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

He also seeks out modern statues and memorials that have played a key role in defining, or redefining, the Romans’ view of their own history. One fascinating section tells the tale of the statue of Giordano Bruno—sent to the stake for heresy by the Inquisition in 1600—which was erected in 1889 as the centerpiece in the Campo dei Fiori (the very spot on which he had been burned). On the surface this was a moment of triumph for the new secular nation, canonizing a martyr to the cause of free inquiry, persecuted by the tyranny of the Church. The inscription on the base of the statue states that it was put up by “Roman students with the approval of the civilized nations.” Crowds came to witness the unveiling of the statue (inaugurating, as one speaker put it, “the religion of reason”), and the Vatican duly huffed and puffed, then holding a rival “expiatory mass” in St. Peter’s Basilica a couple of weeks later. Yet, as Bosworth explains, there remained unresolved questions about exactly what Bruno stood for. How far was he being promoted as a symbol of out-and-out anticlericalism, in a city where the overwhelming majority of the population were professing Catholics? How far was the creation of this nationalist icon in fact connected to an increasingly expansionist foreign policy—disastrous as that often was, as the Dogali massacre shows? Or how far was Bruno a symbol created more by the outside world than the Italians themselves? After all, the original idea may have come from Italian students, but the organizing committee included the likes of Victor Hugo and Henrik Ibsen.

How local history, foreign policy and the status of religion can all be erected in but one Roman monument is quite remarkable. For whatever its origins, the statue has certainly continued to be a focus of conflict between the Catholic Church and its critics. In the 1920s, Pope Pius XI tried to persuade the new Fascist administration of the city to have it taken down. When that failed, the Church retaliated in 1930 by canonizing Bruno’s main prosecutor, Robert Bellarmine. Even now, it gets covered in decidedly anticlerical graffiti (“Morte ai preti” or “Death to all priests” is about as clearly anticlerical as you could get). This is carefully removed by the “antigraffiti squads,” acting under the instructions of left- and right-wing city governments alike.

BOSWORTH IS, however, at his absolute best on the Fascist period, and on Mussolini’s attempts to refashion the history of the city in the 1920s and ’30s. Even though, as Bosworth reminds us, Mussolini claimed in 1922 never to have visited a museum, his increasing engagement with the ancient Roman past of the city is well-known and has often been regarded with amused tolerance or even sneaking admiration by modern classicists and ancient historians who would strenuously denounce every other aspect of his policies. True, the Via dei Fori Imperiali may now be deemed an urban eyesore; and the pretensions of Il Duce to be the new emperor Augustus, complete with laurel wreath and fasces in some elaborate fancy-dress spectacles, appear more than slightly ridiculous. Yet, it is commonly and rightly said, our knowledge of the archaeology of Rome was transformed under his regime. His archaeologists rediscovered some of the most important monuments of the city, now its best-known landmarks. It is thanks to them that we have the four republican temples that are visible in the center of the square known as the “Largo Argentina.” And, most famously of all, it is to them that we owe the rediscovery of Augustus’s “Ara Pacis” (“Altar of Peace”), with some of the finest sculptures to have survived from antiquity. This was reerected in a prominent position next to the Tiber, within a pavilion designed by one of the regime’s favorite architects, Vittorio Morpurgo, with considerable hands-on interference from Mussolini himself. This has recently been demolished and replaced (rather more than “refashioned” as Bosworth has it, in a rare misrepresentation) with a stark, brilliant-white new pavilion designed by Richard Meier—a controversial postmodernist intrusion into the cityscape which makes Morpurgo’s old version look relatively modest.

Of course there are now qualms about Mussolini’s archaeological methods. Under the regime’s slogan of romanità (“Romanness”), his team cheerfully dug through the remains of all other eras to reach the ancient Roman remains they prized, thus destroying all kinds of information that might have been gleaned on later periods of the city’s history. And the policy of “preservation through isolation”—that is, of clearly marking off, and separating, the archaeological remains from their urban surroundings—is at odds with more recent ideas of preservation and urban planning. Yet it is still the case that “our” ancient city of Rome is in large part a rediscovery and a re-creation of Il Duce and his archaeologists.

These developments are deftly placed in a wider context. Bosworth explains, for example, that these archaeological initiatives were part of a much bigger picture which involved the Vatican too. If, on one side of the city, Mussolini was constructing a road to link the Colosseum to the Piazza Venezia, on the other side, in celebration of his “pact” with the Catholic Church, and with the keen support of the pope, he planned an equally aggressive highway (the Via della Conciliazione—“Reconciliation Street”) leading from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo, so joining the papal city to the secular city center. These schemes were, in a way, an answer to that old question of “Who owns Rome: church or state?” Mussolini came closer than most to squaring the circle, and to suggesting that (at least on the level of city planning) it might be both.

But the main message that underlies Whispering City is how fragile the boundaries are between the Fascist regime and the periods earlier and later. It now suits almost everyone to bracket off the rule of Mussolini, to treat it as a clearly defined period of dictatorship. But the truth is that a host of the historical initiatives of Il Duce found their roots in far earlier times. Many politicians of the Risorgimento and before had already cast themselves as ancient Romans, much as Mussolini tried to take on the mantle of Augustus. And the idea of “isolating” the ancient monuments had been an aim since the Napoleonic period (Mussolini was different only in the sense that he had the determination, power and resources to carry it out). Looking forward, the boundaries are just as porous. As Bosworth reminds us, many of the classic Fascist plans and schemes were not completed, or in some cases even started, until the 1950s. The Via della Conciliazione itself was not finished until 1950, nor was the distinctively Fascist main train station (Roma Termini). Some monuments were even later: the Palazzo dei Congressi and the Church of St. Peter and Paul at Mussolini’s suburban development known as EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma) were not open for business until 1958. Even in 1960, some of the major venues of the Rome Olympics were Fascist sports halls—Mussolini’s stadium, “Foro Mussolini,” having been cleansed under the name “Foro Italico.”

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. One nice irony is that in his first chapter Bosworth explores Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s recent dealings with Libya: just a couple of years ago Berlusconi apologized for Italian imperial rule there and welcomed Muammar el-Qaddafi (“a great and wise leader of the Libyan people”) to Rome, adding in a pledge of $5 billion compensation for past Italian atrocities. Meanwhile, Qaddafi cast himself as a descendant of the North African emperor, Septimius Severus. How different this story looks only a few months after Bosworth must have written it.

I, for my part, cannot help thinking back to the legionaries at the Colosseum and wondering how their story will change now that the Italian government has taken sponsorship for restoring the building from a firm of luxury shoemakers. When big private enterprise meets small-scale private enterprise, how long will the little guys survive?

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