The Three Romes: National Capital

The curbs in Rome are all marble.

Rome, the town with travertine curbs!

One of the things this trip has made very clear for me is how young the national borders of Europe are.  Most of my comprehensive European history to date has been in the context of British history – a place with relatively stable geography and in the light of my own country’s national identity – relatively solid for the last 200 years with the exception of that little civil conflict in the 1860’s and the addition of states like Alaska and Hawaii.  I’ve been banging my head again and again against the concept that the ancient countryside I am passing through is not a part of equally ancient countries.  Italy, for example, only began to coalesce in the mid 1800’s and in 1871 declared Rome their new national capital and immediately set about making it their own.

Almost a third of the city was torn down and replaced during the late 19th century.  The river Tiber was channelized with busy roads built along both banks.  The pope’s processional route (mentioned in the previous post as pausing on the Capitoline Hill was re-named and widened (destroying most of the buildings which had faced it).  The new government also put up Il Vittoriano – a huge monument to the new government built in the neoclassical style (displacing a large but poor urban neighborhood.

Rome was further altered by the Fascist government in the 1920’s.  Mussolini understood that history is told by the civic buildings of the winners and set about making Rome his own.  Eager to draw a connection between his own august government and its historical antecedents, he financed major public works around the Roman forum, tearing down low rent housing and replacing it with new buildings.  All the classical monuments were cleared out and cleaned up so as to present to the world.   He even added to the Vatican – finishing Bernini’s proposed avenue up in squared off fascist style.

national rome 7

He also promoted the building of a new suburban area, now known as the EUR (Esposizione Universale Romana) intended to be the center of a world exhibition in 1942.  That event was superseded by WWII but the area remains (finished after the war) as a huge testament to the overweening ambitions of the Fascist government.  The project had a rectangular grid, central axis and its own new obelisk but the tension between classical past and cubist future is over strained.  The buildings are so stripped of detail and over scale that it feels more like a model suddenly scaled up and filled with cars than a city.  As I walked around noticing all the cars and the total dearth of people I started thinking that the axiom “If you build it, they will come,” ought perhaps to be amended to “If you build it WELL, they will come.”

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