Recycling in Rome

In one of my blogs from a few weeks back, I spoke of several ancient or medieval monuments in Rome which are preserved largely intact up to this day, as well as about some buildings which did not stand the test of time – at least, not very well. The city of Rome today can be characterized as an interesting mixture of ancient, medieval, renaissance and (early) modern architecture and infrastructure. Compared to many other ancient cities, Rome still houses many buildings from ancient and medieval times, some of them now quite popular (or less popular) tourist attractions. And before you ask: no, you have never really seen Rome if you’ve only visited the Colloseum, the Trevi Fountain and Vatican City! (However, you’d have nearly visited most of medieval Rome (cf. Arnold Esch: Wege nach Rom, 2003). Medieval Rome was tiny. It went from the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Capitol. In 1400, Rome had only 25.000 inhabitants.)

However, what is visible is only part of what still remains. The city is well over 2500 years old, and, since many people in history never bothered to take down older structures before building new ones at the same location, much is currently buried below the fundaments of more recent buildings. In addition, during the Middle Ages and around the Renaissance, older buildings were often incorporated into new buildings. Indeed, while modern medieval historians nowadays tend to emphasize that the Middle Ages was not the 1000-year period of economical, political and technological backwardness and stupidity as many older historians have made us believe, I can point to a few instances in which certain knowledge was, for a long time, presumed lost. Again, a good example is the Pantheon in Rome (and yes, that is my favourite building in Rome, if you were wondering), the domed ceiling of which has been used as an example for several much more recent domes in history. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (or simply Duomo) in Florence, engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 14th-15th century, was based on the same design, and the great artist and architect Michaelangelo used it as a model for the famous dome of the new St. Peters Basilica (i.e. the one still visible today, which replaced an older version from the 4th century). However, while the dome of the Pantheon (still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in existence today), is only slightly smaller than the dome of the Duomo in Florence, the latter is still many times heavier. This was due to the fact that knowledge of the exact type of construction and the formula of the concrete were, for a long time, lost to history. Thus, Brunneleschi had no choice but to use brick in a different kind of construction, which, nonetheless, was ingenious in its own right.

As mentioned earlier, the Walls of Aurelian were still in use during the Middle Ages, as were many other Roman forts in Europe and the Middle East. It seems that Roman building techniques were designed to make the monuments and fortresses last a long time, and buildings often remained in use for a long time, if not completely, then at least in part. Perhaps the most suitable example is the Theatre of Marcellus, located near the Roman Forum. It became a fortress in the Early Middle Ages, but, more importantly, the ruins of the theatre were used as the base of the residence of the Orsini in the 16th century, finally resulting in a curious mix of ancient and early modern architecture which is still clearly visible today. Many tourists stick to the regular route of Colosseum and Forum, but if you ever find yourself in Rome, make sure not to miss this amazing building, just next to the forum, behind the Capitol.

The theatre of Marcellus is not the only ancient building used as a fortress at one time or another. Before the Colosseum became a church in the 18th century, it was used as a cemetery, for workshops and housing, as a gathering place for local prostitutes, as a readily available source of several building materials (thus the run-down state of the complex, which is only partly a result of natural disasters), and, for a brief moment around 1200, as a castle. But, perhaps the most famous reuse of an ancient building as a fortification is the Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel), located near St. Peter Basilica on the right bank of the Tiber river. Despite it’s rather Christian name, it had a thoroughly pagan function: it was initially built as the tomb of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138) and several of his family members and successors. However, by the time that Christianity came around in earnest, Hadrian found that it was rather difficult to keep anything profoundly pagan intact. In a fitting act of fate, the tomb of Hadrian, who had ordered the building of so many fortresses on the Roman borders – aside from more peace-like buildings like the Villa Hadriana in Tivoli, the Pantheon (which was not, as the inscription says, built by Marcus Agrippa, commander of Augustus’ armies; when Hadrian rebuilt the original pantheon after it was destroyed by a fire, he simply did not want to anger the senate by honouring himself), and the Aelian Bridge (later dubbed the Ponte Sant’Angelo, or Bridge of the Holy Angel) – was to be incorporated as a castle into the Aurelian Walls by emperor Honorius in 401.

According to one of the legends surrounding the name of the castle, the archangel Michael appeared at the top of the castle, sheathing his sword to signal the end of a plague in AD 590, after the pope and his followers had made a procession against pagan worshippers who allegedly had caused the plague by their idolatry. However, as is often the case, this was only one of several legends surrounding the complex, one more unlikely than the other.

The Castle soon had cause to prove itself, when the city of Rome, including the Mausoleum, was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, who scattered the ashes and destroyed the urns. The Romans themselves were also not as careful with their relics as we would have liked: during the siege of 537, they even used the decorative statuary to keep the attacking Goths at bay. Of course, if I had to choose between getting killed and throwing away my grandmother’s lamp, I wouldn’t hesitate all that long, either.

Rome and the Mausoleum survived the siege. The castle did not play a major role in the defense of the city until the 14th century, when it was connected to St. Peter’s Basilica (the old one; the new version was built in the 16th-17th century) by the Passetto di Borgo, a covered fortified corridor running from the Castel Sant’Angelo to Vatican city, which has been made famous by Dan Brown’s book (and later movie) Angels & Demons. This passage enabled the Pope to make a quick escape if Vatican city was ever attacked, a fairly logical precaution in a violent period like the Middle Ages. However, only two popes actually used the passage during wartime. One of them was Alexander VI in 1494, when the French king Charles VIII invaded the city. The other was Pope Clement VII, who fled to the castle during the sack of Rome in 1527 by mutinous Imperial troops, an episode also mentioned in my previous blog.

In my opinion, while such a safe haven certainly sounds like a fun addition, it seems to me to be rather useless if your enemy has an army to block all escape routes from the city. Indeed, Pope Clement managed to avoid being captured by the ransacking troops, but when he arrived at the castel Sant’Angelo, he was still surrounded, and thus became a prisoner in his own fortress. He stayed there for a month, but he finally had to surrender to the enemy, after agreeing to pay a ransom of 400,000 ducats in exchange for his life. It might have been smarter to dig a tunnel through an area outside of Rome so that the Pope could actually escape enemy troops. Of course, one might wonder if that would even have been possible, with all the ancient Roman remains in the ground. In fact, the main reason why the third metro-line in Rome takes so long to be dug is simply because the workers run into Roman remains every few metres, which, according to the Malta convention, all have to documented first before the workers are allowed to proceed. 

The 16th and 17th century is an interesting period, anyway, pope-wise at least. They were the official leaders of the Catholic church, counting millions of people as followers, but in the end, all their actual power was based on the help of more ‘earthly’ rulers to help them in times of need. I find it quite curious that the popes, who held control of large tracts of land and vast riches, were never really able to defend themselves properly. They spent a fortune building lavish, richly decorated cathedrals like St. Peters Basilica – which is only one of several large and luxurious churches and religious buildings and monuments in Rome alone. One wonders what would have happened if they had spent that money building armies One might argue that the Popes weren’t actually able to maintain standing armies for a long time, but what if the administrative system of the Papal states had developed alongside with it. Of course, raising an army and spilling blood does not sound like a suitable ‘papal’ occupation. But then again, having mistresses (and that’s plural!) doesn’t seem very ‘holy’ to me either, and there were many medieval and early modern popes who had rather different ideas about this as well.

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