One of the best things to tick off on your Assisi wish list is to explore the part of the ancient city that remains hidden and mysterious to most of its tourists. Without detracting from the fabulous churches and buildings on ground level, a fascinating and extraordinary underground world exists in the city, yearning to emerge from the darkness and claim some well-deserved recognition. Every day a small section of Roman and pre-Roman Assisi is unearthed and the Domus del Lararium is one such recent find, with excavations and studies on this amazing site still on-going.
In 2001, during work carried out under Palazzo Giampè to install a lift, the remains of ancient stuccoes from Roman capitals attracted the attention of builders. Thorough investigations were carried out and what emerged from the basement of the building – where the court is located now – went beyond all expectations. The capitals were part of three columns measuring four metres high and dating back to the 1st century, when the Roman territories were under the rule of Emperor Nero. They were columns from the inner courtyard, also called peristyle, typical of a Roman domus (aristocratic residence). Given the shape and size of the peristyle, it was assumed that at least thirteen other rooms were built around it, a treasure that could not remain concealed. First a living room was discovered and immediately after a triclinium, a must-have furnishing in a Roman house, where much of its social life took place, eating and chatting whilst in a relaxed reclining position. Scholars came up against numerous obstacles, both economic and structural, whilst carrying out the excavations. The 17th-century buildings above the domus did not rest their foundations on the Roman walls and columns, as often happens, but simply on earth banks. The designers probably didn’t even notice what was under their feet when they laid the first stones. The domus has thereby been perfectly preserved over the centuries, but scholars were not able to bring it entirely to light due to the risk of collapse of the structures above.
Dogged by difficulties and delays, efforts continued and finally, almost ten years after the initial discovery, they were handsomely repaid. A bedroom or cubiculum emerged from the bowels of the earth, revealed in all its splendour. The room probably belonged to the mistress of the house, given the furnishings and the objects found. The bright red colour on the walls was very well preserved, interrupted only by refined cycles of wall paintings representing the nuptials of an enamoured couple and four elegant ladies who observe a fifth, intent on assisting the ablutions aided by a maid. On the ground, archaeologists found a number of hairgrips and an oscillum, a large talisman made of marble and half-moon shaped which, hung from the ceiling and swaying in the wind, was tasked with protecting the house and bringing good luck. The small sculpture was lying on a precious mosaic floor made of black and white tiles, split in two. The profiles of the two sculpted faces that decorated the half-moon no longer looked at each other. The talisman was probably broken in ancient times, having fallen to the ground during a sudden, tumultuous event that led the domus being evacuated at speed by its inhabitants. Whether caused by a water leak from a nearby cistern or something else, the inhabitants evidently had to leave their home in a hurry without the chance to rescue their belongings.
The theory of an impromptu escape is also evidenced by another element that is so characterful and strange for a site of this kind as to underpin its name. On the threshold of the cubiculum, on a small terracotta altar, was a small statue that remained standing for centuries. The altar was a lararium (shrine) – hence the name of the domus – and the statue depicted a ‘lare’: a Roman divinity whose task was to protect the house, the family and its activities. Nothing could have been more important inside a domus, so whatever led the residents to flee without first seizing the precious statue must have been just as important.
The archaeologists who entered the domus for the first time after two thousand years were able to relive that precise moment, as if it had been frozen, along with everything else, in space and time.