5 minutes with… An architectural model of a Roman temple

5 minutes with… An architectural model of a Roman temple

Made as a souvenir for Grand Tourists, this wooden model of an ancient Roman temple features a remarkable level of detail, as Christie’s UK Chairman Orlando Rock explains

Orlando Rock, the Chairman of Christie’s UK, first saw this wooden model of a Roman temple in a library belonging to the late Dutch collector Eric Albada Jelgersma. What he didn’t know at the time was which temple it was based upon.

When the model arrived at Christie’s, Rock posted a photograph of it to his Instagram account asking the public to help reveal its identity. ‘Within minutes people were commenting that it looked like the Temple of Portunus in Rome,’ he reveals. ‘It saved me days of library research!’

An Italian fruitwood architectural model of a temple, late 18thearly 19th century. 17  in (43  cm) high; 26¼  in (66.5  cm) wide; 18  in (46  cm) deep. Estimate £50,000-80,000. This lot is offered in The Eric Albada Jelgersma Collection Sale on 7 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

An Italian fruitwood architectural model of a temple, late 18th/early 19th century. 17 in (43 cm) high; 26¼ in (66.5 cm) wide; 18 in (46 cm) deep. Estimate: £50,000-80,000. This lot is offered in The Eric Albada Jelgersma Collection Sale on 7 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

The Temple of Portunus — historically misidentified as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis — was originally built in Rome in the 3rd or 4th century BC, then reconstructed in the late 2nd or early 1st century BC. Located near the city’s port on the banks of the River Tiber and built in the Ionic style from tufa and travertine, the construction is one of the best preserved Roman Republican Period (509–27 BC) temples in the world — thanks in part to its 9th-century conversion to a Christian shrine.

‘It’s so rare to come across a complete model like this, especially with these amazing chambers’ — Orlando Rock

Rock explains that in later history the temple was also hugely influential for artists and architects who looked back to the designs of antiquity for inspiration. It features in Andrea Palladio’s seminal 1570 architectural treatise The Four Books of Architecture  and is depicted in several engravings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

Not shown in the engravings are the building’s original underground catacombs and burial niches, which have long since been destroyed. The interior of this model offers a recreation of those chambers, complete with painted murals and Greek and Latin inscriptions.

The model’s exterior opens up to reveal catacombs, so detailed that they even feature grass and moss growing at ground level (the original catacombs of the Temple of Portunus were destroyed long ago)

The model’s exterior opens up to reveal catacombs, so detailed that they even feature grass and moss growing at ground level (the original catacombs of the Temple of Portunus were destroyed long ago)

While some artistic licence may have been taken with the design of the catacombs, they add considerably to the model’s appeal. ‘It’s so rare to come across a complete model like this,’ says Rock, ‘especially with these amazing chambers, as well as details such as the grass and moss growing on it. You often see Grand Tour reductions of Classical monuments in Siena marble, but it is very unusual to encounter an elaborate wooden model of a complete temple like this.’

The model was produced sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century by craftsmen in Italy, intended as a souvenir for Grand Tourists who wished to signal their tastes and interests in Classical culture. 

One such Grand Tourist was the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who went on to become the professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and assemble an impressive collection of architectural models, including a different version of the Temple of Portunus. ‘But,’ notes Rock, ‘even his didn’t have fitted interiors.’