Secrets of the Circus Maximus: A temple of Mithras & the ateliers of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Photos & text by Glenn Belverio


Dear Shaded Viewers,

A few weeks ago, while I was in Rome, my friend the fashion designer Paola Balzano drove me in her Smart Car from Myriam B & Mario Salvucci’s wonderful nature-themed collaboration in San Lorenzo over to the ruins of the Circus Maximus, which was the chariot racing stadium in Ancient Rome–and, I believe, where Charlton Heston and hunky Stephen Boyd romped around in leather gladiator skirts and engaged in clandestine homoerotic minglings behind the scenes of the filming of “Ben Hur” in 1959.

The reason that we came to the strange building adjacent to the Circus Maximus was because fashion and culture writer Rebecca Voight had mysteriously scribbled the address down on a cocktail napkin and thrust it into my pocket at the 17th-century Angelica Library and commanded, “Go here at 7pm. You won’t regret it.” I had no idea what, where or who was going on there but she mentioned something about people “having to make appointments months, maybe years, in advance to see what they have there.” Naturally, I was intrigued. Plus: I heard they were serving complimentary prosecco and outsized capers. So, I folded myself into Paola’s Smart Car and we were off to the races.


We arrived in this warehouse that had a bit of a pared-down Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel to it….the spooky leather pieces hanging in the back were part of Alta Roma’s Limited/Unlimited exhibition…in fact, Alta Roma had organized the tour we were about to go on, which at this point was still rather mysterious…


After a small group of us had gathered at the prosecco bar, we were taken down to this subterranean passage by a guide…the explanations were only in Italian so at first I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to be looking at…


And then I saw this! My favorite Persian pagan god du moment: Mithras. I had first heard about Mithras when one of my colleagues at Tiffany’s, Christopher Voigt, suggested I visit the Temple of Mithras (a “mithraea”) that lies deep below the Cathedral of San Clemente. And as fate would have it, I was taken there on my second day of this Rome trip by Paolo and Antonio of Roam Around Rome, a boutique tour company. Mithras had his 15 minutes of fame (which actually lasted for about 300 years) in Ancient Rome, from around the end of the 1st century A.D. to the end of the 4th century.The “mystery religion” is believed to have been centered in Ancient Rome.

Well! Jesus Christ’s followers were having none of this, dolls! So they made sure by the time circa 5th century A.D. rolled around, the Cult of Mithras was given the heave-ho. The impressive bas relief which we saw during this tour (above) is probably from the 4th century–quite an impressive piece of work for such an early period, I feel! The pagan cult of Mithras was popular amongst hunky working class men and strapping, young military members. It was a tres masculin cult and involved a complex series of initiations. No women allowed! Like at The Mineshaft. Because the trappings for the ceremonial slaughtered-bull (depicted above) blood bath are more impressive in the San Clemente shrine I visited with Paolo and Antonio, I will save my vivid fantasy description of it for that post!


Some ancient tablets which–I think!–cryptically document the mysterious doings of the Mithraic cult.


Another relief of Mithras slaughtering the sacrificial bull. At one point, Rebecca Voight and I wandered away from the group into an area which was apparently converted into a pasta factory after the working-class Mithraic men were evicted from this space at the end of the 4th century. Those artisanal pasta makers sound like proto gentrifying hipsters to me!


After we asceneded from the mithraea, we were told to climb a few flights of steps to continue the tour. The building was quite plain and run-down so I was a bit perplexed as to where we were being sent. We eventually arrived in this room, above, and I thought, “We’re in a tutu factory?! Why?”


Things became more and more surreal…


…as you can see…and the sound of Italian opera music started drifting towards us..



Finally it dawned on us that we were in the ateliers where the costumes for Rome’s opera house were created! The costumes were rather cartoonish and exaggerated–because they need to “read” on a large stage viewed from afar. Now, I’m sure that the costumes used for La Scala in Milan and the Met Opera House in New York are of a more refined quality…but I loved the garishness and flamboyance of the Roman costumes.





Campy and wonderful sets and costumes for an Egyptian-themed opera. I wonder which one?


During this visit, I had bit of a dejavu as it reminded me of my wonderful experience during Fashion Rio in 2010 of touring the samba schools in Rio de Janeiro where the floats and costumes for Carnaval are created.



Finally we discovered the source of the opera music: this beat-up, paint-splattered boom box!



We were all mad for the pea-pod boy! (That’s Rebecca Voight in the white jacket in the back.)





After seeing the costumes, we climbed up more stairs to the studio where the backdrops are created. Even this ersatz Mouth of Truth knows I’m a big, fat liar!


Paola Balzano demurely dips her hand into the mouth…she passed the test with flying colors.

And here, the famous scene: As the legend goes, Gregory Peck ad-libbed this moment of his hand being “bitten off”–causing Audrey Hepburn to be genuinely alarmed:







Out the window, you can see the Temple of Vesta on the lower right-hand side.



In the distance, the ruins of the Circus Maximus.


The Temple of Vesta at sunset. Such beauty.


Lovely, talented and with a healhty appetite! After the Mithraic-opera-costume tour, Paola Balzano and I drove to Trastevere for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants of all time: Roma Sparita. Nunzia Garoffolo introduced me to this place back in the summer of 2009. About two years ago, Anthony Bourdain did a segment here, but he didn’t succeed in ruining its local appeal (and, to his credit, he expressed concern about that and did not give the name of the restaurant.)

The most famous dish is the cacio e pepe: pasta with cheese and pepper sauce served in a crispy, baked cheese bowl.


I couldn’t wait to dive into my cacio e pepe…


After dinner, we strolled around Trastevere. It was a Monday night and the streets were virtually empty. I only took this one photo as I really just wanted to enjoy the sites without feeling like I “was working.”

At one point, we discovered a strange medieval castle that looked like it was inhabited by very chic witches. Spooky!

Thanks for reading.


Glenn Belverio


Glenn Belverio

Glenn Belverio is a writer and New Yorker. He has been reporting for ASVOF since 2005 and currently works at The Museum of Modern Art as the Content Manager for MoMA Design Store.