Rome: A Special Introduction

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Rome: A Special Introduction

Rome As Capital of Italy  Rome was once the capital of the greatest empire in the world. Today it is the largest city in Italy and the center of the most inefficient bureaucracy in the world. The city has greatly expanded since it became the capital of the newly unified peninsula in 1871, and especially since the Second World War. Even before it became the capital of Italy, Rome was the center of the Catholic world, and the seat of its administrative offices. But until the 19th century, Rome was only one of several beautiful Italian cities — all of equal importance. Rome was not by any means the "traditional" Italian capital, like London or Paris. This is perhaps why Rome is not quite so large a city by comparison.

Rome As "Three Cities in One"  There are three "Rome's": ancient, Renaissance (or Christian), and modern Rome, each superimposed on the others. The "modern" side of the city grew up in the 19th century, and can be seen in the buildings of the Fascist era, as well as the ultra-modern stores and apartment buildings around the Via Veneto. The tradition of Italian architecture and technocracy have come down to us from the ancient Romans, modified in the Renaissance and in the 19th century. Today, Italy boasts some of the leading architects and designers in Europe, in furniture, clothes, leather. Rome is surpassed by Florence in personal "style," in culture, but is the leading city for industry and modern crafts.

Ancient Rome  The most intact remains from the ancient world can still be seen in Rome: the "Forum, Palatine Hill, victory arches, columns, the Pantheon, and such little out-of-the-way remains as the Mouth of Truth." The Mouth of Truth is a stone carving of a face. The legend is that if you put your hand inside the mouth and pull it out whole, then you're an honest man. If the mouth bites your hand off, you're the opposite. But ancient Rome isn't to be found in any one spot: it forms a whole layer of the city, much of it hidden under the basilicas of Christian times, some under more modern office buildings. The transition from ancient to Christian Rome is a gradual one.

Renaissance (or Christian) Rome  There are hundreds of beautiful churches in Rome,, some dating back as far as the 5th century. Examples are the Church of St. Mary Major, St. Peter's Basilica, St. Peter in Chains, Santa Maria di Aracoeli (the church standing on the Capitoline Hill, and which was cut off from view when the Victor Emmanual Monument was built). This church contains a statue of the baby Jesus which is completely covered with gold-offerings brought by the faithful. It is important to see how pagan Rome provides much of the foundation for Christian Rome. Take the Christian custom of Christmas gift-giving. The largest of the pagan temples in the Forum is dedicated to Saturn, a god of the early Romans, who were a primitive agricultural people. Saturn was the patron of agriculture, and every year on the feast day of Saturn, everyone gave and received presents, schools were closed, and slaves and masters could speak to each other on equal terms. The origins of the Christmas holiday can be seen clearly in this ancient ceremony.

Modern Rome  Long before Rome became the capital of Italy, it housed the bureaucracy of the Vatican state. Ever since, Rome has been a city of bureaucracy — a combination of New York and Washington D.C. Although with the unification of Italy in 1871, the Pope lost the "Papal states" in central and northern Italy, today the Pope exerts considerable influence over public affairs, perhaps more than before, since that influence is no longer directly political or military, but psychological and moral. While other Italian cities specialize in some type of manufacturing or other, Rome specializes in power. Italian workers who come to Rome to seek their fortune inevitably try to enter the bureaucracy — not to learn a "trade." Many of these workers come from the south of Italy; their belief is that once a man has been able to acquire some power and influence, he should use it to assist other members of his family. Hence the corruption and inefficiency of the Italian bureaucracy — but it is not looked upon as a scandal, but as the most "natural" way of doing things in a society based upon close-knit family ties. On the other hand, educated middle class Italians, unlike their English or French counterparts, do not enter bureaucratic life; they prefer independent professions or trades.

How Did Rome Come into Being?  The founding of Rome has its roots in legend rather than fact. According to the "official" ancient Roman legend, the city was founded in 753 B.C., when a farmer named Romulus traced the outline of the city with a plough, warning all others to keep off his territory. The name "Rome" thus comes from this legendary Romulus. The site of the first city was thought to be the Palatine Hill. Archaeological research has confirmed this; there are remains from the Iron Age on the hill. During the Republic and the Empire, Rome was the capital of a vast political network. After the fall of the empire, Rome shared the fate of the other towns on the Italian peninsula. However, the presence of the Pope in Rome had a lasting effect on the life of the city, especially after the 12th century when the Popes settled permanently in Rome. During the Middle Ages, Italy was divided into separate smaller states, each having its own capital. These medieval capitals are today the major cities of Italy: Rome, Naples, Milan, Florence, Torino, Bologna, etc. Rome never had complete ascendancy over the others during this time. But one element did distinguish Rome from the other cities, and that was its political stability. Whereas Florence, for example, underwent political upheavals, with republican government alternating with tyrants, Rome was always under the same type of government — the Pope was both the spiritual and political ruler of the city. An efficient Vatican bureaucracy regulated the day-to-day life of the people. Rome was overtaken by force when Italy was unified in 1871 — a full 10 years after Victor Emmanual had been proclaimed King of Italy. From that time on, the Pope considered himself a prisoner of the secular government, and excommunicated those who supported it. He moved within Rome in the Vatican Palace, in an uneasy relationship with the Italian government. The tense situation was resolved only in 1929, when Mussolini concluded the Lateran Treaty with Pope Pius XI, allowing the Pope to rule over a tiny plot of land, called Vatican City, which would be politically independent of the rest of Italy. From that time on, Vatican City has been a (small) state within a state, with its own newspaper, police, telephones, and postal service (all of which are more efficient than the state service).

Today, modern Rome typifies the sole of modern Italy— its strengths and weaknesses. Compared to the south of Italy, Rome is prosperous, and yet it has lost its traditional political stability. Governments are formed which soon collapse; political coalitions are formed and then dissolve. Italy is plagued with a rampaging rate of inflation, with recession, and all the economic ills that sweep the rest of Europe. Thus, modern Rome is a good place to put your hand on the pulse of Italy and Europe: the air of crisis and anxiety that sweeps the city is simply a more intense version of that uncertainty that grips the whole of Europe.


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