Tuesday, June 7, 2016

O Bella Roma

Relatively fresh from a visit to Italy, specifically those cities which seem to be most visited by tourists like myself (Rome, Florence and Venice), I'm inclined to expound on them here--that place where I am emperor, of ice cream (or gelato?) if anything at all.

As may be guessed from my nom de blog and a review of this blog itself, I'm fascinated by the history of ancient Rome.  At long last, I've personally seen many of its ruins.  Edward Gibbon on viewing the Roman Forum was inclined to bemoan its condition, and this he wrote motivated his history of Rome's decline and fall.  It seems in much better shape now than it was when he viewed it, but in viewing it myself I'm inclined to marvel at its ruins.  Perhaps I entirely lack any Romantic instincts, but I'm too impressed by the remains of ancient Rome to indulge in pontifications along the lines of sic transit gloria mundi.

The ruins of the Forum including the rostra and the Curia, the arches of Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine, Trajan's Market, his column, his forum; those of Augustus and Nerva, the Ars Pacis Augustae, the mausoleum of Augustus, the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, the Flavian Amphitheater a/k/a the Colosseum, the tomb of Hadrian, the column of Marcus Aurelius and his equestrian statue, represent only the most evident architectural monuments of Rome and its empire, and they're stunning to one such as me.

It's difficult to imagine how impressive they were thousands of years ago.  Henry James, I know, found Roman ruins (or at least some of them) indicative of a kind of brutality and baseness.  They were just too big for Henry.  I wonder, though, whether his attitude and those of others with similar views is more an implied acknowledgement of how small we and our civilization became after Rome fell.  It's easy in a way to resent the Romans as it took us centuries to achieve what they achieved even in matters of plumbing and hygiene, in the building of roads, the supplying of water to cities, let alone the fine arts.

One thing I find disturbing was the tendency of the popes who restored certain of the ruins to emblazon their names on them.  I suppose the desire was that they be granted a kind of immortality by association with monuments which represented ancient glory and would clearly last far into the future.  Restoration by Christians seems entirely appropriate in any case, however, as various Christians after the fall of the empire regularly took stones and marble from the ruins of Rome to adorn their buildings.

Even more disturbing are the figures of popes and saints which were plopped on top of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  As those columns depict scenes of the conquests and campaigns of those emperors, it's unclear why any pope or saint would be glorified by appearing at the summit of such military monuments.  Churches, of course, were regularly placed on top of pagan temples.  There's something profane about the imposition of Christian icons on and over these pagan relics; something profane about the physical triumph of the Christian sacred.  But who remembers those popes, compared to those who know the names of the emperors who lived centuries earlier?

It can't be doubted that brutality and cruelty were aspects of Roman civilization.  But walking along the Sacred Way, where emperors and generals rode in triumphs and religious processions took place, where Cicero, Cato and Caesar walked, one senses that much more was involved, good and bad, and that what we are now is in large part mere imitation or emulation.  And not merely that of "skirt-mad Mussolini" as Robert Lowell called him, unfurling the eagle of Caesar.

Rome remains a world capitol; a crowded, busy city apart from but existing in and around the imposing corpse of the Roman Empire and of course around the center of what may be called its ghost, the Roman Catholic Church, a sovereign state in its own right thanks to the Lateran Treaty (and Mussolini, it must be said).  But it's still served by the aqueducts which continue to bring potable water to its inhabitants.  Ancient Rome is a living presence in a living city.  It's filled not merely with monuments to the past or recalling the past, but with the past itself.  Rome's past is present.

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