From Our Archive
This story was published before Summer 2021, when we launched our new digital experience.

The Glory that is Rome

Inside Noma


Inside Noma

In search of obsession, the discovery of something far more powerful inside the...

Making the Cut


Making the Cut

A knife expert’s tips on upping your game in the kitchen.

The Ideal Bag


The Ideal Bag

Métier’s Closer is the day-to-night briefcase of your dreams.

Being mayor of Rome has been called a lot of things over the years but "comfortable" isn't one of them. Yes, the incumbent inherits the grandest possible office in a palace (the Palazzo Senatorio) designed by Michelangelo, on a hill (the Capitoline, or Campidoglio) that is one of the most extraordinary Renaissance stage sets on Earth. To the right of City Hall, hidden behind the imposing Palazzo dei Conservatori, are the remains of the 2,500-year-old Temple of Jupiter, the most sacred spot in the Roman world; to the left is the first public collection of classical statuary ever set up, and all around—in the immortal words of W.W. Jacobs—is more history than can be consumed locally. Saint Mark is said to have written his Gospel a stone's throw from here; Petrarch was crowned with his poet's laurels here; and Gibbon was inspired to write his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire here. It's no wonder a 12th-century guidebook to the ancient city described the Campidoglio as the head of the world.

A glance out of the rear office window, however, will confirm that all this comes at a considerable price. For the view over the three remaining columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, across the ruins of the Roman Forum, is a reminder that Rome—more so than other capital cities—has to spend millions of dollars a year just to keep its historic monuments in the same shape they were a century ago. The sight of the Colosseum, on the Forum's southeastern flank, underscores the price to be paid for not doing so—$255 million at last count to restore the arena that is the symbol of Rome, plus the Forum and its museums.

An eighth-century traveler gloomily predicted that if the Colosseum ever fell, so would Rome, so would the world. This thought, no doubt, gives a certain edge to Mayor Francesco Rutelli's morning approach to the office, up the Cordonata, the steps designed by Michelangelo that rise from Via del Teatro di Marcello to the Piazza del Campidoglio. For it passes not only the statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, from which one of the popes hung an earlier city prefect by his hair for getting out of line, but also the statue of one Cola di Rienzo, the son of a local tavernkeeper, who also wanted to recover the glory of the classical city. At first his compatriots greeted the idea with enthusiasm—especially since he had great oratorical style. But after di Rienzo suggested that the restoration effort might require raising taxes, he was promptly lynched. It seems unsurprising, given these precedents, that since World War II the mayors of Rome have lasted in office for an average of two years.

Not anymore, though. Seven years ago, the Italian parliament announced that municipal mayors would be elected directly, rather than being decided on by coalition brokers. The result is that the 43-year-old Rutelli—high up in the mayor's office in the Palazzo Senatorio—is already enjoying his second four-year term. Certain things never seem to change in Rome, of course: Outside, in the ceremonial square, a delegation of striking cabdrivers is shouting up its displeasure at the idea that taxis might actually cruise the streets (right now they wait at taxi ranks), as they do in other cities (and perhaps—just perhaps—work longer hours). But Rutelli has come to terms today, he says, with one of the other unions, to allow more street cleaners to be put on the payroll; and he seems to have ended the brutal farce of the old days, in which city workers were virtually unmanageable.

Indeed, Rome and Rutelli—to mark the Vatican's Jubilee next year—are now embarked on the biggest facelift the city has had in modern times. Rutelli—an ex-architect and one of the founders of Italy's Green Party—has been overseeing the spending of some $6 billion in public and private money on everything from the excavation of the emperor Nero's huge Golden House (once 25 times the size of the Colosseum) to the building of a new underground roadway and car park beneath the Janiculum Hill for the 29 million visitors the city is expecting next year. To a Rome-lover like me the city today is an inspiring sight, with down-in-the-mouth buildings one by one emerging from behind scaffolding—almost bashfully clean—into the light.

After a scandalous 13 years of closure for refurbishment the Borghese Gallery, with its Berninis and Caravaggios, was reopened in 1997; and the famous Ludovisi collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, much of which had languished in storehouses since before World War II, is on show again in a restored Renaissance palace, the Palazzo Altemps, near Piazza Navona. Meanwhile, much of the traffic (except for the pesky Vespa) has been shifted from the medieval center of the city—to be replaced by purring electric buses. In the constant conflict between Rome's present and past, a conflict that's led over the centuries to the destruction of so much of its legacy, it's as if the past has finally been allowed to fight back—and there is no doubt its retaliation is hurting. Confronted with almost daily reroutings, the pazienza of the Romans—their I've-seen-it-all-before-and-don't-give-a-damn attitude—has taken a serious beating.

Rutelli laughs when I suggest this to him. "Yes," he says, "it's not paradise. There are over 1,000 working sites in the city, from the airport and the ring road to the reconnecting of the Appian Way. But if you look at the opinion polls, you'll see the vast majority of people believe that Rome is improving. And because of this they're very patient in this difficult moment—they acknowledge that the city has to change." He nods ruefully for a moment in the direction of the chanting cabdrivers. "And I mean not only physically, but a change mentally, in our habits, in the way things are run: taxis, buses, street cleaning, the bureaucracies, everything. When I became mayor getting a building permit in Rome was a nightmare—it required twenty-six signatures. Now it takes just four."

At this point, his phone rings for the third time since we've started talking. I shamelessly eavesdrop and soon realize that he's speaking to Pascual Maragall, the man who as mayor transformed Barcelona into a gleaming, fashionable host for the Olympic Games. The connection between the two men, I reflect—as Rutelli strides out into the huge space of his office, talking with obvious pleasure—could hardly be apter. For Rome, for all its imperial trappings, is still at bottom a working-class city. In the sixth century it had a population of just 20,000, living in a state of utter dereliction on the bank of a filthy river. And even after the Renaissance, for all the wealth of the Vatican, Romans still lived without drainage in the middle of a malarial wasteland infested by bandits. As late as 1871, when Italy reunified, there were still only 200,000 Romans—a third of them beggars—and a century later, though the city was by now the country's capital, the citizenry was not much better off, materially speaking. In the 1970s, after successive population booms, more than half a million Romans lived in housing erected without planning permission. It's no wonder, then, that in the 1990s the citizenry remains fractious, suspicious of politicians, and deeply secular. There are 900 churches in Rome, but only three percent of the citizens go to mass regularly.

"What you're having to do as much as anything else," I say as Rutelli—film-star handsome, soft-spoken—returns to the sofa, "is actually to change the Romans' attitude toward their own city."

"That's right," he says, smiling. "These things have to go hand in hand. I want the people of Rome to see that good things are happening here, and not only in the downtown—new gardens, new surfaces, new piazzas—and to realize that the city is worth working for and believing in."

"We've taken the opportunity of the millennium to change minds about the city," echoes Rutelli protÚgÚ Paolo Gentiloni, the city's commissioner for the Jubilee. "Romans just aren't accustomed to change; the last significant change here was 40 years ago, in the run-up to the Olympics. And if we hadn't seized this chance, then there wouldn't have been another one for at least the next decade. Our task has been to reconceive the city, both for the Romans themselves and internationally. Romans understand this; they understand the need for change, the need, for example, to take better care of the historical heritage—which is why we're spending half a billion dollars on the renewal of the city's museums, an amount never before spent on culture in Rome. Also important is the enormous new excavation of the whole Forum area, the biggest ever in the modern city, and the new lighting of all the old classical monuments. For both are ways of making Rome's past always visible to its present.

"But at the same time," he goes on, "we cannot only live with the past, what's been here for centuries. We have to expand the current cultural possibilities, which is why the new auditoriums are so important."

(Three new auditoriums and an open-air theater, designed by Renzo Piano—the joint architect of Paris' Pompidou Center—are now rising in a complex being built near the old Olympic Stadium.)

"Rome is also an international city," he continues. "It's noticeable that Romans, though they have a strong allegiance to their local community, have no particular feeling for their region or the state. They think of themselves as belonging to the world, and in the last two or three years there has been a rather visible internationalization of the city, in terms of shopping, restaurants, and so on. This, too, is something we're anxious to encourage."

But will all these projects be finished in time for the massive influx of pilgrims expected in the year 2000? Umberto Angeloni, the chief executive officer of the famous menswear-designer Brioni, has his doubts. "The Vatican, as far as one can see, seems to be almost ready," he says one night over dinner at Tullio's, a trattoria near his office on the Via Barberini. "The Church has drawn up lists, with a range of prices, of all the convents and monasteries the pilgrims can stay in; and it's set up a booking system for everyone who wants to visit St. Peter's. But the city . . . I don't know," he says, and he throws his hands open in a gesture that seems to take in the National Gallery in the nearby Barberini Palace and all of the other buildings—partly shrouded in tarpaulins—that I've passed on my way.

It's hard not to share Angeloni's skepticism. For the signs set up outside many of the city's restoration and renovation projects show them running woefully late. The one beside the still-unopened Market of Trajan says, starting date, 1995; duration 11 months. Emblazoned outside the scaffolded Bufalini Chapel, which contains frescoes by Pinturicchio in the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli—are the words to be completed december 1997. And on a board outside the as yet unstarted project of the Portico of Octavia (Augustus Caesar's sister), in the old Ghetto, where Cola di Rienzo began his political career, one disgruntled citizen has scrawled, "This sign has been up here for three years now. Isn't it time it was torn down to stop cluttering up the neighborhood?"

Angeloni is unfazed by all this, maintaining, throughout, his Roman pazienza. "I'm not depressed by it," he says over a plate of mozzarella di bufala, "but then I'm not particularly excited either, because Rome has seen everything—kings, popes, conquering and reconquering, being remade all the time to satisfy new masters. For me it's deja-vu in a way. For the point is that Rome survives everything. It is Italy; it is that spirit. It is eternal," he adds, a cliché, true, but appropriate enough since the second-century emperor Hadrian, who founded the cult of Rome's Aeternitas, is also being celebrated in the year 2000.

"Milan," Angeloni continues, "is different: a kind of fashion statement; it chops and changes. But Rome is a conviction—as well as the only city in Italy to be still spelled out on license plates in its full form." He suggests, before we part, that I go to the Mussolini-built Museum of Roman Civilization in the modern suburb of EUR, to see its scale models of the grandeur of the old city. I do, a few days later, but find it, too, closed, apparently for renovation, already reached by Mayor Rutelli's long, improving arm.

Perhaps it is best to see Rome's preparation for the millennium as the long-delayed revenge of its past. For Romans were never any good at preserving their heritage. Already in the fourth century the emperor Maxentius was accusing his subjects of tearing down magnificent old buildings to build their houses. Eleven hundred years later, it was the same old story: The Colosseum was pulled apart for stone to build St. Peter's, and it remained, in effect, a quarry until the 18th century. During the same period antique marble statues were hauled out of the ground to furnish the collections of popes and princes (like those in the Vatican Museums and Borghese Gallery); and anything that wasn't wanted was simply poured into the lime-kilns on what today is Via dei Cestari to make mortar. The few classical buildings and monuments that survived this depredation did so by being turned into churches, like the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Forum, which became the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda; or by being splendid enough for the owners to charge per viewing, like the column of Marcus Aurelius, now in the Piazza Colonna, which in the Middle Ages belonged to the monks of Saint Silvestro in Capite. Everything else was fair game. The catacombs were looted to provide souvenirs for pilgrims; and a few generations later there arrived the Inglesi milordi pelabili (which means "capable of being fleeced") on their grand tours. Lord Burlington, for example, arrived in Rome from London in 1714 at the age of 20, with five gentlemen and six servants in attendance. He went back home with 878 trunks and cases, stuffed with whatever he could carry.

If the past has a modern champion, then it's Professor Adriano La Regina, the national superintendent of antiquities, who supervises his empire—all the Roman monuments that belong to the state as opposed to the city—from an office in the archaeological area of the Forum. He has already vetoed two of the mayor's pet projects: an underpass designed to run beneath Castel Sant'Angelo, the mausoleum built by Hadrian for himself and later turned into a fortress by nervous Renaissance popes; and a railway line to connect the city to its second airport. (The one, he said, would have undermined the Castel; the other would have run through the remains of a Roman villa.) He's also said to have refused permission to put up a countdown millennium clock on the facade of the Colosseum.

But La Regina refuses to be drawn on any quarrels with the mayor—or on the prophecy that predicts the consequences of the Colosseum's collapse, for that matter. Instead, he wants to talk about the huge encouragement he was given in his work by former culture minister Walter Veltroni, who in 1996 declared war on "inertia, vandalism, and neglect" in the state-run arts and set what he called "Anglo-Saxon deadlines" for restoration and construction. He even praises the mayor for limiting access by auto to the city center. "It's made our job immeasurably easier," he says, "to have a forceful city administration."

La Regina concedes that not all his numerous archaeological excavations will be finished by the millennium. He contends, however, that the glass is half full. "Yes, the Market of Trajan won't be completely restored—that would take years. But at least there'll be a clear image of the ancient square of Apollodorus of Damascus [the architect whom Hadrian is said to have put to death when he criticized the emperor's plans for the Temple of Venus and Rome]. Whole new areas of the Forum will be opened up; and there will be a passageway available under the Via dei Fori Romani, using a section of the ancient sewage system. Nero's great palace, the Domus Aurea, closed at the end of the 1970s, will also be opened in June 1999, though it's not yet precisely clear to what extent. The excavation has been immensely complicated, partly because it lies underneath the Colosseum and the Baths of Trajan, and partly because we know so little about it. All I can say is that it's yielded up some extraordinary things; a fresco [discovered in May 1998], which may contain a picture of Rome before Nero's fire; and what may be his dining room, where he's said to have sung and played to a captive audience on a revolving stage."

"What about the Baths of Diocletian?" I ask, for they've been closed for well over a decade.

"Yes, yes, those too," says La Regina."But what will they put in them," I persist, "now that the collection of statues, mosaics, and coins they once held have been moved to the newly opened museum in the Palazzo Massimo?"

"Don't worry," replies La Regina blithely. "There's enough to go around."

It's a remark that haunts me as I wander through the city. For Rome is a place through which the stream of history has been particularly powerful, flowing for the last two and a half thousand years, with its currents constantly intermingling. When Nero's Domus Aurea was discovered during the Renaissance, for example, Raphael and some of his contemporaries were let down into it by rope to examine its frescoes; they subsequently used what they'd seen to create a grotesque (grottolike) style, which they deployed in the Vatican Loggias and elsewhere. Michelangelo, for his part, restored dug-up classical statues for his patron, Pope Julius II, just as Bernini later did for his own patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese; and both produced, partly as a result, sculpture that was the glory of their ages. You can see the same sort of borrowing of history, of style, virtually everywhere you go in the centro storico: in the pillars from Hadrian's temple, for example, set into the wall of the stock exchange in the Piazza Pietra, or the Renaissance palace built atop the Theater of Marcellus in the Ghetto. Every place, it seems, comes with an association, a historical incident, an architectural feature that demands to be noticed. One evening, for example, I visit one of the "international-style" restaurants Paolo Gentiloni told me about, the ambitious Il Convivio, on the Via dell'Orso, below the Tiber embankment. As I eat I contemplate the fact that on this street was not only the palace of Pope Paul V, who ruled from 1605 to 1621, but also the inn where the French essayist Montaigne stayed in the 1580s, and the antique shop where Napoleon's uncle discovered a painted panel which turned out to be the missing half of Leonardo da Vinci's Saint Jerome.

"Yes, Rome is a challenge," says Harry Scio, sitting in a café on the Piazza Sant'Eustachio. "It's like a beautiful woman who doesn't give herself too easily. You have to work at her, get to know her—and that's why ultimately she's so satisfying; she gives back to you exactly what you put into her." Scio is the young Italian-American proprietor of La Posta Vecchia, an exquisite hotel in a 17th-century villa north of Rome, in Ladispoli. But he came of age in Rome, knows it intimately—and loves it. "Other cities for me are too perfect, too restored, too finished," he says. "Rome is still the ultimate metropolitan city. Where else do you get the equivalent of the Sphinx in the middle of downtown? Where else can you find so many museums, so much beauty? It deserves to be promoted. I think it's wonderful that it's finally getting its act together.

"Look at that, for example," he exclaims, standing up, pointing toward the facade of the little church of Sant'Eustachio, which is built on the site of the gardens of Agrippa and dates back to the end of the fourth century. "I haven't seen it like that—so clean—in fifteen years! Under normal circumstances Romans wouldn't get around to anything like that unless the building fell down and two old ladies and a kid were killed!" He sits down and for the next hour regales me with stories of the delights of the city: the Christmas concert in a Bramante chapel, Scarlatti played in a palace gallery, not to mention where to get the best ice cream (Gianluciano Mereu, 5 Viale Bastioni di Michelangelo, near the Vatican entrance); the best pizza (Baffetto, Via del Governo Vecchio); and the best spaghetti all'amatriciana (Al Bric, also in front of the Vatican, on Via del Pellegrino).

This encounter with Scio encourages me to take the city at a slower pace. I go back to the exquisitely renovated Borghese Gallery to look again at the work of Caravaggio and Bernini—neither of them Roman, but both indelibly associated with the city. I return to the mosaics and wall paintings in the new Palazzo Massimo museum, and to the sculptures in the Palazzo Altemps, one of which (a huge head of Hera) was so loved by Goethe that he had two copies made of it, one for his study in Rome, the other for his home in Weimar. I am no longer anxious to know everything I'm seeing, but content just to take in the passing show. I even spend most of an afternoon lingering at the open-air restaurant in the Piazza Sant'Ignazio, which in its renovated form is like a rococo stage set.

Rome is still far from perfect. The traffic—endlessly detoured, winding its way back and forth across the Tiber—is horrendous; the motor scooters in the centro storico are a pest. It's clear, too, that public amenities are being neglected, as Stefano Aluffi-Pentini suggests. Aluffi-Pentini is an aristocrat and art historian who organizes access to private palaces, galleries, and gardens in Rome (and other places in Italy). He points to the little park near the Domus Aurea on the Colle Oppio, where Nero is supposed to have played his fiddle while Rome burned. The park—like a lot of other parks here—is unkempt and littered, and the contrast with the garden he takes me to one afternoon couldn't be more extreme. It's in the grounds of the Pallavicini-Rospigliosi Palace on the Quirinale with, at its heart, the so-called Aurora Casino. The paintings inside, by Guido Reni, were once a major attraction for northern Europeans on the Grand Tour.

But even here one senses that change is in the air. For some of the palaces to which Aluffi-Pentini has access are beginning to open their doors, ever so slightly. The Palazzo Colonna's extraordinary picture gallery, for example, is already open to the public on Saturday mornings, and it's said that the Palazzo Massimo—built after the sack of Rome in 1527—is now prepared to accept small groups by arrangement.

There seems to be a feeling abroad in this city, in other words—even in aristocratic enclaves like this tranquil little garden—that all Romans may at last be engaged in a common collective enterprise, bound together by pride.

They will still have to endure a Biblical flood of visitors in the year 2000. Many of their projects are unlikely to be finished on time. (The new auditoriums Renzo Piano has designed have already been held up by the discovery on the site of a Roman villa.) But outside on the streets, there seems to be a new communal confidence, an extra strut in the walk. It's as though Rome, by finally being forced to confront its responsibility for safeguarding the past, has finally found its lifeblood.


Let’s Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

You’re no longer on our newsletter list, but you can resubscribe anytime.