Those of you who have already been to the Capitoline Museums will certainly have admired the fragments of a colossal statue in the courtyard of Palazzo dei Conservatori. But where could a sculpture whose foot alone measures 2 meters have fitted? The answer is easy: in the apse of a 35 meter high and 100 meter long building, the imposing Basilica of Maxentius, one of the largest monuments of the Roman Forum built in late antiquity.
The basilica was started by Maxentius in 308 on the Velia hill, and partially stood on the pre-existing structures of the Horrea Piperataria, commercial pepper and spice warehouses. It was completed by Constantine, who changed its orientation and opened a grandiose entrance with a portico preceded by a staircase that overcame the difference in height between the Via Sacra and the basilica.
It had a rectangular layout divided into three naves, with a side entrance hall: the central one, larger and higher than the two lateral ones, was marked by eight tall Corinthian columns of Proconnesian marble: the only surviving column was erected in 1613 by Pope Paul V in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, as part of the square's renovation works by Carlo Maderno. Inside the central nave, in a position visible from all sides, there was the gigantic statue (an acrolith, that is, with only the uncovered parts in marble) originally depicting Maxentius but later adapted for Constantine, whose remains were found in 1487. Of the large complex, the only nave still standing is the northern one, whose lacunar vaults provided inspiration for Renaissance architects.
The basilica has recently been identified as the seat of the Urban Prefecture, the most important late antiquity city’s office; in the 4th century the Secretarium Senatus, the seat of the court for the trials of the members of the Senate, previously located at the Curia Iulia, would have been transferred here.
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