Hunting Comparanda in Rome

I came to Rome to begin work on my dissertation, which focuses on the 4th century CE Basilica of Junius Bassus. Once a magnificent pavilion whose walls were covered in marble decoration, the Basilica has only a few pieces that survive: four large panels of opus sectile, or inlaid marble. Two of these show a tigress attacking a helpless bovine creature.

One of the remaining panels from the Basilica of Junius Bassus

One of the remaining panels from the Basilica of Junius Bassus.

One of my first tasks when I arrived in Rome was to lay eyes on the surviving panels—it’s always exciting to see something you’ve been working on and have only seen in books!

Me with the tiger panel in the Capitoline Museum

Me with the tiger panel in the Capitoline Museum

A major part of art historical research is to gather comparanda. Comparanda are materials for comparison, which may come from the same period or the same place, use the same materials, or display the same iconography.

On my hunt for comparanda this week, I visited a very well-preserved opus sectile room from Ostia, Rome’s ancient port. The room is installed at the Museo Nazionale dell’Alto Medioevo in E.U.R., Mussolini’s 1930s project for the Esposizione Universale Roma. The streamlined Fascist architecture of the outside of the museum gave way in the interior to a Late Antique polychromatic hall, every inch of which was covered in geometric or figural decoration in finely cut marbles.

One wall of the hall from Ostia, as installed in the Museo del'Alto Medioevo in Rome

One wall of the hall from Ostia, as installed in the Museo Nazionale dell’Alto Medioevo in Rome

This instance makes a useful point of comparison for the Basilica of Junius Bassus for several reasons. First, the hall is made of the same materials as the Basilica of Junius Bassus, but because it’s better preserved, it can give us an idea what the Basilica of Junius Bassus might have looked like when Bassus first built it. The Ostian hall at the Museo dell’Alto Medioevo is also from the same period and the same region in Italy. It even displays a very similar motif: a lion attacking a horse-like creature.

This panel is a close cousin of the tigress panels at the Basilica of Junius Bassus

This panel is a close cousin of the tigress panels at the Basilica of Junius Bassus.

Similarities between the Ostian hall and the Basilica of Junius Bassus let us know that the same group of artisans may have worked on these two projects. The patrons of these two buildings might have selected the designs for their halls using a pattern book, much like we would choose from a wallpaper sample book or catalogue when designing a space today. Together, the Ostian hall and the Basilica of Junius Bassus help us begin to form a picture of the way a fourth-century Roman patron fashioned the space around him.

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