Since I arrived in Rome not long ago to take up a post as a guest professor, this most fascinating and puzzling of cities has more and more come to strike me as an urban-architectural attic, a place in which the achievements of humankind over twenty-five centuries have been accumulated and recorded. This accumulation has resulted in a largely haphazard and undifferentiated mass, a collection riddled with serendipities and self-contradictions, in which almost everyone of note gets to have a street, or a block or two of a street, named after him.
The naming falls on the just and the unjust alike. Even the zanily theatrical medieval revolutionary Cola di Rienzo, the kind of man most cities would prefer to forget, has been granted a long and important thoroughfare in the Prati neighborhood. True, there is no Via Mussolini in Rome. But one does not have to look too hard to find even his name in public places: the medallion high above the stage at the Teatro dell’Opera, his bust on the wall of the famous Caffè Greco.
Rome does not tell one story, or five, or even a hundred, but an infinitude, and it is up to you to sort them out. This is true of any great metropolis. But it is particularly true here: the artifacts of history are plentiful and undeniably important, and beg to be interpreted, yet so often are ambiguous in meaning.
Let the grandiose monument at the Piazza Venezia to King Vittorio Emmanuele II, the Vittoriano, a structure cordially hated by most Romans, stand as an example. This wildly over-the-top creation, with its too-white Brescian marble and its endless columns, steps, horses, winged lions, and its Unknown Soldier, has the false grandeur of an oversustained operatic high note. Begun in 1885 and inaugurated in 1911, it was meant as a triumphant symbol of Italian national unity. And its placement, overshadowing so much of the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Hill, shows that it was meant in part as an effort to loosen the grip of Italy’s fractured past, and wave away its ghosts.
But the tale always eludes the control of the teller, especially here in Rome. The very fact that the Vittoriano is, quite simply, too, too much, shows that it was announcing something prematurely, in a way that bespoke nervous bravado, not settled self-confidence—as events of the successive decades would demonstrate. Even today, the fractiousness and regional rivalries that beset Italy indicate that a unified Italian nation remains far less fully achieved than such a monument would suggest. The monument has become an expression of cultural insecurity at the city’s very center (or at least one of them). And the monument now stands forever (if only as a lasting subject of complaint) as a part of the Eternal City’s eternal text.
Rome’s physical and political history is so deep and so rich that no-one could ever fully control the meaning of any architectural addition to the city. Realizing this is both inhibiting and inspiring. Inhibiting, because in Rome you don’t feel a surge of that great sense of human possibility that electrifies the air in New York, for example; the young Romans I meet seem to like New York, and Los Angeles, and America for their embodiment of precisely that quality.
In Rome, you are humbled in the way you are humbled when you stand before some great natural wonder. Except that the wonder before you is a hybrid, both manmade and yet not manmade, being in large measure a work that could only have been produced by the hands of time itself. And it does not reveal itself automatically or immediately. You must work at deciphering it, the work of years—and work well worth doing if one is privileged to get the chance.