After a Japanese clothing magnate helped pay for an ambitious cleanup, archaeologists are eager to show off the monument, constructed around 2,000 years ago as the burial tomb for a Roman praetor, or magistrate, named Caius Cestius.
Although soaring 36 meters (119 feet), the pyramid draws few tourists. Decades of grime blackened the creamy white Carrara marble exterior of the monument near a traffic-clogged intersection and a subway station. The pyramid’s base is below street level since the metropolis has been built up over the centuries, so many hurry by without realizing the monument’s height.
Archaeologist Leonardo Guarnieri told reporters Wednesday that tours, including of the frescoed burial chamber, are being given twice a month by reservation. Visitors must crouch as they make their way through a narrow corridor leading to the burial chamber. What happened to Caius Cestius’ remains is unknown, Guarnieri said. Inside the chamber, visitors can see an upward-sloping tunnel. He said the restoration has bolstered theories the tunnel was dug out in medieval times, possibly by grave-robbers.
The pyramid is one of four known to have been built in ancient Roman days, but the only one to survive until today. Their construction reflected a fashion for Egyptian style in Rome after the conquest of Egypt, but the simple, frescoed figures on the chamber’s walls were done in the style of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city near modern-day Naples.
With Rome’s heavy pollution blackening and corroding monuments almost as soon as they are restored, the pyramid is being cleaned every few months by a team of free-climbers, to eliminate the need for unsightly and costly scaffolding.
Italy’s culture ministry, chronically short of funds to clean, preserve and protect its immense wealth of artworks, architectural gems and ancient monuments, is holding out the pyramid’s Japanese patron as a model of cooperation between private and public sectors.