The Shape of Rome

 Posted by on August 15, 2013  Italy, Rome  55 Responses »
Aug 152013
 

via-dei-fori-imperiali-3The new Mayor of the city of Rome, Ignazio Marino, just announced his intention to destroy one of the city’s central roads, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and turn the area around the old Roman Forum into the world’s largest archaeological park.  Reactions have ranged from commuters’ groans to declarations from classicists that this single act proves the nobility of the human species.

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The road in question, running along the Forum.

This curious range of reactions seems the perfect moment for me to discuss something I have intended to talk about for some time: the shape of the City of Rome itself.  We all know the long, rich history of the Roman people, and the city’s importance as the center of an empire, and thereafter as the center of the memory of that empire, whose echo, long after its end, still so defines Western concepts of power, authority and peace.  What I intend to discuss instead is the geographic city, and how its shape and layers grew gradually and constantly, shaped by famous events, but also by the centuries you won’t hear much about in a traditional history of the city.  The different parts of Rome’s past left their fingerprints on the city’s shape in far more direct ways than one tends to realize, even from visiting and walking through the city.  Rome’s past shows not only in her monuments and ruins, but in the very layout of the streets themselves.  Going age by age, I will attempt to show how the city’s history and structure are one and the same, and how this real ancient city shows her past in a far more organic and structural way than what we tend invent when we concoct fictitious ancient capitals to populate fantasy worlds or imagined futures.  (As a bonus to anyone who’s been to Rome, this will also tell you why it’s a particularly physically grueling city to visit, compared to, say, Florence or Paris.)

9780521609104cvr_red.qxdSigmund Freud had a phobia of Rome.  You can see it in his letters, and the many times he uses Rome as a simile or metaphor for psychological issues, both broadly and his own.  He fretted for decades before finally making the visit.  Part of it was a cultural inferiority complex.  Europe’s never-fading memory of the greatness of the Roman empire was intentionally magnified in the Renaissance by Italian humanists who set out to convince the world that Roman culture was the best culture, and that the only way to achieve true greatness was to slavishly imitate the noble Romans.  Italians did this as a power play to try to overcome the political weakness of Italy, but as a result, in the 19th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals in many nations were brought up in a mindset of constantly measuring their own nations only by how far they fell short of the imagined perfection of Rome.  Freud was one of many young intellectuals in Germany, Poland, and other parts of Europe who were terribly intimidated by the Idea of Rome, and the sense that their own nations could never approach its greatness.

Rome's layers: ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, modern, all jumbled together in an insoluble stack of meaning and contradictions.

Rome’s layers: ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, modern, all jumbled together in an insoluble stack of meaning and contradictions.  And that road.

But Freud had a second fear: a fear of Rome’s layers.  In formal treatises, he compared the psyche to an ancient city, with many layers of architecture built one on top of another, each replacing the last, but with the old structures still present underneath.  In private writings he phrased this more personally, that he was terrified of ever visiting Rome because he was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible.  He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right.  Rome is a mass of layers, the physical form of different time periods still present in the walls and streets, and when you study them enough to know what you are really looking at, they reach back so staggeringly far, through so many lifetimes, that if you let yourself think seriously about them it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

I will begin by discussing a single building as an example, and then the broader structure of the city.

The Basilica of San Clemente:

San Clemente is a modestly-sized church a couple blocks East of the Colosseum, one of many hundreds of churches in Rome, and, in my mind, the most Roman.  It was built in honor of Pope Clement I (d. 99 AD), an important early cleric who traveled East and returned, making him one of the most important linking figures between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worlds.  One enters the church from a plain, hot street populated by closed doors plus an antique shop and a mediocre pizzeria.  Outside the door is a beggar disguised as someone who works for the Church trying to extort money from tourists by convincing them that they have to pay him to enter.  Within, a lovely, lofty church with marble columns, frescoed chapels, a beautiful stone floor, stunning gold mosaics in the nave, and a gilded wood ceiling.  It is populated by milling tourists, and perhaps a couple of the Irish Dominicans who are now its custodians.   It is reasonably impressive, but when we pause and look more closely, we realize the decoration is not as simple as it seems.  Nothing matches, for a simple reason: No two pieces of this church are from the same time.

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The basic structure of the church, the actual edifice, is from the twelfth century.  But nothing else.

Look at the columns first: beautiful colored marble columns with delightful translucent swirls of stone.  But they don’t match: they’re different colors, even different heights, and have non-matching capitals and different size bases to try to make them fit.  These columns weren’t made for this building, they are looted columns, carried off from Roman buildings all around the city and repurposed for this Church.  These columns, therefore, were cut about 1,000 years before the construction of this church.

San Clemente Detail (2)

The floor too is Roman mosaic tile, inlaid with pieces of porphyry and serpentine, materials unachievable after the empire’s fall.  If they are here, they were carried here after the 12th-century Church was built and re-used.

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What else?  There is the stunning mosaic.  It looks like nothing else we’ve seen in Rome, and with good reason.  It looks Russian or byzantine, a totally different style.  Foreign artists must have come in to create this, not in a Roman style of decoration at all but one more Eastern.  Our Eastern Church devotees of Saint Clement have been here.

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We turn around next, and spot a lovely side chapel with frescoes of a saint’s life, in a familiar Renaissance style.  We might have seen this on the walls of Florence, produced in the late 1400s or earlier 1500s, and can immediately start playing Spot the Saint.

Roma, Basilica San Clemente in Laterano

But next we make the mistake of looking up, and realize that this massive hanging gilded wood ceiling is entirely wrong, with overflowing ribbons and a dominant central painting of a much more flowy, ornamented, emotional, voluptuous Baroque style than everything else.  The artist who painted those modest Spot the Saint frescoes would never drown a scene in little cherubs and clouds like this, nor would that ceiling ever have been near these Roman columns.

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The upper walls too have Baroque decoration. Even an untrained eye is aware something is wrong.  The practiced eye can tell instantly that the ceiling must be late sixteenth century at the very earliest and is more likely seventeenth or eighteenth, three hundred years newer than the Spot the Saint frescoes, which were two hundred years after the mosaics, which are two hundred years after the church was built using stolen Roman materials that were already 1,000 years old.  Freud, exploring the church with us, has vertigo.

Next we look down.

San Clemente Detail

What’s this?  What are these arches in the wall next to the floor?  Why would there be arches there?  It makes no sense.  Even in a building that used secondary supporting arches in the brickwork there would be a reason for it, a window above, a junction, and they would end at floor level.  Our architecture-sense is tingling.

So we go down stairs…

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Welcome to the 4th century Roman basilica which the 12th century upper church was built on top of.  Here we see characteristic dense, flat Roman bricks, and late classical curved-corner ceiling structures laying out what used to be an early Christian church.  This church was 800 years old when it was buried to build the larger one above it.  The walls are studded with shards of Roman sculpture, uncovered during the excavations, bits of broken tombs, halves of portrait faces and the middle of an Apollo, and a slab with a Roman pagan funerary inscription on one side which was re-used and has an early Christian inscription on the other side, in much cruder lettering.

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And here too there are frescoes.  Legend has that Saint Clement’s remains were carried from the East back to Rome in 869 AD, and this lower church is the place they would have been carried to, as we see now in a fresco depicting the scene, painted  probably shortly thereafter.

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Other 9th century frescoes (300 years older than the church above) show the lives of other now-obscure figures who were important in the 800s.  One features a portrait of an early pope (Leo IV), the only known image of this largely-forgotten figure.  Another features Christ freeing Adam from Limbo, and to their left a man in a very Eastern-looking hat, another relic of the importance of this church as a center for Rome’s contact with the east.

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Another wonderful fresco, of the life of a popular hermit, features a story in which a pagan demands that his servants carry the saint out of his house, but he goes mad and believes a column is the saint, and flogs and curses his slaves as he forces them to carry the column.  In this fresco we find inscriptions in Latin, but also a phrase coming out of the man’s mouth (a very crude one cursing his slaves as bastards and sons of prostitutes) which is the oldest known inscription in a language identifiable as, not Latin, but Italian.  The Italian language has come to exist between the construction of this church and the construction of the one above.  (The inscription is at the bottom in the white area above the column, hard to make out.)

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You can see it better in this reconstruction:

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One more fresco is worth visiting: the Madonna of the funny-looking hat.

Madonna and Child in 4th-cent Basilica San Clemente

When archaeologists opened up the under layer, they found a Madonna, probably 8th century, which then decayed before their eyes (horror!) due to exposure to the air.  Underneath they found another Madonna (delight!) wearing this extremely strange hat.  They looked more closely: the Christ child in her lap is not original, but was painted on after the Madonna.  This is not a Madonna at all, it is a portrait, and that hat belongs to none other than the Byzantine Empress Theodora.  Someone painted a portrait of the empress here (who used to be a prostitute, I might add), then someone else redid her as a Madonna, then, a century or two later, someone else painted over that Madonna with another Madonna, now lost, who presumably had a more reasonable hat.

Wandering a bit we find more modern additions, post-excavation.  One of the most beloved 20th century heads of the Vatican Library has been buried here, just below the now-restored old altar of the lower church.  And the tomb of St. Cyril [or possiby it contains Cyril and his brother Methodius – there is debate] is here.  They are the creators of the Glagolitic alphabet (ancestor of the Cyrillic), surrounded by plaques and donations and tokens of thanksgiving from many Slavic countries who use that alphabet.  Below is a modern mosaic, thanking them for their work:

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And nearby there are stairs down…   Freud needs to stop and breathe into a paper bag.

There are stairs down because this is not the bottom layer, not yet.  The 4th century church was built on top of something else.  We descend another floor and find ourselves in older, pre-Christian Roman brickwork.  We find high vaults, frescoed with simple colorful decoration, as was popular in villas and public buildings.  Hallways and rooms extend off, a large, complex building.  Very complex.  Experts on Roman building layout can tell us this was once a fine Roman villa of the first century AD.  In that period it had sprawling rooms, a courtyard, storerooms… but its foundations aren’t quite the right shape.  If we look at the walls, the layout, it seems that before the villa there was an industrial building, the Mint of the Roman Republic (you heard me, Republic!  Before the Empire!), but it was destroyed by a fire (the Great Fire of 64 AD) and then rebuilt as a Roman villa.  Before it was a church… before it was another church.

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Except… there are tunnels.  There are narrow, meandering tunnels twining out from the walls of this villa, leading in strange, unpredictable directions, and far too tight to be proper Roman architecture.  This villa was on a slope, and some of these rooms are dug into the rocky slope so they would have been underground even when it was a residence.  Romans didn’t do that.

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Houston, we have a labyrinth, a genuine, intentional underground labyrinth, and with a bit more digging we find out why.  This was a Mithraeum, a secret cult site of the Mithraic mystery cult, which worshipped the resurrection god Mithras.  Here initiates dwelled in dormitories for their years of apprenticeship, waiting their turn to enter the clandestine curved vault, sprawl on its stone couches, and participate in the cult orgy in which they take hallucinogens, play mind-bending music, and ritually sacrifice a bull and drink its blood in order to achieve resurrection.

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We wander still farther, daring the labyrinth, much of which has not yet been excavated, and come upon another room in which we hear the bubbling of a spring.  A natural spring, miraculously bubbling up from nowhere in the depths of Rome.  Very probably a sacred spring.

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While Freud sits down to put his head between his legs for a while (on a 1st century AD built-in bench, I should add) we can finally piece this muddle of contradictory and mismatched objects together into a probable chronology:

SanClemOnce upon a time there was a natural spring bubbling up at this spot in what was then the grassy outskirts of early Rome.  It is reasonable to guess that a modest cult site might have sprung up around this spring, honoring its nymph or some such, as was quite common.  In time, the city expanded and this once-abandoned area became desirable for industrial use as the Republic gained an empire.  The Republic’s Mint was built here, making use of the convenient ice cold water, and likely continuing to honor its associated spirit.  Decades pass, a century, two, Rome expands still further, and chaos raises an Emperor.  After the Great Fire of 64 AD, it becomes convenient to move the Mint out of what is now a desirable central district of the expanding city, so the site is purchased by a wealthy Roman who builds his house here.  Decades pass and the builder, or his son, is converted to the exciting cult of this new god Mithras who promises his followers, not the gray mists of Hades, but resurrection and eternity. Since he is wealthy, he converts his home to the use of the cult, and digs tunnels and creates the underground Mithraeum.  For a generation or two this villa hosts the cult, but then Constantine comes to power and a new cult promising an even more inclusive form of salvation comes into vogue.  The villa, which is now three hundred years old, is buried, a convenient architectural choice since the ground level of the city has risen several times due to regular Tiber floods, so the old house was in a low spot.  A new church is built on top, and serves the Roman Christians of the local community for a few generations.  The fall of Rome is usually marked at the first sack by they Visigoths in 410 or the sack by the Vandals in 455, but the conquerors are also Christian so the church stands and still serves the neighborhood, though its population is much smaller.  Now the main Emperor moves to the East, and in the 500s, when the church is about 200 years old, someone paints a portrait of the empress on the wall, then a generation later someone else decides a Madonna is more appropriate, and puts a baby in her lap.  Two or three more generations go by and Cyril and Methodius bring the bones of Clement from the East, and they are buried here, a great day for the neighborhood!  Commemorated with more frescoes.

basilica-di-san-clemente-servus-servorum-dei-basilica-di-san-clemente-37443Another century, two, we are well into the Middle Ages, and this old Roman building is old-fashioned and very low since the ground level has risen further.  The local community, and devotees of St. Clement, decide to build a new church.  They loot columns and flooring from other Roman sites, and bury the old church, producing the 12th century structure above, but using the walls of the older one as the foundation, so the arches still show in the walls.  The new church is very plain, but is soon decorated using mosaics provided by Eastern artists who come to visit Clement and Cyril.  After a few generations the Renaissance begins, and we call in a fashionable Florentine-style artist to fresco one chapel.  A few centuries later Pope Clement VIII comes to power and decides to spiff up San Clemente, initiating the internal redecoration which will end with the ornate baroque ceiling.

DSCN9436Oh, and somewhere in there someone slapped on a courtyard on the outside in a Neoclassical style, because it became vogue for buildings to look classical, so we may as well add a faux-classical facade onto this medieval building which we no longer remember has a real classical building hidden underneath.  Not long after the Baroque redecoration is begun, the nineteenth-century interest in archaeology notices those arches in the walls, and starts digging, re-exposing the lower layers.  Devotees of St. Cyril and lovers of history, like the head of the Vatican Library, begin to flock to San Clemente as an example of Rome’s long and layered history, and so it gains more layers in the 20th century as donations and burials are added to it.  Every century from the Republican Roman construction of the Mint to the 20th century tombs is physically present, actually physically represented by an artifact which is still part of this building which has been being built and rebuilt for over 2,000 years.  Not a single century passed in which this spot was not being used and transformed, and every transformation is still here.  And all that time, from the first sacred spring, to the Mithraism, to today’s Irish Dominicans, this spot has been sacred.

This is Freud’s metaphor for the psyche: structure after structure built in the same space, superimposing new functions over the old ones, never really losing anything.

This is Rome.

San Clemente is exceptional in that it has been largely excavated and is accessible, but every single building in Rome is like this, built on medieval foundations which are built on classical ones.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a random pizzeria and found a Renaissance fresco, or a medieval beam, or Roman marble.  I’ve gone into a cafe restroom and discovered the back wall was curved because this was built on the foundations of Pompey’s theater (where Caesar was assassinated).  I’ve gone into churches to discover their restrooms used to be part of different churches.  Friends have this experience too.  During my Fulbright year in Italy I had a colleague who was studying Roman altars, half of which you could only get at by ringing the bell of strangers’ apartments and saying: “Hello!  I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?” to which the standard response is, “Oh, yes, come on in, it’s in the basement next to the washing machine.”  I have another friend who thinks he’s found a lost chapel frescoed by a major Renaissance artist hidden in an elevator shaft.  Another friend once told me of a pizza place with a trap door down to not-yet-tallied catacombs.  I believe it.

As with San Clemente, so for Rome: layers on layers on layers:

If San Clemente’s narrative starts with a sacred spring and the Roman Mint, Rome’s narrative starts with scared people on a hill.

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Welcome to the archaic period.  You are a settler.  Your goals are securing enough food to stay alive, and avoiding deadly threats.  The major threats are (A) lions, (B) wolves, (C) wild boar, (D) other humans, who travel in raiding parties, killing and taking.  You are looking for a safe, defensible spot to settle down.  You find one.  The Tiber river, which floods regularly producing a fertile tidal basin rich with crops and game, takes a bend and has a small island in it.  At that same spot there are several extremely steep, rocky hills, almost like mesas, with practically cliff-like faces.  In such a place you can live on top of the hill but hunt, farm, and gather on the fertile stretch below.  And you can even sail up and down the river, making trade and travel easy.  Perfect.

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The very first settlement at Rome, in the archaic period, was a small settlement on the Capitoline hill, one of the smallest hills but closest to the river.  (Are you, perchance, from a country?  With a government that meets in a “capitol” building?  If so, your “capitol” is named after the Capitoline hill, because that’s how frikkin’ important this hill is!)  The valleys around are used mainly for farming, but also for burials, and the first tombs are very simple ones, just a hole with dirt, or sometimes a ceramic tile lid.  The buildings in this era are brick decorated with terra cotta.  Eventually the first major temple is built on the Capitoline hill, with a stone foundation but still terra cotta decoration, and is dedicated to Jupiter. Its foundations remain, and you can see them, in situ, in the Capitoline museum which will be built on the same spot a few millenia later.

A more developed form of the settlement.  The Temple of Jupiter with its red roof still stands on the Capitoline hill, while buildings have now filled the valleys below.

A more developed form of the settlement. The Temple of Jupiter with its red roof still stands on the Capitoline hill, while buildings have now filled the valleys below.

This hill turns out to be a great place to live, and the population thrives.  In time the hill is too crowded.  People spread to the neighboring hills, and start building in the little valley in between.  As the population booms and spreads to cover all seven hills, the space between the first few becomes the desirable downtown, the most important commercial center, where the best shops and markets are.  This is the Forum, and here more temples and law courts and the Senate House are built.

South is up in this image.  To the right is the Capitoline, still with the Temple of Jupiter.  In the center you see the deep valley which becomes the /forum.

South is up in this image. To the right is the Capitoline, still with the Temple of Jupiter. In the center you see the deep valley which becomes the Forum.

In time, defensive walls go up around the area around the hills, to make a greater chunk of land defensible.  In time, the walls are too constrained, so another set goes up around them.

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As the population booms and Rome becomes a serious city, serious enough to start thinking about conquering her neighbors and maybe having a war with someone (Carthage anyone?), this area is now the super desirable downtown.  The commercial centers migrate outward to give way to monuments and temples, the Mint is built out on a grassy spot past where there is not yet a Colosseum, and the hills near the Forum become reserved for sacred spaces, state buildings, and the houses of the super rich.  On one, the Palatine hill, a certain Octavian of the Julii builds his house, and when Caesar is assassinated and the first and second triumvirates result in an Emperor, it becomes the imperial palace. (Does your capital contain a palace?  If so it’s named after the Palatine hill, because Augustus was so powerful that all rulers’ grand houses are forever named after his house).

I am now standing on the Capitoline Hill, with the Temple of Jupiter behind me.  I am looking down the forum, and the Palatine hill, where the Imperial Palace was, is the high tree-lined crest to the right.

I am now standing on the Capitoline Hill, with the Temple of Jupiter behind me. I am looking down the Forum, and the Palatine hill, where the Imperial Palace was, is the high tree-lined crest to the right.

Rome again spills over her walls and builds even farther out.   The great fire of 64 AD destroys many districts, but she rebuilds quickly, and what was the Mint is replaced by a villa which soon becomes a Mithraeum.  Rome reaches its imperial heights, a sprawling city of a million souls, and the seven hills that were once defensive are now sparkling pillars of all-marble high-class real estate, and also very tiring to climb.

Here North is up.  You can see the island to the left, and the Colosseum.  To the right of the island is a small semi-circular building, which is the Theater of Marcellus.  A bit to the right of that, sticking up aove the rest, you can still see te Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill.

Here North is up. You can see the island to the left, and the Colosseum. To the right of the island is a small semi-circular building, which is the Theater of Marcellus. A bit to the right of that, sticking up above the rest, you can still see the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill.

With Constantine, Christianity now becomes a centerpiece of Roman life, and of the city’s architecture.  Major Christian sites are built: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, etc.  These sites become pilgrimage centers, and economic centers.  They are scattered in far corners all around Rome, but all the sites have something in common: they are in corners.  The major Christian centers of Rome are all on its periphery, not in the center.  There are two reasons for this.

First, and simplest, the center of Rome was, by this time, already full.  Sometimes you could find an old villa that used to be a mint to build a small church on, but the center was full of mid-sized temples, which could be rededicated but not replaced, and huge imperial function spaces and government buildings, plus valuable real estate.  If you want to build a big new temple to a big new God, you need to do it in the not-yet-developed areas around the city’s edge.

You can rent a bike for a day and bike up the Appian Way to visit the tombs of the Roman necropolis.

You can rent a bike for a day and bike up the Appian Way to visit the tombs of the Roman necropolis.

Second, many of these sites were built on tombs, like St. Peter’s, built across the river in the cheap land no one wanted. Roman law banned burying the dead within the city limits, because disturbing a tomb could bring the wrath of the dead upon the city, but if you build immovable tombs in the middle of your city it makes city redevelopment impossible, so they have to be outside.  This is the origin of the necropolis or “city of the dead”, the cluster of tombs right outside the gates of a Roman city, where the residents bury their dead.  Some major Roman Roads, like the Via Appia, are still lined with rows of tombs stretching along the street for miles out from where the city limits used to be defined.  Thus early Christian martyrs were buried outside the city, and their cult sites developed at the edges of the city.  The land which became the Vatican, for example, was across the river, full of wild beasts and scary Etruscan tribesmen in archaic Rome, then was used for a necropolis in Imperial Rome, had enough empty cheap land to build a big circus (where much of the throwing of Christians to the lions happened, since only in such cheap real estate could you build a stadium big enough to hold the huge audiences who wanted to come see lions eat Christians), and finally Constantine demolished the circus and necropolis to build St. Peter’s to honor St. Peter who had been martyred in that circus and buried in the necropolis in secret 300 years before (when San Clemente was still a Mint).  St. Peter’s, and the other Christian sites, bring new importance to Rome’s outskirts.  We now have a bull’s-eye-shaped city, in which imperial government Rome is the center, and Christian Rome is a ring around the outside, with rings of thriving, happy commercial and residential districts in between.

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Visigothic damage to the columns of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, now the Church of San Lorenzo.

Visigothic damage to the columns of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, now the Church of San Lorenzo.

410 and 455 AD: outsiders arrive and plunder the city.  Many thousands are killed, and the beautiful center of Rome is ransacked, temples toppled, looted, burned.  In the Forum, the raiders throw chains around the columns of one of my favorite layered Roman buildings, the temple of Antoninus and Faustina.  The Visigoths try to pull the columns down with their chains, and fail, but slice gouges deep into the stone which you can still see today.  To re-check time, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built in 141 AD, when San Clemente was a villa with an active Mithraeum in it.  When it received these scars in the Visigothic raid, the Mithraeum had been buried, and the church built on top was just starting to be decorated.  And underneath the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina we have found archaic grave sites which were 1,000 years old when the temple was built 2,000 years ago–the people buried in those graves very likely drank water from the spring that still burbles up under San Clemente.  As for the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a few centuries after its near-miss, the temple will be rededicated as the major Roman church of San Lorenzo, due to a legend that it was on these temple steps that Saint Lawrence was sentenced to be grilled alive.  And not far from it, the Lapis Niger was excavated which contains a language which has not yet become Latin, much as San Clemente’s frescoes preserve one which is becoming Italian. One language evolved into another, then into a third, but this spot was still being used, just like today.

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When buildings get knocked down: reuse, recycle.

Rome was sacked, but afterwards Rome was still there.  The Goths didn’t just take everything and leave – the Ostragoths who followed the Visigoths decided to become the new Roman Emperors and rule Italy.  The surviving Roman patrician families started working for the new Gothic king, but still had a Senate, taxes, processions, traffic cops, and did all the early Medieval equivalents of keeping the trains running on time.  A century later, in the 540s, the Plague of Justinian hits and Rome loses another huge hunk of its population. But it still ticks on, and there is still a Senate, and a people of Rome.

So what was different?  From a city-planning sense, the key is that the population was much smaller.  In a sprawling metropolis designed to hold a million people, we now had maybe twenty thousand.   Thus, as always happens when a city’s population shrinks, real estate was abandoned.  But instead of abandoning the outskirts, people abandoned the middle.  Rome was important mostly as a Christian center now, with the pope, and pilgrims coming to major temples, so they occupied the edges, and that’s where the money was.  Rome becomes a hollow city, a doughnut, with an abandoned center surrounded by a populated ring.  We have reached Medieval Rome.  The city population lives mainly over by the Vatican, in the once empty district across the river, and a few other Christian sites around the edge.  The middle of the city has been abandoned so long that the Tiber has buried the ruins, and people graze sheep in what used to be the Forum.  The old buildings are now little more than quarries, big piles of stone and brick which we can steal from if, for example, we happen to need some nice columns to build a new church on top of this old church of San Clemente.

A Renaissance map of Rome, with the populatoin clustered by the Vatican.

A Renaissance map of Rome, with the population clustered by the Vatican.

DSCN9360Enter the Renaissance, Petrarch, and humanism.  Petrarch writes of the glory that was Rome, and convinces Italy that, if they can reconstruct that, they can be great again, just as when they conquered the Goths and Germans.  Popes and lords become hungry for the symbols of power which Rome once was.  Petrarch reads his Cicero and his Sallust, and visits the empty center of the city.  This is the Capitoline Hill, he says, where once stood the Temple of Jupiter, and where the Romans crowned their poets and triumphant generals.  Wanting to be great again, the popes volunteer to rebuild the Capitoline, as do the wealthy Roman families, who sincerely believe they are descended from the same Roman Senators who kept the bread and circuses running on time through Visigoths and more.  Michelangelo and Raphael crack their knuckles.  New palaces are built on the Capitoline Hill, neoclassical inventions based on what artists thought ancient authors like Vitruvius were talking about.  In time the population grows, and Rome’s wealth increases thanks to the Church and to the PR campaign of Petrarch and his followers. The empty parts of the inner city are re-colonized, by Cardinals building grand palaces, and poorer people building what they can to live near the Cardinals who give them employment.  But it is all built out of the convenient stone that’s lying around, and on top of convenient foundations that used to be the buildings of Constantinian Rome when she boasted 1,000,000 souls.

Still... so... many... stairs!

Still… so… many… stairs!

Rome grows and refills and grows and refills from the outside in, with the Capitoline as a new center artificially reconstructed by Renaissance ambition.  As the 18th and 19th centuries arrive, the city is full again, but the middle ring, between outside and center, is all the newest stuff, to the historian and tourist the least interesting.  This is why everything that tourists come to see in Rome is a long bus ride from everything else, and why you have to go up and down a million exhausting hills to get anywhere.  Rome has a belt of cultural no-man’s-land in and around it, separating the center from the Christian outskirts, and making it forever inconvenient.

In the 18th and 19th centuries we also start to have archaeology, and dig up the Forum, and begin to protect and reconstruct the ancient monuments, and recognize that this largely abandoned patch of valley behind the Capitoline Hill is, arguably, the most important couple blocks of real estate that has ever existed in the history of the world.  We paint Romantic paintings of it, and sketch what it must have looked like once, and it becomes part of the coming-of-age of every elite young European to make the pilgrimage to it (that Freud so fears!) and see the relics of what once was Rome.  Everywhere else the classical layer is under a pile of palaces and churches and pizzerias, but here in the precious Forum valley, between those hills that sheltered the first Romans, we have lifted the upper layers and exposed Rome’s ancient heart.

HELLO!  I AM MUSSOLINI!  I AM THE NEW ROME!  MY EMPIRE WILL LAST 1000 YEARS!  MY STUFF IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THIS ANCIENT STUFF!  WHEN I AM DONE, NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT CLASSICAL RELICS ANYMORE!  I AM GOING TO KNOCK DOWN ALL THE ANCIENT STUFF AND BUILD MY STUFF ON TOP!

A00175567Specifically Mussolini built a road straight through the middle of the Forum.  Fascism was a strange moment in human history, and Rome’s, and left a lot of scars.  One of them is the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a grand boulevard running along the Forum and around the Capitoline, which Mussolini built so he could have processions, and to declare to the world how sure he was that no one would care about the Roman relics he was paving over.  They would not care about the Temple of Jupiter, or the Renaissance palace on top of it, but about the new monuments he carved into the city’s heart. Those, and he, would be remembered, Caesar and Augustus forgotten.

To quote my favorite column by the old Anime Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”

The road he built through the forum, and the enormous white "wedding cake" monument he smacked onto the side of the poor innocent Capitoline hill.  The Temple of Jupiter would be just off-camera to the right, behind the huge white thing.

The Fascist road  through the Forum, and the enormous white “wedding cake” monument on the side of the  Capitoline hill.  It was a monument built for the Unification of Italy, later redecorated with a thick icing of fascist decor.  The Temple of Jupiter would be just off-camera to the right.

Mussolini's huge thing, built onto the front of the Capitoline.  Modern consensus: Do not want!

Unification monument, built into the Capitoline.

Mussolini, like the Visigoths, came but did not entirely go.  One of his remnants is a system of large boulevards scarred into the face of the city, intended for his grand Fascist processions.  Many of these are now difficult to eliminate, since car traffic in Rome is already a special kind of hell (fitting as a subsection of Circle 7 Part 2, I’d say, violence against ourselves and our creations, though it could be 4, hoarding/wasting, or yet another pouch of 8). The worst offender, though, is this road which is currently still covering up about a quarter of the ancient Forum, and also separates a quarter of the remaining Forum from the other half.  It is this road that the new Mayor proposes to eliminate.  The extra Fascist decoration which Mussolini added to the “wedding cake” will stay, the right call in my opinion, since Fascism is now one of Rome’s layers, just as much as the Visigothic scars on the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.  But lifting the road away will give us the true breadth of the Forum back in a way no pocket diagram can replicate.  The transition will be painful for the FIATs and Vespas that now swarm where long ago the early Romans fought Etruscans and wild boar, but it is also an important validation of the Forum’s status as Rome’s most special spot. Everywhere else is layers.  Everywhere else, when there’s Baroque on top of Renaissance on top of medieval, we leave it there.  The altar stays behind the washing machine, and the need to open yet another catacomb is smaller than the need to have a working pizzeria.  But in the Forum the layers have been lifted away.  This one heart of one moment in Rome’s history, or at least one patch of about seven active centuries, we expose and preserve in honor of the importance that little spot has had as the definition of power, empire, war, and peace for Europe for 2,000 years.  Thus, I hope you will all join me saying thank you to Mayor Marino.

Rome's marathon.  No city planner would put these things in this arrangement, ever!  But history did.

Rome’s marathon. No city planner would put these things in this arrangement, ever! But history did.

The Forum is our relic of Rome’s antiquity, but it is not, for one who knows the city, the true proof that this is a great ancient capital.  That would be clear even if not an inch of Roman marble remained in situ.  The proof of Rome’s antiquity is its layout, the organic development of a wildly inconvenient but rich city plan, with those impassable hills at the center, the Tiber dividing the main city from the across-the-river part which is still the “new” part and still politically distinct, with its own soccer team, even after thousands of years.  Antiquity is the nonsensical distribution of city mini-centers, the secondary hubs around the Vatican and St. John Lateran, the crowded shops clinging to the cliff-like faces of the hills, the Spanish Steps which are there because you have to go up that ridiculous hill and it’s really tall.  Antiquity is not the Colosseum, it’s the fact that the Colosseum is smack inconveniently in the middle of a terrible traffic circle, definitely not where anyone would put a Colosseum on purpose if the modern city planners had a choice.  Antiquity is structure, the presence of layers, unlike young, planned cities where everything is still in a place that makes sense because that city has only had one or two purposes throughout its history.  Rome has had many purposes: shelter, commerce, conquest, post-conquest/plague refugee camp, religious capital, center of cultural rebirth, new capital, finally tourist pilgrimage site.  All those Romes are in a pile, and the chaos that pile creates is the authentic ancient city.  Rome is that cafe bathroom with a curved wall that proves it is where Caesar was assassinated.  In another thousand years I don’t know what will be there, a space-ship docking station or a food cube kiosk, but whatever it is I know it will still have that curved back wall.

If you enjoyed this, see also my historical introduction to Florence.

FOOTNOTE:  For those who care, the context of that Anime Answerman quotation:

Kid writing in: “Dear Anime Answerman, my friend tells me that Inuyasha is a more violent show than Elfen Leid, and I don’t believe them, but I can’t tell them they’re wrong because my Mom won’t let me watch Elfen Leid.”

Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”

Jul 262013
 
BorgiaFrenchTVPoster

A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!

Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.

My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.

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Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.

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See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy

The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.

Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:

borgia-s1-brd-fr-2d

I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).

Apr 272013
 

Note: this is a guest post.  I am on another research jaunt, speaking in Rome and Oxford and visiting an intriguing book in Paris.  While I’m travel-swamped, a good friend, Rush-That-Speaks, has agreed to write a guest post, describing a little Roman adventure we shared.

Rush-That-Speaks writes:

The last time “Ex Urbe” and I were in Rome together, which was late in November of 2011, we were sitting in our hotel room one moderately tired evening, and, as one does, were discussing the Borgias. I believe that this was in the context initially of the Borgia arms, which are stamped on everything the family sponsored in Rome during Rodrigo’s papacy (1492-1503). The coat of arms of the reigning pope also gets put up at all the churches where the pope is a regular celebrant, and not taken down no matter how many centuries go by, and sometimes popes just put their arms up on things because they’re pope and they can and it’s a Statement. The Borgia bull, therefore, is pretty common throughout the City, along with various other Renaissance great houses who at some point took the papacy: Medici and della Rovere and so on. Honestly these tend to be in better taste than more recent stamps-of-arms; Benedict’s arms came out a rather nasty shade of fuchsia. So we were talking about places we’d spotted the bull that day, surprising and otherwise, and how annoying it is that Cesare Borgia is buried over in Spain where people who have been traveling through all the scenes of his life in Italy cannot easily go and look at him.  [Ex Urbe Note: Reminder regarding Cesare’s tomb, he was originally buried in the Church of Santa Maria in Viana but in 1537 the bishop had the tomb destroyed and his remains buried in unconsecrated ground, as (many thought at the time) such sinful monsters deserve. In 2007, on the 500th anniversary of his death, the Archbishop currently in charge of the site had Cesare dug up and moved back into a proper tomb again, partly on the theory that 500 years’ exile was enough even for such a monster, and because it was a publicity and tourism coup.  Lucrezia is in the castle in Ferrara with her last husband, Alfonso d’Este]

The Tomb of Alexander VI, nominee for Worst Pope. But where is it?

Which led to contemplation of the death of Cesare Borgia, purulent with syphilis and defeated but still fighting as he was, and then to the anecdote about the seven devils who came to Rodrigo Borgia’s deathbed to bear him off when his time for plaguing the world was finished (a fairly well-accepted bit of gossip); and then a question occurred which had never really crossed either of our minds before, namely, if Cesare is off in Spain, then where is Rodrigo Borgia buried?

If you want a papal tomb of course you traditionally look in St. Peter’s. He wouldn’t be in the upper level, the church itself, because you have to be a saint or at least beatified to be buried in that part at all. Many popes who have not yet achieved sainthood but hope for it are buried in hopeful little tombs in the basement crypts, and then whenever one of them is exalted in status he is moved upstairs and showered in triumphant statuary. But it’s not as though there’s a morals requirement for being buried in the basement. Boniface VIII is down there, the pope Dante spent several cantos calling the Antichrist, and Boniface is even buried with his nephew, the one whose appointment as Cardinal gives us the word ‘nepotism’, from nepos, nephew.

However, if Rodrigo were in the basement of St. Peter’s either “Ex Urbe” or myself would have heard about it at some point. St. Peter’s is a very heavily documented and famous place, discussed by artists and architects throughout history. There are explanatory books and pamphlets about it sold maybe every fifty feet in the City of Rome, there are guided tours, there are non-guided tours, and at some point in some way one of us would have come across the fact of him if he were in there, even if he were in a portion never open to the public.

Ex Urbe note: Popular historical figures in Rome receive frequent visits, flowers and letters. Here is what collected at the foot of a modern statue of Julius Caesar near the forum, while other flowers appear (the and throughout the year) at his tomb, and at the spot where he was killed. Cities, nations, clubs and organizations leave big wreathes, while many individuals just contribute a single blossom. I often do too when in town on the ides, and get a special thrill seeing how many others are so moved by history.

So we looked it up. Rodrigo Borgia is buried in Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, the Church of Holy Mary in Monserrat of the Spaniards, which is the official Spanish church in Rome. By this I mean it is the church in which Spanish dignitaries in Rome conduct their ceremonies, and the church which is specially charged to look after Spanish travelers in distress, and, most importantly, where famous Spaniards who die in Rome are buried. Many countries have such churches in Rome, and so do several professions– the official sailors’ church in Rome is very close to S. Maria in Monserrato, and so is the official Russian church (a more surprising object). It is not, however, a very prestigious place to be buried, not if you are a Pope. The reason why is tomb desecration: people kept trying it. They’d put Rodrigo in one place, and someone would desecrate the site, and then they’d move him, and it would happen again, and it just kept happening, so they moved Rodrigo and the previous Borgia Pope, Callixtus III, who was somewhat better liked, into the Spanish church. And didn’t mark the place. And buried them together. And hoped that would do it.  [Note from Ex Urbe: There are reports of Alexander’s immediate successors, especially Julius II, refusing to let him be in St. Peter’s, and Julius even ordered that all Borgia tombs be opened, but the vandalism seems to have been not only fast but also frequent and consistent over decades.]

It’s marked now, because in the middle nineteenth century a fairly popular King of Spain died in Rome, and when they buried Alonzo XIII next to the Borgias they figured they’d better put up a mausoleum so everybody knew who was where. The body of the King of Spain has since been repatriated, but apparently no one is angry enough to desecrate a Borgia tomb anymore, so the plaque for Rodrigo and Callixtus remains.

This meant we could go over and leave Rodrigo some flowers. I was curious to see whether anybody else would have.

We started by going over to the Campo de’ Fiori, which is the flower market of Rome. It’s also an open-air market for a lot of other things, the usual tourist souvenirs but also a very good produce and farmers’ market with a wide selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables in the early mornings, and in the center it has the monument to Giordano Bruno on the spot where he was burned at the stake for heresy. A thing it is pleasant to do, and which I had done earlier in the trip, is to buy fruit from the market, such as one of the kaki, the big sweet orange Italian persimmons, and sit on Bruno’s plinth and eat it looking at him. He is usually covered in pigeons, as are many statues in Rome, but he looks less indignant about it than most of them. But that day we had to figure out what kind of flower you take to the grave of Seriously The Most Evil Pope. The flower market is not seasonally restricted the way the rest of the market is, and is basically open-air florist’s shops, so you can really get just about anything. An orchid might be overdoing it a little? What seemed most appropriate was a single dark red rose, though in the end a small cluster of coral-colored roses was the best we could acquire.

Then to find the church. It is not easy to find a single church in Rome. Any given block will have between two and five of them. The internet told us that S. Maria in Monserrato was on a street called the Via Giulia, pretty much due west of the Campo de’ Fiori, south of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and south-east of the Mazzini bridge. The Via Giulia is a fairly long street, running north-west to south-east, in a quiet little quarter between Everything Historic and the river. We found the street itself pretty easily, and it turns out to be a sheltered backwater of a neighborhood, somewhat residential but mostly centered on antique shops and obscure churches of precisely the sort we were looking for. We went into several antique shops, as “Ex Urbe” is on a years’-long quest for an affordable piece of porphyry, and the thing I will never quite forget about the Via Giulia was the way every single antique shop reeked desperately of a different flavor of incredibly penetrating cigarette smoke. It was astonishing. I would have been afraid to buy stone tablets from some of those places for fear of the smell having seeped into solid rock. But the owners were friendly and knowledgeable and good at their professions, which means of course that there was no affordable porphyry, because no one good at the profession of antiquing would permit such a thing to happen.  [Ex Urbe note: had I been 900 euros richer, I might have left one shop 900 euros poorer with the most beautiful marble tile inlaid with spiraling triangular chips porphyry and serpentine… I can still see it if I close my eyes… just like the Sistine Chapel floor.  Have I griped recently about how hard it is to find a photo of the Sistine Chapel floor?]

Part of Via Giulia was under construction that day, so Rome, in good spirit, covered the construction wall with images of Renaissance ladies’ costumes.

There were also signs up and down the Via Giulia talking about celebrating the neighborhood, and the artistic and antique beauty of the quarter and its long history, and these signs had on them a portrait of… could it be? Does irony work in such mysterious ways? Was Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, The Most Evil Renaissance Pope, really buried on a street named for Pope Julius II, Giuliano della Rovere, Rodrigo’s successor to the papacy and rival, enemy and heir? Della Rovere who fled to France when Rodrigo was elected, for fear of poison, della Rovere who brought Charles VIII of France back with him to conquer Italy, so mad was he to see it taken from the Borgias? (It didn’t work. Rodrigo bought the right people in the King of France’s cabinet: Charles conquered, but did not depose the papacy.) Via Giulia. There was his picture on every signpost banner. How remarkable.

Except of course that we couldn’t find the church anywhere. As I mentioned, the street is a long one, and we went up and down it two or three times, from the Official Church Of The Florentines In Rome at one end of it to the bit where it peters vaguely out near the river at the other end. [Ex Urbe note: of course Florentines need their own Church in Rome: S.P.Q.F!] There are a lot of little churches, all with similar facades, white and severe with the same kinds of inset columns, the same triangular pediments, the names carved neatly into the marble somewhere or other, but no facade that matched the one we’d seen on the internet, and no remotely similar name. It was beginning to get late, on a November evening which was starting to aim for freezing, and the first few people we asked had no idea either.

It was an antique-shop owner who told us, finally, that of course Via Giulia as the address of the church didn’t mean it fronted on the Via Giulia; it has its unmarked back to that street. No, it fronts on the Via Monserrato, one street easterly, and we’d walked by the back at least four times. We located it, and there indeed it sat, the white facade, the inset columns, the neat blank triangle pediment, the carved correct name, and the sign on the door saying that it is open only for Masses at seven and nine a.m. Sundays.

The interior of the church where Alexander is buried. Given that it’s a Spanish-run church, readers should be able to Spot the Saint in the painting toward the left, even blurred and from this distance.

This is not actually that uncommon a situation with churches in Italy. They do not always enjoy being treated as art objects and goals for a tourist tramp. They are part of a living religion and tradition and would like that respected, and also they haven’t got the manpower to keep everything open all the time, because there are just too many churches for that to be possible. A small, obscure church might only be open for Mass on its saints’-day, or every other Sunday, or every third week, or whenever it is part of the rounds of the local bishop, maybe every few months. Open every Sunday actually indicates that S. Maria in Monserrato has a devoted and habitual congregation, quite possibly composed of the expatriate Spaniard community for whom it was originally built. We had had to give up all hope of seeing the grill of St. Lawrence earlier in the trip, because the church where that is kept opens once a year officially and we couldn’t figure out what door nearby it might lead to someone with the ability to let us in. There’s a church with a Michelangelo in it in Florence which is practically a landmark because of the crowds of tourists standing around it trying to figure out why it is inexplicably closed all the time; “Ex Urbe”’s lived in Florence for more than one year of her life and never gotten in there, and no helpful signs, either.  [Ex Urbe note: Someday I will be there on Good Friday, when ALL Churches are required to open their doors to everyone. Then I will go in and perniciously look at all the art!  Wahaha!  Wahahahaha!]

But fortunately, we had tramped out to find Rodrigo Borgia on a Saturday afternoon, and Sunday lay before us. So we hauled ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning, and were at the church doors just before nine a.m., and they were open.

Now, any Mass at a church of this sort is open to anybody, but it is rude to hang around for very long if you are not actually going to go to the service, and it is very rude to wander around a lot taking pictures and gawking and then leave visibly. We did not even go up to the front. There may well be some decent statuary or painting in there somewhere, but we did not see it, because we went straight to the Borgia tomb, which luckily is in the first niche on the right-hand side, and stayed there, out of the way of the entering crowd. There’s a railing keeping you out of the actual niche, and the tomb itself is well back in the niche, in the right-hand-side wall, so in order to see it you have to stand with your back to the front of the church (and the altar) and crane your neck over, which seems appropriate. It’s a chaste enough marble tomb, done up like a little Greek temple, with relief busts of Rodrigo and Callixtus and a model stone pope hat, the Borgia bull three times and no motto. The tomb of the Spanish king, which is under it, is very much more mourning-centered and has a motto about how much his people loved him; I am pretty sure the contrast was intentional.

A terrible pope, yes, but, with the luxury of distance, an historian can’t help but be fond of him for giving us such interesting times to study. He deserves the occasional visit, even if the old half-Spanish roman ladies who had turned up for mass stared at us suspiciously.  Can’t blame them – I’d stare suspiciously at someone who brought flowers to Borgias.

“Ex Urbe” is taller than I am and has better aim, so she leaned over the railing at an angle and then tossed the rose. It landed well, on the floor in front of the tomb. There weren’t any other flowers in sight. We slipped out of the church just as the doors were shutting and Mass was about to start, blinking into the bright morning. Speculating over whether, when they came to clean the niches, the staff would think the rose was for the King of Spain, and whether this happens often. I somehow think it doesn’t.

So Rodrigo is buried facing the Via Giulia, and the church he’s in is facing away from it, but also actually on it. This is very much the way the City of Rome turns out to work, sometimes. Like how Caesar was stabbed on the messiest junction of the overground tram tracks, a gentle and unmarked unintentional joke upon history. I am not entirely certain it is worth going out of your way for his tomb, as a tourist, unless you are the way we are about the Borgias and happen to have a free Sunday morning, but it was certainly worth it to us, and the option is there for those who may want it.

(Rush-That-Speaks writes book reviews of sci-fi and fantasy literature, and blogs about many things including reading an impressive range of books, a lot of genre topics.  She recently completed a project to read 365 books in 365 days, a fascinating and impressive undertaking.  You can find her own blog here, or hosted through LiveJournal.)

Related: Read about the Borgias in TV Drama.

A Passion for Porphyry

 Posted by on December 22, 2011  History  12 Responses »
Dec 222011
 

The Vatican museum: hall after hall of ancient Rome.  Shelves crowd the corridors with busts of Caesar, of Cicero, of a hundred obscure Senators, of still more-obscure Romans, anonymous but vivid with two-thousand-year expressions of resolve or grit or whimsy crowded shelf on shelf.  Here sits Penelope still patient, Diana hunting, Bacchus laughing merry, while somewhere in the distance the Sistine Chapel lurks, complacent in its celebrity.  In the Hall of Animals, Roman hounds sniff at Roman horses, rabbits, crabs, crocodiles, camel heads with their enormous, gummy lips, all stone.  The Belvedere Courtyard stunned you with its circle of masterpieces every one of which transformed the history of sculpture: the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso that so fascinated Michelangelo, and, as matchless when the Renaissance unearthed it as it was when Pliny called it the best of sculptures 1500 years before, the real Laocoön.  The walls and ceilings of the patchwork labyrinth-palace are such an ocean of gilded cornices and marble tracework that it becomes impossible to tell north from south or ground from upper floors, so all sense of grounded space is long gone as you turn the corner into a grand scarlet rotunda, floored with vivid Roman mosaics.  Statues of gods and emperors loom, more than twice life-height: grim-faced Athena, tired Claudius, the massive gilded Hercules; while the friend beside you stops dead and, slack-jawed, points at a big stone tub in the middle of the room: “Look at the size of that hunk of porphyry!”

Yes, it’s porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple speckly stone, and this room, for the many who enter and ooh and aah and glittering Hercules, is another moment of material illiteracy.  Just as a Catholic spots John the Baptist by his hairshirt, and a fashionista a Gucci handbag by whatever alien cues its curves contain, so from the Roman Republic to Napolean a European knew what porphyry implies: Wealth, Technology, Empire, Rome.

Porphyry has become a generic term for igneous rock containing large spots (crystals), but the source of the name is the Greek word for purple, and the purple form is the true original.  This is referred to as Red Porphry, Purple Porphyry, or, most aptly, Imperial Porphyry.


The Imperial Porphyry found in Italy came from a single mine in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites.  It was imported by the Romans as a decorative accent stone, for use in tiled floors, as colored columns, or occasionally carved into a vase or sculpture.  Its color invokes Royal Purple, but is also very close to the color of the fabulously expensive shellfish-based purple dye which produced the purple stripe which marked the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class.  This also dyed the completely purple toga worn by those who occupied the rare and severely powerful office of Censor, a special official created only on occasions, whose task was to examine the state of the Senatorial families and judge which were still worthy of office and who should be removed or added to the roster of Rome’s leading citizens.

A Roman statue with a purple toga rendered in porphyry, from the Boboli gardens behind the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

Several Caesars held this special office, so purple, and porphyry, and as their palaces became more opulent it became increasingly an imperial symbol.  In Constantinople, once the capitol moved in the late empire, the imperial palace contained an entire room covered in porphyry, and this was traditionally where empresses gave birth, giving imperial princes and princesses the title Porphyrogenos, “born to the purple”.

Porphyry is extremely hard, also dense and heavy.  Even lifting a substantial hunk of porphyry is a great feat, let alone transporting it by ship from Egypt.  It is also so hard that it takes very strong, well-tempered steel to cut it, and even then, achieving any great degree of precision is very challenging.  The Romans had steel good enough, but it too was lost in the Middle Ages, making Roman porphyry artifacts not only symbols of the Caesars but of the impossible godlike skills of the ancients, which their weak successors could only marvel at.  It was physical, recognizable proof that the Romans could do the impossible.  In addition, the location of the mine in Egypt was lost around the fourth century AD, and not successfully rediscovered until 1823.

Imperial Porphyry has a cousin, green porphyry, or Lapis Lacedaemonius, commonly called Serpentine.  It is just as hard, coming from a mine near Sparta (or near the modern Greek town of Krokees).  It is speckled too though often with larger speckles, many somewhat rectangular or X-shaped.  The combination of rich green and purple, usually set in a white Italian marble background, was an extremely popular decorative element seen all over Rome, in the houses of Rome’s imitators, and especially in palaces and churches which re-used floor tiles looted from Roman sites.  Porphyry ornaments the floors of Rome’s greatest churches, with the size and density of porphyry among the framing stones increasing toward the altar.  The header at the top of this very blog shows a porphyry section from the floor of the Sala della Disputa, the frescoed room in the Vatican which hosts Raphael’s incomparable School of Athens, while the Sistine Chapel Floor (not a phrase you hear often enough) completes the opulence of the other decoration with a dense decoration more purple than white.

In the Middle Ages, then, porphyry meant Rome, specifically the lost power of the Caesars who could reach across oceans and achieve impossible feats.  Anywhere porphyry appeared it was a Roman relic, and anyone who had it could claim thereby to be an inheritor, in some small way, of that lost Imperium.  Porphyry also came, over the middle ages, to symbolize Christ (reddish purple = blood), but in the Middle Ages everything came to represent Christ, from griffins and unicorns to pelicans and pomegranates (no, it’s totally not a co-opted pagan symbol, why do you ask?), so what distinguished porphyry from the zillion other things that represented Christ was still its imperial connection and its technological unachievability.

Re-purposed porphyry in a Church floor, with remnants of its Roman inscription.

Thus everyone who’s everyone wanted porphyry, and if you wanted it, you had to steal it.  The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source.  Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church?  Loot it from a Roman temple.  Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven?  Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus.  If a pope wanted porphyry columns for his tomb, he had no better source than to go to some surviving Roman temple (say, the Pantheon…) and rip out the porphyry, perhaps if he’s polite substituting some less valuable stone to keep the looted edifice from falling down.

Some places already had porphyry brought there by the Romans, and in these cases it was proudly displayed as proof of the noble Roman origins of a town or province.  Even in Florence, on the baptistery which is the literal heart and center of the city, the gilded Gates of Paradise are still flanked by two old, cracked and mended, asymmetrical dark reddish columns, built into green and white facade despite a complete chromatic mismatch.  So old and dull are they that many don’t even notice them upon first or even third visit, but these are porphyry, relics of the Roman-era Church of Santa Reparata, or its predecessor, preserved and re-used here as proud proof of Florence’s Roman roots.

The Uffizi “lupa” i.e. she-wolf

Porphyry sculpture was even more impressive than a tile or column, since working such an adamantine substance into complex shapes required immense time and skill.  Diamond was rare and valuable and not a practical tool for trying to make a large chisel to work large stone, but short of diamond the only means to shape porphyry was to rub it against another piece of porphyry for a very long time, grinding both down, a clumsy, labor-intensive and imprecise technique.  Many, especially the Medici family, poured funds and efforts into researching ways to make a metal sharp enough to carve porphyry, or a solvent capable of weakening it, in hopes of adding this to their list of resurrected Roman achievements.  Even before they succeeded, however, possessing a Roman porphyry sculpture was an even grander boast than possessing simple tiles, and at last now we can understand why, in the Uffizi Gallery, where the great Roman sculpture treasures of the Medici are still housed, one comes around the corner to the very center of the U-shaped gallery, expecting to see in the center some exceptional masterpiece, an Emperor or bold Athena, one sees instead the mangled, limbless torso of an animal.  Look again: those hips, those hanging teats.  This is the mangled, limbless torso of a porphyry she-wolf, the symbol of Rome herself.

A porphyry bust at Versailles.

Naturally, the greatest concentration of porphyry lay (and lies) in and around Rome itself.  The farther you are from Rome, the scarcer (and more impressive) porphyry becomes.  Florence had a couple columns and the odd basin, but for more porphyry they had to buy or steal from Rome, or elsewhere.  The Venetians carried off large pieces of porphyry from Constantinople when they looted it, and still display them proudly as pulpits on either side of the main alter in San Marco.  Porphyry in northern Italy is comparatively scarce, so a Venetian palace with a few roundels in its facade makes a real statement.  Even as far as France, when Louis was decorating Versailles, porphyry was scarce indeed, but what few busts and vases he got hold of went straight into the best places: the throne room, and the Hall of Mirrors where every visitor would see, and understand, Louis = Caesar.

The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case.  The staggeringly enormous porphyry basin in the round sculpture room in the Vatican palace is referred to as Nero’s bathtub, and is the largest piece of porphyry I have ever seen; I would not be surprised to discover it is the largest in the world.

The sarcophagus of St. Helen

One is generally still reeling from trying to imagine the staggering cost and difficulty of creating and moving such an object, when in the next room one encounters an even more impossible vision: two enormous solid porphyry sarcophagi, both taller than a standing person, and covered in deep relief carvings of horsemen, prisoners and acanthus leaves.  This is Rome indeed.  Specifically, these are the sarcophagi of the women of Constantine’s family, including the tomb of his mother, Helen, or more specifically Saint Helen, who traveled to the holy land and brought back the True Cross and the Lance of Longinus and… at least one other major relic, but I can’t right now remember whether it was a nail or part of the Crown of Thorns, or perhaps that piece of the Holy Sponge they have in Rome…  (Spot the Saint moment: Helen’s attribute in art is that she carries the cross.)  Regardless, the two tombs have no Christian imagery, just the most Roman of Roman decorations, horsemen leading vanquished prisoners for Helen, and for the other fertility images.  In deep, impossible relief.  In an era when it was a substantial feat to scrape two looted pieces of porphyry into sufficiently matching shapes to make them seem symmetrical in a floor pattern, there is no purer proof of the godlike power of the ancients.  After that, there is just too much, and every further encounter with porphyry in the Vatican labyrinth feels like one, two, three, five, ten too many.

That guy should be taking a photo of the porphyry!

St. Peter’s is just as much a showroom for porphyry, with columns, tiles, tombs.  Every purple object that, from a distance, makes you think “is that porphyry?” turns out to be the genuine article.  And it’s worth keeping in mind that, except for the most modern pieces, they’re all relocated chunks of what were Roman temples scattered around the city from the Caesars’ days.

One large porphyry round in the floor close to the entrance is supposed to be the stone from the original St. Peter’s on which Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (and successor to the Caesars) on Easter, 800 AD.  It’s just inside the entrance in the exact center of the Church, sort of balancing the altar, secular power facing sacred.

Perhaps my favorite piece of papal porphyry, though, is this set of porphyry keys carved and set into other stonework in the threshold of the Church, so every visitor who enters walks across them.  Most ignore them, but in the pre-modern world one glance at heraldic papal keys in porphyry spells a very special kind of awe: not only does the pope have Porphyry but apparently he has the power to carve it into a Christian shape.  Clearly he is Rome’s successor.  With so many visiting feet for so many centuries, the papal threshold keys are also the best proof I know of the extreme hardness of porphyry, since the stone around them is worn down by more than a centimeter, while the keys stick up, unharmed by the tread of millions.  The Florentine Museum of the History of Science has examples of scientific instruments and grinding stones fashioned from porphyry, chosen for its rigidity and inelasticity as well as for its opulence.

It is not easy stopping traffic long enough to take this detail shot of the threshold of St. Peter’s

Note how much more detailed the carving on the marble chest is than the porphyry head on this bust of a late Medici.

The ability to carve porphyry was eventually recovered, and in the 18th century Roman relics were transformed into large numbers of sculptures, especially busts, of rather questionable taste and quality.  Porphyry remains hard to work with, so the very subtle curves and scratches necessary to make a really lifelike human portrait are simply impossible in it.  Its products are always a little too smooth and shiny, the edges of the eyes clumsily cut, the wrinkles a little too smooth, like waves rather than folds.  Also, purple with speckles is not the most flattering skin tone.

Fake porphyry was, naturally, an industry as well, and many of the most famous buildings in Europe contain not only real porphyry but painted fake porphyry, made of plaster or wood painted with the signature purple and speckles.  This was most often done for bases on which statues sat, or for trim around rooms, but the Villa Borghese in Rome contains whole tabletops of fake porphyry, with real porphyry busts nearby to make them plausible.  Porphyry was also a popular ingredient in painted scenes, especially paintings of imagined palaces, and of places intended to be ancient Rome.  And heaven, of course.  The halls of Heaven, where saints and angels pose for altarpieces, have plenty of porphyry.

Reverse of a decorative wooden platter, painted to look like porphyry

Oct 112011
 

When one has an altarpiece, and wants to flank the central Christ or Virgin with a pair of solid, unobjectionable companions, ones which make no particularly strong statement about one’s patron or native city, one can always fall back on Peter and Paul.

Saint Peter (San Pietro)

  • Common attributes: Keys, one gold one silver or both gold
  • Occasional attributes: With/on a boat sometimes, generally old, fluffy white beard, wearing Roman-type robes.  Sometimes he’s dressed like a pope or has pope accoutrement, which he has every right to.
  • Patron saint of: Popes, fishermen, shipwrights, other types of workmen like cobblers, carpenters, bakers, masons &c.  A working class saint.
  • Patron of places: Rome (Vatican), Cologne, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, others
  • Feast days: Jan 18, June 29, August 1
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, receiving keys from Christ, in chains in prison, escaping with the help of an angel, being crucified up-side-down, scared and in a boat
  • Close relationships: Paul, popes
  • Relics: Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica

Peter, of course, one sees everywhere in Rome, since popes never tire of reminding the public who they work for, and there is no better political endorsement.  There is an interesting rank split in Peter’s associations, since, on the one hand, as a humble fisherman he’s a the poor tradesman class, someone whom a simple Renaissance laborer might identify with and expect to understand and sympathize with his travails, while on the other hand as founder and patron of the papacy he is the master of popes, who are in turn masters of kings and (depending on whose propaganda you believe) successors to the Caesars.  Prince and peasant in one figure makes for a lot of interesting decision-making come portrait time.  Occasionally one sees Peter dressed as a pope, to accentuate this status, but most often he’s in the usual Apostolic uniform of a loose tunic/robe with a loose toga/wrap around it, usually in two different bright colors and generally not pink (that’s for John the Evangelist).

The keys to Heaven make Peter one of the easiest saints to recognize.  Often if they are depicted as one gold, one silver, the silver leaf sometimes used on the silver one will tarnish over time and turn black, which can be visually confusing.  Peter’s keys by themselves are the symbol of the papacy, and if combined with a papal triple tiara and put over a coat of arms indicate the arms of a pope.  Seeing Peter on something should always make one wonder whether it was paid for by a pope, or made in Rome, but the man who mans the gates of Heaven is all-important enough that everyone everywhere is inclined to invoke, and depict, him as often as possible.

Saint Paul (San Paulo)

  • Common attributes: Sword (standard two-edged broadsword usually)
  • Occasional attributes: Book, long beard, wearing Roman-type robes, sometimes younger in Roman armor
  • Patron saint of: P.R.
  • Patron of places: Rome, London, Umbria, many other places
  • Feast days: Jan 25, Feb 10, June 29, Nov 18
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, having his blindness cured, being arrested, being beheaded
  • Close relationships: Peter, Ananias of Damascus
  • Relics: Rome, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori Le Mura)

Remembering that Paul was a Roman citizen and originally charged with persecuting Christians before his vision, blindness, cure and conversion, a few artists like to depict him in his younger days.  His beheading is reported only in incomplete and unclear documents, but he carries the headsman’s sword, which must always be two-edged because, as it’s told, the sword which struck Paul made him an even more powerful agent of Christianity, thus metaphorically cutting back at its wielders.  The vast majority of images of St. Paul that I find here in Florence show him standing symmetrically opposite, or sometimes next to, Peter, as the two major and universally-respected Roman saints.  Often Paul’s beard is longer, and sometimes more on the gray side, compared to Peter’s.

Peter and Paul were also good friends, and one sometimes sees the scene of their friendly embrace.

When I say Paul is the patron saint of P.R., that’s my best summary of his extensive list.  Apart from the usual hailstorms and snake bites that all major saints wind up being associated with, the motif of Paul’s patronage is of publicity.  Because he himself was such an ardent and vocal proselytizer, and left so many writings responsible for aiding the spread of early Christianity, he is invoked as patron of people who convert, people who try to convert other people, but also of authors, and publicists, and journalists, and editors, and people who write hospital newsletters, and generally all people who are responsible for informing people of things.  Blogs too, I suppose, though G.K. Chesterton has also been nominated.

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SANTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

Who do we have here?

A flanking section from Fra Angelico’s Perugia Polyptych. Can you tell which side of the image Christ is on?

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Fake Centurions II

 Posted by on August 24, 2011  Rome  No Responses »
Aug 242011
 

I have returned from a jaunt to Rome, and with great stealth and industry obtained this footage of the rare beast in its natural habitat.

The most common species inhabits the blocks around the Colosseum, but this specimen I sighted outside the Pantheon.  Here he is at the end of his pattern, acquiring a tip from the two ladies he had just snapped some shots with. The armor may be plastic but even from a medium distance the effect of the un-tapered draped cloak and the full-feathered crest is quite complete.

For all that the news reports about extortion around the margins of the occupation are certainly true, they do add an air of classical enthusiasm to the ancient sites.  Watching the endless repetitions of friends and families eagerly snapping badly-framed and back-lit or overexposed vacation snaps in front of one world landmark or another, I can’t help feeling that the sort of person who enjoys that kind of photo is precisely the sort of person who would enjoy it more with a burly recreationist perfecting the fantasy.  It isn’t worth 30 euros or the loss of a camera, but it is a public service of a kind, or a world service perhaps.

The fake tiaras on the other hand, there I don’t know what they’re thinking.

There is, of course, also a lighter (and for once well-organized) side to the Italian historical reenactment scene.  Here Duke Cosimo I de Medici deigns to oversee a field trip for a group of students from a peripheral public school, who have come to the Palazzo Vecchio to learn about Florence’s history.  He demanded that the teacher explain why her wards were so inappropriately dressed, and what they hoped to gain from their visit.  He interviewed a few personally and commanded that they be industrious in their studies so as to be worthy successors to Florence’s intellectual tradition.  He was particularly impressed with the class president and her art studies, and encouraged her to seek service with his Republic when her studies were complete.  He then gave the class permission to sketch some of the decoration his man Vasari had recently finished.  I know I never had a field trip that made me feel so connected to something so important.  Fact is: they are.

Real Fake Centurions

 Posted by on August 14, 2011  Rome  No Responses »
Aug 142011
 

The Roman Forum. Don't you wish there was a guy in plastic armor standing in front of this photo?

There has just been a crackdown, reported in this article, on the “fake centurions” in Rome, who stand around in classical armor outside the Colosseum or Pantheon or Forum or, perplexingly, St. Peter’s, and ask for tips from tourists in return for posing for photos.  Sometimes they claim to be pseudo-gladiators rather than centurions, and one also spots among them the occasional emperor, always tolerably costumed in that combination of leather, metal, plastic and cheap embroidery which would be a praise-worthy costume at a fancy-dress party but embarrassing in a film.

Why does this justify a crackdown?  As the article explains, these faux legionaries are fiercely demanding, extending to extortion, often letting you take a photograph and afterwards demanding ten or twenty euros, and it is not so easy to walk away.

Your memories of the Colosseum, now with 75% less extortion.

It is intimidating, plastic sword or no, to have a burly man in armor edge toward you while loudly demanding money, especially in an unfamiliar place where confusion and the language barrier mean that help is not intuitively obtained.  The article cites worse cases, where one might take a tourist’s camera and demand cash for its return, or offer genuine violence, particularly when their beats are threatened.  In this article, the actual arrest came when two under-cover officers dressed as centurions themselves and attempted to join the band by the Colosseum, only to be threatened and, eventually, attacked by the established centurions who would not allow newcomers to edge in on their ancient turf.

What struck me about the article, apart from the stereotypically Italian anecdote that an old promise by the government to begin licensing said centurions was followed by many years of complete inertia, was how often the journalist repeated variations on “fake centurion” or “phony gladiator”, as if, separate from the extortion, there is public outrage at the falseness of these impostors.

Maybe the fake centurions should pose by the fake Colosseum in the Museum of Roman Civilization?

Is there some corps of real centurions edged out of work by the ersatz legionaries?  Has the legitimate gladiators’ union filed suit?  Is the government licensing supposed to somehow guarantee that only real ancient Romans stand around outside the monuments to have their photos taken?

On further consideration, it is true that extortion on the part of someone in a legionary uniform does rather besmirch the honor of the patria.  Perhaps some sort of test is in order for the license, to prove that the spirit of the legions lives in the applicant’s heart.  How shall we do it?  Rustle up some Gauls or Dacians and have them storm the Palatine?  Introduce a lion into the Colosseum?  Have one of the costumed emperors command one of the costumed guards to leap into the Tiber?

Perhaps a group exam? Give them ten days to build a bridge across the Rhine? Julius' men did it.

There’s still some falseness to these methods, though, staged tests.  Eventually the solution dawned.  Each applicant should be issued with a provisional license and allowed to begin work.  Then in the first week on the job, the licensers bring a standard of said legionary’s legion, complete with banner and glittering plastic eagle, and hand it to some nearby teenagers with no particular instructions.  The sight of the standard being leaned on casually, set down in the dust, swung around, and generally played with, will instantly separate the inertia of the “fake centurion” from the righteous rage of the true.  Perhaps, for safety in the latter case, the teens should also be issued with some kind of padded armor.