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Images of Rome The Rodolfo Lanciani Digital Archive

Lost Rome

"Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one.” — Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

Part of Rome’s allure is its status as the Eternal City—one of the most enduring and continuously relevant urban centers on the planet. Rome’s longevity is due largely to its ability to change and adapt to new circumstances and identities: from its legendary origins in the eighth century BCE to a city ruled by mythical kings, then a proud republic, an imperial city, papal city, and a modern capital. Along with each new iteration came new urban features and landmarks, together with the loss of old ones. As suggested by Freud’s famous words comparing Rome to the human psyche, the memories of lost Rome remain present in the city at any given time, kept alive through words and images. Indeed, images of lost Rome abound in the Lanciani archive, precious records of the city’s previous incarnations and reminders that the city is also in a state of flux. Below is a small selection of the Eternal City’s less eternal features, as pictured in items from the collection.

Palatino, Settizonio e costruzione della Domus Severiana

Known as a time of major construction, the Renaissance was also a time of prolonged, dramatic destruction. Many ancient monuments were demolished to be reused as building materials. One casualty was the Septizodium, a grand, originally freestanding façade (and perhaps water feature) dating from ca. 200 CE. The remains of the structure, which had been ruinous for centuries, stood near the southern base of the Palatine Hill. The Septizodium was dismantled in the late 1500s, during the reign of Pope Sixtus V, so its marbles could be incorporated into new projects.

Chiesa di S. Pietro in Vaticano. Basilica Costantiniana, pianta
Chiesa di S. Pietro in Vaticano. Basilica Costantiniana. Esterno, ricostruzione

The most prominent and controversial demolition of the Renaissance was Old St. Peter’s, a Constantinian basilica that had achieved something of the status of a holy relic itself by the time it began to be dismantled in the early 1500s to make way for an ambitious new version. The images above, in different ways, reconstruct the form of the fourth-century basilica, including the many renovations and additions that had embellished it over its 1200 years of existence.

Veduta dell'ampia Basilica Vaticana
Casa di Raffaello, prospetto

One of the finishing touches of New St. Peter’s was the construction of its spectacular piazza, designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini for Pope Alexander VII and completed in 1667. Yet many structures in the vicinity had to be demolished to make way for a space of such grand scale—including important palaces like Raphael’s Palazzo Branconio dell’Aquila, destroyed ca. 1660 and known today only through images like the one above.

Arco di Portogallo

The so-called “Arco di Portogallo” was a late antique triumphal arch spanning the Via Lata, or today’s Via del Corso. Destroyed in 1662 at the order of Alexander VII because it caused a dangerous and inconvenient bottleneck on that thoroughfare, the arch is recorded through images from before and after its disappearance.

Moving closer to modern times, the period lasting from 1870—when Rome became capital of united Italy—through the Fascist era witnessed the city’s most dramatic period of massive demolitions and infrastructural interventions. Whole neighborhoods were razed to make way for grand boulevards, new (arguably pompous) monuments like that dedicated to Victor Emanuel II, and other trappings thought fit for a great modern capital. One of the most ambitious engineering projects—the construction of massive retaining walls to tame the flood-prone Tiber—sank the river by dozens of feet and resulted in its loss as a real presence in city life.

Isola Tiberina vista ai piedi di Ponte Rotto

On the one hand, there were certainly positive effects of this massive project, for the Tiber’s flooding had been a profoundly destructive force ever since Rome became Rome. This evocative image shows the remains of the aptly named “Ponte Rotto” (Broken Bridge), located near the Tiber Island, which washed away in 1598 and was never rebuilt.

Porto di Ripetta, veduta

On the other hand, many architecture buffs still lament the structures that were lost to the retaining walls, such as the beautiful Baroque upriver port, known as Ripetta, designed by Alessandro Specchi in 1704.

Dating from several decades later, another major loss—this one spearheaded by Mussolini—was the clearing of a swath of structures in the Vatican Borgo to make a new, wide avenue, the Via della Consolazione, leading from the Castel Sant’Angelo up to St. Peter’s. As with so many radical Roman transformations, this example is a case of taking the good with the bad. On the plus side, the demolition opened a scenographic, memorable, and much photographed view from the river toward the basilica. At the same time, a whole residential quarter, including many important palaces, fell victim to the wrecking ball.

Veue et perspective du Pont e du Chateau S. Ange

This bird’s-eye view shows the Borgo long before the clearing of structures for the Via della Consolazione. The approach to St. Peter’s was then a very different experience, for pilgrims and visitors wound their way through narrow streets to suddenly emerge in the shadows of the great basilica. Today, the view is framed from far away—the element of surprise has been sacrificed to a scenic vista.

Prospetto e veduta della Basilica Vaticana da ponte Sant'Angelo

Although this image of ca. 1700 does not represent the Via della Conciliazione as executed in the 1930s, it shows that the notion of clearing out that area in order to create a more dramatic approach to St. Peter's was proposed centuries earlier.

In conclusion, it is easy to wax nostalgic about lost Rome. But Rome is and has always been a city that thrives on the interweaving of loss and regeneration.

Text by Jessica Maier, Mt Holyoke College