On the left, a three-in-one layer of history: modern mayor's office on top of medieval palace on top of ancient Roman Tabularium. That's Rome.
Saying that modern Rome is built into the foundations of the old is a cliché. But it's not just that ruins are everywhere around you. It's that they're doing work -- propping up the offices, restaurants, and stores of the contemporary city. And almost every day, I'm reminded of a unique characteristic of Rome: its continued desire to put its ancient past to modern use.*
Walking home at 10pm the other night, I noticed that a crowd of people had gathered along the Imperial Fora, peering down into the ruins. I climbed over to see what they were looking at. The Forum of Augustus was lit with pink and blue lights; below, on the remnants of marble pavement, a number of costumed figures stood frozen. Meanwhile, a stream of (normally-dressed) people picked their way across the 2,000-year-old rubble... and were ushered to take their seats.
It was a play, taking place right amidst the ruins of Augustus' forum. Suddenly, the lights shifted to yellows and reds; music thrummed; I caught something about the "fall of Troy." And I had the same reaction I do so often in Rome: an emotion split half between "eek, that can't be good for the archaeological site," and "wow, how great that they use these ruins for something today."
I'm never sure which side is correct. But it's one that's hard to avoid in Rome, where current structures were often built into the foundations of the ancient and where spectacles, from shows in Augustus' Forum to the summer opera in the Baths of Caracalla, draw on Rome's ancient past in more ways than one.
Coming from a society that's all about preservation, preservation, preservation, it's hard not to feel a twinge of discomfort at seeing people sitting on the ancient ruins. And yet. Is it better to make sure the ruins last forever, but appreciate them only, dryly and academically, from afar... or to enjoy them by experiencing them up-close-and-personal, letting them come alive through cultural events and shows?
I don't know. But I do know that I got a little fleeting sense of pleasure from seeing the ruins, usually so dark and silent at night, immersed in colored lights and reverberating with dialogue.
*Yes, you could get cynical here and say, "Of course the city keeps reinventing ways to use ruins, old churches, etc, etc. Do you know what Rome's economy is based on?" But so often, the events seem geared to locals, not tourists -- or are free. I can't help but think that it's not just about money.
What do you think?