What does historic preservation look like outside the United States? This is a question I’ve been interested in for a while, and this summer, I got to find out. Six MTSU undergraduates, one graduate student, and I traveled to Rome, Italy, to explore “Cultural Landscapes of the Roman World,” a study abroad course I’ve been developing over the past two years. The goal of the course was to examine cultural landscapes as primary sources for approaching the study of history and culture, with a particular focus on ancient Rome.
By analyzing the built environment and people’s interactions with it over the course of centuries, students learned to see the layers of history, tangible and intangible, that make Rome the city it is today. This approach to the city was complementary to my own agenda of learning about historic preservation there. Discerning the layering effect on the built landscape helped me start to understand how these sites have been preserved and how people make use of the past.
For three weeks, my students and I explored the remnants of ancient, late antique, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and modern Rome. The students were struck by how a single building could show so many layers through its walls and floors alone. For example, underneath the 12th-century basilica of San Clemente is a 4th-century church, which itself was built on top of an ancient apartment building where a mithraic temple was built in the 3rd century. A visitor literally descends stairs and goes down narrow hallways to go further back in time. As the students grew fond of saying, “It’s hard to see the history for all the history!”
San Clemente is not the only example of this indirect form of preservation – i.e., saving the structures of earlier buildings by building around or on top of them. The Pantheon, which is probably the best-preserved ancient structure in Rome, survives because a 7th-century pope converted it into a church dedicated to Mary and all Christian martyrs. The 1st-century B.C. tomb of Caecilia Metella was built into a castle in the Middle Ages, largely because its round, tower-like shape made it a great medieval fort.
Adaptive reuse is not a modern concept. It has been a necessity in a city like Rome, where almost three thousand years of continuous human habitation within a compact space has meant that anything you build that is new is almost assuredly built on top of something old. And when older structures crumble while you’re building something across town, why not reuse the perfectly good, already-quarried marble that’s just lying around? (Hence, parts of Vatican City were constructed with rubble from the collapsed southern side of the Colosseum.)
This process of layering and of reuse presents many challenges, however, for modern Roman preservationists. A grad school professor of mine used to say that there is no dirt in Rome. When you dig down, you will inevitably hit something—an item of material culture, perhaps, or a building or road—which may lead to a new archaeological excavation. How does a city manage to keep growing and remain vibrant when it’s constantly bumping into remnants of its past?
Furthermore, how do you decide what to preserve when you’re surrounded by archaeological debris hundreds or thousands of years old? Italy is responsible for more historic sites and monuments than just about any other country in the world—including the largest number of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List—despite being the size of Arizona. The sheer volume of projects makes it a mecca for conservationists, including the international experts at ICCROM, the International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. With respect to the great needs for excavation, conservation, and maintenance, the Italian government, like many national and local governments in the post-recession era, does not have sufficient funds to devote to such projects. The result: difficult times for historic sites in need of maintenance. One solution has been to welcome the support of private individuals and corporations who choose to focus on particular projects, such as the cleaning of the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain.
The phenomenon of private sponsorship of the preservation of public monuments makes me think about the global attraction of historic sites in Rome and what the Eternal City means to people who wish to preserve it. How do you choose which layers to preserve and which to dig through? What “history” do you preserve when everyone has his own idea of what “Rome” means? My three-and-a-half-week visit was barely enough time to scratch the surface of some of these quandaries. I plan to return, of course, as millions of pilgrims and tourists have before me. All roads lead to Rome, after all, especially for proponents of international historic preservation.