Fallen Rome, fallen moderns

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“A Capriccio of Roman Ruins” (1720s) by Marco Ricci. (National Gallery of Art)

Passages from Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern evoke a Rome in the 15th century fallen from its imperial glory:

The population of Rome, a small fragment of what it had once been, lived in detached settlements, one at the Capitol where the massive ancient Temple of Jupiter had once stood, another near the Lateran whose old imperial palace had been given by Constantine to the bishop of Rome, yet another around the crumbling fourth-century Basilica of St. Peter’s. Between these settlements spread a wasteland of ruins, hovels, rubble-strewn fields, and the shrines of martyrs. Sheep grazed in the Forum. Armed thugs, some in the pay of powerful families, others operating on their own, swaggered through dirty streets, and bandits lurked outside the walls. There was virtually no industry, very little trade, no thriving class of skilled artisans or burghers, no civic pride, and no prospect of civic freedom. One of the only spheres of serious enterprise was the trade in digging out the metal clasps that had knitted the ancient buildings together and in peeling off the thin sheets of marble veneer so that they could be reused in churches and palaces.

What came next, over several centuries, is what was described in the online course “The Meaning of Rome,” taught by David Mayernik and Jay Hobbs of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. I wrote of it in my Jan. 6 post “Rome’s exaltation explained.” What Greenblatt describes above is the depths from which Rome later rose. He continues:

Like Petrarch before him, Poggio [the papal official, protagonist of The Swerve, who went searching European monasteries for copies of ancient manuscripts] cultivated an archaeologist’s sense of what had once existed, so that vacant spaces and the jumble of contem-porary Rome were haunted by the past. “The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit,” he wrote, “was formerly the head of the Rome empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched by the spoils and the tributes of so many nations.” Now just look at it:

This spectacle of the world, how it is fallen! How changed! How defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. … The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to to enact their laws and elect magistrates, is now inclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes.

The relics of the fallen greatness only made the experience of the present more melancholy. …

So says Greenblatt. He imagines a Poggio saddened by the fall. Fine. I am saddened by a fall of equal sorrow, and certainly even greater magnitude, even though it is reflected not in the crumbling of great architecture but in the rise of glass and steel manifestations of hubris that are as pathetic as the dunghills of Rome before it rose again. At least you can build something new upon a dunghill. A starchitectural blotch of God’s wrath on architecture, let alone an endlessness of them, cannot be replaced without a very expensive process of removal. And that will not begin without a very difficult and very unlikely revaluation of values in city-making. One hesitates to try to imagine what that will require.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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