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Rome, city of layered history

Walking through this city with its ancient, medieval, Renaissance, baroque and modern history all telescoped together, I reflected on Freud comparing it to the human psyche, what with all the layers of history, of time past, surrounding one wherever you turn. And if the remnants, ecclesiastic, artistic and architectural, which address one on virtually every street, are not enough to drive the point home, the ongoing excavations at archaeological sites, dotted throughout the city, should impart a semblance of historical awareness to even the most historically anaesthetised denizen of “schizophrenic” postmodernity (in Frederic Jameson’s phrase).

Even if one lived here, chances are that you would never discover everything worth seeing or experiencing. But we have not done badly so far for people on a relatively short conference visit, partly because we don’t use public transport, preferring to walk everywhere, no matter the distance. On foot we have discovered the 2000-year-old Pantheon, built by the Romans but turned into a basilica by Christianity, and too many other churches, big and small, to mention. Of these the church of St Mary Maggiore, the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, and St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican stand out. In addition there are the usual suspects on visitors’ “must-see” lists, namely the beautiful Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the ancient Roman Colosseum and Circus Maximus, and many more.

We have taken the gap to listen to an authentic Italian opera by Verdi (La Traviata), with a soprano, blessed with a powerful, but ethereal voice in the role of Violetta (Carmela Maffongelli), have enjoyed genuine Italian pizza on more than one occasion (which is economising on food, given the weakness of the rand to the euro), as well as genuine Italian cappuccino (better than its French counterpart) at the bargain price of 1 euro a cup, if you sit inside the coffee shop; outside the price more than doubles because of city taxes.

If I had to single out the most memorable experiences here in Rome, the first would be discovering and reflecting on Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s paintings (see my previous post), while the second would undoubtedly be experiencing the majesty of St Peter’s Basilica. This magnificent building is more than architecture — it is what Walter Gropius called a “gesamtkunstwerk“, a “total work of art”, integrating architecture, sculpture, relief sculpture and painting from the early Christian period through to the 20th century, in an overwhelming creative synthesis. And, of course, these are all dedicated to giving imaginative flesh, as it were, to Christian beliefs, to the point of comprising a veritable (Christian, specifically Roman Catholic) world of its own.

Standing underneath the gigantic principal dome — designed by Michelangelo, and still the tallest building in Rome — and casting one’s eyes upwards and sideways to the lesser domes and the enormous vault, trying hard to take in all the complexly articulated spatial modulations, it is easy to understand why Immanuel Kant (in his 3rd Critique) alludes to St Peter’s as an instance of the mathematical sublime, where sensory perception, aided by imagination, fails to encompass the church dimensions in a single, unified image. Instead, it conflicts painfully with the understanding, at which level one is nevertheless able to comprehend the perception — and image — surpassing greatness of this architectural marvel. The strange thing is that Kant never saw St Peter’s — he spent his entire life in and around the town of Konigsberg in what later became East Germany, but probably saw architectural sketches and drawings of the basilica, the complexity of which led him to realising that one could not “take it all in” in a single perception.

The history of St Peter’s is a chequered one, going back to the time when the Roman emperor Nero built a circus on the spot after the great fire of Rome in the first century AD. Because he believed Christians were responsible for the fire, they were persecuted in the circus, in addition to which it is believed that St Peter was crucified and buried there. Christian Roman emperor Constantine built the first St Peter’s on that site in 326 AD, but from the 16th century on, at least five different architects contributed to its present form, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Rafael, Maderno and Bernini (if I recall correctly). Even in the 20th century new features were still added. The only thing from the old St Peter’s that has stayed in its original position, is a mosaic of Christ in a niche below the altar.

The irony of St Peter’s variegated architectural, sculptural and painterly depiction of the (spiritual) world of Christian belief, consists, to my mind, in its hyper-ornate celebration of the human form — those of Christ the child and the man, of Mary, of many saints and popes — too many to keep track of. It is an understandable irony, however. Just as in Karen Blixen’s novel Babette’s Feast (beautifully rendered in film by Gabriel Axel), the eponymous heroine-cum-chef teaches the members of a conservative and staid religious group that, without the pleasures of the flesh — in this case sumptuous food and wine — they have nothing to model the anticipated pleasures of the hereafter on, so, too, the ornate artistic decoration of St Peter’s may be seen as an analogous foreshadowing of the beatitude awaiting the faithful in the hereafter. A “purely” spiritual realm would be impossible to render imaginatively, hence humanity has to fall back on the inventiveness of the imagination in relation to representable bodies and shapes.

The spectacle that is St Peter’s is undoubtedly overwhelming in its magnitude and diversified beauties. And yet, when I compare its baroque sumptuousness to the much simpler, but equally overawing Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, dating from the early 6th century AD, I have to say that, despite St Peter’s undeniable architectural greatness, I somehow prefer the relative simplicity of the Hagia Sophia. Here one’s spirit soars, unencumbered by all the ornate detail that meets the eye in every corner, every nook and cranny, of St Peter’s. In this respect the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels and Martyrs on Republic Square in Rome, far simpler than St Peter’s, but pervaded by a sense of the numinous, is more consonant with the uplifting, evocative spiritual atmosphere of the Hagia Sophia. Given the opportunity, though, all of these wonderful churches deserve an unhurried, contemplative visit. It is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Maria Maria 13 November 2011

    I envy you your Rome visit, Bert – at least you get some intellectual/academic value out of it, judging by what you have written on your visit. What fascinates me about Rome, and more generally Italy’s history, is that, given its huge contribution to western civilization generally from the time of the Roman Republic and then Empire, through the Italian Renaissance and the counter-Reformation, up to the advent of modernity, why has it not made the same substantial contribution to the latter? Italians do not really feature as much in modern and postmodern culture at a foundational cultural level as they did up until and including the counter-Reformation. What great Italian thinkers are there today, except for Umberto Eco and Agamben, and in the recent past, Benedetto Croce? The one field in which they have made a supreme contribution, is Italian cinema, of course, with the likes of Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Wertmuller, Soldini and Tornatore outshining most directors of different origin. Perhaps that is the answer, in Deleuzian terms: at the level of the “percept”, these directors have introduced new ways of perceiving and experiencing the world. Fellini’s City of Women is, in this sense, a looking glass through which one discovers the seemingly innocent origins of patriarchal looking at the world, as well as the feminist take on this, which enables a kind of rapprochement between the two no less persuasively than philosophy could manage.

  2. OneFlew OneFlew 15 November 2011

    I hope you’ve had a chance to see the Vatican museum too. Parts of it are utterly sublime.

    The Pantheon is my favourite building. I try to see it whenever I’m in Rome.

  3. Richard Richard 15 November 2011

    I have always found it interesting when travelling in Western Europe to see how intellectual development and change is reflected in the built landscape. This is in contrast to any other part of the world, where architecture is much more static and much more tied up with identity or religious notions. I think this has something to do with objectifying the external world, rather than seeing it as some extension of subjective, communal, life. Objectifying can lead to the notion of fashions (time can be separated into past, present and future), which is closely related to the concept of improvement, so buildings will not be constructed in the same way eternally, but will change when somebody has the bright idea of how and why to do so. If into this framework one introduces aesthetics, the co-development of architecture and intellect becomes a fascinating insight into European history, and to my mind, uniquely so.

  4. Yaw Boateng 203006178-Part 1 Yaw Boateng 203006178-Part 1 15 January 2013

    Rome is a city of many stories, rich in its history and culture built over many centuries and its architecture combines their indigenous knowledge with the architecture of the conquered and other civilisations they interacted with. Added to this is the growth that every society goes through with its architectural development. The combination of tradition and modernity has produced present day Rome.

    There is history behind every building and there is history behind every sector of society. To the visitor and even to the resident, one may never be able to discover all. The continuous archaeological diggings mean that more are being discovered about the rich history of Rome.

    The comparison made by Freud and quoted by the writer makes interesting reading. The human psyche can be compared with the rich layers of history of Rome. Every human being of adult age is a reflection of his or her personal history, an embodiment of an array of experience buried under the conscious and sub conscious mind. These buried experiences influence our nature of doing things and therefore reflects the beauty or otherwise of a person.

    The city is made up of layers and layers of infrastructure from different periods in time. The city is so deeply rooted in its history and culture, I am sure one immediately feels the ‘sense of place’ within the city. From the description in the article and the use of technology, Google Earth, I am able to have a slightly better idea of the author’s…

  5. Yaw Boateng 203006178 Part 2 Yaw Boateng 203006178 Part 2 15 January 2013

    ‘Observers believe that the character of a place consists of both the concrete substance of shape, texture and colour and more intangible cultural associations-a certain patina given human use over time’ (Trancik 1968). Rome is unique and over many years of history, has formed its own unique identity.

    Rome has become a tourist destination for many because of its richness in history and culture. I am sure the city generates income through tourism and at the same time markets itself to the world, possiblybringing in foreign investors.

    Globalisation is affecting many cultures all around the world, making it difficult for cities to hold onto their cultures and values. Based on the article, locals in Rome have embraced their culture, this is noted from the availability of tradional foods like pizza and the entertainment of traditional opera performances. There is no doubt that anything of Rome is authentic Italian whether it is pizza or cappuccino.

    Rome no doubt has beautiful buildings of international significance. St Peters Basilica is a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church has its head office located in the Vatican, a city within Rome. The church has a large following and as such, it becomes an attractive place for the people in that faith to visit. Rome is also famous for art work as the writer indicated Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s paintings as a favourite.

  6. Hyacinthe TONGA (208022710) Hyacinthe TONGA (208022710) 8 March 2013

    This article is a great peace. We could say that its focus is on “work of Art”, its “experience” and “perception”.

    It also would appear as a comparative study of two types of Architectural making regarding an attempt to the “sublime”.

    It is without any doubt that churches in architecture have changed their perception of the “Divine” with time. Now as an example, cathedrals such as St Peter depicts the “spiritual“; God’s presence via ornaments (statues).

    Some of us will ask: Is it only to emphasise the presence of Divine among us?

    Is it to give faithful a “God like figure” in order to be visually connected to and therefore offering prayers to “that” specific being?

    Both questions might be right; depending of the intention of the churches. But yet again; how could you represent something “Divine”?

  7. Hyacinthe TONGA (208022710) Hyacinthe TONGA (208022710) 8 March 2013

    When we go back in time, we identified the experiences from the Pantheon as an “attempt to sublime!” especially from the nature of its ornaments, and emphasis placed on the “mathematical” (careful) composition of the space/ spaces.

    This is not to say that St Peter is not a great mathematical and or spatial achievement; but to emphasise that with St Petrer’s walls and spaces, you do have more of a visual experience than what of the spacial (leading to the sublime qualification) sensation.

    Which now could relate to us as architects, what are we trying to put across as message or messages via the space making? And who at the end of the day is supposed to be the user of such space?
    (as St Peter example; the priests or the worshipers?)

  8. Zamubuntu Sipuka(206014929) Zamubuntu Sipuka(206014929) 30 October 2013

    A fascinating read, sparking envy in one’s mind and proof that Rome stands out as one of the most culturally and historically wealthy cities in the world.

    The cities’ architecture seems to be nothing short of a marvel to see with one’s eye and experience by touch, from the 2000-year old Pantheon to the St Peter’s Basilica lends itself outside of architecture to be more a piece of work that integrates architecture, sculpture & painting leading Walter Gropius to coin it a “total work of art”.

    In the “Guide to Saint Peter’s Basilica”, Fr. Giovanni Giuliani describes the central dome …”The splendor of the 96 figures in the mosaic is overwhelming, the gaze is drawn towards the center, to the high lantern that rises another 18 meters where, as if in a vision, is the glorious figure of the Eternal Father, with arms outstretched in blessing towards Peter’s tomb…The dome is decorated in mosaic in the three colors of Medieval mysticism, blue, gold and red. The triumphal decoration is divided into sixteen sections that converge at the top of the dome and are divided in six horizontal circles…Standing beneath the dome one gets the impression of belonging not to the “militant” church, but rather to the triumphant church. Although the dome expounds the theory of glory, it also recalls the pain, it rests on pillars in which the relics of Christ’s passion are conserved to tell us that only through suffering can we reach God”.

    …An interesting description.

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