Remains of an Ancient Feast

We recently spend a lovely day taking the tour of the Via Triumphalis Necropolis, an amazingly well preserved ancient cemetery found when excavations were going on at the Vatican for the construction of a parking lot (we’ll talk about it more in our next blog post). Unless you are in an organized group, you must buy the Via Triumphalis tour ticket along with a ticket to the Vatican Museums. So, we happily found ourselves again at the Vatican Museums: as the museums are so vast, there’s always something new to discover. Surprised at the sizes of the crowds even in February, we headed to the more manageable Pinacoteca (Painting Gallery), then to the Gregoriano Profano (“Profane”) Museum and the adjoining Pio-Christian (early Christian) Museum.

The latter two sections of the museums turned out to be a terrific experience. They were practically deserted, and for a few hours it was just the two of us and a security guard who seemed to be enjoying studying the artifacts too.

Want to see amazing art at the Vatican Museums without all the crowds?
Want to see amazing art at the Vatican Museums without all the crowds?

The Profane Museum has a lovely selection of ancient Greek and Roman statuary and sculpture, with many beautiful pagan sarcophagi.

Sculpture panel of women in flowing dresses in the Profane Museum
Sculpture panel of women in flowing dresses in the Profane Museum

Then, as you walk through the Christian Museum, you clearly see how the pagan artistic and funerary traditions were adapted for Christian art.

Christian-era sarcophagus carving.
Christian-era sarcophagus carving.

There’s also an interesting exhibit of early Jewish-Roman plaques, often with drawings of a menorah. But the most fascinating item here was an ancient floor, the “Asàrotos òikos”  (unswept floor) mosaic. This mosaic once decorated the floor of the dining room of a villa on the Aventine Hill in Rome at the time of the Emperor Hadrian. The design — amazingly, signed by the artist Heraclitus — is witty and beautiful, and demonstrates an understanding of perspective and shadow, which has been artfully captured, as you can see a little shadow around many of the pieces of floor’s “debris.”  This mosaic gives us a tremendous insight into the foods that were once consumed by the ancient Romans (or at least the wealthy ones). Look at all the food remnants here for clues to what was eaten:

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You can clearly see remains of leafy vegetables (perhaps endive and artichoke leaves?), fruit (grapes and what appear to be cherries), lobster and crab claws, a fish head and skeleton, clams, oysters, and various other mollusk shells, sea urchins, snail shells, chicken feet, bones, and nut shells.  The artist even added a little mouse who has snuck into the dining room and is quietly gnawing on a walnut shell. Absolutely magnificent.

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