In 2010, archaeologists exploring a garden on Rome’s Capitoline Hill discovered the remains of an ancient votive deposit, a pit full of broken objects that had once been consecrated to the gods: offerings, pieces of architectural decoration, things too holy simply to throw away without risking a curse. Instead, the Romans buried their sacred objects on sacred ground, in this case the precinct of the ancient city’s most famous temple, the shrine of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Jupiter Best and Greatest, master of thunderbolts and king of the gods. The votive deposit’s latest contents dated roughly from the time of Hannibal, that is, the third century BCE, but some of the sacred debris ranged as far back as the sixth century, when tradition holds that Rome was ruled by a series of Etruscan kings.
The first of these Etruscan rulers (the fifth king in all), Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (known in English as Tarquin the Elder), gave the city its first real urban form, by installing the sewer known as the Cloaca Maxima to turn a low-lying swamp into the Roman Forum, building the Circus Maximus, and initiating construction of a huge temple on one of the Capitoline’s two summits, dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno, and Minerva (as an Etruscan, he would have called them Tinia, Uni, and Menrva). Work on the huge project continued under the reign of the king’s son and eventual successor Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), but the Capitoline temple was inaugurated, at least according to Roman legend, only after a group of senators had deposed the arrogant king and set up a republic, traditionally in 509 BCE. Some of the temple’s imposing stone terrace still survives from the sixth century, but the structure that terrace supported is long gone, three times destroyed by fire (in 83 BCE, 69 CE, and 80 CE) and three times rebuilt in stone rather than the original materials of wood, mud brick, and terracotta.
Remnants of the last version of the temple were still visible in the early Renaissance, but a later structure, the sixteenth-century Palazzo Caffarelli, eventually covered them over. In the absence of more substantial clues to its appearance, the temple’s form and size have been debated for some five hundred years. Did it have three chambers, one for each divinity, or a central chamber flanked by two “wings”? (Until the advent of modern archaeology, the answer depended on which manuscript of the ancient architectural writer Vitruvius one happened to be reading: some copies reported that the Capitoline temple had alae, “wings,” whereas others read aliae, “other” rooms.) Did the building itself occupy the whole of its vast terrace, or only a part? The finds of 2010, which included shattered fragments of terracotta…
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