Nowhere in Rome are the successive layers of time more clearly visible than at the foot of Mary's church on the Capitol. Here ancient, medieval, and renaissance Rome have met together; the pagan and the Christian world confront each other in the shadow of the present.
At the foot of the steps is a 'marvel' unseen for centuries, an ancient apartment house or insula of the first century A.D. brought to light by the excavations of the Mussolini era. Though rare now, such houses far outnumbered detached private homes in imperial Rome; one of them, the Insula of Felicula or Felicles, was ranked, in the fourth century after Christ, as one of the sights of the city.
Unlike the single houses, which faced inward upon courts and turned blank walls to the outer world, these apartment houses, even when they had courtyards, faced outward upon the street. Often their ground floors were divided into small shops facing directly upon it, as in this building. Here the two lower floors now lie below the level to which the present street has risen in the course of centuries.
Accustomed as the world has grown to the solidity of Roman construction, it comes as a shock to realize that then as now commercial housing was often scamped and poorly done. Big apartment houses often had foundations too shallow and too narrow and walls too thin to carry the weight of five or six stories. The emperors tried to control the height of these buildings, Augustus setting a limit of seventy feet, but in imperial Rome, as in large cities today, a builder had to choose between going up into the air or out into the suburbs.
Faulty construction often made such houses a menace. Ancient writers complain of their frequent collapse and of the many fires which swept them. Wooden beams supporting the heavy floors of the upper stories combined with the use of open braziers for heating to make fire a constant hazard. Juvenal, writing early in the second century A.D., complained of the construction of Roman apartments in comparison with buildings in smaller places: 'Who at cool Praeneste, or at Volsinii amid its leafy hills, was ever afraid of his house tumbling down? . . . But here we inhabit a city propped up for the most part by slats; for that is how the landlord patches up the cracks in the old wall, bidding the inmates sleep at ease under the ruin that hangs above their heads.' Nothing points out this danger so well as the fact that the only wheeled traffic which had perpetual permission to use the narrow streets during the day was the contractor's cart engaged in wrecking houses in order to rebuild them in better condition.
Wheeled vehicles, barred from the streets by day to prevent congestion of traffic, filled the nights with a din to which such houses, opening on the streets, were especially vulnerable. Juvenal complained also about the noisy nights. 'Most sick people here in Rome,' he wrote, 'perish for want of sleep, the illness itself having been produced by food lying undigested on a fevered stomach. For what sleep is possible in a lodging? Who but the wealthy get sleep in Rome? There lies the root of the disorder. The crossing of wagons in the narrow, winding streets, the slanging of drovers when brought to a stand . . . make sleep impossible.'
The satirist, however, was probably not typical of the general crowd of Romans of his time, who doubtless accepted this confusion as matter-offactly as Romans today.
The remains of these nameless, ordinary apartments were quickly forgotten amid the ruin of more famous and spectacular buildings. How long the Capitol insula was inhabited or when the first church was built within its walls no one can tell, but as early as the thirteenth century the church of San Biagio di Mercatello stood there. Carlo Fontana partially demolished San Biagio in 1665 to build the baroque church of Santa Rita da Cascia on its site. Santa Rita, in its turn, was torn down in 1927, and reconstructed near the Theatre of Marcellus. When it was gone the sunlight shone once more upon the walls of the ancient apartment house and the bell-tower of San Biagio embedded in them, and lit up the painted Man of Sorrows, remnant of the medieval church's decoration, enshrined beneath a little pent roof which the excavators built.
The house which sheltered so many Romans eighteen hundred years ago now looks quiet and remote. The neighbourhood was undoubtedly noisier in ancient days, when the surrounding streets were narrow and crowded with buildings edging up the Capitol hill. But nowhere along a Roman street is life far away. Just around the corner of Victor Emmanuel's monument is the Piazza Venezia, where buses start and stop and start again as traffic snarls in a jumble of taxis and motor-cycles and pedestrians. Juvenal would feel at home in this tumult, which must at least equal any made by 'crossing of wagons' or 'slanging of drovers brought to a stand'. After a sleep of centuries the noise of Rome, like her ruins, has come to life again. But this is a noise of the day. Wheeled traffic, unlike that of ancient times, is lighter by night, and even the high-strung satirist might sleep now in peace.