Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2018
Rabun Taylor, Katherine Wentworth Rinne, and Spiro Kostof Rome: An Urban History from Antiquity to the Present New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 432 pp.; 220 b/w ills. Hardcover $120.00 (9781107013995)

A long tradition of scholarship extending back to antiquity praises the surviving monuments in Rome despite their evident alterations. Even the city’s basic infrastructure has received careful attention, since such features as the urban walls originally made for Emperor Aurelian continue to fascinate. In the sixth century CE, Cassiodorus celebrated the still functioning sewers built centuries earlier, remarking: “Rome, what cities would dare contend with you in their heights when they cannot even match you in their depths” (41).

Rome: An Urban History from Antiquity to the Present is a major accomplishment in tracing the city’s physical developments from its ancient origins up to the early twenty-first century. Rabun Taylor and Katherine Rinne wrote the ancient and post-medieval sections respectively, having revised and updated the lectures Spiro Kostof delivered on medieval Rome fifteen years prior to his untimely death in 1991 (Kostof is the author of chapters 15–23 and 25). Rinne and Taylor share interests in waterworks, making this account particularly rich in details about aqueducts, water displays, and the drainage for this city that too frequently suffered from catastrophic floods. The book is extensively illustrated, relying heavily upon images in the public domain together with new maps specifically commissioned by the authors to help the reader envision Rome’s many phases. There is a useful glossary and an excellent bibliography.

Careful analysis of Rome’s infrastructure—typically functioning brilliantly despite episodic tragedies—is to be found throughout this book, allowing the account to chart technological advances. The civic authorities who supervised both urban upkeep and the public works are accorded proper credit to show clearly that well-organized officials maintained the aqueducts, statues, streets, tombs, walls, and sacred buildings. A case in point is the urbanization of the Campus Martius, a neighborhood whose development from a military training ground to a zone of ancient showpieces is set forth with exemplary clarity (36–41).

The discussion of ancient Rome sheds new light on this complicated terrain. Particularly fascinating is the chapter devoted to urban gardens, a topic rarely considered in surveys of the ancient city, and here parks receive recognition as cultural achievements that warranted vast infusions of capital (chapter 11). Analysis of the ancient city also attends to the aftermath of tragic fires, with an important discussion of Nero having rebuilt sections of the neighborhood today called Prati together with a zone east of what is now the Piazza Colonna using fireproofing for buildings arranged in grids after the devastation of 64 CE. The identity and location of ancient buildings and monuments—of great interest to specialists in Roman topography—are presented straightforwardly without getting bogged down in scholarly quibbles, which is by and large appropriate to a survey such as this book. There are no footnotes since the authors opted to list references labeled as the “bibliography” at the end of each chapter. I would have appreciated some citations indicating which sources allowed the authors to reach their conclusions and document alternate opinions. Plausibly, an editorial mandate precluded notes.

The chapters on medieval Rome rescued from Kostof’s archives (chapters 15–23 and 25, as mentioned above) cohere to an extent with the sections by Rinne and Taylor in that the revised lectures stress how lay benefactors sponsored hostels (xenodochia), charity centers (diaconiae), and titular churches (tituli) to keep infrastructure vital after antiquity. Importantly, Kostof’s account appears strikingly current in shifting attention slightly away from the bishops, since he emphasizes lay actors who joined with the popes to advance early medieval Rome. At the same time, Kostof claims that the institutional church was a force operating to “medievalize” Rome, a term that seems to cast the postclassical city as having suffered from backwardness. Kostof’s chapters characterize Jewish communities and the seat of the urban prefecture differently from the accounts by the living authors. Admittedly, it would be impossible to insist that scholars all agree on these matters. Yet a mere acknowledgement that experts differ in their opinions about the physical history of Rome would have gone a long way toward narrating the life of a city still benefiting from serious reconsideration. It is evident that chapter 24 was added to update Kostof’s chapters so as to share the relatively recent discoveries in downtown Rome that have revolutionized our perceptions of the late antique phases of the imperial forums and the Crypta Balbi. Other recent insights have emerged while digging for the subway line C, still under construction. Kostof did not live to see the transformative investigations on late antique and early medieval Rome by such archaeologists as Roberto Egidi, Roberto Meneghini, and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani.

The chapters considering Rome after the Middle Ages include some details on papal and political intrigue as background for understanding the city’s early modern transformations. There is a wonderfully concise treatment of the phases by which the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century popes transformed Rome through their planning interventions (255–66). An excellent chapter on the Tiber describes the active engagement of the populace with the river when the bridges, mills, and ports teemed with activity despite the threats of floods prior to the construction of the nineteenth-century embankment (chapter 26).

Neoclassical Rome receives attention in the book as a period when antiquities were cleaned up. The removal of the postclassical additions at the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus, for instance, are presented as Enlightenment-era projects to reframe the experiences of visitors. While some antiquities are deemed by Neoclassicists as too heavily restored, this book also makes the interesting proposition that Rome as a vast landscape of monuments dating from various periods only began to cohere systematically in the eighteenth century. Giovanni Battista Nolli’s map of 1748 illustrated the city as a system featuring outdoor civic spaces interconnected to the interiors of public buildings, both rendered as white voids juxtaposed to grey or black solids. This book justifiably emphasizes that few tourists could have afforded to purchase this costly map, generating the plausible observation that Nolli’s eye for detail capturing even ferries and floating mills on the Tiber attests to the care devoted to the city as a whole during this period.

The book considers the experiences of artists and authors by devoting a chapter to “picturing” Rome (chapter 32). Maarten van Heemskerck’s images that scanned urban space by documenting rather than idealizing the city in the 1530s justifiably receives emphasis. His images, called vedute, inspired various approaches to recording Rome over the centuries in such formats as maps, paintings, photographs, and prints. Textual responses to the physical city are placed in dialogue with the imagery. Poems written on signs were placed upon public statues, including the sculpture called the Pasquino for which these biting verses, pasquinades, are named. This practice survives to this day, since Romans still use the Pasquino together with additional “speaking” statues as the bearers of placards delivering political and social critique.

Writing a biography of a city, as Rinne and Taylor have explicitly done with Kostof participating from beyond the grave, succeeds because of the emphasis on infrastructure. The publication of Kostof’s lectures provides readers with access to his important research on the early medieval distribution of food, but there are problems with relying on an account from 1976 to envision late antique and medieval Rome. First of all, Richard Krautheimer’s important portrait of the physical city, Rome: Profile of a City, 312–1308, was first published in 1980, after Kostof wrote his account.  With the publication of his book, Krautheimer may have caused Kostof to put away his lectures. In addition, transformational archaeological discoveries published over the past twenty years have changed our perceptions of postclassical Rome. Rinne and Taylor clearly updated what Kostof wrote; but medieval Rome deserves an account that fully considers the current archaeological picture. These qualifications notwithstanding, the book provides a wonderful account of Rome’s infrastructure through its many phases. This useful new guide to the physical development of Rome effectively addresses both students and scholars with a fascinating, well-researched account. 

Gregor Kalas
Associate Professor, College of Architecture and Design, University of Tennessee, Knoxville