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This site exists to support my podcast series, Get Ready for Rome, and new material will be added as new podcasts are published. Access podcasts from this Podcast page. The series will get started on September 20, 2020 a very important anniversary in Rome.
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Back when I was a college student, it took me a while to realize that I would get more out of class discussions of a book if I actually read the book before showing up for class. It’s the same with Rome: you will enjoy and appreciate the city much more if you know a little about it before you arrive. If you get ready before you go, you can lift your eyes from the pages of a guidebook, start thinking on your own, and season your meals with good conversation about a wonderful city. You might even put yourself in a position to enter the debate over the merits and shortcomings of the civilization(s) of which Rome was long the capital.
But how should we get ready? My strategy is to find the order that underlies Rome’s cultural cacophony. I describe and illustrate this approach especially in the first three podcasts. The gist is that I propose putting aside, at least for a while, the nice idea that Rome is an “Eternal City.” Instead, consider Rome as three distinct and opposed cities, which are divided by two periods of “transition” or, more accurately, cultural warfare. The first Rome was pagan, generally aristocratic, and eventually classical. We call it “Ancient Rome”; a Father of Modern Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini, labeled it “Rome of the Caesars.” After a long struggle that included both persecution and counter- persecution, Rome’s pagan empire became Christian, and the art, architecture, and soul of the city changed. After 1,500 years of the “Rome of the Popes,” the new ideas of the French Enlightenment were advanced with vigor by powerful thinkers and by Napoleon’s powerful armies, and the Italian movement known as the Risorgimento got rid of papal rule and introduced the “Rome of the People.” This gives us a simple and useful schema with which to begin.
- ROME OF THE CAESARS:
- Ancient, Pagan, and Aristocratic
- Over a thousand years, traditionally 753 BC to 476 AD
- ROME OF THE POPES:
- Medieval, Christian, and Monarchical
- Over a thousand years, from roughly 350 to 1870
- ROME OF THE PEOPLE:
- Modern, Secular, and Democratic
- One hundred and fifty years (and counting), from 1870 until today
Organized on the basis of these three Romes, this site aspires to help others sense the weightiness and far-reaching consequences of the quarrels between Classical, Christian, and Modern Rome. These and related controversies, which are all too obviously ongoing, concern the way we radically imperfect but occasionally godlike creatures should live our lives together in society. It should also help visitors to Rome organize what they see and begin to reconstruct the rich cultural conversation, or argument, that is expressed by Rome’s stunning art and architecture.
You may wish to respond by saying, “But there are agreements as well as disagreements among the three Romes!” and “But there are more than three Romes!” True. True. But first things first.
About the Photos Above
I’ve chosen three iconic buildings to represent here “The Three Romes” into which I divide the Eternal City. Blake Buchannan’s photo of the Colosseum captures two features of special importance. One is the (faint) presence of the plaque with a large cross carved on it near the center of the photo. This is a good reminder that the Catholic Church used the Colosseum in myriad ways for over a thousand years. The second is the end of the Colosseum’s outer wall, held in place by a brick buttress, on the right side of the photo, such that the photo might be labeled, “The Notched Colosseum.” Fifty per cent of this outer wall has disappeared, and yet the Colosseum survived in much better shape than most other Ancient Roman monuments. This helps us become sensitive to questions about what is missing as well as what has survived. There will eventually be at least four podcasts on different aspects of the Colosseum.
The central photo, also by Blake Buchannan, captures a suitable icon for Christian Rome, the “Rome of the Popes.” It is of the gilded-bronze altar canopy by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, soaring upward toward the dome Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta designed for St. Peter’s Basilica. In the background is more gilded-bronze work by Bernini, the “Chair of St. Peter,” far too big and high for human use but the perfect symbol of papal authority, which the Church understands as having descended from St. Peter. Six or seven podcasts are planned for St. Peter’s and such related sites as the Vatican Necropolis and the Vatican Museums.
The monument in Charlie Wheeler’s photo on the right is dedicated to the first king of united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II and, by extension, to the Italy he helped to bring into being in 1860. Generally called the “Vittoriano,” its nicknames include “the Wedding Cake” and “the Typewriter.” Whereas the Colosseum has several large crosses on it, the Vittoriano has none, which should help us remember that the new Italy was brought into being partly to weaken the role of the Catholic Church in Italian society. The second podcast will make this more clear, as will four or five others on other monuments to Modern Italy.
Charlie’s second photo on this page provides the background. It shows the bright light streaming in through the open hole (or, “oculus”) in the dome of the Pantheon and, on the underside of the dome, the not-quite-square coffers that reduced the dome’s weight. Made without iron rebar or other reinforcements, the concrete dome of the Pantheon is a reminder of the skill of the ancient Roman builders. The sphere it inscribes is also an apt reminder of the global reach of Rome at the high point of its empire. It ruled not only much of Europe but northern Africa and a swath of the Near East as well.
I am grateful to the University of Dallas, the University of Colorado Boulder, great colleagues, and over two thousand students: together they made it possible, pleasant, and personally fulfilling for me to teach in Rome.
I’m no less grateful to my wife and children, who embraced with enthusiasm the adventure of spending a decade in Rome, notwithstanding such challenges as heading off to schools and maternity wards where our native tongue was of little use.
A young and enthusiastic friend, Joey Pustejovsky, has both encouraged and guided me in the building of this site and the podcasts it supports. He will continue to help as the producer of the pods, at least if I can persuade him to do so.
I’m also grateful to have the help of Gianna Van Heel, who is a Fulbright Scholar on location in Rome. She’s doing research in the city, building our bank of photos, and spreading the word through social media. Grazie mille, Gianna!
Thanks also to my trusty Assistant for my last class in Rome, Blake Buchannan, a sometimes professional photographer, and Charlie Wheeler, a remarkable student with a keen eye. Many of the photos I use are theirs.
Both through his website and in person, Roberto Piperno has helped to teach me how much one can learn from careful observation in Rome.
And who is this “I”?
I’m Wayne Ambler, a retired college prof, who can’t sit still. I taught for almost a quarter century at the University of Dallas, and spent ten of these years with my wife and three daughters on the UD Rome Campus. Then I took a position with the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics & Society here at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I took students to Rome every May for a decade, in a program I called “Culture Wars in Rome.” My guiding hope and belief for this project is that I can help travelers get a better return on their investments of time and money in trips to Rome.
Send suggestions for improving the podcasts or this site to firstname.lastname@example.org.