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Will the reform of Rome’s ruins be an improvement?

3 October 2017

The monuments of ancient Rome were intended to draw and impress crowds, and to act as symbols of wealth, political authority, and cultural identity. It is not surprising that they continue to generate political debate. These days the crowds are tourists and the controversies, inevitably, are about controlling and channelling the money that the monuments generate, and consume in their upkeep.

The sheer scale of Rome’s archaeological heritage has long posed problems, exacerbated by wide-ranging clearance excavations of city-centre archaeological acreage under Napoleon and Mussolini, among others. It costs a lot to maintain amid the challenges of a modern capital city (crowds, pollution, vibration, competing interests). Keeping it all safe and clean, let alone conducting detailed archaeological investigations, can exceed the resources of the state both in Rome and in other Italian sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, much of which remain buried for their better preservation as the exposed ruins crumble. Meanwhile, the continuing excavations for Rome’s much-needed third metro line keep turning up amazing finds – a bronze-age settlement from millennia before the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC, marble-lined lecture halls built in the 2nd century AD, a Hadrianic military barracks complete with mosaics, an imperial-era farm with peach orchard and irrigation reservoir, and a fabulously preserved stretch of Rome’s oldest aqueduct, the 4th century BC Aqua Appia. Stations have had to be omitted from the route where archaeological sites are too sensitive to allow them, and plans for an archaeological museum at the Colosseum station have been scaled back for lack of funds.

In the current era of financial constraint, large-scale archaeological conservation projects in Rome have been made possible by injections of private money and government tax breaks on cultural philanthropy. This is a new development, and not without controversy. The biggest is a €25m cleaning and restoration project at the Colosseum, the first phase of which ended last summer, removing the blackened deposits from the traffic pouring past on its cincture of major urban roads. The work was funded by the billionaire owner of Tod’s, a luxury footwear and bag firm. In 2013 Fendi contributed €2.2m to the cleaning up of the Trevi fountain; last year Bulgari sponsored the Spanish Steps: Italian big fashion seems to be taking care of Rome’s big monuments. It’s easy to carp at corporate fashion sponsorship of these sites, or to wish that civic or state authorities could fund their upkeep, but the work has in general been thoroughly done and has greatly improved these sites’ appearance without overt corporate branding (unlike, for example, the Roman emperor Trajan, who put his own name on his predecessors’ restored buildings so frequently that he earned the nickname ‘creeper’ or ‘ivy’). At any rate, income from selling luxury handbags is a nobler source than the funds which paid for the Colosseum to be built in the first place (the sack of Jerusalem and looting and destruction of its great temple in AD 70).

Other indignities are periodically visited on the monuments in the name of fashion, entertainment, tourism, and money. The pretend legionaries who pose for selfies with tourists outside the Colosseum have scuffles among themselves, or with the authorities, over their right to be there. In 2014 one of the six million tourists who visit the Colosseum each year was fined €20,000 and given a four-month suspended prison sentence for carving a letter K into the brickwork of one of its walls (ancient visitors carved graffiti on it all the time, some of which is preserved and displayed inside). Pompeii, which was severely damaged by Allied bombing in the Second World War, is now subject to a constant threat of accidental and sometimes deliberate damage from its two and a half million annual visitors.

There are more upscale intrusions, too. In Rome in 2007, the terrace of the Temple of Venus and Rome was filled with illuminated fibreglass columns as part of a multi-day, multi-million-euro party to celebrate the designer Valentino. At the other end of the city centre that summer, leading a group of students on a tour, I was baffled to find the Ara Pacis Museum (itself a controversial modern building, though one I rather like) filled with the designer’s red dresses, in scarlet contrast to the altar’s austere white Luna marble. (A quick poll suggested that the students approved strongly.) Outside, ugly metal fences and scaffolding obscured the derelict Mausoleum of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. A decade later it still awaits its long-promised restoration and public access; at the time of writing another private sponsor – this time a telecoms firm – has been lined up to fund the work.
This summer has seen a new round of interventions in Rome’s archaeological landscape. A temporary arena installed on the Palatine Hill for a rock opera about Nero has provoked claims that money-making populism is threatening the city’s cultural patrimony. The event’s supporters argue that it is bringing visitors and much-needed revenue to the site. Each view has merit, but both rather overlook the deliciously Neronian flavour of the whole enterprise.

Nero was famed for extravagantly tacky stage spectacles, in which he performed himself (his final words when eventually forced to suicide were ‘What an artist dies in me!’). He would probably have rather liked this musical treatment of his life, which features spangly costumes, acrobats, and coloured lighting. The corner of the Palatine Hill where the stage is going up is on the site of Nero’s Domus Transitoria, a palace complex that stretched over to his Golden House on the Esquiline Hill, now behind the Colosseum. Descriptions of Nero’s own protracted entertainments include nocturnal illuminations and dancing, like the present-day show, but much else besides: the historian Tacitus writes about shipboard feasts on an artificial lake, with rowers who were ‘catamites set in order by age and knowledge of debauchery’, displays of wild beasts, and brothels standing on the shore. This summer’s musical sounds tame by comparison.

Illustration by Sarah Tanat-Jones/Handsome Frank

Illustration by Sarah Tanat-Jones/Handsome Frank Illustration by Sarah Tanat-Jones/Handsome Frank

A separate and larger row concerns the ownership and management of the prestigious group of city centre archaeological sites in this area – the Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, as well as the Forum. This triumvirate of adjacent star sites attracts by far the largest share of tourist revenue in Rome, as anyone who has seen the huge queues at the Colosseum’s ticket office will understand.

The ersatz legionaries outside the Colosseum are not the only ones engaged in turf wars over access: control of Italian archaeological sites, museums, excavation permits, and offices can be a very political matter. The preface to a recent landmark archaeological publication, Andrea Carandini’s strikingly beautiful Atlas of Ancient Rome, talks darkly of ‘incorrigibly selfish individuals […] privilege, blockades, and cliques’ within the scholarly and administrative groups that oversee Rome’s archaeological patrimony, a ‘cult of elitism’ that leads to the ‘fragmentation, dispersion, obscuration and enshroudment’ of knowledge.

Changing the ownership and administration of these sites is therefore difficult, and the changes proposed by Italy’s Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini (who writes literary fiction alongside his political career) are profound. After months of trying, Franceschini has succeeded in his battle to remove control of the Forum, Palatine, and Colosseum from Rome’s Special Superintendency, which also manages over 30 other archaeological sites, excavations, and major museums in and around the city. The Ministry’s plan separates off the three lucrative super-sites into a new park, together with the nearby Domus Aurea, a wing of Nero’s once-glittering Golden House palace.

As the Forum-Palatine-Colosseum triad is already accessible on a single ticket, visitors may notice little immediate change. Adding the Domus Aurea makes sense; it’s an eerily splendid place to visit, not as well known as the others, and close by. It’s an important part of the history of this part of Rome, mostly evident by its absence as later emperors built over it to obliterate Nero’s architectural legacy. Its gardens and lake filled the site where the Colosseum now stands, and the surviving visitable wing is entombed beneath the foundation platform of a later bathhouse. It was discovered in the Renaissance by explorers who let themselves down on ropes through the ceilings. Raphael and Pinturicchio were among the early visitors who left their named scratched in its vaults, and the palace’s frescoed grotesques had an immediate influence on Italian painting (as Tim Smith-Laing described in Apollo, April 2015). The site, long shut to tourists because of safety concerns, has recently reopened with a spectacular virtual reality exhibit which helps turn its gloomy subterranean spaces back into light, airy rooms filled with fresco and sculpture. Large visitor numbers seem likely: Nero, as we have already seen, is good box office. The new authority will have to balance its need for an income stream with the archaeological demands of these complicated and sensitive sites; more controversies like the Nero musical seem possible.

This reorganisation in Rome is part of a wider reform of 30 prestigious national sites, including the Uffizi, Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale, and archaeological museums in Naples, Reggio Calabria, and Taranto. Franceschini’s Ministry seeks to establish them as autonomous entities under more professional management recruited from as wide a talent pool as possible. An international recruitment effort for the director of the proposed archaeological park in Rome attracted 82 applicants, including several from overseas.  The stated aim is to drive up standards, putting visitor services on a par with museums and galleries in other European centres and perhaps breaking some of the old ‘monopolies and oligopolies’ of which Carandini complains.

The plan was strongly opposed by Rome’s city government, led by Virginia Raggi, the mayor from Italy’s populist Five Star Movement. Raggi argued that the loss of the Colosseum group of attractions would deprive the city of ticket revenue used to subsidise other less popular sites, and violated principles of fair collaboration between national and civic authorities. The minister strongly contested the charges, promising that the current 80 per cent cross-subsidy would remain. The matter went to law, making its way through a series of courts.

On 7 June, a regional tribunal favoured the mayor’s argument and ruled against the Ministry proposal, having already suspended the newly appointed directors of five other sites on the grounds that non-Italians were ineligible for appointment to certain state offices. The recruitment of the new director for the Colosseum park was suspended. Both sides, perhaps inevitably, took to Twitter. The minister’s pithy ‘impugneremo’ (‘we will appeal!’) was followed by a reversal of the verdict in late July by Italy’s senior administrative court, unblocking the reorganisation of the sites in Rome and the appointment of new directors, including non-Italians.

There may be further twists ahead, but Rome’s monuments have seen plenty of change, and civic authorities have been in conflict with national, aristocratic, or papal rulers many times before. The ruins have survived the invasion of Alaric’s Goths, the collapse of the Western empire and rise of Christianity, multiple earthquakes, and generations of ingenious reoccupation and looting by medieval and Renaissance lime burners, builders, scavengers, and collectors. As recently as the 1870s the built-up area of Rome had long retreated north and west towards the Vatican, and the hectic zone around the Colosseum, today thronged by the six million annual tourists whose revenue is in dispute, stood empty and alone among quiet vineyards and gardens.

From the September 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.