Ancient house, open prayer room at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome

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ROME (AP) — One of the most spectacular examples of ancient Roman baths, the Baths of Caracalla, just got more spectacular. Authorities in Rome opened to the public on Thursday a unique private house that stood on the site before the baths, with a frescoed ceiling and a prayer room honoring Roman and Egyptian deities.

The two-story house, or “domus”, dates from around 134-138 AD, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It was partially destroyed to make way for the construction of the public baths of Caracalla, which opened in 216 AD. The site is now a major tourist attraction for the multi-tiered brick remains of the Imperial Roman baths, libraries and gymnasiums and the marble mosaics that decorated the floors.

The house, which would have belonged to a wealthy family of merchants given the quality of the frescoes, therefore represents what was on the same site before the baths and shows how the city evolved in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Daniela Porro , Rome’s superintendent archaeologist, said at the opening.

The ruins of the domus were first discovered in the mid-19th century about 10 meters (yards) below the current ground level of the baths. They were excavated about a century later, with the inner prayer hall and fragments of the frescoed dining hall ceiling removed for restoration and preservation.

The prayer hall had been briefly on display but has been closed to the public for 30 years. It reopened on Thursday alongside some of the never-before-seen ceiling fragments that feature images of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and agriculture, using precious Egyptian blue and cinnabar red pigments, restorers said.

“The type of subject and the peculiarity of the painting are unique in the Roman panorama of Hadrian’s time” during the construction of the domus, said Mirella Serlorenzi, director of the Caracalla site.

The inner temple features images of the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on one wall, and silhouettes of the Egyptian deities Isis and Anubis on other walls, evidence of the religious “syncretism” – the mixing of different belief systems – that was common in Roman public monuments but not in domestic monuments of the time.

“It’s the first time we find something like this in Rome, but also in the world because it’s not like there are many,” Serlorenzi said.

She noted that what experts know of Roman-era painting comes mainly from the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii near Naples, which were destroyed and their remains preserved under layers of volcanic material during the eruption. of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

“So Roman painting after the 1st century AD has remained a mystery because we just haven’t had such well-preserved pieces up to the ceiling,” Serlorenzi said.

The domus exhibition, entitled “Before the thermal baths: the house where the gods lived together”, is now an integral part of Caracalla’s itinerary.

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