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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Quinto Sulpicio Massimo: the Child Poet who Studied Himself to Death

We've always enjoyed the eclectic frenzy of Piazza Fiume, at the juncture of Corso d'Italia and via Salaria, one of ancient Rome's consular roads. But there's a part of that eclectic mix that we've never understood: the jumble of "ruins" of various kinds on the north side of the piazza. Thanks to a morning newspaper, Il Messaggero, we now have a better understanding of what happened there, and when.

Looking through the fence (or over it) at the ruins, there's a statue of a small boy in a niche (above), with some writing to the sides and below, and below that, some large grey blocks of stone. You're looking at the tomb of Quinto Sulpicio Massimo (note the street sign with that name nearby to the right). Quinto was a prodigy, a boy genius, when at age eleven, in 94 d.c., he entered the third "Certamen Capitolinum," a contest featuring extemporaneous Greek poetry "readings." Rome's most famous poets competed--more than 50 of them were entered--but none performed so ably as young Quinto, who improvised 40 verses, no doubt astonishing those in attendance. Whether he won is not known.

Sadly, Quinto's career in oratory was cut tragically short. As the text around the niche explains, Quinto died a few days after the competition, weakened by "too much studying and his excessive love for the 'muse.'"

Quinto's tomb, and another beside it, remained intact for 2 centuries, protected from the barbarian invasion of 276 by the hastily constructed wall built under Emperor Marcus Aurelias' watch. According to Il Messaggero, his tomb was encased in one of the two towers of Porta Salaria.

Vespignani's Porta Salaria

You'll notice that there is no Porta Salaria. It didn't survive the cannons of the invading Goths under King Vitige in 537. Then (skipping ahead some 13 centuries), under the new Italian state, the Porta was rebuilt by Virginio Vespignani, only to be torn down in 1921 to open up the piazza. It was then that Quinto's story came to light: as Vespignani's work was being disassembled, workers uncovered the niche and statue--the "cippo"--that one sees today (although the statue is a copy; the original is in Centrale Montemartini, on via Ostiense).

The structures behind the tomb for many years housed the studio of sculpture Ettore Ferrari, who died in 1929. Among other large works, Ferrari created the statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de' Fiori.

Somewhere back there was Ferrari's studio.  

And one more "treat." If you walk around the corner to your left (facing the tomb), and look up at the wall, you can't miss the latrine--a toilet--hanging off the side of the wall (on its outside, of course). At one time there were 260 latrines on the Aurelian wall, serving the soldiers who worked in the
Convenient bathroom 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a very nice text, but I would like to make its authors – and anyone reading it – aware of several errors. The name of the boy is Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, here it is rendered in Italian.
Via Salaria was not a consular road named after a Roman magistrate (like Via Appia, Via Flaminia, Via Cassia, Via Aurelia etc.). Owing its name to the Latin word for "salt" (sal) it was the route by which the Romans provided this important commodity – which was harvested from the salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber – to the communities in the Sabine country and beyond.
There was no emperor – or any other Roman – named Marcus Aurelia. Aurelia is the feminine form of the name. There was a famous emperor named Marcus Aurelius (161–180), but he had nothing to do with the Aurelian Wall. The wall was commissioned by emperor Aurelian (Aurelianus in Latin), who reigned more than a hundred years later (270–275).
The Ostrogothic king's name is rendered Vitiges in English, Vitige is the Italian way of transcribing it.