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Introduction to Portus

To the north of Ostia, at a distance of a few kilometres, a harbour district was built by the Emperors Claudius and Trajan: Portus ("Harbour"). The archaeological evidence is supplemented by depictions of the harbours on coins and reliefs (especially the famous Torlonia relief), descriptions by ancient authors, inscriptions and legal texts.

For a long time building material was taken from the site and marble was taken to lime-kilns. In the 15th century a statue of Bacchus was even thrown in the river Tiber by order of Cardinal Bessarion, who said it was sacrilegious. Material was reused in the Villa Giulia of Julius III, Sant'Andrea della Valle, and in fountains on Piazza Colonna and Piazza Navona. Many ruins were still visible in the 16th century, and many plans and reconstruction drawings were made. The artists used their imagination to complete the city.

- The first plans of Portus were made by Baldassare Peruzzi (died 1536). An unpublished plan from the 16th century with many details is related to it in some way.
- The oldest reconstruction drawing that we have was made by Pirro Ligorio and published for the first time in 1554.
- At about the same time a plan of Trajan's harbour was published by Sebastiano Serlio.
- Another plan of the harbours was published by Antonio Labacco in 1567.
- A plan and a sketch of the harbours were published by Salvestro Peruzzi, the son of Baldassare (died 1573).
- Another reconstruction drawing, in several respects following the drawing by Pirro Ligorio, but also with many differences, was made by Stefano Du Pérac and published for the first time in 1575.
- Several later reconstruction drawings are copies of the work of Du Pérac in some way or other (Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, Horace Tigrin de Mariis, Johannes Blaeu, Daniel Meisner).
- Another copy is a fresco made in 1582 by Ignazio Danti, now in the Galleria delle carte geografiche del Museo Vaticano. Of great interest is another fresco made by him and at the same location, entitled "Veduta delle rovine di Porto nell'anno 1582, al tempo di papa Gregorio XIII". This may well be a fairly accurate representation of what the ruins looked like at the end of the 16th century.

In 1796 Portus was sold by the Pope to a local landowner, Panfilo di Pietro. In 1856 it became property of Prince Alessandro Torlonia. The Villa Torlonia was built to the north-east of the harbour. The site was plundered in 1822-1823. "Excavations" were carried out by by Cardinal Pacca, bishop of Portus, near Capo due rami (1822), by Guidi (1836 and 1852-1858), by Giuseppe Melchiorri (1839), and by the Torlonia family (between 1863 and 1869). The buildings that were excavated were immediately filled with earth again. The first written descriptions, accompanied by plans, were made by Giuseppe Rocco Volpi (Vetus Latium Profanum VI, 1734), Carlo Fea (1824), Antonio Nibby (1819, 1827, 1849), Luigi Canina (1830, 1837, 1856), Pierre-Joseph Garrez (1834), Charles Texier (1858), and Rodolfo Lanciani (1868), who visited the Torlonia excavations.

The statues, reliefs etcetera that were found by the Torlonia family were taken to the Museo Torlonia in Rome (not to be confused with the Villa Torlonia on the Via Nomentana). It was founded in 1859 by Alessandro Torlonia in Trastevere, at Via dei Corsini nr. 5. In the museum 620 pieces of sculpture were on display in 77 rooms. It is the most important private collection of ancient sculpture in the world. The objects were bought from other Roman families, but also found during "excavations" on various properties of the family in Latium, such as the Villa dei Quintilii and Portus. The family allowed visits by aristocrats only. In the 1960's all objects were moved to store-rooms by the family, that installed apartments in the building. It seems that in 2005 the family agreed to sell the collection to the city of Rome for a huge sum. In the future the objects will perhaps be on display in Palazzo Rivaldi on Via dei Fori Imperiali. A list of the objects from Portus gives some idea of what remains until today hidden for the public.

In the twentieth century Jerome Carcopino worked in the harbour of Claudius (1907) and Guido Calza in the harbour of Trajan (1925). In 1925 and the 1930's Calza also excavated the Isola Sacra necropolis, on the artificial island between Portus and Ostia. The famous hexagonal basin of Trajan was restored and filled with water again in the years 1919-1924. The water is at a higher level now than it was in antiquity, so that the quays are underwater. It was linked to the Fossa Traiana by a new canal, starting at the south-east corner of the hexagon. The work of Giuseppe Lugli led to a fundamental study (Lugli-Filibeck 1935), with a new plan by Italo Gismondi. Gismondi also made a model of Portus, now in the Museo della Via Ostiense in Rome. Further excavations took place in the 1950's when the Aeroporti di Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) were built. The railway from the airport to Rome runs between the harbour basins of Claudius and Trajan. Part of the harbour of Claudius is on the grounds of the airport (Scrinari; Testaguzza 1970). Five boats were discovered that can now be seen in the Museo delle Navi. Between 1970 and 1979 the Basilica di Sant'Ippolito on the Isola Sacra was excavated by Pasquale Testini.

During a short period, in the 1970's and 1980's, the archaeological area was used as a zoo-safari. Part of the area was acquired by the Italian state between 1981 and 1989, but part is still private property of the Torlonia family, including the hexagonal basin of Trajan. At the end of the 20th century work was restricted to rescue excavations (Scrinari 1984 and 1987; Mannucci 1996). In the years 1997-2004 an extensive survey of the area was carried out, by the Universities of Southampton, Durham and Cambridge. This included a geophysical survey (magnetometry) and fieldwalking (Keay 2005). The latter study includes a thorough overview of past research by Lidia Paroli.

A photo of Portus as zoo-safari (1976).
Photo: Alfredo Caruso on Roma Sparita.

A photo of Portus as zoo-safari (late seventies).
Photo: Antonia Arnoldus-Huyzendveld.

Trajan's basin. Photo: Jan Theo Bakker.

[jthb - 30-Apr-2009]