Opus sectile di Porta Marina-featured

The Opus Sectile House, l’Edificio con Opus Sectile, Ostia Antica

Author:
Brent Nongbri
Mundane Made Extraordinary: Marble “Bricks” in the Opus Sectile House

The visitor to Ostia who follows the decumanus to its end outside the Porta Marina and just beyond the old ticket office is rewarded with a view of one of the ancient city’s most colorful surviving buildings. The so-called “opus sectile house” sits facing the highway at the edge of the park. It’s not much to look at these days, but this seaside building must have been a truly beautiful space for the brief period of its existence. It was excavated between the late 1930s and the late 1950s, first by Guido Calza and then later by Giovanni Becatti. The excavators were able to determine that the edifice was under construction in the late fourth century but was never completely finished before it was destroyed by fire near the beginning of the fifth century. But the most striking thing they discovered were the many small panels of thin, colored marble (opus sectile) that had once lined the walls.

Figure 1: Fragments of a marble floral design as they were discovered by excavators.

Figure 1: Fragments of a marble floral design as they were discovered by excavators.

Figure 2: Fragments of the marble opus reticulatum brickwork design in situ.

Figure 2: Fragments of the marble opus reticulatum brickwork design in situ.


Scholars were able to reconstruct a complex polychrome opus sectile decorative scheme that covered the walls of the building. One of the main motifs isan imitation of a pattern of brickwork (called opus reticulatum) that is usually associated with the first century CE [Figure 3].

Figure 3: Detail of the opus reticulatum brickwork design, reconstructed

Figure 3: Detail of the opus reticulatum brickwork design, reconstructed

Its appearance here, in a structure of the late fourth century, is intriguing [Figure 4]. Among the panels’ decorations are detailed depictions of lions attacking prey and an image of the head of a bearded figure with what looks like a halo, which is sometimes identified as Jesus and sometimes as a late antique philosopher or holy man. In addition to the mystery of the decorations, the use of the building is also a subject of dispute among scholars. Was the space primarily a residence? Or was it a guild hall?
Figure 4: Detail of the hunting lions, and the Jesus/philosopher figure, reconstructed

Figure 4: Detail of the hunting lions, and the Jesus/philosopher figure, reconstructed

To get a sense of how impressive this place was, you need to take a little detour on your way back to Rome from Ostia and get off the train at EUR. There you will find the Museum of the High Middle Ages, in which the opus sectile decoration of the interior walls has been beautifully reconstructed. If you can’t make it there have a look at the video below, which digitally places the decorations back into the extant remains to help us imagine what must have been one of the more colorful buildings along the Ostia’s ancient coast.


Video animation by Gerard Huissen, Roman Ports
About the Author: Brent Nongbri is a visiting professor at Aarhus University. He has published on the synagogue at Ostia and the history of excavations at the site.

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