Graffiti on THAT?!,

or, do Romans appreciate their historic surroundings?

June 2006

Just to be clear: Rome belongs to the Romans. Yes, it is an important piece of world heritage, but it's a living, vibrant city, just as it has been (but for some savage breaks) for 2500 years. It's not a living museum, like Venice, where trying to sustain businesses and populations other than those that cater to visitors is a losing battle. It is, instead, a nation's capital and a world cultural center... that happens to be old.

But to answer the question: I think that they do appreciate their historic surroundings, yes. It's part of their whole being and daily life. In some ways they "appreciate" it by using it. Moreover, the fact that the stuff that's still around is so durable and has been around so long, they treat old buildings, retaining walls, arches holding up hillsides, pieces of aqueduct or pieces of the Aurelian Wall (more than 1700 years old and going strong), almost as if they were geological features, like caves or cliffs. I liken the massive, overbuilt stone or brick structures to very tidily organized caves with stairwells. When they redo them, since they are all so substantial, they chisel at them and mortar onto them in ways that hint at their perceived indestructability.

Graffiti is a Roman tradition of expression that is thousands of years old, too. (The word graffiti means, literally, "little writings." Not little in size, but little in the sense of brevity: a treatise in a phrase, an argument in a symbol.) Consider that, and add the sense that they aren't writing on a world heritage site but rather a rock face that, for all intents and purposes, has always been there and will always be there (despite being man-made) and graffiti doesn't seem as bad. Plaster, paint, an earthquake... graffiti is relatively organic and transient compared to the surface beneath.

In New England, such a sense of permanence is not a part of our psychology. That's not just because in New England only scarce stone-made works of indigenous peoples or, maybe, the occasional Viking leftover, is older than 500 years, while many buildings in present old Rome went up before Columbus was born, but also for these two basic reasons. First: here they overdid the logging early (and liked the immortality and severity of stone, anyway), so there's none of this namby-pamby wood-based construction that needs replacement every couple of hundred years. Second: New England, and other northern climes, have freeze-thaw cycles that would have levelled an unmaintained stone-and-mortar Rome hundreds and hundreds of winters ago.

History is alive in Rome, too. Its past is as dynamic as its present, and an endless parade of careers are made of revising the city's history. Some recent examples: Preparing for the 2000 Jubilee, construction of a new roadway near the Vatican meant the discovery of the so-called Domus Imperiale on the Janiculum Hill, part of Agrippina Maggiore's garden complex. Just this winter, an Etruscan king's tomb was unearthed in the Forum, and just this week comes news of a 10th century B.C. woman's skeleton, the first unearthed from a necropolis found under the Forum in the shadow of the 20th century monument to Victor Emmanuel II.

For a Roman, trying to execute a simple, two-line, four-decades-old subway plan is maddening because of the clutter of history. Garden walls incorporate bits of pre-Roman crafted stone, Roman-era roadways mean traffic headaches for modern transport, and the thousands upon thousands of tourists who come to snap photos of old marble, frescoes, and popes make the city harder to navigate for the permanent residents. The history is not luxury, but omnipresent and even inconvenient. Yes, they respect the history around them, but not because it is rarified or delicate.

There have been times in Rome's history where the ancient stuff was mistreated, or outright destroyed. Romans, and The Church to a huge extent, "quarried" the old sites for building materials. The Circus Maximus, for instance, the racing arena for about 200,000 spectators (picture Ben Hur's chariot race - that's the idea), is nothing now but a tidy shape in grass and hill... every bit of the brick, stone, and, especially, marble, was dragged off for new monuments, palaces, and the about one-seriously-grand-church-per-decade building pace that has been the average for 2000 years. Even the Colosseum is not immune: any time an  earthquake (this is a seismically active region, and there have been many large-scale earthquakes) has taken down a piece of the amphitheater, the rubble has been carted off rather than put back up.

Old bronze has always been melted down for new statues, and, since the 1400s, for cannons. Limestone and marble, building block and statues alike, were always being carted off to lime kilns. (The production of quicklime, calcium oxide, was essential. From clarifying wells, to helping the dead decompose, to making cement, this thirsty alkaline has an important history all its own.)

We have become fond of saying that surviving in Rome meant being either buried or consecrated by The Church.  Much of the Forum is with us because of flood-borne fill from the Tiber. The ancient bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback survived only because it was mistaken for centuries as the likeness of the emperor Constantine, the one who, in effect, made Christianity the religion of the Empire.  (Michaelangelo placed that lucky sculpture in the middle of his Piazza del Campidoglio, where a copy sits today. The recently refurbished orginal is on display in an adjacent building.)

Italians are working as hard as ever to, at the very least, protect the old stuff, if not to restore it. There is at least this one practical dimension: tourism is big business. For apartment buildings and other structures that are old, but not very old (just a few tens or a couple hundred years old) they are maintained because they are nice, it's easier than building new ones (in regulatory terms and other costs) and the old buildings are hard as... rock.

Romans are nothing if not practical, so the old stuff will be around as long as its useful or simply too expensive to change.

© Max Hall, 2006.                                Back to main page.