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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

1.

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 cafés 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.

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.

2.

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.

Letters

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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