Janus at Ponte Fabricio

October 16, 2012 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Lazio

On Ponte Fabricio, the oldest bridge in Rome, sit the two best known hermai of Janus. (A 3rd was repurposed for Belli’s memorial in Trastevere.) Hermai in ancient Greek are stone pillars used to mark boundaries, upon which gods’ heads were usually carved, and which one touched when passing by for good luck. (One god in particular, more common on hermai for being associated with travel, movement, messages, etc., was eventually simply called “Hermes”.)

Enough ancient Greece, on to Rome. Janus was the god of liminal spaces . . physical passages, such as doors, gates, and bridges, as well as all abstract passages, such as beginnings, ends, transitions, and change. You get one guess where the name for the month of January comes from . . . or even “janitor”, the caretaker of hallways, custodian of the keys to all doors.

Janus is always depicted with two heads facing in opposite directions. A great motif! What better way to symbolize transitions, being neither here nor there, past nor future, but by depicting that god as literally astride both.

Truth be told the special four-faced hermai of Janus on Ponte Fabricio are in terrible shape. While not much to look at, what is interesting is that they are still being touched for good luck . . today, like 2000 years ago, and no doubt tomorrow as well. Janus would approve!

GB

by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

7 Responses to “Janus at Ponte Fabricio”

  1. GB,
    We are reminded through your article that myths and legends prevail even when we ourselves our fading away. Words are powerful mightier than the sword. Although the artists who created these figures are gone their words are still alive through the very act of people today. There is still hope for us… keep writing… who knows maybe 2000 years from now they will quote something you wrote.

    Reply
  2. Peggy and Bob Corrao in Bermuda

    Always the best, GB. All our friends feel the same way. Thank you.
    This was especially interesting to us as our friends from Rome/Sorrento have always had one displayed in the Sorrento home, recently sold. It is a relic, also well worn, but in good condition. Janus.

    Reply
  3. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Hey GB
    If only, much like the locks placed at the bridge in Taranto,the touching of Janus at Ponte Frabicio doesn’t produce the desired results, yet it’s something about traditions that keep us in hope

    Reply
  4. Paula (Giangreco) Cullison

    GRAZIE. The next time I am in Rome, I will pay more attention to the bridges and feature them in a travel article. Have a great day!

    Reply
  5. William Strangio

    I knew January was named after Janus but didn’t know the
    etiology of “janitor’. I had figured out that September,
    October, November, and December were the 7th,8th, 9th and
    10th month of the original Roman 10 month calender.

    Reply
  6. Angela Finch

    A very pleasing and informative article. The idea of touching statues, either for good luck or just because they are so touchable, is still very prevalent and in the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy in London there was an animal, propably a lion I can’t quite remember, who had a wonderful golden paw where it has been stroked for a couple of thousand years.

    Reply

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