The Six Face of Rome
Rome has boasted many titles (from caput mundi to urbs sacra) over the centuries. Some are bombastic, several true, and almost all play on an immortal aspect to the city. Yet Rome – for all its prestige – is in reality as mortal as the rest of us. It’s just she also happens to be a mistress of self-invention.
Much like the coquettish debutante who’s morphed into a graceful grand dame, the city’s character has remained but its beauty and beliefs have shifted forms. So much so that one visitor might not recognise the account of another from only a century before.
Since Rome has been afforded the status of a permanent prima donna by history, perhaps it’s time to document some of the brief, dexterous and elusive costume changes that have kept the diva in the limelight for so long.
The republican capital – one of the original Romes (the royal period is too steeped in mythology to be helpful) – would be almost totally unrecognisable to a traveller today. A city made of brick, timber, cheap stucco, painted terracotta and local stone; a warren of small shops, Doric columns, grotty tenements and narrow lanes; its pride lay less in beauty than martial prowess, as could be seen from its temples which functioned as treasuries for the spoils of victory.
Wedged into a bend of the Tiber, most of the city was based on the (then, much steeper) seven hills and centred on the Forum Romanum. This was framed by several basilicas, historical sights and temples. Surprisingly the city already had a half-decent itinerary. Sure, the senate’s Curia Hostilia and the people’s Comitium were run-of-the-mill affairs but the Rostra lined with bronze beaks wrenched off enemy warships certainly wasn’t, and neither were the columns set up to honour the likes of Horatius Cocles (who defended the Pons Sublicius from the invading army of Etruscan King Lars Porsena in the sixth century BC) and Furius Camillus (dubbed the “second founder of Rome” and renowned as the general who spurned the ancient version of the danegeld by claiming “Non auro, sed ferro, recuperanda est patria” or “not gold but iron will regain us our patria”).
Perhaps the city’s most important sites, however, were those to which myths had already begun to attach themselves. Castor & Pollux’s temple was built to thank the two demigods for their divine assistance against the Latins at the Battle of Lake Regillus (496 BC). Lapis Niger (the Black Stone) was already portrayed as Romulus’ gravestone (d. c. 717 BC). Lacus Curtius (the Lake of Curtius) was said to be where a bog swallowed the Sabine with whom Romulus duelled. While, according to the seers, the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill (AKA the Tarpeian Hill) – the site of Jupiter’s Temple – rose above a permanently bleeding head – signifying Rome’s future role as the caput rerum (head of the world).
For all its spectacles, however, Republican Rome was very much a pre-classical creature and not what most would now consider conventionally Roman. Its overall style owed more to an Etruscan aesthetic than Greek, as any glance at the Apollo of Veii (with its almond eyes) – a statue that shared the same sculptor as the idol of Jupiter in Rome’s most important temple – would show.
The same cannot be said of imperial Rome, the classical city Hollywood likes to conjure. A marble paradise of 11 aqueducts, 14 highways, 36 triumphal arches, eight bridges, Domitian’s Palatine Hill, Constantine’s Basilica Nova (whose colossal Constantine is now in pieces at the Capitoline Museum), 16-metre Aurelian Walls, 20 equestrian statues, two colossi and almost 4,000 bronze statues. The Forum of Trajan (built using Dacian plunder that weighed in at 180 tons of gold) and Domitian’s Odeon (a concert hall) marked its architectural climax.
Few sites can have competed to the Colossus (despite its crassness). Located between Constantine’s Arch and the Flavian amphitheatre, the 30-metre statue was originally intended to resemble Nero and was commissioned by the emperor for his Domus Aurea (Golden House). Later, however, his head was recast as Sol’s (the sun god’s), complete with giant halo. And later still, gave its name to the Colosseum – oddly, perhaps, roughly around the same time it disappeared from historical records – in the late eighth century.
Dark Age Rome, in contrast, was little more than a town. Four fifths of the imperial city were abandoned; three of its eight bridges survived; all its aqueducts were by cut by Witigis in the Gothic wars; the Forum was reduced to a marketplace once again. And the tragedy only became more plangent. A third of statuary went missing when the Vandals’ loot was sunk in a storm, while another third was melted down by the emperor Constans II for his war-chest. Finally, the Tiber’s banks were repeatedly neglected causing flooding (and plague) on a mass scale.
Guilty of imperial overreach perhaps, the Eastern Romans (installed on the Palatine with their small garrison on Quirinal Hill) had precious little money or desire to revive Old Rome while ensconced in the New. But while Constantinople’s star had risen far above Rome’s, Constantine’s church-building programme helped retain Rome’s superiority in the holiness stakes. S. Giovanni in Laterano for Rome’s bishop, S. Croce in Gerusalemme (to house the true cross his mother had brought back with her from her pilgrimage), as well as St Peter’s – built on the saint’s grave, obliterating the Circus of Nero in the process – all helped to secure Rome’s position as one of the world’s top destinations for Christian pilgrims.
It was these churches, along with a circuit of others (Pancrazio, Agnese, Sebastiano, Lorenzo, Paolo et al.) scattered around liminal Rome that housed the most important relics and – due to their rocketing popularity – turned Rome inside out. Once centred on the Forum and hills, the importance of these churches paired with a shift of civic gravity towards the marshy Campus Martius (barely even residential in the classical period) completely transformed Rome. Slowly, the hills were abandoned and the citta bassa (low city) became prime real estate.
Marshy medieval Rome sprouted a few more surprises. Alongside over 300 churches and campanili, fortified towers pricked the skyline, and places that had once hosted the arts or ludi (games) soon bristled with fortifications. To be in the wrong part of town was to risk life and limb. Carved up like a cake, Rome’s Frangipani holed themselves up in the Colosseum, the Colonna family held the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Savellis defended their HQ at the Theatre of Marcellus, and the Orsinis ruled their possessions from the Theatre of Pompey.
Renaissance Rome shifted the city into another gear. While the medieval city had been a rather placid creature, happy to leave previous incarnations alone for the most part, the Renaissance spirit possessed a more Schumpeterian energy best summed up by the fact the second Medici lion (that stands in Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi) was carved by Flaminio Vacca from a capital of the Capitoline temple to Jupiter. This was a period in which Flavio Biondo scribbled up Roma Instaurata (1444-48), a scholarly work that sought to establish what imperial Rome had looked like; a time when architects such as Leon Battista Alberti grappled with how to use the classical orders correctly once again. The finest result of his labour, now known as the Cancellaria (just outside the Campo dei Fiori) can fairly be labelled the first secular, classical build to follow the Caesars.
As this new attitude gathered momentum, the towers came down and the palaces of the papal dynasties shot up. Sadly, accompanying the destruction of the towers was a long list of antiquities. The triumphal arch of Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius was lost in a realignment of what is now the Via dei Banchi. Pope Sixtus IV is known to have rid himself of both the Temple of Hercules Invictus and the Bridge of Horatius (which he converted into cannonballs), and so on. Indeed, it was during this period that Pope Urban VIII’s removal of bronze from the Pantheon prompted the now famous barb ‘Quod non fecerunt barberi, fecerunt Barberini’ (what the barbarians would not do, Barberini [the Pope’s surname] did).
Thankfully the pruning bore fruit. After being sacked by dim-witted Germanics in 1527, baroque Rome extended itself eastwards at a rapid pace. A new aqueduct (Felice) was built to supply the fountains that tinkled in grand squares. The Forum Romanum was cleared so that Charles V could have a triumphal procession for conquering Tunis (1535) – though the city was reconquered 39 years later. And, perhaps most impressively, after some incredible finds (such as the Laocoön) a mania for classical statues quickly spread. Soon, no visitor could claim they’d seen Rome without having made notes on the Borghese gladiator, Callipygian Venus, Farnese Hercules, or, on street level, Pasquino the “talking” statue (to whom Swiftian jibes were tacked).
This was the Rome of Bernini and Borromini, a city of sweeping lines, playful light and restless spirits, and though tastes have since changed (a preference for the Dying Gladiator or a bit of Canova over the Apollo Belvedere; the placement of Raphael above Michelangelo in the Romantic period for instance) it’d be facetious to pretend Rome’s architecture changed on anything like the previous scales.
The big exception to the rule on a superficial level is the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which squats on the remains of a gorgeous Renaissance tower and convent. Modelled on the Altar of Pergamum, its Botticino marble is so brilliantly white it’s rather haplessly earned nicknames that reflect its titanic naffness. But this is nothing new, really. What were half the vanity projects of the Roman Emperors, after all, if not exercises in bad taste à la Trimalchio. And if the site’s neoclassicism-on-steroids offends sober sensibilities, it’s important to remember the maxim of the one-time Director of Rome’s Excavations, Rudolfo Lanciano, who observed that “Rome has always lived at the expense of her past.”