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Rome: the Paradise, the grave, the city, the wilderness

The following is an abridged extract from The Rome We Have Lost by John Pemble and discusses how Rome, the eternal city, the centre of Europe and, in many ways, the world evolved into a city no longer central and unique, but marginal and very similar in its problems and its solutions to other modern cities with a heavy burden of “heritage.” These arguments illuminate the historical significance of Rome’s transformation and the crisis that Europe is now confronting as it struggles to re-invent without its ancestral centre—the city that had made Europe what it was, and defined what it meant to be European.

Rome has long featured in Western thinking as the threshold of a transfigured existence. Poets had been going there since 1341, when Petrarch travelled from Avignon to be immortalised by being crowned laureate on the Capitol, and an unending procession of painters, sculptors, architects, composers, philosophers, historians, antiquarians, connoisseurs, and sentimental tourists had followed, lured by the poetic promise of apotheosis. By the early seventeenth century, no education was deemed complete that had not encompassed Rome, the central shrine and academy of civilisation, and an assurance of rebirth both historical and metaphysical. In Rome, a mystic marriage of the sacred and the profane had made humanity divine, and the divine human.

In 1863 historians still spoke of two Romes. The English, Italian, and French adjectives ‘ancient’, ‘antica’, and ‘ancienne’ had been linked to the first of these Romes in the early sixteenth century. By then it had become necessary to distinguish between the Rome of the Caesars and the sumptuous Rome that the popes, by demolishing its buildings and recycling the marble, were creating in its place. This second city was referred to as ‘New Rome’ (Nova Urbs) in a descriptive guide of 1510, and the designation served until the end of the nineteenth century. By 1952 two had become three; Rome had been transformed to a degree unmatched by any other major city in that age of urban demolition and development. ‘New Rome’ was then transferred to the third city on the site: a modern megalopolis that lived for its own purposes, proclaimed its own values, and built its own monuments. The second city now became ‘Old Rome’. Each of these Romes was perceived very differently from the others, because each had its distinctive cultural signature and historical tempo.

The cultural signature of ancient Rome was epic. It was in poems of immense length, dramas with hugely magnified characters, films with casts of thousands, histories in multiple volumes. Its story moved slowly but inexorably through a millenarian chronology from heroic beginnings to a world-shaking end, from brick to marble and from marble to ruin: a saga of rise, decline, and fall that had for centuries served as an exemplar for all republics and a warning to all empires.

Old Rome was measured on a more human scale, in the poetry of Byron and Shelley, the novels of Germaine de Stael, Nathanial Hawthorne, and the portraits and landscapes that were brought back from the Grand Tour. Everything about Old Rome was old, and only its ruins were older than its ruling dynasty of sovereign pontiffs. To go to Old Rome was to be afflicted by the wreckage of empire and by grim intimations of mortality; yet at the same time it was to be consoled by sights, sounds, and silences that transcended the havoc of circumstance and time. Its existence was periodically threatened by momentous events – invasion, revolution, war; but then everything would again be much the same, and history would seem to have passed by and left Old Rome in its haunted interlude between the nevermore and the not yet.

New Rome’s cultural significance was in journalism, fashion, films, and football. Its pulse raced in stations, airports, and arterial roads. It lived by growing, and it grew almost to suffocate in its own excess.

New Rome’s cultural significance was in journalism, fashion, films, and football. Its pulse raced in stations, airports, and arterial roads. It lived by growing, and it grew almost to suffocate in its own excess. Rome fed its voracious appetite for land by devouring the rural Campagna, the classical landscape of Latium that had surrounded Old Rome with Arcadia and malaria. It was now girdled by a fifty-kilometre ring road intersected at thirty-three junctions by converging radial motorways. It was cleaned, paved, drained, tram lined, and tunnelled for a metro. It curbed the unruly Tiber with embankments and conduits, transformed its ragged shores into boulevards, and threw ten bridges across its yellow stream. It delivered drinking water to fifth-floor taps, and the blaze of its nocturnal illumination cast an artificial twilight on the clouds. But it was blighted by congestion, corruption, crime, and noise and its air was so polluted that it made historic stonework crumble and crack. New Rome made no trysts with foreign poets and sentimental travellers. Visitors to Old Rome had recalled the Colosseum as a moonlit ruin in solitude; visitors to New Rome recalled it, if they recalled it at all, as a floodlit monument on a traffic island. To those who remembered the starry darkness of Old Rome—but forgot its medieval smells and alleys ankle-deep in filth – New Rome was a vortex with emptiness at its heart.

Yet despite all this evidence of plurality and variation, the idea of immutability had always been inseparable from Rome. Proverbially, Rome was ‘eternal’ and ‘immortal’. These designations derived from its sacramental status in pagan and Christian culture, and from its will to survive by recycling the ruins of its own past. They denoted a mystic trinity: a city that was three cities in one. Each Rome, in each of its configurations – republican, imperial, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Fascist, post-war – had always subsumed what came before and prefigured what came after. A sensitive ear heard always in the music of Rome the same theme in different keys.

By 1952, Old Rome no longer existed and much of Europe was rubble and ashes. Modernity, endlessly and fretfully unstable, had cherished Old Rome in order to destroy it. But in the postmodern view Old Rome was not a victim, it was a culprit. It had been the centre of the modern world, and it had been modernity’s accomplice and example in its cosmic intellectual enterprise – an enterprise that postmoderns incriminated as the author of Europe’s catastrophe.

The Romano-centric world, with its mantras of reason, progress, and syntax, with its absolute values and its universal truths had, they argued, provided an endorsement for intolerance and a template for tyranny. Then, towards the end of the twentieth century, their verdict was in its turn being challenged, and a reversal of roles and reputations was bringing the story of Old Rome full circle. The accusers were now themselves accused – of deluding themselves that they had escaped from modernity, of falsifying history, of conducting an intolerant, totalitarian intellectual enterprise of their own. At the same time, the culprit was again becoming a victim. The Romano-centric world was being rediscovered as a benefactor of mankind, and Old Rome attained apotheosis as the Rome we have lost—a fleeting triumph over ruin and disorder.

Featured image credit: Panorama by sosinda. CC0 via Pixabay.

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