In Roman times, the port of Ancona was completely refurbished under the emperor Trajan. Coastal erosion had caused the natural cove to become unsafe, so restoration and enlargement work was carried out, partly with the Dacian Wars (101-107 CE) in mind.
To express its gratitude to the emperor, who had financed the work, in 115 CE Ancona’s Roman senate erected a triumphal arch dedicated to him at the start of the newly-built pier.
Designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, the arch was built in 115 CE and adds the finishing touch to his maritime architecture. It was actually built not as an entrance to the city, but as a tribute to the emperor Marcus Ulpius Trajan, who did so much to fortify and expand the city of Ancona and its port. Added to the new buildings of the port, the arch towered above the water, tall and elegant, and topped by a group of statues which would be visible to sailors as an indication of the harbour, and also symbolically represent the city’s gateway to the sea.
Nevertheless, there is another hypothesis regarding the date of the arch. Looking closely at scene 79 on Trajan’s Column in Rome, which depicts the emperor’s departure from the port of Ancona for the second Dacian campaign (105 CE), a single arch can be seen, topped by statues of three male gods. According to archaeologist Sandro Stucchi, this tells us that the arch was built earlier, around 100 CE, and that its purpose was ornamental. Subsequently – in 115 CE – perhaps upon the completion of the work in the port, the arch was dedicated to Trajan and three more statues added, this time relating to the emperor himself, on the other side of the attic.
Standing on a massive base of Conero limestone, the arch is built of great blocks of marble from Hymettus (a mountain range in Greece), and stands tall and slender with a single arch, flanked by two Corinthian columns that support the attic. On the landward side, there is a dedication to the emperor, along with tributes to his wife Plotina and his sister Marciana.
The keystone facing the sea depicts the god Neptune, while the landward side held the bust – now disappeared – of a female figure, perhaps Tellus.
The arch was topped by two groups of bronze statues, the first dedicated to the sea gods Mercury, Neptune and Palaemon, and the other, facing the land, depicting the emperor Trajan with his wife Plotina and his sister Marciana.
Finally, the arch was decorated with ships’ prows and other ornaments in bronze, whose traces are still visible today, scenically completing the emperor’s renovations of the port.
During the Saracen incursions in the 9th century, the arch was stripped of its bronze decorations and the statues on the attic.
In the course of history, many prominent artists and scholars have drawn and analysed the Arch of Trajan, from Cyriacus of Ancona and Ghirlandaio, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and Sansovino during the Renaissance to Piranesi and L. Rossini in the early 19th century.
Today the arch is not seen in its original form, because 1856 saw the addition of the stone staircase that leads to the walkway.