Below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees

[Image: Piranesi’s Rome].

Peter Ackroyd’s allusion to a landscape comparable to the tropical swamps of Borneo found in the sewers of London reminded me of a brief line in Gilbert Highet’s book Poets in a Landscape.

Describing the origins of Rome, a city built on the Tiber River, Highet writes that the landscape there was once as wild as any to be found on earth—indeed, offering evidence that writers seem consistently to fantasize of finding a new tropics in the very ground of Europe, Rome was founded in “those early idyllic days, when the Tiber was as primitive as the Upper Amazon today.”

Highet goes on to describe the city’s long-term devolution into the “heap of ruins” it became in the Middle Ages, a city “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” one where weeded streets were lined with “the titanic palaces of later monarchs—arches which now look not so much like relics of human architecture as fragments of mountain-ranges into which dwellings have been built.”

“In those days,” Highet writes, a variant form of “primitive” landscape emerged, one in which forests returned and plants ran riot, when “Rome was a place of grassy ruins and elegant palaces and whispering melancholy churches, little changed from the strange half-visionary city immortalized in the engravings of Piranesi: tall pillars standing among rocks and mounds which prove to be the fallen walls and earthquake-shattered arches of some vast mansion; huge fields in which a few peasants stand gossiping while their goats scramble among carved pilasters, and which are at a great distance revealed as being, not fields, but the overgrown floors of temples and baths; lonely obelisks once designed to perpetuate some Roman glory, and now purposeless, mighty circular tombs converted during the Middle Ages into fortresses; hills which covered buried palaces.” The ruin, here, “earth-choked, mutilated, silent,” could thus be seen as a vertiginous act of misrecognition: architecture mistaken for the surface of the earth.

Even the supersized spatial affectations of someone like Emperor Nero, Highet continues, could not ultimately resist the inhuman pull of insects and vegetation that settled onto Rome: “so many centuries after Nero shocked his contemporaries by insisting on making a private landscape in the midst of a crowded metropolis, the ruins of his palace have gone back to nature. Bees hum through the roofless corridors; flowering weeds flourish among the imperial brickwork; from the sunlight above we hear the voices of children running and laughing on the grassy slopes.”

Highet was writing nearly half a century ago, but it’s still accurate that, as he writes, visitors to the city are able to “feel the ephemeral happiness of summer flowers and summer birds all around, to enjoy the fresh warm air and the genial quietness, and to reflect that below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees, clogged with hundreds of tons of earth and fallen masonry, shrouded in the darkness of many disastrous centuries, there lie some of the foundations of our world”—foundations built and implanted when the region was “Amazonian” in its humid and unsettled wildness.

4 thoughts on “Below, buried beneath the very roots of the trees”

  1. Great post. You may already know this reference: Flora of the Colosseum by Richard Deakin. FLora of the Colosseum documents the non-native flora that grew within the Colosseum as a result of the building's occupants (animals from all parts of the empire). Another garden of ruins. He wrote this book before extensive archaeology on the site wiped out the garden.

  2. (I may not be timely, but I'm exploring some of your old posts thematically instead of chronologically.)

    very interesting post. you can absolutely understand both the confusion of the populace in the Middle Ages, the later romantic look at Roman ruins and the overwhelming nostalgia of a great civilization past, so ancient it has become nature, that Rome has for all of us even today.

    I'm thinking of the Forum, mainly, but Rome is full of examples of artificial, architectural, functional artifacts that have become a mineral landscape.

    this said, I am italian. I was raised and I usually spend most of time abroad, but I've been in Italy for the past few months. and when I am here I reside in Venice, one of the few cities in the country having nothing Roman in it. at the other end of the spectrum, "Roman ruins" in Rome are simply, well, Rome.

    but the peninsula is littered with Roman ruins. in many an occasion, the remains of a Roman villa, a Roman mosaic, Roman objects, a yet-unknown Roman settlement, when found, are a source of interest and pride.

    in some cases, though, Roman ruins are just an annoyance. just the deepest of a hundred of invaluable historical layers, and by far the least "useful" to deal with.

    an example of this is what happened in Mantua, a a very ancient Roman city where the poet Virgil was born.

    I have written a post here about this.

    I just opened this blog with a friend, and one of the very first things I posted is that article, which in turn contains a translation of a post written by a friend, an architect and urban planner in Mantua.

    I hope you find it interesting, and I also just thought it could be interesting to explore a sort of taxonomy of Roman ruins in the XXI century, not by their origin, but by their social and urban impact.

  3. Thanks, Alca! I love your line, that "'Roman ruins' in Rome are simply, well, Rome."

    I'll take a look at your blog post this weekend. Glad to see you finding some of these older posts, as well.

  4. Thanks, Geoff!

    The blog's still pretty raw as we're just starting out.

    Anyway, Just as brief followup to the idea of ruins shaping a city or strategically rediscovered to help reshape a city that's lost its identity: here in Venice they just opened an exhibition at IUAV – Venice University of Architecture – on Aldo Andreani, the main strategist behind the re-mediaevalisation of Mantua well into the 1940s.

    Here's a link, but I haven't found the english version

    My purely speculative curiosity would now be: what would they do – the re-med madmen of the thirties and forties – if they stumbled upon Roman ruins?

    I have no answer at all. But I'm pretty sure they would have done something. Anything at all.

    Unlike now.

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