Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
 
Antiquity

This was very much a see-the-sights kind of trip. I have every intention of going back to Europe many times, so this first pass was aimed at the works of art and monuments that have been looming longest and largest in my mind. Music is the universal language of the living, but art and architecture are the universal languages of the living and the dead. You need at least some electricity to set a record playing, or the crank of a hand to make a music box go, but broken statuary needs no further human intervention to creep you out.

And there is so much of it! Michelangelo's Cloisters at the Diocletian Baths almost seemed like an afterthought of curation. A weedy, tangled growth of plants in a court yard, with antique works set about in the surrounding pavilion and out on the grass, open to the rain. Broken pillars seem to be a dime a dozen. Our olive-complexioned Roman tour guide through the Forum, Valentina, was an archeology student at the University of Rome 'La Sapienza.' (What a great name for a school. The Wisdom.) She seemed to have been sent from central casting. Between artfully delivered wisecracks and Roman History 101 she pointed out digs her colleagues were working on. She informed us that the gushing fountains we saw everywhere were safe to drink from, the natural abundance of Rome's springs still being being carelessly pumped out into the city. In the glaring sun it didn't take much persuasion for me to run my hands through the cold stream of water.

Biggest ooh and ah moment: the still intact bronze door of the temple of Romulus, with an apparently functional lock from the late Imperial age. Further down the Via Sacra, Valentina sent me around to a semicircular chunk of wall, the mouth of the circle blocked by a straight wall that hid a rock covered in wilting bouquets still wrapped in plastic. "Tell us what you think it is." I couldn't get a good look at the Latin plaque, but guessed correctly that it was a tomb. Julius Caesar's tomb. Well, really, just the rock where his urn used to be mounted. But people "still" come and drop flowers for him. I say "still" in quotes because of course there were centuries when no one cared, his tomb was buried under mounds of dirt, and cows grazed the forum. Valentina said that now every year Roman students mount a reenactment of his murder on march 15, partying in ancient costume in the forum. I remember sadly having to turn down an invitation from former Latin classmates to a less glamourously staged reenactment when I was in college, because I was organizing a physics lecture.

I stared, slightly mind-boggled, as Valentina's hard-hat-clad colleagues moved about through a maze of dug-out brick and dirt, following some mysterious, precise protocol. She coolly informed us this particular excavation was yielding items older than even the Republic. How do they know? I wanted to ask, to pump her for forensic details. She had a little flip book that allowed her to flip a transparency of "what was" onto photographs of what is, a trick of artists' renditions extrapolating from all that carefully gathered information. How does all this same-looking stone and bleached brick get turned into a convincingly glorious illustration of what it might have looked like? But she was marching us along quickly, half-jokingly comparing us to soldiers on a triumphal parade, and there was no time. Conceptually it's just the methodical inference of a puzzle from bits of information. Archeolgoists are people trying to put together a story that's not quite clear. I guess it's probably not so different from physics or journalism. But the fun is in the details, of course. Ancient Rome is certainly alive, if only because she's full of people bent on digging out her secrets.

Link for you to enjoy: A big problem in Roman excavation is that people don't actually know what was where. When they find a structure they often have to guess what it might have been based on scantily descriptive ancient texts. A useful thing, of course, would be a map of Ancient Rome, and such a map was made: the Forma Urbis Romae, or Severan Marble Plan of Rome, which was carved around 200 CE and covered a wall of the Templum Pacis. But it's in fragments, many of which are gone, and fitting together the remaining 1186 pieces of heavy marble is sort of the jigsaw puzzle from hell. Enter modern technology, and the Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project. You can take a look at current thinking about the whole map, or check out the detailed annotation on a single fragment.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Yglesias:Tpmcafe
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