Monday, August 14, 2017


Rabun Taylor, Katherine Wentworth Rinne, Spiro Kostof, Rome: An Urban History from Antiquity to the Present. New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 432. ISBN 9781107601499. $39.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Amy Russell, Durham University (

Version at BMCR home site


In 1976, Spiro Kostof delivered the annual Matthews Lectures at Columbia University, taking as his subject the mediaeval city of Rome. Since his death in 1991, Kostof's books on architectural history and urban form have become canonical.1 Many readers of this journal will also be familiar with his work on topics from the Orthodox Baptistery at Ravenna to the Fascist transformation of Rome and its built heritage.2 The Matthews lectures, previously unpublished, apply his distinctive mode of analysis to a time and place his synoptic volumes did not have space to treat in detail. Anyone with even a passing interest in the period will be delighted to have the chance to consult them at last, and they do not disappoint.

But this volume is more than a belated publication of twelve lectures. Rabun Taylor and Katherine Wentworth Rinne have updated them and made them the core of a far more ambitious work: Rome's first urban biography. As one might expect from a book centred on Kostof's work, this is history of the city as environment rather than the city as process or the lives of those within it (the "New Urban History"). Covering the full sweep of history from geology to the present day, it lays out an engaging and well-illustrated narrative of urban development, urban image, and urban function.

In form, the result is a textbook. There are no notes and few in-text references to specific sources, historical or contemporary, for factual information. Each chapter ends with a short general bibliography, and scholarly controversies are mentioned in passing or not at all.3 Yet it is not an introductory text like Richard Ingersoll's updating of Kostof's architectural history.4 In Ingersoll's book, undergraduates are greeted with text-box case studies, timelines, and questions for review. Taylor and Rinne expect more of their readers. The text is elegantly and sometimes allusively crafted, rather than broken down into digestible bullet points for first-year consumption. A glossary at the end of the volume explains some technical terms, but not all.5 The 228 black and white illustrations are for the most part well chosen, but the captions are not always useful to the uninitiated.6 Students will need to keep a good map to hand, and probably a supplementary historical text: toponyms ancient and modern are thrown out without much help for the reader, while the city's political history flashes by briskly and relevant world historical events are even more rapidly sketched. Still, this would be an eminently suitable central textbook for an advanced undergraduate course on the Urbs, and contextual material for a range of other courses. A careful advanced undergraduate, with the resources of the internet at his or her disposal, will gain a great deal. Lecturers will need to be more careful when guiding their students beyond the textbook: the chapter bibliographies are unannotated lists of author-date citations, and there is no advice on how to consult original source material.

Beyond its use as a textbook, this volume will be useful for scholars from many sub-fields looking to situate their work in the city's own history. Throughout, chronological chapters are interspersed with more thematic sections. The chronological thread is weakest in the Kostof chapters (15-25 and 25), which also betray their origin as lectures in a certain amount of repetition.7 For the expert reader the thematic sections are particularly rewarding: some of the best include pp. 114-17 on urban administration in antiquity, 136-9 on how no city is a finished product, 247-50 on how the river has affected urban planning, 266-70 on the urban theatricality of the baroque, and 303-12 on how post- Renaissance Rome's appearance in drawings, paintings, etchings, and photographs affects how we understand the city.

The text breaks down into three sections, broadly corresponding to each author's contributions: Taylor on antiquity, Kostof on the mediaeval period, and Rinne from the Renaissance to modernity. Occasionally, the seams can be seen. The ancient chapters give the most attention to architectural form and style, and are also distinguished by a strong focus on building materials. Housing fades in and out: the living authors have written a new chapter on mediaeval housing to supplement Kostof's work, but we do not get the same detailed picture again until the Risorgimento. Other themes are presumably occasional visitors by design: the rhythm of the year and the challenges of policing the city come and go, and there is not much on the role of weather or climate other than the frequent floods. But a volume of this kind has to be selective, and the coherence between chapters and sections is more striking than any differences. A recurrent structuring theme include Rome's urban arteries, whose shifts (from the north-south Via Flaminia/Via Appia route to the east-west Via Papalis to the Corso Vittorio/Via Nazionale highway of the petrol age) correspond to the book's large-scale periodization. The static counterpart to this geography of movement is provided by the contests between Capitol, Palatine, Vatican, Lateran, and Quirinal to provide the city's conceptual centre of gravity. Ways of mapping, seeing, and knowing the city are prominent throughout, including close attention to its bewildering variety of regional divisions, and persistent tensions between individual initiative and central planning form another leitmotif. Kostof's interest in urban scenography, ritual, procession, and performance is pursued fruitfully for all periods. Finally, unsurprisingly given the living authors' research backgrounds,8 the book taken as a whole could be read as a detailed and convincing argument for the importance of water to Rome's entire urban history. Its distribution in aqueducts and fountains structured habitation patterns while also taking on immense symbolic importance, and the destructive force of the Tiber itself shaped the urban landscape across the centuries.

The brief introduction ends (p.2-3) with some thoughts on periodization, a concern for the authors given the book's tripartite nature. The distinctiveness of the three periods is primarily drawn through their relationship with each other: ancient Rome builds monuments intended to preserve its memory into the future, mediaeval Rome faces the struggle of finding its own identity against an ancient backdrop, and post-mediaeval Rome introduces a new focus on restoring and preserving the past. Sometimes the protagonists seem a little too aware of the role they are required to play, acting for all the world as if they are characters in an urban biography in three acts – but perhaps this is true to life. It was not the anxieties of modern scholars, but Rome's unique burden of memory, that caused the first Christians, Nicolas V, or Mussolini to see themselves within a structured narrative. Only occasionally does the scheme falter: Kostof's choice to build parts of his narrative around a contrast between "the grand order of the imperial capital", which he locates in the fourth century, with the "untidy and exuberant urban scrub" of the twelfth (p.160) sits uncomfortably after Taylor's (I assume; the new chapters are not explicitly claimed by either living author, though we are told in the introduction that Taylor took charge of the earlier and Rinne the later period) brilliant evocation of an ancient city which was always characterised by change and decay (p.136-8). Kostof does complicate his distinction, but he never uproots it to the extent that the earlier chapter already has done.

It is the links between sections, however, that give the most satisfaction as the book draws to a close. When on p.344 Rinne is discussing Rome's abysmal parking arrangements, she refers back to fig. 66 on p.94. There, Taylor had used a 1960s photograph to illustrate how the Column of Marcus Aurelius was inserted into one of the few remaining open spaces in an already crowded monumental cityscape. Now, our attention is drawn to another consequence of urban constriction: the piazza around the column is crammed with parked cars. Revisiting the earlier chapter enhances our understanding of both, and of the processes which have structured the city over time. More could be said: for example, there is some discussion of how later construction led to archaeological discoveries, but the authors miss an opportunity to underline how fundamentally the geography of modern development has shaped our image of the ancient city. The final chapter (336-47) presents the economic realities of class and labour, as well as concomitant pressures on housing stock, as key factors in the city's contemporary development. Indeed, they must have been important throughout, if largely invisible to this volume's methods of investigation. But the value of the large-scale urban biography model is precisely to make us think about patterns in the city's life over time. This book achieves its aims admirably, and will be valuable for students and researchers alike.


1.   A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, New York and Oxford 1985; The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, London 1991; The City Assembled: Elements of Urban Form Through History, London 1992.
2.   The Orthodox Baptistry of Ravenna, New Haven 1965; The Third Rome, 1870-1950: Traffic and Glory, Berkeley 1973.
3.   As for any general publication, experts will doubtlessly find that some treasured detail or recent advance has been glossed over. In the first few chapters, I noted that the possibility of temples atop the Tabularium goes unmentioned (p.29) and Augustus' Horologium is named with a certain equivocation as a "huge sundial, or calendaric meridian" (p.39): pragmatic choices for a book of this scope. More problematically, the triumphal route is treated as if it were fixed and known with certainty (p.55).
4.   Ingersoll, R., and Spirof, K., World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History, New York and Oxford 2012.
5.   To take an example at random: on page 154, a reader unfamiliar with Latin terms will probably need to look up at least loci venerationis and violatio sepulchri. More generally, cardo and decumanus are structuring concepts throughout, but not explained.
6.   For example, on p.27 fig. 18 is captioned as the "so-called Porticus Aemilia" while the main text on the preceding page has named it as the Navalia, thus presumably confusing readers ignorant of the controversy. On p.45 fig. 49 is captioned as a reconstruction of the Forum of Augustus, but actually shows the Forum of Caesar in the centre, and much of the Forum Romanum as well; a reader new to the subject would not know which of the spaces depicted is meant. The same applies to fig. 219, where some form of overlay or more detailed description would help a less informed reader pick out which blocks represent the spina. P.254-5 make frequent reference to fig. 165, a detail of Bufalini's map, but few of the features discussed are named on the map and some of them are hard even for an expert to pick out. A sequence of new maps run throughout (e.g. figs. 99, 101, 117, 120, 123, 144, 168, 190); they overlay the new features discussed at any given point on a composite of everything discussed so far, giving a useful sense of the city's development over time when approaching the chapters in sequence. When dipping into individual chapters, however, the cumulative weight of unexplained symbols from earlier in the volume can be confusing: some kind of general legend is needed.
7.   More tantalisingly, it is easy to imagine how effective they might have been when delivered: chapter 22 offers a convincing interpretation of the evolution of the Via Papalis between the eighth-century Einsiedeln Itineraries and the twelfth-century Ordo of Benedetto Canonico, but must have been easier to follow with a lecturer tracing the routes on maps in real time.
8.   Rinne, K. W., The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City, New Haven and London 2010; Taylor, R., Public Needs and Private Pleasures: Water Distribution, the Tiber River, and the Urban Development of Ancient Rome, Rome 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.