Last October I described a master’s thesis on how to plan for a restoration of the Roman Forum – center of civic life in the capital of the Roman empire. The author, Eric Stalheim, was the first graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture’s preservation program, run by Steven Semes, the author of one of my architectural bibles, The Future of the Past.
So far as I know, however, nobody in Rome itself has seriously proposed rebuilding the Forum. As of now, it has been a very ruined ruin for many centuries. I would put the chance of its restoration well below that of Penn Station, the hope of all who are interested in the classical revival. On the other hand, it seems as if the Parthenon itself, in Athens, is in the process of restoration right now, though I’m not sure whether this project, which has lasted for a number of years if not decades, aims at anything like a complete restoration of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the rest of the Acropolis.
Even as a ruin the Acropolis – the main civic gathering of the Athenian city-state – is certainly more legible to the average tourist or normal citizen than the Roman Forum, which is mainly some difficult-to-distinguish ruins with a couple partially ruined colonnades standing around. A website called Jeff Bondono’s Page, from which the image above was taken, gives a good idea of what it might have looked like at the height of Imperial Rome.
This post was triggered by a chapter on the Forum in Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings, by James Crawford, of Scotland’s National Collection, in Edinburgh. The book takes famous buildings or sets of buildings from throughout history and discusses how they came to be and what happened to them, using a plethora of sources, contemporary, current and in between. For example, here he cites Goethe on standing amid the Forum ruins:
All history is encamped about us and all history sets forth again from us. This does not apply only to Roman history, but to the history of the whole world. From here I can accompany the conquerors to the Weser and the Euphrates, or, if I prefer to stand and gape, I can wait in the Via Sacra for their triumphant return.
Of course, not all of us have the power of Goethe’s imagination. The best case for not restoring the Forum to its ancient form (pick your era!) may be that even the most exact replica must, because we all will know it is a replica, undermine the possibility of the sort of mental time travel that Goethe could experience even amid ruins.
I would argue that rebuilding the Forum as it was in, say, A.D. 300, before it was sacked over and over again by barbarians and its own citizens, would be a valuable experience for those of us who are not Goethe. Indeed, the best of both worlds might be possible by preserving the Forum ruins as they are and rebuilding the Forum in or outside of Rome. Of course, that might tempt mod-symp ignoramuses to bloviate about the Disneyfication of history.
In the effort to reconstruct the Parthenon, it seems as if parts that cannot be restored using the original stone lying around it, of which there is quite an abundance, new marble is being cut to fit. Although experts say it will blend in after enough aging and weathering, how long will that take? I have my doubts. That’s another argument to let sleeping ruins be.
Much as I like the idea of rebuilding the Forum, I’m not sure what the best course would be. It’s a more difficult question than that of rebuilding Penn Station, whose grand hall was modeled after the Roman baths of Caracalla. Of such a restoration’s advisability, however, there is no doubt whatsoever.