After centuries of wear and tear Gaius Cestius pyramid returns to its white, ancient glory

After centuries of wear and tear Gaius Cestius pyramid returns to its white, ancient glory

Coming from the airport you might pass one of Rome’s most unlikely monuments the Pyramid of Cestius or the “Piramide di Caio Cestio or Piramide Cestia” in Italian, on the Piazzale Ostiense.
Caius Cestius was one of the seven Epulones (members of one of the four great priestly colleges at Rome) under Emperor Augustus. His pyramid shaped tomb has been a subject of speculation and mystery for centuries. First there was the odd shape, secondly the urn holding the ashes of Caius Cestius has never been found, perhaps it was stolen in the Middle Ages, and in addition the bronze statutes portraying Caius Cestius outside the building were lost as well.

Built of brick of and marble somewhere in between 18 and 12 BC this unusual pyramid shaped monument had really stood the test of time in the past 2000 years until years of neglect and traffic fumes plus the damage of weeds and bushes growing in between its enormous stone blocks managed to do what time and wars (before the restoration World War II bomb and bullet holes were visible) could not: to damage this ancient structure. Something had to be done to save the Pyramid.


It took a Japanese fashion tycoon Yuzo Yagi and his two million euro donation to kick-start this public and private collaboration to restore the internal and external areas of the tomb. The restoration required a mix of traditional and non-traditional conservation methods, including vegetation removal, marble facade protection, marble panel stabilization and damage prevention, and the construction of a handicap accessible wheelchair ramp.

The pyramid has a square base of 29.5 meters on each side (or 100 Roman feet) on a foundation of travertine and is 36.40 metres (125 Roman feet) in height. It was built in opus caementicium (ancient Roman concrete) covered with slabs of Carrara marble. Inside the tomb there is a barrel-vaulted burial chamber measuring about 23 square metres, built in the same way as the Egyptian tombs. Once the walls were adorned with frescoes, described in detail by early travellers (apparently Victories that bear offerings on ceremonial vessels), but the walls are now mostly bare and empty.


The pyramid of Cestius is the only surviving example of the Roman pyramids. Following Rome’s conquest of Egypt, a building hype of all things Egyptian led to obelisks and other Egyptian styled architecture in Rome (see also Retroblog Rome’s blogpost – All what´s left of Isis and Serapis is a marble foot). The larger “Pyramid of Romulus”, located in between the Vatican and Hadrian’s Mausoleum, was often paired with the Pyramid of Cestius (for a while even called the ‘Pyramid of Remus’, as it was believed that these two pyramids were the tombs of the legendary founders of Rome) until its demolition in the 16th century, the Romans needed the marble for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Between 271 and 275 AD, the pyramid of Cestius was incorporated into the fortifications of the Aurelian walls, which probably helped to ensure that this unusual monument survived and never got demolished. The pyramid was not (re)discovered until tunnel builders found it again under the rubble in the 16th century. In 1663 the Pyramid had been the object of excavations and Pope Alexander VII ordered the restoration of the four sides (to secure the heavy deformations of the cladding) by replacing 5000 marble shields, also commemorated in an inscription.

Later the pyramid of Cestius became part of the standard itinerary during any Grand Tour (traditional trip of classic Europe undertaken by the young elite). The tour generally included a visit to the peaceful green oasis of the Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery  as well, where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried. Oddly enough Shelley’s heart lies in St Peter’s Churchyard (Bournemouth, Dorset, England) because it refused to burn when Shelley’s body was cremated on the beach at ViaReggio. Shelley’s heart was passed on to Leigh Hunt who later gave it to Mary Shelley and his ashes were stored temporarily in the British Consul’s wine cellar in Rome before finally being buried in the Protestant Cemetery next to the pyramid.


A notable difference between the Pyramid of Cestius and the pyramids in Egypt is that Cestius pyramid is much steeper and more pointed. Could it be that Cestius and his architects got the angle of their pyramid wrong, or they may have been inspired by the steeper Nubian or Kushite pyramids, which were steeper and more pointed than the Egyptian ones? It is also plausible that the Roman builders, with no visual example to rely on, experimented with concrete to build more steeply. The pyramid was built, however, with locally known Roman construction techniques.

What we do know through the inscriptions on its walls that Cestius’ pyramid, near Porta San Paolo, was built in 330 days. The 327 days (75 days less than expected) of restoration may not seem much after some 2000 years in Rome and 10 years of study and research, but the result is amazing, better than I have ever seen it for a long time.

Via del Campo Boario
Piazzale Ostiense
00154 Roma
Metro: Line B stop Piramide
Bus: n. 23
Web: Official site of Piramide Cestia or Pyramid of Cestius in Rome

Can you handle S. Stefano Rotondo’s panorama of martyrdom in all its beauty?

Can you handle S. Stefano Rotondo’s panorama of martyrdom in all its beauty?

There is always some mystery surrounding the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo and I must confess that when I crossed the threshold of this fascinating place. Santo Stefano Rotondo is not only architecturally and archaeologically interesting because of its remarkable construction, but also has lot’s more to offer through the medium of its religiously tinted and deterrent imaginaries. I felt I entered a labyrinth of codes, secrets, and unseen truths similar to the ones Dan Brown creates in his books.

“The centre was a perfect shape of the octagon. The building looked like a holy sanctuary from the ancient world, eight cornerstones, three concentric circles and four large chapels in the shape of a Greek cross. The dome soared an astonishing seventy two feet overhead, supported by monolithic columns of probably pre-Christian origin. This building is a kaleidoscope of ancient history Early Christian, Medieval, Papal, Roman, astronomical, mathematical, and others yet unknown. A tiered gallery of frescoes, which zealously depict a panorama of horror and butchery in thirty four scenes of martyrdom, encircle the building’s walls. The dim glow of the window holes was aided only by a pale shaft of sunlight that filtered down through the windows in the dome’s upper walls to illuminate the room’s most startling feature a beautiful altar hewn from a block of polished white and honey brown marble, situated dead centre of the octagonal sphere” (text originates from Dan Brown’s book The Lost Symbol).


The Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo -St. Stephen in the Round- was built by Pope Simplicius (468-483) on the grounds of abandoned Roman military barracks Castra Pergrinorum on the Celian Hill. Under the church are the remains of a second century mithraeum. A mithraeum is a temple of the cult of Mithras, especially venerated by Roman soldiers at the time. Stefano Rotondo is the only early Christian Church with a circular plan (diameter of 64 m or 210 feet) still in existence today and was dedicated to St.Stephen. The original building was decorated with mosaics and marble, but unfortunately all the original decorations have been lost.

But there is more to Santo Stefano Rotondo than you might expect at first sight. The church is designed in the form of a Greek cross and three concentric circles of columns, similar to the design of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Santo Stefano Rotondo was probably financed by the wealthy Valerius family, whose estates covered large parts of the Celian Hill. They had connections to the Holy Land as well, and probably would have seen the Holy Sepulchre Church in reality. St. Stephen’s relics were reportedly found in Jerusalem in 415 and brought to Rome by the mid-fifth century.


In the seventh century the bones of St. Primus and St. Felicianus were supposedly moved from the catacombs of Nomentana to S.Stefano Rotondo and placed in a dedicated chapel. A large mosaic of a jeweled cross with St. Primus and St. Felicianus standing on either side can still be seen. The church also holds a tablet recording the burial of Irish king Donough O”Brien, son of Brian Boroihme, Ireland’s great national hero, who died in Rome in 1064.

In the Middle Ages Santo Stefano Rotondo fell into disrepair and at one point became completely roofless. Sadly the design was radically altered in 1450 by Nicholas V (1447-1455), when the outer wall and three arms of its Greek cross plan were pulled down, reducing the church’s size from a 210 feet diameter to 133 feet or 40,5 meters. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V entrusted the ruined church to the Pauline Fathers, the only Catholic Order founded by Hungarians. This is probably the reason why S. Stefano Rotondo later became the unofficial church of the Hungarians in Rome.
At the end of the 16th century, the walls were decorated with 34 scenes of martyrdom, giving a detailed account of every possible means of torture. Commissioned by Gregory XIII the frescos are intended to make the visitors realize how terrible the sufferings of the martyrs were, the horror of which no one can escape. The study of martyrs had also an educational purpose: it was part of the psychological preparation of the missionary Jesuits. What to expect when you go to non catholic countries to convert the people to Catholicism.


In similar fashion it allowed parents to show their children how the martyrs had suffered for their faith. Each fresco includes an inscription explaining the scene and giving the name of the emperor who ordered the execution, as well as a quotation from the Bible.

Not everybody liked the depictions. In his book ”Pictures from Italy” Dickens wrote in 1844: “To single out details from the great dream of Roman Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper.”

If you are interested in some beautiful and unusual architecture and think you can handle the “panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep” take some time out to visit this atmospheric gem of a church. It’s of another time and another world.

All what´s left of Isis and Serapis is a marble foot on via Piè di Marmo

All what´s left of Isis and Serapis is a marble foot on via Piè di Marmo

Wandering around Rome you’ll never get bored with history. On every corner there is something new to discover, or old, depending on how you look at it. If you are in the heart of the historical center near the Pantheon go to Via Santo Stefano del Cacco turn around the corner to enter and there it is. The gigantic marble foot resting on a pedestal, which gave Via Piè di Marmo (in English: marble foot street) its name. The foot was restored in 2011. Now largely ignored by most of the modern Romans, the picture could not have been more different in ancient times.

The foot is all that remains of a colossal statue in front of or inside a large temple complex dedicated to the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis and her consort Serapis. Isis was highly revered in Rome as a nurturing, life-giving protector and was especially popular with women. The complex stretched from Via del Seminario in the north to Via di Santo Stefano del Cacco in the south. The northern area contained the Temple of Isis, and the southern area the Serapeum. A public square surrounded by archways connected both parts.

cult-of-Isis-sanctuary-in-the-Campus-Martius-Rome Image source:

The worship of Isis and Serapis reveals a long and complex history in the whole Mediterranean well before a temple was devoted to them on the Campense Iseo (Isis) in Rome. Augustus, Tiberius, and the Senate made attempts to repress the cult as it was “being insufficiently subordinate to official control”, but later emperors, like Vespasian and Hadrian, were enthusiastic devotees.

The marble foot is only one of numerous Egyptian decorations found in or around the temple complex. The statue of a baboon or “(ma)cacco,” is presumed to be the name giver of the church where it stands today, Santo Stefano del Cacco and of all the small obelisks known to have come from this temple-complex, only two survived: one on Bernini’s elephant in Piazza della Minerva and the other in front of the Pantheon.


To get an impression of what the statue of Isis might have looked like go to the Capitoline museum and try to find Isis. The goddess wears a tunic with long sleeves and a mantle that covers the head and ends crossed between her breasts, forming the so-called “knot of Isis”. In her right hand she has the sistrum, a typical instrument of the religion.

Visit Rome on your laptop or smartphone through a 360◦ HD photography app

Visit Rome on your laptop or smartphone through a 360◦ HD photography app

Rome is just one of the world’s top destinations at your fingertips in the Arounder Touch an Iphone/Ipad2 and Android app that shows you different locations and places in the world through 360 degrees HD photography. The amount of places on offer is still somewhat limited, but the 360◦ photos are a great way to see Rome (Barcelona and other cities and sites around the world) from your laptop or smart phone.
Through virtual exploring you can time travel to a location from your couch, always useful if you’re planning a visit. Check out the other categories, like Shopping, Coffee, Bars & Pubs, and Restaurants, too. There’s the “nearby” button that will show your (virtual) location in the city and all the “must see” sights in the surrounding area; you can also create your own passport and share on social media.

For more Rome ( and Barcelona or other cities) go to the their website.

For more info on 360 degrees HD photography take a look at this video:

It’s time to watch Retrome’s first ever video City Love

It’s time to watch Retrome’s first ever video City Love


Retrome is a hotel brand that likes to do things a bit different. Have a look at what a weekend at Retrome means. “Retrome City” Love is our first ever video project and to launch it we want to give one of you the experience of a vintage style weekend the Retrome way.


During the first 24 hours after launching share the video on your Facebook wall and propose an alternative name for the film on our Facebook page. If you do both you could win a free stay in our Barcelona or Rome hotels, with as an added bonus a drive in one of these iconic cars, an afternoon wine tasting, and a dinner in a gorgeous vintage designed restaurant, all paid, by Retrome! See you there!

The digital glory that is Rome? The city of all time, and of all the world!

The digital glory that is Rome? The city of all time, and of all the world!

Without a doubt Rome is the city with the highest concentration of historical and architectural riches in the world. With over 16% of the world’s cultural treasures located in its historical centre, outlined by the enclosing Aurelian Walls, Rome bears testimony to almost three thousand years of history. Rome’s ruins and monuments may be crowded with tourists nowadays, but in its glory days Rome was the largest metropolis the world had ever seen. Imperial Rome was designed to impress. It was under the first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.- 14 A.D.) that Rome began to look like a world capital. With the completion of the Colosseum in 80 A.D. and Emperor Trajan’s massive Forum in 113 A.D. the Rome we know today comes very close.

Pliny the Elder wrote in 70 A.D. that Rome was constructed of “the most beautiful buildings the world has ever seen”, followed by the Greek Aelius Aristides who commented that Rome’s buildings with their marble structures “covered the horizon like snow.” With more than one million inhabitants, Rome had become the greatest marvel of antiquity according to many, including Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as the poet Martial whose epigrams are a valuable source of information on life and customs in ancient Rome. Martial witnessed the transformation of Rome from the conqueror of the world to its capital and eloquently wrote “Goddess of continents and peoples, Oh Rome, whom nothing can equal or even approach!”


“The most important technical advances in architecture during the Roman period emerged from the combination of concrete (opus caementicium) as a building material and vaulted forms of construction”. The arch enables wide spaces to be crossed by the use of the minimum of materials, thus relieving weight which would otherwise put an heavy burden on the structure. The consequence was a style best exemplified by the palaces or large Imperial baths of Rome. At the time of their inauguration, on the 22nd of June 109 A.D., the Baths of Trajan were the biggest thermal complex in Rome. Built for Trajan by the Greek architect Apollodorus the baths were certainly massive, 340 metres in width and 330 in depth, and probably used only by women in Trajan’s time.

The Pantheon is still one of the best preserved of the ancient buildings in Rome. First built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC, it was rebuilt twice after fires in 80 and 110 AD and completed by Hadrian in 126 AD. The Pantheon, with its marble porch, hemispherical dome and central oculus, represents the culmination of both the classic and adventurous style in antique Roman architecture aiming at shapes that dramatise the interior space.

If you wonder what Rome looked like all those years ago you can now watch a 3-D simulation showing Rome in 320 A.D. in a fly-through video of the entire city, street by street, monument by monument. The University of Virginia began the project ‘Rome Reborn’ digitally recreating and reconstructing nearly 7,000 buildings in Rome, at the time the emperor Constantine. Advice from a panel of archaeologists allowed experts to recreate buildings that are now almost completely in ruins, such as the temple dedicated to the goddesses Venus and Roma and the Meta Sudans, a fountain that stood near the Colosseum. “This is the first step in the creation of a virtual time machine”, Bernard Frischer, a leading scholar in the application of digital technologies to archaeological research and education, said about the project ‘Rome Reborn.’ “Archaeologists can add or change buildings or monuments as new evidence is unearthed, architects can explore the city’s sight lines and traffic flows and art historians can add details and information to buildings that have been scanned by other teams.”

The simulation starts over the Tiber River, proceeds past the Circus Maximus, turns north toward the Colosseum and nearby Baths of Trajan. From there we see the Temple of Venus and Rome, Basilica of Maxentius, the Theater of Pompey, and the Pantheon to return via the Capitoline hill and finish by descending into the Roman Forum.

Rome Reborn 2.2: A Tour of Ancient Rome in 320 CE from Bernard Frischer on Vimeo.

I end with the words of Martial the poet: “For you, O affectionate Rome, your people, and the nations subject to your empire, I utter this prayer: May such a ruler be ever yours, and may this one especially long reign over you! Blessings be upon your spirit, which is such as few have, and upon your character (…).For even under a severe prince and in bad times, you had the courage to be good”. His words don’t need to travel back in time, they still stand today, don’t they?