The renowned Round Room (Sala Rotonda) is a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, built during the papacy of Pius VI by Michelangelo Simonetti in the late 18th century. Simonetti designed some of the most elegant rooms in the Vatican Museums, using light and space to capture and then magnify the presence of rare antiquities. The Greek Cross Room, Room of the Muses, Octagonal Court and Round Room are his creations.
The dome is styled on that of the Pantheon, by the shaped design of it’s interior and central oculus, which together span 21.60 metres. The room is dominated by a monolithic porphyry basin, the circumference of which measures thirteen metres, width five metres. Believed to have been used in Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House), it was brought to the Vatican Museums in the late 18th century. It’s placement in the Round Room resonates throughout the entire Vatican complex. Hewn from porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple stone, the type in use here is known, perhaps appropriately, as imperial porphyry. It’s shade matches that of purple dye extracted from shellfish, which was applied to the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class to form the legendary purple band. Imperial porphyry in Italy was imported from a single mine in Egypt, Mons Porphyrites, and used in floor tiles, columns, and to embellish ceramics.
The floor of the Round Room is adorned with intricate mosaics from Otricoli Baths (Umbria) which date back to the 3rd century. Each mosaic depicts scenes of battle between Greeks and centaurs, mythological sea beasts, tritons and nereids, which together evoke a ‘water theme’. Each tile was lifted and transferred to the Vatican individually. The room per se is enclosed by ancient sculptures, all of which tower above awe-struck onlookers. The effect is quite remarkable. Among the precious busts and colossal statues of old, one can admire Jupiter’s Bust of Otricoli, a 2nd century Hercules in gilded bronze (unearthed in 1864 in the area of the Theatre of Pompey), Julia, Barberini’s Juno, Plotina (wife of Trajan), Demeter (Ceres), Claudio, Faustina, and several others. Perhaps most precious of all is the statue portraying Antinous, Hadrian’s young lover, depicted as Dionysus. Researching ‘Antinoo’, I found this website which is worth a couple of minutes of anyone’s time. Maybe less.