In the Campagna countryside (as it was then, although less than three miles from the walls of Rome and the Porta San Giovanni) rises an artificial hill named Monte del Grano = Mountain of Grain, so-called as it resembled an overturned bushel of grain. The peasants believed that the grain had been turned into earth as divine punishment because it had been harvested on a Sunday. And indeed the conical mound was an odd feature in the landscape: it is clearly marked on a map dated 1547, drawn by Eufrosino della Volpaia, a clockmaker and inventor of astrolabes and, this being the Renaissance, also a practicing architect and skilled cartographer.
Soon afterwards, it attracted the interest of Roman antiquarians, who recognized it as a sepulchral monument of the same type as the Mausoleum of Augustus and Tomb of Hadrian (now better known as Castel Sant'Angelo). In fact, Monte del Grano comes third after those tombs in size and magnificence. It, too, was once covered with slabs of travertine marble (similar to the stone-facing on the Egyptian pyramids, from which the Roman mausolea descended). These blocks disappeared long ago: a late medieval document (1387) grants a certain Nicolò Valentini the right to take the stones and burn them to make lime.
In 1582 the antiquarians began excavating the hill.
They soon brought to light a corridor more than 60 feet long (21.5 m). This led into a vaulted burial chamber, with a diameter of 30 feet (10 m). The chamber was once divided into two levels by a vault, now collapsed, where the remains of the supporting pillars can still be seen.
Air and light filtered into the tomb from two oblique skylights. At least one skylight had been plugged with a huge circular block of travertine, carved with a giant 12-rayed star (this was last seen in 1926).
More and more bits disappeared over the years.
Around 1750, in one of his famous 'Views of Rome', Piranesi drew a plan and a section of the mausoleum. This shows a ring-shaped corridor leading to two other access corridors and a stairway that led to an underground room. Recent excavation (1991) does not confirm his reconstruction, but, all the same, it is a charming, romantic drawing.
What Piranesi's plan misses entirely is the outer sections of the tomb. It was certainly surrounded by a cylinder made of travertine blocks. A bottom row of such blocks was found in place, missed by Master Valentini and his lime-burning crew. The cylinder probably supported the cone-shaped mound, which might have been covered by exotic vegetation, as was the mausoleum of Augustus.
Whose tomb is it anyway?
In May 1582, a man named Fabrizio Lezaro, who is otherwise unknown (at least, to me) entered the burial chamber and discovered a colossal empty sarcophagus -- almost 9 feet long x 4 feet wide (131 x 293 cm) -- carved of pure white Carrara marble (Marmo Lunense). A woman and a young man are reclining on the cover, as if on a couch. It is their tomb.
The carving is sumptuous. Scenes from the legend of Achilles adorn all four sides. The sarcophagus was undoubtedly intended for an imperial burial. But whose?
Luckily, Flaminio Vacca, the humanist and sculptor (you can see his famous Florentine lion here) was at the scene. Despite depicting the wrong hero -- one would have thought the choice would be Alexander the Great -- Vacca identified the figures portrayed on the couch as the emperor Severus Alexander and his mother Julia Mamaea.
You do remember that the last post ended with the words: and [Alexander] was granted the honour of a cenotaph in Gaul and a magnificent tomb in Rome.
Vacca remembered. This is it, he said.
Surprisingly, this identification has almost stood the test of time.
If Vacca was right, the mausoleum thus would date back to at least three years and three months (Maximinus' reign) after Alexander's death in 235 AD. The sarcophagus has been dated 240-250 AD (in the Capitoline Museum index) -- as close as archaeology ever gets to shouting 'Bingo!'.
But not so fast.
What do I think? On the one hand, those stamped bricks look serious, though they could have been recycled from an earlier structure. On the other, I find it hard to believe that, in the much better documented 2nd century, no one ever mentioned building or having seen this enormous mausoleum. On yet a third hand, I can't imagine Gordian III building this sepulchre for Alexander and his mother in his cash-strapped reign (or even wanting to, to tell the truth: he was of true Roman stock and must have despised the Syrian dynasty). That leaves Philip the Arab, another Syrian emperor (244-249 AD)....
I'll go on dithering, if I may -- and credit the last Julia with having left us a very classy mystery. Perhaps.