The Arch of Septimius Severus tells its story. Special maintenance and repair work underway

Online event

5 April 2021 - 9 October 2021


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At the beginning of April, our technicians officially began the special maintenance and repairs to be made to the Arch of Septimius Severus.

The arch was dedicated by the Senate in 203 AD to the emperor Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta, in celebration of their two military campaigns against the Parthians. Its location in the northwest corner of the Roman Forum, at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, was specifically chosen so that the monument would occupy an elevated position, at the terminus of the Via Sacra.

Built in travertine and brick masonry and clad in Proconnesian marble, the arch stands 26.42 m high, is 23.27 m wide and 11.20 m deep. The arch consists of three fornices (vaulted archways) framed by four detached composite columns that rest on high sculpted piers. The arch’s dedicatory inscription, originally displayed in bronze letters, appears on its attic and bears traces of the damnatio memoriae ordered by Caracalla against his brother Geta. Atop the attic, a bronze sculptural group once faced the Forum; although now lost, images of the bronze sculptures have been passed down to us on ancient coins.

The entire monument is a celebration of the victories of Septimius Severus and his family against the Parthians, an ancient Persian people. The prisoners of war depicted on the plinths, the Victories flanking the central archway, the personifications of the rivers in the minor archways and especially the scenes of the two military campaigns depicted on the 4 panels on each face of the attic, beneath which runs a frieze with figures carved in extremely high relief: these are all carried out in a decorative style that makes great use of the chiaroscuro effect achieved through the sculptors’ use of hand drills. The references for the scenes in the 4 large panels, meant to be read from the bottom up (just like the friezes on narrative triumphal columns), were most likely the paintings sent by Septimius Severus in preparation for his triumphal procession, which however never took place on account of an attack of gout that left the emperor unable to stand in his carriage. The viewer therefore has the impression of standing before a series of tapestries “glued” to the arch’s faces.

In the middle ages, the monument assumed the role of tower-fortress, part of the Frangipane family’s vast defensive system. Freed from all adjoining structures and other hindrances in the early 19th century, it was subject to a series of important excavations and restoration projects between the late 1800’s and the mid-20th century. Some of the last and most extensive restoration projects were carried out in the 1980’s and 90’s. In 2011, urgent work was necessary after several marble fragments became dislodged and fell from the arch.

Now and for the next 7 months, a special maintenance project is underway which will ensure the continued protection of the monument’s surfaces on the side facing the Capitoline. The first phase consists of a diagnostic campaign through which technicians will fully assess the state of conservation of the arch’s constituent materials and of the monument as a whole. Preliminary operations will include the disinfection of colonies of microorganisms and elimination of invasive vegetation. At the same time, the monument’s surfaces will be pre-consolidated to ensure that the following steps can be carried out safely. The next step will be to remove surface deposits and then consolidate the stone and secure those parts of the arch at risk of breaking off and falling. In a small area of the monument, restorers will restabilize the marble’s cohesion through an experimental bio-consolidation method that makes use of carbonatogenic bacteria, as part of the wider PArCo-GREEN project. The removal of black pollutant particles, concretions and incrustations will all be carried out through laser technology. Finally, restorers will study the best protective agent to safeguard the monument’s surfaces against airborne pollutants and other harmful atmospheric agents.

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