"La città nascosta" (The hidden city), section 5

15. The octagonal building in via Rubens

The Canonical Houses of St. Barbara hide significant remains of late ancient Mantua. Archaeological excavations have brought to light thick foundations of a building. Its plan consists of two octagonal rings, one inside the other. It was presumably a baptistery; its purpose in 5th and 6th century AD is, however, still uncertain. It is indubitably a monumental architectural structure. After the latest excavations, researchers hope to answer questions about it which have never been addressed before.


At the beginning of 7th century, the octagonal building hosted a few tombs, both in the corridor between the walls and in the central area. In the majority of cases archaeologists could only observe looting which had happened in antiquity. In 2012 a sole tomb was found, completely intact and of a great value, orthogonally placed within the walls of the building. Four post-holes, at the edges of the rectangular pit, provide evidence of an ancient wooden structure, which probably looked like a sort of small hut, known as “hut of death”.
This model was widely spread in Lombard necropolis, both in Italy and in Pannonia-area, and certainly bears witness to a privileged burial.
In the via Rubens findings, the funerary hut covered the body of a young boy aged between 3 and 4, according to preliminary analysis conducted on a few teeth and a jawbone fragments, the sole preserved parts of the skeleton.

This young deceased, buried with his head oriented towards the West, was buried with the highest of honours and was equipped with extremely rich and varied grave goods, dating back to the end of the 6th - beginning of the 7th century A.D. On the right side of his head, researchers found a traditional roman-byzantine bronze jug as well as a common pottery cup. Around his neck there was a necklace made of silver wire, enriched with a small silver cross, a golden coin and glass-paste necklace beads. A very rich multiple belt, made with golden items and byzantine style decorations,  was found around his waist, probably fixed by a small silver buckle. Always on his waist there was a small iron dagger, which has recently been studied. The study revealed evidence of a horn handle and a  leather sheath, textiles belonging to clothes, veils and a cloth to wrap the weapon. To complete the grave goods, a small golden cross with no decorations, which would have embellished the small shroud.


After the octagonal building was abandoned, numerous stages of construction characterised via Rubens, from the 9th to 15th century. During the Middle Ages, nine churches were located inside Civitas vetus (old city), according to written records. Two of them lay in what would later become the area of St. Barbara’s Case dei Canonici. The northern church of St. Alessandro stands on the corner of vicolo Ducale. The southern church of Sts. Cosma e Damiano, which was qualified as “extremely ancient” already in 1586, was near via Tazzoli. The latest excavations have revealed very little information about these religious buildings. Archaeologists found two different cemeteries, probably close to the churches. Following Middle Ages funerary rituals, the burials had no grave goods at all. Only one gold Venetian coin, minted between 1361 and 1365, was found. It is a so-called “ducato” (or “zecchino” starting from 15th century).

One gothic architectural fragment, probably from St. Alessandro, might be part of a window and also dates back to 14th century. Remains of ancient buildings, which date from the 11th and 14th century, belonged to wealthy residencies, decorated with fireplaces and indoor and outdoor brick pavements.


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