Rome and the Feeling of History

It is a well-known fact that modern Western culture has been obsessed with the “past” for well over three centuries. The “story of history” – if we may indulge in this calembour – is a rather long one: we could perhaps synthesize it as an urge to expand Humanity’s rational control over anything that existed, both what was physically available and what was not – because far away in either space or time. In the classical age – that period of European culture that eventually culminated in the French Enlightenment – as maps emerged as a means of describing and measuring newly discovered territories, history was intended to crystallize in a univocal and centralized way events belonging to the past, but which nevertheless were understood as still actively exerting some form of influence. No human tool is more appropriate to this end than language: Michel Foucault describes the rise of language in that period as an all-encompassing system of rationalization, capable of making the absent present:

Language gives the perpetual disruption of time the continuity of space, and it is to the degree that it analyses, articulates, and patterns presentation that it has the power to link our knowledge of things together across the dimension of time. With the advent of language, the chaotic monotony of space is fragmented, while at the same time the diversity of temporal succession is unified (p. 113).

Language lies at the base of history: an account of events that are again made present, a form of artificial memory. Hence, this concept extended to all other fields of human knowledge, paving the way for an encyclopedic description of the world. Architecture – as one of the foremost manifestations of culture – made no exception, and scholarly investigations on the ruins of the ancient world began once the “language” of classical architecture was first deciphered in the early Renaissance. No wonder that the first epicenter of this endeavor was among the vestiges of Rome.

piazza di pietra

Grand touring

Ever since then, Rome has become the place where – at least for architects and artists – history was physically located. Only a handful of other cities could boast the same pride, and many of these, such as Athens, remained off-limits for a long time. Euro-centric Western culture had little knowledge and virtually no access to more exotic locations – China, India, Persia and the like – and thus largely disregarded their history until the Colonial Empires were firmly established. Rome was the place every student and scholar of architecture had to visit, explore and study: it was history incarnated.
Although Rome already shared with Greece a legendary stature as center of the classical world, in the course of modern history this further increased as the traces of those who came to see it sedimented upon the original remains. Through artists such as Palladio, the architecture of classical Rome was first translated to Venice, then to London, and from there to overseas colonies East and West of Great Britain. And the fascination only grew as Winckelmann came to admire the Apollo Belvedere, Byron the Dying Galatian, and Soane the hydraulic works at Lake Albano that had previously bewitched Piranesi and would become so influential in his architectural work. Nor did the inflow stop in more recent times, with all most prominent architects of the 20th century stopping by Rome at some point or another, and Colin Rowe revamping the Grand Tour tradition by bringing his Cornell students to do some urban bricolage in the city’s center, while masterminding the Roma interrotta exhibition in 1978, at the climax of the post-modern wave.


This part of Rome’s story is well known, and it has acquired a mythical status in itself. Everyone came to Rome looking for something, each with his own agenda, or one derived from a specific cultural temperament: some sought the romantic lure of forgotten monuments, others the perfect proportions of classical art, while many were trying to produce interpretations of that complex palimpsest that the city was perceived to be. Nowhere else could a similar, dense stratification of layers be witnessed: no wonder, then, that Sigmund Freud famously equated Rome to a “psychical entity”, metaphorical representation of the inner workings of the unconscious mind.

The manifold histories

If, however, we carefully read through Freud’s celebrated (and often misquoted) essay, we come upon a simple observation that highlights what could count as a misunderstanding of what history is, at least for architecture. The myriad of buildings that made Rome’s grandeur would all be present at once only if the city truly were a psychical entity – which it is not. Today, we can observe the pristine splendor of the Aurelian walls, but only morsels of the older Servian walls; we may come across the fragments of a ruined palace, and an expert’s trained eye could recognize the base of a vanished temple: yet the city’s earliest trace, the Roma quadrata, is nowhere to be seen, since “these remains of ancient Rome are found dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis which has grown up in the last few centuries since the Renaissance” (p. 726). What we ultimately find in the city, thus, is not history, nor a representation of the past: it is a living fabric profoundly shaped by events spanning over two dozen centuries, and that still today incorporates the material vestiges of antiquity.
We may think of this distinction as a polarization, but in fact it is not: history is not simply a fixed sequence of events, but changes as it is represented, acquiring the form of a linguistically articulated reconstruction. In the city’s fabric this narrative is reconciled with the living space we primarily encounter: in this sense, Paul Ricoeur writes:

It is on the scale of urbanism that we best catch sight of the work of time in space. A city brings together in the same space different ages, offering to our gaze a sedimented history of tastes and cultural forms. The city gives itself as both to be seen and to be read. In it, narrated time and inhabited space are more closely associated than they are in an isolated building (p. 150-151).

What this statement implies is that what we usually intend as “history” when speaking of a city may result in the undue simplification of a complex phenomenon spanning physical matter, culture, language, human practices and lived experience. Rome may be the incarnation of history, but it is also the place where a form of contemporary life unfolds among the layered landscape of ruins, vestiges, ancient buildings, reused artifacts and contemporary urban spaces. What was and what is all coexist in the present, mutually shaping each other.
If history – at least in the canonical sense – is a means of making absent things present through language, then we could claim that architectural history has not much to do with Rome. The architecture of ancient Rome is still present, manifesting itself in a contingent situation that does not belong to the past: it is here now. As we enter the Pantheon today, the space we encounter is much like what it was at Hadrian’s times, as we experience it by means of a transcendent corporeality that has not changed substantially since the age of the Roman Empire. The awareness of its monumental dimension, its glorious past and all other cultural accretions add up to this primary encounter and are in turn influenced by our sensation of the building’s space, eventually shaping our overall sense of what it is like to be in Rome.

de matteis_VNS_07_11.jpg
Behind the misunderstanding of what history actually is, lies the fact that we coat many distinct concepts with one polysemic word. The past can be many things at once, and our interaction with it modifies it as we go along: it is all but static, and the conventional articulation of time in three distinct spheres is entirely artificial. As Martin Heidegger acutely points out in Being and Time, the past plays out in different ways within our present: some forms of it are closed entities that lie out of our reach, while others intrude into our stand in the world, articulating our sense and capacity of action (p. 299). Or, as Augustine writes in his beautiful meditation on time:

Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation (XI, §20).

Feeling the past in Rome

In this sense, what Rome offers today – as it has been offering ever since the end of antiquity – is not history in itself, rather the living presence of the past as it acts out in our experience. The past is not only inscribed in its ancient buildings, it is not to be understood as a text that only lights up if we have the cultural skills to decipher its code: it is always there, available in space to anyone who encounters it. No wonder then that Rome can transversally enchant people of all cultures and backgrounds, not only the trained architect who can organize the individual objects in a structured framework of historical references. Eventually, each visitor interprets his direct experience of this encounter with the past in his own horizon of sense, defined by culture, character and disposition: while the emotional response to spatial qualities is transversal, narratives become individual.
It is on this individuality that the deepest motivation to study Rome’s architectural ambiance may be hinged. History in itself – despite the bombastic claims of some real estate developers – can never be built: it can only be inherited. What architects can do, however, is to observe and record their own sense of what it is like to encounter this history, the taste that this feeling of the past may have. Not so much how and why the ancient Romans or the Baroque architects built their masterworks, but how our own sense of being there unfolds, and the spatial conditions that allow it to emerge. This is something that, once learnt, may well resurface later and elsewhere; it is not context-related, and just as Palladio exported the forms of classical architecture beyond Rome, we can imagine this feeling that Rome’s historical spaces afford us coming back to life someplace far away.
To design is obviously not simply about building, but also about making meaningful spaces, capable of stimulating both our sensibility and affective sphere. Peter Zumthor, a keen observer of the emotional content of architecture, terms this consideration of the past for how it plays out in design “emotional reconstruction”:

So what are we really talking about here? Is it history, is it the past, is it time? It is obviously not the past itself, but maybe a feeling for the past, a sense of time. I’m trying to open a window through which we can see things and lives that came before us, so that we can discover traces of the past. I’m offering a new framework for experience that stimulates an emotional awareness of the history of the place (p. 51).

The feeling of history – and the possibility of evoking it through architecture – is one of the powerful tools that can be deployed by design. Buildings – good buildings at least – are not made to shelter us only, but to stir us affectively, setting in motion our sense of being. To learn how to incorporate this existential stratum in design, one needs to develop a competence that gives voice to this affective sphere: Rome, and its deep voice of the past that resounds in the present, is here to teach us how to bring this pathos to waking life.

* Paper presented at the symposium “After the Grand Tour”, University of Arkansas Rome Center, Palazzo Taverna, April 5th, 2019


  • Augustine. Confessions. New York: Penguin Books, 1961.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things : An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1994.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents.” In The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay, 722–72. New York ; London: W W Norton & Co Inc, 1995.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Zumthor, Peter, and Mari Lending. A Feeling of History. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s