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Rome: The Marvels and the Menace

Rome from the Ground Up

by James H.S. McGregor
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 344 pp., $29.95; $18.95 (paper)

The Colosseum

by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
Harvard University Press, 214 pp., $19.95


On April 21, the city of Rome celebrated the 2760th anniversary of its founding. Despite nearly three thousand years of invasions by Sabines, Gauls, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Normans, German Landesknechte, Napoleon, Hitler, and mass tourism, Rome survives, in many respects handsomely. Constant use keeps buildings alive as well as wearing them down, and the same is true of cities. No floor in Rome is as spotless as the thirteenth-century marble pavement in the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, the same intricate designs wrought in bits of ancient colored marble that Dante walked across when they were new, and where Edward Gibbon paced nearly half a millennium later as he began to conceive his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The floor’s irregularities have been worn smooth by generations of feet, and polished to gleaming by generations of sacristans whose humble, repetitive actions have in themselves created a thing of beauty. And so it is with the rest of the Eternal City: it is as full of loving gestures as it is of deliberate creations, and both are essential to its continued existence.

All over Rome, buildings still older than the Ara Coeli glow from constant use. The Pantheon still stands after nearly two thousand years; the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has stood for nearly 1,600. Not every old building has been universally or constantly loved, but today’s Romans are inclined toward an affectionate acceptance that extends as well by now to some of the city’s neoclassical white elephants. During his seven-year term as president of Italy, the recently retired, irresistibly popular Carlo Azeglio Ciampi campaigned energetically for Italian patriotism, and for its embodiment in the huge marble monument to King Victor Emmanuel II that marks the center of Rome.

Variously disparaged for years as “The Typewriter,” “The Wedding Cake,” or “The Men’s Room,” Giuseppe Sacconi’s eclectic pile is now dignified as “The Vittoriano,” with traveling exhibitions installed in its cavernous lower reaches and outdoor cafĂŠs that capitalize on one of the best views in Rome. Inaugurated in 1911, it has aged just long enough to become an acceptable part of the city’s past. Across the Tiber, the bombastic old Palace of Justice, the work of a nineteenth-century madman, was condemned as hopelessly unstable half a century ago, and nearly torn down in a fit of modernist purism. Instead, like the Vittoriano, it has been carefully restored and put back into use, with its crazily overblown ornamentation and its pride of magnificent travertine lions.

The lions are important: Rome, like Venice, has been a city of lions from its very beginning. The oldest ones are painted, five of them, roaring with marvelous red tongues and curled tails across the wall of a seventh-century Etruscan tomb. Discovered only last summer at the northern edge of Rome, the Tomb of the Roaring Lions revealed the oldest example of wall painting (aside from prehistoric cave paintings) in Western Europe. Lions have been standing guard over Rome’s citizens ever since. Terracotta lions prowled the rooflines of Rome’s first temples, many of them erected by the Etruscan lords who dominated the city in the sixth century BC, scaring away evil spirits with their fierce expressions.

Marble lions mangled deer on the sides of ancient Roman sarcophagi as a demonstration of power. The portals of Rome’s medieval churches were once flanked, one and all, by pairs of lions bearing columns on their backs and victims in their claws; again, their fierceness served as a warning for evil demons to keep away. With the Renaissance, lions became less bloodthirsty and more regal, especially under the Florentine Pope Leo X, who kept live pet lions in the Vatican along with an elephant named Hanno, so turning the King of Beasts from a symbolic protector into an outright image of the state. The lions spitting water from Roman fountains are the embodiment of official hospitality, whether they are the smooth, placid neo-Egyptian lions installed by Pope Sixtus V on the Quirinal Hill in 1587 or the shaggy, stately creatures who adorn the Palace of Justice, loyal representatives of the modern Italian Republic.

The Tomb of the Roaring Lions also shows how much of Rome’s archaeological heritage still remains to be discovered, despite five hundred years of antiquarian research, urban renewal, explosive expansion into the countryside, and the looting that has fed private collections and public museums. The Roaring Lions came to light after a former tomb robber revealed their existence to the Art Squad of the Carabinieri, the national police force that is a branch of the Italian military. Fortunately, legitimate excavations are also uncovering marvels unimagined. In the center of the Roman Forum, a new sounding last year uncovered the marble-paved area in the Forum of Vespasian where the Roman general (and future emperor) Titus must have displayed the treasures he carried back from the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Another excavation brought forth the scepter of the Emperor Maxentius, defeated by his rival Constantine just north of Rome in 312 AD.

Other projects have probed back to the time of Rome’s foundation, when people lived in huts of wattle and daub along the swampy meanders of the river Tiber. To this day, moreover, every builder who sinks a foundation trench or revamps a basement in Rome is likely to encounter the people who lived on the same site centuries before. Some of the results of these salvage excavations were put on view this spring in a building that is itself a remarkable bit of industrial archaeology: a storage facility for olive oil erected in 1764 by Pope Clement XIII after a disastrous famine the year before. Displayed among gigantic terracotta vats (whose design, incidentally, remains unchanged since ancient times) are over a thousand evocative traces of Romans past that have emerged from such unlikely places as the track for the high-speed train line from Rome to Naples, a garage for Rome’s garbage trucks, and the Settebagni metro station, set within the same Etruscan territory that produced the Tomb of the Roaring Lions. A whole set of sixteenth-century shoes, thrown down a well near the Colosseum, reveal what Raphael might have worn around town (although his contemporary Michelangelo, as we know, marched around in a set of dog-skin boots, and Pope Julius II, their patron, affected red slippers).

Ancient tombs have preserved the furnishings for a grand seventh-century-BC Etruscan banquet, an ivory Roman doll with the petulant face of Barbie, the pear-shaped figure of the Venus de Milo, and jewelry of astonishing fineness: infinitesimal wires, beads, theatrical masks, and an engraved cameo no bigger than a drop of water. Wall paintings and mosaics show what gorgeous villas still underlie modern Rome’s urban sprawl, and what beautiful statues, including a fragmentary tiger of yellow marble, its stripes inlaid in black. On a more humble scale, who knew that so many Roman families collected clay figurines of piglets, their backs studded with tiny turquoise and red beads? Increasingly refined archaeological methods have introduced us in recent years to whole new aspects of life in earlier times, just as technology threatens to engulf that earlier world in suburbs and change the climate that created Rome’s haunting landscape and humanity’s hard-won harmony with it.

James McGregor’s new guide to this uniquely perplexing city, Rome from the Ground Up, begins long before that landscape sprouted its first hut villages or their legendary chieftains Romulus and Remus:

A southwest wind blew out of Africa. Behind it, at a slower pace, came Africa itself. The breeze cooled as it crossed the ancestral Mediterranean and picked up moisture. Slipping over the Apennines, which the African [tectonic] plate in its slow northeastward drift was heaving up, the clouds opened. Heavy rain drenched the bare slopes, eroding and channeling, crafting a system of west-flowing streams…the Tiber among them….

About two million years ago the steady thrust from Africa cracked the sea floor…. Molten rock from deep within the earth channeled to the surface through these fissures, and a string of volcanoes was born. The first erupted in Tuscany; then…they burst from the ocean floor in a loose chain of conical mounds…. The sea where the river once ended was driven south and west, and the Tiber followed.

And then the earth cracks open to create the Tiber Island, the physical feature that would eventually determine the site of Rome. McGregor’s tale of plate tectonics has all the beauty and urgency of myth.

Rome’s geology is well worth a book in itself, and anyone who has been captivated by McGregor’s initial chapter will also want to read The Seven Hills of Rome, a detailed description written by the Italian-American team of Grant Heiken, Renato Funiciello, and Donatella De Rita. There they will learn that this city so famous for its architecture sits, like the entire Italian peninsula, in a seismic zone (the African plate is still pushing relentlessly from the south). The Seven Hills themselves are solid volcanic rock, relatively safe from earthquakes, but riddled with ancient mines, tunnels, and catacombs that occasionally collapse and suck a piece of street into the resulting vortex.

The rest of the city sits on a waterlogged flood plain that shudders with any jolt to the earth’s crust. The Colosseum rests on both kinds of surface, with evident consequences for its stability. The half that stands on bedrock is practically intact. The other half, built on compacted river silt, has partially collapsed, perhaps in the sixth century AD, perhaps in the earthquake of 1349. In any case, enough had fallen by the fifteenth century for Renaissance builders to carry away the ruin’s travertine blocks to construct their own palazzi, whose designs often imitated the Colosseum’s columns and arcades.

All of Rome’s ancient buildings face the same threats to their survival. Cracks run up and down the masonry of the Pantheon, which is entirely set on silt. But Roman concrete was a miraculous material, aged for two years in the imperial yards before it ever saw a construction site (modern concrete ages for two weeks); when it met water, it set as hard as natural rock, and the Pantheon, two thousand years old, floats on the unstable earth like a sturdy concrete ship. A relative newcomer, the Vatican Library, has fallen victim to another process: its own success. When Donato Bramante designed the Belvedere Courtyard in the early sixteenth century, and Domenico Fontana added the library wing in the late 1580s, the papal collection of books numbered in the thousands, not a million and more. The library’s graceful, orderly vaults, redolent with history and decked out with playful frescoes, can no longer bear their unique burden without help. The three years projected for its restoration are only a moment in the institution’s history, but they point up the vast difference between the slow pace of Rome’s monuments and the evanescence of the people who inhabit them.

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