Rome may be the Eternal City, but even eternal cities change. John Pemble counts the ways in his beautiful, elegiac book The Rome We Have Lost, its title foreshadowing a prevailing sense of irrevocable loss. As he charts the drastic physical transformations that have permanently altered Rome and its surrounding countryside since Italy became a unified state in 1870, he traces an equal, if not greater, transformation in the city’s significance to the world at large.
Tourists still flock to Rome today, of course, but an early nineteenth-century visitor entered what was in many ways an entirely different city, and, despite its evident decline from the glory days of its ancient empire, a far more important one. The ring of red brick walls raised by the emperor Aurelian in the late third century AD still separated Romans from their countryside, and the countryside, with its scattered farmsteads, aqueducts, and medieval towers, stretched undisturbed to the neighboring volcanic hills, with their aristocratic villas perched dramatically on the slopes. Ordinary people lived in the Roman Forum. So did farm animals; Romans referred to the Forum’s neighborhood as the “Cow Pasture” (Campo Vaccino) and to the Capitol, where the colossal temple of Jupiter once rose to dizzying heights, as “Goat Hill” (Monte Caprino). Country girls, fresh from the Appian Way, bathed in a swimming hole by the ruins of the Circus Maximus before driving their flocks into town. The pope moved freely about his capital, for he ruled over a substantial region of central Italy, the Papal States, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. He maintained apartments in the Vatican, but also in a grand palace on the Quirinal Hill (today it houses the President of Italy) and the Lateran Palace on the city’s southern edge, not to mention his villa in Castel Gandolfo. Pemble summarizes the peculiarity of what he calls Old Rome in the title of his first chapter: “Paradise, Grave, City, Wilderness.”
Old Rome may have been a more contained city, and a more rustic city than New Rome, the capital of a minor European state, but its supremacy in the world’s imagination rested securely on its incomparable treasury of art and architecture. A visit to the Vatican in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century meant beholding what most contemporaries would have pronounced one of the most beautiful works of art ever made by human hands—not a creation by Michelangelo, but something infinitely more precious: an ancient marble statue of Apollo striding forth with bow in hand, stark naked but for his fluttering cloak and divinely ornate pair of sandals. To stand in the presence of this image, the Apollo Belvedere, was to stand in the presence of civilization itself, which is why Italians in 1760 were so eager to see how a young Philadelphia painter, Benjamin West, would react to seeing its sublime perfection for the first time. West’s response is legendary: “My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior!” No wonder this quick-witted Pennsylvanian eventually headed the Royal Academy of Painters in London; like his contemporary Benjamin Franklin, he knew how to turn his exotic origin entirely to his advantage (and how to pass for a Quaker in spirit if not absolutely to the letter). In the eyes of its enraptured viewers, the Apollo’s slender figure, as Pemble shows by eloquent example, had captured the spirit of Greece and transferred it to Rome. For several centuries, the early modern city had already prided itself on having rescued the legacies of both Egypt and Greece from the clutches of the expanding Ottoman empire. The great Raphael captured that salvific spirit in two frescoes for the papal palace, The School of Athens (1509–1511) and Parnassus (1512): to demonstrate Rome’s absorption of Greece, he painted a Roman concrete vault arching over the conclave of Greek philosophers ostensibly debating in Athens. But they are, of course, in Italy, painted on an Italian wall, with their books safely stored away within the Vatican Library. Mount Parnassus was the proverbial Greek home of the Muses, but Raphael shows Apollo, the Muses, and a pride of poets gathered on what must be the gentler slopes of the Vatican, not only Greeks, but also Italians, from Dante to Raphael’s own contemporaries. For generations of pilgrims and Grand Tourists, early modern Rome, Pemble’s Old Rome, had become Europe’s Egypt and Europe’s Greece. And then, abruptly, the load of marbles that Lord Elgin prised from the Parthenon and shipped to London transformed the way Europeans looked at Greek art. The Apollo Belvedere, that sovereign embodiment of pure Beauty, toppled from its throne. Today, the hordes tramping through the Vatican Museums are primed, indeed driven, to worship Michelangelo, while the Apollo Belvedere, like Raphael’s frescoes, all of them once admired as pinnacles of artistic achievement in their own right, have been reduced to minor stops on the relentless cattle drive toward the Sistine Chapel.
With poignant sensitivity, Pemble draws out the parallel between the shifting fortunes of the Apollo Belvedere and the shifting status of Rome itself. Ironically, this former capital of a worldwide empire, this nerve center of the Renaissance, was surprisingly ill equipped to become the capital of a modern European state in 1870.
Pemble devotes a bracingly original discussion to the Renaissance, which he introduces as a phenomenon of the nineteenth century rather than the fifteenth:
Reacting against histories that, by conflicting with each other, perpetuated the conflicts they described, modern historians invested heavily in a consensual counter-history. They changed the model of historiography by adopting a language that was resonant with ideas of continuity, healing renewal, and light.... Evolutionary rather than revolutionary in their way of thinking, modern historians adapted their ideas less and less to the closed circle of life, and more to the open spiral of progress. Discarding the four traditional ages of man—of gold, silver, bronze, and iron—they invented three syncretic concepts, each defining a momentous and therapeutic reshaping of Western experience, and each featuring Rome as essential to the transformation. These three inventions were Civilization, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.
Unified Italy added another element to that heady triad: progress, an altar on which the new Italian government willingly sacrificed much of Old Rome’s physical body, followed in turn by Mussolini and a rogue’s gallery of corrupt postwar real-estate developers. Fifty years ago, the drive from Rome to Tivoli barely differed from the country outing Grand Tourists and Romans had enjoyed forever. Now the trip is a nightmare crawl through almost unrelenting industrial blight. A rubber factory rises within a few hundred yards of the emperor Hadrian’s incomparable villa, and a recent city administration hoped to use a nearby plot of land for a landfill. Pemble clocks the magnitude of this destruction by reminding us how many people passed along this same road when it was beautiful rather than squalid, their lives immeasurably enriched by the journey. The people in his vignettes range over five centuries, from 1500 to the present, and for the most part he treats them gently: in his hands, even an exuberant Franz Liszt will strike readers more as a sensitive observer than an inveterate, constant performer.
Archaeology, invented in the Renaissance, fine tuned in the Enlightenment, and pressed into national service after 1870 in the name of Progress, has cut its own swath of destruction across the face of Old Rome. The old Cow Pasture of the Forum, rather than a living neighborhood, has become a fenced-off monument. For a brief time around 2010, Rome’s city government opened the lower reaches of the Forum to the public, and at last Romans could walk across their city the way people had done since the time of Romulus. Sadly, thieves and vandals, taking advantage of their free access to tourists and monuments, made short work of the experiment. In the early twentieth century, Athens also gutted part of its vibrant Plaka district to uncover the ancient Agorà, and it is only with hindsight that we can see how much better it is for a long-lived city to inhabit the ruins of antiquity than to embalm them as Monuments. The Colosseum, a building once devoted to the gruesome destruction of wildlife (its cruel beast hunts decimated the animal populations of North Africa), became a botanical garden when it fell to ruin and the exotic seeds that had traveled on the fur of the arena’s victims dropped and germinated. Napoleon, as Pemble notes, was the first villain to pull those irreplaceable weeds.
Archaeology also squelched the taste for restoring broken statues and broken buildings, creating a still-active cult of fragmentary antiquities from the nineteenth century onward. The Apollo Belvedere lost his sixteenth-century hands (though Pemble’s photograph still shows him with his eighteenth-century fig leaf), and the equally famous Vatican statue of the Trojan priest Laocoön lost the substitute arm that Michelangelo had given him—fortunately, the real missing arm had been discovered in the meantime. The Vatican Museums’ fig leaves have all been retired by now, replaced by the original stone genitalia, all carefully preserved in a storeroom after their removal.
The ruling classes of modern Rome settled in the hilly areas to the north of the city. Stringent taxes prompted old aristocratic families in those areas to liquidate their assets, from works of art to tracts of land. At the end of the nineteenth century, the most beautiful of all Rome’s gardens, the Villa Ludovisi, fell at last to the developer’s axe and became the neighborhood of the new Via Veneto. An outraged Augustus Hare attributed the destruction to “the Italians’ hatred of trees,” but the real motive was, naturally, money, touted as Progress. There was also a sharp political point to be made by turning over these immense private properties to the public: Old Rome was still very much a feudal society, and modern Italy tried its best to eradicate some of the old inequalities. The private plaisances of the Borghese and Doria Pamphilj clans have become two of Rome’s favorite public parks, and life in present-day Rome is inconceivable without them—as it is without the urbanized remnants of the Villa Ludovisi.
The city’s southern reaches, on the other hand, came to house the manual laborers who physically built the expanding capital, many of them natives of southern Italy. Pemble rightly mourns the invasion of Rome’s countryside, the Campagna, by cheap, ugly postwar housing, but these undistinguished buildings also represent positive changes: as visible records of individual hopes for a better life, they also signal Italy’s entry into the leading economies of the world. Thatched shepherd’s huts no longer dot the fields as they did in the early twentieth century, which means that at last people are not living in the same conditions Romulus experienced in the Iron Age. As Pemble chronicles the changes that this exceptionally durable community has undergone in the past several centuries, he recognizes that those transformations have been complicated, often two-edged, and that the Rome we have lost has given way irrevocably to the Rome we have, a healthier, cleaner, more equitable city, still struggling to reconcile its urgent present with the specter of the past. For anyone who loves Rome, old or new, The Rome We Have Lost, with its store of erudition, its originality, and its refusal to accept easy solutions to complex dilemmas, is a book to treasure.
The Rome We Have Lost
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 192 pp.