The 'mirror of Rome' in the last 150 years has been largely that of photography

The 'mirror of Rome' in the last 150 years has been largely that of photography, though painters have by no means abandoned her streets and her Campagna. The new art of photography began its revolutionary course between the eighteen-thirties and the eighteenfifties; when the first great wave of excavation began on a national scale soon after 1870 there was at hand, therefore, a considerable body of photographic record, invaluable today as a portrait of the vanishing city.

Though Rome's face has changed almost continuously throughout the ages, as does that of any city where men have lived for so long a stretch of time, it has been altered more since 1870 than in the course of many centuries before. It is this fact that gives such inestimable value to the photographs of the ten or fifteen years just before that date and, indeed, to many taken considerably later. For the alteration of the city falls into two main periods: one from 1870 to about the turn of the century and one from about 1922 until the Second World War.

Scientific excavation, the uncovering and studying of monuments for the sake of the knowledge to be derived from them, began in Rome about the end of the eighteenth century. The rise of a disciplined interest in antiquity was due largely to the German art historian Winckelmann, at that time papal Commissioner of Antiquities. For many years, however, the scale of operation was small. The first of these excavations was, as might be expected, in the Roman Forum, where a part of the Basilica Julia was uncovered in 1788 by the Swedish ambassador to Rome. Early in the nineteenth century, in Napoleon's time, parts of the west end of the Forum were excavated under the direction of Carlo Fea, who worked intermittently from 1801 to about 1817. Then, after a lull of ten years, the work was undertaken again, under Antonio Nibby, in 1827. Though the project was still limited in scope, by 1834 the picturesque appearance of the Forum had suffered enough to trouble Louis I, king of Bavaria, noted German patron of the arts, who wrote of it:

'Everywhere rents in the earth, till the eye beholds nothing but chaos!
Beautiful as it was once--now not a trace of it left!
Artists have nothing to say, archaeologists rule as they please here,
Blind to all but one side, caring for nought but their own.'

On the Palatine the gardens which the Farnese had laid out in the sixteenth century above the buried palaces of the emperors had been rifled for treasure by the dukes of Parma early in the eighteenth century, and had then been left to moulder in quiet neglect. In 1860 they were bought by Napoleon III of France, in the hope that the excavators had not been too thorough. Although he was essentially seeking for buried treasure, Napoleon put the work of excavation under the direction of the capable Pietro Rosa, who carried it out with care.

When the new government of Italy took charge of all excavations, buying the Farnese Gardens from Napoleon in 1870, Rosa was made head of excavations both there and in the Forum. From 1878 to 1880 the exploration was carried on by his successor, Giuseppe Fiorelli, and was then taken over until 1885 by Rodolfo Lanciani, best known in England and America through his popular as well as scholarly books on Rome. During this period of great activity the Forum was laid bare from end to end and the successors of the trees planted along its length for the triumphal procession of Charles V in 1536 were removed from the eastern end, as they had been long before from the western. During a lull in the work, from 1885 to 1898, while the wreckage of excavation lay about neglected, Zola, in his romantic Rome, called the Forum 'a city's cemetery, where old exhumed stones are whitening'. Work was begun again in 1898 and carried on patiently and exhaustively by Giacomo Boni, especially on the Palatine, but the First World War and its immediate aftermath slowed its progress.

The second great period of excavation began under Mussolini's government soon after 1922; accompanied by an amount of demolition which obliterated whatever interfered with its progress; it returned to the light the remnants of imperial Rome and displayed them in imposing settings. Two great thoroughfares were opened through the heart of the city: the Via dei Trionfi, now once more called by its old name, Via di San Gregorio, which runs along the side of the Palatine to the Colosseum; and the Via dell' Impero, now Via dei Fori Imperiali, running from the Colosseum to the seat of the Mussolini government in the Palazzo Venezia, near the monument of Victor Emmanuel. The forums of Caesar, of Augustus, of Nerva, and of Trajan, were excavated; the Theatre of Marcellus was cleared of its time-honoured shops; the Mausoleum of Augustus of its fittings as a concert hall.

None now can remember Rome as she looked before 1870. Those who lament her as she was before the 1920'S may find comfort in Hillard's reflections on the Forum over a century ago:

'Those who can remember the Forum as it was at the beginning of the present century, before any excavations had been made, are now but few in number; but the changes caused by these excavations were looked upon, at the time, with no favour by artists; and this feeling was shared with them by the common people in Rome. What was gained to knowledge, say they, was lost to beauty. Formerly, there was a certain unity and harmony in the whole scene. The mantle of earth, which for centuries had been slowly gathering around the ruins, had become a graceful and appropriate garb. Trees and vines and green turf had concealed the rents and chasms of time; and a natural relation had been established between the youth of nature and the decay of art. But the antiquarians had come, and with their pickaxes and shovels had hacked and mangled the touching landscape as surgeons dissect a dead body. . . . The beauty of the Forum had vanished forever. No more would peasants come here to dance the saltarello; nor artists, to sketch. The antiquarians had felled the tree that they might learn its age by counting the rings in the trunk. They had destroyed that they might interrogate.

'In words like these, the artists and sentimentalists of forty years since lamented what they called the desecration of the Forum. They were not all right; nor yet wholly wrong. Each one will judge of their regrets by his own taste and temperament. Time has since done much to repair the disfigurement of which they then complained.'

Time has again done much, and Roman archaeologists have, since Hillard's day, taken beauty into consideration, filling in many of the gaping holes their predecessors left and planting laurel and wistaria and oleander in place of the trees and vines and shrubs which had been weeded out. They may yet prove that beauty and truth are not incompatible.

Nor is the artist's city dead--the city of old streets filled with gay and many-coloured life and heavy with the sense of their accumulated past. It lives on west of the Tiber in Trastevere's steep and narrow ways, where, as the sun dips behind the houses, men and women surge out to eat and drink and make merry at tables set before the doors; in those dark streets, too, on the river's eastern side, where time-blackened palaces rise like cliffs, and around any turn may lie a fallen column, a huge marble foot, a battered statue, or a half-hidden courtyard where water splashes in some mossy fountain. Most persistently of all, perhaps, it lives in the flash of colour and gaiety when festivals and processions of the Church follow the Madonna through the streets as once they did the triumphal cars of conquerors, or the statues of the gods during the Roman games. Nothing can take from this living and eternal city her twofold spell of continuity and change. 'Here all moments of history confront us; past and present cry aloud together.'

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