23rd July 2007: Rome

So, you want to visit Ancient Rome?

You’ll find it’s been invaded by Vandals and Visigoths and Ostrogoths and Renaissances and Baroques and Italians driving vespas, and most recently of all by the tourist hordes.

“If you come to the city that all roads lead to, it’s not surprising that the traffic is terrible,” Zorinth said as we walked to the hotel on the first evening. “I’ve counted sixty vespas on this block alone. And imagine the first day in this heat when they stopped wearing togas and started to wear trousers!”

Rome is a city that has been endlessly reimagining its own past from practically the moment that Romulus and Remus said goodbye to the wolf. Republican Rome reimagined Early Rome, Imperial Rome successively reimagined Republican Rome and itself, the Renaissance and every period since has reimagined and reclaimed Imperial Rome in its own image. It’s worth claiming and reclaiming, inventing and reinventing. What’s here is more than the shadow of a broken column in the sunshine — but the broken column stands for the whole. It wasn’t a perfect civilization, but it was an interesting and appealing one, especially at a distance that lets you have perspective about the slaves and the women and the vicious nexus.

When you’re looking at a second century Roman statue that’s a copy of a fifth century BC Greek statue and which was patched up in the Renaissance, there isn’t a question of authenticity, there’s a questioning of the whole concept. When there’s a pizzeria with one wall that used to be part of a Roman palace and another where chunks of marble from columns and anything lying around have been hastily cobbled together in mortar, and this isn’t anything at all out of the ordinary, you realize how oversimplified your, well, Zorinth’s, idea of knocking down the whole modern city and excavating is.

It’s the most layered place I have ever been.

Zorinth will be posting pictures later or tomorrow.

It must be strange to inhabit, to live with the layering. It’s strange just to walk around, looking for Ancient Rome and tripping over a Baroque church, or a Renaissance fountain, that you’d travel to see in any other context. You curse Victor Emannuel, the nineteenth century king who united Italy as a country, for building his monument on the Forum, and yet you understand why he did it. You hatch plans to ask for the Pantheon back — after all, the world is full of churches, and how many complete pagan temples are there, perfect ones with a space at the centre that leads your eye up and out to the sky and the gods of the sky? Ones that were founded by M. Agrippa, consul for the third time? It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes. And you realise that even as you resent the modern buildings and the vespas and want your temple back, you are making your own claim — after all, don’t you sometimes speak of the Romans as “we”? Didn’t you come to modern Italy to visit Ancient Rome?

Well, reclaiming and reinventing Rome is what the Romans do.

Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face