The Basilica of Maxentius
The Basilica of Maxentius is the emblem of the Great Beauty. Illuminated at night is beautiful. The basilica of Maxentius, more appropriately than Constantine, is the last and largest civil basilica of the monumental center of Rome, placed in ancient times on the hill of the Velia, which connected the Palatine with the Esquiline. It is not part of the Roman Forum proper (although it is now included in the archaeological area that includes it, extended to the slopes of the Velia), but was in the immediate vicinity of it.
In ancient sources the basilica is remembered as Basilica Nova, or Basilica Constantini, or Constantiniana Basilica. The basilica was initially built by Maxentius at the beginning of the fourth century (308-312) and was finished and modified by Constantine I near the temple of peace, probably abandoned, and the temple of Venus and Rome, whose reconstruction part of the Massenzian interventions. Its function was mainly to host the judicial activity pertaining to the urban prefect.
Both the excavations and the plant of the Forma Urbis Severiana have shown that in this point an ancient utilitarian complex of the Domitian era arose, symmetrically opposed to an analogous one that stood on the other side of the Sacra via summa (widely tampered with during the excavations of the XIX century because it was mistaken for a medieval building). Part of this older building was occupied by the Piperian Horrea, the pepper and spice warehouses.
The correct denomination was soon lost from the basilica, and the colossal remains were known as Templum urbis. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century was he again identified by Antonio Nibby, who supported a lively polemic with Carlo Fea.
The fight competitions of the 1960 Olympics in Rome were held at the Basilica of Maxentius.
The construction scheme of the gigantic building (100 x 65 m), of which only the northern side remains today, had a wider and higher central nave (base 80 x 25 m). On the central aisle, instead of the traditional minor naves, separated by the central one by rows of columns, three large niches on each side, covered by a barrel vault with octagonal lacunars still visible in the surviving part. The rooms were connected to each other by small arched openings.
The central nave was covered by three enormous cross vaults in opus caementicium, about 35 m high, which rested on the transverse walls that separated the lateral rooms and on 14.5 m tall columns of procornesium marble, each one leaning against their termination. The columns are all gone: the only one that was still preserved in the seventeenth century was placed by Pope Paul V in the square of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1613, where it is still located. They supported a marble entablature, of which remains of the blocks partially inserted into the wall. The dimensions and the constructive system of the interior spaces are fully compatible with those of the great halls of the baths, which were actually called “basilicas”. The most enlightening example is the hall of the baths of Diocletian, later transformed into the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
On the short western side, at the head of the central nave there was an apse preceded by two columns. In the apse was placed a colossal statue, acrolith built partly in marble and partly in timber and gilded bronze, 12 m high. The statue originally depicted Maxentius himself and was later reworked with the features of Constantine I. Some surviving marble parts were discovered in 1487 and are now in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Campidoglio (Musei Capitolini). The head alone measures 2.60 m and the foot 2 m.
The original entrance to the building was contrasted to the western apse, on the short eastern side, preceded by a staircase. The entrance gave access to an open transversal corridor on the central nave through five arched openings. The entrance on the short side opposite the apse represents an arrangement that later became typical of the first Christian basilicas.
The original structure was later modified, including the opening of a second entrance on the southern side, along the Via Sacra, discovered in nineteenth century excavations. This second entrance consisted of a tetrastyle portico with porphyry drums, which was accessed by a staircase, built to overcome the difference in height between the via and the Velia.
The central niche
The central niche of the northern side, opposite the new entrance, was enriched at the same time with a second apse on the bottom, perhaps also intended to overcome structural problems, covered by a semi-dome and with walls enriched with niches designed to hold statues on two orders. The niches were framed by kiosks made up of small columns resting on shelves protruding from the wall. At the bottom of the apse was a masonry podium intended to house the court of judges. Intervention, usually attributed to the completion of Constantine, is probably to be considered later (probably around the end of the fourth century), as seems to prove the highest level of the foundations of the new apse.
The building was also equipped with numerous vertical connections: inside the wall on the north-western corner was a spiral staircase, of which today there are five steps; another must have been in the opposite southeastern corner.
How to get here
The Basilica of Maxentius is easily reachable on foot from the Colosseum metro station.
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