via Appia Antica, overlooked by its numerous blackbirds;
The terrace at the top of the west tower, rendered secure and accessible to the public with the restoration work for the 2000 Jubilee. From here the visitors can feast their eyes on a 360 degree view: the outline of the Castelli Romani hills is recognisable in the background, and closer the path of the walkway connected to the museum can be seen, winding its way through the verdant countryside.
The most recent restoration and maintenance works on the S. Sebastiano Gate, took place in 1999 and were part of the general program of redevelopment of the city walls, carried out by the Municipality of Rome for the Grand Jubilee of 2000. The project involved work both on the outside of the monument, and inside, including in the exhibition rooms of the Museum of the Walls.
The real restoration of the external surfaces in clay-brick, tufo and marble was prededed, as always, by a thorough on that was infesting the walls, with specially chosen products, including biocides to eliminate alghae, moulds and microrganisms. Then the curtain wall was cleaned with water at low pressure, to remove blackening deposits and encrustations from the atmospheric pollution. The cleaning of the marble structure, however, required more careful work, with the installation of a water vapourizer, which was able to clean the clinging black crust, especially under the arches, while preserving the layers of ochre and oxalate patina recognised to part of the monument’s life.
The restoration was particularly delicate in that it took place on a heterogeneously composed monument, both in terms of the variety of materials involved and the various times at which it was constructed. All the external areas of the wall were notably degraded, due to the degradation of the mortar and the erosion of the materials making up the internal conglomerate, a situation was had caused the separation and collapse of various fragments. The works focused on consolidating the structure including filling in the gaps and the along the crevices with hydraulic mortar and lime-based plaster mixed with inclusions of various sizes and colours, appropriate to the surrounding context.
As regards the refilling of the gaps in the wall, according to the aim of safeguarding the existent materials as far as possible, it was decided to intervene only where it was necessary due to the depth and extent of the gap, and consequent stability problems. In relation to this last problem the revision work also provided both for the metal force (chains) located along the length of the previous restorations and all the crenellations which crown the terraces, the towers and the central body of the building, above the arch.
At the same time, the terrace of the west tower was also made safely accessible to the public: railings have been fitted according to the regulations and a metal and plexiglass cover, hermetically sealed to protect the exit, has been added, from which the ground is reached using a spiral staircase. The same works have been done in the other tower. Inside the Museum the window settings have been repleace, several windowsills, the services, the electricity plant and the paint on the walls of all the rooms.
Restoration works on the S. Sebastiano Gate
The original form of the gate was two twin arches, with a travertine facade and two semicircular towers flanking them, inside of which two staircases in a central position ran up to the two floors above; the stairs were subsequently confined and finally walled in. At present three blocks of travertine, the remains of the original arches which were subsequently closed in are visible on the internal facade of the gate, next to the entrance to the Museum of the Walls.
The first floor of the towers, that is the command room for arms, had three arched windows, while the room above the arches was illuminated by five arched windows; above the second floor was constructed an open terrace surrounded by crenellations. The remains of the structures of this first phase were seen by the scholar Richmond, before 1930, inside the later walls.
The first changes to the gate were carried out by Honorius, simultaneously with a general refacing of the walls; new, higher, circular clay-brick towers encompass the old ones; an inner gate was also added inside the wall, consisting of two semi-circular walls arranged in a pincer form, creating a security courtyard with two arches aligned with those of the gate. Today only part of the west flank remains, in which the entrance to the museum opens, surrounded by the modern supporting wall of the embankment, and a few remnants of the east flank.
These internal courtyards did not have only a military security function, but they were also used to hold offices and the customs guards who controlled trade goods.
The brick walls of the previous phase were partly destroyed by the changes brought about in this period, consisting of the construction of the imposing ramparts which gird the towers, leaving only one floor, and the transformation of the two entrance archways into the single archway we see today. Both the wall around the arch and the first floor of the ramparts were redressed with blocks of reused marble, which are topped with cornices, on some of which can be seen protruding lumps, perhaps symbols with a magical or religious value, or perhaps used to raise the blocks themselves. On the keystone of the internal arch a cross in incised with an inscription in Greek which says “By the grace of God and Saints Conon and George”, similar crosses, and some made in brick, are found along the walls and on the gate, and can be clearly interpreted as expressions of Christianity; the fact that the inscription is in Greek suggests that there may have been Greek workmanship in the construction of the walls.
On the first floor of the attic, which was used as a the operation room for the portcullis which closed the gate, the travertine runnels which served to hold the ropes which moved the grate through the internal frame of the entrance arch.
Inside the towers all off the heavy masonry wall facings which divided the space into three parts were removed, although their attachments are still visible on the second floor of the museum. The high part of the squared rampart of the west tower, made from masonry of blocks of tufo, with two travertine strips, can be dated to the restoration carried out between the VIth and the IXth centuries, after the collapse of the front of the ramparts, due to gradual disintegration and earthquake shocks.
In the last construction phase the towers and the space above the entrance were both raised by a floor, giving the gate the impressive appearance that can be admired today.
From the Middle Ages onwards the gate was often the backdrop of battles, such as that in 1327 between the Roman factions of the Guelfi and the Ghibellini, who opposed the attack of Robert d’Angiò, King of Naples, who tried to occupy Rome. Mementos of this event remain in the form of an image of the Archangel Michael killing the dragon, a grafitto on the internal frame of the gate, next to an inscription in Latin recording that “the year 1327, 11th year of the cycle, in the month of September, the last day, feast of St Michael, foreigners entered the city and were defeated by the Roman people, with Jacopo de’ Ponziani as captain of the area”.
In 1536 Porta S Sebastiano was chosen, by the orders of Pope Paul III, as the ceremonial entrance for the arrival of Charles Vth of Spain; for the occasion the gate was painted and decorated as a triumphal arch, a project devised by Antonio da Sangallo the younger, with statue, festoons, pictures and frescos, of all of which only the iron hooks from which the festoons were hung remain under the cornice and the marble ramparts. In 1571 the gate was again decorated with trophies, festoons and pictures for the triumphal entrance of Marcantonio Colonna, victor in the battle of Lepanto.
Restoration works to the gate are documented between 1749 and 1752, under the papal rule of Benedict XIV, consisting of redressing the curtain wall, both on the facade of the right tower and inside, and in refacing most of the battlements. In 1783 two documents tell us of necessary consolidation work done, particularly on the north tower.
At the time of Valadier (XIXth century, who described the state of conservation of the “Porta Capena now S. Sebastiano”, the towers had been covered with roofs and showed no evidence of particular degradation. Between 1940 and 1943, when Ettore Muti was allowed to use the gate as his studio and living quarters, various internal restoration works were carried out, including the refacing of the collapsed solar and the attic above the entrance archway, and the recreation of two floors within the towers. The photographic documentation from the time, now in archives, shows that the barrel vaulting covering the first floor and the main body of the building was cleaned, and the reconstruction of the solar in the tower led to the building up of several windows and the inclusion of the remains of the attachments for the original facing in the new masonry.