ROMA – AMOR                   

 

                                              Gaither Stewart

 

   

 People of Italy’s rich, sophisticated financial and fashion capital of Celtic Milan like to claim that Africa begins just north of the nation’s political capital of Rome. The Turin writer Mario Soldati is mathematically certain that most of Italy’s problems today are due to the choice of Rome as its capital when the Italian states united 150 years ago. Italy’s Nobel poet, Eugenio Montale, also a man of the north, concluded that if you stay away from Rome, you lose nothing, while the Rome writer Alberto Moravia liked to charge that Rome is the disastrous proof of the Italians’ lack of the sense of state.

     Yet, Romans, the city’s foreign residents and its tourists, are unconvinced. Romans feel estranged even in Florence, 250 kilometers away, while hundreds of thousands of foreigners have chosen to make their homes among the seven hills and gigantic tourism buses clog the city center twelve months a year.

     Crowded, polluted, inefficient, indolent, expensive, chaotic, Rome’s attraction nonetheless never fades. People who know well both Rome and Paris have traditionally preferred the Eternal City to the City of Light. Why? Are Romans and its admirers masochists? Does Rome survive only on tradition? On its over three thousand years? On its physical beauty?

     Although fifty million foreigners visited the Eternal City during the Jubilee Year 2000 of the Catholic Church and it is one of the most visited cities in Europe, there is surprisingly little narrative literature about Italy’s capital, unlike the rich literature about its rival, Paris. If Paris is grandeur, modernity, fashion, good taste - and cold, Rome is understatement, intimate, homey, individualistic - and warm.

     No sweeping perspectives open before your eyes in old Rome. There are no wide vistas of grand boulevards framing majestic squares like Place de la Concorde. Rome’s treasures are hidden. An unnoticed creaky gate or a narrow medieval door may conceal magnificent gardens and parks. You can step out of an alleyway onto a perfect artistic creation like Piazza Navona. Much of Rome is concealed. Visitors have difficulty even finding the renowned but well concealed Trevi Fountain.

     So how does Rome even survive? Choice, chance or providence? one wonders.

     For many the answer to the riddle of Rome is the mystery surrounding it. Walking through a dark narrow street behind the Pantheon, you know you can only be in Rome. Not even for the tourist is there any confusion of place. Time, art and mystery have combined to create a magic city. The very name of Rome - Roma and Eternal City implies some magical force at work.

 

     In the times of the  “lean cows,” as Italians call the bad times in the Dark Ages, sheep grazed in the Roman Forum. No more than thirty thousand people lived in the former Caput Mundi, which fifteen centuries earlier had counted one million inhabitants. From world city to grazing pastures and back again to world capital. That is a city in movement. Today, the Eternal City’s five million people create eternal traffic chaos in the same area. No other world city has experienced the ups and downs as has the cittá eterna – power, glory and brilliance and invasions, sackings and pestilence. A historical rocking back and forth.  Rome is a survivor. Yet it is alive and thriving as the capital of modern Italy.

     Historians can well view its survival as magic.

     Magic has always shrouded the city of Rome. Its mysteries are endless: mystery about its origins that are lost in legend and in the labyrinths of time since the Italic peoples first inhabited the hills along the Tiber River. Old legends died, first in the catacombs and much later in Papal dungeons. New legends were born: its enigmatic city plan oriented toward the south instead of the north like most cities; mystery about the name Roma and its secret, reserve name; its secret master urban development plan passed down through the centuries by its Cabalistic planners; and a people eternally absorbed with gods and deities, spirits and ghosts, rites and rituals and all the religions of Middle Eastern origin.

     A Byzantine City? Greek? Phoenecian? Perhaps Egyptian?

     The oracles and deities like the Sun God Mitra first created the magic of Roma in secret underground temples. In the Christian era the magic continued in the catacombs. The secret gardens of Renaissance nobles maintained that old tradition inside magical gardens concealed from public eyes within their sumptuous palaces. These were places where ghosts have always danced. Monsters and evil spirits and sorcerers and exorcists are part of Rome’s past and present. Magic signs, people believe, are hidden in ancient ruins that if found could reveal the secret of eternal life.

     Modern Rome is infected with that mystery. Parapsychologists claim that ghosts of noble Roman families still gather today on ancient Via Appia: genteel ghosts, whose smiles cause church bells to tingle, who chat and gossip before they again slip away to their old abodes.

 

     Ancient peoples were sensitive about the choice of living sites. Cities did not just emerge helter-skelter in the desert. Their choice not only had to satisfy their own necessities but above all the gods. Their choice was never chance. The geographical site of Rome is sacred: an area of hills and ravines, rivers and cooling sea breezes.

     Among those hills the world’s greatest city emerged - the center of the ancient world. The heart of power. Already two thousand years ago it had modern utilities and services, refined architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music and theater. That system was destined to last one thousand years before its demise.

     Now, in the III Millennium, three Rome’s exist, side by side: Republican-Imperial Rome, Medieval-Renaissance Rome, and modern Rome-capital of a reunited Italy. They are distinct, separate Rome’s, whose division lines however fade under layers of one civilization built atop the other. Divisions that must be appreciated in order to understand what the Eternal City is all about.

     There is some truth in the legend of Romolo and Remo, the twin sons of the vestal virgin, abandoned on the Tiber River and raised by a wolf – the symbol of Rome – who settled on the Palatine and Aventine hills and founded the city, officially on April 21, 753 B.C. However, scholars now know that the hills were inhabited five hundred years earlier.

     While north Europe was still a vast forest, the Etruscan king, Servio Tullio, incorporated the Latin, Etruscan and Sabine peoples and built a wall around the seven hills – Palatino, Campidoglio, Celio, Aventino, Quirinale, Viminale and Esquilino. The Servian Walls enclosed the new city state of Roma. Today, 2753 years later, those same hills are still the center of the Eternal City.

     We of the cybernetic era need these ancient landmarks to grasp where we come from – from our origins in Egypt, through Greece, and finally Rome. Rome is the confirmation of Solomon’s words that  “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Already in the year 112 A.D. Emperor Trajan complained to writer Plinius the Younger of the lack of architects for his construction and restoration projects in the huge city of Rome that boasted central heating and a sewage system.

     Time itself plays tricks on humans. We don’t understand time. For many the preceding millennia hardly exist. Today it’s hard for us to imagine that First century Rome was already at grips with the restoration of the buildings of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus. Restoration has been a headache in Rome ever since: after the Barbarian invasions, during the Middle Ages, under the Umbertine kings in the late Nineteenth century, and today after fifty years of intense automobile traffic.

     Man has always been driven to build. We all do it when we can. Roman kings and emperors had the total power, the economic resources, and the genius to invent the concept of urban planning. Trajan built his famous market near the Coliseum so that when the people went to the stadium they could also shop. The Consular highways arriving from all the corners of the Empire responded to that total centralized power – today’s Via Appia, Via Salaria, Via Flaminia, Via Cassia, Via Aurelia, et al. All were pointed toward the heart of the state – the Emperor on his Palatine Hill over the Forum, at the center of the star-shaped capital.

     Modern urban planners like my friend Pasquale La Greca pull their hair in desperation about that star. Since, as the expression goes, all roads in Italy do lead to Rome, directly to the center of the star around the city center at the Roman Forum, over the same urban framework as two thousand years ago, the old plan cannot work for a city with millions of cars.

     Eternal city. Magic. Mystery. Enigma. Emperor Vespasian in the First Century enlarged the original six-pointed star to an eight-pointed polygon: a perimeter of 13,200 steps, encompassing the seven hills and divided into 14 regions and 267 streets, the mathematical center of which was the Forum.

     Mystics believe that a narrow circle of urban planners transmitted that city plan down through the centuries. That plan explains Pope Sixtus V’s Sixteenth century design of a star-shaped city, which used the obelisks at Trinitá di Monte and at the Basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni, and San Pietro to mark the principle points of that ancient star. By that time, a millennium and a half later, the star had become the reflection of the Renaissance search for the “ideal city.”

     Since the star is the symbol of the sun, thus Rome, despite its rains and cold and winds, became “the city of the sun.”

     Face to face with the hopeless battle of creating a truly modern city on top of that ancient framework, La Greca admits that the secret plan is mostly legend. But not entirely! he cautions. Because since last century a sort of plot has existed to protect the interests of the great landowners who under the Papal state owned all the lands of Rome and its region of Latium.

     “No modern urbanists think in terms of a star shape,” La Greca says in despair. “In that sense, the Vatican- Catholic Church that survives on alms, that only takes and never gives, has been a gangrene for Rome. Also the Roman ruins thwart us. But they are part of the artistic-cultural heritage of the world and cannot be touched. Crazy, but a whole culture exists under the surface of our city. There is nothing to disembowel in Rome as was done in Paris. Rome has no need or use for a Haussman – even if Mussolini would have liked to try. Rome can never be a Paris.”

     Nor can Rome ever be a modern capital city. It’s hopeless. For some urban planners the only alternative would be to build Italy’s Brazilia. A second Rome.  And since the spontaneous growth of cities everywhere is to the north, Italy’s Brazilia would have to be in the rolling countryside or along the sea north of Rome.

     But the name? We spoke of a secret name. What secret can a name contain? What does Roma mean? Linguists say that perhaps Roma derives from Ruma, meaning, “breast” – and by extension, “hill.” Or perhaps it originates from the Etruscan family name, “Rumla,” a combination resulting from the names of the first three Etruscan kings of Rome.

     Perhaps. But the name, Roma, was even in those times mysterious. City names were important for the ancients. They came from the past, lived in the present, and pointed toward the future. Pliny the Elder, of the Empire era, wrote of a secret, reserve name, known only to a few. If one name died, another was ready. In that period when enigma and mystery thrived, to pronounce that secret name except in secret rituals carried the death penalty.

     The forbidden name was Ara Voluptia. Altar of Voluptuousness. Thus one also arrives at the name Roma through a series of mystical mental gymnastics: from voluptas – intense pleasure - to the Greek Eros, to Amor, which written backwards gives us Roma.

     Admittedly also that secret name is largely fantasy, perhaps deriving from the old idea of creating a second Rome. The new Rome of modern urbanists would be a parallel city of economic power, perhaps an Italian version of Silicon Valley, the dream of Milan Celtics, leaving the political-cultural life to the Mediterranean Latins in old Rome – magical, enigmatic, Byzantine, and eternal.