We today review the conflicts that divide Ancient, Christian, and Modern Rome, with special attention to the various monuments used by Modern Rome in its struggle to bury the Rome of the Popes. Can we find, notwithstanding these many quarrels, something identifiable as Western Civilization?

Show Notes

In our last episode, I introduced Pope Julius II, Michelangelo, and a second basilica dedicated to St. Peter, St. Peter’s in Chains, or San Pietro in Vincoli. I had intended to return to this basilica today to look more closely at its statue of Moses and its other highpoints, but I’ve been distracted by an opportunity to do a little zoom lecture for the University of Dallas. Since there’s no way I could prepare this lecture plus further remarks on St. Peter’s in Chains in one week, what follows today will be based on my remarks for Dallas, which might be entitled “Culture Wars in Rome.” I will once again try to show that a walk in Rome brings out lots of evidence of cultural conflict, and I’ll explain what I mean by Modern Rome and why I think it is so important to keep it in mind, even if Pagan Rome and Papal Rome attract the lion’s share of tourist visits. Today’s episode will overlap a little bit with Episodes 2 and 7 but takes them a step further.

As I think I’ve indicated before, I first came to love Rome for its inexpensive wine, moonlight dinners, and meandering walks through narrow streets. Then I found it to be a wonderful place for my wife and me to spend time together and raise our three daughters. I also loved teaching there because it was so natural to spend time with students inside the classroom as well as on busses, walks, the soccer field, and at meals. Eventually, it dawned on me that I also enjoyed thinking about Rome as a claimant to the title of capital city of Western Civilization. Since it was about the time I first went to Rome that Stanford students had chanted “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ has got to go,” it seemed especially important to wonder what Western Civ might be and whether I should be enthusiastic about getting rid of it.

I found it difficult to investigate the identity of Western Civilization, for as I studied Rome and visited its many sites, what struck me was how different Rome’s artworks and monuments were from one another. I gradually came to the conclusion that the differences between Pagan and Christian were especially pronounced: Pagan Rome worshipped wild gods, was generally aristocratic in its politics, and became the center of a vast empire that ruled the Western World from Scotland to Syria and across all of Northern Africa. It had a long life as a republic, then became monarchical, and its western half declined and fell with disastrous consequences, though contemporary scholars love to deny this last point.

But a second Rome was also easily visible while walking the streets: it was Christian, ruled by a papal monarchy, and it filled the city with beautiful art and architecture. It did not have a vast empire and was frequently invaded, but my reading suggests it was the moral and religious center of all of Europe and gave Europe much of its identity; and at times, the pope could compel monarchs to obey him or initiate crusades.

There are countless details to be added to this simple sketch, but it suffices to suggest that the ultimate relationship between these two Romes is a complicated question, and smart people disagree. How can something that sounds so simple, “Western Civilization,” contain elements that seem so alien? The pagans persecuted the Christians on and off until 313, and then, gradually, the Christian emperors of the 4th and early 5th centuries closed the temples and forbade sacrifices to the old gods. They successfully outlawed paganism.

And if you look to their moral teachings, it again looks as though Christianity wanted not merely to modify the pagan teaching but to replace it radically. To see what I mean, compare the Sermon on the Mount with Caesar’s Gallic Wars. One tells you not to resist aggression; the other tells you how to become a successful aggressor.

When I was in Rome I noted that pagans and Christians both had altars, but they are very different. The Christians’ altars were beautifully created and located inside the church, and on them, Christ’s sacrifice for mankind would be reenacted. [Slide] But a pagan altar had to be outdoors, for on it would be slaughtered cattle, sheep, and pigs, which is a violent and messy operation, even if it promises a good meal. [Slide] The pagan gods were prone to lust and hunger, and they needed to be bribed with burnt offerings before they would fly into action. They sometimes helped some favored individuals or cities, but they were not providential deities.

I am again being very simple and provisional: this is not the whole story. But my goal now is just to underline the importance of the question of the relationship between Christian and Pagan Rome. Surely, their religious views were very different, and I think their moral and political opinions were as well. And thus, their ways of life and worldviews were opposed to one another.

So, which of these speaks for or represents Western Civilization, Pagan Rome or Christian Rome? Or is there a way to reconcile them or preserve both in an account of the West?

A good visit to Rome, whether in person or virtually, invites us to wrestle with these questions. But if it makes sense in this preliminary way to divide Rome into two, there is also a third Rome, Modern Rome. And it is very different from the first two. In fact, it was born out of a movement called the Risorgimento, which made war on the Rome of the Popes on the grounds that Catholic Rome was backward, misguided, and a barrier to the unification of Italy. The Risorgimento succeeded in overthrowing papal Rome in 1870, and in response, over the course of 60 years, five consecutive popes refused to leave the Vatican. As the early Christians showed in both word and deed that they disagreed with the pagans, so the early moderns stressed their disagreements with the religiously based rule of the Catholic popes.

It makes sense to call this third Rome the Rome of the People, as Giuseppe Mazzini did. It is democratic and claims to serve individuals and protect their rights. It has no religious convictions and does not acknowledge the existence of any divinely revealed text, like the Bible or Koran. Rather, it professes to be rooted in human reason and self-evident truths. Suddenly, Western Civ is starting to look like a three-cornered Culture War, and one that in practice provoked a lot of arguments, cost more than a few lives, and cancelled a lot of monuments.

Now, with this broad context established, let’s walk through Rome and take a look at some of the evidence of the more recent of these two culture wars, the one in which modern liberal Rome overthrew Papal Rome. For the sake of simplicity, I’d say there are three categories of monuments that show how modern Rome sought to confirm in stone its victory over the Rome of the Popes.

One group includes those monuments that honor the leaders and events that brought the New Italy into being in 1861 and overthrew the political rule of the popes in 1870. This group of monuments is not actively or openly anti-Christian, but none of them makes any reference to Christian symbols. I find this remarkable because, for centuries, Rome’s art and monuments featured saints, crosses, halos, doves representing the holy spirit, and other such symbols. These modern Roman monuments have none of this. Instead, they return to the symbols of Ancient Pagan Rome, which had rarely been seen for the 1,500 years in which the popes were in power. It’s as if the moderns sought the aid of the ancients in order to defeat the Christians.

So, this group of monuments does not try actively to cancel Catholic culture but gives it “the silent treatment” and directs attention to the Pagan Past. I can’t show these examples in speech, but I’ll post them on my website (but it may take me until June 30: busy times!).

The main representative of this group is the so-called Wedding Cake or Vittoriano: It takes its dominant architectural inspiration from Classical Rome, and is covered with goddesses, ancient warriors, carvings of ancient weapons, et cetera. I discuss it more fully in episode 11.

The statue of Garibaldi represents a man who hated the Rome of the Popes and showed it in word and deed. He led volunteer forces to overthrow the pope on three occasions and called for the death blow to be delivered to those he called “the clowns” in the Vatican. He even made a little money by from a novel entitled the “RULE OF THE MONK,” which was a savage critique of papal rule.

His statue includes such ancient Roman symbols as the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, and the piles of ancient weapons called “trophies.” It is dated MMDCLX, which translates to 2660. This makes sense only when we see that the date is given starting from the founding of ancient Rome, not from the birth of Christ.  (2660-753 = 1907, the 100th anniversary of Garibaldi’s birth.)

The statues of Cavour and Mazzini, other great heroes of the Risorgimento, also are devoid of any Christian symbols but include various allusions to Ancient Rome. The same is true of the bridge dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, which leads to St. Peter’s Basilica, as does Bernini’s Bridge of the Angels. But whereas Bernini sculpted angels and the signs of Christ’s passion, the modern bridge is populated by ancient Roman warriors.

It is as if the modern liberal Romans want to say, “We belong to Western Civilization! See all our allusions to the great achievements of Ancient Rome!”  But they also imply that the Rome of the Popes form no part of their cultural inheritance.

When in Rome, keep your eyes open, and you’ll see more such examples.

A second category of modern monuments is a little more aggressive. It calls attention to innocent victims of papal cruelty. One way of trying to establish the injustice of a government is to show that it has killed or harmed innocent people, so the horrific case of George Floyd can be used to imply that the cops are generally the bad guys. So, when it came to power in 1870, the new Roman government began giving public honors to former victims of papal rule, especially if they seemed innocent or impressive.

One example is a plaque honoring Stefano Porcari. It went up one year after Papal Rome fell, and it declares that Porcari was “killed for a cry of liberty in a time of oppression.” The event had occurred 420 years earlier. The New Rome also named a street named after him.

You can occasionally find plaques remembering victims of the Inquisition, like one to Gian Luigi Pascale, who was killed 450 years previously.

And Galileo’s imprisonment is remembered by a column, which mockingly says he was “guilty of having seen the earth move.”  It was erected in 1887, 350 years after the fact.

The most striking example of honoring a papal victim is the statue of Giordano Bruno, who was brutally executed in 1600 on order of the Inquisition and with the approval of the papacy. The inaugural address that accompanied the unveiling of the statue is an emphatic reminder of a profound culture war, for the speaker declared that this radical statue marked the arrival of a new age, one in which what he called the “Religion of Reason” had replaced that of Revelation. I discuss this further in Episode 2 of this series.

I don’t mean to imply that the events remembered by these four markers do not indicate real problems with papal rule: I have no explanation or defense for what the Church did in each case. I only note that they show a certain eagerness of the new Italy to stress the violent deeds of its papal rival, even when theses deeds occurred in centuries long past; and this helps us see that they were part of a war of cultures that had come to a head.

Another way to shift values or confirm the new ones is to honor those who fought for the new regime and against the old one, especially if they died in the fighting. Such fallen fighters then are or seem to be something like Martyrs for Liberty.

In Piazza del Popolo is a plaque that honors two members of an antipapal revolutionary group, who were executed in the piazza del Popolo. The plaque stresses their victimhood saying their executions were [quote] “Ordered by the pope, without proof and without opportunity for defense.”

On the Janiculum Hill, near the state of Garibaldi, are statues of a boy, Righetto, age 12, and of a father and son, Angelo and Lorenzo Brunetti, the latter 13 years old.

All three died in connection with battles that ensued after Pope Pius IX asked for the help of the French, Spanish, and Austrians to put down the Roman Republic of 1849. Righetto died from a bomb launched by the French; the Brunettis were executed after having been caught by the Austrians.

Giuditta Tavani Arquati has a bust and plaque on a street in Trastevere, and the Cairoli Brothers have an impressive statue adjacent to the Pincian Hill. The two brothers, the pregnant Giuditta, her husband, and her son were all killed while participating in an insurrection against Pope Pius IX in 1867. Garibaldi was the organizer of this attempt, but the French and Swiss troops defending the papacy defeated the revolutionaries.

Later, after the pope lost all political power, the new government erected memorials to those of the casualties most likely to stir the hearts of its supporters.

So the New Italy used art, architecture, monuments to support its goal of shifting Romans from the values of the Catholic Church—as they were then understood and practiced—to those of modern democratic liberalism. And once you become sensitive to the issue, you will see more of them as you wander Rome’s charming streets.

But there were limits to what the new regime would do. It did not directly attack churches, religious art, or priests. It was more moderate than the French Revolutionaries were in the early years of the French Revolution, when some churches were attacked or seized, and priests who did not swear allegiance to the new constitution were often either killed, driven into exile, or forced to marry.  Even Notre Dame in Paris was, like several other churches, turned for a while into a Temple of Reason, so the new god could be properly honored.

But what the New Italy did not do to churches, it did do to monasteries. And if it did not use violence against priests, it kicked many of the nuns and monks into the streets, not just in Rome, but throughout Italy.

It seems that different monasteries received different treatment, and I’m not always sure why. My impression so far is that the ones that provided a recognizable public service fared better, such as those that cared for the sick, fed the poor, or educated the young. I think the ones that promoted prayer and cloistered contemplation, and depended on alms, received harsher treatment.

Some convents were untouched, and a few of these remain today, though usually with tiny populations. Of these, many have become hybrids: part hotels, part convents.

Others show signs of what I will call, “Cultural Substitution.” That is, they were seized by the new Italy and put to other uses. Examples include the convents of Santa Maria della Pace (Saint Mary of Peace), which is now a coffee shop and art gallery, and San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains), which is now part of the College of Engineering of the University of Rome. It is now packed with engineering students, not monks. The library for the college is just across the street, and it too was once a convent.

Others were converted into police stations, prisons (including Regina Coeli, Rome’s largest prison), or hospitals. Some were razed. A good example of this treatment is the Aracoeli Convent on the Capitoline Hill. It was seized three years after Italy took Rome. In order to build the monument to Victor Emmanuel that now sits above Piazza Venezia on the Capitoline Hill, the new Italian government tore down the old convent.

Again, I’ve put photos on the Get Ready for Rome website (or soon will).

My simplest point is that there are many signs in Rome of conflicting ideas about gods, morality, and politics, and these then invite us to join in the debate, which has certainly not ceased, for the Modern West continues to argue about how human beings should live in society, and what justice demands of them.

As for Western Civilization, I can’t find it embodied in any single Rome—Ancient, Christian, or Modern—but for the time being, at least, I think I see a glimpse of it in the argument among the three of them, in which such geniuses as Shakespeare, Plato, Machiavelli, and Thomas More remain active participants.

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