Finding Ancient Rome in London

I got the inspiration for this post from my post on Milan’s Roman heritage: it seemed like a good idea to explore Roman heritage closer to home. I’ve mapped out some of London’s most important sites on the attached Google map, but obviously could only make a few of them in one day!


On exiting Tower Hill tube station at one of London’s main attractions – the Tower of London – the remains of Roman walls can be seen close to a statue of Julius Caesar. The walls have been incorporated into many buildings and even car parks – they’re also remembered by the street name London Wall in the western part of the City.  We’ll meet it again later in the post!

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Just a little further along, and a western neighbour of the Tower of London stands the Saxon church of All Hallows by the tower.


Built in 675 AD, this is the oldest church in the city of London and built over the remains of a Roman-era home discovered only in 1926, and whose pavement is visible from the crypt.  The church describes this as:

the floor of a domestic house from the late 2nd Century. Consisting of plain red tesserae, it has a gully in it thought to be the position of a wall, showing plaster at the edges.


The crypt museum displays some everyday objects from the house, including lamps, bowls (some in great condition), writing implements and even the household shrine.



The atmospheric little museum also contains a model of the Roman city, built in the 1920s.


And appropriately for a church, there are fragments of burial monuments and tablets.



Peeking above that first picture of picture of All Hallows’ is the new Walkie Talkie building, only a minute or so away from the location of Londinium’s Roman Forum whose basilica was at the time the largest building north of the Alps.  The commercial theme of the forum continues into the 21st Century as it’s the site of Leadenhall market (which become one of London’s markets in  the 1300s).  And it also featured in Harry Potter and the Philiphosphers Stone as Diagon Alley!

There are no visible remains of the Forum or basilica above ground, although some of the basilica’s piers are apparently visible from below ground in a barbers shop!  While there’s nothing much to see now, the Museum of London have recreated the site in model format.



We’re also not far from a temple of Mithras discovered during building work in the 1950s but can omit that as it’s currently part of extensive city building work and will eventually reemerge as an exhibit in new Bloomberg offices. Again the Museum of London come to the rescue with remnants taken from the origianl excavation of that Temple. Interestingly, as the site was moved from its original location, archaeologists are now requesting that people forward old photographs to help them rebuild the site as authentically as possible.


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The gods above are Mithras and Serapis.  With the name of this blog, I couldn’t not include Minerva too.



On to the City of London’s Guildhall, home of the Corporation of London since the 12th Century. . Guildhall square is a gorgeous space but look at the elliptical black line around its edge – what it represents lies beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery: the remains of Londinium’s amphitheatre.

IMG_8976 IMG_8968 IMG_8953-0 IMG_8958 IMG_8965-0 IMG_8964-0The amphitheatre was only discovered as recently as 1988, and architects have incorporated it beautifully into the Guildhall art gallery. While it’s not the Colosseum, the scant remains of the site’s eastern entrance are beautfiully lit to give visitors an impression of what the site could have been like.   It’s even been used as a theatre in recent years.

Obviously, given their discovery dates, neither amphitheatre nor temple are featured in the All Hallows model above.

Moving on to the Musuem of London, which has provided some of the photos already in this post, there’s another sign of Roman London – in the street name (London Wall).  The museum itself has a Roman gallery showing wonderful exhibits of finds from across London – not just restricted to the city walls of Londinium, but venturing south into Southwark and much further.

Part of London Wall has even been integrated into the display – visible from the museum Londinium galleries. What’s displayed here is actually the round turret of a fort (to which the museum arranges guided visits) and located at the North western edge of the city of Londinium. One could just imagine the soldiers making the short walk from their fort to the amphitheatre for a day out!

Inside, as well as the representations of the Forum, basilica and Temple described above there is much more detail on how citizens lived and died, including models of the baths complex overlooking the Thames, and mock ups of a triclinium, kitchen and more.

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As with all the sites, many of the finds are quite recent, including a find of a Roman noble woman’s sepulchre (discovered in 1999 during excavations of Spitalfields market). The features of Its occupant – Spitalfields Woman -  have been reconstructed putting a face to at least one of the ancient city’s citizens.P1020857


And If you can’t get to see any of those sites, then there is always the wonderful cast court at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where you’ll even find a replica of Trajan’s Column.


then there are the Roman baths that aren’t….

Exploring Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle has been home to six English queens, and today is a major tourist attraction deep in the Kent countryside (the Leeds bit comes from the name of the area of Esledes recorded in the Domesday book).

It started life as a castle built by a Norman knight, Robert de Crevecoueur, who had accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066, and passed into royal ownership at the time of Edward I, where it remained until the time of Edward VI.  Its final owner, Lady Olive Bailie, left her mark by introducing black swans, and combining traditional decoration with a 1930s style.  It’s thanks to the foundation that she set up that so many of us were able to explore the site on an October afternoon.

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Inside the castle, the decor ranges from mock medieval to 1930s styles.  Here, the Queen’s bedroom reflects how a bedroom could have looked, with the cipher of Henry V and Catherine de Valois lining the walls.




Back outside, and there’s more to explore (whether by train or not!).

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Castello Sforzesco and Parco Sempione


Castello Sforzesco is one of the symbols of Milan, and its Filarete tower is a central landmark not that far from the Duomo. It’s currently fronted by the Expo Gate, as Milan prepares for Expo 2015.  (I should say that visits were across two days, hence the very different skies in the photos in this post!).

It’s not all original but let’s have a (very short) go at untangling its history.

The castle was originally built as a fortress by the dukes of Milan, the Visconti, in the mid 14th Century. The last Visconti duke’s daughter, Bianca Maria, then married into the Sforza family (whose scions include Caterina Sforza, and Duke Ludovico who brought artists including Leonardo da Vinci to the city) in the 15th Century and the castle passed into their hands after a short period known as the Ambrosian Republic. Invited to be the  new Duke, Francesco Sforza, made the decision not to reconstruct the castle, but that decision seems to be have been overturned, with the imposing round towers being built around that time.

The castle became the height of Renaissance sophistication (and that shows in the rooms that visitors can enter as part of their museum visit), but, like the Last Supper complex (also commissioned by Duke Ludovico), didn’t see its best days after the decline of the Sforza family. It saw use as a barracks, and was partly dismantled.  A major reconstruction project was undertaken by the city of Milan authorities at the end of the 19th Century: what we’re seeing as visitors may not always be original, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

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Much of the Visconti castle was dismantled, but just outside the current structure in Parco Sempione there’s a hint of it…

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The Filarete Tower is dedicated to Umberto I.

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Beyond the tower, with its representation of Sforza heraldry, and (above) Sant’ Ambrogio (the city’s Patron Saint, St Ambrose),  lie a series of courtyards, one of which (the Rochetta, with its square tower) acted as a fortress for Bona of Savoy, who was regent for her young son, Gian Galeazzo, between 1476 and 1480.  (That regency ended with her brother-in-law Ludovico assuming the dukedom).




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The castle now performs a similar function to Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, housing a number of museums and galleries that could take a day to roam around, including the Museum of Ancient Art, Furniture Museum, Pinacoteca and Egyptian museum to name a few.  We only had time to visit the first two – sadly the Pinacoteca was closed on our visit day.

It’s also home to Michelangelo’s last work, the Rondanini Pieta.

Outside, the adjoining Parco Sempione (which is viewable from inside the castle), may have hosted a Sforza menagerie. Now though, it’s been redesigned in the style of an English park. The Castello’s at one end, and the imposing Arco Della Pace (Napoleon’s take on Rome’s Arch of Septimius Severus) at the other, with other structures including the aquarium and the Civic Arena (shaped a bit like an amphitheatre and with impressive frontage pictured below).



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Milan’s Monumental Cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale)

Milan’s Monumental Cemetery is one of the city’s more unusual attractions. I’m not normally one for visiting cemeteries, but from what I’d seen online before our trip, it looked like a different and spectacular place to while away a morning. Opened in the 1860s, it has a Gothic sensibility in places, with highly decorative tombs. It’s filled with mini works of art: elaborate creations ranging from obelisks, mini house tombs (a modern take on the ancient Roman and Etruscan designs?), and the stunning Famedio (first picture), featuring some of Milan’s great and good. There’s even a couple of 3D representations of The Last Supper, including one in bronze pictured below.









The tomb above is probably the one I found most striking. It’s dedicated to a pilot who died during World War 2, and that’s a propeller in his hands, while a massive Medusa is clutching at his heels.  But others were more abstract…   P1020392a

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Finding ancient Rome in Milan

Throughout Milan, there are these intriguing little signs recognising the importance of Milan’s imperial Roman past (translation: discover Roman Milan).


Mediolanum (Milan of old) seems to have been founded by Celtic tribes (whose invasion of Rome led to the building of that city’s 3rd Century BC Servian Walls). It was the capital of Cisalpine Gaul (a reference not lost on Napoleon centuries later), and thanks to Constantine’s 313 AD Edict, responsible for furthering the cause of Christianity within the Empire. Diocletian moved the Empire’s western capital here in the late 3rd Century as a result of his introduction of the Tetrarchy.

A great way to explore the city’s ancient heritage is to start with the Civic Archeology Museum just a short walk from Santa Maria Della Grazie. They kindly provide a lovely model showing the city between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD. The city bears many of the hallmarks of a typical Roman city plan. But, Christian basilicas built by one of the four “Doctors” of the Early Church, the city’s patron saint Ambrogio (Ambrose), who had close links with St Augustine, also feature significantly on the edge of the city. That mixture is highlighted In the poster material describing a city of bishops and empire. Unusually for the Western part of the Empire, it also seems to have featured an unusual porticoed/colonnaded road.



The museum is based in two buildings – one an old church, and the second a newer building. The two are linked via a courtyard featuring the remains of an ancient dwelling and this well-preserved polygonal tower built into the visible portion of the city walls. The structure is likely to have been part of the city’s circus (looking not unlike Rome’s Circus Maximus and part of the city’s walls as shown in the picture from the model above).

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The courtyard also contained remains of a home, although there was no explanation of why it would have been built so close to the circus.

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There’s a lot more to see in the Museum, including detail on the city’s early Medieval heritage, and a lot more from Roman times, including funerary decoration and these tiles from the Bath complex.

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Further afield, it’s also possible to see the remains of the ancient amphitheatre, and we stumbled over the via Brisa site, which contains some very scanty remains of Maximian’s imperial palace. There were also Roman-era paintings on view among the masterpieces at the Pinacoteca di Brera, and sculpture from ancient times at Castello Sforzesco.

Later in our visit we visited one of the basilicas built by St Ambrose in the 4th Century – San Lorenzo Maggiore. It’s particularly interesting in that it’s fronted by Roman columns which may have been part of an earlier Pagan temple.


Sadly, the church’s bronze statue of Constantine was under scaffold (its original can be found in St John Lateran in Rome), and some of the best views come from behind the church (with the older portions in brick).

The oldest parts of the church had restricted access during our visit, but we managed to sneak a peek…

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And it’s not ancient Roman in age, but, inspired by Rome’s Arch of Septimius Severus, Napoleon built this: the Arco Della Pace.




It doesn’t feel fair to compare two such very different cities, but if you’ve ever thought that Milan’s all football, fashion and finance, hopefully this post will prove that (while it has all those), there are many other ways to gain an appreciation of the city

Cenacolo Viciano (The Last Supper): finding Leonardo in Milan

We’d booked our Last Supper tickets well in advance, and duly made our way to Santa Maria della Grazie to collect them at 8.15 on our Sunday in Milan.  The church itself is beautiful and we had a chance to have a quick look before our allotted slot.

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The Last Supper is based in the adjoining convent’s refectory (entered through the yellow building to the left of the very first picture in this post).

Contrary to what you and I may have been watching in Da Vinci’s Demons, Leonardo da Vinci came to Milan from Florence in the 1480s and 90s in the employ of Duke Ludovico Sforza. He seems to have been employed in the decoration of the refectory of the new Dominican Convent at Santa Maria della Grazie for over four years in the 1490s.

His innovative style meant that The Last Supper began to deteriorate relatively early on, while using the room for storage and stables, followed by World War II bomb damage didn’t help. It’s almost unbelievable to think that it wasn’t until the 1970s that serious thought was given to preservation. Today, the visitor enters and exits through an airlock system, with a limited number of visitors per 15 minute session (many galleries could benefit from this type of approach) to aid preservation.

Fifteen minutes were more than enough to appreciate this great work of art, and its counterpart, Crocifissione, by Giovanni Donato Montorfano, which rarely gets a mention. What we don’t see in posters and postcards is the decoration above the main painting, showcasing Sforza heraldry and more, and probably hand-painted by Leonardo.

Later in the day, we got the chance to explore the story of the painting further at the world of Leinardo exhibition near the Duomo. That exhibition creates many of the conceived inventions explored by Leonardo in his codices (which are on display at the city’s Pinocoteca Ambrosiana). This is combined with interactive displays and games to bring Leonardo’s world to life. There was a bit more explanation of the techniques used in the Last Supper, and a digital recreation of that and other paintings, allowing the vivid colour scheme to be reimagined.  Again, though no photos allowed there.

A day in Florence

If five days isn’t enough to do justice to all that Milan has to offer, then it was going to be even harder to get much more than a superficial view of Florence in a day. But we decided to give it a go. Having booked our Frecciarossa train tickets well in advance, and tickets for the Pitti Palace and Uffizi, we set out from Milan Central Station on a most unsummery Saturday morning at 8.15, arriving in a sticky Florence threatening rain just before 10.

We weren’t planning to see it until later in the day, but stumbled across the Duomo almost by chance – it’s a stunning creation, although extensive queues meant it was impossible to get to see inside.  Brunelleschi’s dome and Giotto’s bell tower were both great to view from outside regardless.

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(That’s the Baptistery wrapped in grey on the right in the picture above. t’s currently being renovated / restored so we couldn’t get a good look). IMG_4947

Moving on to the Piazza della Signoria, it would have been rude not to snap this iconic Florentine symbol.



Of all the statues in the square including that of Neptune above, the bronze Giambologna, equestrian statue of Cosimo I de Medici was perhaps the most overlooked. Although, thanks to our our Villa Medici tour earlier this year, we’d already been spotting the Medici symbols including the lion/ball combination in the Loggia Lanci. IMG_4949


Crossing the river via Ponte Vecchio, we made our way to the rather austere Palazzo Pitti, for which our Villa Medici Cardinal, then Duke, had abandoned Rome.


Palazzo Pitti dates from the late 1400’s and was originally the home of Luca Pitti, from a rival banking family to that of the Medicis. The family moved here from Palazzo Vecchio in 1549.  Nowadays, the Palace houses a wealth of museums including the Msueo degli Argenti (the Medici Grand Ducal Treasury), a Costume Museum, Porcelain Museum, Royal Apartments, Palatine Gallery, and the Boboli Gardens (which are home to the original of the obelisk that we saw in the Roman family villa).

Why royal apartments?  Well, Pitti Palace was the main Medici home until the family died out in the 1700s. Like Milan, Florence’s Grand Duchy passed into the hands of the Austrians, who took on the Grand Duchy of Tuscany title.  In time, the title passed again to the hands of the House of Savoy – and on Italian unification, Florence was briefly capital of the new nation (until Rome took the role in the 1870s), and the palace was the home to Vittorio Emanuele II.  His grandson later gave the palace to the nation.  That complemented the actions of the last female in the  Medici line, Anna Maria Luisa, who decreed that the family’s art collection remain in Florence.  Hence a treasure trove to explore.



Our first stop was the Musei degli Argenti.(Grand Ducal Treasury) containing everything from the stunning reliquary collection of Christine of Lorraine (wife of Grand Duke Ferdinando I – the ex Cardinal of Roman villa fame!) to silverware to jewellery.

And the Medici imagery came thick and fast,on ceiling imagery, and even in a wonderful tapestry that captured the family’s links with the French royal family.



The rain stopped in time for us to explore the Boboli gardens, sculpted to form a natural amphitheatre facing the palace, and affording spectacular views over Brunelleschi’s Dome.IMG_4711


We could have spent much more time in the gardens and museums, but we had a 2.30 slot at the Uffizi.  Florence’s Renaissance great and good greeted us on the approach…


Thankfully, we’d picked up our tickets at the Palazzo earlier, so there was no queueing involved.  Since July, there have been new rules for Italian State museums (which both today’s museums are), with one major change allowing photography (no flash or tripods).  I think it’s a trial that may be reviewed if it proves troublesome or distracting – it didn’t quite get to that level here, or in Milan’s Pinocoteca di Brera, but I’ll let you have a look at the Museum’s website to have the best available view of all the artwork!

And amidst all the great art, a great view (with much better weather than earlier) of Palazzo Vecchio, and a great reflection of the skyline, both taken from the terrace of the Gallery’s little café.


There was just time for another look at the Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo (even 5 minutes before closing it had a queue for entry) before heading back to Santa Maria Novella for the 6pm train that got us back into Milan for 8.