“All Roads Lead to Rome:” The Enduring Appeal of the Eternal City

I freely admit that I am more than a little biased about Rome. Two years ago, I lived in the Eternal City for ten weeks and the experience left an incredible impression on me.

One of the most striking features of the cityscape is the great visibility of its “layers” – as the capital of the ancient Roman Republic and Roman Empire, the center of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papal States, and now as the capital of Italy. Buildings and monuments of ancient Rome lie side by side with buildings from later centuries, and in some cases are built into one another. The Pantheon, built in 126 AD, was later converted into a Christian church, and today it sits in a square surrounded by apartment buildings, shops, and restaurants. A nearby surviving wall of the Temple to the Divine Hadrian was incorporated into a modern bank building.

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The Pantheon and Piazza della Rotonda.
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Temple of the Divine Hadrian.

One of the best examples of this idea of layers is the Basilica of San Clemente, only a few blocks away from the Colosseum. This church is a remarkable site because it literally has multiple layers. The uppermost layer is a church built ca. 1120. A beautiful apse mosaic was added around 1200, and many frescoes, paintings, and architectural elements were added in 1719. The second layer is an earlier church built around the 4th century and with paintings added in perhaps the 9th century. Below these two churches are several rooms thought to date from the 1st century, one of which served as a mithraeum, or a ritual space for the cult of the god Mithras. (Fun fact: there are also Roman pipes in this lowest level that still pump a fountain of water through the space which you can drink from.) This church demonstrates beautifully how layers of the city intermingle with one another.

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Reconstruction drawing of the layers of the Basilica of San Clemente. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Efforts to recapture and control the legacy of the Roman Empire have made Rome a strategically and symbolically important city throughout its history, in terms of both its political prestige and its culture. The pope, as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, was a religious and secular monarch who ruled Rome and its surrounding territories. From 962 to 1806, the powerful empire that controlled various German and Eastern European territories was called the “Holy Roman Empire.” In 1811, when the son and heir of Napoleon was born, the French emperor (who had incorporated Italy into his new empire) gave his infant son the title “King of Rome.” In the 20th century, Mussolini and the Italian Fascists wanted to return Italy to its former power and glory under the Roman Empire. (As a side note, Italy was only unified as a nation in the mid-19th century. After the Roman Empire fell apart, the peninsula was divided into various monarchies, duchies, and city-states that were regularly at war with one another and with other countries in Europe.)

As one of the great cities of Europe, Rome was also, unsurprisingly, a center for the arts. The power of the church brought many pilgrims and artists to Rome. The popes and other church and city notables were major patrons of the arts, and the splendor of Rome’s churches and palaces attest to the resources at their disposal. The church was also entwined with the rediscovery of pagan classical antiquity that characterized the Renaissance. The ancient sculpture collection of Pope Julius II, including the famous Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön group, became the nucleus of the Vatican Museums. Julius II is also remembered as the pope that commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael to paint the papal apartments.

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Laocoon and his Sons in the Vatican Museums.
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The Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, with Raphael’s The School of Athens and Parnassus.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Rome was one of the major spots on the “Grand Tour” undertaken by wealthy young men and some women as part of their cultural education. The excavations of Roman-era sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum spurred the collecting of antiquities (already popular since the Renaissance) and inspired the Neoclassical style which influenced everything from home décor to fashion.

Rome is still a very popular destination for tourists and pilgrims. For the former, I won’t go into the many cheesy tours, souvenirs, and men in gladiator costumes that one can find around many of the major sights. Rather, I wanted to write this post to draw attention to the damage and preservation issues Rome faces even with its continued popularity. This issue, of course, is not unique to Rome. In 2014, a Russian tourist was fined for carving his initial on the Colosseum, a minor issue, and not a new one since the ancient Romans also carved graffiti on the Colosseum. More troubling are instances such as the damage done to the Fontana della Barcaccia at the feet of the Spanish Steps during a confrontation between Dutch soccer fans and Italian police the night before a soccer match in February 2015. The fountain, sculpted by the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father, was scratched and strewn with beer bottles and trash, and the restoration is reported to cost over 1 million euros.

Nor are tourists the only ones to blame for Rome’s preservation issues. Both the government and cultural institutions struggle regularly with inadequate funding. For example, the air conditioning system at the Galleria Borghese, a beautiful museum home to many Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, stopped working earlier this year, and the museum did not have the funds to fix it, making these important works of art increasingly vulnerable. The Trevi Fountain recently underwent a multimillion dollar restoration funded by the luxury brand Fendi, during which it also suffered from a rat infestation. However, in the face of problems like this, Italy is making efforts at reform. According to ArtNet News, in August 2015, the Italian Minister of Culture announced that new directors would be appointed to 20 institutions in an effort to reform and modernize Italian museums.

Rome still deserves its reputation as a city with incredible history and works of art. Hopefully with new leadership and more attention being paid to preservation, Italy will be able to protect its many cultural treasures for years to come. Because for whatever reason one might visit the Eternal City, whether it be culture or creed or something else entirely, you want it to live up to its name.

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