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Rome: The Marvels and the Menace

The Secrets of Rome, by the Roman journalist Corrado Augias, conveys what it is like to grow up amid these looming reminders of the past. As a little boy, he played beneath the Aurelian Wall, a defensive structure built between 241 and 244 AD to keep the barbarians away. By now, and this is surely one of his points, the unspoiled beauty of that Roman countryside is as remote a memory as the ancient wall. An enthralling book, The Secrets of Rome recreates the long-gone atmospheres that went with some of the city’s improbably enduring places, weaving back and forth between ancient past and recent past, lingering often somewhere in between. Its order is the order of suggestion rather than chronology, and this is the way that Rome normally works; a single block will conjure up memories of the Etruscans, the Red Brigades, Julius Caesar, the Borgias, the crazy convictions of the early Christians, the breathless optimism of the nineteenth century and the frustrations of the twenty-first.

As a native, Augias often casts his eye far from the usual tourist paths, showing by example that the bourgeois families who settled around Termini Station in the nineteenth century were as full of hope, pride, and aspiration as the (not dissimilar) senatorial families who gathered on the Palatine at the time of Cicero. Along with so many embodiments of hope, Rome also still bears the scars of past tragedy: the coins that melted into the floor of the Basilica Aemilia when the Visigoths burned it down in 410 AD (and prompted Saint Augustine to write The City of God); the shrapnel holes in the buildings on Via Rasella, where a partisan attack on a contingent of SS prompted a ten-to-one Nazi reprisal (Augias evokes this event, which happened in his youth, in harrowing detail); the street where the Red Brigades left the car with the body of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro stuffed in the trunk.

Strangely enough, one of Rome’s most tragic places, the Colosseum, has taken on a surprisingly positive symbolism in more recent centuries; it appears, for example, on the back of the Italian five-euro-cent coin as a triumphant example of architecture and civil engineering and the very embodiment of Rome itself. The Colosseum, by the late Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, gives a sprightly, entertaining account of this archetypal building in all its various incarnations, from the “killing fields” of antiquity to the pilgrim’s goal of the sixteenth century, the botanist’s paradise of the nineteenth, and the archaeologist’s puzzle of today—four different construction crews worked on separate quarters of the building, with conspicuously differing results.

Only in Rome, perhaps, could a protester threaten to jump from one of the Colosseum’s venerable arches and see a huge cushion spread beneath him by a motley group of firemen and the latter-day gladiators who stroll around the monument and offer to pose (for a fee) for tourist photographs. If gladiators are now involved in saving people rather than dispatching them in exotic ways, so, too, the Romans—who once sacrificed the North African ecosystem in the quest to provide exotic animals for their arenas—now have a city council member (the excellent Monica Cirinnà) who is specifically concerned with Rome’s nonhuman citizens, especially, of course, the cats, first imported by Egyptian settlers in ancient Etruscan times.


In the face of the standing challenge posed by the ancient ruins and their medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque competitors, Rome’s two most recent mayors have tried, with mixed results, to supply Rome with its rightful share of contemporary architecture. The former mayor (and present minister of culture), Francesco Rutelli, came to this decision naturally: the son of an architect, he studied architecture himself before entering politics. His grandfather, Mario Rutelli, was one of Italy’s most inventive nineteenth-century sculptors. (In Rome, Mario Rutelli’s most famous figures are of women: the sexy naiads who gambol around Neptune on the fountain in Piazza Esedra, and, at the opposite side of the city, Anita Garibaldi, the hero Giuseppe’s fiery Argentine wife, shown riding sidesaddle on a leaping horse, firing a pistol with one hand and holding a baby in the other.)

The younger Rutelli was the initial sponsor for the most controversial example of a modern intervention in Rome: Richard Meier’s casing for the ancient Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace that was consecrated by the Emperor Augustus in 9 BC to celebrate the end of a decades-long civil war among the Romans. Part of a huge complex that included a family mausoleum and an outdoor sundial with an Egyptian obelisk as its gnomon, the marble Ara Pacis, covered with sculpted reliefs of Augustus, his entourage, and his divine ancestors, was gradually buried in the Middle Ages and only rediscovered in the sixteenth century. (A good capsule account can be found in Frederick and Vanessa Vreeland’s The Key to Rome.1 )

In the twentieth century, another would-be emperor, Benito Mussolini, transformed the area around the Mausoleum of Augustus into a vast modern piazza, for which the reconstructed Ara Pacis provided an essential focus, encased within a glass and travertine box designed in 1937 by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo with a copy of Augustus’ autobiography, the Res Gestae, inscribed along its base. That inscription, with all its imperial overtones, features as a recurring background image in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film about a Fascist collaborator, The Conformist, and the most visible gesture of Meier’s new building to the history of the site is to have preserved this Fascist version of the Res Gestae intact.

From the outset, the project to restore the Ara Pacis encountered bitter opposition, political, preservationist, and aesthetic. Strife was inevitable, given the site’s Fascist pedigree; Rome still houses a good many sympathizers with the long-gone regime, but there are equally as many former partisans and descendants of partisans. Morpurgo, moreover, as a Jewish architect, provided important evidence that Fascism was not anti-Semitic from the outset; aside from its distinct architectural virtues, his design had particular historical significance as an example of Fascist patronage in 1937, before the notorious anti-Jewish racial laws were imposed in 1938.

There were also, however, good reasons for intervening on the site; thirty years ago the Mausoleum area was an urban wasteland, littered with used syringes and strung-out addicts. On the other hand, Morpurgo’s little building was far more elegant than its bombastic Fascist neighbors, which have now been spruced up, preserved, and stocked with loud, pretentious “upscale” wine bars. And in the end, Richard Meier’s big new replacement for Morpurgo’s work looks too much like the Getty Center in Los Angeles to convince most Romans that its addition to the cityscape was worth the nine years of traffic jams brought on by its construction. They would have liked a building that spoke more eloquently of Rome than of Richard Meier. Meanwhile, its incongruously bright white surfaces have already begun their losing war of attrition against Roman smog.

Aside from the Ara Pacis project, which he inherited perforce, Mayor Rutelli’s successor, Walter Veltroni, has so far kept his hands off the center of Rome, and instead brought in the usual handful of global star architects (Massimiliano Fuksas, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava) to put their stamp on the city’s explosively metastasizing urban sprawl. These, like the Ara Pacis project, show no particular sensitivity to their venerable surroundings, but they belong to a tradition that is now decades old. Suburban Rome has been famous since World War II for a series of massive architectural boondoggles, like Mario Fiorentino’s kilometer-long housing project, Corviale, erected in 1975–1982, which, to general surprise, became a haven for desperate drug addicts rather than the “Radiant City” of the future. Then there was the Terminal Ostiense, a 1980s train station in the middle of an industrial neighborhood, whose big semicircular arches in yellow tubing cross the aesthetic effect of Beaubourg with postmodernism. The terminal, now being revamped to hold city offices, is a fitting monument to the late Vittorio “The Shark” Sbardella, a stout, cross-eyed politico who favored pointed shoes and sharkskin suits, and could never run for mayor because he looked too much like what he was: tellingly, the mayoral candidate who acted as his front man was called “the daisy on the dungheap.” Yet Sbardella, like any good boss, understood about infrastructure; in his day, the streets of Rome were kept in good repair, their cobblestones carefully reset on a regular schedule by workmen still using tools described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. Now the cobblestones, made, like the streets of the ancient Appian Way, of basalt from Rome’s neighboring volcanoes, have become victims of malign neglect, wriggling free from their beds like loose teeth in receding gums.

The ailing cobblestones are a good indicator of the city’s present problems. The Rome of 2007, sadly, is a less secure and less pleasant place to live (and to visit) than it was five or six years ago. The buildings cleaned for the Jubilee of 2000 are growing gray again in the city’s polluted air, fouled by new legions of SUVs and the gigantic tour buses that Rome’s previous mayor, Francesco Rutelli, had exiled to the outskirts of the city. Drugs and thugs are more evident now than they have been since the “leaden years” of the 1970s and 1980s. Vittorio Sbardella, as a tough big-city boss, would have found a way to deal with these elements, but Rome is now in the hands of a mayor whose vocations lie elsewhere. Earnest and self-dramatizing, Walter Veltroni creates film festivals and “White Nights,” escorts high school students to Rwanda, Malawi, and Auschwitz, and hobnobs with the likes of Bob Geldof, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Rigoberta Menchu from his Michelangelo-designed city hall. He has just written his first novel. He is a man for spectacle rather than infrastructure; to be sure, he is putting in a new subway, but it is the old subway lines that need his attention, with their deteriorating physical plant and their alarming increase in violence.2

As Romans are increasingly fond of pointing out, the third world can be found right under the mayor’s feet on the dirty, potholed Roman streets, including the young Senegalese men who sell counterfeit designer handbags and the Egyptian cooks whose skill with pasta and pizza sustains an increasingly large number of Roman restaurants. Most foreigners have been absorbed relatively quickly into Rome, but an increasingly significant number are failing. To help them, Rome needs a mayor who has the vocation, and the humility, to do what is as undramatic as it is essential: paving, policing, cleaning, repairing; in short, making the city shine as brilliantly with humble actions as the lovingly polished floor of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli.

Among the threats the city faces today, one, at least, is beyond any mayor’s control. Global warming has changed Rome’s climate in the past few years, and talking about the weather is anything but small talk. Roman winters are significantly wetter, so that seepage has undermined the ancient foundations of the palaces of the Roman emperors on the Palatine Hill, and filtered down into the painted vaults of the Golden House erected by the Emperor Nero and visited by every Renaissance artist who came to Rome.

Recent summers in Rome have been significantly hotter than they used to be. Summer weather was once determined by a phenomenon called the anticyclone of the Azores, a high-pressure zone over the Atlantic that brought Italy hot, dry periods relieved by summer storms, and then a definitive break in mid-August when a final storm broke up the anticyclone for good. Air conditioning was a luxury, but hardly a necessity. Now, however, some of Rome’s summer winds come straight off the Sahara. The city’s worst heat wave ever, in 2003, lasted from May through September, with a single steaming rain shower on July 31. Everyone understands that 2003 was not an isolated season in Hell, but rather a harbinger of summers to come.

There have been warm periods in Rome’s past; in the sixth century BC, when the Etruscans first paved over the Forum; and in the eleventh century, when Norman invaders fought the papal troops in the streets around the Colosseum. The great glories of Renaissance and Baroque Rome, on the other hand, coincided with the phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age; perhaps that is one reason why everyone wore such elaborate robes in those days. But the long view that Rome provides of its history does not make its present straits seem any less urgent; if anything, the Eternal City, precisely because its eternity has consisted of so much incessant change, seems all the more evanescent, more beautiful, and more necessary.


More News from Rome December 6, 2007

  1. 1

    Getty, 2006.

  2. 2

    In late June, Veltroni announced his willingness to serve as party secretary for the newly formed Democratic Party (as well, presumably, as its candidate for prime minister in the next election), asserting (1) that this action will support rather than undermine the current government of Romano Prodi and (2) that he will simultaneously serve out his term as mayor, noting that he is “a sort of workaholic.” Six days before that announcement, the citizens of the ancient Roman neighborhood of Trastevere began a silent protest (hanging white sheets and posters from their windows) against the perceived negligence of the mayor. The sheets are still hanging this September.

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