Walking Rome: views from the streets and the sky

Recent site-visits and lectures at the BSR, which have converged on the theme of walking, are generating ways of thinking about movement through the city.

The 3 and 19 trams pass by the BSR so rarely that they warrant inclusion on the WWF Endangered Species list. Waddling irritably away from the tram-stop, now late for the morning presa at the archives, it takes some fortitude to see the amble ahead as an act of intellectual, and even spiritual, refreshment.

In Rome, however, this is doable, since walking has traditionally often been a religious exercise. Before Christmas, BSR award-holders traced the most celebrated pilgrimage route, the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome’s great martyrs, in the company of Piers Baker-Bates, who discussed sacred art and architecture, and Emily Michelson, who spoke about the origins and importance of the giro as a counterpoint to the raucous misdeeds of the Carnival. Our group paused near the Cave di Fosse Ardeantine for a disquisition on the ongoing significance of martyrdom, looked in at the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis, and stopped in the grounds of the Villa Mattei for sandwiches and (partially) sacred discourse.

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Domine Quo Vadis? A replica of the stone said to be marked with the footprints of Christ on a mock road traversing the church, and which rises into the painting of St Peter

It was Sixtus V who envisaged, and nearly completed, the street system linking these seven pilgrimage basilicas. Ambitious urbanism inevitably entails great destruction, but the man who razed the wondrous Septizodium to the ground would scarcely have winced as he laid out his master-plan for Rome, whose streets when seen from above crudely create the form of a star. It was a star that lit the way for the genesis of modern town planning, thought to have influenced Le Notre’s Versailles, Haussmann’s Paris, L’Enfant’s Washington and the Rome of Mussolini (who reputedly kept a copy of Bordini’s Roma di Sisto V next to his bed).

During the Renaissance, there was an impulse to control and rectify movement, from throwing regularizing façade-cloaks over wonky palaces; to Vasari’s ripping out rood screens from Florentine basilicas, to Leonardo’s quixotic scheme to straighten the river Arno. At the same time, the city was increasingly perceived as something viewed from above, spurred on by developments in the fields of cartography, surveying and navigation. Architects from Francesco di Giorgio to Michelangelo conjured with the radial or star-shaped ideal city, which spoke of absolutist power and sketched geometries echoing the celestial city.

But there is a vast gulf between the paradigmatic symbolism of the utopian city as conceived from above, and the pragmatic realties of walking the city on the ground.

This was one of many themes that Stephen Milner touched on in his inaugural lecture. He contrasted the totalizing bird’s eye view of Florence in a Medieval catasto with the fundamentally participatory reality of navigating the city on foot. Walking never offers the controlled perspective of the map, since there is always one point of entry to the street or the piazza, and there is always room for the imaginative turn off the routinized pathway. In walking, as in creative research, curiosity (and over-crowded routes) drive us down roads one would not necessarily go down.

Two other lecturers approached their subject from the perspective of movement through the city. Simon Ditchfield’s magisterial lecture linked the migration of the papal centre from the Borgo across the Tiber to the Quirinal, to the creation of a new curial geography and ceremonial dynamic in Rome. As the Pope and his retinue newly criss-crossed the city between these two poles, they developed new itineraries and generated significant new routeways across the capital.

Emily Michelson mapped routes walked by Jews on the way to forced conversionary sermons in 16th-century Rome. She demonstrated how Jews were marshalled past monuments embodying the starkest differences and antagonism between Christianity and Judaism. The Monte di Pietà, the loan organisation deliberately established to undermine Jewish banks and lending institutions, hulked over them en route, and they were led past triumphalist Catholic monuments celebrating miracles and charismatic saints. By considering the subject from the novel perspective of walking, Emily has opened up a deeper and more visceral understand of the conversionary experience.

 

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Lupin joins pilgrimage group, seeking indulgence after stealing Fragolina’s food

We have also been thinking about the great roads of antiquity, with Janet Wade conducting a research project entitled Walking the Via Flaminia: following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby and his companions, and Nick Hodgson leading a band of the most stout-hearted award-holders along the Via Appia all the way to Castel Gandolfo.

 

Tom True (Assistant Director)

 

 

 

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