Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Palatine Hill

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Rome.

Unless you’re an archeologist and trained up to it, the sheer scale of Roman engineering can come as a bit of a shock.  There seems to be such a thing as a universal human failure of imagination – just look at the explosion of printed and and television material telling us how the works of older peoples are in actual fact actual proof of time travel, of extra-terrestrials, of lost technologies – levitation, anti-gravity and mysterious parapsychological powers of the mind. 
            Inside our own heads, we are all the most modern absolute-up-to-date endpoints of civilization, and just like that darling woman in the coliseum we seem unable to get our heads around old-timey people and accept that they were, in fact, Just Like Us – just as intelligent, just as creative, and just as capable of big dreams and clever solutions as we are ourselves today.
            Roman Rome is a good antidote to that sort of thinking. The forum, the palatine hill – they are a litter ground – a spill of jumbled dynasties and religions, thirty centuries of of brilliant old-timey engineering rising up through layers of archeology to the glittering pile of the Vittorio Emmanuel monument, her goddesses rearing triumphant on the brow of a brick mountain. 

Rome has been continuously lived in and built upon for more than two thousand years. 
Walking along a city street, we came to a stop where it was dug up for the re-laying of water pipes.  Less than half a meter below the scraped up surface of today’s street, a roadway almost five-hundred years old, we saw a grid of old brick walls - house-walls, stepping up out of the earth like an archaeological dig.   Here and there, tucked into the walls were slabs of roman marble – lintel stones and pediments, carved with shells and scallops and floral friezes, that had been broken up to us as bricks in somebody’s basement.  Hidden behind the plaster.
            The Roman Rome that we see is an accordion-pleat jumble of only the top-most layers of the city-state.  Climbing up from the Forum to the Palatine hill, we stepped around, and occasionally over, open archeological excavations.  Discreet printed signs give you an idea of how far down the city does go – this layer here is pre-roman; over there, under a hill of earth and tree-roots is a paved stone floor – the paving stones still regular and all in place – and that is pre-christian; and this mass of pressed rubble, four meters deep, is a relic of the fire of AD 64 that burned for six days and destroyed three fourths of the city.  Human history here goes a long long way down.

Most of what we associate with Roman Rome dates to after the fire and was built on top of the charred mess it left behind.  There are fragments of the fourth century Basilica of Constantine, arched halls more than twenty meters tall, standing columns, pleasure courts larger than football stadiums, ringed with arches and domed colonnades that we’d find impressive and moving if built today, and then, as you wrap your head around it all you look down – and down – and see that the Palatine hill – huge sections of it – aren’t a natural hill at all, but massive retaining walls, and layer on layer of built spaces.  At the South-east end of the hill, on the edge of a broken palace the size of a small town, you lean on a balustrade, look over the lip of it and  see that your rampart is the top of an engineered arch  – an artificial mountain - 

And right here then you can turn off your sensible adult brain and go back to childhood, if you like. In my particular socio-cultural context, I went right back to Narnia.
            Parts of the Palatine Hill reminded me of exactly where it was that the Pevensie children came back to Narnia, and found Cair Paraval collapsed and ruined and buried by an apple orchard.  A wilderness with buried treasure underneath; dark and mysterious and somehow very safe, as if the mysteries were all exciting instead of frightening and all ultimately triumphant.
            Even as a ruin it is beautiful, as if every slab had fallen and every brick had crumbled and every dome had collapsed in the way most calculated to leave behind aesthetic enchantment, as if it had happened by intelligent design.

There is so much left of the palaces; perhaps the place really is only asleep, and
waiting for a word of power, and if we close our eyes and wait for it, one day it will all come back.  Shadowy walls will form like smoke around the broken foundations, growing and solidifying until between one blink and another (the way dusk and dawn happen when you turn your gaze away) the palaces and arcades will stand again.
            So there.  I blow a raspberry at you.

            Our ultra-modern up-to-date new-time cities will not age so gracefully, I think.  Concrete and steel tangle and snarl and leave behind jagged cutting edges, that trees and roots and vines cannot soften, only hide.  And I could not help thinking that if the Kubla Kahns of Rome could see what had become of their pleasure palaces, they might not mind so much that their city has passed on into rubble and shadow.  They might look at it and say "if we must go, this is how we will choose to pass."  Perhaps they have done, and an act of ancient will has helped these palaces to tumble so.

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