The Capitol was the head of the world

The medieval mind could play all the more freely with the Capitol because destruction had overtaken it so completely; its very disasters afforded a clear field for fancy. By the middle of the twelfth century the typical medieval description of the Capitol in its glory appeared in the Mirabilia urbis Romae, the standard guidebook to the pagan as well as the Christian 'marvels of Rome'. The entire hill seemed to the medieval imagination one magnificent fortress filled with wonders. The Mirabilia's description echoes the words of ancient writers with an overtone of eastern fantasy: 'The Capitol was the head of the world, where the consuls and senators abode to govern the Earth. The face thereof was covered with high walls and strong, rising above the top of the hill, and covered all over with glass and gold and marvellous carved work. . . . Within the fortress was a palace all adorned with marvellous works in gold and silver and brass and costly stones, to be a mirror to all nations. . . . And it was therefore called Golden Capitol, because it excelled in wisdom and beauty before all the realms of the whole world.'

One of the greatest wonders of the Capitol, which was itself ranked among the Seven Wonders of the World, was a magic device called the Salvation of Rome. The shifting currents of medieval legend gave this more than one form, but usually it was regarded as a group of statues, said by some to be the work of Vergil, whom the Middle Ages had transformed from poet to magician. 'In the temple of Jupiter and Moneta in the Capitol,' says the Mirabilia, 'was an image of every kingdom in the world, with a bell about his neck, and as soon as the bell sounded, they knew that the kingdom was rebellious.' The Mirabilia does not say that Vergil was the maker of the statues; that story came later. Other places, too, were said to house them; the Pantheon, the Colosseum, or even the Lateran. But usually their home was the Capitol, 'head of the world'.

The actual Capitol of medieval times was very different from this glittering, magic wonder. Its southern summit was bare. Where Jupiter's temple had once raised its gilded roof, cloth dyers now spread their drying racks. Nearby was the gallows, which gave the neighbourhood an unsavoury reputation. Goats browsed there undisturbed, giving still another name to the once mighty mount of Jove--Monte Caprino, Hill of Goats.

But Romans of the early Middle Ages had at least one stronghold upon 'the Capitol's unshaken rock'. At the edge of the Asylum, used then as a market and meeting-place, a baronial family had fortified the only surviving monument of ancient Rome left standing on the hill--the Tabularium overlooking the Forum. Built of grey, volcanic stone, the lower floors of this old Record Office had defied time and disaster from the days of the old Republic in the first century before Christ.

In 1143, tired of being pawns in the long struggle between popes and emperors, the Romans broke into revolt. Their first step was to meet on the Capitol, there to re-establish their ancient Senate and revive their ancient Republic. Precisely where they met is not recorded. But when, a few years later, they built their first simple Senator's Palace, it rested upon the Tabularium's lower floors. Perhaps this was merely because it was the strongest site upon the hill, but it is tempting to think that the builders dimly knew the link with the old Republic of twelve centuries before.

The Senator's Palace presently took on the name of Capitol, sharing it with the hill as Jupiter's temple had done long before. The magistrates for whom it was built became, all too soon, senators in name only, but they were obliged to hold some meetings there, and the building was a centre for many other activities. When Petrarch was crowned on the Capitol in 1341 with the laurel symbolic of triumph in the art of poetry, he received the wreath in the Audience Hall of the Senator's Palace. Nor could Romans entirely forget that the Capitol had once been the centre of far more than a local city government. In 1347 Cola di Rienzi, dreaming that Rome might once more be the capital of all Italy, gathered his revolutionary assembly in the old Palace. And near it, seven years later, when the dream had failed, he met violent death at the hands of the Roman people who had once acclaimed him.

The century of Rienzi was that of 'widowed Rome', a city in rebellion against both popes and emperors, forsaken by both and pleading for the return, sometimes of one and sometimes of the other.

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