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project 02: an imaginary history

domus bacchus

Project by Marielle Suba and Tam Tran
Project Description can be read here.

During the second century of modern time, Rome was the center of the universe. It was a golden empire, reaching out into Arabia and Brittania and corners of the earth that some would never dream real. The emperor improved standards of living, gladiatorial games were at their height, and celebration of life became an almost-daily occurrence. There were countless reasons to celebrate.

This produced a gastronomic pleasure-seeking population; and at the forefront of these gastronomic pleasures lied the liquid necessity at the center of every Roman’s universe: wine.

Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest and winemaking, found his home on the eastern banks of the south Tiber River. Situated at the head of Piazza Bacchia, the Domus Bacchus sat dictatorially facing outward into the city. As the only public supplier of wine for Rome, it became a social core, visited at least once a day by at least one member of every family. The Domus was content to be as so; providing the community backbone while also a routine part of everyone’s lives. Roman citizens have all turned the knobs of those faucets and watched the deep red liquid cascade into cups or jars or barrels; cows milled around, content to aid in the transportation of the liquid; visiting nobility would stop there and drink the same wine that a beggar just drank. It provided a unity, a common ground, an irreplaceable essence of Roman life.

But the Domus was not all about practicality, just as Bacchus was never separate from ritual madness and ecstasy. Every year the summer humidity induced Rome into a heat-driven coma. And then, just as quickly as it came, summer ended. And the temperature dropped. And the leaves surrendered their green. And for Romans, this meant harvest. Mid-September meant the vineyards outside of town were accessed everyday, almost as pilgrimage. Everyone participated in the harvest; children made games out of picking grapes, men carried crates, women cooked meals. This happened slowly and carefully; only building up the anticipation of the season’s climax: the Bacchusfeste.

The first Sunday of the Tenth Month was an important day. The Bacchusfeste was one filled with laughter and dancing and food and wine, celebrated by everyone but only fully experienced by those who have reached adulthood, for the consumption of wine was prohibited for children. At dusk, Piazza Bacchia came alive with people celebrating being alive. Entire families would come out with the mugs passed down from the generations before them. Men wore togas and women wore stolas of every color. Lovers would wander hand in hand, looking up at the heavens and then looking down to the festival and seeing no difference.

The machine inside the Domus operates throughout the entire day. The windows and tall door of the round building have allowed Romans to peek into the process of their beloved beverage’s creation.

The Domus Bacchus became an essential piece of Rome’s vitality. In a golden age that found an empire flourishing in the arts, architecture, and commerce, so too did its people flourish in food, wine, and life.

One Tale of Wine

Teresio wiped the sweat off his brow as he took off his knapsack and set it down on the cold concrete floor. He ran all the way across the river to the Domus that morning, just to get an early start on the day’s festivities. Or maybe that wasn’t the complete truth, maybe the truth is he wanted to arrive before his companion–he loved Satum as he does his own brother, but there was something special in unlocking those doors alone on that particular day.

The sun poured in through the huge front opening, lighting up corners of the tiny cylindrical floor and illuminating the giant machine within the Domus. The marble of the walls and the bronze sheen of the wine tank played together nicely against the growing morning, and soon the whole of the interior was glowing. This is our temple, he thought. And we alone ring the bells.

Teserio walked out the door and around to the back moat, climbing onto the brick wall that separates it from the ground above and river beyond. For some minutes he watched the mighty Tiber, a landmark of his city that typically provided him food and tranquility, but on that day would provide power. He smiled to himself, knowing he would play a part in harnessing its at-times unweilding strength and using it to provide an equally important piece of Roman life: wine.

Satum arrived and joined Teresio on the wall. They shared a secret smile, one that could only be understood through years of friendship and a common purpose.

There were mountains of grape crates waiting for them. The pair quickly got to work, racing the sun. Satum climbed up a ladder on the west wall and stepped lightly onto a catwalk. The large windows allowed the light to fall on his shoulders and warm him as he slung a rope over the pulley and down to Teresio. One by one he pulled up the crates and unloaded the arminean grapes into the giant crushing bowl, ensuring they were equally distributed throughout.

After the last of the crates were emptied, Satum turned a lever and raised the floor plate to a level where the grapes could be crushed with maximum force. The machine was ready. He climbed back down the ladder, nearly losing his footing and slipping on the marble wall. He cursed under his breath, although knowing the marble provided the dust that would decrease the acidity of the wine.

Teresio was already along the river wall when Satum descended. Satum watched as his friend raised the river gate, and he immediately heard the crashing of that powerful river against the second gate of the moat. Teresio raised the second gate gradually, slightly, little by little. The Tiber flowed in slowly at first, trickling onto the waterwheel. As it gained strength, it powered the gears at the base of the central shaft, allowing the shaft to then turn the crankshafts and pistons used to pound on grapes.

The hard part was over. They sat on the wall eating peaches, watching the gears, and listening to the shaft spin. The pair had nothing left to do but supervise the machine and ensure they lower the floor plate of the grape chamber as crushing required less force. In the mixing chamber below, where the grape juice and water and fermentation yeast combined, a heavily acidic wine would fuse with specks of marble dust. This produced a very distinctly Roman wine that, at all times of the year, finds itself on dinner tables throughout the whole empire. Teserio thought about the wine that would flow through the pipes, took another bite out of his peach, and smiled.

As if Bacchus himself was the machine.

Another Tale of Wine

Carmina woke up to a chill in the air and the sun creeping in. Her mind raced to recollect a dream she just dreamt, but it slipped away quickly the way a squirming fish would out of one’s hands. How easily it escaped the more she tried to grasp it! Stop trying to look it in the eye, and maybe it will come back, she concluded. She sat up in a slump, left only with fragmented images: a fountain, bright stars, and a myriad of colorful fabric. And with a smile, she greeted the morning like a good friend.

She had no trouble waking up at dawn these days. The weather was starting to change and the tree leaves were yellows and oranges and her fingers were permanently purple–it was finally harvest season. This was always her favorite time of year. This day in particular. Carmina worked in the vineyards outside her city every September since she was a young girl. Now on the verge of adulthood, the time had at last come for her to celebrate the real fruit of that grape.

The Bacchusfeste happened annually, at the cusp of summer and autumn. Preceded by weeks of grape-picking and impromptu public feasts, it seemed like Rome itself was its own person getting ready for a grand dance. At the start of the tenth month, Rome would dance. And it would play. And it would drink. These rituals occurred on a most venerable stage: the Domus Bacchus, normally a simple dispensary, was transformed into a grand performer capable of captivating an entire city.

Carmina walked to her window where several cats were perched, and she looked out into a city full of people waking up the same way: keen, curious, and in anticipation.

Carmina looked forward to that morning’s trip to the forum. She purposely took the long way so she could catch a glimpse at the Domus, for it was only on this day it would live and breathe and move on its own. She was not alone in this venture; Piazza Bacchia was especially crowded that day, despite the lack of usual activity and even a dormant fountain. The sun climbed higher into the sky as Carmina stood outside the Domus, watching through the big windows as a giant plate the crushed grapes she picked with her hands. The juice trickled down below, where it spun around and transformed into the slippery deep red substance she would encounter later that night.

At sundown, Carmina began walking towards the river to Piazza Bacchia with her mother and father. The streets were alive with activity. Countless others–people they knew, people they didn’t know, neighbors, friends, cousins, dogs and cats–were milling around, creating a thick blanket of chatter and energy that slowly processioned all the way to the piazza. Carmina locked arms with a friend and they laughed together as their feet tripped over their stola, spirits high and smiles wide.

The crowded streets released into the huge piazza, where people were slowly trickling in from all directions. Piazza Bacchia felt different that night from the way it did most nights: gone were the playing children and stands selling food and old women carrying wine containers; instead were lingering adults and stands happily giving away grape desserts and old women carrying wine mugs. There was a hushed excitement in the air, and it grew thicker as Carmina got closer to the Domus Bacchus. It stood there majestically and commandingly, lit up against the Tiber, retaining all the grace it possesses in the daytime while exuding a certain agility that it displays once a year.

Finally the hush overtook the entire piazza. The music stopped, the chatter gradually fell, and heads and bodies turned towards the Domus. The spinning pole in the Domus center stopped spinning, and a large pop sounded. The liquid was released. For some seconds, the crowd could hear the wine rushing through the pipes, until the fountain in the piazza exploded with red wine. A burst of cheers filled the sky, and people laughed as they made their way towards it, cups in hand and throats thirsty.

One Last Tale of Wine

Claudia just returned home from her bath. The children were still in school and the house was already cleaned for the day–she had some time before she had to prepare supper. She inspected the wine containers; there were a few drops left. She emptied them into a chalice and sipped, the acid dancing on her lips.

She walked out into the midday sun, using the wine containers to shield the glare from her eyes. She waved to her friends: the man at the butcher shop, the woman who sold mugs, the farmer tending his fields. Her neighbor with the trespassing cat was walking in the opposite direction, quickly averting her eyes to avoid Claudia’s absent-minded gaze. She was carrying four jugs of a shimmery deep red drink. It would end up on their dinner table that evening, Claudia thought. The cat must consume all the excess.

She milled around Piazza Bacchia for a while, and ran into a friend who told her of a way to prepare porchetta with garum. Claudia had porchetta at home waiting to be made into supper, so she walked across to the forum and picked up mushrooms and zucchini to finish the meal. Bags of food in one hand and an empty container of wine in the other, she returned to Piazza Bacchia to fill up. The Domus Bacchus was a frenzy of activity; not yet close to suppertime, it was filled with middle-aged ladies discussing food and their neighbors, men taking a break after a midday meal, small children running around with streamers.

Claudia climbed the steps into the Domus Bacchus portico. Growing tired in the heat, all she wanted to do was fill her containers with wine and go home. It seemed all the faucets were currently in use; by women with large containers and men with cups and there was even someone who seemed to be washing his face with the liquid. After circling the perimeter twice, she found a vacant faucet in the back, opposite the moat and water wheel. She twisted the copper handle, ornamented with copper grapes and copper vines, and watched as the deep red wine dispensed itself from the Domus and into her possession.

After all, what’s food without wine?