Author: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.
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].
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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