Her inhabitants are allowed to grumble. And so they do: about traffic, trash, politicians, potholes—and tourists. But tourists to Rome have reasons to feel cheerful. For one thing, the very impact of tourism is, in relative terms, not too bad. Unlike Venice or Florence, Rome has been absorbing large numbers of visitors, rich and poor, for over a millennium. And since most secular pilgrims nowadays content themselves with just a few sights—the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Sistine Chapel—many of the city’s absorbing attractions, such as the Palazzo Massimo museum, remain pleasantly unthronged. Further causes for happiness are readily listed according to individual preference. Some find the prevailing palette of civic decor, with its basis of yellow ocher, incomparably soothing to the eye. Others will applaud the proliferation of vendors specializing in artisanal ice cream, or the fact that even in the centro storico one can get a genuine cappuccino at a bar for little more than a euro. Capitals elsewhere vaunt more vertiginous architectural drama. But Wordsworth begs to be corrected. In terms of an urban panorama, surely earth has not anything to show so fair as Rome’s skyline viewed from the terrace of the Capitoline Museums.

And yet there is no place like Rome for inducing melancholia. Psychologically, to those who immerse themselves in it, the city is depressing. Sigmund Freud—who immersed himself repeatedly—noted that effect without diagnosing the cause. It may have perplexed him, since he also recognized the contentment of exploring ancient ruins—a return (of course) to the bourn of a maternal embrace. Rome is always feminine, thus the eternal mother. Yet eternity unsettles us. If only the city would crumble. If only it would obey the laws of vegetable growth and decay, or else have the decency to fossilize like Troy and Nineveh. If only Rome were to match those other great cities of Classical antiquity, Athens and Alexandria, and fashion of its past glory a definable museum. Then we might take some comfort from observing the limits of longevity. But Rome resists those expectations. Mere mortals may strut along the Corso now. Soon enough they must stagger, then collapse. The street has seen it all before, and will see it all again. So this city, unlike any other, tells us that our lives are carved in water.

Freud famously likened Rome to a palimpsest, a text overwritten and annotated time and again. This may have suited as an analogy for the multiple layers of the human psyche when subject to psychoanalysis; it does not, however, reflect the archaeological evidence of urban development, which points rather to a past process of continuous “upcycling.” The process was shameless, and one does not have to be a specialist to notice it—for example, in the distribution of certain rocks around town. Once there was a quarry in the eastern deserts of Egypt which the Romans began to exploit early in the first century A.D.: they called it Mons Porphyrites, and it appears to be the only source of that dense purple stone known as porphyry. Whatever pagan extravagance was served by porphyry in imperial Rome, that was evidently no obstacle to its recruitment for the most sacrosanct structures and symbols of Christianity. Everyone who steps across the threshold of St. Peter’s Basilica should know that the keys of heaven embedded there were by material once property of an emperor such as Nero. “Pre-loved” is our new euphemism for used or secondhand, and it works well enough here.

Archaeologists working in Rome need no reminding that there is scarcely any excavation that does not feature the frustrating phenomenon of the “robber trench”—the intrusion of subterranean raiders in search of metal, marble, and more. Yet archaeologists can also testify that this is a city in which very little gets truly “lost”—despite the recurrent appeals to a “lost Rome” (Roma sparita, or Roma perduta). By senatorial decree, Nero Claudius Caesar should have been completely erased from the record: absolute oblivion was the intent of damnatio memoriae. Almost the opposite has happened. The tourists driven like brutes through the Vatican museums are shown a huge porphyry basin that is (if preposterously) claimed as “Nero’s bath.” The more selective minority who gain access to the cavernous ruins of Nero’s Golden House are given a truly astonishing three-dimensional experience of how that palace once appeared. No doubt its marble revetments, stripped to embellish first the Baths of Titus, then those of Trajan, are now lodged in several of Rome’s sixteenth-century churches: in any case, their original effect has been digitally retrieved. “What a maker [artifex] dies with me!” were reportedly Nero’s last words. It is in the nature of Rome that the emperor’s own epitaph resonates, even through the dense meters of humus that lie upon his Golden House.

Where is Rome in the world today—in the European Union, in “modernity” itself—except as a marginal curiosity?

Such obduracy creates a challenge for the historian. When one epoch elides so substantially with another, how does an “epoch” stand? In this flux of regeneration, does anything essentially change? Does it make sense to entitle a book The Rome We Have Lost?1 By convention, as John Pemble points out, the history of Rome is (with nice Classical echo) divided into three parts: Rome the ancient city (nominally 753 B.C. to the fourth century A.D.); Rome ruled by the papacy (till 1870); then Rome the capital of unified Italy. (Pemble prefers to begin with Anno Domini, but in doing so overlooks the fact that certain aspects of archaic Rome, including the designated “Hut of Romulus” on the Palatine, were carefully kept visible through the Imperial period.) Pemble’s particular focus is upon the transition that took place in the nineteenth century, from “Old Rome, the Rome of the sovereign popes [to] New Rome, the capital of the kings and presidents of Italy.” His tone is elegiac. Where is Rome in the world today—in the European Union, in “modernity” itself—except as a marginal curiosity?

With due apprehension, Pemble frequently invokes terms such as “modernity” and “the Western mind,” supporting statements largely culled from the literature of Rome as perceived by visiting intellectuals—Shelley, the Goncourts, Hawthorne, James, et al. The style is expansive and meandering, with digressions upon Lord Elgin in Athens, Edwin Lutyens at Thiepval, and so on (presumably this reflects Rome’s former cultural “reach”). By contrast, the protagonists of the Risorgimento are given little voice; and what Rome means to modern Italy goes unexplored. The result is a somewhat enigmatic monograph. Is it a lament for the decline of the Classics—deploring the fact (and it is a fact) that few visitors to the Vatican today will pause to admire the Apollo Belvedere? It does not read like a dance upon the grave of apostolic authority: so is it simply a funerary oration for the grand theater of Rome’s theocratic estate?

The Prussian poet and historian Ferdinand Gregorovius witnessed the “liberation” of Rome in the late summer of 1870, and dolefully recorded his snap verdict: “Rome has lost the air of world republic. It has sunk to the status of capital of the Italians—who are too feeble for such an occasion.” Gregorovius, chronicler of the Borgias and other such worthies of medieval Italy, was perhaps always bound to make such a judgment, just as Edward Gibbon, surveying the pastoral scene that was the Roman Forum in 1764, yearned for the golden age of the Antonine emperors. But in that “golden age,” average life expectancy was barely forty-five, while Rome the Christian cosmopolis, for Gregorovius “the moral center of the world,” was rank with malaria. Gregorovius quit the city before its new administrators began construction of the muraglioni, the massive embankments that prevent the Tiber from flooding. The “lost Rome” recorded in the nineteenth-century watercolors of Ettore Roesler Franz is mainly characterized by damp, enclosed, and tottering quarters: picturesque, indeed—but good riddance?

Rome resists the neat contrast, the easy narrative.

For the historian who needs it, evidence of ideological antagonism between papal “Old Rome” and secular “New Rome” could be nicely assembled. One might, for example, make a tale of two statues. In December 1857, Pius IX inaugurates the Column of the Immaculate Conception by the Piazza di Spagna, celebrating the freshly established dogma of Marian purity—while cannibalizing, of course, an ancient Corinthian capital that once supported the goddess Minerva. Three decades on, and a bronze effigy of Giordano Bruno is raised in the Campo de’ Fiori—the site where in 1600 the gentle friar was burned alive for the heresy of scientific research. “Guard this jealously, my lord mayor,” declares one of the politicians at the ceremony. “It is the first milestone in the advance of the new Rome.” Already the monument had been denounced by Pope Leo XIII as an outrage to Rome and to the church. A further “liberal” proposal, to put statues of Mazzini and Garibaldi upon the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, thus replacing the replacements made by Sixtus V—Saints Peter and Paul—was never fulfilled. We sense the tension nonetheless.

Yet Rome resists the neat contrast, the easy narrative. A story that lionizes the “liberal” Garibaldi and condemns the “illiberal” clerics will not work. There is too much of Freemasonry and Savoyard maneuvering in the Garibaldi ranks, while just a superficial survey of papal succession warns against assuming monolithic consistency from the Vatican. The Piedmontese architects who descended upon Rome after 1870 were by no means the first to impose orthogonal order on the city: clean lines were pioneered by Nicholas V in the fifteenth century, and never better exemplified than by the “trident” extending from Piazza del Popolo, realized by Clement VII before 1527. Anyone gazing upon the most conspicuous architectural statement declared by the new regime in 1885, the “Altar of the Fatherland” dominating Piazza Venezia, may be forgiven for wondering what happened to the native genius of those designers preferred by the Renaissance popes—Alberti, Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Sangallo, et al. The triple-chinned cardinals of Baroque portraits may have vanished from the scene; whether we would prefer to see the faces of the men nowadays being chauffeured through the city center in dark-screened limousines is a moot point.

The tale of Rome ab urbe condita, “from the city’s foundation,” seemed like a miracle to historians around the time of Augustus. There was the squat thatched hovel signifying a mere shepherds’ settlement at the time of Romulus—amid marble columns marking the center of world empire that grew from such basic origins. Attempts at rational explanation for such development—for example, acclaiming Romulus for his choice of a site that was inland, yet with access to the sea, and control of salt pans—were unconvincing. So the legend of a divinely ordained city, Roma aeterna, a Rome that was always intended to exist by supernatural logic, entered currency. But even historians in antiquity liked to think that mere mortals carried some responsibility for shaping events. So how should those events, fantastic as they might seem, be reported? One answer to that question comes with the method adopted by Ferdinand Addis in his fresh conspectus of the “Eternal City.”2 Addis has worked as a journalist and filmmaker, and it shows: what he does is to devolve some three thousand years’ history into a series of animated tableaux, beginning with “The Wolf Children” of 753 B.C. and closing with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita of 1960.

Written with pace and panache, the narrative mode seems “modern.” But the author’s confession of an undergraduate fondness for Livy, that is, for what remains of Livy’s 142-volume account of Rome from Romulus to Augustus, indicates his debt to a Classical tradition that is essentially dramatic. Livy was not interested in statistics, strategies, or sociological process, but rather in extraordinary events and their protagonists. By Livy’s account, typically, it is no political upheaval that brings about the formation of the Roman Republic: instead, it is a tragic assault upon the virtue of a woman named Lucretia. Addis follows Livy’s model. Those who know their Roman history will admire, for instance, the ingenuity with which he sets the Carthaginian Wars within the knockabout frame of Roman comedy. Those unfamiliar with events across the millennia will enjoy the modulation of short sentences, switches of tense, sharp characterization, and brisk scene-setting. By juxtaposing the personal with the public, the particular with the general, almost every chapter becomes a tour de force, and the energy scarcely fades: so the penultimate tableau, entitled “The Ghetto,” weaves into Mussolini’s liaison with Margherita Sarfatti both a deft summary of Fascist Italy and a plangent memorandum of Jewish Rome.

“The city,” Addis concludes, “has always had too much symbolic power, too much history.” He may be right. Perhaps it is sheer overload that saddens us in Rome. Or perhaps it is simply the persistent antiphony, down the centuries, of triumph and lament—thematically acknowledged in the murals lately displayed along the Tiber by William Kentridge. For every part demolished another is excavated. And so this city continues at once to honor and diminish all those who created her.


  1.  The Rome We Have Lost, by John Pemble; Oxford University Press, 192 pages, $24.95.
  2.  The Eternal City: A History of Rome, Ferdinand Addis; Pegasus Books, 648 pages, $35.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 17
Copyright © 2018 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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