Whether you are interested in ancient history, Roman remains or Renaissance architecture, you will enjoy the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Once the largest thermal bath complex in the Roman empire, the site was later remodelled by Michelangelo to become a Carthusian monastery. And today Diocletian’s Baths are part of the National Roman Museum, and a major tourist site.
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A Massive Thermal Complex
Public baths were an important part of daily life in the Roman empire, and a city the size of Rome needed to cater for a large population. Successive emperors commissioned new buildings, but the Baths of Diocletian, completed in 306 CE, were the grandest in scale. They were able to accommodate up to 3,000 people at a time.
The rooms were built of marble-covered brick, and filled with statues and mosaics. As well as the usual thermal rooms and a large swimming pool, there were a number of public areas, including a theatre, a library and gardens. It became an important place for relaxing and socialising, as well as for bathing.
In 537 CE the Ostrogoths invaded the city and cut off its water supply, causing the baths to close. Over time the buildings fell into ruin.
A Carthusian Monastery
In 1561 Pope Pius IV commissioned Michelangelo to incorporate the remains of Diocletian’s Baths into a new church and monastery. The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri was built in the ruins of the Roman frigidarium, intended as a memorial to the thousands of Christian slaves who died while building the baths. A Carthusian monastery – or Charterhouse – was built beside the church.
The Charterhouse is noted for its two cloisters, designed in the Renaissance style with sculptures, statues and formal gardens. Ancient tombstones and sarcophagi are lined up around the edges. The Chiostro Grande, also known as the Michelangelo Cloister, is one of the largest cloisters in Italy. In the central garden of the Large Cloister look out for an ornate fountain and seven massive animal heads. A particular feature is the trompe-l’oeil painting in one corner that appears to show a monk looking out from a doorway.
The monastery was abandoned in 1884.
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The National Roman Museum
At the beginning of the 20th century parts of the baths and the charterhouse (including the upper floor of the Large Cloister) were converted into exhibition space for the National Roman Museum. The museum has several branches across the city, but the Baths of Diocletian house a section on early Etruscan and Roman history (from the 11th to the 6th centuries BCE), and an epigraphical collection with inscribed objects, including tombstones, altars and other ancient objects, from the Roman world.
Visitors to the Museum can explore the remains of the Roman baths. Although large parts of the baths are now lost, you can see the well-preserved Great Halls with their high ceilings, and several of the tombs. You can visit the Basilica, whose grand interior was redesigned in the 18th century, and which – having been built over part of the thermal complex – gives some idea of the size and extent of the original baths.
The museum has a programme of special exhibitions and events. And, of course, you can enjoy a peaceful walk around the cloisters.
How To Visit The Baths Of Diocletian
- The Baths of Diocletian are close to Roma Termini railway station.
- The site is open every day except for Monday.
- Entrance tickets cover the museum, baths and monastery. It is also possible to buy a combined ticket covering all National Roman Museum sites.
- The museum is on several floors but it is designed to be accessible, and lifts to the upper floors are available.