The Roman Forum has long been a favorite destination for tourists seeking to walk in the footsteps of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. It’s a portal to the past, the heart of old Rome present in our own time, an opportunity to partake in the glory of antiquity, or at least some faint sliver of it. The problem, writes David Watkin, is that what visitors see when they visit the Forum is what “people have thought it should look like, rather than what it did look like.”
Watkin, an architectural historian at Cambridge University, with a background in the classical and a distrust of modernism, treats readers to an incisive and insightful history of the Forum with a focus on its evolution following the fall of the Roman Empire. In The Roman Forum, he deftly illuminates the fascinating changes that this once sacred space has undergone in the last millennium, and argues that our modern perception of the Forum, dictated by archaeological pursuits, tends to obscure those aspects of the Forum that are truly impressive.
The Roman Forum is the latest entry in the “Wonders of the World” series from Harvard University Press, which provides in-depth, scholarly explorations of very specific subjects like the Rosetta stone or the Coliseum. Watkin’s work in this volume is clearly a labor of love; his sincere appreciation for the Forum and for classical architecture at large is evident, and his expertise helps render an easily navigable portrait of the Forum in four dimensions. He traces the shifting attitudes and pivotal events that have shaped the Roman Forum from late antiquity, through the Middle Ages, all the way to the present day.
What he reveals is the great, untold story of the Forum, that it is less a window on the ancient world than it is a constantly changing work that owes more to modern times than we’re led to believe. Watkin tells us this not to disillusion us, but rather to open our eyes to an even greater beauty. The Forum is in many ways like a photograph with multiple exposures, with images from its various eras superimposed upon one another. Though it may be impossible to separate them from one another, and difficult to identify its individual layers, when considered as a unique whole they can create something new and interesting. Rather than hide from this, than pretend that it isn’t the case, which Watkin says is what archaeologists and visitor’s guides have been doing, we should celebrate and appreciate it.
In a place so marked by history, the oldest history (in this case, the monuments and ruined foundations of ancient Rome) should not, by default, take precedence over the allegedly less glamorous artifacts of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, or Baroque periods. It’s all history, and it’s all valuable. In Watkin’s holistic, aesthetic conception of the Forum, this idea would put an end to the well-meaning yet damaging treatment of the later-period structures as obstacles that are in the way of the good stuff.
Such attitudes originated with 19th century archaeology and led to the destruction and desecration of churches that had stood for hundreds of years simply because they stood atop crumbled, ruined Roman foundations that enterprising scholars wished to study. Though those ruins may have been helpful in an academic sense, Watkins decries the spoiling of the artistic qualities of the Forum with these disinterred scraps, which he describes as “rubble and holes, which are ugly and difficult to understand.”
“The end of archaeology’s domination of the forum,” he says, “is long overdue.” In its place, Watkins sees the development of a truthful narrative of the Forum’s life that incorporates and elevates the accomplishments of its various eras. He also wishes that those who are involved in the excavation, restoration, and preservation of the Forum show their respect for the original intention of the artists—and they were artists—who first built its monuments. He points to the 19th century reconstruction of the Arch of Titus by Stern and Valadier. Rather than repairing what remained of the arch with matching materials and an adherence to classical methods and design, they instead opted for then-contemporary resources and unfaithful embellishments that turned the Arch into something entirely a new, a fabrication.
The Roman Forum is not all polemic. Watkin fills his pages with plenty of positive thought, like when he studies the impeccable engravings of Giovanni Piranesi, whose 18th century survey of the ruined Forum helps readers create a romantic mental landscape in which to get wondrously lost. His walkthrough of the medieval churches that cropped up in the vacant pagan temples or grew around them through the Renaissance is a powerful argument for their value and significance. Watkins touches on the social and religious, the political and the cultural, with many sly references to the short shrift given to the Forum in many of the early travelers guides that tantalized Victorians. He dryly notes that the popular 12th century guidebook of Rome, Mirabilis Urbis Romae lends only a single page to the Forum, evidence of its diminished stature and regard in an increasingly Christian Europe.
Watkin’s inclusive and thoughtful history helps bring this small yet significant corner of the world to life, providing context and coherence to what might otherwise be a daunting experience. The Forum is not just a connection to the glory of Rome, but to so much more. It’s a shame that many who set out in search of the past might allow so much of it to pass right by them.