The Glory That Is Rome

Thanks to renovations of its classical venues, the Eternal City has never looked better

Roman museums are among the most elegantly designed of any in the world and its archaeological sites are the most user-friendly. (Massimo Siragusa / Constrasto / Redux)
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Climbing the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill, which has lured visitors to Rome since the days of the Caesars, still provides the best, most inspiring introduction to this dynamic city. This was the most sacred of antiquity’s seven hills, and in the Imperial Age (27 B.C.-A.D. 476) the Temple of Jupiter graced its summit. One of the travelers who made a pilgrimage to this spot over the centuries was the young Edward Gibbon, who, on an autumnal evening visit in 1764, was shocked by how little survived from Imperial Rome. Surveying the melancholy ruins “while the bare-footed fryars were singing Vespers,” he was then and there inspired to write his monumental history, The Declineand Fall of the Roman Empire.

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In his masterwork, Gibbon took as his starting point Rome at the height of its glory, in the second century A.D., when the Capitoline Hill was a symbol of the city’s eternal power and the Temple of Jupiter a stunning sight. Beneath the temple’s gold-plated roof, an immense gold-and-ivory statue of the king of the Roman gods presided over artworks from around the known world. But it was the spectacular view that hypnotized. From the Campidoglio’s exalted heights, ancient travelers gazed at a rich urban tapestry below. Rome was the largest metropolis the world had ever seen, and its marble structures, the Greek orator Aelius Aristides observed around A.D. 160, covered the horizon like snow.

Today, the Campidoglio is dominated by the renovated Capitoline Museums, twin Renaissance palaces facing a piazza designed by Michelangelo. The oldest public museums in the world, their gleaming hallways are lined with classical masterpieces such as the Etruscan bronze She-Wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus, the symbol of the city, and the marble Dying Gaul and Capitoline Venus. And while the Temple of Jupiter was razed by looters in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., its site has once again become an imperative destination for Italians—as the EternalCity’s most spectacular outdoor café. Standing on its rooftop terrace and gazing across Rome’s fabled red-tiled roofs at sunset, foreigners and locals alike congratulate themselves on being in the most beautiful metropolis on earth—just as they did 2,000 years ago. “Rome in her greatness!” wrote the poet Propertius in the age of Augustus Caesar. “Stranger, look your fill!”

A new spirit is alive in all the classical venues of Rome, once notorious for their apathetic staff, erratic schedules and lack of display labels. Some favorites had been closed for decades; even at the Capitoline, visitors never knew which rooms would be open or what exhibits buried in storage. Now Roman museums are among the most elegantly designed and its archaeological sites the most user-friendly in the world. “Compared to Rome in the mid-1980s, the improvement is incredible,” says archaeologist Nicola Laneri, 35. “And there is another big change: it’s not just foreign tourists who are taking advantage of the cultural improvements. A huge number of Italians are now visiting them.”

In fact, Rome is enjoying a new age of archaeology—the third in the city’s modern history. The first occurred in the 1870s when Rome became the capital of a newly unified Italy and King Victor Emmanuel II ordered the Colosseum and Forum cleared of rubble. Then in the 1920s and ’30s, Mussolini tore up much of central Rome and exposed the port of Ostia, the city’s main seaport in antiquity, as part of his campaign to gain popular support for his misguided ventures (although he destroyed almost as much as he saved). The current, more scientific effort began in the 1990s, powered by funds to spruce up the city for the Grand Jubilee millennial festivities in the year 2000. Not only did the jubilee put unprecedented millions of dollars into renovations, but it sparked contentious municipal, national and Vatican bureaucracies to complete several long-dormant projects. “The jubilee was a huge catalyst for change in Rome,” says Diane Favro, professor of architecture at UCLA, who is working with University of Virginia professor Bernard Frischer to create an interactive digital model of the Roman Forum that will allow a virtual walk-through of the site. “Paired with the digital revolution, there’s been a huge leap forward in our understanding of the ancient city.”

Although arguments over funding of the sites continue unabated, the resurgence of interest in the ancient past shows little sign of waning. Last month Italian officials unveiled a magnificent 28-foot-high sacrificial altar dedicated by the emperor Augustus in 9 B.C. to celebrate the advent of the Pax Romana. (Called the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, the famous monument, first excavated in the early 20th century and later restored by Mussolini’s archaeologists, has been under a protective covering for six years while a new museum pavilion to hold it, designed by American architect Richard Meier, was under construction. The pavilion, with exhibits, a library and an auditorium, is scheduled to open next year.) Responding to popular demand, Rome’s once-secretive Archaeological Superintendency now posts the latest discoveries on the Internet. New digs are followed closely in the Italian press and discussed avidly in cafés.

All this renewed fervor has historical symmetry: ancient Romans were also passionate admirers of their own city, says Favro, and they joined hordes of provincial tourists trooping from one monument to the next.

In fact, Imperial Rome was designed specifically to impress both its citizens and visitors: the first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), began an ambitious beautification program, which led to one glorious edifice after another rising above the confusing welter of tenements. It was under Augustus that Rome first began to look like a world capital: its splendid monuments hewn from richly colored marble were, Pliny the Elder wrote in A.D. 70, “the most beautiful buildings the world has ever seen.” With the completion of the Colosseum in A.D. 80 and Emperor Trajan’s massive Forum in A.D. 113, the image of Rome we carry today was virtually complete. With more than one million inhabitants, the megalopolis had become the greatest marvel of antiquity: “Goddess of continents and peoples, Oh Rome, whom nothing can equal or even approach!” gushed the poet Martial in the early second century A.D.

In 1930, Sigmund Freud famously compared modern Rome to the human mind, where many levels of memory can coexist in the same physical space. It’s a concept those classical sightseers would have understood: the ancient Romans had a refined sense of genius loci, or spirit of place, and saw Rome’s streets as a great repository of history, where past and present blurred. Today, we can feel a similarly vivid sense of historical continuity, as the city’s rejuvenated sites use every conceivable means to bring the past to life.

Imaginative links to history are everywhere. The ancient Appian Way, Rome’s Queen of Highways south of the city, has been turned into a ten-mile-long archaeological park best reconnoitered by bicycle. The roadside views have hardly changed since antiquity, with farmland still filled with sheep as well as the mausoleums of Roman nobles, which once bore epitaphs such as “I advise you to enjoy life more than I did” and “Beware of doctors: they were the ones who killed me.”


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