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Temple of Portunus

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as, Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome. Speakers: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] Almost all of the surviving ancient monuments in Rome are from the Empire. One of the very few monuments that dates back to the Republic is the temple to Portunus. - [Beth] So this temple dates to about 75 BCE. The Republic will end in 27 BCE, when Octavian is named Augustus by the Roman Senate and becomes the first emperor of Rome. - [Steven] This is a small temple and it survived because it was turned into a church when Rome became Christian. This building is very close to the river Tiber, and its name, Portunus, refers to the God of the harbor or the God of the port. And it's important to remember that the modern embankments of the Tiber are just that, and in the ancient world, it was a much more gradual slope down to the river. - [Beth] We might look at this and immediately think this looks like an ancient Greek temple like the Parthenon, for example, in Athens, and certainly the Romans were looking at ancient Greek architecture, but they didn't have to go to Greece to see it. They could see it in the south of Italy where there were Greek colonies, for example, at Paestum. - [Steven] And while the Romans were clearly interested in Greek architecture, they were also interested in the architectural tradition of the ancient Etruscans. So let's take a look at this building and see if we can identify what the Republican Romans are borrowing from the Greeks, and what they're borrowing from the Etruscans. - [Beth] And by borrowing from both of those sources, turning this into a truly Roman building. - [Steven] So when we approach the building from its front, we see at the top a pediment, and that's a stylistic element that is shared by both the Greeks and the Etruscans. - [Beth] This building clearly has a front, whereas ancient Greek temples don't. There was generally a staircase that went all the way around and columns, that is freestanding columns, that went all the way around. - [Steven] Here instead, what we have is a very high podium. That is, the building is raised up quite high and the only staircase is at its front, so that the Etruscans, and here the Romans, are really dictating the way that we're approaching this building. Rising high above that central staircase are Ionic columns. This is a style that originated in the Greek region of Ionia. And we can identify the Ionic not only by the very deep flutes, those tall indentations that run the entire course of the shaft of the column, but also in the fact that they have feet and that they have volutes, that is scrolls, at the top. - [Beth] Another Ionic feature is the continuous frieze that runs around the building. So, whereas in a Doric temple, that frieze would be interrupted by triglyphs and metopes, here we have a continuous band that once had relief sculpture in it, and you can just see a little bit of it that's left that shows candelabra and garlands. - [Steven] Now the porch itself is very deep and this is actually an Etruscan feature. But the Etruscans would have actually extended the walls of the temple forward, and that does not happen here. - [Beth] Here we have six completely freestanding columns. And interestingly, when you stand in the very front or just the side of the building and you look across it, it looks as though there are freestanding columns down both sides, but when you go to the side of the building you can see that the columns are in fact attached. - [Steven] And this is very much a characteristic of Roman architecture. The Greeks were very concerned that the beauty of the building come in large part from the exposure of its structural system, but here the roof, at least in the back half of the building is being held up by the wall. You could remove the decorative columns and the roof would stand up. - [Beth] So that the attached columns here are not part of a post and lintel system of architecture, but they're purely decorative. And so we have an emphasis on an interior space instead of the Greek idea of a temple where it stands much more like a work of sculpture, in a way, in the landscape. - [Steven] So when this building was originally in use, when it was new, the building was gleaming white and would have looked, at first glance, as if it was marble, the material that the Greeks favored. But in fact, it's made out of two local materials: Roman tufa, and that's that kind of brownish stone that makes up the walls and the interiors of some of the engaged columns. And the white stone is called travertine. And that comes from nearby quarries in the town of Tivoli. - [Beth] There's a third important material that the Romans are using here, and that's concrete, which they're using for the base, or the podium of the building, because concrete could support an enormous amount of weight. Concrete is a really important material for the Romans. They perfected its use to develop enormous spaces like the Pantheon or like the Basilica of Maxentius. But we should also note that the walls, although of tufa, were covered in plaster so that they too would have been gleaming white and might've been mistaken for marble like the Greek temple. - [Steven] This building really is the synthesis of Greek and Etruscan architecture. And so this is a very instructive building to show us where the Romans were looking as they were developing their own architectural vocabulary. (jazzy piano music)