Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Masolino D'Amico, The Times Literary Supplement July 1, 2009

A caption in the exhibition on the Emperor Vespasian currently in the Colosseum describes the Arch of Titus – only a few hundred yards away – as one of the best-preserved monuments from the Flavian dynasty. Yet what we have now is largely a nineteenth-century reconstruction. In 1819–22 the neoclassical architects Robert Stern and Giuseppe Valadier pulled down the private houses that had encroached on the sides of the arch and thoroughly rebuilt these sides together with the attic, using travertine instead of the original Pentelian marble. The inside of the arch includes the famous relief celebrating the taking of Jerusalem, with the Menorah looted from the Temple prominently displayed. Indeed until 1846, when the ceremony was abolished, every new pope’s inaugural procession passed through the arch, where a Jew was obliged to stand and pay homage to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Both facts – the evolution, as it were, of Titus’ Arch, and its use in papal pageantry – not to be found in most guidebooks, are relevant to David Watkin’s excellent, handy new book, whose main object is to see the Forum not as it looks now – “a long, clean, livid trench”, as Émile Zola wrote in 1896, in which “piles of foundations appear like bits of bone” – but through its metamorphoses over more than 2,000 years, when every age has left its mark. The Forum only ceased to be lived in, by both people and animals, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it was turned into an open-air museum, and archaeologists imposed the view that whatever was Roman must be retrieved, and whatever they considered irrelevant, removed. Uninterested as they were in Baroque architecture, which after all shapes modern Rome much more than relics from antiquity, they ruthlessly destroyed several Baroque churches from the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries; these churches are now recorded only in Piranesi’s incomparable etchings.

Those churches that were allowed to remain – S Lorenzo in Miranda, SS Cosmas and Damian, S Giuseppe dei Falegnami, S Maria Antiqua, all built on ancient constructions – had to turn, as it were, their backs. Nowadays, their fronts on the Forum are no longer accessible, and one enters them through side or back doors, if one enters at all. They were, and still are, deprived of some of their features; this reviewer learned with dismay that the eighteenth-century Neapolitan presepe (crib), once so charmingly exhibited in SS Cosmas and Damian and a wonder to every child of his generation, had been removed to a lobby in the cloister in 1990, when Luigi Arigucci’s seventeenth-century marble floor was unaccountably dismantled.

S Lorenzo in Miranda fared better. It was raised in 1601 inside the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which dates from the second century AD. A majestic portico of Carystian green marble, six columns wide and three deep – no less imposing than that of the Pantheon – encases a tall, elegant façade by Orazio Torriani. This stood at what was then street level, but in more recent times digging has revealed that the columns had been partially buried, and that the temple itself lay on the top of several steps. From the Forum which now lies six metres below, the church behind the pillars appears to be floating in the sky.

Professor Watkin acknowledges that excavations made such monuments as the great Arch of Septimius Severus much more visible than they had been for centuries, but he argues that in most cases only the foundations – that is, holes in the ground – were unearthed, to be exhibited to the visitor with stones of no visible meaning. Even more questionably, edifices have been reconstructed from small fragments, much in the way a dinosaur might be assembled from a single cartilage. Today’s much-admired Temple of Vesta, for instance, in truth dates from the 1930s.

A concentration of temples, altars, market, exchange, meeting halls, tribunals and parliament building, the Forum was the core of the Republican city; later, it became the Empire’s showcase, a jumble of massive erections serving the ego of the ruler of the day. This trend began with Julius Caesar’s renovations, but most of what we now have was achieved in the Imperial period: in his Ten Books on Architecture Vitruvius, who lived in the first century BC, finds almost nothing worth mentioning in the Forum. The largest and possibly the most admired construction, the Basilica of Maxentius – one of the marvels of the Western world – was accomplished around 303 AD.

More successfully than any writer before him, Watkin makes his reader aware of the multilayered, fascinating history of this unique site, which fundamentalist archaeologists had all but transformed into the ditches described by Zola. The French novelist was looking down from the Farnese Gardens, those pleasant terraces with alleys, pavilions, grottoes, built by Renaissance cardinals on the slopes of the Palatine Hill. The pope’s property for centuries, they were sold to the French Emperor in 1861, resold by him to the Italian government in 1870, ruthlessly excavated and ruined, until a sympathetic archaeologist, Giacomo Boni (who died in 1925), tried to recreate something of their shape. A faded reflection of their past splendour, they do nevertheless afford the exhausted tourist some respite.

From BBC History Magazine (September 2009)

Peter Jones reviews THE ROMAN FORUM by David Watkin (Profile, 279 pages, £15.99)

A visit to a famous ancient site, however stimulating, is frequently accompanied by a vague sense of frustration: how did this chaos of pillars, bases, post-holes and stones ever add up to anything, let alone serve a purpose?

Of nowhere is this truer than the Roman forum, the major political hub of the Roman world for a thousand years from 700 BC. Hardly any other site of similar importance is a greater mess. No wonder travel guides have turned to comparisons with the contemporary world to describe it: ‘a kind of Roman Smithfield’, ‘the Tower of London’, ‘Park Lane’ have all been used to describe different features of a place originally used for everything from politics, business and elite housing to religion, law and gladiatorial fights.

David Watkin, Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge, tackles the problem by taking as his starting point the magnificent eighteenth century engravings of the site made by that greatest of engravers Piranesi, when the forum’s romantic and evocative ruins, many half buried in centuries of detritus, were still a living part of the city, interspersed with churches, houses and cows.

After discussing what we know of the forum in antiquity, Watkin first describes what Piranesi showed and did not show of the ancient site, and then turns his attention to the later buildings that the engraver depicts, the churches in particular. At this point, Watkin gets out his machine-gun and trains it on those he holds most responsible for the despoliation of the forum: the archaeologists who, with pick-axe and dynamite, began to excavate deeper and wider, in order to uncover the secrets of the original forum – in the process destroying centuries of architectural history, especially ecclesiastical.

The story culminates with Mussolini in 1925. Determined that ‘Rome must appear in all its splendour: immense, ordered and powerful as it was at the time of the first empire, that of Augustus’, Mussolini drove his (ironically named) Via dei Fori Imperiali right through 84% of the forums of the emperors Nerva and Trajan, destroying in the process 40,000 square metres of some of the most historic parts of ancient, medieval and renaissance Rome.

With verve, authority and no little humour, Watkin tells the detailed and complex story of this great but mutilated landmark and reactions to it (‘dirty cowfield...obscenely defiled by wild beats...half-gorged by the facade of a hideous Renaissance church’: William Howells, 1866). It is an almost impossible task, superbly done.

The moral of his tale, however, is debatable. Watkin argues that a few ugly 9thC BC post-holes are not worth the destruction of what is aesthetically pleasing; we should leave well alone and let modern classical architects give us our sense of the ‘classical’ – surely a very risky business, given their efforts so far. At least archaeologists have a noble end, knowledge and understanding, in view. The argument surely is about developing non-invasive technology (MRI scans are already used) to do the job of the spade. What price key-hole archaeology?

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