forum romanum, even more mind-blowing than usual


There’s a rite of passage here that involves an introductory walk through the Forum for the fellows, led by the Mellon Professor.  We were inducted this morning, and in addition to it being a bright, warm day perfect for the task at hand, it was also an amazing discussion.

That centered around what the “Forum” actually is.  At a simple level, it’s the center of Rome, and always has been, and thus it formed the center of the Empire.  But Prof. Bowles put that myth through its paces by pointing out that what you see in the Forum today is really only a century to a century and a half “old.”  A medieval neighborhood was cleared in the nineteenth century to reveal the ‘floor’ of the Forum that we now see today, and Mussolini finished things off by excavating what’s now the Imperial Fora (and bulldozing a good piece of the Velian Hill in the process) in the 1920s and 1930s.

This makes sense–if you were dropped into this space without knowing what it is, you might well imagine that the Forum Romanum was actually a rather dingy picturesque garden, with ruins reconstructed and rubble arranged just so.  And, in fact, that’s more or less what happened.


But it even goes beyond that, and here’s where walking around Rome with a gaggle of antiquities scholars is proving to be as fun as it sounds.  What the nineteenth century excavations revealed was a ruined forum that had, itself, been rebuilt and reconfigured any number of times.  The Temple of Saturn to the left there (a ruin that I’ve forced students to sketch any number of times, and which I’ve presented as a pretty straightforward piece of Ancient Rome) actually burned in the fourth century, and was reconstructed shortly thereafter–folks with better Latin training than mine can read the inscription, which says, basically, “there was a fire, and then we rebuilt this.”  (Yes, we have an epigraphic expert on the team).  And current scholarship suggests that, in an era where pagan worship was falling out of fashion and Christianity was beginning to take hold, the reconstruction of the Temple of Saturn was, essentially, an exercise in beautification and not in reconstruction.  In fact, there’s some evidence that the temple front was all that was reconstructed, leaving the worship space behind in a pile.  Facade-ism, ca. 500 A.D.  Or, if you like, a bit of the Colonial Williamsburg approach in ancient Rome–it was rebuilt not because it was needed, but because of a fascination with and love for history.

So to the archaeologists and antiquities folks, the Forum is a genuinely problematic place (never mind the total lack of interpretation, the crowds, etc.).  And to the medievalists it’s a crime scene.  But that left me puzzled, because even after hearing all of that I still find the place meaningful.  I think, though, that when an architect goes to the Forum, especially one with a rudimentary sense of tradition and history, you realize that what you’re seeing is the same thing that architects on the Grand Tour saw.  Yes, it’s staged, and no, it’s as far from authentic as you can get.  But the roster of architects who walked those paths is mind-boggling.  I’m still waiting for Lou Kahn’s ghost to show up in the Academy halls, but the Forum is one of the places we know he went to draw, and it’s that Forum that might be the most readily accessible–the playground of Classicism that even modernists felt duty-bound to learn from.

Speaking of which:  Michelangelo a sinistra, Nervi a destra:


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