Dilapidated or just complicated? ‘The Roman Forum’ by David Watkin


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.


Piranesi's view of the Temple of Vespasian before excavation, c. 1750s?

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.


Filed under architecture, books, history, religion, reviews

13 responses to “Dilapidated or just complicated? ‘The Roman Forum’ by David Watkin

  1. A pleasingly Latinate adjective, too. Thanks, Antoine – so glad you liked it.

  2. I knew you’d get it. 😉

    Having been to the Forum and found it profoundly uninspiring, it’s good to have a sense of what was missing.

  3. As the post above implies, I was in Rome this spring, attempting (among other things) to interest my young son in various landmarks of Western culture. While he immediately ‘got’ the Colosseum (while having the wit to lament the lack of a floor), the Pantheon (he liked the oculus, especially the frankly weird view it provides after dark of passing pigeons, lit from beneath by the surrounding street-lamps), the Piazza Navona (this, despite the fact that not one fountain was functioning), the Castel Sant’ Angelo (our various interludes of getting lost there are now a staple of my happier dreams), the catacombs at Sant’ Agnese fuori le Mura (we managed not to get lost — just as well, really), and even Santa Maria in Aracoeli (by which we learn that, even in the days of the internet, video games, recession-led middle-brow cultural puritanism etc, the world’s most talkative child can still be struck momentarily silent by the sheer drama of a gilded coffered ceiling held up by a ranks of ancient marble columns, a very good cosmatesque marble floor undulating handsomely beneath) — well, the Forum was, admittedly, a much harder sell, especially as it’s now mostly impossible to clamber on bits of stone, and all the gelati’s off-site, none of which endears the place to even a fairly imaginative four year old.

    All of which is a long way of saying that I agree with what you wrote above — with proviso that the feeling of ‘oh, that’s what’s missing’ is far more striking in Prof. Watkin’s actual prose than you’d guess from my review. Really, it’s a very good book.

  4. Anthony M.

    I bought and devoured this book with enthusiasm. The Forum has been, in my experience, a difficult site to parse and I was particularly interested to read about the things that have been demolished: indeed, I could have borne more description and discussion of the lost churches of S. Maria Liberatrice and S. Adriano (the latter receiving more of Watkin’s attention than the former). Watkin’s gambit of illustrating the pre-excavated Forum via Piranesi’s engravings proved interesting and enjoyable, helping me overcome my general prejudice against Piranesi for his characteristic exaggeration of monumental scale against the puny humans who stroll about beneath and on top of them.

    While I agreed with his laments about the general brutality of the excavations and the loss of the site’s picturesque pre-excavation charm, I was surprised by Watkin’s suggestion that the elm avenue created by Alexander VII be replanted; even though a bit of shade would be very welcome in a site I consider the sun’s anvil, it would be impossible to replant trees without replacing the soil, perhaps raising the ground level. Needless to say, the archaeological authorities would be most unlikely to consent to such an intervention, and as a result Watkin’s advice on the matter has a faintly ludicrous ring. He also slips odd little value judgements about side issues into his text, like his observation that the Second Vatican Council was “self-destructive” on the part of the Catholic church. Was it really? If so, surely a somewhat longer treatment of the issue would be the responsible thing to do. (A braver editor would just have cut the adjective out.) That’s the sort of comment that tends to diminish the author’s credibility, making him just sound like a cranky old Catholic (and I have no idea what his religious views, if any, are). Occasional solecisms like describing a church built in 1619 as “Renaissance” can be understood from Watkin’s grounding in English architecture, in which 1619 was indeed Renaissance, but in Rome was Baroque. And in fact a little later on the author grants as much: once again, this is the fault of injudicious editing.

    I was delighted to read of the gardens of palazzo Silvestri (later palazzo Rivaldi, currently being restored, to be put to who knows what modern use): I had no idea the gardens clambered over the top of the Basilica of Maxentius, as Watkin informed me, and I fully agree with his complaint that the Farnese Gardens are being cruelly and brutally neglected and run down by the archaeological authorities. A ceiling fresco in the Nymphaeum of the Rain, which was still fully visible in the 1960s, has been allowed to decay to the point of complete illegibility, and the whole site of the Farnese Gardens is practically a shadow of even its nineteenth-century self. Nothing could be a clearer indication of the way archaeologists privilege tiny traces of ruins over even the loveliest post-antique monuments. (The archaeological superintendency is currently undertaking an extensive excavation in the Palace of Tiberius, just behind the Farnese Gardens: that money could perhaps have been better spent restoring the sixteenth-century structures of the Gardens.)

    Watkin quotes a commentator who observed succinctly: “Archaeology is the enemy”. But in the end, can it really be? The urge to excavate is part of the human impulse to explore. You will never convince me that Piranesi would not have chosen to dig out the bases of the colonnades he loved to draw, if only he had possessed the means and permission. I think the excavation of the Forum was inevitable, even though I regret the violence of the work and the loss of some architectural gems (particularly S. Adriano — its replacement with the current Curia is just awful, a fake of a ghost of a building). (By the way, the present Curia, in its Diocletianic faked/restored form, is more or less on the same site as its more ancient Republican predecessor, though its context has changed completely, and we no longer have, for instance, the Comitium well where the Roman tribes voted, or the building under the site of SS. Luca e Martina where senators were judged.)

    I liked Watkin’s emphasis on the modern fakery to be seen in the Forum, particularly the Fountain of Juturna, the Temple of Vesta which is shocking, and the appalling new structure housing the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs. Who permitted that monstrosity to be built? And, like Watkin, I deplore the closure of large areas of the Forum that would be more comprehensible, not to mention more fun, if one could walk around and explore them better. Why lock us out of the House of the Vestals and off the pavement of the Forum itself? Why keep us from walking through the Arch of Titus? These questions would be met with the usual evasive “for conservation reasons” by the authorities, which is unanswerable unless you want to put yourself on the side of the barbarians: but at the same time, the things being conserved are themselves usually the product of modern restorations and reconstructions. So what is really being protected? Much of the Forum was closed off when it became a free-entry site for the Jubilee of 2000. I could understand closing it when there was no entrance fee supporting restoration or personnel. But now access to the Forum is for pay again, at not an inconsequential sum, and we are as locked out of the House of the Vestals as we were in 2000. You pay more; you get less. The Oratory of the Forty Martyrs and the very interesting church of S. Maria Antiqua have been fully restored for over a year now and there is still no move whatsoever to open them. I presume they will never be open to the public, but there is no indication that they are even available to scholars via advance booking. When many of the Forum’s most interesting monuments are inaccessible, a visit there is a frustrating experience. So to Watkin’s complaint about the demolitions of archaeologists I would add one about the poor way in which the current site is run.

    I was delighted to see a sort of appendix to the book that gave opening hours, though I query Watkin’s statement about the Antiquarium Forense, which as far as I know has never been reopened after its closure last decade. On the other hand, it’s good to know that S. Lorenzo in Miranda can be visited on Thursday mornings.

    In the end, the somewhat penitential visit to the Forum can be offset with a visit to the shady and beautiful gardens of the Palatine, which though neglected remain a lovely oasis in the arid desert the archaeologists have created for us. Perhaps it was a necessary desert, but it is still a desert. I entirely agree with Watkin that access to the churches around the Forum ought to be restored from the Forum somehow, and I like his emphasis on the religious nature of the site. We can choose, there as in many other places in Rome, to stress continuity or rupture with the past. Watkins is big on continuity, as am I, but I also think the excavations have great value and, indeed, an unexpected beauty, which comes only with understanding the site. What is needed is not a replanting of an elm avenue, but a better explanation of what we are looking at, when we are in the Forum. For this, of course, we can also turn to Watkin’s book.

  5. In response to your eloquent, well-considered and generally admirable comment, I started to compose a reply — a reply which would have set out to note that what man can excavate, man can jolly well cover up again and indeed plant an elm on top, before going on to detect in Prof Watkin’s reference to the ‘self-destructive’ Second Vatican Council a series of assumptions regarding interpretation, the physical and symbolic manifestation of metaphysical truths and indeed continuity itself, all of them with absolute relevance to everything else in the book, and hence beside which any sensitive editor surely would have scribbled, if anything, ‘stet’. After which, I’m sure, I’d have praised the charm, if perhaps not the absolute efficacy, of memorable exaggeration when it comes to polemical writing.

    In the end, though, I gave up. My heart wasn’t in it. Ultimately, trying to explain why Prof Watkin’s method of argument, coat-trailing extravagances very much included, makes sense to me is rather like trying to explain why a very good joke is absolutely hilarious — which, by the way, is less to assert some sort of superiority of perception on my part, than to suggest that these are matters on which sympathetic readers might reasonably disagree, without anything too awful happening as a consequence.

    Of course I agree entirely that the editing might, in places, have been better — a point raised in my review — and your broader complaint about the tendency of Italian authorities to limit access to anything interesting (my generalisation — your phrasing was far more measured) is unarguable, as is your regard for the happily under-appreciated, and hence pleasingly underpopulated, gardens of the Palatine.

    In any event, though, thanks for a comment which, by any standard, is better in all sorts of ways than the great majority of blog posts, here or elsewhere.

  6. Anthony M.

    Thank you, Fugitive Ink, for your kind comments. About Watkin’s Vatican Council remark, I suppose it’s really a matter of taste whether or not it was relevant (or entertaining). For me it was distracting from his general argument.

    And I completely agree with you: the Italian authorities have a tendency to close everything interesting. Another case in point is the Castel S. Angelo, one of Rome’s two worst-run museums, the other being palazzo Venezia, a museum in search of an identity. Come to think of it, large bits of the latter are often closed too. And if you happen to want to see Mussolini’s old office, the Sala del Mappamundi, you’ll have to wait til a temporary exhibition passes through. The Fascist past of that palazzo is still too hot a potato for the museum to want to touch. But that’s a rant for another day.

    Regarding Watkin’s book, in further retrospect I wish he’d expanded it to discuss the Palatine in greater detail. As the Forum and Palatine (and the Colosseum, but enough has been written about that) form part of the same admission ticket, it would have made a certain kind of sense to include a discussion of the Palatine, though of course I see the point of leaving out, as well. I just wish I could have read Watkin’s acerbic remarks about all the demolitions that created the Palatine park, and all the buildings that are off-limits. The House of Livia, closed for seven years. (It’s been fully restored! All they need to do is unlock the door! They have line-ups to get into the House of Augustus next door to see four fragmentary though spectacular rooms but they don’t bother to open his wife’s house to see the three frescoed rooms there.) The Paedagogium and the whole flank of the hill facing the Circus Maximus, closed since I don’t know when. The baths of Septimius Severus, or their foundations, now closed without explanation. The Domitianic Ramp that leads to S. Maria Antiqua. The whole lower level of the Palace could be opened, if the superintendent consented. It could be the most exciting site of ancient Rome for visitors, but it’s just …not. They could open the triclinium of Nero’s Domus Transitoria, underneath the current ruins of the Coenatio Jovis of Domitian, they could open the House of the Griffins which is a Republican-era house that Domitian built over. It would be terrific. And why can’t we get into the Casino del Belvedere, built for Cardinal Farnese in the late sixteenth century, with its two loggias frescoed by Zuccari? Again, the ancient ruins are privileged over the Renaissance buildings, but as my list above makes all too clear, the ancient ruins themselves aren’t being shown to us either.

    As for replanting Alexander VII’s elms, I agree that it is physically possible to mound up the earth again and put down the saplings. And I’ll even concede that it might have a rather picturesque effect — one of Watkin’s themes is decrying the war on the picturesque in the name of science, even such a haphazard and forgery-prone science as archaeology has proven to be in the Forum. Where I part ways with Watkin is in his implication that the Forum, as excavated, isn’t beautiful. I think it is, though I think its beauty has a lot to do with understanding the meaning of the ruins, which is why I think they need to be better explained on-site. I wouldn’t want to spoil its beauty for all the replanted elms in the world. And I think that in practice the theoretical replanting would look weird and wrong, another ahistorical layer added to the Mussolinian and prior forgeries.

    You find me torn. Because I really do regret the loss of the old, Piranesian, picturesque Forum: at the same time, I am grateful for the excavations for revealing and teaching so much about the place which has, perhaps more than any other site in Rome, dominated our imaginations and our ideas about the ancient city.

  7. The only problem with your comments, Anthony M., is that they’re stimulating enough to produce replies rather longer, in aggregate, than the original article itself — which, some of my critics would perhaps agree, ran on a bit.

    Suffice to say, in the first instance, that of course it would have been better had Prof. Watkin been encouraged to write about the Palatine (I’d have included the Colosseum too, for although you’re right that it’s been written about elsewhere — I rather liked Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins — Prof. Watkin might well have brought something different to the party), the constraints of producing a single volume within a multi-author series may well have been seriously restrictive. Even working within those constraints, however, he does manage to suggest enough about e.g. the Domitianic Ramp to make it stick in the memory, even for those of us who haven’t been lucky enough to see it: ‘With its high, arched ceiling, the Palatine Ramp has a Piranesian magic and drama which make it one of the most remarkable sights in the Forum, but it is not shown to the public. This dark and twisting ascent, perhaps originally with guards at every corner, gives one a sense of the fear and policing associated with access to the seat of power in the Empire’ (p. 97). More, though, would have been better. Until then, your comments go some way towards articulating the sort of indignation Prof. Watkin might well have expressed, and that the rest of us would surely have enjoyed reading.

    That’s the easy part. Harder, perhaps, is the challenge of framing a response to your obviously very heartfelt assertion that the Forum, as it stands today, is beautiful. Having spent the better part of several early mornings worrying over this, I have come to the conclusion that, while I do find some views of the Forum literally breathtakingly beautiful — notably, that view (Gibbon’s, presumably?) down from the steps behind Santa Maria in Aracoeli, especially rather early in the morning when the Forum itself is bathed in milky light, slightly misty, totally devoid of visitors. Once down in the Forum itself, though, with the dust and the crowds and the sheer effort of willing historical or even mythic significance out of all those rather similar chunks of broken stone, beauty starts collapsing, gradually but catastrophically, into something too much like a sense of obligation. Delving further into my responses, I discover that I’d actually like the Forum more or less to myself, probably with a modest cafe or two within its bounds (in my experience, the apprehension of beauty, if not its existence per se, more or less hinges proximity to coffee), and certainly inflused with a stronger sense of some urgent, present-day purpose — religious, political even, but certainly not simply quasi-scientific or ineffectively didactic.

    But how likely is any of that? Not very likely at all, not least because my desire for an empty Forum rather contradicts my desire for its transformation into vital, culturally central and highly-caffeinated place. In other words, the giddy freedom of early morning daydreams does not much correspond to the scope of the sober-minded and responsible urban planner, even in Rome. There is, though, perhaps, a place in life for both, with the one sometimes informing the other. It’s possible to take these things too seriously.

    All of which brings back to Prof. Watkin’s elm trees. When I wrote above about the undesirability of trying to explain a joke, I was being — for once — being rather literal. To venture any further in this direction places me in some danger of implying some sort of superior insight when it comes to identifying the point at which the argument stops and the teasing begins in earnest. Next, perhaps, I shall be expected to spell out whether King Arthur actually still sleeps under his hill, waiting until we need him, or whether our pets’ souls end up in Heaven?

    Well, for what it’s worth, I’m sure that this world has been demystified too much already. Prof. Watkin’s rhetorical strategies will, no doubt, suit some readers better than others. Flippancy is tiresome when the subject is something too close to one’s own heart. What I’m struggling to say, here, Anthony M., is that I do, really, respect your reasons for wanting Prof. Watkin to be serious, just for a moment — and admire your good manners in the face of a paradox whereaby a book is simultaneously explicitly anti-archaeology yet largely dependent on archaeology. Yet at the same time, I’ve got to admit that for me, the chief appeal of Prof. Watkin’s approach lies precisely in its unbounded, antic, marginally irresponsible quality — all the more bracing when emerging from an absolutely unrepentent reactionary who so clearly cares so much about these things. The jokes, in other words, are indistinguishable from the argument, and the argument is as much embedded in the jokes as it is a counterpoint to them. You don’t have to literally believe in the elms in order to see how they function within Prof. Watkin’s argument — but if you do literally believe in the elms, it works, too. Does that make any sense?

    Finally, by way of an aside, your comment drew attention to something odd about the palazzo Venezia: as you put it, ‘The Fascist past of that palazzo is still too hot a potato for the museum to want to touch. But that’s a rant for another day.’ Oddly, an earlier version of my Roman Forum review actually made this point, until it was excised as a distraction. (No one ever believes I self-edit, but I promise you, it does sometimes happen.) Now, though, I’m actually sorely tempted to post something on this topic — if only to bring forward the day of your promised ‘rant’, which I, for one, await with some enthusiasm. And again, thanks for taking the time to post such a worthwhile comment.

  8. Martin O

    Thank you for this stimulating review and the comments.
    As for prof. Watkins idea of re-planting the elms, surely some discreet solution could be provided, if there was a will — which there is not. The “arid” quality of the place could, and should, I believe, be de-emphazised, and with no archeological losses, with just a small amount of greenery strategically placed.
    His notion of replacing the gilded statue of Phocas with a copy, however, seems a little more complicated: for one thing, do we know what Phocas — or for that matter the original statue — looked like?
    Worse is that the bookshop at the entrance is lousy, theres is practically no information about the monuments, reconstructions etc on the site; and the Antiquario, that I´ve tried to gain entrance to on 16 different visits over a couple of decades, appears to be permanently closed. (Last time, Oct 2008, I managed to ask an official when it will be open, but received a shrug, that to some people could be perceived as rather too typical of a certain attitude …)
    Of course Watkins has something of an agenda, but that´s a very sympathetic agenda, and in all the Wonders of the World books there´s a degree of subjectivity that tilts them slightly but makes them very readable.

    Prof Watkins has written the kind of book that I´ve been looking for for a long time and I´m really glad for it, as for your articulate review.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Martin O. — and for your kind words about the review.

    What you write about these much-discussed elms, and indeed the statue of Phocas, is entirely sensible — and your comment about the bookshop is, one would have thought, unarguable. Indeed, it’s possible to go further, and denounce the whole process by which normal mortals now enter the Forum — the entrance from the Via dei Fori Imperiali — as entirely inadequate. The ticketing facilities aren’t great, the provision of explanatory material almost non-existent, and the lack of any sort of non-exploitative shop (selling those ‘Roma’ passes, guidebooks, bottles of mineral water, small elm seedlings, you name it) frankly rather odd. Worse still, though, given what that entrance actually is — the threshold to what is, at least potentially, one of the most historically resonant spaces on earth — it absolutely lacks drama. The chances of any of that changing any time soon are, alas, minimal.

    Finally, as for Prof. Watkin’s ‘agenda’ — my own working assumption is that we all have agendas, consciously or otherwise, and so the best strategy is to be honest about them — less because the resulting clash of ideas and approaches is necessarily in some sense productive, than because it is, frankly, a lot more fun than the alternative. But from what you say yourself about the ‘readable’ quality of the Wonders of the World series, perhaps you’re thinking along similar lines.

    In any event, thank you so much for taking the time to write.

  10. Anthony M.

    Once again, Fugitive Ink, thank you for your thoughtful remarks. By all means post about palazzo Venezia and the removal of memory in Rome: I’ve just finished writing the introduction to a book I’m writing, a guide to Rome under the Nazi occupation, which deals with just that subject. I’d be interested to read your observations.

    You know, I liked Christopher Woodward’s “In Ruins” (I don’t know how to do italics in these posts), but I didn’t love it. It’s been a while since I read it so I can’t give any specific criticisms, and I gave my copy to my mother. I do remember liking the painting reproduced in the book that showed the Bank of England in ruins.

    Once again, I agree with you — this time about the high desirability of a café or two in the Forum area. I’ve long thought that the Ninfeo della Pioggia in the terraces of the Farnese Gardens would make a splendid coffee bar, cool and dark for hot summer days. And surely there could be no better use to put the monstrosity now called the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs than to consign it for use as a café for the thirsty multitudes. The Caffè Juturna! I can see the special event catering in my mind’s eye already. Alas, it will never happen. There’s a reason the Superintendent of Archaeology in Rome is known as “Doctor No”. And I also agree with you that the Forum is infinitely more lovely early in the morning (or even illuminated late at night) than it is in the full glare of midday, when the garishly-clad figures of tourists pullulating over the ruins can provoke a sense of revulsion and despair, an almost Camus-like sense of alienation from one’s fellow human beings.

    I love that the Forum square itself has never been built over (though there are always those 200 houses that Paul III demolished when he was making a triumphal way for the emperor Charles V in the 1530s), and I love that there are several different levels of ancient pavement in the Forum, as the ancient Romans didn’t fuss about prying up the old paving stones and relaying them at a higher ground level after floods: they just plunked a new layer of pavement on top of the old one. So part of my appreciation for the dug-up Forum comes from a sense of awe at the continuity that the site represents. (We know of only one other square in Rome that has never been built over: thanks to the Severan Marble Plan, we can identify today’s piazza della Trinità dei Pellegrini, near Campo de’ Fiori, as an ancient square.)

    I don’t mean to blow my own horn here, but perhaps you might have read my previous book, “The Families who Made Rome: a history and a guide” (Chatto & Windus, 2005). It seems like the sort of book you might enjoy. And it even talks about Alexander VII and his elms — I think. If I didn’t have to cut it out due to space constraints.

  11. Oh, so you’re that Anthony M.! Who knew?

    Not I, certainly, or I probably would have saved myself the effort of lecturing you on subjects that you unsurprising know rather better than I do … although, as I was very much enjoying your comments, once I recover from feeling rather sheepish, I shall very much enjoy reading not only The Families who Made Rome: a history and a Guide (which came out during a strange interlude of my life during which I read virtually nothing except Sir Osbert Sitwell’s memoirs, the letters of Samuel Palmer, a book by Michael Bentley about Lord Salisbury and miscellaneous books about babies, every last one of the latter useless), but also your forthcoming volume. I’ve long sought such a book, and, discontented with what little I’ve found on the topic, have long wished someone would write the book I wanted. And, hey presto, so it transpires! Perhaps I should wish for things more often — carefully, though.

    You’re right, by the way, that In Ruins wasn’t loveable — not least, it lacks the engagement of Prof. Watkin’s book, and if the author doesn’t much care, then why should we? Still, it told me a lot that I didn’t know, enlivened a number of otherwise dreary bus journeys and aimless evenings, so I’m nonetheless glad it exists. As, one trusts, is your mother.

    Finally, your nomination of the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs as the ideal site for a Forum cafe made me laugh — it is heartwarming to discover that all my patient exegesis of extravagant Watkinesque coat-trailing, its theory and practice, was not wasted.

    Thanks again, anyway, for your comments. And now I am off to try to discover whether I’ve ever set foot in the piazza della Trinità dei Pellegrini, which is suddenly much more interesting than I’d hitherto realised.

  12. Anthony M.

    My dear Fugitive Ink, there is no reason for sheepishness. Your remarks are entirely valid and I was most interested to read them. And I made a mistake when I named that putative café. It should have been, obviously, the Caffè dei Martiri. In memory of all the heatstroke sufferers staggering in from the ruthless sun of the Forum.

    I’d be delighted if you read “The Families who Made Rome”, even more if you enjoyed it. Unfortunately I haven’t found an English-language publisher for my book about the Nazi occupation yet, so it is so far being considered only by publishers in Italian. But that shouldn’t get in the way of your comments about palazzo Venezia, which I am eager to read!