Contemporary Pleasures in
The Eternal City
Rome revitalizes its past and brings it into the future.
Architecture. Food. Art. Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day, but over the endless centuries, these were the kind of iconic pleasures that supported the growth of The Eternal City.
Rome is, of course, ancient. But unlike cities in the United States—which tend to keep history in small theme parks or museums, to build over it or to pave around it—Rome adds over centuries. It only subtracts due to cataclysms or neglect. Italy’s capital is home to some of the most famous buildings in the world, some of which have stood since antiquity, and they are inescapable in the center of the city. The Colosseum, the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Forum…these and so many other buildings are less ruins than institutions—destinations that generations of pilgrims, travelers and Romans know as intact, or slightly decayed, barely changing over the decades, giving credibility to the idea of “eternal.”
But it’s a mistake to find Rome completely unchanging. It’s not simply an open-air museum. If you look just beyond the iconic statues and shrines, you’ll find a city that not only pulsates with modernity but stays ahead of cultural curves, curates the unfamiliar, and delivers contemporary pleasures with new icons of food, art and architecture.
Convention, sacrificed on the altar of peace
The Tiber River flows through the center of Rome. While the city grew around its banks, the river itself has been walled in and bridged over, making it feel curiously removed from daily life in a way that the Thames or the Seine do not. Recent efforts, however, have started the process of reconnecting the river to the Romans.
One such project involves an old relic and modern architecture: Ara Pacis Augustae. The altar—dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of peace and commissioned to celebrate the return of Augustus Caesar from Gaul in 13 B.C.—consists of four stone walls, nearly 35 feet long apiece, that surround an actual altar. When this massive stone work was completed in 9 B.C., it started a long journey migrating from an undeveloped part of Rome outside the Servian Wall, becoming submerged, broken apart and scattered throughout Italy and Europe.
On the 2000th anniversary of Augustus, after nearly four centuries of cobbling it together, the pieces of the Ara Pacis were put back together and placed near its original site. The enormous friezes told stories of bounty and the Pax Augustus, providing subtle anti-Republican propaganda for that regime as well as that of the Mussolini regime that touted its return on the banks of the Tiber in the 1930s.
After being awarded the design in 1995, American architect Richard Meier and his associates spent eight years fending off controversy and developing a new, elegant structure for the altar. Construction began in 2003, and its design provoked more controversy. While reviews after its 2006 debut were mixed, the years have been kind to the light, airy design that Meier conceived.
The contemporary structure is all windows and thin supports, accentuating the altar, illuminating its brilliant friezes, allowing natural light to tell its complicated story in a perfectly Roman way. As Meier told The New York Times at its unveiling: “You see the city in a totally different way from this building. The city becomes alive from your experience of being here.”
Eating away at the classics
There’s an old Italian saying: A tavola non si invecchia. It means, roughly, “At the table, you do not age.” It’s intended for the diner, to encourage them to sit, enjoy their meal and converse. But it could also speak for the classic dishes served at the Italian table. For centuries, the menu has remained ageless and delicious.
No matter where your location on the peninsula, you’ll find a regional signature that at least partially defines what you think of as quintessentially Italian, from pesto in Liguria near the border with Monaco and France, to Neapolitan pizza, to the Roman signature pasta dish cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) from the Lazio province. Almost unimaginably creamy and decadent, it’s not your normal alfredo sauce. Instead, it’s something primal and unfussy—using nothing more than fresh black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese and starch-rich pasta water—that is one of the go-to orders for generations of Lazio-bred Italians like Chef Francesco Apreda, born in Naples with decades spent in Lazio and Rome.
But Apreda doesn’t seek to simply replicate the taste of a childhood favorite. He has reimagined it and won a Michelin star for his efforts. The restaurant he runs, Imàgo, was first envisioned by Roberto E. Wirth, President & Managing Director of Hassler Roma. It was Wirth who created the restaurant on the top floor of the grand hotel, located at the very top of the Spanish Steps with a panoramic view of Rome. But it was Apreda who fashioned a daring menu that might be the only thing able to distract you from the ethereal view.
Think caramelized melon carpaccio with cardamom, blue lobster with hijiki seaweed salad and parmesan, or—one of his signatures—a cacio e pepe risotto seasoned with sesame, milk instead of water, and a mix of peppers and spices.
His is a globetrotting, thoroughly modern cuisine that embraces its Italian heritage. The way Apreda sees it, his food tells a story of his life. “My inspirations are seen plate by plate, like a form of storytelling. I can say to my customer, ‘This plate has a history,’” he said during an afternoon break from prepping the evening menu. “I was always thinking about traditional food, but as I traveled, I looked for the new.”
As a result of those travels—stays in India, Japan and the U.S. for work—he conceived of a different kind of signature food, one that stands contrary to the belief of aging at the table. In fact, as he describes his technique of making a delicate dashi stock and serving this Japanese staple with parmesan cheese, you see the table jumping into the future.
Roman history, on the clock
For a city that so often makes a visitor feel like time is truly relative, Rome has a surprisingly precise date for its founding: April 21, 753 B.C. That’s the traditional date given for when twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded the city on the spot where infant, exiled princelings were nursed by a she-wolf.
The high drama and fratricidal legend of Romulus and Remus later set the tone for the city. After two millennia plus of republics, empires, barbarians, popes, revolts, the Risorgimento (Italian Unity), fascism and instability, this drama was captured and puckishly portrayed on the banks of the Tiber by South African artist William Kentridge in his majestic, clever and astonishing “Triumphs and Laments.” This mural, 80 figures strong, was created with a kind of reverse stenciling technique and spray washing that left behind a dramatic negative—the black “ink” of the work being the lichens and pollution that was washed away around the images. It takes up more than 1,800 feet along the west side of the Tiber.
The mural captures the full history of Rome—with certain liberties taken, from the she-wolf herself, through the modern day—and it celebrates the beautiful high points and the unspeakable horrors of the Roman expanse. Those interested in what each stretch of the mural alludes to can find an online reference created by Dr. Lila Yawn—an American professor at John Cabot University, a college near “Triumphs and Laments”—and her students.
I was lucky enough to be given a personal tour of the mural by Yawn, and she shared some of the context of each deeply symbolic, iconic and sometimes ironic image. Some of it, though, went beyond her, too.
“Kentridge deliberately does not put the figures in chronological order, and mixes modern, medieval and ancient elements in clever ways, but yeah, I don’t really know why Romulus and Remus are represented by pitchers,” she said about one of the more familiar images seen throughout Rome but reimagined here.
As it always seems with Rome, there are layers to Kentridge’s unmistakable works. First—and ironically—it is history on the clock. After debuting on April 21, 2016, the monumental mural has always had a built-in impermanence. The organization that helped spearhead the effort—Tevereterno—gives it until 2020 until it disappears, completely reclaimed by the pollution and lichens from which it was liberated.
Second, its temporary existence isn’t simply the work of a single artist. In fact, “Triumphs and Laments” owes its existence to the years of work that the celebrated New York- and Rome-based installation artist Kristin Jones invested in getting the approval of the authorities to allow the work to happen.
Jones first explored Rome as a scholar in 1983 and almost immediately saw this stretch of the Tiber as a kind of beautiful, if ignored, Roman relic—“grand, with a sense of majesty and abandon,” as she recalled.
It’s fair to say Jones saw the potential of the river in a way many Romans didn’t. She returned to the city often, as a Rome Prize winner in 1994, then as a scholar, at which point she stayed in the city for nine years, first imagining a river festival, then building an organization made up of Roman colleagues named after her idea: Tevereterno. It was through this organization, dedicated to the revival of the Tiber, that Jones with her colleagues started to engage members of the city, regional and national governments about revitalizing the river.
Jones had her first conversation for her vision—contemporary art as a vehicle for urban renewal and environmental awareness—in 2001. Fifteen years later as the “anima” of hundreds of individuals and volunteers, came her collaborative triumph.
The road ahead
Time was, the cliché about all roads leading to Rome was a truism. At that time, the Appian Way and a few others stretched from the Empire’s hinterlands into the city itself. These were the first true highways, packed with gravel or smooth stones and built to last. They brought goods, services and, of course, ideas back into the city. Roads kept the city modern and fed, serving as arteries for its armies to transverse the empire.
Now, ideas come to Rome in different ways—through globe-trotting Italian chefs or American architects or South African artists. But they bring back the same currency that helped establish Rome’s viability from the start: knowledge and craft, innovation and a dynamic spirit. Behind the gorgeously decayed facade of much of the city, a potent contemporary heart still beats. The pleasure remains in finding a modern thrill in ancient ruins.