Recycling the Past in Rome

by Ella Nowicki

My trip to Rome focused so much on the past because it's impossible to ignore it in that city; the residue of thousands of years is visible in a uniquely Roman way. You can take a modern cab to a sleek new hotel or visit Zaha Hadid’s deconstructivist Museum of 21st-Century Arts, but you'll be standing one and a half stories above the ruins in a modern city built—sometimes unforgivingly—upon them. Taxis from the airport to the city center zip past bits and pieces of the Roman Forum and Baths of Caracalla, whose huge vaults and arches mingle with umbrella pines on the side of the road. These ruins are placed in a sort of civic conversation pit, carved out below the layers of today’s Rome. Walking down the street Via dei Fori Imperiali, I found the Altar of the Fatherland to my right, Rome’s soaring monument to the unification of Italy in 1861, all Corinthian columns and equestrian statues. Many Romans hate the building for its overbearing architectural disunity; to make matters worse, a well-preserved medieval neighborhood was demolished to make room for it. Below street level on my left was the monument’s architectural inspiration in the Forum of Trajan, which has thankfully been spared.

Via Giulia, named after the ever-humble Pope Julius II (who also commissioned the Sistine Chapel frescoes from Michelangelo), is the longest and straightest street in Rome and was harmoniously orchestrated by the architect Bramante. It emerges near Palazzo Farnese and runs parallel to the Tiber, and it’s the perfect vehicle for Roman recycling and architectural layering. In 1508, Julius II massively revamped the Vatican with financial reforms and new architecture, including a street of administrative offices for the pope’s convenience. To achieve the street’s perfect straightness, Julius ordered the demolition of the ancient and medieval buildings lining the previous road and layered luxurious churches and homes where they once stood. Stone facades of churches are unobtrusive and flat against the rows of buildings, ensuring they don’t interrupt the street’s course. The strangest is the church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte, or Saint Mary of Prayer and Death. It was originally the headquarters of a sixteenth-century confraternity tasked with burying abandoned corpses and its architecture is a little morose, with skulls carved into the doorway’s pilasters. Seemingly out of place in the sunny Via Giulia with its pale yellow and pink buildings, the skeletons interrupted my idyllic walk.

At one end of Via Giulia is a piazza dedicated to the powerful Farnese family, who governed Parma and produced Pope Paul III. The square holds two enormous granite bathtubs looted from the imperial Baths of Caracalla. Seeking to connect their country villa to a palazzo in the city, the Farnese commissioned Michelangelo to design a bridge over Via Giulia. The project was never completed, but a graceful stone arch remains and marks Rome’s ambition to grow and rebuild in the sixteenth century. If the pomp of Renaissance Rome exhausts you after a walk down Via Giulia, there’s Osteria Orbitelli nearby. It was the first restaurant in Rome where nobody tried to speak to me in English. The ceilings are low, the walls are decorated with tile, and the plates are lively and colorful. It made me immeasurably happy to be handed a menu with dishes scribbled out and written in by hand, without a word of English.

After stopping for a mound of eggplant and tomato pasta, I meandered further up Via Giulia. Straying slightly off course will place you at the bridge Ponte Sant’Angelo, where artists including JMW Turner paused for the view of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s lined with gray-stained sculptures of angels and meets with Castel Sant’Angelo: a towering stone drum that was called the Hadrianeum before being Christianized in honor of the archangel St. Michael. Built of blocky concrete and surrounded by aggressive battlements, it served as the mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his successors until the sixth century, when a pope envisioned St. Michael ending the plague there and renovated it as the papal fortress. Popes sought refuge from invaders and usurpers in the mausoleum, and Hadrian’s tomb gradually became a lavish papal residence where its austere ancient concrete was transformed by the painter Raphael. Most importantly, it was there that Audrey Hepburn gloriously smashed a guitar over a man’s head in Roman Holiday. Instead of the barge dance frequented by Princess Ann and Joe Bradley in the movie, there’s now a riverside market with rows of sloping white tents. I went down to the market at night after a meal of enormous fried risotto balls. The riverside is still draped in string lights and energetic voices, but instead of dances with Gregory Peck, there are foosball competitions and Nutella fountains.

The mausoleum of Castel Sant’Angelo was again repurposed and disassembled in the sixteenth century when its columns were taken to adorn St. Peter’s Basilica. The popes of the sixteenth century, including Julius II, freely appropriated Rome’s pagan monuments to construct the largest church in the world after a fire at the fourth-century structure. The end result is more monumental and transcendent than could ever be expected or imagined. No photos or description could communicate the sheer height and dynamism of Bernini’s baldacchino, the undulating bronze canopy covering the tomb of St. Peter. On his 1786 Italian journey, Goethe described its indescribability well: “St. Peter's has made me realize that Art, like Nature, can abolish all standards of measurement.”

The towering canopy is actually stolen. Bernini cast it from pagan objects looted from the Pantheon. The Pantheon was protected from destruction by becoming a Catholic church, but its pagan ornaments were fair game for Pope Urban VIII. Romans were somewhat suspicious of the Church’s actions, and an inscription at Piazza Navona reads in Latin, “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did” (Urban came from the Barberini family). But despite this destruction, St. Peter’s remains my favorite place is Rome. I arrived just in time to see tourists ushered across the crossing to a set of chairs by the apse where a short service was held. Even from the ground, every sculpture and balustrade in the church dwarfed anyone near it; the dome and the singing that filled it completely transcended the worshippers on the ground.

Constantly craning my neck, I wandered through barrel vaults flooded with light and side chapels as big as my house, listening to airy choral music ascend to the ceiling and bounce back down as if emanating from the sky. St. Peter’s completely overshadowed me, with ten-foot statues on its pillars and a monumental canvas at every turn. The effect of height might be lost without Bernini’s canopy, however much ancient bronze it took to build. So as much as I might like to see the Pantheon in its original state, I would never give up the grandeur of St. Peter’s. Rome has been constantly recreated, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

— Ella Nowicki is a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin. Her poetry appears in ShufPoetry and The Cadaverine and her literary criticism was recently recognized in the Keats-Shelley Young Romantics Prize. She loves art history and baking.

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