Tag Archives: ancient Rome

Not the typical Roman holiday …

Torcello

To compensate for this unprecedented and rather depressing run of two ‘parish news’ posts in a row — and also, admittedly, because while everyone else of any consequence is clearly now on holiday, I’m still here in London — let’s turn our attention, however briefly, to far horizons, judged either geographically or chronologically — specifically, to some nondescript and dessicated fields just north of Venice’s Marco Polo airport.

Most ‘news stories’ precipitated by press releases, seeded into the apparently endless news-drought that is August, deserve the torrent of indifference they generally receive. This, however, is something else entirely. Scholars have, I suppose, always known that a (pre) Roman settlement called Altinium, located on the Venetian terrafirma but also very near the island of Torcello, was more than just a tactful myth designed to confer upon a great Renaissance city some semblance of a respectably ancient Roman lineage. The site of Altinium, near the present-day hamlet of Altino, was well known. Excavations had already taken place, uncovering part of Altinium’s necropolis.

A dry spell in July 2007, however, revealed much more. Based on aerial photos taken in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter, it has been possible to reconstruct the street-plan of Altinium, complete with basilica, forum and theatre, as well as a canal. This latter feature is fascinating, suggesting as it does that long before the Lombard invasions of the seventh century, the inhabitants of Altinium were already learning the arts of embanking, draining and canal-building — all of which would later prove so central to history of the world’s most beautiful city.

Some might pause to wonder why a Soho-based Tory blog remains so preoccupied with Romans and barbarians, their various conflicts and eventual partial synthesis. Good question! Much of the fascination, I guess, lies in the gloomy romance of Torcello’s foundation-story. No matter how much archaeology, science or all-purpose rationalist daylight is beamed upon it, there’s still something in that tale of a tiny embattled enclave, encircled with lapping brackish water and odd-smelling muddy reed-beds — a glimmering reliquary of older rituals and manners, so improbable in its bare survival and yet so magnificent in its later Venetian successes — that stirs my reactionary heart.

And the rest of the fascination lies precisely in the pleasantly distant nature of these stories and predicaments, capable of functioning not only as metaphor, but as a sort of escapism, too. Holidays, after all, can take many forms. Enjoy yours, if you’re having one — and I’ll get back to poring over my maps of dried-out, distant, anciently depopulated fields.

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

forum

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. Continue reading

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Amongst the ruins: Hadrian at the British Museum

Et quod vides perisse perditum ducas

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is an exhibition so weirdly fragmentary, unfocused and inconclusive as to leave me wondering how far, exactly, I should go in reading it not only as a metaphor for the future of the British Museum, but for cultural life more generally.

The way into the exhibition — chaotic, diffuse, confusing — prefigures what we’ll take away from it. Bathed in the milky light and perpetual semi-muffled roar of Great Court, I was guided first by the woman who sold me my ticket, and then by various signs and portents, into a darkened tunnel where my bag was nodded at, rather than searched, before someone else failed to sell me an audio-guide and directed me into an even darker tunnel beyond, which in turn led into a cul-de-sac. Had I missed the exhibition? No, the entrance was in fact now behind me. Having thus discovered the correct, alternative darkened tunnel, I made my way up it, along a low sloping ramp.

Hadrian enthusiasts of more optimistic stripe will, perhaps, have already begun to construe this ramp as a reference, stunning in its subtlety, to Hadrian’s tomb, now the Castel Sant’ Angelo, in Rome. Well, maybe.

Instead, though, my attention was transfixed by the view along the tunnel, upwards and to the left. For there, a few yards above me, ran shelf after shelf of books — half-hidden in the gloom, three-quarters forgotten, surely now wholly inaccessible — a tactless reminder of the fact that the exhibition space, left over from the recent occupation by everyone’s favourite Terracotta Army, is built out over the old Reading Room of the British Library. In other words, where once there was research, independent enquiry, the insistent coursing after knowledge (useful or otherwise) amongst the thickets and savannahs of the canonical printed or written word, now there is something else, superimposed across the top of it: spectacle, crowds appraised quantitas quam qualitas, crass money-making schemes, in short the ponderous mechanics of yet another British Museum Blockbuster.

Now, like most of us when we come up against the resonant detritus that is all we now have left of what used to be called Antiquity, I’m more than willing to succumb to semi-enjoyable reflection regarding the irrecoverability of the past, hackneyed regret that everything man-made really does end up ruined or lost eventually, or even pointless and sentimental sub-animist pity for the flotsam of Time’s shipwreck. That’s Antiquity’s promise, isn’t it, in all its well-worn emotional banality?

Yet it’s an oddity of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict that I managed to feel all these things before entering the exhibition itself, when confronted with the ruins of the Reading Room. Thus I stood alone for a moment, revisiting memories of doctoral research carried out countless ages ago, which is to say, in the early 1990s — those bigs desks with their turquoise-blue leather surfaces burnished by a thousand now-decayed elbows, the companionable clanking of the book trolleys, the weight of those archaic leather-bound catalogues in which so many answers were once thought to repose — and then, with a sigh, moved on.

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