Cupra Marittima, in the Marche region of Italy, is a sleepy seaside town today – but it was once a prosperous and powerful outpost of the Roman Empire.
Near the pristine beaches of the Adriatic coast are the ruins of the ancient temple of Cupra, where a new find has been unearthed. Archaeologists last week recovered parts of the temple’s 2,000-year-old frescoed walls and ceiling, painted blue, yellow, red, black and green and decorated with flower garlands, images of candelabra and tiny palm trees.
Finding ancient Roman temples with interiors “still covered in paintings” is “extremely rare”, said archaeologist Marco Giglio, coordinator of the research project at the site and professor at the University of Naples L’Orientale.
“It is the first time that the ruins of a shrine painted with such a wide palette of colors in such an incredibly well-preserved state – and with such rich and elaborate decorations – have come to light,” he said. in a phone interview, adding, “Once we have cleaned and analyzed the 100 fragments found and pieced them together, we hope this will give us a complete picture of what the temple once looked like.”
Fragments of colored walls recovered from the site. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
A red fragment is carefully recovered. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
Giglio hopes the discovery will shed new light on the engineering techniques used by the Romans. Studying the recurring decorative motifs of the walls can also help researchers better understand the local economy of the city.
“The chronology of the different styles and decorative elements could tell (us) a lot about the artisan shops active at the time,” he said. “And the designs and patterns could highlight whether it was the work of one workshop or many.”
Images of candelabras decorated the walls of the temple. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
Unusual painting style
The Temple of Cupra, built in the early first century AD, was the spiritual center of a strategically and commercially important city that helped the Romans control the Adriatic coast and its maritime trade routes. Excavations began in July and are being carried out by the University of Naples L’Orientale and the City Council of Cupra Marittima, which oversees the archaeological park where the ruins of the old town are located.
A fragment found with sky blue paint. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
Unusually, the newly discovered murals appear to have been created in the so-called Third Pompeian (or “ornamental”) style typically used to decorate wealthy households in Pompeii and Rome, rather than religious structures, according to Giglio.
It is believed that the ancient shrine had a sky blue ceiling, while the lower part of the temple walls were painted yellow. The red, black and yellow squares were separated by images of candelabras and garlands, with green bands of color running horizontally along the walls.
“Recovering intact ancient wall paintings like these is very rare. The painting is difficult to preserve over time due to the humidity, and it is also very difficult to dig properly during an excavation,” Ilaria said. Benetti, archaeologist of Superintendence of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of the Provinces of Pisa and Livorno in a telephone interview.
“The incredible state of preservation and integrity of the painted parts, and the extremely rich color palette used – in particular the brilliant sky blue and rosy red – stand out as quite exceptional compared to the traditional red paint normally used in ancient times, thus suggesting that it was a sumptuous sanctuary,” added Benetti, who is an expert in frescoes but was not directly involved in the excavations.
A floral motif breaks up a block of red. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
Giglio added: “The sky blue color is very rare for the ceilings, which leads us to believe that it was intended to indicate the vault of heaven and that the sanctuary was built to honor a goddess.”
Although the temple shares a name with Cupra, an Etruscan goddess later incorporated into Roman religion, archaeologists have yet to determine what cult was associated with the shrine. A large statue of a goddess was likely kept in the main cell for worshippers, Giglio said.
Over time, most of the temple was destroyed, although the podium and a staircase leading to the entrance survived. The rest of the shrine has been reduced to a pile of fragments lying one meter (more than three feet) below ground, where archaeologists began digging earlier in the summer.
Research on the temple began in 2015, following a partnership between the Archaeological Park of Cupra and the University of Naples L’Orientale. The temple will eventually be integrated into the larger site, which allows visitors access to the ruins of the Roman city. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
The temple underwent several drastic changes after its founding, which made it harder for Gilgio’s team to imagine what it originally looked like. In AD 127, Roman Emperor Hadrian funded a complete overhaul of the sanctuary as he feared it would collapse due to structural damage caused by aging or natural disasters.
To reinforce the structure, Hadrian would have had the painted walls chiseled out and covered with marble. This process pulverized the original stained sections, but they were then used as the base for the new floors. “That is why the recovered fragments were so well preserved, because their lifespan was indeed short, barely a hundred years,” Giglio said, noting that this detail supports the idea that Roman builders recycled the materials.
Hadrian then added nine-meter-high columns with ornate capitals, half-columns, and lion-headed roof drips, parts of which have now been found. He also built two brick arches which still flank the temple site.
One of the roof drips found on site. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
According to Giglio, Hadrian’s pagan masterpiece was then torn to pieces starting in the 7th century. The marbles and columns were knocked down to be used as building materials, while in the late 19th century the temple walls were demolished to make way for an abandoned rural house that still looms over the ruins of the sanctuary.
Fragments of the shrine lie one meter (more than three feet) underground. Credit: Marco Giglio/University of Naples L’Orientale
“The house was actually built incorporating part of the sanctuary walls, so we’re still trying to figure out if it’s best to restore it or dismantle it to recover the sanctuary in its entirety,” Giglio said.
With only a fifth of the temple site excavated so far, the archaeologist said his team had “only had a taste” of what was to come.
“Who knows what other decors, patterns and elements might appear?” he said. “It would be great if what we discover helps to understand exactly how a construction site operated in Roman times.”
Top image caption: Aerial view of the excavation.