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The Crass, Beautiful Eternal City

Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome/Scala/Art Resource
Gian Lorenzo Bernini: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647–1652

In the spring of 1959, a twenty-one-year-old Australian architecture student named Robert Hughes made his first visit to Rome. He captures that first heady plunge into the city’s stew of chaos, sensuality, history, amber light, and sudden moments of piercing beauty by lingering over the fruits and vegetables of the market called Campo de’ Fiori, the “Field of Flowers”:

Bunches of thyme, branches of rosemary, parsley, bundled-up masses of basil filling the air with their perfume. Here, a mountain of sweet peppers: scarlet, orange, yellow, even black. There, a crate filled with the swollen purple truncheons of eggplants. Next to that, a parade of tomatoes, fairly bursting with ripeness—the red egg-shaped San Marzanos for sauce, the broad-girthed slicing tomatoes, the ribbed ones for salads, the green baby ones. Even the potato, a dull-looking growth as a rule, took on a sort of tuberous grandeur in this Mediterranean light.
Then there became apparent something of a kind I had never seen at home in Australia. All this vegetable glory, this tide of many-colored life, this swelling and bursting and fullness, welled up around a lugubrious totem of Death…a vertical totem of bronze darkness and melancholic gravity in the middle of all that riot of color, and it may take a moment or two to find his name on a plaque half hidden behind the sprays of flowers. It is Giordano Bruno, and even a tyro from Australia had heard of him.

The rest, as we know, is history. The young student of architecture, as it turned out, had a gift for writing as well as a ravenous, penetrating eye (and some other ravenous appetites as well). Though he gained in sophistication, he never lost his initial Australian brashness, and that is why, in the end, Robert Hughes, author and critic, has such an original, persuasive take on the Eternal City. As he says at the very end of Rome: “For all its glories, and for all the legacy it left in art, thought, and politics, Greek civilization did perish. That of Rome is still somewhat with us.” And the reasons for Rome’s staying power, he argues, have to do with the city’s eternal embrace of crassness, as intrinsic to Roman grandeur as majesty, beauty, and spiritual transcendence.

It is hard to read Hughes on his first experience of Rome without thinking of another foreign visitor’s plunge into that same irresistible mix of sensual pleasure and shattering beauty: it was that same year, 1959, when Anita Ekberg made her majestic progress through the waters of the Trevi Fountain for the young director Federico Fellini’s film La dolce vita, trailed by a mesmerized Marcello Mastroianni, himself as beautiful a creature as the buxom Swede and the mewing white kitten she has been carrying through the dark, silent streets as she looks for a dish of milk. It is hard to believe that those streets were ever so still, or so mysterious, but in fact I remember a man standing on one of those same corners in the late 1970s, selling bouquets of violets, each flower’s delicate stem carefully tied to a bit of palm frond with a wrap of thread to fill out the nosegay. (He is a neighbor of mine now, and long retired, his mobile face, with its black eyes, still one of the most wonderfully expressive sights the city has produced.)

Rome today has changed from what it used to be, but then it has always been changing, ever since a scattering of herdsmen living in huts perched on a series of volcanic crags in a floodplain imagined—or recognized?—that this was a place of special significance to the gods and to humanity. The city’s proverbial Seven Hills were never the grassy, rolling downs of the English countryside or even the smoothly rounded, wheat-bearing slopes of Tuscany. Rome sits on volcanic earth, the residue of prehistoric eruptions, through which creeks and rivers have carved steep canyons. Its hills are buttes. The slopes of the Aventine, Capitoline, and Palatine are still visibly cliffs, steep enough for the ancient Romans to have pitched criminals over the side as a capital punishment.

At the city’s very heart, on the Capitoline Hill, the steps that flank Armando Brasini’s 1935 Museo Centrale del Risorgimento slash right through the same raw, ancient rock that presented its face to Romulus. Fifty yards farther on, the road that leads from Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio down to the former hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione (where Caravaggio recovered from the kick of a horse) exposes the beginnings of an Etruscan maintenance tunnel, hollowed into the same illustrious hill’s russet-colored stone two millennia ago and more. Rome’s past, including its geological past, is as essential a part of its present as the fruits and vegetables in the Campo de’ Fiori, and most Romans, rather than ripping out what has gone before, simply live with it, and often enough live in it. Where else but Rome would the gas man say, “Lady, this fixture was put in by Julius Caesar,” and almost mean what he says?

Rome has always mixed its glamour with the gutter; it was founded, after all, by one of the twins who were discovered in the swampy morass that would become the Circus Maximus, suckling on the milk of a she-wolf—or maybe, as the ancient Romans suggested, “wolf” already meant “prostitute” as it did in their day. Or was the “wolf” the twins’ adoptive human mother, Acca Larentia? The foundational moment in Rome’s transformation from settlement to city was the moment when its Etruscan overlords installed a sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, to dry out the future site of the Forum, by channeling its waters underground. That probably happened in the late seventh century BCE, but the cloaca is still working; Piranesi engraved the powerful ashlar masonry arch that still marks its outlet into the Tiber (and the rats who gambol at its mouth, presumably, are the scions of rats who remember the old days before those upstart Etruscans ever interfered with a perfectly serviceable stream).

One of the great mysteries of Rome is how such sublime beauty can coexist so stubbornly with all that is unbeautiful—as Hughes dwells with relish on the awfulness of present-day Italian television, he thinks back to the mosaic of boxers that used to adorn the early-third-century-CE Baths of Caracalla and are now in the Vatican Museums: the mosaics were always crude, and the boxers even more so. The sport they practiced, if sport is the right term, was unspeakably cruel, carried out with brass knuckles bearing vicious flanges—just right, as Hughes concludes, for knocking out an eye or a set of teeth for the crowd’s delight.

For that matter, what distinguishes photographs of Silvio Berlusconi, with his pancake makeup, elevator shoes, and tragically failed hair transplant (its struggling fuzz, densely caked with paint, is a magnetic draw for news cameras) from the pink marble portrait bust of the emperor Domitian (81–96 CE) now in the Toledo Museum of Art, in which the monarch’s sheepskin wig, high on his glabrous forehead, has shifted wickedly to reveal a straggling, forlorn tendril of his real hair?

In both cases, what kept the mad despot in power for an implausible length of time—Domitian was a notorious paranoid—was the collusion of the Senate, zealous to preserve its own privilege. Artists and news photographers rebel as best they can, though often, rather than rebelling, they have played right along; thus, six decades after the defeat of Fascism, certain parts of Rome are still studded with images of lantern-jawed manly men from the 1930s, virtual clones of Benito Mussolini.

So little changes in Rome, yet everything changes. Hughes rightly takes his story of Roman contrasts right from Romulus to Berlusconi (just before that Lombard Napoleon was himself, perhaps, consigned at last to the flow of history), stopping along the way to marvel at the audacity of ancient Roman engineering, the delicacy of Raphael’s touch with paint, the whirlwind energy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the sovereign sanity of Antonio Canova, the brooding darkness of the modern painter Mario Sironi, known creators amid a crowd of anonymous artists and artisans who have also worked to burnish the beauty of Rome. Not surprisingly, he includes some pungent words about the state of art today: “Not much of the art made in Rome between the war and the present seems headed for survival.”

Hughes’s basic sense of this infinitely complex city, despite his frank admission that he has never really lived there, is right on target: it is hard to imagine an epoch in which Rome has not been crowded, corrupt, maddening, shallow, gross, hypocritical, and yet, at the same time, heavenly. The city, indeed, is riddled with places where divine and earthbound are said to have met. The Forum boasts three of them within a few Roman feet of one another: the place where Romulus disappeared into thin air, marked with two archaic altars and turned into an inviolable precinct by the emperor Augustus; the place where Julius Caesar’s body spontaneously combusted in 44 BCE, and marked by an eternal flame, also courtesy of Augustus; the chasm in the earth that closed only when Rome offered up its most precious treasure: a young warrior named Marcus Curtius, who plunged into the abyss in full armor.

Yet another sacred conduit was preserved on the summit of the Capitoline above the open-air shrine of Terminus, the god of the Golden Milestone (his precinct now transferred to Stazione Termini, the main railroad station). The opposite spur of the Capitoline is where the Sibyl of Tibur (modern Tivoli) informed Augustus about the coming of Christ; for that divine meeting of pagan and Christian gospels it is called the Ara Coeli, the Altar of Heaven.

And then there are the footprints of Christ himself, imprinted on a stone in the church of San Sebastiano, the enigmatic physical legacy of his meeting with Saint Peter at the crossroads ever after called “Domine Quo Vadis.” Peter was slinking out of town down the Appian Way to escape the emperor Nero’s campaign against the Christians, when he saw Jesus coming toward him. “Where are you going, Lord?” he asked (in Latin, Domine quo vadis?). “I’m going to Rome to be crucified for a second time.” Peter, the legend reports, turned around and met his own martyrdom, crucified upside-down as part of a gladiatorial spectacle. Neither the flat broad feet of the Lord nor his Latin conversation with Peter are plausible—they would have spoken Aramaic—but Rome is where legends are excused with the observation “se non è vero, è ben trovato“—if it’s not true, it’s still a good story.

Three Roman churches preserve the droplets of fat that fell from the Roman martyr Saint Lawrence as he was roasted on a grill (and told the Roman authorities who tortured him, with supreme aplomb, “Turn me over, I think I’m done on this side”). And then there is the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte with its Bernini angels, its Borromini campanile, and the chapel where, in 1842, the Virgin Mary appeared to the Jewish liberal Alphonse Ratisbonne and converted him on the spot to Christianity (William James writes at length about this episode in The Varieties of Religious Experience). Rome has always been supremely sacred and supremely profane, usually at the same time. Given Hughes’s own distinctive combination of macho and sensitivity, the city is a perfect match.

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