An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 7, 2013

Caldwell, Rome: Continuing Encounters

Dorigen Caldwell and Lesley Caldwell, eds, Rome: Continuing Encounters Between Past and Present.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011.  

Reviewed by Christina Szilagyi

“It is true to say that there is no single classical past to which all subsequent ages refer, but several, which were privileged at different times and which evoked different ideas of antiquity and its contemporary relevance.”[1]  Through a series of essays, this book introduces its readers to the different ways in which Rome has been seen – in person, on maps, on the page and in film, and through archaeology.  These varied visions of the Eternal City have been used to any number of ends, from political and religious to artistic and historical; and any of these purposes have had difficulty pointing to one particular time or place in the city to suit their needs. There is simply too much history, in too many layers, to separate in the perception of the city.  The Caldwells’ volume is intended as an interdisciplinary approach, thus while the entire volume is of interest to the student of the city of Rome, of particular interest to the historian are the essays on Roman archaeology (chapters one and nine), maps of the city (chapter two) and the political uses of perceptions of the city (chapters five and six).  

While it was not uncommon in the centuries after the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire to “resource” material from ruins, there was “a perception from very early on that Rome was uniquely embellished and should therefore be preserved.”[2]  It is the method of preservation that seems always difficult to determine.  Should an entire building that has no current use be preserved for its own sake, or is it enough to document it before demolishing?  Often buildings were preserved by repurposing, in part or in whole.  Caroline Goodson, in the book’s first essay “Roman Archaeology in Medieval Rome,” discusses how there came a change in the early Medieval era from building churches away from the monuments of the ancient city to using existing buildings or building anew in the center of the city.  These new buildings, wherever possible, echoed the ancient architectural styles of their surroundings.  The same was true of houses, which if they could not be matched architecturally to their environs, would be given a false front to create a similar appearance.

“Though the uses of the buildings were different, the new houses carried on traditions of the previous centuries of building in the Forum as they preserved both street frontage and the monumental layout of the area, and its architectural design principles.”[3]

Despite a desire to maintain the appearance of the old, Goodson goes on to say “there was never a moment when the Fora were entirely ancient or entirely new, but part of a continuum of construction, demolition, and reconstruction which continued for centuries.”[4] 

Structures are not the only issue when dealing with the archaeological remains of a city.  Religious relics, especially in a city like Rome, hold great importance in and of themselves, as do their places of discovery.  By the time we come to the Middle Ages, cults of saints had for centuries been venerated at a particular place, usually the burial site of the patron saint.  This did not change even as land changed hands and was used for other purposes, and even when churches were built up over these sites, many came not to visit the new building, but to be near the “sacred stratigraphy” beneath it.[5] 

Archaeological questions lead to political ones as well, because it is often the case that the determination of what is to be done with any given plot of land is in the hands of those who run the city, be it the Church or a secular power.  Regardless of the location, when politics comes into play it is rare, if ever, that the best interests of antiquities themselves, or their use in study, are foremost in mind.  The authors tell us of Roman temples being repurposed into churches, with all of the requisite destruction of pagan materials.  Later, some of these churches were repurposed to serve secular needs, with all of the requisite destruction of religious material.  This is discussed in Aristotle Kallis’ essay,  “‘Reconcilation’ or ‘Conquest’? The Opening of the  Via della Conciliazione and the Fascist Vision for the ‘Third Rome’”, which focuses on the Fascist attempts to repurpose the entire city, in one way or another, to legitimize themselves as the ultimate culmination of all of Roman history. 

The final essay, “Archaeology and the Modern City: Thoughts on Rome (and Elsewhere),” by Daniele Manacorda, discusses how antiquities in general have been dealt with since Late Antiquity.  He discusses how the Medieval and Renaissance Popes were “favourably disposed towards research into antiquity, [but] were in fact the perpetrators of the systematic destruction of the ancient city, which was plundered piece by piece for the construction of buildings.”[6]  He also echoes an issue brought up in other essays in the book: how people dealt with archaeological pieces and their preservation (or lack thereof).  Manacorda tells us the pieces were often appreciated “if for nothing more than the technical skill they demonstrated, which was greatly admired,” but that was less important than how they could be used in the current project.[7] 

When it comes to maps of the city, these could be attempts to show the entire history of the city in one depiction.  The concern was not religious versus political, as with the antiquities, but with functional versus artistic.  In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the artistic generally won out, as “city portraits were intended to distill essential, idealized qualities of character as well as physical appearance.”  The mapmakers often emphasized individual elements of the city to give the viewer a feel for the long history of the city: “individual elements, such as the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius or the new St. Peter’s, were mined for their power to distill the city’s history and its current resurgence with the greatest eloquence in the least space.”  Medieval and Renaissance mapmakers sought to combine the old and new Romes into a beautiful, though completely inaccurate, representation of the city.  We can be thankful that by the end of the Renaissance, mapmakers no longer wished to portray the long history of Rome, but to show a somewhat accurate depiction of the contemporary city, one that might be a useful tool with which to navigate. 

In the end, the question is what to do with Rome?  All of essays center around a theme of how to maintain some awareness of the entirety of Roman history while also allowing the city to become modernized, and if that is feasible.  The authors lead us to believe that, with some care, it is indeed possible.  The difficulty is well summed up in a quote from Ferdinand Gregorovius on witnessing the takeover of the city in 1870: 

“The Italians gained possession of Rome and the most venerable of historical legacies that never gave a people a seat more exulted and never imposed a mission more difficult and a duty more grievous than this: to be the great conservator and the renewer of Rome.”

Christina Szilagyi
Delta College

[1] Caldwell and Caldwell, 2. 
[2] Ibid.
[3] ibid, 23. 
[4] Ibid, 25.
[5] Ibid, 28.
[6] Ibid, 208-209.
[7] Ibid, 208.