Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories, by R.J.B. Bosworth

Visitors to Rome typically notice precisely what they have come to see, namely its classical, early Church, Renaissance and Baroque monuments and vestiges

July 7, 2011

The city in which these gems are ensconced can be easy to ignore, even though its 19th- and 20th-century apartment buildings and avenues provide the display case for the Eternal City’s beloved sights.

Yet what we can perceive of the classical and early modern eras was largely defined in the past two centuries, by archaeologists and architects in the employ of popes and politicians; and although those centuries’ urban interventions are not always noteworthy, their role in staging the history we can see is.

Many books explain different facets of these transformations, but few have attempted to integrate the multiple aspects of how today’s Rome was produced over the past 200 years. None that I know of is more thorough or engaging than this one.

R.J.B. Bosworth has outdone himself with this book, which stems explicitly from personal attachment, more so at least than his numerous previous publications on modern Italy from Unification in 1861 to the post-Second World War era. The book’s organisation is particularly clever, each chapter beginning by drawing the reader’s attention to a site most people overlook (the Napoleonic Museum is the first stop) and drawing out its significance. By the chapter’s end, we have been enlightened as to one of Rome’s “multiple histories” and its subtle ramifications in the present.

The city’s competing pasts since Napoleon’s day bring us to Restoration Rome, the Roman Republic of 1848-49, the young nation’s final wresting of its future capital from the Pope’s control in 1870, and the many monuments commemorating the new state and its heroes - Giuseppe Mazzini, Camillo Benso (Conte di) Cavour, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giordano Bruno. Most of these monuments can be ignored to some degree, but the grandiose Altar of the Fatherland in celebration of King Victor Emmanuel II is inescapable: nicknamed, among other things, the “wedding cake”, it sits at the city’s centre and usually provokes a giggle or a gasp from new visitors. Some grow fond of it, but not typically at first sight.

Refreshingly, Whispering City accords different proportions to the city’s various historical phases and actors compared with most works on Rome. The Fascist period, with its extensive demolitions, vast plans and imperial street names, is too often privileged in books of this sort, as though nothing much had happened beforehand or since. Here, instead, we get a more balanced picture of how the city changed during those crucial years (1922-43), focusing not just on the monumentality of Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico) and the EUR (Esposizione Universale di Roma) district, but also on Quartiere Coppede, a delightful neighbourhood of wildly eclectic design built in the 1920s, that could not be further from anyone’s general image of blank and monumental “fascist architecture”.

This account also mitigates the standard overemphasis on Mussolini by detailing papal efforts before, during and since his dictatorship to reclaim universal authority above that of the comparatively weak Italian state. One pointed example involves the Holy Year of 1933, timed in order to reclaim the limelight after the 10th-anniversary festivities of 1932 in honour of the “Fascist Revolution”; but as the book demonstrates, this was only part of a pattern of oscillation, with government and church competing to upstage each other through spectacular popular entertainment. Pius XII began to prepare the Church’s post-war return to prominence by appearing at the site of the Allies’ bombings in 1943. While the city was completing Fascist-era construction projects into the 1950s and using the 1960 Olympics to refocus official interpretations of recent history, the Church wielded enormous power through the ruling Christian Democratic party. It is impossible not to see the Jubilee extravaganza of 2000 and the recent beatification of Pope John Paul II as part of this ongoing Vatican effort.

Bosworth is a virtuoso at dismantling self-serving claims, no matter which side they come from. It is fair to say, for instance, that he does not much credit the Pope’s purported infallibility. More direly, as he underscores Roman Jews’ subjection to papal persecution and Nazi extermination along with the fact that “ordinary” Romans enabled both, he does not fail also to highlight Romans’ disavowal today of complicity in such crimes, or how this hypocrisy is legitimised by “Fascist fundamentalism” and Silvio Berlusconi’s “generic anti-anti-Fascism”. On a broader political scale, Whispering City provides an excellent context for the virulent anti-Roman sentiment held by many northern Italians, most notably the Northern League party (Lega Nord), as well as the reasons why Romans shrug off their bad propaganda.

It is recommended reading for armchair flâneurs and hard-working tourists alike; don’t leave for Rome without it.

Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories

By R.J.B. Bosworth
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300114713
Published 24 March 2011

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