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Bill Thayer

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If You've Been to Rome, You've Seen This
(So Why Isn't It Famous?)

[image ALT: The ruins of a multi-arched polygonal brick structure, about 3 stories high, on a busy street. It is the so‑called Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome.]
The nymphaeum as seen from the via Giolitti.

It's true: of all the monuments of Rome, this may be the one seen by the largest number of tourists. Mind you no one in their right mind ever goes there — after all, when I finally did, I found it permanently locked (although it has a doorbell and someone appears to live in it): my diary entry gives the potential visitor a useful feel for the neighborhood. But every starry-eyed college student or honeymooner, pilgrim or retiree or just plain tired traveler who arrives at Rome's airport and takes the convenient direct train into town, sees the 'Tempio di Minerva Medica': the back sits right next to the railroad tracks, looking much like the front by the way, so that you see this large ten-sided hulk of brick to your port side just as the train slows down, sidling into Termini station.

[image ALT: In the foreground, a passenger train and several empty tracks; in the background, a ruined polygonal brick building. These are the remains of the so‑called Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome, as seen from a train arriving at the main train station, the Stazione di Termini.]
Proto­col at this point requires the visitor to Rome to sit up and exclaim,
"We're here! Say, what's that?"

In fact, no one knows. Oddly for such a large structure, it is never mentioned in any ancient source, nor apparently in any inscription; giving those who study such things leeway to decide that it is a nymphaeum, a class of building covering a multitude of sins, from actual shrines in honor of a nymph, to pleasure gardens with an emphasis on water, to public halls used to celebrate weddings.

This particular building gets its traditional name from the idea that a famous statue of the goddess Minerva (in her healing aspect, holding a snake, as in the caduceus of Aesculapius) was found here. Opinions differ sharply as to whether it was or was not; the statue is now in the Vatican Museum.

[image ALT: Two stories of a polygonal brick building, seen from the inside, each one with 5 arches. These are the remains of the dome of the so‑called Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome.]

What's left of the dome: about the best view possible without a special permit.

The 'Minerva Medica' is in fact famous, and did not need the construction of Rome's central train station to achieve this. Although she had already long lost her facing of marble — she must have been quite attractive in Antiquity — her dome remained basically intact until 1828, when it suddenly collapsed: plenty of time though for artists and architects of the preceding Renaissance and classical periods to admire and study her. One of the rare ancient domes surviving to modern days, and very visible in what is now downtown Rome, her influence on post-mediaeval architecture has proved disproportionate.

Among the many artists who depicted the "Minerva Medica", Piranesi and J. M. W. Turner.

[image ALT: The ruins of a polygonal hulk of a multi-arched brick structure, about 3 stories high, on a busy street. It is the so‑called Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome.]

View from the SE.

For a scholar­ly approach to the history and literature of this monument, see the article in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

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Page updated: 5 Dec 17