Chicago (2023) h/b 272pp £80 (ISBN 9780226826264)
Rome, like Venice, Istanbul and other truly historic cities, isn’t short of guidebooks. Scott Samuelson, author of the latest, picks out two of my favourites, Carlo Levi’s Fleeting Rome and Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide. His own is a stimulating, thoroughly readable mix of these two very different guides, folding the literary and philosophical into the artistic and cultural.
This isn’t a new approach: Levi himself follows in a long tradition of poets and writers who have sought to draw out what it is to be human from their visits to the Eternal City. Janus Vitalis, du Bellay, Spenser, Goethe, Pound, Lowell and Heaney—each in turn came ‘looking for Rome in Rome’.
Rather than plotting segmented tours of the city’s geography or history, S. frames Rome through its writers and its art. Individual chapters foreground particular authors: Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Horace, Seneca, Augustine and Apuleius get star billing. Others are centred around four great artists (Caravaggio, Bernini, Rafael and Bruno), and on three outstanding sites (the Forum, the Basilica of San Clemente, Chigi’s Villa Farnesina). Each chapter extracts the philosophical juice from his featured author or artist and ends with recommendations for further reading and visits on the same theme.
So we learn how a city makes us live together, how we should relish what’s around us, how we must avoid extremes of thought and behaviour, look always to truth and beauty, and embrace both past and future. S. takes us into what he calls Rome’s ‘memory palaces’, and explains how each of us is carried along by family, politics, art and culture, making our contribution and accepting in time that we are only passing through. It’s not after all the monuments, sculptures, pictures or poems that are on trial.
His style is folksy, conversational, often abstract—a modern Levi rather than another ‘10 Best Things to See in Rome’. But it’s no less thought-provoking than Levi, and draws upon a wealth and width of learning, from Wilhelm Dilthey and Frances Yates to film-makers like Fellini and Sorrentino. From that learning we are reminded of Rome’s complexity, its ambiguity and its timelessness. All its visitors have to think. Cicero mourned (angor animi) what was already missing from the Forum in his day. It was the Christians who melted down every bronze equestrian statue, bar that of Marcus Aurelius. It was Augustine’s mother Monica who complained about variations to the Eucharist but was told by Bishop Ambrose ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’.
S. doesn’t ignore the difficult questions: how did a culture that prized learning and admired great art relish so much killing in the Colosseum or celebrate in triumphs such vicious punishment of rebellions as the sacking of Jerusalem? There are indeed lessons for our time too and for the democracy that we vaunt: we may deplore reality TV but we watch it anyway; we resent the power of the mob but then we subscribe to social media.
In any selection like this there are inevitably gaps—I would have liked more from Virgil, and perhaps from Juvenal too. And S. also doesn’t get into how the Romans created such an extraordinary empire and held it together for so long. But, thoroughly at home in the capital, he has more than enough material for our enlightenment. Rome’s lessons are all there, he believes, for the well-lived life: treat living with dignity and good cheer, prize relationships and friends, use tradition eclectically, speak well and write well to pass on what’s important.
Sometimes the philosophising makes hard work: ‘the logic of parsing dogma makes sense only once you glow with the ecstatic catastrophe of logic at dogma’s core’ or becomes a little glib ‘unlock the soul in your soul’. Not everybody will like the style of which S.’s editor is occasionally a little too tolerant: ‘About the fact that violence and beauty have a long-standing torrid love affair, I have nothing reassuring to say’ is not a sentence you’ll find in any Blue Guide.
But these are quibbles: for the seasoned Romanist as well as a first-time visitor, this is an excellent vade mecum for our times. All will read it with profit and enlightenment: it will certainly accompany my next trip.
Sir Michael Fallon
Founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Classics Group