The Nymphaeum Under Via Annibaldi: Garden Art from 2000 Years Ago
A hop, skip, and a jump from the Colosseum and six meters (approximately 18 feet) under the modern road, are the remains of a monumental ancient Roman water feature. What’s it doing there? Waiting for you to come down to its level and investigate the history of garden art, fountains, and elite Romans tastes at the end of the 1st century B.C.!
As construction workers dug to build Via degli Annibaldi at the end of the 1800s, they discovered traces of a nymphaeum. The Latin word meant “water feature.” A nymphaeum could be a real or artificial grotto, usually surrounded by gardens. They often referenced sacred landscapes and legends about the Gods–after all, they got their name from the nymphs or goddess who occupied bodies of water.
In the case of the Nymphaeum under the Via Annibaldi, a wealthy home-owner – indisputably one of ancient Rome’s jet-set – sat down with an architect, an interior decorator, and a fleet of landscapers to create a well-manicured garden, complete with at least one water-feature—the one that has survived! And he did so around 50 B.C.! The Nymphaeum’s decorations include different types of shells: small murex shells create architectural elements (like columns and a cornice), while large mussels reflect the light thanks to their mother-of-pearl interior. Completing the faux-natural effect are tufa and pumice fragments that were applied to the wall to imitate the rough interior of a grotto.
While surviving architecture from the Empire demonstrates that garden art and nymphaeum evolved, becoming increasingly more expensive, the Nymphaeum of Via Annibaldi is important because it documents an earlier, more rustic phase. The garden and its nymphaeum suffered during the fire of 64 A.D., when much of the immediate area burned. Damaged and partially buried by debris, the property was sold. It was then back-filled to create a new plateau on which to build. And the new plataeu that buries the water-feature probably belongs to the foundations of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea! At that point, the Nymphaeum was hidden from view and had became a time capsule, a buried fragment of an aristocrat’s playground…
This visit requires special permission with a timed entrance. Visits are limited to an hour. Besides the 4 euro / per person ticket, there is a euro 35 surcharge to reserve a private entrance. For more information, please see “the costs” section of this webpage.
The nympheum of Via Annibaldi pairs up nicely with the Colosseum (for its proximity), with San Clemente (for the underground theme), and with the Palatine Hill (with an emphasis on gardening).