Show Notes: It is good to look at big things, like mountain ranges, first from far away, and then to get closer to them to investigate points of particular interest, and Rome is certainly a “big thing.” I thus step back in this pod and present a panoramic view of Rome and her long history.
This approach shows Rome to be more like three different and opposed cities than like one “Eternal City,” pure and unchanging. If Rome is like a mountain range, it has three peaks: Ancient Rome, Christian Rome, and Modern Rome. The “gaps” between these peaks occurred in the fourth century, when Rome went from pagan to Christian and ceased to be the capital of the Empire, and in the nineteenth century, when Italy became a modern country and seized political power from the popes.
When the religion, form of government, moral ideas, art, architecture, and literature of a city change, and even its language may begin to change, it might make sense to give it a new name. This is what happened to “the second Rome,” Byzantium, which became Constantinople, and later became Istanbul. I don’t propose that we rename Rome, but its unchanged name and location do not establish that the city itself has not undergone great metamorphoses.
So, then, a panoramic look at Rome suggests that travelers keep in mind the sharp differences between Ancient, Christian, and Modern Rome. Doing so helps to make more intelligible what we see in Rome. There are reasons no ancient Roman ever sculpted a Pietà and that modern artists aren’t drawn to representing the Virgin Mary.
A Christian Altar and Mosaic were added to the Pantheon after it was converted into a Christian Church (Blake Buchannan photo)
Okay, but what are these differences? Introducing them will be the goal of the next three podcasts, each of which is devoted to one of “The Three Romes.” But to make a start here, consider what happened to Rome in the fourth and nineteenth centuries.
The fourth century began with Diocletian severely persecuting Christians. Then Constantine legalized and promoted Christianity and moved the capital of the Empire to a city he named after himself. Subsequent emperors in Constantinople were all Christians for the next thousand years, save only one brief exception. At the same time, and Rome ceased to be part of the Roman Empire and lost its political independence. Whether you call the ensuing period the “Dark Ages” or “Late Antiquity,” much changed, and these changes are reflected in Rome’s art and architecture.
The Arch of Constantine, a traditional arch for a non-traditional conqueror (Blake photo)
Similarly, and as our look at the statue of Giordano Bruno suggested, Rome changed again when Modern Rome arrived in the nineteenth century. Modern liberal ideas held that human beings had equal rights, that they were politically equal, that Church and State should be separated, and that science and free thought should be encouraged. Having been advanced in the modern intellectual movement historians call the Enlightenment, and having been spread by the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon, these are the ideas that were behind the overthrow of papal rule in Rome. (To illustrate the attractive force of Napoleon as a conveyor of liberal ideas, I refer in the podcast to Puccini’s opera Tosca and Stendhal’s novel, The Charterhouse of Parma.) They continue to exercise great influence throughout the West (even if the core ideas of liberalism were rejected by Mussolini and continue to be sharply questioned from various points of view throughout the West).
The official teaching of modern liberalism is that Church and State should be separated, but the more ardent defenders of the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento would have been happy to see the Catholic Church put on the road to extinction. This, after all, is what had happened to paganism. And perhaps Rome and the West have been more thoroughly secularized than Rome’s many and beautiful churches would suggest on their own. Visitors to Rome might consider on their own when these churches are now employed more as houses of worship or as museums and tourist attractions.
My main suggestion is that visitors to Rome put aside the notion that Rome is an eternal city and think of it instead as three different cities that disagree sharply about what is just, noble, good, and divine. This approach is less consoling, for it implies that Rome has “died” and might die again, but it is a greater stimulus to observation. Bringing out these issues is a way of bringing Rome’s art and monuments to life and indicating why monuments sometimes stimulate shouting matches or even are reduced to rubble.
Description: I here present a rapid overview of Rome and her long history, for it is useful to get a sense of the big picture before plunging into the details of particular sites in Rome. As my treatment of the Bruno statue suggests, I will highlight the differences of opinion that divide Christian Romans from the pagans, and modern Romans from the views advanced by the popes who ruled Rome for centuries.