Roma 1 | Memory and Monument

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
A sketch of an abandoned capital in the Roman Forum

A sketch of an abandoned capital in the Roman Forum

Route: home to Piazza del Popolo. After visiting 2/3 of the churches along the piazza, took Via del Corso down to the Roman Forum, stopping at the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and Trajan’s Forum along the way. After strolling through the ancient forums, the Coliseum, then home.

This is a Memory Project.

Being my first full-fledged “travelling” experience, I had only the smallest inkling of what I would learn in Rome, in terms of both history and life skills. I think that travelling is a time that we most want to remember but yet we most want to live in the moment. They are some of the times we have the biggest fear of forgetting. An inherent paradox. Memory is a funny thing.

So what if I did not take my picture in front of that monument: does it mean it did not happen? What if I decide not to or forget to document a smile, a shop window, a moment? What if Venice should succumb to sea level rise and my children cannot see it in 20 years? What if I am standing on a place where someone died, someone was born, something was built… but cannot tell? Is it something to be afraid of? A city experienced through the lens of your own eyes is different from that of your camera. It is amazing how differently you walk and experience a place when you are not looking for the perfect frame or at your GPS on your iPhone.

When you walk the streets of Rome, you feel 2000 years of history beneath your feet. But you also feel a city that is forever standing in it’s own shadow, void of modernity, fighting not to put new shoes on. I think that memory is the best way to start this dialogue because, not only is this a test to see how my experience reads a month after the fact, but Rome is a city of memory, not history. I say this because the way we typically think about history — that is, as a chronologically linear series of recorded events — is not only untrue, but is completely stratified and fault lined in Rome. We study Rome because of it’s history, but the experience of Rome is that of a collective memory more than a shared history.

“The memorial function isn’t really central in what buildings do, at least if one means their ability to record an affect, after the actuality of which the building preserves the memory has disappeared. This conscious striving for permanence is the main subject here, as well as some cases of permanence unsought, where accident makes a particular structure the last or nearly the last of its type. When its proper use is discontinued and half forgotten, the building remains to remind the serious student, who learns to read the signs it preserves, of vanished customs or ways of life.” — Robert Harbison, Memory

Beginning with Pope Sixtus the V, Rome was intended to be a built on the principle of axis and node (also known as cardo et demancus). These nodes take on various forms: piazzas, churches, obelisks, fountains. They can all be called monuments, not just because of scale or size, but because of their purpose.

Monument. noun.
a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.
• a statue or other structure placed by or over a grave in memory of the dead.
• a building, structure, or site that is of historical importance or interest: the amphitheater is one of the many Greek monuments in Sicily.
• an outstanding, enduring, and memorable example of something: recordings that are a monument to the art of playing the piano.

We are most concerned with the last definition. Monuments that litter the city date from different eras, have experienced hundreds of years of changing rule, and subsequently have achieved a level of reinterpretation with the passage of time that Henri Lefebvre calls the changing “horizon of meaning”. These changing horizons have more to do with memory and the desire to be remembered/fear of being forgotten than it does to do with history and the so-called “fact”. More to do with a version of history presented then interpreted.

Rome is filled with monuments and a yearning for monumentality. So much so that after two weeks in Rome, I found myself saying “I’m sick of seeing monuments to dead people.” By the time I got to London three and a half weeks later I refused to enter Westminister Abbey. And I had never been to London before! That aside, Rome is also filled with empty memory. Fragments of walls and ancient structures protruding from an unassuming 17th century building’s first floor restaurant.

Tombstones of forgotten people used as walls in a church.

I found myself wondering, during our first walk through the city, how could one grow up in a city like this where your grade three history school field trip is to a fascist monument built by Mussolini to a dead Italian King that interrupts a thousand year old pilgrimage path to the 2000 year old forum? How do you take it all in? And not feel it’s weight? Or rather, some might wonder, how do you walk those steps without worrying that because of you, a tourist, because of them, their rulers, this part of an ancient civilization might not exist next year? My grade three history field trip was to the Royal Tyrell Dinosaur Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, which is even more ancient than Rome. But you cannot walk along the streets in Drumheller and see dinosaur bones under your feet.

The most precious picture of my brother and I that I have ever seen: on a family trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

Our first day in Rome we took the traditional path beginning at the city gate at Piazza del Popolo, down Via del Corso to the Roman Forum. And we did indeed see school field trips to Mussolini’s Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II on the way. These are the foundations (metaphorically and literally) to monumentality.

Piazza del Popolo

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

Foro Romano, the Roman Forum

Our 10 km walk about the city terminated at the Colosseum, one of Rome’s most famous monuments, thank you Russell Crowe.

At the Colosseum, I experienced for the first time, the closing of the gap between my perception of a space fuelled by pictures and Hollywood reproductions and the experienced reality of a place as it stands today. None of what we saw in Rome leading up to that moment I had known about, and in that regard, it was exciting. I could let my mind drift without harbouring preconceived notions of the first of many churches, how the Gap would look housed in an old fascist-era building, or the presence of real Egyptian obelisks in the middle of a public square in Europe. I was all taking it all in, learning.

The Colosseum both exceeded my expectations and disappointed me. In fact it exceeded my expectations was precisely because it disappointed me. Built in the year 80 AD, I don’t know how I could have expected some glamorous Hollywood recreation. Maybe I thought parts of it would have been restored to how it was at it’s peak operation. In reality, more than half of the remaining existing stairs were closed off because they more resembled ramps due to erosion and wear. But it surprised me for two reasons:

  1. It is just There. In the middle of the city, for the past 1932 years, it has just been sitting there. It was not forgotten and rebuilt over like much of the surrounding forum around it. Cars zooming by. Rain falling on an open stadium.
  2. It allowed me to let go of my expectations of a place and to accept the experience for what it really was. This is the Coliseum. And I am standing on it. And grateful to be here.

“As we write so we build; to keep record of that which matters to us.” — Alain de Botton, the Architecture of Happiness