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The Crass, Beautiful Eternal City

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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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Embassy of Brazil in Rome
The gallery of the Palazzo Pamphilj, with frescoes by Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, Rome

It is not surprising to find this avid outdoorsman recounting the awful choreography of the ancient gladiatorial games with gleeful relish at the grossness of it all, but an equal and opposite passion ignites his writing about Raphael, an artist of infallible decorum as well as towering genius, to whom Hughes pays tribute without a shred of irony:

Raphael was the ideal secular as well as religious painter, faultless in his production, his meanings always clear as springwater, his saints holy, his men noble and thoughtful, his women desirable, his technique impeccable. What other artist could have painted two little angels like Raphael’s into an Assumption of the Virgin, giving them an enchanting air of childish detachment while not distracting at all from the majesty of the event? The answer is: none.

All our present-day artistic heroes are here, of course: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Francis Bacon (whose serial portraits of the Baroque Pope Innocent X are dwarfed, however, by the Velázquez original in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery), but Hughes also directs his readers to formerly immortal classicists like Poussin and Canova, reminding us that a painting like Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, with its tranquil landscape, voluptuous shepherds, and shiver of death, is as charged with eros and longing as Michelangelo’s muscular ignudi or Caravaggio’s naughty boys. Rome is the place where Hughes put aside his own Catholicism, but he still addresses religious art with respectful empathy, whether he touches on the shimmer of the twelfth-century apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente, with its lush, spiraling tree of life, or the spiritual climax of Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, as powerful an evocation of passionate love, divine or human, as has ever been hewn from marble, and yet all we see of the transported saint, aside from a frantic tangle of drapery, is a limp hand, a curling foot, and her slack, half-conscious face.

Hughes marvels over and over again at Bernini’s volcanic energy, a quality that also emerges from Franco Mormando’s new biography of Baroque Rome’s most successful artist, and rogue, about town.1 Importantly, Mormando also brings out the insecurity that lay behind that relentless productivity; this was a man who, at the apex of his career, still regarded his own achievement as temporary (like another transcendent spirit, John Keats, whose epitaph, “one whose name is writ on water,” is actually writ on a stone in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery). A ruthless self-critic as well as a great artist (the two qualities are, of course, related), Bernini understood that his contemporary and rival Francesco Borromini was an architect on an order that he himself could never match, one reason, perhaps, that Bernini underpaid Borromini so badly when they both worked on the baldacchino of St. Peter’s.

Bernini was not a nice man; he paid a thug to slash the face of his mistress Costanza after catching her in bed with his brother Luigi. Before that incident, however, he had carved a portrait of Costanza, plump and tousled, looking as if she has just risen from bed; it is perfectly clear what both Bernini boys saw in her. In recent years this irresistibly vivid woman has always been known as Costanza Bonarelli, but, as Sarah McPhee reveals in her new study Bernini’s Beloved,2 Costanza’s maiden name was Piccolomini; she was a woman of some consequence, the descendant of a noble Sienese family that produced two Renaissance popes. Although her recovery from Bernini’s attack seems to have been prolonged by complications (the wound took more than a month to heal), she continued to live in Rome for the rest of her life, prospering later as an independent art dealer.

The fact that Hughes barely mentions the third member of Rome’s Baroque troika of architects, Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, reflects one of the persistent problems with art in the city. For all its brilliance, Pietro’s work is simply inaccessible to most people. An architect of exceptional talent, he was also the foremost fresco painter of his day, but his built masterpiece, the church of Santi Luca e Martina by the Forum, is almost always closed these days (and its glorious dome has been swathed in a pigeon-proof net); it was under restoration, but money for cultural projects in Silvio Berlusconi’s money-mad Italy has somehow been hard to find.

Another major project, the church of Santa Maria della Pace, was closed for decades and is now open only a few days a week; his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona (now the Brazilian embassy), with its scenes from Vergil’s Aeneid and its chubby red-clad Cupid cannonballing across the heavens, is open only by special permission and will never be available to most readers of Rome. Many of the secret chambers of the city are as marvelous as the ones that have been put on public display. Fortunately, just about any street within the compass of the Aurelian Walls, the fortification put up to repel the barbarians in 271–275, will disclose its own intimate treasures.

And as Hughes reminds us, we could have lost it all, just as we lost Dresden, in the same cataclysm. Only a few bombs fell on Rome during World War II, enough to destroy the ancient basilica of San Lorenzo (he of the grill and drippings), but the rest of the city was largely spared. Only one street still bears the scars of shrapnel from the war. This is Via Rasella, where on March 23, 1944, a partisan bomb concealed in a trash cart blew up a column of Nazi soldiers and led to a ten-for-one reprisal, 335 Romans slaughtered in a quarry outside town known as the Fosse Ardeatine. The Fosse Ardeatine are still very much with the Romans; only this year, another of the victims was definitely identified by DNA testing.

But the threats to Rome’s survival did not slink away with the Nazis. Two ruthless forces menace the city today, and Hughes is fierce in attacking them both. One is mass tourism, by now such a significant force in the Roman economy that it seems unlikely to come under control. The other is mass indifference, brought on by the distractions of contemporary life. Indifference is hardly a modern invention. Alaric and the Visigoths rampaged through Rome in 410 without giving a care to its beauties or its cultural significance. The German Landesknecht mercenaries who sacked the city in 1527 occasionally thought of themselves as religious crusaders, but any motives other than bloodlust and greed were really afterthoughts. Steve Jobs and Silvio Berlusconi have taken different tacks; but they, too, are old news in Rome. The ancients were also obsessed with decorative gadgetry, and perhaps an outmoded clepsydra, or water clock, looked as sad to them as an outmoded Mac today. As for Berlusconi’s bimbos, the ancient playwright Terence complained already in the first century BCE about losing his audience to the rope dancer in the theater next door.

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Scala/Art Resource
Raphael: The Parnassus, 1511, detail showing Apollo and the Muses; fresco from the Raphael rooms in the Vatican Palace

Mass tourism was already annoying Romans in the days when trouser-clad Gauls brought down the tone in the Colosseum—real men, after all, wore togas and plucked their armpits. But the problem in a world of seven billion people is more acute than it was in the days when Rome’s million inhabitants were the largest concentration of humanity in the world. One by one, old shops in the center of the contemporary city have been transformed into brightly lit, white-paneled emporia packed to bursting with cheap Chinese-made souvenirs. Some of these places are clearly money-laundering operations for a variety of mafias, some are legitimate small businesses, but their general effect on the cityscape is as dire as the proliferation of pubs, bars, and liquor automats that has destroyed real life in neighborhoods like Trastevere and Ponte Milvio by attracting aimless mobs of drunken youth to guzzle, litter, shout, fight, and urinate.

To call this collective pub crawl the movida as if we were in the Madrid of early Almodóvar is to ignore what really makes the Roman movida move: international liquor companies and more mafia. A metastasizing population of tour buses also chokes Rome’s few broad streets, parking illegally, spewing exhaust fumes, and throttling the flow of public transport, thanks to a succession of mayors who number success in the curious unit of presenze turistiche—touristic presences.

In 1972, the writer Giorgio Bassani, a longtime resident of Rome, came to New York to promote a new organization, Italia Nostra, devoted to a vision of conservation that includes monuments together with natural wonders. As Bassani declared on that occasion:

The monuments of Italy or any other country are part of Nature, which, in turn, is part of history. No one can deny that it is in the nature of human beings to build cities, with temples, marketplaces, piazzas, and narrow streets. To say that these must be destroyed because Nature is forests and grass is as barbaric as saying that grass and forests must make room for parking lots, superhighways, and dumps for indestructible, or monumental, garbage.3

If Bassani, who died in 2000, could see what has happened to the countryside around Rome, where grass and forests have made way for shopping centers and wildcat housing projects, he would be fulminating like Moses on Mount Sinai, or Robert Hughes in full throttle en route to the Sistine Chapel:

Mass tourism has turned what was a contemplative pleasure for Goethe’s contemporaries into an ordeal more like a degrading rugby scrum. The crowd of ceiling seekers is streamed shoulder to shoulder along a lengthy, narrow, windowless, and claustrophobic corridor in which there is no turning back. At last it debouches into an equally crowded space, the chapel itself, which scarcely offers room to turn around. These are the most trying conditions under which I have ever looked at art.

The problem is, if anything, worse in the Raphael rooms that precede the Sistine Chapel, the intimate apartment of Pope Julius II—hence not so intimate as all that, but not equipped to hold thronging thousands who cannot take the time, or find the space, to experience Raphael’s graceful unfolding of world history, human and divine. There are still people living today, all by now of retirement age, who have been fortunate enough to see these places when they naturally inspired quiet awe rather than claustrophobia, but now, like Rome itself, they have been commodified unto death, and it is hard to see how new generations can ever muster the same passion to preserve them. As Giorgio Bassani said in 1972 (but might have said yesterday):

Monuments are not decoys to attract the tourist and keep him awed while the innkeepers and boutique owners despoil him of his pennies, nor are they stone prostitutes kept barely alive by the procurer government. They are reminders (this is the meaning of the word) of what we still are, in spite of television and cars, and we very much need them in order to remain what we are, and not become savages again.

Robert Hughes has written an eloquent book to drive home that very point.

Letters

The Bombing of San Lorenzo February 9, 2012

Do the Angels Mourn? January 12, 2012

  1. 1

    Bernini: His Life and His Rome (University of Chicago Press, 2011). 

  2. 2

    Sarah McPhee, Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini (Yale University Press, April 2012). 

  3. 3

    Scientific Patriot,” The New Yorker, April 15, 1972. My thanks to Portia Prebys for this reference. 

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