Snapshots of Work and Industry in Rome
Rodolfo Lanciani’s archive includes a number of images that document myriad aspects of labor and production in Rome across the ages.
In terms of food production, the fall of the Roman Empire and the consequent loss of Sicily and Egypt—the city’s traditional bread baskets—forced Rome’s citizens to increasingly rely on their immediate vicinity for food. Then, to make matters worse, between the sixth and ninth centuries, even the city’s hinterland became unsafe due to warfare and foreign incursions. As a result, much of the food eaten in Rome during the Middle Ages originated from gardens and pastures within the city walls. Already in the eighth century, farmhouses were being built in the heart of the city where temples and imperial fora had once stood. These practices endured as late as the nineteenth century, when shepherds still kept their livestock in and around the Roman Forum, which by that time was aptly known as the Campo Vacino (Field of Cattle). The sixteenth-century image by Dupérac, below. includes a number of shepherds and livestock enclosures in the Forum.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, many of the goods made in and around Rome came to public market at the Piazza Navona. The photograph below was taken after 1869 by which time the market was transferred to the nearby Campo de’Fiori. It depicts the piazza during a fair (fiera), but its appearance is not far from what it would have been during market time. Both Piazza Navona and Campo de’Fiori are centrally located and thus ideal for selling goods.
In 1575, Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni established one of the city’s principal warehouses of grain. In need of vast, covered spaces, the pope decided to repurpose a structure on the Esquiline that had been built by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) as an enormous bath complex or Thermae. (The Latin term later gave its name to Rome’s nearby train station, Termini.) Just over two hundred years later, in 1763, Clement XIII Rezzonico converted the space into a warehouse for olive oil, as depicted here below. The ancient building included a fourth-century domed space, which in 1928 became a planetarium and which is now part of the Museum of the Baths of Diocletian.
Such massive ancient buildings were ready-made for these tasks. Positioned as they were on the city’s northeastern hills, moreover, they were well above the flood level of the Tiber River and easily accessible to farmers and producers, who could thereby avoid negotiating the rest of the city’s winding streets and hilly topogaphy. This elevated plateau has been the logical destination not just for goods, but also for thousands of travelers and commuters arriving by train ever since the middle of the nineteenth-century and to this day. The image below is one of the earliest known views of Rome's main train station.
In Early Modern times, on the Janiculum Hill on the western side of the city, sources of fresh water were engineered for domestic consumption and for fanciful water displays at elaborately commissioned fountains, such as the Fontanone (Big Fountain) of the Acqua Paola, built in 1612 by Pope Paul V.
Perhaps surprisingly, these very waters were also commandeered by industry. Just upstream from the celebrated Fontanone was a paper mill owned by Count Giovanni Battista Sampieri. The building was designed in the first half of the eighteenth century by Carlo Melchiorri. The drawings in Lanciani’s archive demonstrate just how the intricate machinery converted water power to break down natural fibers into paper pulp. In one of his publications, the eighteenth-century artist Giuseppe Vasi made it clear that Sampieri’s paper was not his favorite. Eventually the mill closed and the building became a nunnery. Not is is part of the Istituto Cervantes, which promotes the study of the Spanish language.
The Tiber River itself was a source of renewable energy and it was used regularly to power mills of all sorts, including grain mills. A number of images below include these features along the River banks. Of particular interest is one image (the rightmost one, below) that details how the machines worked, from water paddles, to gears, to the grindstone.
Across the river, a low-lying area known as the Velabro was a crossroads for several populated areas of the city. There, a natural spring was tapped for a different sort of industry: laundry. The “Fonte di San Giorgio,” depicted below, was named after the nearby Church of San Giorgio in Velabro, was paid for by Pope Pius IV and inaugurated in 1563. Several such washing stations were found around the city; indeed, they had been frequent even in ancient Rome.
And, finally, a couple decades after the advent of artificial lighting in other cities, in 1847—under the papacy of Pius IX—Roman streets began to be lit with gaslights. The storage tanks for the natural gas that was used for this purpose were located along the northwestern end of the Circus Maximus, as shown in this period image. With this innovation, domestic, social and even productive life in Rome could stretch into the night.
Text by Nick Camerlenghi