A few sentences into David Watkin’s The Roman Forum, notice is served that this will be no ordinary guidebook. The first paragraph establishes a tone that will persist throughout:
“The Roman Forum is one of the most famous of all historic sites, the heart of the ancient city, the hub of the Roman empire, the goal of tens of thousands of Grand Tourists. It is still visited by millions of people a year, yet it can be a baffling experience. Part of this is because archaeologists dig deeper and deeper in the understandable pursuit of knowledge about Rome and its early history, leaving behind rubble and holes which are ugly and difficult to understand. It is also because some of the most prominent monuments, which are believed by almost all visitors to be antique, turn out essentially to be products of the nineteenth or twentieth century.”
Yet how many other guidebooks would, by way of introducing the reader to ‘one of the most famous of all historic sites’, begin by asserting that the site in question is not only ‘baffling’ but also ‘ugly’ and ‘difficult to understand’ — let alone insist on the illusionless point that what may be seen today of the Forum is, in large part, a modern restoration? How many authors would dismiss archaeologists’ ‘pursuit of knowledge’ at the Roman Forum, of all places, with recourse to that pity-saturated adjective, ‘understandable’?
Prof Watkin, on the other hand, is no ordinary compiler of guidebooks. Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge University, fellow of Peterhouse since 1970 and a convert to Roman Catholicism, he has written important books on Sir John Soane,Thomas Hope, C. R. Cockerell, Athenian Stuart, John Simpson and others. His account of George III’s architectural patronage was a scholarly history in which the effort to avoid writing an instruction book for princes was palpable, if not wholly successful. Prof Watkin’s most famous work, Morality and Architecture (1977, revised edition 2001) indicated a willingness to defend as a matter of present-day urgency the inherited architectural vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome, while at the same time acknowledging timeless doctrinal truth as simultaneously fundamentally different from and confidently superior to the sort of claims that can be made in favour of style, zeitgeist or positivist assertions of ‘progress’.
Not everyone has admired this. Thus Prof Mary Beard who, in her role as general editor of Profile Books’ ‘Wonders of the World’ series, commissioned Prof Watkin to write the present volume, again demonstrates the bracing disinclination to avoid controversy which has not only offended sensitive souls along the way, e.g. here, but lent energy to her re-invention as a successful uber-blogger, achieved without damage to a career as a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge and a classicist of formidable seriousness.
For commissioning Prof Watkin, in any event, Prof Beard is to be warmly congratulated. The Roman Forum is, to use the almost too predictable phrase, a triumph. Clear-eyed, surprising, malicious, injunctive, polemical and often intensely funny, it achieves a minor wonder of the world in taking a place all civilised people feel they know and rendering it, if not new exactly, then far more complicated, contestible and immediately significant than had previously seemed to be the case.
Initially, Prof Watkin’s project is a destructive one. Recent accounts of the Roman Forum tend to follow a simple narrative path: the Forum is created and used in a fruitful and interesting fashion by the ancient Romans, neglected entirely until the Renaissance, rediscovered through increasingly sophisticated archaeological excavation from the early nineteenth century onward, culminating in the investigative, conservation and restoration practices existing at the moment. All of which is, it turns out, nonsense, none the less so for being what virtually every educated person believes to be the case.
In fact, as Prof Watkin correctly observes, the period during which the ancient Romans used the Forum was ‘far shorter than the millenium and a half that has passed since the fall of their Empire’, a time in which the Forum has ‘inspired countless artists and architects’. Why, then, should interest in the Forum arbitrarily exclude the Forum’s continuing life, including ecclesiastical and residential buildings erected there? Why should evidence of an ongoing creative conversation with the classical past be artificially silenced? Why should conservation and restoration always privilege the claims of archaeology over those of beauty, decorum, legibility, history or faith? Why should pagan antiquity be regarded as intrinsically more interesting, perhaps even more meaningful and valid, than the Christian devotional practices that first coexisted with pagan forms of worship before eventually supplanting them? Each of these questions is, after all, an issue of choice, not an inevitability, just as the decisions which have rendered the Forum a messy, confusing place are by no means necessary ones, and indeed could easily be reversed.
Some conventions of guidebook propriety are retained. In the first chapter, Prof Watkin adumbrates the functions to which the Forum was set by classical Romans. The vividness, practicality and polemical subtexts of Prof Watkin’s account are, however, unusual. He is clear, for instance, that the Forum was primarily the locus for religious practice, for although all sorts of things took place there, ‘underlying these diverse uses is the Roman assumption that politics and religion were closely bound up, almost identical spheres of operation’, with the result that all political functions of any significance took place in explicitly sacred spaces. Prof Watkin is similarly correct in his insistence that the Forum existed, in classical times as well as thereafter, in a perpetual state of flux, a long-term building site, replete with non-stop renovations, restorations and outright rebuildings — the fundamentally Roman Temple of Castor and Pollux, pictured above, was rebuilt on at least three occasions — these attempted rationalisations and reforumulations, seamlessly linking pagan and Christian periods, rendering ridiculous the notion that it could ever be returned, whatever archaeologists might wish to the contrary, to some notional moment of ultimate authenticity.
Prof Watkin additionally manifests a sharp eye for those moments of ‘respectful conservatism’ or enthusiastic historical revivalism that occurred under Augustus, Diocletian and others. His exemplary success in conjuring up the liveliness of the Forum in antiquity — the urgent and pungent commerce, the exciteable polity, the male and female whores, the rights and facilities accorded to the Vestal Virgins (those ‘six unmarried ladies’ whose palace was, by the end of the late Republic, the sole remaining residential structure in the Forum), the rich yet probably unrecoverable life of all those half-forgotten streets — achieves the desired rhetorical effect, inviting the reader to contrast this state of affairs with the present Forum, currently populated with stones, pot-holes, fencing, dust and tourists.
The next step, however, resumes the swerve away from guidebook proprieties. Prof Watkin’s tour d’horizon of the Forum’s structures, extant and otherwise, is conducted first through the eyes and sensibilities of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), whose twenty-five etched views of what Piranesi termed ‘these speaking ruins’ not only fueled the historical and aesthetic imaginations of generations, but which also provide an unparalleled record of the Forum just prior to what Prof Watkin terms the ‘victory of the pick-axe’. Prof Watkin lays stress on Piranesi’s description of himself as an architect, insisting that ‘the vision of antiquity celebrated in his engravings was intended to inspire modern architects to produce buildings of a power and grandeur similar to those of the ancients’, enlivened by Piranesi’s insistent contrast between ‘timeless ruins, encrusted with feathery weeds’ and ‘the modern life around them, including tumble-down stables, carts, massive oxen, wiry goats, pack-horses and yapping dogs’. Here, again, we may discern Prof Watkin’s preference for such invigorating cultural conversation and implied continuity with the past over the lifeless and highly artificial sterility of the present-day Forum site, which now hardly entertains weeds of any interest, let alone dogs, yapping or otherwise. A theme, in other words, is not so much emerging, as casting its clear and unforgiving light upon everything it strikes.
And indeed, the tour d’horizon provided by Prof Watkin is, for all its negativity, a thoroughly enlightening one. Prof Watkin’s own deep architectural understanding mandates an unusual degree of attention devoted not only to the original functions of the Forum’s monuments, where these can be discerned, but to the sometimes surprising evolutions of the structures during the course of the centuries that followed their construction. Archaeology, as we are shown in case after case, not infrequently turns out to be less a matter of ‘revealing’ the past than of executing novel, anachronistic and often highly subjective interventions within a broadly satisfactory Forum environment. Prof Watkin’s comparisons of architectural solutions employed in the Forum with buildings familiar to a British readership, as well as his remarks regarding concrete, are useful, in part because they underscore the theme of the continuity of architectural practice and understanding. His many examples of the way in which Christian churches grew all but organically out of pagan Roman structures, before (in many cases) being pruned out again by disapproving secularists, are, in contrast, discouraging — not only for the assertive unloveliness of what secularism has inserted in their stead, either.
Prof Watkin devotes a remarkable whole chapter to the Christian churches which, for the majority of the 2,800 years in which the Forum has been a place of worship, have dominated devotional activity there. A number of these churches, including the handsome Renaissance church of S. Maria Liberatrice, replete with classical inspiration and avidly illustrated by Piranesi, have been demolished, the better to get at the ‘rubble’ underneath. An only slightly less brutal act of vandalism saw the ‘superb Baroque interior’ of S. Adriano, created by Martino Longhi the Younger 1653-6, stripped out in 1935-38, in order to reveal what little was left of the Senate House, as rebuilt after AD 283, centuries after the Senate had ceased to retain any but the most hollow of ceremonial functions. (The Republican Senate House, scene of those famous orations by Cicero and others, was located elsewhere.) While Longhi had ‘imaginatively demonstrated the timeless continuity of the classical language of architecture’, and in doing so provided an ‘impression’ of the ‘richness of the antique Senate House’, the present ‘grim, bare walls’ and modern wooden ceiling fail entirely in this respect, while at the same time, by no means constitute the sort of accurate restoration of the Senate House’s ‘ancient form’ that some archaeologists profess to find there.
The modern management of the Forum, we are reminded, has led to other infelicities. The churches that remain are now cut off from the Forum itself, crucially altering their significance. Prof Watkin notes, for instance, that the basilica of SS. Cosmas and Damian, no longer directly accessible from the Forum, is ‘the most intact, roofed survival of part of an ancient Roman building in the Forum’, comprising two halls from a Temple of Peace (perhaps better titled ‘Temple of Pacification’, as it was built the celebrate the Roman suppression of a Jewish rebellion in AD 66-73) as well as a rather mysterious circular, domed building sometimes called the Temple of Romulus, dating from the early 4th century AD, and in fact retaining ‘something of the secular flavour of the ancient Roman building’. Those visitors who seek SS. Cosmas and Damian out today do so largely to view the early Christian mosiacs in the apse. Yet a well below the floor of the ‘Temple of Romulus’ suggests that the site may have been associated with the healing powers of the two saints to whom the church is dedicated, ‘an echo of the temple opposite of the twin gods, Castor and Pollux’. As Prof Watkin repeatedly implies, much has been lost through decisions to insulate and isolate the Forum, defined purely as an archaeological site, from the alternative functions that might so happily rouse it from its present torpor.
More positively, Prof Watkin also writes at some length about S. Francesca Romana, which, although now only accessible after a circuitous journey up a ‘steep road’ adjacent to ‘an ugly tarmac car park and inhospitable wire fences’, is revealed as ‘one of the most appealing and dominant buildings in the entire Forum’. Descriptions of other ecclesiastical ‘masterpieces’, including SS. Martina e Luca and S. Lorenzo in Miranda, accompany this. Indeed, Prof Watkin’s account is sufficiently inspiring as to threaten a thoroughgoing reformation of the itineraries of susceptible Forum visitors, novices or otherwise, hence ensuring that The Roman Forum will, as its author hopes, ‘help to rescue the Forum from its ugly and depressing role as an ‘archaeological site’, and to reinstate it as an evocative place of haunting and resonant beauty’, as well as — although he omits to say so, the decision to devote a whole chapter to churches implies this clearly enough — a site of enduring and genuine religious significance.
The final three chapters of The Roman Forum provide a narrative account of the history of the Forum from the start of the Renaissance to the present day. As may by now be anticipated, the account differs in its inflections from conventional accounts. Prof Watkin, for instance, underscores the ironies entailed in the attitudes of many thoughtful and sensitive Renaissance classicists’ attitudes towards the Forum.
For despite some important losses, quite a number of important ancient structures survived in the Forum up until the Renaissance, when they were increasingly treated as a marble-quarry and source of builders’ lime. So alarming was the destruction that Pope Pius II felt moved in 1462 to promulgate a bull ordering ‘the conservation of the ancient monuments of Rome on historic, aesthetic and also moral grounds, since they were seen as reminding us of the evanescence of earthly fortunes’, in 1515 Pope Leo X imposed heavy fines on those who damaged ancient inscriptions, while throughout the period antiquarians such as the papal bureaucrat Poggio Bracciolini and Andrea Fulvio, remembered chiefly now as an associate of Raphael, published volumes surveying the ruins. Yet despite — or rather, paradoxically, in some sense, because of all this, the Forum’s surviving structures continued to be destroyed, as Prof Watkin puts it, ‘in order to recycle the materials for new monuments that, it was not doubted, would rival those of antiquity’, not excluding St Peter’s itself, which benefits from a great deal of Forum-sourced lime. Whether all this merits disgust or, in contrast, sly admiration is a point on which Prof Watkin, perhaps wisely, neglects to pronounce.
In 1534, Pope Paul III made a significant intervention. Wishing to stage a triumphal entry for Charles V in recognition of his achievement in forcing the Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa to abandon Tunis — not forgetting that in that same year, this extraordinary figure had waged a campaign of destruction throughout much of the western Mediterranean, culminating in an attack on Ostia, just a few miles down the Tiber from Rome herself — the Pope ordered the creation of a new road through the centre of the Forum, necessitating the destruction of 200 houses and four churches, incidentally providing evidence of how very closely built up the Forum had by then become. These demolitions had, in any event, the happy effect of opening up a space within the Forum in which a market later flourished, drawing in artists as well as tradesmen, vendors and their customers. Further, the re-invention of the Forum as a ceremonial route — along which, until 1846 passed the Cavalcata, the lively and colourful procession taken by newly elected popes between the Vatican and the cathedral of Rome, St John Lateran — recalled the days, many centuries before, when the (admittedly rather mysterious) Via Sacra had echoed with the sounds of rather different ritual processions.
The same period, roughly speaking, saw the birth of an enterprise which, perhaps more than any other, shape the Forum we see today. Archaeology was, in its early stages, ‘a tool for uncovering the past to provide a model for the present and the future’. Infinitely more benign, it is strongly implied, was the creation, from 1570 onwards, of the Farnese Gardens. It is typical of Prof Watkin’s approach that he devotes several pages of informative prose, studded here and there with adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘evocative’, to a feature welcomed warmly here as ‘a creative response’ to the Forum, yet often treated elsewhere as irrelevant, if not downright regrettable, not least by the various archaeologists, road-builders and dictators who would cause large tracts of these important gardens to be neglected, rooted up and destroyed.
With Prof Watkin’s survey of eighteenth century developments comes, perhaps inevitably, reference to Edward Gibbon. The elegance with which Dr Watkin dismisses Gibbon’s Decline and Fall comes neither at the cost of efficiency or, for that matter, a degree of brutality. Any competent critic could, I suppose, tackle Gibbon on issues of historical accuracy, or draw attention to the ‘passionate anti-Catholicism of a lapsed Catholic convert’, both of which Prof Watkin does with some style. All the same, it requires a particular sort of confidence to lay into Gibbon’s prose, dismissed here as ‘polysyllabic if well-balanced’. Soon after, there’s a sentence that runs ‘Rational and modern though Gibbon doubtless imagined he was in comparing a nun to a horse, the age of Enlightenment in which he lived was about to demote his beloved Rome as part of its insistence on the need to return to primary sources,’ i.e. to the inspiration of Greece rather than Rome, its architecture brusquely dismissed by its detractors as ‘a necessarily debased imitation of an earlier and purer style’. One feels happy enough watching this sort of thing from the sidelines, but, heavens, who’d want to the on the receiving end of that, no matter how posthumously?
As archaeologists, Napoleonic minions and Victorians began to engulf the site in earnest, its atmosphere changed — creating, according to an American lawyer to wrote about it at the time, a scene ‘of desolation which is not beautiful; a ruin which is not picturesque’. Prof Watkin has fun — almost too much fun — with the contents of some of the many nineteenth century guidebooks, so many of them in various ways ‘dispiriting’, that sought to reconcile their readers to the realities of the Forum. There are moments when the material was clearly too good to be left out, relevant or not: ‘Faced with such adversity, some guidebooks nourished their readers with a kind of comfort food by describing Rome in the familiar terms of English topography, one of the more improbably parallels being Augustus Hare’s claim that ‘The Campagna [is] rather like the Bagshot Heath country’.’ Meanwhile, in the course of a survey that comprehends the effusions of Dickens’ ‘seemingly drugged mind’ as well as Pater’s vision of ‘Rome as the home of dreaming spires and lost causes’, sentences like this one — ‘Macaulay’s Victorian blend of classics and Anglicanism is well conveyed by the Reverend William Selwyn, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, who was happy to compare King’s College Chapel to the great Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome’ — faintly recall the cadences of other and more extended, if perhaps not wholly unconnected, products of Cambridge’s oldest and smallest college.
Ancient Roman politics, both republican and imperial, had at various times preoccupied the life of the Forum. Papal politics were periodically bolstered by interventions there. In due course, the sporadically democratic politics of the newly united Italy made themselves felt amongst the increasingly naked, objectified yet incoherent ruins. Those ‘enemies of the popes’, King Victor Emmanuel II and King Umberto I, were responsible for clearing the entire central area of the Forum, removing the two major roads that sill passed through it, and providing access to the site along the ‘unpleasant ramp’ between the Basilica Aemilia and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
Worse, however, was to come. Better known, perhaps, if only because of the enormous efforts he made to publicise them, were Mussolini’s efforts to reshape the Rome into a sort of mirror of the young, fast-moving, wholly modern yet timeless imperial power he hoped that Italy might, at some future point, conceivably become. As Watkin puts it, in part paraphrasing Hare’s remarks about something slightly different, ‘Mussolini might almost be seen as having a sole object of annihilating the beauty and interest of Rome’ in his desire to ‘liberate the trunk of the great oak from everything which still smothers it […] everything which has grown up in the centuries of decadence must be swept away’.
All the same, even educated, historically sensitive and deeply curious travellers tend to misunderstand the scope of what Mussolini did to Rome. It is strange to think how little of the centre of the so-called Eternal City might be recognisable to someone who’d last seen it in 1925, well within living memory. The demolition of whole neighbourhoods, the better to expose and frame the bare bones of ancient Rome, can be attributed to, if not entirely excused by, political expediency. Perhaps even more transformative, though, was the proliferation of enormous, pointless boulevards, most of them based on unexecuted plans by Napoleon, driven mercilessly across homes, churches and archaeological sites alike — most relevant here, but only one of many, the Via dell’Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, alongside which are still exhibited four of Mussolini’s five marble maps recording progressive conquests by Rome from the antiquity onwards, the fifth long since consigned to a courtyard at the somewhat neglected Museo della Civilta Romana as marginally embarrassing.
Meanwhile, throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, in the Forum and elsewhere, in alarming little pockets of Fascist propagandising that sprang up around the city like mushrooms after the rain, ancient monuments were excavated from their contexts, stripped of unwanted accretions, scrubbed, ‘restored’ and otherwise subordinated to a bracingly Modernist idiom. There was a clear preference, for fairly obvious political reasons, for the relics of imperial Rome over the leavings of its more austere and anti-dictatorial republican predecessor. Meanwhile, a coherent aesthetic programme, stretching from Napoleon to Mussolini, insisted that anything important must be isolated, placed in the centre of a large square, and approached by great roads, axially aligned with them, so that they ‘stand out in isolation as giants,’ as Mussolini himself put it.
Additionally, Mussolini did much to nurture tourism, kept a close eye on guidebook texts, created in his Mostra dell Rivoluzione Fascista a landmark in the history of state-sponsored culture-as-propaganda, and incidentally did as much to develop the concept of the ‘blockbuster’ touring art exhibition as anyone else who ever lived, an observation well made by the late Francis Haskell in his brilliant final book. The point that Prof Watkin hardly needs to make at this point is, of course, that a remarkable amount of all of this still stands. Not only our own contemporary Rome but the ancient Rome we believe to be ‘true’ today remain, in some very real sense, more Mussolini’s than anyone else’s creation.
And thus it is that we arrive, with Prof Watkin, in the somewhat uncongenial and certainly unsatisfactory present. On one hand, archaeologists continue to complicate the Forum by discovering ever-earlier, more obscure and enigmatic structures, adding ever-increasing layers of pre-history to the already unwieldy history of the site, in the meantime eyeing up much of the living city as a promising target for further excavations. On the other — and Prof Watkin’s account of this, perhaps owing a little to Prof Beard in its tone, is indeed amusing — the BBC produced a televisual version of Rome, based in part on late 1990s Calcutta, emphasising the ‘filth, squalour and heat of the city,’ with ‘scenes of sex of all kinds’ advertised as the ‘principal attractions’ of the eleven-part series.
Thus it is that the Forum — both in its physical manifestation, and its conceptual one — continues to change, altered endlessly by the world around it. Continuities, however, persist, not least through the efforts of those architects ‘on both sides of the Atlantic’ who have ‘returned to an architecture of memory though their understanding and practice of the classical language of architecture’. In their stubborn, creative unwillingness to consign the Forum to the past, these men are the living heros of Prof Watkin’s frequently negative, invariably lucid, occasionally wholly depressing story.
The Roman Forum is at its best where its author is most injunctive. Most guidebooks describe, more or less, what’s there. The Roman Forum not infrequently pronounces instead on what ought to be there. Prof Watkin is, for instance, rightly censorious of the decisions whereby most of the buildings surrounding the Forum are now entered, not from the Forum itself but from the streets flanking it, which in turn not only affronts the architectural logic of the buildings in question, but makes the Forum feel isolated and airless, as if in quarantine from the vivid city engulfing it. Accordingly, Prof Watkins suggests that the avenue of elms that once flourished there might plausibly be replanted, as much to improve the vista as to shade the weary guidebook-holder, and the stream that once ran through the middle of the Forum re-established. The churches might be redirected towards full liturgical functionality, rather than allowed a pre-senile deterioration into C-list tourist destinations and pretty wedding-venues. Would Prof Watkin countenance a further revision of Il Duce’s urban planning, tearing up the Via dei Fori Imperiali and re-inserting the Forum, as well as some of the other ‘theme park’ ancient monuments, into the fabric of urban life, complete with some new yet sympathetic building? If so, the ironies involved would surely be notably pleasing ones.
Prof Watkin’s most serious point — serious in part because it is, at least potentially, such a lavishly general one — relates to the treatment of old buildings. In his discussion of the very substantial ‘restoration’ of the Arch of Titus by Stern and Valadier — in fact, other than the figured sculptural panels, the existing structure is a nineteenth century building — Prof Watkin recounts that Valadier in particular chose to ‘celebrate the temporary practical skills of the restorer rather than the eternal vision of the original architect’ by couching his rebuilding in a ‘simple neo-classical, rather than in an ancient Roman’ style, additionally executing the work in travertine, rather than the Pentelic marble of the original. The preferences and prejudices informing this ‘very early victory of archaeology over art’ were later, in 1964, incorporated within the Charter of Venice, and have long since become near-ubiquitous. The Charter insists that ‘replacement of missing parts must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence’ — in other words, as Prof Watkin tersely parses it, ‘Modernist architectural orthodoxy prevents a present-day architect from working in an historical language’. Yet such is the doctrine that the in many ways admirable SPAB has long and loudly promulated, and which has been accepted without demur by decent and well-meaning people. Prof Watkin’s assault on this particular certainty is, nonetheless, polite, illusionless and bloody. The Forum was, apparently, once a venue for gladiatorial contests. Conservatives will, no doubt, find it heartening to see a fight of some magnitude enjoined there once again.
All of this makes The Roman Forum sound tiresomely polemical, or worse still, earnest. In fact, it is not only generous in its solicitude to the limitations of the average reader — for all its subtlety and rancour, an intelligent ten year old armed with a dictionary of architectural terms and a fondness for irony would probably enjoy it — but funny as well. If some of the humour is mildly esoteric — for instance, ‘the idea that that the most important buildings […] were not the villas and palaces of individuals, or even commercial premises, but the public buildings and temples of the state, representing the entire people’, although associated here with Hitler, somehow reminds one of someone else altogether — elsewhere it is rather more ‘accessible’, to employ a term for which Prof Watkin may in fact harbour more respect than do many architectural historians. More typically, there are dry pronouncements as hilarious to some of us as they will seem unremarkable to others: ‘We have already noted that Lanciani hated the [Farnese] gardens so much in 1882 that he saw them as the product of original sin’. Augustus Hare is glossed as ‘ever a friend of duchesses’. One either finds this stuff hilarious, or one doesn’t, in which case there are plenty of more conventional guidebooks out there which will retail the old reassuring narratives in thoroughly constructive, irony-free language.
For all this, however, Prof Watkin’s tone in addressing the reader is genial, sympathetic and indulgent. In part, this is presumably a rhetorical stance of some efficacy, as the indulgence shown towards the lazy, incurious and sun-struck only amplifies the denunciation of every archaeologist who has ever hacked away at an elm, cast down a handsome structure in order to get at the dreary rubble beneath, or in any other way denatured the Forum. But it may also reflect the conviction that the Forum is, or at any rate ought to be, a source of real if complicated pleasure. Prof Watkin notes, slightly grimly, that ‘after archaeological investigation under the popes and the French from around 1800, visitors were told to study and instruct themselves before visiting the site, rather than see it as a place for sleep interrupted by vague dreams of Cicero’. Perversely, perhaps, given that he is now responsible for a guidebook to the site, one concludes that Prof Watkin does not entirely agree with this invitation to ‘a kind of penitential preparation, akin to prayer and fasting before a pilgrimage’.
There are a handful of very small criticisms that could be directed at The Roman Forum. A few repetitions occur which a more energetic copy-editor might have excised. More care might have been taken on regularising classical, traditional and contempary names for ancient buildings, notably in the index. Also, the paper on which the book is printed is rather poor, although the format itself is delightful, as are the illustrations. None of these, incidentally, are criticisms of the author so much as verses from an ongoing Jeremiad regarding the state of contemporary book publishing. The price, £15.99, is entirely reasonable.
For certainly, The Roman Forum is a book that answers a need, picks some fights, and hence more than deserves publication. In describing the view down from the Farnese Gardens, Prof Watkin quotes with apparent approval the passage in Emile Zola’s novel Rome (1896), in which the Forum is described as resembling ‘a long, clean, livid trench’ in which ‘piles of foundations appear like bits of bone’, so that ‘this searched and scoured spot is a city’s cemetery […] whence rises the intense sadness that envelops dead nations.’ The picture is a recognisable one to anyone who has recently stood in what’s left of the Tabularium, gazing out over the magnificent wreckage, struggling to impose some sort of intellectual or emotional order upon its confused and messy vastness.
As a good guidebook should, The Roman Forum does much to help the visitor emerge from this predicament. The clear-eyed vision of history is as valuable as the abundance of architectural insight, the generosity of allusion and the pungency of argument. In its various assertions, both implicit and explicit, of continuities between the classical past and shapeless present, the perhaps unexpected effect of The Roman Forum is to render the past, as revealed by the Forum’s present-day presences and absenses, considerably more legible and appealing than hitherto seemed the case. Yet perhaps Prof Watkin’s ultimate achievement in The Roman Forum is to re-envision the Forum itself so convincingly, as much in terms of the complicated nature its historical development and the richness of its possibilities for the future, as in some notional, fully-realised ‘classical’ form, as to render every other ‘historical’ or ‘archaeological’ site subject to a similar revisionist critique. Or to put it another way, at the end of Prof Watkin’s truly remarkable volume, it is not so much the ancient Forum itself, as the conspiracy of secularist smugness, positivism, quasi-scientific certainty and professional specialisation that made it the place it now is, that is seen to lie in ruins about us.