Rome is the white whale of history—as immense as it is elusive—and in chasing after it the historian will learn much more about himself or herself than about the beast itself. It is a subject that undoes modern history’s claims at objectivity, the scale of its past and its irreconcilability with both the narrative demands of writing and the rhetorical needs of argumentation nag at anyone who takes the task on. Perhaps Ahab’s quest is the wrong reference. Try Hemmingway’s old man: the prize is grappled with and conquered, only to be worried into oblivion as it is brought in to shore.
I’m painting, perhaps, the wrong picture to bring you in to this book, but writing the history of this great city—whether its cross section is determined by questions of society, labour, water, music, institutions, building materials, oratory, trade or whatever else—is a matter of compromise, and it is important for a reader to know that. Indeed, compromise is exactly what is needed in order to make sense of anything in history. It is entirely unhelpful to land in the middle of this city and be assured that after just a few decades of reading and reading and looking and listening that it will all make sense. Here, take these volumes of Gregorovius. You have German, don’t you? Or Latin, at least? The papers are in the Vatican—no, of course you can’t.
This book was never intended to make sense of Rome, conclusively. It is instead intended to offer a point of departure from which someone who wants to, on their own terms, can dig deep. It is meant to be a gate through which to enter the city—one of the many available to you—a way past the walls build out of so much history.
I have written Rome to give the newcomer to this city a way in—a way to appreciate the different ideas around what this city is and could be that have shaped the stuff on (and in) the ground. It is a book for the first five days on the ground. It is the tasting plate; the flight; the sampler—the temptation to try one’s hand at something that might otherwise be passed over, shaped by the sense of being in good hands. It is a book for a train or an aeroplane. Stick it in your pocket! I wrote in the opening pages that this is the book I wish I’d been able to read when I first arrived in Rome, and as such it offers one way to make sense of the city as a thirty-centuries-long tussle between the city as thought and projected and the city as built. There is a book behind every sentence on every page. If Rome leaves you unsatisfied, good. It will have done its job.
Andrew Leach is Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney and the authour of Rome, published by Polity in 2016