Although a certain wag once described the Roman Forum as “a giant heap of rubble never painted by Caravaggio,” those scattered rocks and mysterious mounds have excited poetic imaginations for centuries. While a great many guidebooks, including my favorite Amanda Claridge’s Rome: An Oxford Archeological Guide, do an admirable job of explaining the chronology, technique, history and function of the ancient structures, there is much to be said for a guidebook that speaks to the romance of the site. David Watkin’s brief guide to the Roman Forum offers facts and figures, but even more delightfully, a lens through which one can view the millennia of history accumulated amidst the dust and stone.
Watkin takes as his starting point the evocative 18th-century engravings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, executed when the Forum was still, as the author describes it, “a place of poetry, capable of inspiring great painters, writers and thinkers.” While some of the visitors on the Grand Tour were disappointed in the monuments as “boring” or “ugly,” Piranesi’s images of marbles submerged by dirt and time, hint at centuries of stories just hidden from view. The engravings provide a stimulating contrast to the present space laid bare by a century and a half of digging and daily tromping by tourists listening to the same old scandals of Caesar, Saturn and unchaste Vestals. Somewhere between the two lies a happy medium where the Forum becomes more than another Instagram post, and recovers its capacity to inspire greatness.
Watkin’s tour starts with the function of the Forum, originally meaning a large open area designated as a marketplace, and swiftly leads readers to the transformations wrought by Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus. Watkin takes the reader to where Piranesi once sat, surveying the space through his eyes—arches, temples, basilicas—recounting the appearance of the Forum before the ambitious excavation of Giacomo Boni in the late 19th century.
The striking innovation of this book however, is not in its broad sweep of history, but in bringing to the forefront the era which the Forum forgot. Watkin points out that the Forum was “a place of worship for about 2,800 years, and for over half that time the worship has been Christian.” From the transformation of the Temple of Romulus into today’s Basilica of Cosmas and Damian where Mass has been celebrated continuously, the author explores the Christian ultra-millennial engagement with the Forum, sometimes destructive while other times deeply insightful and enriching. He also reminds readers that the buildings that still stand—the curia, the temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (and of course the Pantheon)—were spared from destruction of time, neglect or vandalism because they were transformed into churches.
Piranesi drew the Forum when more churches were still nestled among the ruins, including Santa Maria in Liberatrice and St. Hadrian, the Christian dedication of the curia. His images recall the era of transformation, where out of the rubble of the fallen Empire, Christianity took root. The semi-submerged triumphal arches commemorating Imperial victories, nonetheless towering over 18th century peasants grazing livestock and tending vegetable gardens, powerfully evokes the Roman adage, sic transit gloria mundi. In many cases, Piranesi’s engravings are the only visual record of the now demolished churched. The early age of archeology, claims Watkins, was so concerned with its “doctrine that the older anything must be the more important” that it eradicated the Christian history of the Forum in order to expose the more ancient elements underneath.
Chapter four, therefore, takes the reader on a tour of the Christian Forum, identifying the buildings that became churches, recounting their sensitive restorations during the many centuries that the Pope ruled Rome and noting the modern interventions that, to the mind of the author, impoverished the existing structures. It is thought-provoking and a very unusual discussion to see in an archeological guidebook.
Watkin’s thesis is certainly not shared by all archaeologists. Some accuse the author of superficiality while other renowned archeologists, offended by Watkin’s critique of their methods, claim that he is “uninformed.” It opens an interesting debate regarding the scope of archeology and the purpose of guidebooks which can
only enhance the Forum experience by inviting us to view the space from the perspective of the responsibility of revealing it.
For his part, David Watkin does a wonderful job not only of reviving the romance of the dust and stones that inspired so many, but also of allowing us to be accompanied by the many generations of visitors before us who were transformed by those noble ruins.