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The transformations of the Temple of Portunus, with recently discovered medioeval frescoes and hidden identities

In the valley called Velabro, the area where the city of Rome was born, there is a small temple, which integrity is surprising. Less known than the round next to it (mistakenly known as a temple to Vesta, but in fact the temple of Hercules Victor), the rectangular temple in the Forum Boario (old cattle market) was dedicated to Portunus (Aedes Portuni) and it is now considered the most complete temple of Rome.

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    • Where: via Petroselli,/via di Ponte Rotto, in front of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin with the famous Bocca della Verità
    • When: the temple is closed to the public, and accessible only during special openings. From the street, however, it is perfectly visible outside
    • Why: This small rectangular temple is considered the most intact of Rome, and is witness to a long history, which is worth knowing!
L'aspetto della chiesa di Santa Maria Egiziaca in un'incisione di Piranesi. Sullo sfondo è ben visibile il tempio rotondo di Ercole Vincitore
The church Santa Maria Egiziaca (XV century) engraved by Piranesi. On the background the temple Hercule Victor

The area next to the river Tiber, between the Capitol and the Aventine, was an important commercial area since the archaic era. Its supply were provided by the boats that sailed up the Tiber to the port, located in correspondence of the modern building of Anagrafe.

A temple dedicated to Portunus, tutelary deity of this area, protector of ports and harbors. This temple near the river port and in correspondence with Pons Emilius (corresponding to the actual Ponte Rotto), the first permanent link between the city of Rome and the Etruscans, who inhabited the right bank of the Tiber.


The building we actually see there, was built in the first century B.C. It replaces the original temple of the IV-III century B.C., and was circled by a sacred enclosure. In the ninth century it was transformed into the church of Santa Maria de Gradellis, and in the fifteenth century Santa Maria Egiziaca, the patron saint of prostitutes, which in Roman era has to be a constant presence in the port area.


In 1916 the church was removed to put in light Roman temple. In this occasion frescoes of the early church was discovered, which were obliterated during the next part of the transformation .

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The columns of the pronaos (front columns) are  made in travertine; those leaning against the cell made in tuff , but its bases and capitals was in travertine. All were covered with a laye of stucco. That mean that the temple seemed covered with marble. Fragments of this stucco coating  are still visible.

Frammenti del rivestimento in stucco delle semicolonne del tempio
Stucco fragments of the lateral half-columns coating

Inside the temple is hidden a real medieval gem. At the beginning of XX century, when the temple was restored to its Roman forms, by removing the last layer of decoration of the church Santa Maria Egiziaca (XV century), light fragments of medieval frescoes in the upper church of Santa Maria in Gradellis was discovered, that had been obliterated by construction of the pilasters of the Renaissance church. Today are these four strips of painted decoration that arouse more curiosity: frescoes with stories of the life of the Virgin, in episodes taken from the traditional Gospels and the Apocrypha. No wonder the choice of sources since, especially in the early Middle Ages, it was not uncommon that the gospels now call “Apocrypha” were used as a literary source for works of art, in particular as it regards the life of Mary and the childhood of Christ.


The decoration was made under Pope John VIII (872-882), on five superimposed registers. There, are depicted scenes from the life and death of the Virgin, scenes from the life of Saints Basil, Zosima and Maria Egiziaca. The single scenes were enclosed by frames made with circles and beaded file. Heads, stylized flowers and palms. The lower part of the decoration was painted with a row of fake drapes (this motif was very common in Roman churches).


The decoration of the church fitted perfectly in the artistic climate of that time, where references to early Christian tradition amalgamated with Oriental influences.


Next to the medieval frescoes, inside the temple also are sculptural fragments belonging to the medieval church, and a small marble tabernacle with decorations in cosmatesque, which reproduces the appearance of the facade of the temple.

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Tabernacle with cosmatesque decoration

Thanks to FAI – Fondo Ambiente Italiano to made possible the opening of the temple on saturday, april 9, for #CosaFAIoggi, and Igers – Instagramers Roma for the early entrance.


One comment

  1. “Sun, who tarries on high, contemplating Rome:
    Greater never you’ve nor shall you in future see greater
    Than Rome, O sun, as your priest, Horace, enraptured foretold…”

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