Palilia 24: Johannes Lipps, The Basilica Aemilia on the Forum Romanum. The building and its ornamentation in imperial times (Dissertation, Cologne 2008)

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The Basilica Aemilia, the subject of this study, consists of a basilica fronted by a portico and shops. Its location, scale, and decorative elements make it one of the most important surviving structures of the ancient city of Rome. In comparison with most other ancient buildings, especially in the Forum Romanum, it is particularly well preserved, and therefore of special scholarly importance. Yet historically it is an understudied building, and the little work which has taken place has barely been published.
The present study has identified and documented the majority of the surviving ornamental architectural fragments from the Imperial phase of the Basilica Aemilia. The aim has been to form a complete picture of the available evidence, and this has made it possible to understand the building in unprecedented detail. Due to the complexity of the evidence from the Forum Romanum, a special method was developed to create a critical catalogue of the core material. The architectural elements that form the basis for this study were divided into discrete series of fragments that certainly, probably, or only possibly belonged to the building, so as to avoid premature conclusions in the interpretation of the evidence.
To begin with, the objective was to analyse the ornamentation of individual architectural elements according to their technical characteristics, placement and workmanship thus to draw conclusions as to the reconstruction, chronology, and construction history of the building complex as a whole.
The Basilica consisted of a nave with a surrounding aisle and an additional, narrower aisle on the north side. It was defined by an outer wall and had at least two storeys supported by columns. The ground floor colonnade employed the Ionic order, while the Corinthian order was used for the upper storey. The interaxials of the upper colonnade were narrower, by a factor of three quarters, than those on the ground floor. On the lower floor the walls were faced in marble and decorated with no more than an architrave, in contrast with the rich interior decoration of the upper storey, where the walls were adorned with bases, pilasters, and capitals, and an entablature protruding above the pilasters. On each floor several sets of functionally equivalent but iconographically distinct structural elements were used; these sets can be assigned to different parts of the building.
The portico overlooking the open space of the Forum had a single storey and was crowned by a protruding attic. The façade was defined by arches supported by piers which incorporated superimposed half-columns. The ends of the portico were enclosed by walls, though at the west end there were doors which pierced the wall. The east end of the portico was defined by a protruding façade which perhaps merged with an arch spanning the Via Sacra. The portico had a hybrid order featuring Doric, Tuscan, and Ionic elements. The same pattern was repeated, with the exception of the console, in the interior space of the portico as panelled wall decoration, although the constituent elements of the interior entablature were compressed in comparison with the exterior façade.
Whether the surviving rinceaux, piers and capitals formed a separate storey of piers between the upper and lower storeys of the basilica, as Heinrich Bauer has proposed, or whether they should instead be assigned to a pergola on the roof of the portico, cannot be determined with any absolute certainty. On the basis of the available evidence, however, it does seem that the hypothesis of an intermediate storey is the more plausible. The oriental statues probably stood on the protruding entablature of the lower order in the nave of the basilica. In the case of the remaining architectural fragments – of pilasters, decorative shields (clipei), and coffered ceilings – examined in this study, it is not possible to determine whether they should be assigned to the building or not.
The entire building complex, as it now appears in the ground plan which survives to this day in the Forum, was built in a single construction phase in the Augustan period. This dating is based on an inscription honouring Lucius Caesar set up between 2 B.C. and A.D. 14. There is also a probable connection between the archaeological remains and a reference in Cassius Dio which states that the building had to be rebuilt after a fire in 14 B.C.
The architectural remains attributable to this phase reveal an extreme variation in the typology and workmanship of the individual decorative elements; from this it is clear that to date the architectural ornamentation on the basis of typology and style, with the aim of establishing a chronology that is accurate to within a few years, is fundamentally impossible. It is rather the case that forms which have generally been labelled as Early Augustan appear to date from the same period as others which have until now been understood to be Late Augustan or Tiberian.
Imperial period interventions which entailed the production of new architectural elements can be found in two parts of the complex. The first intervention took place in the latter 1st century A.D., probably in the time of Nero or Vespasian; this involved the replacement of several architectural elements – bases, columns, capitals and architrave blocks – in the eastern section of the long colonnade on the north side of the basilica on the ground floor. This was probably a controlled restoration carried out without dismantling the building as a whole. Possibly this took place in relation to the construction of the Templum Pacis, which adjoins the building on the north side. The second intervention involved the replacement of a metope on the Doric frieze belonging to the façade of the portico facing the Forum. The scale of this intervention cannot be determined with any certainty, but on the evidence of the surviving architectural fragments it is best to assume only minor repairs. This work likewise took place in the latter 1st century A.D., perhaps at the same time as the renovation of the basilica. Aside from what has just been mentioned, no further Imperial period reconstruction measures can be identified on the basis of the material evidence. Not until the time of the tetrarchs are major restorations again attested, in the form of brick walls. The hypothesis that there were repairs resulting from a catastrophe in the Forum which is known from the literary sources and which occurred at some point between the Augustan and tetrarchal periods finds no confirmation in the archaeology.
In this study of the Basilica Aemilia it has proven possible to differentiate the ornamentation of the original Augustan plan from decorative elements developed by the workmen during the course of construction. Detailed analysis of the surviving fragments allowed conclusions to be drawn in relation to the planning and construction process. Thus it was possible to distinguish between different groups of stonemasons who undertook varying degrees of preparatory work on the individual, made-to-order building blocks which were laid out on the ground, or put the finishing touches on the ornamentation once the blocks had been set in place. Posting groups of workers to pre-determined areas of the building or individual masons to particular sections made it possible to calculate and evaluate workers’ performance. As with many other Roman buildings the original plan was frequently modified during construction.
On the basis of numerous observations it has also been possible to show that the selection and placement of the various decorative bands were planned in detail and imposed on the masons as part of a binding blueprint. Yet there often were no specific instructions as to the details of iconography or the finishing of the decorative elements. Apparently, the decision to craft the ornamentation in a generally uniform manner, as with the upper floor of the basilica, or less so, as with the basilica’s lower storey, rested with the craftsmen or groups of craftsmen who carried out the work.
The iconography of Augustan building blocks was the model for the ornamentation of blocks added as part of subsequent interventions. There is remarkably little variation in the details of the iconography. Significant differences are only visible in the standard of execution.
Using the reconstruction and findings relating both to the chronology and to the planning and construction process of the building complex, it was possible to pose questions relating to the use and meaning of the architectural decoration. Although it is impossible to appreciate the full spatial impact of the building as it existed in antiquity, nevertheless is it clear that the decoration was used to mark out different areas of representational space within the building. Several strategies were used, for example the conscious use of different materials or variation in the volume of ornamentation, which in places was specially worked to take account of the view from below. One purpose of all this was to invite the viewer to contemplate the function of the building in conjunction with its decorative splendour, and in this there can be no doubt that the highlight of the complex was the basilica’s central nave. In addition it would seem that efforts were made to integrate the basilica and portico with their respective and different urban settings. In order to do this, the decorative forms used on the portico and basilica were designed according to differing conceptual frameworks. The architecture of the portico was defined by arches and archaizing forms; it was embedded in the Forum, enhanced its uniform monumentality, and underlined its dignitas. The basilica was an enclosed and self-contained space, a theatrical stage for the display of contemporary decorative forms and innovations in architectural design.