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

When the Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne south to orient himself to the ancient city he had so expected to arrive during his travels to Italy, he drew on a similar repertory. Montaigne was trained and after retirement had again educated himself in classical literature and history, eagerly visited Rome, some thirty years after the printing of Pinard’s map of its buildings, he ascended the Janiculum in hopes to “contemplate the configuration of all the parts of Rome, which may not be seen so clearly from any other place,” frustrated at assembling a sense of the coherence whose plan “he spent his time only in studying,” surrounded by “various maps and books read to him,” according to his Secretary, but only found cartographical confusion and disorientation. His persistence would have appealed to Freud, but rested on a clear archeological wish of recovery of a lost landscape that he had so repeatedly visited in texts within the library in a tower of his family’s castle.

Determined to grasp the “plan of its site,” Montaigne was frustrated that “nothing remained to the senses.”  Determined to penetrate the underlying plan whose temporal remove he believed himself able to conquer, Montaigne ascended the Janiculum hill above the Vatican in hopes to apprehend “the buildings of this bastard Rome . . . attaching to these ancient ruins” whose “disfigured limbs which remained were the least worthy . . . of all that was most beautiful and most worthy.”  If a master of bricolage, Montaigne seems deeply frustrated by the dissonance between ruins and a pristine past Rome’s maps commonly tried to smooth in order to create some coherence that allow access across temporal distance to its past.

The steep cognitive dissonance Montaigne described, and the dissatisfaction that he seems to have experience, was a tacit subject of concern to smooth in later urban maps of Rome, which preserve the city’s multiple periods in one frame, as if to present its ages as part of a common or shared collective imaginary, and to decipher its past habitation.

Romes and ancient campi.png

10.  In nineteenth-century guides as the Baedeker, the built space of the city was mediated as if it belonged to a shared collective imaginary.

Rarely has the intensive mapping of one city generated such intense inquiry as a subject of study designed to bridge that gulf of spatial disconnect that leapt between the seen and unseen, or between the image of Rome, that collective archeological construction tantamount to a secularized image of Augustine’s City of God and its actual appearance:  the monuments of Rome’s forum have provided a subject of reflection as powerful as poetry, to invert Shakespeare’s topos that neither monuments or the gilded monuments of princes should outlive his rhyme:  as if poetic conceits of their own, Rome’s monuments create a space that constitute an image as durable as the buildings of the Forum, despite their partly crumbling marble on their columns and the worn nature of its flagstones, endure as a built space of monuments, as these monuments have become almost an icon of government.  A veritable flood of printed engraved maps have mediated and enabled the persistence of Rome’s space across time.

For maps have lent the imaginary of the city’s plant the possibility of a second life or afterlife removed from its actual lived space.  One might speak of a two-fold life of the physical plant of the ancient city from its social space enabled by cartographical representation of the joint seat of republicanism and Empire which blur a single temporal frames of reference, and in which entrances the viewer because of how multiple frames of reference overlap within its topography in one frame.  Reinhard Koselleck very famously interrogated after-life of concepts of a chronological past that persist into lived presents, and the ways that past concepts found new lives.  Within the interaction between how past, present, and future combine in the perception of history and space, Koselleck argued, concepts of the past intersects or folds into the distribution of its own physical space in modern life.  

Modernity is slippery, but in few cities more than Rome is past historical time so clearly present and as physically present and interwoven with a spatial orders built in intersecting periods apparent in overlapping but coexistent physical plants –and in few cities in the organic unity of the city so identified with perceiving the relation between its layers.  Indeed, the reaction to expanding archeological excavation of ancient Rome’s plant in the late nineteenth century was seen as the recovery of a common patrimony–which was unlike either the legal context of the excavation and administration of the past in Paris, whose ruins were owned by the city, while ruins lying on private property in England:  the Italian Sovraintendenza per i beni archaeologic inherited the management of the ruins of ancient Rome as a worldly archeological patrimony, to be preserved and made present for other nations as its monuments partook of a shared past, if it is treated as a national “good” subject to the constraints of state management.

The observation of the Eternal city, if extending from antiquaries to the Grand Tour, was increasingly tied to the disentangling of its pasts and the internalization of the subject of the city in even more material fashion in the age of its public excavation.  After the revelation of evanescent existence of glimpses of its past were afforded by the uncovering in the 1880s of the ruins of the Forum and temples, whose excavation provided a basis for contemplating its history, the place of Rome grew both in the active mapping of its physical plant and the cataloguing of its material testimonies more explicitly mapped than ever before:  the organization of the plant of the ancient city, and the glimpses that this offered to its past organic whole, offered for many learned visitors a basis to internalize its dynamic constitution, from Republic to Empire, the internalization which served as a form of individual cultural formation and personal cultural formation and  bildung.  

Viewing Rome’s antiquities, and viewing the forum, was no longer only accessible in private collections or the spaces of contemplation of palazzi and museums.  For in printed form, it could be both spatially navigated and surveyed–most famously from the Capitoline hill, as Gibbon reminded his readers.  The view offered an imaginary space that could be entered and comprehended as a spatial order, both opposed to and the counterpart of the new built spatial order of European cities, and a sense of a historical prospect on the ancient world that had been recently excavated, eerily if not uncannily present for an instant with some imaginative effort.

The comprehension of the formerly living structure of the ruins of Rome provided a way of narrating the political history of the ancient city, and of communing in tactile fashion with its very survival–and, of course, allowed the means to internalize that survival within the individual subject.  The metaphor of the excavated city could have provided Freud with such a compelling a model of individual memory, in this age of the uncovering of multiple layers of the past and the reconstruction of historical buildings and layers of the city in increasingly legible form.  Both city plans and maps that were constructed with a level of accuracy unprecedented in their scope and attention to specific detail provided particularly compelling records for temporal transport, ordering the excavation of its topography from the physical traces of its ancient spaces to which mapmakers had regularly returned, that invested a tangibility with its multiple traces of the antique.

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

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