The muse has been a bit quiet of late, a victim of the winter introversion that grips much of Northern Europe this time of year. But a sudden burst of energy this afternoon inspires me to finally share with you some of the highlights of my brief trip through Rome over the holidays to visit friends and family. A social occasion was cancelled one day leaving me free to my own devices, which usually means a long ramble through Parts Unknown. I had left the hotel and had just wandered through the old Jewish Quarter of Rome near Synagogue when I stumbled upon this curious pile of rock:
“Hmmm,” sez I, “There seems to be a bit missing here.” And indeed there was and is. It appears this bit of the Porticus Octaviae, the Portico of Octavia built by the Emperor Augustus sometime around 30 CE for his sister, is in the process of being renovated and most of it is simply missing at the moment, at the spa, as it were, for refreshment. This edifice, originally designated for the worship of Saturn, was destroyed by an earthquake in 442 and later built upon into a church in 770. Falling on hard times, the complex served as a fish market in the Middle Ages and up through the 19th century. Sic transit gloria pescheria…
This bit of ruin started me musing about the role of recycling, as it were, in the history of Rome, and perhaps in the history of all cities of long standing. Building supplies always being heavy, expensive, and probably in short supply, it’s only reasonable that thrifty and hardworking urban architects and builders have used the resources available to them, no matter their origin or initial intent. Here’s another example nearby:
You see this kind of thing all over Rome, and indeed all over Italy…older edifices being extended and expanded to allow for modern needs. Quite cool, actually.
The next stop on the trail was a trip to the Museo di Roma, across the street from where I was staying (I recommend the Hotel Damaso, by the way). As an interesting expansion of the above topic, included among the collections of columns and sarcophagi was a series of photographs explaining how Rome had dug up a significant portion of the city in the early 20th century trying to bring the miracles of modern civilization to this most ancient civic venue. In the process of years of massive land moving, loads of artifacts from centuries past had come to light, and it took a veritable army of archeologists to try and keep up with the discoveries. Here’s a photo of Rome on the operating table, as it were, in the early 20th century:
….and another grand shot, just because I like it, of the early days of driving in the Eternal City…
Much of the material uncovered during those renovations has formed the bases of many museums in town and even around the world, but what an amazing treasure hunt it must have been during those years, and how sad to think of what might have been lost or damaged unintentionally as “collateral damage” in the installation of plumbing and electricity. Here’s one relic that turned up in the rubble. a bishop literally consigned to the dustbin of history from his former glory gracing a cathedral:
Near this exhibit of historic ruins was another display, this one photographic, of the development of post-war Italy from 1946-1961. Little was I aware that this was an astonishingly important and dynamic decade and a half in the country’s history, catapulting Italy from rubble to a vibrant modern economy, a process which, sadly, has not been sustained at the same level of intensity. Here’s a shot of the pride of the Italians in the first grim days after the end of the Second World War:
Thankfully, this oddly Puritanical streak was short-lived. Here to make sure La Dolce Vita returned as quickly as possible to the shores of his family’s birth, the former (1933-1945) mayor of New York City, Fiorello H. La Guardia distributes refugee aid (and blessings, apparently) in his role as director general for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. This is a photo from 1946; he died the following year at the age of 64. A crowning achievement to an impressive career of public service.
….and here’s perhaps one of the coolest photos I’ve ever seen, just from the perspective of star power….one Italian cinema’s most enduring objects of fascination finding herself gobsmacked at the day’s news…
After all this history and upheaval, I truly thought I was done for the day with only a half an hour or so before the evening appointment. To my surprise, I then stumbled, literally (all those cobblestones) into yet another surprising exhibit, this across the street from the Museo di Roma (and directly next to my hotel, if you’re paying attention):
“The Jewish Museum of Rome and the Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco host Ludwig Pollak: Archeologo e mercante d’arte (Praga 1868 – Auschwitz 1943), an exhibition of antiques and archive material relating to the esteemed archaeologist and art dealer Ludwig Pollak. The exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of Pollak’s birth, in Prague in 1868, as well as the 80th anniversary of Italy’s racial laws, promulgated by the fascist regime to enforce racial discrimination, mainly against Italy’s Jews. Pollak is best remembered for important archaeological finds, including his extraordinary discovery in 1906 of the missing Laocoön arm which he donated to the Vatican. However Pollak’s celebrated career came to a tragic end on 16 October 1943 when he and his family were among the 1023 Jews rounded up in Rome’s Ghetto district and deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he perished.”
Having earlier that day visited the self-same ghetto, the day was beginning to have a curiously circular and thematic quality to it (Jews, archeology, lost worlds), so of course I had to see as much as possible of this next amazing display in the time I had left. Here’s a portrait of the man in question:
Pollak was born in Prague in 1868 and was himself the director of Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica, hence the exhibit this year of his life in the very museum where he spent a good deal of his professional life. The building itself is small, a former Roman home transformed into a gem of a museum, and features a range of fine pieces of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and other ancient artifacts. I found the personal elements of Pollak’s life more interesting, I am ashamed to admit, but offer by way of example this shot of his Rome apartment, obviously chock-a-block filled with his favorite historic bits and pieces:
No, you’re not losing your mind and there’s nothing wrong with your monitor, The colored piece indicates that the picture itself was part of the exhibit, and indeed it was. Finally, I was gripped by, for some reason, and have to share with you this photo of Pollak’s friend and fellow art lover, Sigmund Freud with his two sons, Ernst and Martin (or Oliver), who all served in the Austrian army during the first World War. Here they are with Dad on a rare leave from the front. Happily I can report they all returned home more or less in one piece.
A final shot…here a comparison of the city of Palmyra in Syria, on display in the exhibit since some of the artifacts in the museum had come from there. Above is the city as it had stood since the first or second millennium BCE until the 21st century, a beacon of learning and tolerance in the region, and below as the Islamic State left it after intentional destruction in 2015. Sigh.
I left the exhibit, as you can imagine, both fascinated and sad. Such a beautiful day, filled with discovery, wistfulness, regret, and yet occasionally of hope and humor. How much I love this life of travel, exploration, and learning….and how grateful I am to be able to share it with you.