Roman Art during the Antonine dynasty. Mausoleums and tombs.

The Mausoleum of Hadrian, also known as Castel Sant’Angelo, 123-139 AD. (Rome).

During the Antonine era was also in use the type of Imperial mausoleum* characteristic of the time of Augustus (i.e. big circular buildings with an interior chamber for the sarcophagus*).  There are still colossal remains of the Hadrian’s mausoleum which was later transformed by the Popes into Castel Sant’Angelo: located in the right bank of the Tiber river, its huge mass still dominates half of Rome.  To get to the Mausoleum of Hadrian people had to cross the Pons Aelius, now completely reconstructed and known as Ponte Sant’Angelo with only three of its arches from Roman antiquity; the gigantic tower with the sarcophagus was surrounded by two stories of columns, had a garden at the top and a conical roof topped by a golden quadriga*.  A couple of bronze peacocks survived from the Hadrian’s mausoleum and are now flanking a colossal bronze pine cone (which once decorated a fountain in Ancient Rome) and are located in the Vatican Museums in the Cortile della Pigna.

The Pigna, or pine cone flanked by a pair of bronze peacocks brought from the Hadrian’s mausoleum, is now placed in the Cortile della Pigna, linking the Vatican and the Palazzo del Belvedere.

Roman Emperors remained faithful to the funeral rites of the patricians, which involved cremation.  For this end, there was a rogum or special crematorium in the Campus Martius. It was a simple enclosure without roof that was reproduced in many reliefs that depicted the scene of the ascension of the deceased princes.  According to the religion derived from the Stoic philosophy, the predominant school of thought during the Antonine dynasty, the souls of the great men ascended to the Sky after passing the skies of intermediate planets where they were purified from earthly imperfections.  In the base of the column of Antoninus Pius, dedicated by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, they wanted to represent the ascension of their adoptive father Antoninus and his mother Faustina who appeared being taken to heaven by a winged genius* of light (like an “angel*“).  Attending this scene are the personification of Rome and the genius loci of the Campus Martius where the crematorium was located.  The genius loci, lying on the ground like all the figures of places’ genii, is holding an Egyptian obelisk which was by then located in that place.

Relief that tells the Apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina, it was once the base of the column of Antoninus Pius (Vatican Museums).

Many funeral buildings on the Via Appia were smaller than the Mausoleum of Hadrian but also had the shape of a square or circular tower.  In the middle of the city, the Roman roads served as cemeteries and the memorials erected on the Via Appia were contiguous and formed a kind of immense avenue of tombs.  The Roman Via Appia is famous because it retains the inner foundations of these graves that were stripped of their marble cover and sculptures, and are so abundant that still to this day make the silhouette of the Roman landscape particularly distinctive.

Ancient tombs along the Roman Via Appia.


*Angel: According to Abrahamic religions and Zoroastrianism, an Angel is a spiritual being superior to humans in power and intelligence. Most of them serve either as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth, or as guardian spirits. The use of the term has extended to refer to artistic depictions of the spirits. In art, angels are usually depicted as having the shape of human beings of extraordinary beauty; they are often identified using the symbols of bird wings, halos, and light.


*Mausoleum: An external free-standing building constructed as a monument enclosing the interment space or burial chamber of a deceased person or people. A monument of this kind but without the interment is a cenotaph. A mausoleum may be considered a type of tomb, or the tomb may be considered to be within the mausoleum. A Christian mausoleum sometimes includes a chapel.



*Quadriga: A car or chariot drawn by four horses abreast (the Roman Empire’s equivalent of Ancient Greek tethrippon). Quadrigas were emblems of triumph; Victory and Fame often are depicted as the triumphant woman driving it. In classical mythology, the quadriga is the chariot of the gods; Apollo was depicted driving his quadriga across the heavens, delivering daylight and dispersing the night.


*Sarcophagus: A box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone, and usually displayed above ground, though it may also be buried. The word “sarcophagus” comes from the Greek σάρξ sarx meaning “flesh”, and φαγεῖν phagein meaning “to eat”, hence sarcophagus means “flesh-eating”; from the phrase lithos sarkophagos (λίθος σαρκοφάγος). Since lithos is Greek for “stone”, lithos sarcophagos means, “flesh-eating stone”.

*Winged genie: The conventional term for a recurring motif in Assyrian iconography. Winged genies are usually bearded male figures sporting birds’ wings. The Genii are a reappearing trait in ancient Assyrian art, and are displayed most prominently in palaces or places of royalty.


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