“Picture here,” my Art History professor begins while motioning over to a grouping of columns in the Roman Forum, “a three-story building with high, arched ceilings that stood over top of an open space. Up, on the second and third floors, there would be open balconies that looked into the open space allowing for the public to easily watch various court processions taking place.”
As my professor continues to paint the building that once stood in this historical site, I gaze ahead, trying to envision this massive court building that existed during the Roman Republic – over thousands of years ago. This is just another class day for my Art History course, surrounded by ancient ruins and rich history. Before moving to the next portion of the Roman Forum, my professor continues her lecture by quizzing us on the stones and materials used in the ruins.
In all of the ancient ruins and buildings, from the Roman Forum to the Pantheon to temples scattered throughout Rome, there are pieces from Greece to Egypt to Jeruselum. As the Romans expanded their empire, they took back materials from other countries to showcase their victories. However, it’s not just the materials that reflect the layered and complex style of ancient Rome. The architectural designs are inspired to mirror those from temples in Greece or buildings in Egypt.
The layering concept that is found in the materials and building designs exists in a physical way, but in a symbolic way as well. Rome has built and rebuilt itself for centuries. There are stories embedded in the very cobblestones that I walk on every day. Although some of the stories speak of grandeur and major political figures, there are other stories that will not be written into the grand narrative of the Eternal City.
It’s these stories of the people both living and passing through Rome that makes up part of that symbolic and layered culture. From the street vendors who take down and put back up their outdoor shops each day to the tourists from all parts of the world following their tour guides through Vatican City, there’s so much diversity and culture rolled into each person walking the historic streets of Rome.
The mix between modernity and history that exists all throughout the city was especially poignant as I was standing in the middle of Pantheon. I am simultaneously encircled by art that is almost 2,000 years old and by people from all over the world taking picture after picture on their smartphones that probably aren’t more than two years old. The contrast between the two is so striking and makes me question the way that we enjoy and consume art in our modern world.
It can be humbling and exhausting to take in the rich layers and history of Rome, especially because it is so different from the contemporary culture of the U.S. The time that I am spending here does not seem like enough to soak in the rich culture that exists around me. However, I have three more months to try to squeeze as much of it in!