A Story Told in Pieces

Architectural Terracottas from Minturnae

By: Valentina Livi

Originally Published in 2002

View PDF

At the dawn of the third century B.C., Rome was on the move. The upstart city on the Tiber was expanding into neighboring territories, leav­ing its imprint along the way. In turn, Roman civiliza­tion absorbed influences from the cultures it came to dominate during the centuries of its ascendancy. Threads of these diverse influences can be traced through changes in architectural terracottas, clay tiles that were installed to protect and embellish the roof and wooden parts of buildings. The terracottas that adorned buildings around the forum in the early colony of Minturnae reflect the evolution of Roman architecture — from its Etrusco-Italic origins through the second century A.D. — when terracotta eventually fell out of use.

The Roman colony of Minturnae on the Tyr­rhenian coast of ltaly was settled in 295 B.C. during a period of Roman expansion into Italic territories. Owing to its location at the crossroads of three important arteries — the Via Appia, which links Rome to the south; the Garigliano River, which flows through the internal regions of central ltaly; and the Tyrrhenian coast — the colony became one of the most important commercial outlets in Latium.

From the middle Republican age to Imperial times, Minturnae experienced remarkable urban development. The importance of the site in antiquity was suggested by the presence of a few significant remains where those three arteries converge. In 1931 a joint expedition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Inter­national Mediterranean Research Association began the first scientific excavation of Minturnae.


Minturnae is located 140 kilometers south of Rome, on the right bank of the Garigliano River (the ancient Liris). The colony was established after the destruc­tion of the local population, the Aurunci, and was intended to prevent incursions from both sea and land by the Samnites, another ltalic population.

According to the Roman historian Livy, Rome initially had difficulty finding volunteers willing to settle in this marshy and dangerous area at the extreme border of its territory. The only remains of the first settle­ment are parts of a polygonal limestone wall enclosing a small quadrangular area bisected by the Via Appia.

Around the middle of the third century B.., the colony expanded beyond the limits of this wall. A forum with a small temple and shops was built, enclosed at the end of the century by a new city wall. Traces of the foundations of the forum temple (17.85 by 8.68 meters) are recognizable, as well as blocks of tufa, a porous rock, forming part of the temple podi­um parallel to the Via Appia.

The temple bore the first evidence of architectural terracotta decoration in Minturnae. The rerracottas were found buried in a pit nearby and within a portico of later date. The building is generally thought to belong to Jupiter. statements by Livy suggest this, as he mentions a Temple of Jupiter at Minturnae that was struck by lightning twice, once in 207 B.C. and again in 191 B.C.

The terracotta decoration of the temple is in keep­ing with typical ornamentation of the Etrusco-ltalic tradition of central Italy (Etruria, Latium, and adjacent territories) from the sixth century to the first century B.C. A number of identical terracotta pieces were set side by side on the temple, forming ornamental friezes. The front of the temple was decorated with crowning cor­nices (simae) set on the slope of the pediment, consisting of con­cave, vertical elements (strigils), a plain band, and a rounded con­vex molding (torus). The crown­ing cornices were surmounted by perforated plaques decorated with whirls and ribbons and topped by pointed rods of bronze (meniskoi) to prevent birds from perching on them. The external parts of the wooden structure of the roof were sheathed with terra­cotta plaques decorated with rib­bons and palettes, and the architraves, the horizontal ele­ments set between columns that carry the roof, were adorned with diagonal palmettes.

Along the two sides of the temple, the only ornaments pre­served were painted eaves tiles, and these, unfortunately, are now lost. Antefixes — terracotta ornaments applied to the ter­minal cover tiles  were not recovered during the excava­tions, although their presence is assumed, as they were a standard part of Etrusco­ltalic temple decoration. All the pieces were brightly painted in white, yellow, red, green, and black.

A characteristic feature of this period was the presence of lead bars set horizontally and vertically in simae and in perforated plaques. Simae also had vertical flying struts used to fasten the cornices to the tiles.


The first half of the second century B.C. saw a new, monumental phase in the forum at Minturnae. Johnson attributed this renewed activity to a fire, traces of which were found in many parts of the site. Reconstruction included rebuilding the forum temple as a larger Etrusco-ltalic temple (18.6 by 17.8 meters) facing the Via Appia, perhaps a capitolium, enclosed On three sides by a portico with a double row of columns. The main forum activities thus shifted to the southern block.

The new plan of the Forum is a reflection of the spread of Hellenistic architecture in Roman cities; this is particularly evident in Rome with the erection of the earliest porticoes and basilicas based on Greek models. The complex at Minturnae, with its terracotta decoration, recalls the contemporary sanctuary dedicated to a specific cult worshiped in the temple itself.

The decoration of the new Etrusco-ltalic temple is similar to that of the earlier Temple of Jupiter, except the terracottas of the new temple are slightly smaller and there is some variation in the details. The frag­ments recovered represent the complete system of decoration, which included simac adorned with strig­ilated cornices, a plain band, and a torus, crowned by perforated plaques with whirls and figure eight motifs; revetment plaques decorated with ribbons and palmettes; and plaques with diagonal palmettes. On top there was an acroterion, a large ornament at the peak of the pediment, adorned with a palmette; the edges of the two lateral sides were decorated with antefixes representing a winged woman seizing a feline’s paws, called a “Potnia Theron,” (Mistress of Animals). The type of antefix found here is a reela­horation of Greek models, first attested in Etruria and Campania. The use of the Etrusco-ltalic type was widespread in Latium and in territories subject to Roman domination from the third century to the first century B.C. As elsewhere, the selection of the Potnia Theron motif for this temple does not seem to be dedicated to Aesculapius at Fregellae, a colony near Minturnae, dated to the middle of the second century B.C.. The Minturnae temple and portico were made of tufa blocks; the roof and architraves were decorated with terracottas, fragments of which were found exactly where they had fallen, incorporated into the concrete foundations of a later temple reconstruction.

The portico surrounding the temple had wooden architraves sheathed with plaques with a double row of palmettos, and on the sides of the roof were antefixes, with a winged satyr playing a syrinx (the typical wind instru­ment of the satyr), alternating with a winged female playing a double flute. These figures, taken from the Hellenistic repertoire, have been reworked by the Etruscan artisans.

Probably belonging to the same or a slight­ly later period as the Etrusco-Italic temple and its portico is an acroterion representing a winged Victory. This item was not found in situ, but in a sacred well that dates to a later period. The size and the angled cut at the base of the Victory indicate that the acroteri­on belonged to a small temple, the location of which is unknown. The figure is dressed in a red chiton that falls to her ankles and is tied under her breast with a narrow belt. Her large, opened wings are painted blue.

Unfortunately, her head and parts of her arms and legs are missing, but the remaining portion shows that her right arm was raised, while her left arm hung along her side, carry­ing the attributes of her divinity. The figure was filled with lead; it was fastened to the roof with handles and set on the peak of the gable with a lip cut at an angle. This example, one of the rarest types of terra­cotta acroterion (which generally depict pal­mettes or a Gorgon), clearly follows Greek models of Victory, par­ticularly the tradition initiated by Paionios of Mende. The Minturnae Victory testifies to  the Hellenic influences in the art produced in Rome and its colonies, and is in accordance with contemporary innovations present in Minturnae.


Around the middle of the first century B.C., the city was again ravaged by fire, which can be traced to the well- known raiding activities of Sextus Pompey along the coast of Latium. Re­construction occurred during the new colonization under Caesar or Augustus and marked the begin­ning of another important phase at Minturnae.

During this latest activity, the city was planned anew: blocks were redefined with new temples, fountains, and porticoes along the Via Appia, and with a theater, market, aqueduct and amphi-theater. lt was, in fact, not only a monumental architectural renovation, but a complete urban overhaul that took almost 60 years to complete.

At this point the city ded­icated a sacred well built adjacent to the Etrusco-Italic temple. Incorporated into it were a block inscribed with the word fulgur (thunderbolt) repeated on two sides, and some architectural elements of the buildings hit by lightning: capitals and drums of the Etrusco-Italic temple and the portico, and the acroterion men­tioned above. Frag­ments of architectural terracottas of the tem­ple and portico were found in the concrete foundation of the well. It is unclear whether the thunderbolt men­tioned in the inscription has any connection to the fire that occurred in the city during the same period.

The portico that enclosed the Etrusco-Italic tem­ple was one of the first elements to be reconstructed. The new building had travertine architraves dec­orated with stucco, and tufa column drums. Antefixes were decorated with a new motif: tall palmettes with a bud at the top and a volute at the bottom. This change in decoration reflects the influence of Greek models in Rome and marks the beginning of the decline of traditional Etrusco-ltalic decoration (which favors mythological or apotropaic figures). Nevertheless, there is no obvious close comparanda for this type of palmette, and it should be considered a local product of Minturnae.

The sacred area of Temple B, built a little later than the portico, occupied the east block of the Republican-era forum. This temple and its enclosing portico were built in opus reticulatum, a type of Roman masonry faced with a network of small squared blocks laid in diagonal lines and decorated both in stone and terracotta. The only architectural terracot­tas recovered from this area are antefix representing Potnia Theron, already seen in the Republican temple in the forum. The motif does not reappear after its use here. The modeling on the antefixes is sadly careless compared with the earlier tradition: the eyes are re­touched with the point of a styles, the chiton falls in rigid folds, and the tall hat bears no decoration. The fragments were found along three sides of the temple, thus making their attrbution certain.

The decoration of Temple B an its accompanying portico represent transitional phase at Minturnae, in which elements of the of tradition, seen in the use of terracotta and of typical Etrusco-Italic models, are mixed with new materials, such as limestone and travertine. During the reign of Augus­tus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), the Etrusco-Italic temple was completely renovated in concrete sheathed in limestone. The temple is the first building in Minturnae decorated entirely with stone, rather than terracotta. The terracotta fragments recovered belonged to the previous decoration and were “buried” in the temple’s foundations and the foundations of the sacred well.


The other new sacred build­ings from this period were also constructed entirely in stone. The use of terracottas continues but is restricted to the decoration of houses, baths, porticoes, monumental foun­tains, and tombs. Terracotta of two main categories appear: antefix and Campana plaques, both of which represent types cre­ated in workshops in Rome. The vast majority of antefix from Minturnae bear a palmette to which is added any of several dec­orative patterns on the lower por­tion of the pieces. The most com­mon types of addition are taken from the neo-Attic repertoire, such as a Gorgon’s head or a pair of dart­ing dolphins. Another pattern, two griffins flanking the palmette, makes a clear reference to Apollo and points to the principal role of the god in Augustus’ religious.

During the course of the first century A.D., there was a general and gradual deterioration in the quality of antefixes. The architectural terra-cotta decorations sport the same designs as earlier examples, but arc executed shabbily, pressed from old molds or retouched. Such carelessness is not universal, however. For example, a fragment from the portico of Building L, constructed at the end of the first century A.D.), is clearly inspired by contemporary models, but is on a larger scale with more careful stylization.

Campana plaques were also used, particularly from the Augustan age onward. (These plaques are named after Giant- petrol Campana, who in 1842 made the first study of this type of decoration as a specific figurative category.) Among the most common examples of Campana plaques represented in Minturnae are those displaying scenes of Erotes with dolphins and of a dancing Bachante. Both types date from the Augustan age.

A large number of plaque fragments portray a landscape along the Nile River, a theme particularly widespread during the Augustan age. The scene depicts a hippopotamus in the water, crocodiles, and a small boat paddled by two grotesque pygmies. On the shore are huts, one with a stork on the roof. The fragments were found along the por­tico of Building L, dating the type to the end of the first century A.D.


Urban renovation at Minturnae during the first part of the second century A.D. ­evidenced by the enlarge­ment of the theater, the building of new baths, and the renovation of the forum — does not include architectural terracottas. They are no longer used to adorn stone buildings in Rome or in other Roman cities.

The production of the architectural terra-cotta discovered in Minturnac occurs in two main phases: the first (third to first centu­ry B.C.), represented by the decoration of the Temple of Jupiter, of the Etrusco-Italic tem­ple and its portico, and the antefix of Temple B, is characterized by motifs taken from the Etrusco-ltalic reaper- I  toire, without any reference to the local artistic tradition, the Aurunco-Campanian. (This tradition is, how­ever, well attested in the sanctuary of the Goddess Marica, built in the sixth century B.. close to the city.) It should not be forgotten that Minturnae was a colony of Roman citizens, with strong political and cultural links to Rome, demonstrated by the construction in the heart of the city of a temple dedicated to the most important Roman god, Jupiter.

ln the second phase (first century B.C. to second century A.D.), concomitant with the growth and urban development of Minturnae, a decisive ren­ovation of the terracotta decoration is evident. This is due partly to the widespread use of the different types elaborated in Rome, represented by ante-fixes and Campana plaques. It is also due to the creation of new types in Minturnae itself. Some of these are of a high level of quality, for instance, the antefixes from the portico that enclosed the temple in the forum (second phase) and those from Building L, the latter clearly inspired by the Roman prototypes. Others, more poorly made, are imitations of Roman or Campanian models (elaborated more or less freely).

During the second century A.D., the use of archi­tectural terracottas ceased in Minturnae, although some types continued to be preserved and restored. Materials such as marble and travertine, which were more durable, precious, and available, replaced terra­cotta in architectural decoration.

At the beginning of the third century, Minturnae had so diminished in size that tombs were being constructed within the theater. The city continued to exist until the end of the sixth century, when the last few inhabitants moved to the nearby hill and founded the village of Trajectum. The original site of Minturnae was used as a quarry for the new town. Over time it was buried and forgotten until its redis­covery by fohnson. since then, the pieces of its story have gradually been falling into place, and the architectural elements of Minturnae have been both conserving and expressing their unique aspect of Roman civilization.

Valentina Livi, Rodney S. Young fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Museum for 1999-2000, is preparing a monograph on the architectural terracottas from Minturnae. Her archaeological research is mainly focused on Rome and Latium, where she has excavated and surveyed many sites. She is working on the excava­tions at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli (Soprintendenza Archeological per il Lazio) and is involved in the inter­disciplinary project of the Colosseum (Universitiá di Roma “La Sapienza”).

Cite This Article

Livi, Valentina. "A Story Told in Pieces." Expedition Magazine 44, no. 1 (March, 2002): -. Accessed June 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-story-told-in-pieces/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.