On My Way to the Colosseum...

June 21, 2011 Topics: HistoryPolitics Regions: Italy

On My Way to the Colosseum...

Mini Teaser: R. J. B. Bosworth’s most recent tome navigates the changing politics and identity of Rome, from papal preserve to Fascist enclave to republican capital, deftly illustrating that the Eternal City is forever a work in progress.

by Author(s): Mary Beard

R. J. B. Bosworth, Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 368 pp., $35.00.

[amazon 9780300114713 full]WHISPERING CITY begins at the Colosseum metro station in central Rome, where a couple of tired “Roman legionaries” are taking a break and enjoying a cup of coffee at the station bar. Dressed up in hot, sweaty leather uniforms, with shiny helmets and unwieldy swords, these hucksters seem to make a reasonable living by selling themselves as a photo opportunity to weary tourists at the vast Roman amphitheater that still stands in the middle of one of the city’s busiest traffic islands, just across the road from the station. In fact, alongside the banks of souvenir stalls and the touts flogging what must be some of the most expensive bottled water in the Western world, these fancy-dress soldiers have become—over the last twenty years or so—a distinctive part of the landscape around Rome’s most iconic ancient monument.

Their presence has not been entirely trouble free. Some years ago, the “legionary business” got very nasty, when rival gangs tried to oust each other from the most visible and profitable pitches on the tourist route. The authorities were forced to step in with regulations: no more than fifty legionary licenses were to be issued at any one time, no one with a criminal record could be accredited and, as a precautionary measure, all swords were to be made of plastic. But there was no move to ban the trade entirely. This was largely because these characters were—and remain—very popular with the public. The truth is that the Colosseum is a stunning monument from the outside; on the inside, it is sadly disappointing. Over the last century of modern archaeology, it has been turned from a picturesque “site of memory” to an unattractively dilapidated ruin—hard for anyone to imagine in its original lavish form, and even harder to picture complete with the violent shows of fighting men and beasts that once took place there. The legionaries (or are they meant to be gladiators?) are one of the few things that can still bring it to life.

R. J. B. Bosworth’s Whispering City focuses on the religious, political and cultural disputes that have surrounded these monuments of the city of Rome over the last two centuries (“the jangling histories that clamor to be acknowledged in the Rome of the third millennium after Christ”). In the case of the Colosseum, one of these disputes has been about its sacred status. Is this a monument of the Catholic Church and a hallowed place of Christian martyrdom, or is it an archaeological site and symbol of the secular city? Across several chapters, Bosworth nicely tracks the swings of influence backward and forward between church and state by charting the appearance and disappearance of the prominent cross in the Colosseum’s arena. First installed in the mid-eighteenth century, it was removed by the Napoleonic regime in Rome at the very end of the 1700s; a replacement was installed after the fall of the French and then taken down again when Rome became capital of Italy (and the pope was more or less penned up in the Vatican) in the 1870s. Mussolini had a cross put back again in 1927 (and it is still there, though to one side of the arena, and goes largely unnoticed).

In fact, Mussolini had other, secular ambitions for the Colosseum. For, in one of his bravest, or most shameless, interventions into the Roman cityscape, he also turned it into the landmark at one end of his new arterial road, the Via dell’Impero (“Empire Street”)—which plowed through swaths of the idyllic old city (or slums, depending on your point of view) to end up in the Piazza Venezia at the foot of the Victor Emmanuel Monument (the “wedding cake” or the “typewriter”). This road has since been renamed the Via dei Fori Imperiali (“Street of the Imperial Fora,” after the ancient monuments which it also partly destroyed); but it is still a major Roman highway, or more often bottleneck, and is still decorated along one side with four marble maps showing the growth of the ancient Roman Empire put up by “Il Duce.” The fifth map, which documented the extent of the Fascist empire, including Libya, Eritrea and Somalia—with Albania added later—was removed after Mussolini was overthrown; parts of it are said to have turned up in Kansas in the 1990s, apparently taken home in the 1940s by a member of the Forty-Fifth Infantry Division.

But as Bosworth shows, the question of who really owns Rome has long been at the center of controversy across the city as a whole. The Colosseum debate proves to be only one of many archaeological victims of circumstance. And the push and pull between the papacy and the secular state is but one aspect in the proprietary battle for the city.

ROME—HOW to manage it, arrange it, beautify it and interpret it—has been debated by scholars, politicians and critics, both local and foreign, from antiquity to our own day (but especially in the West since around 1800). For centuries, elite travelers from northern Europe and America treated the city as somehow “belonging” to them, as if they were the more authentic heirs of ancient Roman culture than the modern population. Bosworth has unearthed some devastating passages of cultural imperialism—none more telling than an op-ed in the London Times in 1911 which greeted the completion of the Victor Emmanuel Monument. “The Romans themselves,” the writer observes, “are not content that Rome should be a city for tourists and students. They regard it as their own city.” As if it wasn’t their own city? But more generally, there is a repeated pattern in the history of modern travelers’ responses to Rome—one that is often found in reactions to Athens and other Mediterranean “classical” towns as well. First the (let’s say) nineteenth-century visitor laments the appalling unsanitary conditions of the town in question: the disease, the dark, narrow streets, the dirt. Ten years later, the slums have been cleared, the people have been rehoused in modern blocks with modern conveniences, and the same writer now laments the loss of the picturesque streets that had been the distinctive hallmark of the old city. It is as if the towns of the Mediterranean had been built as a stage set for the travelers from the north and the west to enjoy, and to decry.

Then there are the reactions and debates of bona fide Romans to the extraordinary environment in which they live. The whole of the history of Rome is in Bosworth’s sights, right back to its mythical foundation by Romulus in 753 BC. But his narrative of the Romans’ engagement with their past concentrates on the period from the Napoleonic occupation, through the Risorgimento, on—unearthing marvelously revealing detail at each stage. This memorably includes the mad plan of the elderly Garibaldi in the 1870s to solve Rome’s flooding problems by diverting the river Tiber through a canal well away from the city. The plan was scotched for lack of funds, and also because, for most Romans, the Tiber (uncontrollable or not) was itself one of the indispensable monuments of the city. Some people even argued that the Tiber floods were markers of great events in Rome’s past. Indeed, it was only because the Tiber overflowed all those centuries ago that the baby twins, Romulus and Remus, had been washed up and rescued by the wolf.

Whispering City is not, for the most part, a history of the outsider’s view of Rome; it looks hard at the micromanagement of the city’s history from the inside and has a sharp eye for significant clues. Part of the story emerges in the apparently simple change of street names. Neither the United States nor the UK commemorates its history quite so emphatically in the coining of its thoroughfares. In Italy and other European countries, a national story is regularly on display at every street corner—not just the country’s heroes, but dates of battles and key victories. London may have a Trafalgar Square, but it has nothing like a Via XX Settembre (named for the date on which the Italian forces broke through the walls of Rome in 1870) or a Via XXVII Aprile (named for the date on which Mussolini was captured) or, for that matter, a Piazza dei Cinquecento (named not, as many imagine, for a glorious century of the Italian Renaissance but for the—almost—five hundred Italians killed at the Battle of Dogali in Ethiopia in 1887).

Throughout the book, Bosworth points to the changing politics of this particular form of naming in Rome. Mussolini’s Via dell’Impero was by no means the only highway to be given a new title to fit new politics. The Via dei Legionari (“Legionary Street”) was renamed “Via Antonio Gramsci” in 1944, after the Marxist critic and philosopher imprisoned by Mussolini. (Bosworth does not mention that the part of the Via Gramsci in front of the British School at Rome was later renamed “Piazzale Winston Churchill”—making a pair of rather unlikely political neighbors.) And changing times had drastic effects on other names and locations. The “Viale Adolf Hitler,” named for the Führer’s famous visit to Rome in 1938 (when, ironically, he was shown round the major antiquities of the city by one of Rome’s best-known young Marxist archaeologists), was swiftly and pointedly changed after World War II into the “Viale delle Cave Ardeatine,” to commemorate a Nazi massacre in 1944.

Pullquote: The point is that the history of Rome is always a “work in progress” and remains so right up to the present moment, with all the ambivalences and contradictions that implies.Image: Essay Types: Book Review