Moving through Rome’s Pasts: from Piranesi to Freud and Back

The end-point of the ongoing excavation of Rome has not been reached by any means.  But the graphic re-animation of its recovered ruins, and indeed their embodiment in maps, suggest a long-term project of recovered memory–as, indeed, the observation of its pasts and the organic order of its monuments, mapped in a number of imagined maps that synthesize the apparently chaotic order of its pagan and Christian pasts, became a subject of individual formation, and an undeniable attraction to that most visually attuned of nineteenth-century men, Sigmund Freud, who not only regularly visited the ancient city that he saw as a sort of counterpart to Vienna, but approached the city through its maps–which he must have projected onto his experience of the ancient city.  Although mostly hidden in the authority with which he evokes the mental map of the city’s successive ages as a model for memory formation in Civilization and its Discontents, maps such as those of Droysen offered something like a material manifestation of time travel that could be concretized in a recognizable visual form.  Freud’s intense personal tie to Rome–and the transport that he felt upon encountering its ancient ruins–encouraged him to wander in its Forum, among its temples and public squares.  And much as Freud proposed to understand consciousness as “the subjective side of the physical processes of the neuronic system,” whose storage of the past could be recovered, the coexistence of ruins in Rome represented a truly tangible archive of the continued life of subjective traces of the past–and a model which his readers might be able to readily experience and access.

7.  The spatial situation of the Capitoline hill has long offered a privileged point to view the ancient Forum–site of public life and worship, and the clearest surviving manifestation of ancient architecture to be excavated that could be readily surveyed–that is often the basis from which to visually map its coherence.  For Gibbon, standing on the Capitoline provided the inspiration for his vision of the totality of Roman history, which he described as the setting for an epiphany of historical narrative,  as well as self-realization as a historian, by the sense of coherence it offered on the ruins of the ancient city.  The imagined position of coherence had long created a market of maps to orient viewers to the coherence of Rome for one’s eye, that was able to be held in one’s mind’s eye, not only to navigate but to distinguish between the laminated layers of its pre- and post-Augustan construction.

The mapping of Rome encapsulate a history of the cultural arguments of maps, and indeed of the culture of mapping a city’s past.  The problem was in part of crafting a selective but coherent record of such cartographic abundance, inescapably a theme in the mapping of Rome, a problem of materializing the past that would have made its maps–as well as its material presence–an object of continued fascination to Freud.  Maps of Rome challenge the viewer to assemble the abundance of Rome’s material ruins, monuments, and hybrid constellations of ancient, medieval and modern buildings, at the same time as to orient oneself to the chronological cornucopia of its built space, in ways whose experience sometimes seems to defy coherent systematization as a network, if not to inspire surrender to the eternal unpacking of the texture of its individual detail.  Indeed, the compulsion to map the past in Rome, and discern the survival of levels of its past, have defined a strain of recuperating the persistence of the past in maps, unpacking its spatial continuities and chronological discontinuities in a harmonious image whose measured surface can be easily scanned.  Most frequently, such maps begin from the Forum–a central square, imagined as the stage for conducting public politics:    the fascist government used the image of the Forum as a means to perpetuate its imperial heritage–Mussolini’s government renamed the street alongside the fora a “Street of Empire” Fora” [Via dei fori imperiali] and used it a site for the staging of public government spectacle to consolidate an imagined genealogy that the Fascist government sought to cultivate, and indeed to remap the symbolic capital of the forum to create a new image for the nation.

Maps of Rome since the Renaissance presented as providing a clarifying palmipsestic orientation to the past and to the deep history of built space, predating the notion of an Italian state.  Indeed, maps were particularly valuable for those aspiring to disentangle the temporal phantasmagoria of architectural layers of the ancient city’s arena, fora, temples, and monuments against its modern neighborhoods.  For many the buildings in the early modern and contemporary maps of Rome lie at a great chronological remove in their  excavation of a densely settled space.  Even as quantitative records, their qualitative associations as an ordered image orient viewers to persisting monumental structures of the ancient city that made them evocative objects of attention and study–and indeed the observation of its organic structure as a subject of study and individual cultural formation, or bildung, in ways that increased the currency of the metaphorical treatment of maps of buildings of different ages in Rome to convey an image of the contemporaneous existence of different periods in an individual’s mental landscape–a concept crucial to Freud’s understanding of the archeological layering of human memory and the excavation of a coherent relation to the matter of the past.

In a work which Freud ostensibly dedicated to the persistence of impulses of aggression as an effect of society, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud powerfully imagined the survival of individual memory through the metaphor of a historical reconstruction of multiple ages of Rome’s many ages and physical appearances as a sedimentation of maps from different era–strikingly akin to a virtual map or a holograph that depicted the contemporaneous reconstruction of its several ages, although this technology was not present in his time.  It reveals a distinct puzzling over the coherence of the lack of historical coherence of his experience of Rome’s architecture from different ages, but a thought experiment or flight of fancy  that surpassed the mapping technologies of his time.   Freud imagined the problem of ordering the ruins of Rome in a cosycnchronous map able to show the buildings of ages spanning the Etruscans to Republican Rome to the middle ages and Renaissance, at which one could detect the overlapping structures of different periods in what he felt was the most apt image of the preservation of memories across different periods of one’s life that coexisted in an individual mind–to be excavated, no doubt, by practiced psychoanalyst.

The image is particularly felicitous as it gives Freud a pleasurable occasion to wax on his antiquarian love of the city’s different structures and palaces, but to provide him with a strikingly new figure–which reads as if it was taken out his notebook or diary–of the .  For the passage which condenses Freud’s understanding of memory is emblematic of a struggle with the superabundance of qualitative information in the city’s maps, and the sorting out of maps that he must have commonly consulted in his navigations of its ancient sections.  Freud was long fascinated by the antiquity of the forum and the monuments of the ancient city, and famously imagined it as a locus for the embodiment of the totality of the past to communicate the wealth of the presence of the multiplicity of individual memories in the human mind from different ages as a sort of microcosm of Rome’s copious pasts.  In an extended poetic revery probably written before 1914–but published in 1930, Freud fancied  “remains of ancient Rome are found woven into the fabric of a great metropolis which has arisen in the last few centuries since the Renaissance” even as “much that is ancient still buried in the soil or under the modern buildings of the town.”  The seeds for such Freud’s cartographical fantasy of recuperating the excavated ancient city may have arisen if not been inspired by Richter’s Topography of the City of Rome, which he read in his Vienna library, Mommsen’s History as well as Ludwig Lange’s Antiquities, which provided the seeds of his avid antiquarianism and no doubt his hunger for visiting the city.

For Rome offered Freud a welcome retreat from Vienna.  The city broached the possibility of a communion that he did not feel at home, and yet the material maps that he saw of the city’s archeology and ancient plans would have mediated the sense that its presence was in the end not fully attainable save in contemplation of its ruins, and his sense of merger with its organization would remain forever incomplete:  when he first arrived in the city, Freud famously remembered moments that seem particularly internal which he experience in Rome, that have a somewhat meditative quality of confronting the past that he had seen in maps, but in which he actively participated in their presence, as if in a bizarre sort of conversion experience:  he described, famously, how “I contemplated ancient Rome undisturbed.  . . . [and]  I could have worshipped . . . the remnant of the Temple of Minerva.”  If his sense of personal troubles dissipated at the rapture he felt in contact with its antique presence, he mourned the failure to develop a similar rapport with the buildings of other periods–particularly with Christian Rome–even when “liking” modern Rome.  When observing the city from the railing on the deck of a passing ship over a decade later, in 1913, he desired its presence as “that still smokey and fiery hearth from which ancient cultures had spread,” where “classical antiquity existed in all its splendor and ruthlessness”–as if to evoke the lost vibrancy that persisted in its ruined structures.

The construction of Rome famously became for Freud an illustration of the role he asserted all culture played for humans of denying death.  The uninhabited ruins of the ancient city provided a sort of cavernous monument that survived the death of its inhabitants, in ways that would have offered an illustration of cultural survival in the face of death that led him to describe as a persistent attraction during his life–if it was a desire that was repeatedly frustrated, as the philosopher Sebastiano Timpanaro has argued.  Freud adopted Rome’s ruins as a basis to reflect on the destruction of World War I; he turned to Rome’s ruins less as a figure of the destruction by foreign invaders than as a figure to describe the preservation of past memories in the human mind.  While he may have arrived at the felicitous image before the war, he evoked the possibility of a coexistence of structures of Rome as if they had never encountered destruction, fire, or invaders’ frequent attacks, which might be seen, as if in a holographic map, as a figure for the “mental life in which nothing which has once been formed can perish” and in which “everything is somehow preserved.”  The overlapping structures of Rome offered a figure designed to orient one to the persistence of the past in the human mind.  In this sense, it became an illustration of the creation of culture in the face of death which was particularly difficult to look at or confront–and which neurotic inhibition may have, indeed, frustrated repeatedly;  the archeological maps that demonstrated the survival of the pasts of Rome with reference to its current physical plant which he owned, moreover, would have provided material confirmation of the cultural coexistence of its pasts.

Was it perhaps natural for him to turn to the figure of the preserved pasts in Rome in order to imagine the city’s uniquely palimpsestic order of its stratigraphic layers?  Freud took the city’s structure as embodying a material allegory for the permanence of mental structures that was not offered otherwhere in the material world at a time when cities in Europe were increasingly redesigned with not traces of their former order:  the city’s memory provided a model for individual memory, and the traces that survived in Rome oddly effective in his broader reflection on  on the effects of civilization on the human instincts and the mind.  The city was well-known to Freud, and not only from maps.  Freud had often visited Rome, returning to its ancient spaces as sites of particular interest, may have been compelled by the interpenetration of several historical stages in Rome’s pasts preserved in maps–maps that he imagined as partial, if ultimately inadequate, models for the coexistence of what he called the “memory traces” that coexisted in the mind:  for Freud, the visitor to Rome “equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge,” might reconstruct parts of its ancient layers, and if equipped with a breadth of archeological information greater than exists, might discern not “the jumble of a great metropolis that has grown in the last few centuries after the Renaissance,” but whose copious and abundant past might be excavated to reveal “all earlier phases of development . . . alongside the current ones” by representing mental life in what he called “pictorial terms.”  The coincidence that they are also cartographical does not seem happenstance.  It cannot be failed to be noted that so many terms of Freud’s psychoanalytic parlance–transference (Übertragung); projection (Projektion); topographical models and theory (Topographie)— used to assert the science were also established bona fides of cartographical empiricism.

8.  Freud saw this image of the survival of memory traces in the individual as fundamentally representational and pictorial.  He invited readers to envision an imagined map of the city in cartographical terms:  in which the “viewer would only have to change the direction of his glance or his position” to discern the past layers that coexisted that allowed in one space, and parse the temporal accumulation of past structures and their afterlife:  he allowed that trauma may prevent the preservation of such layers in mental life, but invited and squint at its reality, as if maps of the excavation of urban space embodied problems of orienting oneself to memory’s accumulation:  Freud imagined the conservation of memories as an phantasmagoric relation Rome as a fantasy map of historical reconstruction of the city he had regularly returned and studied in terms of how the past was indeed embodied in maps of the city’s excavation.

The metaphor of archeological excavation was so compelling that it is difficult to imagine save in reference to the archeological maps of the habitation of the ancient city, reminding us how all maps act as talismans of memory.

Platner ancient Rome

In Freud’s Rome, fragmented ruins were restored simultaneously to their past grandeur, and evidence of invasions and fires were obliterated:  its sedimented structure was no longer “a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the late.”  Freud’s cartographical flight of fancy was particularly compelling–urging us to imagine the ruins of its city as if they had never been visited by destruction or wars.  In ways that suggest the creation of a virtual reality of a city that had long challenged viewers to process as a coherent whole, Freud invited his readers create a mental map of Rome by switching “the focus of his eyes . . . in order to call up a view” to comprehend multiple Romes simultaneously, as if to discern clarity of order in the coexistence of multiple chronological times at once.  The aim was to preserve a visual image of the conservation of the past in human memory, partly analogous to a map, but more of a hologram of the city’s parallel intersecting pasts in three dimensions: “This would mean that in [this heuristic image of] Rome, the palaces of the Caesars were still standing on the Palatine and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus was still towering to its old height; that the beautiful statues were still standing in the colonnade of the Castle of St. Angelo, as they were up to its siege by the Goths, and so on. But more still: where the Palazzo Caffarelli stands there would also be, without this being removed, the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, not merely in its latest form, moreover, as the Romans of the Caesars saw it, but also in its earliest shape, when it still wore an Etruscan design and was adorned with terra-cotta antifixae. Where the Coliseum stands now, we could at the same time admire Nero’s Golden House; on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find out only the Pantheon of today . . . , but on the same site also Agrippa’s original edifice; indeed, the same ground would support the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the old [pagan] temple over which it was built.”

But the archeology both uncovers–and obscures–more. For such an excavation of temples, echoing the temples of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is an archeology recognized by the cultivate man, but haunted by the rebuilding of the second temple over the ruins of the first, the Temple of Solomon, in a sort of holiest of holies that is removed from the spiritual realm. For Freud, Rome felicitously naturalized how spaces of memories exist in our heads, as in a stratigraphic map, as a theater of memory that formed part of a tradition of western culture.  Freud seems to have regarded the figure of a map as a way to communicate and indeed heighten the serious cognitive work of mediating a past, and preserving a structure or a desired object in our minds, and a sense of the deep sacred value of uncovering the past, as a sort of ethics of archaeology that redoes the operations of biblical archeology in a secular scientific key.  Did archeological maps of the city’s ancient ruins provide a useful figure which Freud used to imagine the temporal continuity of past memories within the individual’s mind?  Or did the visual power of maps invited Freud to assemble visions of the coherence of Rome’s past in particular inspire him to turn to this complex if creative confusion of a historical reconstruction–it would not be seen by viewers, but by squinting, “equipped with the most complete historical and topographic knowledge” encoded in maps, they might discern the survival of “memory traces” in the city’s fabric, grasping the persistence and coexistence in the mind of pasts in a figure of infinite regression: “nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again . . . when regression extends back far enough.”  

The temporal remoteness of Rome’s past had been invested with presence and palpability as it was excavated from its ground in this oddly evocative passage–the ultimate act of historical recreation–and its neighborhoods or  rioni retained its ancient plan at the turn of the twentieth century.  Erasing the violence of the repeated destruction of Rome, the imagined effort of historical reconstruct  was a restoration of unity and coherence, enabling the city to be invested with lost coherence.  The frequent mapping of Rome attempted to affirm its coherence, to be sure, but Freud when one step further, hoping to mediate the palpability of the ruins of the ancient city that surrounded one without orientation, enabling it to be suddenly viewed as a coherent surface one could touch in particularly inviting if elusive ways, embodying the lost past as well as negotiating relations between the modern lived space of Rome and its ancient past.

No doubt, the repeated mapping of Rome’s past provided a model to negotiate present and past of such formal proportions that the sedimentation of past layers in Rome’s physical plant afforded Freud with a particularly apt figure to imagine the mental ordering of the personal past in the individual mind, if not a model for how heterogeneous “memory traces” can endure within the human mind.  What “historians tell us” about the Rome offered the necessary synthesis of credible testimonies of its expansion from the Palatine Hill to the seven hills, later to the region enclosed by the Servian wall, and finally to fill the Aurelian walls, as if the city’s stratigraphic layering of pasts was collapsed but transparent, and “traces of these early stages” that “a visitor to Rome may still find today,” miraculously entire, within the spatial organization of the city’s modern form.

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Filed under ancient Rome, cultural memory, data visualizations, historical landscape, memory

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