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The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Emily Gow­ers

Ed­ward Gib­bon was fa­mously in­spired to em­bark on his his­tory of the Ro­man em­pire when “mus­ing amidst the ru­ins of the Capi­tol while the bare­footed fri­ars were singing ves­pers in the Tem­ple of Jupiter”. But no ru­ins were vis­i­ble in 1764: in­stead, the Capi­tol was capped by a tidy pi­azza de­signed by Michelan­gelo. Nor had the fri­ars’ church ever been a Tem­ple of Jupiter. As Fer­di­nand Ad­dis con­cludes in his own panoramic his­tory, we all see the Rome we want to see.

How to con­dense 3,000 years of the city’s his­tory into 648 pages? Ad­dis is not lack­ing in chutz­pah. He first ar­rived in Rome as a teenager in “too-big jeans” and re­mem­bers pic­nick­ing in traf­fic fumes by the Baths of Cara­calla. He presents him­self as just an­other tourist and his project as a labour of love and cu­rios­ity rather than schol­arly ex­per­tise, let alone orig­i­nal re­search. But this is an en­er­getic at­tempt to bring Rome’s his­tory alive through grand nar­ra­tive; the florid flights and snappy para­graphs are un­der­pinned by se­ri­ous read­ing. In his fi­nal pages, he muses on just how many cities it con­tains: “A city of God? A city of sin? A city of power? A city of de­cay?” As a me­dieval ditty put it: “Rome con­tains ev­ery­one and ev­ery­one’s busi­ness.”

Ad­dis’s cho­sen for­mula is to serve up se­lected high­lights, mostly the ex­pected ones – Ro­mu­lus and Re­mus, the Ides of March, the Bor­gias, the Sis­tine Chapel, Garibaldi and La Dolce Vita are all here – but to come at them from quirky an­gles. The Carthaginian wars with Han­ni­bal are clev­erly in­tro­duced via the jokes of Plau­tus’s com­edy The Lit­tle Carthaginian, and the Au­gus­tan age is seen through the sub­ver­sive eyes of Ovid the love poet, as he prowls in the new mar­ble por­ti­coes. Ev­ery chap­ter starts with an at­mo­spheric mise en scène, as if lead­ing up to the book’s fi­nale – the golden age of 20th-cen­tury Ro­man cinema. The hammed-up tone works to draw the reader in, even if an in­tro­duc­tion such as this can’t do much to lighten the com­plex­ity of the rad­i­cal Grac­chis’ land re­forms: “Up on the Capi­to­line Hill, the ple­beian assem­bly has gath­ered. Brown­clad fig­ures press be­tween the vast old pil­lars of Jupiter Op­ti­mus Max­imus.”

As he moves through the cen­turies, Ad­dis casts a keen eye over not just the big fig­ures of his­tory but also its crowds, mess and de­tri­tus. His fo­cus is as much on the sor­did un­der­belly of ur­ban life as it is on Rome the sub­lime ca­put mundi. We are swept on by a flood of wa­tery and in­testi­nal metaphors: “The cur­rents of his­tory flowed to­wards that grim spring day like wa­ter to a plug hole.” In the 18th cen­tury, there was such in­ter­est in the great sewer, the Cloaca Max­ima, that Grand Tourists went “troop­ing by the dozen to see the hole, like so many tiny proc­tol­o­gists peer­ing solemnly into the gap­ing dark”. Ad­dis doesn’t shy away from baroque de­scrip­tions of death and de­cay. Pope For­mo­sus’s body, thrown into the river, is “a dis­in­te­grat­ing lump of Tiber gris­tle”; an en­emy of the Grac­chi is “por­cu­pined” by me­tal sty­luses. The art ap­pre­ci­a­tion isn’t al­ways sub­tle: Pi­ranesi’s “shad­ows were al­ways darker”, while Bernini’s Saint Teresa is summed up as “the face of ec­stasy”.

Ad­dis’s re­marks on La Dolce Vita might be taken as an un­kind car­i­ca­ture of his own book: “its end­less cameos, its episodic struc­ture, its ca­per­ing progress of char­ac­ters with nowhere to go”. But that would be un­fair. An end-to-end read­ing throws up many in­struc­tive con­ti­nu­ities: sex­u­ally ra­pa­cious women who stripped off in pub­lic – from the ladies of the Bor­gia court to the as­pir­ing star­let whose nu­dity at a high so­ci­ety party scan­dalised 1950s Rome; bod­ies hurled into the Tiber; syphilis; and vis­i­tors of all eras who have de­spaired of ever be­ing able to get a han­dle on the city.

Thanks to his en­thu­si­asm, Ad­dis suc­ceeds in keep­ing his reader afloat. He rel­ishes the highs and lows of Rome’s past in his pur­plest pas­sages while prick­ing the bub­bles of other peo­ple’s po­etic li­cence. He ap­pre­ci­ates that the mul­ti­lay­ered, “palimpses­tic” qual­ity of Rome is both a cliche and a pro­found truth. He en­cour­ages an ap­proach to the city’s myths that is prop­erly scep­ti­cal but still open-mouthed. The fa­mous Trevi foun­tain scene in La Dolce Vita loses none of its magic when we learn what lay be­neath the icy sur­face: Anita Ek­berg strode straight in with Nordic sang-froid, but Mar­cello Mas­troianni was al­lowed to wear fish­er­man’s waders.


Rome: Eter­nal City by Fer­di­nand Ad­dis

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