Monday, October 11, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
David Watkin, The Roman Forum. Wonders of the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 279. ISBN 9780674033412. $19.95.
Reviewed by Gregory S. Bucher, Creighton University

Watkin, a distinguished architectural historian, is a card-carrying lover of classical architecture, having defended the classical architectural vocabulary through the dark days of the modernist movement. His is a voice worth listening to. The book is a historic and aesthetic, rather than technical and scientific appreciation of the Forum, and I recommend it as a valuable counter to the classical reading which prevails on site. Those with an interest in the classical Forum would, however, do well to supplement it with Claridge's Rome (which Watkin calls invaluable: 89) or the new English translation of Coarelli.1

Very much in the ancient mode, Watkin justifies his taking up an old subject by staking out a claim to novelty, which is his diachronic treatment. But because that diachronic treatment is informed by his personal regret over the progressive loss of the beauty and organicity of the Forum as it existed at about the time it was famously engraved by Piranesi in the 18th century, the agents of that loss become the bad guys of the story. Lively polemic thus permeates the discussion of the monuments, and when it erupts the archaeologists (who are treated well enough otherwise) can be reduced to caricatures. The book has seven chapters. The first orients the reader by giving a depiction of life in the ancient Forum (11-29), the second describes the Forum as Piranesi saw it in the eighteenth century (30-73), and the third address the problem of what the viewer sees in the Forum that Piranesi did not see—i.e., monuments exposed by excavation or the destruction of others, and several reconstructed monuments (74-102). The structure of these three introductory chapters is carefully thought out. The pivotal second is written in a very genial style without much polemic. With an eye sensitive to the romantic aesthetic of ruin and decay, Watkin gives sympathetic ekphraseis of several Piranesi engravings which clothe the Campo Vaccino and its monuments with warm associations—these will be foils for later developments. Of Piranesi's engraving of the west face of the Arch of Titus (57), for example, he writes in part that [Piranesi] "seemed to enjoy depicting its spectacular decay, with its outer columns missing and its inner ones surviving to little more than half their original height" (58). Piranesi's "views of the Forum, a place he knew and loved as an architect, artist, and archaeologist, form perhaps the most captivating record of any part of a historic city" (73). High praise indeed, and notable is his status as an "archaeologist"—but one tolerant of the complex palimpsest of Forum monuments. He will come back to mind when we later encounter the intolerant excavators who had little taste for temporal complexity in their monuments. The great excavator Giacomo Boni, for example, is brought on stage dynamiting a church that stood between him and an older one of greater interest to him (116).

Having developed Piranesi as a foil, Watkin makes immediate use of it in his third chapter. Against the bucolic background of Piranesi's Campo Vaccino are cast up what come off as Frankenstein reconstructions of monuments in the manner of wax-museum horrors: the Porticus Deorum Consentium (79-81), the Temple of Vesta (87-93), and the Shrine of Juturna (96). The idea is that they are arbitrary rebuildings for purposes of speciously scientific window-dressing, exhibiting neither the pure beauty of the original monuments they replace nor the romantic suggestion of the organic growths pruned back to make way for them (92-93: "After such a reconstruction [of the Temple of Vesta], it is perhaps not surprising that the few surviving remains of the nearby House of the Vestal Virgins were also given a makeover in an understandable attempt to make such an important place attractive to visitors").

Chapters four through seven are constructed as tours of the Forum looking in at intervals upon what Watkin sees as an ongoing attack on post-antique monuments. In Watkin's presentation these were mostly churches, and Watkin sets the stage in chapter four (103-135) by decribing them sympathetically before getting on to the story of their destruction. Put neutrally, the churches were not part of the life of the classical Forum, so archaeologists interested in antiquity knocked them down or at least had their entrances turned away from the Forum if they had to remain (103). The title of chapter four, "Churches in the Forum" stands as a gloss for the final words of chapter three: "what some of the archaeologists and guidebooks do not really want us to consider, the post-antique monuments and life of the Forum" (102).

Indeed, "they have in effect been written out of the Forum's history", and "this hostility to them goes back to the early days of the archaeological process" (103). Watkin's unhappiness at the treatment of the post-antique monuments is bolstered by religious conservatism of a Tridentine flavor, or so I infer from an oblique editorial comment on "the huge decline in Mass attendance and in vocations to the priesthood, following the self-destructive reforms of the Second Vatican Council" (104). Watkin clearly likes his old-time religion as well as the buildings that went with it. The fifth chapter (136-168), which treats the period from the Renaissance to the Grand Tour, is subtitled 'The rise of archaeology and the destruction of the monuments', tempting us, if we do not remember that correlation does not imply causation, to follow Watkin when he portrays the Forum archaeologists as malicious destroyers. Chapter six (169-200) has as its focus (roughly) the romantic era ("From Byron to King Victor Emmanuel", and chapter seven (201-222), subtitled "The assault on the churches", looks at the period of the Forum's development running from Giacomo Boni to the present day, heaping appropriate contempt upon developments under Mussolini. A brief section (223-250) offering advice on visiting specific monuments and suggestions for further reading, and an index (252-279) conclude the book.

Let us take as an example the Arch of Titus. Watkin describes the "disastrous consequences" of the so-called 'Charter of Venice' of 1964, with its insistence that "replacement parts must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence", and that "all reconstruction work must be ruled out a priori" (191). Why not establish that this has become a "Modernist architectural orthodoxy" (191) and describe the practice, visible in every corner of the Forum, in the guide's introduction? Or when Watkin first censures a restoration, more than one hundred pages before? It feels like an afterthought to mention the charter here, at the tail, in fact, of the section on the Arch of Titus (188-192). Let's have a look at the preceding section of text, recalling too Watkin's seductive picture in tones of melancholy nostalgia of the Arch's ruin from Piranesi's engraving (57-58):

Except for its figured sculptural panels, the Arch of Titus is thus today largely a nineteenth-century monument. Controversially, Stern and Valadier [working around 1820] attempted to distinguish their work from the old by making their new side pylons in a simple neo-classical, rather than in the ancient Roman style: for example, they priggishly replaced the missing Composite columns at the ends of the arch with columns without flutes, despite the fact that the originals had been fluted. They also built their work in travertine rather than the Pentelic marble of the original. All this represented a very early victory of archaeology over art. . . . instead of presenting [the arch] as a monument with a visible unity, Stern and Valadier chose to celebrate the temporary practical skills of the restorer rather than the eternal vision of the original architect (190-91).

Watkin's own illustration, a modern photograph (189), shows original fragments of marble embedded in the travertine. The restorers took the small, battered fragments of marble which had escaped time and the lime kilns and used them, together with elementary principles of symmetry and consistency, to deduce the architectural forms of the structure. If you go to the Forum you can see the arch's marble fragments embedded, like a sort of apparatus criticus, into the columns and blocks reconstructed in travertine, and you can with pleasure retrace the mental steps of their reconstruction. We might, with Watkin, conjecture that the corner columns had been fluted, but Stern and Valadier let themselves be guided by the surviving evidence, not inference. Watkin might restore the beauty and unity of the Arch of Titus with pentelic marble and add the ornament he's sure was there. But then the arch would be no more the original architect's monument than Stern and Valadier's is now. It would be a monument to Watkin's tastes. None of this is to defend uncritically the restorers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of them made boneheadedly incorrect reconstructions, often politically motivated, as Watkin rightly points out (205-209). (One thinks immediately of the incorrect anastylosis of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus: see Viscogliosi in LTUR 1.51.)2

But between the polemic episodes (and even there) I learned a lot. The excerpted reactions of travelers to the Forum were very entertaining. I wish I could have seen the Forum on the night in June 1811 "when each monument in the Forum between and including the Colosseum and the Capitol was illuminated [by torchlight] to celebrate the birth . . . of Napoleon's son" (183). I had not known that Bianchi Bandinelli got stuck chauffeuring Hitler around during the latter's 1938 visit to Rome, and I was delighted to find the source for the story, which I only knew in unattested form from the movie The Architecture of Doom,3 that Albert Speer built (or planned) monuments which would, in time, collapse into pre-designed ruins modelled on Roman ones (212-213). Carandini's reported discovery of the house of Romulus—or rather the impulse to even look for such a thing—is amusingly compared to British archaeologists hypothetically searching for the "palace of Merlin" (217). Watkin delicately but firmly (and not without a hint of irony) guides the reader away from the overly sanguine declarations of Carandini (et al.) to have found the physical evidence for specific remains of Rome's distant mythical past, and this is a good thing (217-218).

The book is well produced, fairly light, and the right size for travel. A few corrections for a second edition (simple typos are given without comment): Caius (83); Portumnus (120); Crucifisso (129); Antiquarium forense: not regularly open (224); S. Maria Antiqua: now open and by appointment (224); Dacre Balsdon: nonspecialists will find the name J.P.V.D Balsdon more easily (233); des Forums Romanum (235).


1.   Claridge, A., Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford 1998); Coarelli, F., Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, translated by J. Clauss and D. Harmon (Berkeley 2008).
2.   Steinby, M. (ed.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae. I A-C (Rome 1993).
3.   The Architecture of Doom (d. P. Cohen 1989).

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