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Archaeology, Ideology, and Urbanism in Rome from the Grand Tour to Berlusconi

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Archaeology, Ideology, and Urbanism in Rome from the Grand Tour to Berlusconi

By Stephen L. Dyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019. Pp. xv + 327. $105.
ISBN 978-0-521-87459-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In this volume, Stephen Dyson has painted for us a great fresco made up of history, art, archaeology, ideology, museums, markets of antiquities, laws of cultural heritage protection, urbanism, and building development. This broad composition describes the transformation of Rome from the 18th century to the dawn of the third millennium, the modernization of the city at the expense of identity, tradition, and the environment. It is a dense work, populated by archaeologists, artists, popes, politicians, merchants, public servants, Italians, Europeans, and Americans.

The chapters intertwine the history of archaeology and the urban growth of Rome, beginning in chronological order with Rome of the Grand Tour (ch. 1), the neoclassical city of the French occupation and the papal restoration (ch. 2), and the Romantic-era city of the last pontifical period, when Giovanni Battista De Rossi created Christian archaeology (ch. 3). Next come the first decades as the Italian capital, marked by the massive building activity inside the Aurelian Walls, the flamboyant Roman-inspired and neobaroque architecture, the rescue activity of Rodolfo Lanciani and the stratigraphic excavations of Giacomo Boni (chs. 4, 5). Dyson then turns to the Fascist capital and central place of Romanità, shaped by massive clearings and monumental architectural complexes (e.g., Università di Roma “La Sapienza,” piazza Augusto Imperatore, EUR), huge excavations and grand exhibitions (e.g., the “Mostra Augustea della Romanità”) (chs. 6–8), followed by the first post-war period with its superficial Fascist purge, urban sprawl outside the Aurelian Walls, and disappearing countryside (ch. 9). The story ends with the rise of a new generation of archaeologists formed at the school of Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, and the launch of major urban archaeology (ch. 10) and museum projects (ch. 11).

The vastness of the topics covered, based on an extensive bibliography, makes this volume a reference work on the modern–contemporary history of Rome. It is enriched by numerous sources in Italian, followed by the English translation, in order to provide the reader with the original references, which are often difficult to find. However, one must note the lack of careful copyediting of the Italian texts; spelling errors in the quotations are numerous, for example in the texts of Corrado Ricci (159) and Antonio Cederna (161–62, 231, 235). The same lack of careful editing appears in toponyms, and names of monuments and people.

On some specific topics, more precision would have been desirable. The development of the Capitoline and Vatican Museums is not clearly presented. When stating that the Albani collection, acquired by Clement XII in 1730, “formed the centerpiece of the display created in the Braccio Nuova [sic], the new wing in the Vatican Museum” and adding that “other pieces, discovered or purchased, such as the Dying Gaul, were regularly added” (12), the author is confusing the Braccio Nuovo with the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museums. The Vatican’s Braccio Nuovo was commissioned by Pius VII as an addition to the Chiaramonti Gallery in order to reorganize the exhibition of classical statuary and was inaugurated in 1822. Indeed, the author discusses this point in the chapter on the neoclassical period, leading to further confusion: “A section of the Braccio Nuovo was redesigned for new displays. The new gallery, named the Chiaramonti after the family name of the reigning pope, opened in 1805” (40). He then correctly states: “Pius moved to create a new gallery. Raffaelo [sic] Stern was appointed the principal architect. . . . He designed the elegant neoclassic gallery, which became known as the Braccio Nuovo” (50).

With regard to the recovery of an Early Christian facies that characterized the pontificate of Pius IX, the author mentions that in the basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls “Constantinian era features including the original narthex were exposed, and the interior decorations restored to the spirit, if not the full reality of its early Christian phase” (77). In fact, it was not the Constantinian basilica that was freed from baroque additions by the architect Virginio Vespignani, since it had been abandoned in the Medieval period, but rather the church built on the tomb of the martyr by Pelagius II (579–590 CE) and enlarged by Honorius III in 1217. The alleged complete marginalization of Christian archaeology following the death of De Rossi and Enrico Stevenson (147) does not take into account the relevant contribution to the discipline made by Orazio Marucchi, a scholar who combined intense scientific and knowledge-sharing activities.

Other clarifications concern the contemporary city: for example, the army parades along Via dell’Impero (later Via dei Fori Imperiali), started during the Fascist regime, did not stop at the beginning of the 1970s (207) but—except for some minor interruptions—are still continuing today, though with an increasing reduction of military vehicles and troops. Also, the metro line inaugurated in 1955 was not the A line (211) but the B line (at that time called Ferrovia dell’E42). Regarding the obelisk of Axum, carried to Rome “when Mussolini had completed his conquest of that country [i.e., Ethiopia] in 1937” (274), it should be specified that the Italo-Ethiopian war ended officially on 5 May 1936 (when the Italian empire was declared) and that the guerrilla warfare in some peripheral regions continued until the outbreak of World War II. The underpass of Castel Sant’Angelo, stopped by the archaeological discovery of part of the S. Giovanni bastion just below the street level, was not a simple “pedestrian passageway” (279) but was meant for cars. The preliminary excavations for the construction of a large parking lot in the Pincio hill brought to light not just a Roman bath (280) but also a Late Republican cistern, an imposing system of substructures, and a mid Imperial-period cryptoporticus.

The last chapters inform us, quite journalistically, about the ephemeral appointments and removals of politicians and administrators, but make no mention of the new General Regulatory Plan, launched in 2008, which for the first time offered a tool for the dynamic safeguarding of Rome’s cultural heritage, the Carta per la Qualità. Finally, the author seems too pessimistic when he writes that “little has been done to advance the cause of the crumbling Mausoleum [of Augustus]” (286); at the end of 2018, the Sovrintendenza Capitolina issued a call for bids to complete the restoration works, started in 2016, that would lead to reopening the mausoleum to the public.

The details and minor issues noted for the purposes of this review do not detract from the relevance of this richly documented volume (cf. esp. the bibliography, 294–317) and from the enormous work of synthesis undertaken by the author to reveal modern Rome’s structures, transformations, and contradictions.

Massimiliano Munzi

Book Review of Archaeology, Ideology, and Urbanism in Rome from the Grand Tour to Berlusconi, Stephen L. Dyson
Reviewed by Massimiliano Munzi
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Munzi

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