At the AAR, Revisiting the Roman Colony of Cosa, Plus De St Phalle’s ‘Tarot Garden’

The Capitolium at Cosa

The sky from time to time looked threatening, but on Monday 10 May an Academy group managed to enjoy a mercifully dry hike among the ruins of the Roman colony of Cosa (near modern Ansedonia in southern Tuscany). The day continued with an afternoon visit to Garavicchio (not quite 10 km from Cosa) to explore the ‘Giardino dei Tarocchi’ of the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

Leading the day trip was Elizabeth Fentress, former AAR Mellon Professor-in-Charge (1996-1999). Fentress was director of the Cosa excavations 1991-1997, and has published extensively on this site and numerous other archaeological areas and topics (with North Africa as a particular field of expertise), going well beyond the classical Roman era and later antiquity. Elizabeth Fentress currently is the Director of the Villa Magna Project and serves as President of the Associazione Internazionale di Archeologia Classica (= AIAC).

Cosa was founded in 273 BCE as Rome needed to consolidate its control over newly conquered territories in the heart of Etruria. The site is dear to the American Academy in Rome, which started archaeological excavations at Cosa in 1948 under the expert direction of then Professor-in-Charge Frank E. Brown, putting the US in the forefront of Roman archaeology. Scores of Academy Fellows had their first field experience unearthing the secrets of this little colony town; the University of Michigan Press in conjunction with the AAR continues to publish the most important of these findings.

The acropolis of Cosa, which dominates the coastline of southern Tuscany with a magnificent view on the promontory of Monte Argentario.

Excavations discovered Cosa’s forum and the seat of the city’s Capitolium, a magnificent Italic style temple that honored Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Indeed, all the elements of life on the frontier are well preserved: stout polygonal fortifications; a simple urban grid plan; well organized activities in the farmlands; a neat, functional harbor on the coast; and scores of underground cisterns for providing the town with potable water.

From the Archaeological Museum of Cosa. Above, indications of the town’s importance as a wine producer and exporter; below, from the Museum’s storerooms, remains from the shrine at the House of Diana, excavated and restored between 1995 and 1999.

The Academy’s excavations also investigated a number of houses that are early examples of the Roman atrium house. These reveal the details of daily life in what was clearly a hardship post, with its own military function.

Elizabeth Fentress points out construction features at Cosa’s Capitolium (above); discussing the medieval structures at the Eastern Height (below)

The day at Cosa finished with a visit to the nearby ‘Giardino dei Tarocchi’ (1979-1996) of Niki De St. Phalle (1930-2002). This is a sculpture garden featuring 22 monumental figures in concrete, steel, glass and dazzingly bright ceramic, integrated into a carefully landscaped park.

The sculptures, inspired by the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck, blur the lines between art and architecture; indeed, during construction of the park de Saint Phalle lived in one of her creations (The Empress, with exterior and interiors pictured below).


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