Back in the city’s historical center, the Colosseum—still the marquee symbol of the Imperial Age—has had part of its surviving outer wall cleaned, and a number of subterranean passages used by gladiators and wild beasts have been revealed to the public. (For ancient tourists as well, a visit here was de rigueur, to see criminals being torn to pieces or crucified in the morning, then, after a break for lunch, men butchering one another in the afternoon; chariot races in the Circus Maximus rounded out the entertainments.) The vast cupola of the Pantheon, at 142 feet once the largest in Western Europe, is undergoing restoration. And the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s Golden House, was reopened with great fanfare in 1999 after a ten-year renovation. Visitors can now rent “video-guides”—palm pilots that show close-ups of the ceiling frescoes and computer re-creations of several rooms. Thanks to these, standing inside the dark interior of the palace, which was buried in the first century A.D., one can envision the walls as Nero saw them, encrusted with jewels and mother-of-pearl, surrounded by fountains and with tame wild animals prowling the gardens.
In antiquity, Rome’s most opulent monuments were part of the urban fabric, with residences squeezed onto the flanks of even the sacred Campidoglio; it was Mussolini who isolated the ancient ruins from the neighborhoods around them. Today, urban planners want to restore the crush. “Rome is not a museum,” declares archaeologist Nicola Laneri. “Florence is more like that. It’s the people that make Rome. It’s the depth of history within individual lives.”
The Roman Forum has been opened to the public free of charge, returning to its ancient role as the city’s original piazza: today, Romans and tourists alike stroll through its venerable stones again, picnicking on mozzarella panini near the ruins of the Senate House or daydreaming by a shrine once tended by Vestal Virgins. Afew blocks away, the Markets of Trajan, created in the second century A.D. as a multistory shopping mall, now doubles as a gallery space for contemporary art. In a maze of vaulted arcades, where vendors once hawked Arabian spices and pearls from the Red Sea, and where fish were kept fresh swimming in salt water pumped from the coast ten miles away, the shops are filled with metal sculptures, video installations and mannequins flaunting the latest designer fashions.
Every Sunday, the strategic Via dei Fori Imperiali, which runs alongside the Imperial Forums toward the Colosseum, is blocked to motor vehicles—so pedestrians no longer have to dodge buses and dueling Vespas. The modern thoroughfare has been problematic ever since it was blasted through the heart of Rome by the Fascist government in the 1930s, leveling a hill and wiping out an entire Renaissance neighborhood. Mussolini saw himself as a “New Augustus” reviving the glories of the ancient empire, and he wanted direct sightlines from the Piazza Venezia, where he gave his speeches, to the great Imperial icons. In July 2004, the Archaeology Superintendency released a proposal to build walkways over the Imperial Forums, allowing Romans to reclaim the area. While the vaguely sci-fi design has its critics—and the project has gone no further than the drawing board—many city citizens feel that something must be done to repair Mussolini’s misanthropy.
“It’s really Rome’s age-old challenge: How do you balance the needs of the modern city with its historical identity?” says Paolo Liverani, curator of antiquities at the VaticanMuseum. “We cannot destroy the relics of ancient Rome, but we cannot mummify the modern city, either. The balancing act may be impossible, but we must try! We have no choice.”
One effective bit of balancing took place at the MontemartiniMuseum, where sensuous marble figures are juxtaposed with soaring metal turbines in an abandoned 19th century electrical plant. Opened in 1997, the exhibition was originally meant to be temporary, but it proved so popular that it was made permanent. Other attempts to mix modern and classical have been less universally admired. Richard Meier’s museum to house the Ara Pacis is the most controversial. The first new edifice in Rome’s historical center since the days of Mussolini, it has been roundly criticized for its starkly angular travertine-and-glass design, which many Romans feel violates the ambiance of the old city. In one notorious attack, Vittorio Sgarbi, undersecretary to the Ministry of Culture, compared the museum’s boxlike form to a “gas station in Dallas” and set the building afire in effigy; other Meier critics have lamented the “Los Angelization of Rome.”
Of course, it’s not just architects who are mixing past and present. As one example, the Gruppo Storico Romano, or Roman Historical Group, lures everyone from bank clerks to
truck drivers to its school for gladiators on the Appian Way. Even visiting the school’s headquarters tests one’s nerves. Behind a corrugated iron fence in a dimly lit courtyard, half-adozen students don tunics and helmets and grab sinister-looking props such as tridents and daggers. The teacher, Carmelo Canzaro, 36, runs a clothing store by day, but becomes Spiculus when the sun sets. “There’s nothing in the ancient texts that describe gladiators’ training techniques,” he admits, “so we have to improvise.” As the students—all male—begin to swing and parry with wooden swords, “Spiculus” adds: “You have to pay complete attention. One lapse and you can be caught off balance.” (He himself was sitting the evening out, recovering from a broken ankle incurred at a recent demonstration bout.)
During a rest period, a young computer programmer, Massimo Carnevali, 26, a.k.a. Kyros, explains the school’s appeal. “It combines history with physical exercise,” he says. “I love the discipline.” Another student, Ryan Andes, 26, an opera singer from Philadelphia, says, “To come here and chop at people with swords was a dream come true.”
Edward Gibbon understood that appeal. Although he was no fan of gladiatorial combat—he found the practice “inhumane” and “horrid”—he would always remember the impression his first visit to Rome made on his youthful imagination. As he wrote in his autobiography: “At the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step, the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye, and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.”