‘To the sun Rome owes its underlying glow, and its air called golden – to me, more the yellow of white wine; like wine it raises agreeability to poetry. One remembers the glow as a constant, the city as a succession of bright distances…’Elizabeth Bowen, A Time in Rome, 1960, p.143
I was celebrating the coming Christmas holiday in my favourite Sardinian osteria when my mobile phone rang. The chatter around me was loud, so I found it hard to hear an acquaintance over the static enquire if I might serve on a (government) museum committee. Rather than quiz him, given the circumstances, I said ‘yes’. In 30 seconds, the matter was closed. Without realising it, I had committed myself to 11 days on an Italian Ministry of Culture museum selection commission.
Ten days later, the formal email came, as the national gazette reported the appointment of the commission to select directors for Pompeii, the Reggia at Caserta (a Bourbon palace that was Allied headquarters for the Mediterranean theatre from 1944 to 1945), and the Accademia in Venice, a small gallery with amazing collections that, bizarrely, attracts few visitors. I should have recognised the problem when I looked closer: we were five academics in total, and I was listed as Professor Arch[itect] Odges. ‘H’ is always a problem in Italy. But how on earth did I become an architect? It was my first insight into a Wonderland that my non-academic friends took to be a great honour, and induced funereal commiserations from those in the know.
Updating the past
Every nation does things differently. It is a terrible mistake if you live in another country believing it should be a cookie-cutter version of your own. Before long, you have to go with the flow, chip away at the things that can be changed, and accept the underlying philosophy, otherwise you’ll suffer terribly. Italy is a glorious country; it has a wonderful culture. It is a supreme privilege to live here, but boy, does the state need to come to terms with the 21st century – especially in the cultural heritage sector, where it is missing a trick.
Basically, that is the point of our committee.
The previous government had a thoughtful Minister of Culture and, in 2015, he put through a reform to create autonomous archaeological parks and museums. Twenty were designated in the first Act, each answering to a Board as well as the Ministry’s Secretary General, rather than a cumbersome hierarchical chain that eventually reached the Ministry. Change comes hard in Italy, not least because the Minister in question controversially encouraged foreigners to apply. He wanted to up the bar on the management of these places, generating increased revenues and better services. His good intentions met with clamorous dissent, but he prevailed. It seemed, though, that his initiative would be dumped by the incoming 2018 government with its nationalist agenda. It wasn’t.
The Ministry of Culture is housed in many different palaces in Rome. Our commission was destined to meet in the Collegio Romano, close to the Pantheon. This was the upside of my odyssey into the heart of Italy’s bureaucracy. My 15-minute walk took me over the Ponte Garibaldi, as the sun forced its way over the highest ruins of the Palatine, illuminating the Tiber island. The Romans called it inter duos pontes: between the two bridges. On a footprint measuring 280m by 70m, the island was once crowded with temples, the most important being that to the healing god Asclepius. Apparently, the temple was built here because the god’s sacred snakes squirmed off a boat coming up the Tiber and swam ashore. The temple probably lies beneath the prominent church of St Bartholemew.
Parts of the two bridges, the Pons Fabricus to the left, and the Pons Cestius to the right, are Roman in date, though the latter was repaired in the 11th century. The whole effect as you stare at the turbulent waters passing either side of the island is as if this were a sleek warship advancing through the city. This was not lost on the Romans. In the late Republic, someone modelled the downstream end of the Tiber island facing the Field of Mars literally into the shape of a trireme prow. Constructed in travertine and tufa, under the prow is the head of Asclepius, his staff entwined with snakes.
Beyond the island I saw the thin campanile of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which houses the Mouth of Truth, a bucket- list ‘must’ thanks to the incomparable Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953). The thought of those two icons, as you march through Rome, never fails to raise a smile. The traffic under the capacious canopy of plane trees along Lungotevere has increased since Roman Holiday many-fold, but the spirit is undimmed, as reckless and independent as ever.
Past the austere Ministry of Justice, my route took me to the Largo Argentina. Warily crossing the tramlines, I was confronted by this undervalued island of ruins. The sunken area was created in 1926-1928, when the buildings above were demolished. Only the 12th-century Torre del Papito or dell’Olmo survived, as the over-active government set its heart on widening streets here. Below, occupied by an ever-growing number of dozy cats, the eastern end contains the Porticus of Pompey (Curia Pompeia); beyond are four Republican temples, side by side. The columns of the far temple survive higher because, in 1132, the church of S. Nicola dei Cesarini or Calcarari (‘lime burners’) was built into it. Next to it is a circular temple thought to have been dedicated to Fortuna Huiusce Diei (‘good fortune on this day’). Half revealed next to the temples is the Curia Pompeia, where Brutus and his conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar. This searing chapter of history is more or less marked by a solitary pine tree.
Today, Romans and tourists pass overhead, oblivious. For those who pause, it’s the docile moggies that grab their attention. Somehow, Rome is missing a trick in not doing more to commemorate this place in the metropolitan fabric, but the city is so full of archaeology, does the legendary dictator’s awful end matter that much? Here I encountered an old friend, Jan Gadayne, professor at Temple University and excavator of ancient Artena. He was awaiting students to take them on a tour of the nearby Crypta Balbi. I mentioned my upcoming task and he smiled knowingly, like a pope sanctioning a martyrdom.
On I went, along the bustling Corso and down the Via de Gesù, past one of my favourite restaurants (Enoteca Corsi) with a wonderful cantina – opposite is a lone column capped by an Ionic capital cemented into the wall. On, past shops for painters and slimmed-down cafés and retailers befitting a small country town rather than a capital. At the junction with the Via S. Stefano del Cacco is an arresting sight. It’s quite unexpected: confined by brass bars is a colossal marble foot, almost certainly from a statue that once graced the temple of Isis that lay close to the Piazza della Minerva. The temple was rebuilt by the Emperor Domitian after a fire in AD 80, and the generally accepted view is that the form of the mega-sandal suggests a male cult statue, possibly Isis’ consort, Serapis. I stooped to see what the sign says about this marble masterpiece. Nothing about its meaning; just a note on its conservation. Hmmm, I muttered aloud as I advanced towards my destination in the Collegio Romano.
Narrowing the field
The Collegio Romano exists in a tight ensemble of palaces, cheek by jowl with the better-known Doria Pamphilj palace. The College was a Jesuit school, founded in 1551. It quickly grew to include classes from an elementary school through to university level. In 1787 the college added an observatory. On 6 November 1870, with the unification of Italy, it was summarily closed, and the symbol of the Society of Jesus was chiselled from the doors. Pope Pius IX protested in vain. One wing is today a high school, the Liceo Visconti; otherwise a thousand civil servants occupy this labyrinthine palace, all entering through a small porter’s lodge.
Our commission met on the top floor in the library of the meteorologists. It is a netherworld separated from the strip lighting of the corridors and offices inhabited by the Ministry of Culture. Here you are reminded of Italy’s infinite riches. Beneath ceiling frescoes with portraits of scientists and surrounded by walls of leather-bound monographs, the odour of age and the necessary dim lighting cast a certain ageless benediction on our proceedings. Here, at a huge table on which scientists could unfold folio books, it is deemed that we should deliberate. From the beginning, it feels as though we are cardinals invested in electing popes, as my friend Jan Gadayne had intimated.
Five of us – two art historians, a professor of conservation, a Classical archaeologist, and I – made up the commission. To one side sat a row of six ministry officials, who offered smiles and a little assistance. ‘Are they spies?’, I was asked more than once. Eleven days were spent in this conclave. Eight days drifted as we allotted points out of a hundred, based on Ministry criteria, to each candidate: two points for a degree, more for a doctorate, lots for experience, two for fund-raising, two for languages, and a discretionary ten for our collective thoughts on each of the 150 candidates. In the United States and Britain, the allocation of points would have pivoted around a vision involving strategic planning and then development – fund-raising. Not here. Bibliography mattered, an index of disciplinary training.
The unthinkable shadow was the thought of someone who was neither an archaeologist nor a conservation architect being elected director of Pompeii. Whatever the managerial challenges, these fiefdoms belong to their established disciplines and, if there were disputes between the commissioners, it was when one or other of us flirted with the idea of a candidate trained as an economist or lawyer leading our site or museum. From an early age, Italians are streamed at secondary school into Classics, sciences, and so on, and – come what may, with the prospect of robots ruling the world – the universities take pride in sustaining their disciplinary traditions.
Together, gently splitting hairs over points, taking each applicant’s curriculum vitae as a starting point, we arrived at an aggregate number. A few managed upwards of 80 points; some hopefuls got fewer than 20. As often as not, the discussions reminded me of Italians ordering food in a restaurant. Their palates are so refined as to be able to detect the differences between one olive oil and another. So we graded, constructing an immense spreadsheet of digits, while the mute officials looked on, only becoming animated as we postured to leave because our daily presence needed to be signed for, an initial going on each page of every document associated with us.
A familiarity strengthened our conclave to the extent that there was no hint of expedience or favouritism, and certainly no truck with patronage networks (clientalismo). Far from it. The collective, diligent objectivity was, for a pragmatic Briton, at times excessive (if not infuriating), but wholly admirable. What was extraordinary by any Anglo-American standards was the time invested as service, as duty to the country and discipline. Bear in mind, in Britain or the United States a search company would have been deployed to make the first cut. They in turn would have used a junior employee to do it.
Our task was to reduce 150 or so candidates to ten for each of the three places. Ten candidates for a half hour interview, to be reduced to three for the Minister himself to interview, selecting the director.
Three days of interviews. Nearly ten hours each day. What was amazing to me was that these were held in public, though the deliberations were not. So candidates attended each other’s interviews. Here our cultural differences were truly exposed. A North European candidate was fluent, measured, engaging, and, from the outset, offered a vision based on a financial plan. My fellow commissioners were thrilled, transported by his spare clarity. It was not hard to see why. Most Italian candidates, as so often in their lecturing style, drilled excitedly at us in machine-gun monologues with the barest inflection, never really seeking our eyes, until a commissioner relieved the tension by intervening. Then a dialogue evolved. But, speaking to me in English, almost all of the candidates reduced the speed of their delivery, engaged me, and – whether they could answer the question or not – assumed a more responsive mien. Only one candidate, a high-flyer, took risks and told jokes and jousted with us. Boy, did we love that, as did our line of ‘spies’.
All but those who had worked abroad lamented the painful circumstances in Italy, their droll exasperation drawing restrained nodding from the conclave. Almost all hoped for a deus ex machina solution to financing the future – the EU, banks, and so on – and resisted any inkling of reforms to attract donors.
In the end, we deliberated quite quickly. In each of the three places, we arrived easily at the first- and second-ranked winners. Then fate intervened. We were anguished, however, over the third position. At one point the debate turned into a Puccini-esque opera, such was the passion (papers were slammed onto the oak table). At stake was to do the very best. Could it have taken less time? Yes. Were the criteria correct? No. This said, although the grading was numbingly deliberative, and almost archaic, I think we were instinctively proud of discovering our three winners for these very different institutions.
Finding relief in the long strip-lit corridors, or the cold library of the climatologists, punctuated my days in this conclave. Is it like this for cardinals electing popes? Was I wise to have accepted this odyssey into Italy’s statist heart? Without doubt, thanks to my fellow commissioners, I learnt much more than I might have imagined, not least about the deep-seated values of the academic traditions of this challenged country.
Having escaped the Collegio Romano, retracing my steps through the eternal metropolis, the streets were jam-packed with tourists, hungry to consume Rome’s cultural assets. Rome, like Pompeii and Venice, is exploding with staggering increases in visitor numbers. Something has to give, as we commissioners heard countless times from our interviewees. This tourist explosion is a paradox given the dire economic predictions for the country. What is needed is a strategy that recognises the urgent need to reduce the number of visitors to the bucket-list places and skilfully redistributes them, somehow, to other marvellous attractions. This is the challenge for our appointees and their masters. In the small details of any walk through Rome, as in so many Italian cities, the opportunity to fetishise hitherto marginal monuments must surely be taken. The marble foot, Largo Argentina ruins, and the Tiber Island trireme are wonderful windows on ancient Rome, and presently the throngs bustle past, oblivious.
In the topsy-turvy world of Italian politics, am I surprised that in the six months since the commission met much has happened? One candidate challenged his punteggi (‘scores’) and compelled the Minister of Culture himself to respond in parliament. The government then set about trimming the progressive autonomy of the museums and parks, only for a realignment of the government coalition to bring about the return as Minister of Culture of the architect of the 2015 reform. I can only assume more sites will gain their autonomy and more commissions will meet to grade CVs for days…