Whispering City: Rome and its Histories

Catharine Edwards takes a tour of Rome’s architecture and complex history

Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
Author: RJB Bosworth
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Catharine Edwards
Price (RRP): £25

Those who have sought power over Rome have always tried to enlist the support of the Roman past.

Bosworth’s rich and complex book focuses particularly on the 19th and 20th centuries, tracing the different appeals to different histories (republican, imperial, papal) made by revolutionaries, popes, the new government of united Italy, the fascist regime of Mussolini and beyond. It also shows how those appeals have been inscribed in the fabric of the city. 

The Victor Emmanuel monument, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Italian unification in 1911, embraces and appropriates the symbolic heart of pagan Rome, the Capitoline Hill, posing a visual challenge to the Vatican on the other side of the Tiber.

Relationships between the conflicting pasts of Rome have often been negotiated in terms of different parts of the city. Chapters of Bosworth’s study focus on particular locations; his discussion of the 1849 revolution shines a spotlight on the Janiculum hill and its monuments to Garibaldi and his wife Anita.

His final chapter analyses the relief commemorating politician Aldo Moro in the Via Caetani, where his murdered corpse was abandoned in 1978. 

Many of the city’s less celebrated monuments are expertly deciphered. Bosworth also vividly evokes festivals and ceremonies, such as the celebration of Rome’s foundation on 21 April, reworked by Pope Pius IX in 1847 to incorporate ancient Roman imagery such as a bust of Romulus, Rome’s founder. It was imagery to which the revolutionaries seeking to unite Italy laid a conflicting claim.

Successive phases in the history of Rome reconfigure our understanding of those that went before.

Few visitors are aware of the degree to which their experience of the city’s ancient past is shaped by the drastic interventions of the fascist regime. Mussolini’s vision of fast cars and Roman ruins juxtaposed (which involved flattening vast swathes of medieval Rome) produced a network of major traffic arteries through the monumental heart of the ancient city, much of which remains.

We can never altogether escape Mussolini’s version of ancient Rome but that is all the more reason for trying to understand its continuing impact.

Yet as Bosworth stresses, the very complexity of the city’s history has made it the more difficult to control. The juxtaposition of Roman imperial and fascist might work to the disadvantage of the latter (it is striking that most monuments from the later fascist years are located far from Rome’s centre).

While it may be tempting to view Rome as a hotchpotch of fascinating but disconnected fragments, Bosworth shows how important it is that we seek to comprehend the complexity of relationships, temporal and spatial, which give the city meaning. 

Catharine Edwards is the author of Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City (CUP, 1996)

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