Rome: The Marvels and the Menace

Ingrid D. Rowland in the New York Review of Books:

On April 21, the city of Rome celebrated the 2760th anniversary of its founding. Despite nearly three thousand years of invasions by Sabines, Gauls, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Normans, German Landesknechte, Napoleon, Hitler, and mass tourism, Rome survives, in many respects handsomely. Constant use keeps buildings alive as well as wearing them down, and the same is true of cities. No floor in Rome is as spotless as the thirteenth-century marble pavement in the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, the same intricate designs wrought in bits of ancient colored marble that Dante walked across when they were new, and where Edward Gibbon paced nearly half a millennium later as he began to conceive his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The floor’s irregularities have been worn smooth by generations of feet, and polished to gleaming by generations of sacristans whose humble, repetitive actions have in themselves created a thing of beauty. And so it is with the rest of the Eternal City: it is as full of loving gestures as it is of deliberate creations, and both are essential to its continued existence.

All over Rome, buildings still older than the Ara Coeli glow from constant use. The Pantheon still stands after nearly two thousand years; the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has stood for nearly 1,600. Not every old building has been universally or constantly loved, but today’s Romans are inclined toward an affectionate acceptance that extends as well by now to some of the city’s neoclassical white elephants.

More here.