The Complex, Trajan’s Markets Museum of the Imperial Forums

The external brick Roman complex, popularly known as the Markets of Trajan and today found in the heart of the modern city, has been miraculously handed down to us. Sited next to the great squares of the Imperial Forums the monument encompasses almost two thousand years of the city’s history. The marks impressed upon its structure through time preserves the memories of the men and women who frequented, used and reused its spaces in so many different ways.

To maintain the cutting made into the side of the Quirinal Hill a complex system of anti-chambers on six levels was conceived. The structure exemplified the construction technique of cement pouring coupled with various types of vault coverings. Together they made for flexibility in the height difference through “lining” the cutting and at the same time provided the communication links between the monumental public spaces of the Antiquarium Forense (Forum District) and the dispersed residential quarters of the Quirinal Hill and the Subura (suburbs).

Due to the dismantlement of the raised sections, it is now all but impossible to perceive what the construction would have hidden, almost crushed, behind the western perimeter walls of its Great Hemicycle. Even with only a partial vision of the complex, now crowded out by pedestrian pathways and other buildings, we can only image the impact the 40 meter high Markets of Trajan must have had, especially when placed in its historical context.

Great Hall
The vast central space of the Great Hall (32 x 8m) was flanked by areas covered by barrel vaults on three levels.

On the ground floor these areas directly bordered the Hall, whilst on the second floor they opened up onto open pillar lined corridors. On the western (valley) side, the ground floor was adjacent to the via Biberatica, which was lined with open tabernae (commercial units). On the eastern (Monte) side there was also a third floor of inter-connected areas that was accessible via the stairway serving the upper floors.

On the ground floor the rooms on the western side were inter-connected, open and had many windows whilst on the other side the rooms lacked openings and stretched deeper northwards. At the base of this area a post-Roman opening allows access to the subterranean rooms that were used for water storage.

The Great Entrance Arch on the market’s short northern side, which is currently the museum’s main entrance on via Quattro Novembre, was originally closed. Access to the road in front, built typically from basalt blocks, was made from via delle Torre through a small door reached via a few steps that started in via Biberatica. On the southern short side in front of the actual entrance a stairway, now modified, permitted access to the central section of via Biberatica.

The covering of the Hall consisted of six cross vaults resting on big travertine shelves. They were in line with the pillars of the second floor arches and went over the open corridors with the purpose of offloading the lateral force of the vaults to the rear structure.

Central Body
The popular name “Central Body” has been given to the structure that rose between the via Biberatica, the area of the Milizie Gardens and via della Torre. It had three levels and open tabernae on the via Biberatica side.

The façade on the via Biberatica, despite significant additions carried out during works in the 1930’s, still well represents the subtle transformation of the complex from the Trajanic era to non-ancient times. A fact exemplified by the roman brick structure extending into part of a 15th century rebuild. The medieval structure has more irregular brickwork, uses salvaged material and takes in a section of a crenulated wall built with the tufelli technique, which is found above the access stairway.

In post-ancient times one of the open areas was used as a stable, probably by the Convent of Saint Catherine. There is a brick floor with gullies cut in it for the animals’ wooden fencing.

The areas of the first floor, on the same level as the ground floor of the Great Hall, have an irregular form. They lack roman door channels and end with an evocative semi-circular chamber that is surmounted by a reduced dome. Then follows a small triangular area made of salvaged material, which was originally cut off from these other sections. The impressions made by uprights (the sustaining stakes of the wooden frame into which cement was poured) are still visible in the wall, which tells us this structure was originally a foundation.

On the second floor was a large semi-circular room, in which were placed a variety of particularly well cared for plants. Some were set in the alternating rectangular and semi-circular niches that punctuated the walls, a number of which had a shaft of light falling into them through marcapiano and modanate brickwork frames.

The third floor had areas that were laid out in a similar fashion but were less well cared for than the second floor. The western perimeter of the third floor remained clearly unchanged in post-ancient times and in a small section on its vaulted ceiling are frescos with grotesques (chimeras) that have been dated to the 16th century and were probably painted by the Taddeo Zuccari school.

Contrary to popular believe, the areas described here were not connected in ancient times to the Great Hall. Free access to this sector was via a passage to the back of the semi-circular room on the second floor. The original doorway is completely preserved and opens up onto the back of via della Torre. It was from here that an internal staircase allowed access to the upper floor.

Via Biberatica
The route of the basalt road, the via Biberatica, represents the hinge between the upper and lower parts of the complex. The road’s name, which is not of the ancient world, most likely derives from the Latin bibere – to drink.

The most upright northern section, which is now lover than the present via Quattro Novembre, still offers us the urban image of a road in an ancient city.

The buildings of the Great Hall and the Small Hemicycle flanked the road and it was lined with taverns and shops that still have their original ground works, main beams and door frames. Moreover, still visible on the shops’ façades is the route of a service route once sustained by arches.

In this section, two of the zones to the side of the Great Hall have later undergone transformation, probably when the complex hosted the Convent of Saint Catherine of Siena. The original level of the floor was raised above the vaults covering subterranean areas. The spaces created along with more carved out of the original Roman foundations were used as cellars.

The next section of the Via Biberatica sharply changed direction, climbing slightly between the Central Body and the upper floor of the Great Hemicycle. From this central section of the road two staircases went down to the lower floor and other stairs allowed access to the floors above the buildings of the Great Hall and the southern sector of the Central Body.

Constructed on the forum side of the third level of the Great Hemicycle was a row of tabernae that opened up on to the road. They had a service corridor to their rear. Today the elevated position they once held has not allowed the majority to survive.

On the opposite side, the façade of the Central Body followed the curved line of the road to make a corner. The difference in the bricklaying clearly shows that the right-hand part of the façade was reconstructed in medieval times with irregular bricks made from recycled materials, among which are visible pieces of ad opos spicatum (herring bone) flooring. On the far southern edge of this section of road a great door arch was closed in, a work carried out as part of the reinforcements of the southern section of the Central Body. Under the great arches the slight gradient of via Biberatica was in ancient times administered by a stairway. The path was inaccessible to the complex’s service wagons but was nether-the-less a real and present urban passage.

Beyond the great arches the route of the southern section of the road bent left and went towards the current Via della Salita del Grillo, that itself takes the path of an ancient road. Its route was drawn up in line with the Roman structure that served and flanked the original road. The colour of the modern paving, grey for the road and red brick in the lost areas allows us to be sure of the road’s route in ancient times. The main road of roman times is today interrupted by the buttresses of the Palazzo del Grillo.

Terraced structures and an insulae probably used as housing, which was set on two to three levels, flanked in this section of the road on the Market side. These dwelling are not well preserved but show evidence of works done in late Roman times that embodied previous structures. On the opposite side of the road were a row of slender dwellings with many windows. They made up the upper floor of a narrow island. These were swallowed by Palazzo del Grillo.

Greater Semi-Circle
The Great Hemicycle was the part of the complex in most direct contact with the Forum of Trajan. This privileged proximity is shown in the particular care given to the brick work and the decoration on its celebrated façade.

The semi-circular shape resulted both from the presence of the forum’s concentric exedra (semi-circular recess) and the need to build an efficient containing structure for the hillside cutting. The cutting’s steps were occupied by structures with progressive depth as they rose to higher levels. Two stairs sited on the extremes ensured vertical linkage in this once unusable section of land.

At forum level eleven shallow areas opened up, which were covered with little barrel vaults hidden by the typical façades of the taberna. Their rooms had black and white mosaic paving laid in a geometrical pattern, which is a feature dated to refurbishments done during the Severan period at the start of the 3rd century AD. On the walls are the remains of frescos that probably come from the same period as these too have a geometrical pattern. Also conserved are the remains of mosaics of a similar design but with a different frescoed decoration that most likely come from Trajan’s time.

The second floor had a semi-circular corridor covered by a barrelled vault. It had herring bone paving, took light from the façades’ open windows and off it were a series of areas also with barrelled vaults that were rebuilt in modern times.

The third floor, which was an external terrace, was most probably a service route. A series of areas in the main section, which have not survived in their elevated position, opened up onto the via Biberatica and were originally equipped with internal lofts.

Small Hemicycle
To the north of the Great Hemicycle, is a structure with areas on three levels that has down the ages taken the name of the “Small Hemicycle”. It is, in fact, a concentric structure inside the vast semi-circular area of the Great Hemicycle that once had a half moon dome covering it.

Apparently lacking in access points in ancient times, it faces due north and is positioned to the back of the Great Hall. Its three levels were accessible from the northern stairs of the Great Hemicycle, to which this structure has a similar plan.

The lower floor of vaulted rooms was connected by a semi-circular corridor that did not receive direct sunlight. The corridor then preceded directly north, a section now lost under the modern day via Quattro Novembre. In this section were found other rooms and a stairs that climbed up to the higher levels, which are today blocked by a wall. Some rooms are characterised by paving that has a shallow circular vase used for gathering liquids at its centre, which leads us to believe that this complex was an oil deposit. The rooms are covered by barrel vaults, on which remain the impressions of the bricks placed there above the wooden structures used when pouring concrete.

On the second floor, which was at the same height as the via Biberatica, a semi-circular corridor was again present but here it was lit by an abundance of windows. In the area due north, which was partly reconstructed after ancient times, a stairwell and an empty space opened up onto the corridor. To the back of these were other rooms that flanked the via Biberatica. A third floor is currently accessible from an internal staircase. It leads to areas connected by a corridor, which were also originally covered. The northern part has been swallowed up by the Palazzo Tiberi-Ceva, which is today a school.

Forward Halls
Two big semi-circular frontal halls opened up on the two extremes of the Great Hemicycle on same level as the Forum. Both halls were covered with a similar semi-circular dome and had a main entrance crowned by a frame in bricks that had the same curved shape perfected in their façades.

The bigger frontal hall to the north had two lines of windows and the central access door, now filled in, was set inside two flanking semi-circular niches. On the back curved wall sat a balcony divided by a central section. Sections of the impressions made by the marble paving and panelling are conserved here. Pieces were rectangular on the floor and square on the walls and balcony. After the marble flooring had been pillaged, a series of cavities were dug into the floor, the material was used as the foundations of structures placed in the hall, which may include the church of Saint. Abbaciro.

In Roman times, the frontal hall to the south, with it single line of three large windows and lack of internal niches, must have had a similar aspect of its twin structure. Uprights (sustaining stakes for the wooden frame into which cement was poured) are still visible on the back wall and show us that the foundations were laid prior to Trajan. Only in later times, probably during Trajan’s rule, were the impressions left by uprights filled in by bricks thus allowing plaster to be evenly applied. At such time the marble flooring and the wall panelling was also most probably added, of which very little remains.

Militias Garden
To the Quirinal side of the buildings of Central Body and the Great Hall is a basalt Roman road, which in modern times has been given the name ” via delle Torre “.

Currently visible on the road are many works credited to the Severan period (end of the 2nd Century AD).

Going towards Via Quattro Novembre the road hugs the side of the buildings of the Central Body, whilst on the opposite side a series of building raised between the 12th and 17th century along the via della Salita del Grillo are found. They belonged to the Convent of Saint Catherine of Siena.

In this part of the Markets of Trajan the subtle transformation from the Roman to the Medieval is particularly visible. Here was built, in several different phases, a fortification named from the 12th century onwards as the Militiae Tower. Between the 13th and the 15th centuries ownership of the tower passed between important Roman families – the Annibaldi to the Caetani and then Caetani to the Conti with the structure finally being included in the Monastery of Saint. Catherine of Siena in Magnanapoli, which was founded in the 16th century. The complexes subterranean cisterns were in the monastery and they are still visible today next to a working elevator.

Militia Tower
The Torre delle Milizie (also tower of Nero or Leaning Tower ) is a tower of Rome, dating back to the thirteenth century, located behind the Mercati di Traiano and above the Quirinale hill.

The building consists of a tuff base with two floors covered in brick; only a fragment of the third floor remains: the top floor has a battlements decoration, the result of modern restoration. The interior is made up of tuff blocks alternating with irregularly arranged bricks.

According to a common popular legend, from the same tower the emperor Nero would have admired the great fire and, with his zither, would have sung the verses of the Aeneid. Another legend says that the tower is the eye on the city of an immense underground palace of Augustus: one day, awakened from the afterlife, he will climb the tower to admire the city.

In our time the same Milizie Tower characterises the outline of the Market. It is the product of various building works done between the 12th and 13th century. From 1150 to 1200 a palace with a loggia on arches reused the Roman structure. Then between 1200 and 1250 a corner of the loggia was replaced with the high tower made of blocks of tuff, which between 1250 and 1275 was subsequently faced with the bricks that are visible today.

Trajan’s Markets Museum of the Imperial Forums
The Markets of Trajan are an archaeological complex of uniqueness in Rome, perhaps even worldwide. They represent an area that has experienced the evolution of the city from the imperial age to today; an area that has been constantly recycled and transformed. The markets once the strategic administrative centre of the Imperial Forums, successively became a noble residence, a military fortress, a prestigious convent and a barracks… a continuous evolution. It has gone through architectural changes and the signs of the various “hands” from these different eras are all still visible. Now, with the completion of recent restorations, we too have crafted out a functions for it and so The Markets of Trajan have begun a new “season” of life.

Since 1985 over 40,000 fragments originating from the forum area have been catalogued and documented from deposits created after excavations carried out in the 20th century. A seemingly huge quantity of finds but in reality they represent a small percentage of what was the enormous quantity of marble facing and super-structure blocks which made up the Antiquarium Forense (Forum District).

Over the last 20 years, works carried out in the deposits of the forums and markets have focussed on the treatment and restoration of these fragments. However, they have also focussed on making an inventory of all the fragments using photographic documentation. It was this detailed gathering of data which made it possible to identify the most significant pieces for the reconstruction of ancient buildings and their decorative details.

When possible the approach to reassembling original fragments has carefully avoided the introduction of pins. Only when the use of additional newly cut stone and/or resin mouldings was impossible to include for various reasons in the exhibits’ assembly are there pins. Once reassembled, the exhibits then underwent graphical documentation and restoration; a rigorous process that has saved some fragments from complete loss. The identification of new contexts and the definition of architectural orders, and hence the appearance of forum complexes, have formed the basis of study for The Museum of the Imperial Forums project.

Different “routes” intertwine. In fact, the museum project has also had to be a communication project – “the architecture of the Forum in the architecture of the Markets; the history of the city in the history of one of its districts.