Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome

Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome

Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome

Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome

Excerpt

THE CITY OF ROME IS UNLIKE other cities in many ways. Its past is unique. It is "the broadest page of history," the "city of all time, and of all the world." For many centuries, including the century which this book observes, it was "The City" (Urbs) and needed no qualifying, identifying description. For some of those centuries, it, a city, ruled the Western world. Unlike other cities which might compete with it for ancient greatness, Rome's physical past has not been severed from it. It is in this not at all like Athens. Rome is not a museum of ruins set within a modern town. It is a crumbling mixture of all its pasts, jumbled together and still living, never dead but never freshly alive, all covered and covering in "casual sepulchre." The very thought of an opposite condition, of unsophisticated freshness, has been unthinkable of Rome at least since the time of Livy, and repulsive to it at least since the time of Tacitus. 1

Perhaps one should say that there are two historical Romes: one, the plasticine city that classical scholars re-created, or created, particularly in the nineteenth century, a city of vast colonnades, perfect arches, perfect hexameters, stretching into that unbearable dullness that provoked orgy, murder, and satire; the other, the broken city, the foundation for new things to be broken in their turn—with the lovers in each house among these ruins dreaming in part the dreams of their predecessors, all hopelessly interwoven, like their houses, with their own.

Anyone particularly attracted by the Rome that has existed at least since about the year 410 is attracted by ruins. This ruined Rome, whatever else it is, is romantic Rome. Everything in it speaks of something else, of some broken echo—echoes of things which may have been dully, physically prosaic when they were first spoken, but that have been transformed by time. There is always (as Rome's most brilliant novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said of Perugia) "the life of the flitting moment, existing in the antique shell." There is always the taste of which Webster was the master, the taste of the thing only per . . .

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