Rome takes some getting used to. It is not the city you expect it to be; though it is never less. Although Rome is the mother of all metropoli—both madonna and hag—it bears little resemblance to other modern cities like New York, with its street grid, skyscrapers, and Central Park. Or to other European cities—Paris and London—that selectively showcase the remnants of their ancient pasts, with reverence and elegance, perhaps more elegantly than reverently, but always it is a past framed by a self-conscious modernity. Consider London’s Tower: a medieval jewel box. Literally: its main attraction are the crown jewels. Of London, John Murray (who published Melville’s guide to Rome) wrote: “If Rome had undergone as many alterations as London has witnessed within the lapse of a few centuries, we should not find one stone standing upon another which we could identify with her historic times” (271). Murray’s complaint is that in such cities the sweep of modernism is to clean up the messy ruins of their past. They do not build on top of their ruins, or let them sit; they level them to the ground, cart away the refuse, build anew, and forget. Rome not so much.
Rome is different. Rome lets its ruins sit and, in many cases become more ruinous. Such is the case with a fountain I found on the Pincian hill. It is so encrusted with lime deposits from the centuries drip of calcite-rich water that stalactites and stalagmites have made the central pedestal almost invisible. Vegetation now grows from the upper bowl; birds no doubt nest there. Initially, you don’t realize it is a fountain. It has been transformed into something else, something odd, different, new.
Rome has been in ruins since it was sacked in the seventh century and seems singularly unfazed by that fact. There sits the Roman Forum: framed at one end by triumphal arches, and by the remnant of a towering, curved, now vacant niche fit for a monumental statue at the other end, with a sunken field in between, littered with fallen broken columns, some labeled, most not. And across Via dei Fori Imperiali (a wide busy modern roadway constructed in the late 19th century) is Trajan’s Forum with its magnificent column and its ribbon of unreadable history spiraling up it. Buses, taxis, and cars streak up and down this strada that slices through the city’s ancient ground, stopping reluctantly for pedestrians, but stopping nonetheless; they ignore the ruin on either shoulder, wait patiently as tourists cross against the light, and move on. Rome is inured to its ruin.
Rome is different, but the indifferent traffic is not quite the reason; I’ll try again, from Melville’s angle. In Melville’s day, Rome had none of these incongruous modern roads we see today: no Via dei Fori Imperiali, and none of the wide avenues like Via Nazionale, Corso del Vittorio Emmanuele II, and Lungotevere along the river. Nor had any of its more muscular piazzas like the rebuilt Piazza Venezia or the invented Piazza della Repubblica been created. For Melville in 1857, the city had long outlasted earlier attempts by Renaissance Popes to renovate piazzas, churches, roads, and acqueducts. Its ruins prevailed, and for all intents and purposes, Melville’s Rome of 1857 was just as ruinous, and vacant, as it had been for twelve centuries before he arrived. Ruin seemed integrated into the fabric of the city and its life. And this integration of ruin is what I mean to convey.
Look at the Imperial Wall. Erected in the third century, it still stands in many parts of the city. It is wide, tall, impenetrable, thick. The gates—Porta San Sebastiano, Porta San Paolo, Porta San Giovanni (pictured here), Porta Pia, Porta Flaminio, just to name those that Melville witnessed—magnificently break up the wall’s otherwise oppressive expanse and draw our attention, too, because they are accompanied by imposing bustling piazzas. The rest of the wall passes through the city, a massive, sullen, reclining, windowless edifice, ignorant of traffic on either side, unless a cut-through has been managed through some civic venture in order to permit this street or that to flow through it. The once bustling Porta Maggiore (left) originally adapted itself to the acqueduct streaming along its shoulders. Now it is a little archaeological park you can wander through checking out wildflowers.
Often nearby streets, as in the University’s student district called San Lorenzo, seem to dead-end at the wall, though at the last second a side-street takes you along the wall and back to where you were, some blocks away. Walls are meant to stop you and make you think, or curse. In other cases, though, sections of Rome’s walls are incorporated into everyday life: an overlook in the Villa Borghese or part of the buttress of a building, and between San Lorenzo and Termini station, you can see a precarious arch that seems to hang in mid-air as traffic passes around it. No one gives much thought as to whether a ruin is useful or not; maybe it can be, maybe not; it’s just there.
Originally, the wall encircled not only the town but also vast open fields and pastures, with farmhouses, churches, and monuments punctuating the empty grassy hills, so that a farmer might be scything away or picking fruit, or a shepherd might be tending his flock, incongruously, next to the Wall. Most of these open fields were still evident when Melville visited Rome. The ancient wall encompassed rural and urban lives. As he walked within or just outside the city walls, Melville could see peasants chewing straw while urging cattle to drink from a centuries old fountain in fields and pastures, just as tourists today can see nonchalant ragazzi smoking while leaning against the Colosseum. And, despite all of Rome’s apparent could-not-care-lessness about its ruins, it makes those stolid ruins seem sociable, makes them inseparable from the living. Rome embraces ruination and wears its ruins well.
It takes time before you can lose your tourist self and adopt the Roman embrace of ruin, and once you make the shift, you also achieve a double self. There is the inurement to one’s ruins, which is a kind of disregard of the ruins that is actually essential for the embrace, for you must come to terms with your aging, see the function of decay, give it a nod, and turn aside. Ruin, like Rome’s wall, is always in the corner of your eye, like a friend. And this is one self you come to know. But there is a second self. Rome requires of you certain unexpected awakenings—my God, I am in Rome!—that also come when you see a part of the ancient city you had passed by countless times and suddenly now see straight on for the first time: Ah, so that is the Baths of Diocletian standing across from the Ministry of Finance, and across from Termini, which, who knew? takes its name not from “terminus” but from Terme, meaning baths. And who knew the Baths also conceal the most magnificent of Michelangelo churches in town, Santa Maria degli Angeli?
Finding something new, layered, buried within the ruin awakens us to a past we thought we knew but never did. Rome awakens you to selves you thought you had but did not. You cannot stop seeing old Rome as being something astonishingly new. These ruins make me new again.