William Shakespeare was 17 when, in 1580, the eminent French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne passed through the Aurelian walls via the Porta del Popolo and entered the city of Rome.
Fluent in Latin, steeped in classical literature and ecclesiastical history, Montaigne came to praise the eternal city.
He was shocked to find it buried.
Rome in the 16th century.
Visible are the Coliseum, the entrance to the Pantheon (which has been cleared of debris) and the “Campo Vaccino.”
In the midst of this muddy pasture, three columns from the shattered temple of Castor & Pollux mark the location of the Roman Forum, 15 meters below.
[Museo della Civilta Romana]. Hat tip: Gunnar Heinsohn
Notte Della Città Morta Vivente
Some of the ancient city’s most famous landmarks, such as the Pantheon, were still visible to the discerning eye of the French iconoclast.
In particular, the ruined but nonetheless majestic Coliseum was attracting tourists and pilgrims from all over Rome’s vanished empire.
The wooden deck of the great arena, where gladiators fought to the death, had long since collapsed into the labyrinth of walls and passageways beneath it.
This subterranean region of the Coliseum, which Romans called the hypogeum, could not be seen by Montaigne.
At some time in the past the hypogeum had been flooded and filled with 14 meters of mud, sand, dirt and debris.
Not until 1935 AD was the hypogeum finally freed from its deep entombment.
The Coliseum in the 16th century.
Antonio Lafreri: Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The guesswork ends when you meet Heinz-Jürgen Beste of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, the leading authority on the hypogeum, the extraordinary, long-neglected ruins beneath the Colosseum floor.
Secrets of the Colosseum – Tom Mueller – Smithsonian Magazine – Jan 2011
The stupendous scale of Rome’s mysterious interment was duly noted by Montaigne, who dismissed the fanciful tales told by souvenir peddlers and tour guides.
The hillocks of sand and soil that covered classical Rome, they claimed, were simply the result of a million lazy Romans neglecting to sweep their streets.
Little by little, breeze-borne dust and dirt had accumulated in the city until Roma Aeterna had become a wasteland.
The skeptical, pragmatic Montaigne rejected this uniformitarian fantasy.
It was obvious to his discerning eye that dusty streets were not responsible for the dark earthen shroud that had settled over the city.
And it wasn’t only the lower precincts of the Coliseum that had been encased in earth.
It was plain to anyone willing to see that the entire edifice was surrounded by an urban desert.
The truth was unavoidable.
Long before the memory of any living person, something horrendous had happened here.
The Coliseum: detail from a bird’s-eye view of Rome by an anonymous draftsman, 1562.
RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
Night of The Living Dead City
From a million cosmopolitan citizens living in a thriving city, the population of Renaissance Rome had fallen to an estimated 30,000.
Latter-day Romans lived on perhaps 25 percent of the city’s former domain.
As can be seen in the image below, the rest of the land inside the ancient walls of Rome was barren and abandoned, a miserable, malarial backwater given over to subsistence farming and rubble.
Braun and Hogenberg – Civitates Orbis Terrarum I 45 – 1572
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem & The Jewish National & University Library
The Roman Forum – Vincenzo Scamozzi – 1583
Montaigne’s somber impressions of the ruined city were recorded by his secretary, who wrote:
“(Montaigne) said that one saw nothing of (ancient) Rome but the sky under which it had stood and the plan of its site; this knowledge that he had of it was an abstract and contemplative knowledge of which there was nothing perceptible to the senses; that those who said that one at least saw the ruins of Rome said too much, for the ruins of so awesome a machine would bring more honor and reverence to its memory: this was nothing but its sepulcher.”
“It often happened,” Montaigne noted, “that in digging down into earth of Rome the workmen came upon the crown of some lofty column, which, though thus buried, was still standing upright.
The people there have no recourse to other foundations than the vaults and arches of the old houses, upon which, as on slabs of rock, they raise their modern palaces.
It is easy to see that several of the ancient streets are thirty feet below those at present in use.”
Dublin Review of Books – Blog – Montaigne in Rome
Michel de Montaigne is remembered as a Renaissance man who was ahead of his time.
But not quite this far ahead.
The French savant was a shaken witness at a gruesome autopsy.
Carved marble pillars protruded through the sand and soil of Rome like cold, stone fingers reaching up from the tomb of a dead metropolis.
To anyone willing to see, the evidence was clear.
Something horrendous had happened here.
The city of Caesar had not only died, it had been buried, too.
“The Campo Vaccino” about 1640.
15 to 20 meters above the pavement of the buried Roman Forum.
Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture /
Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal
Like Hamlet gazing upon the skull of Yorick, Montaigne contemplated the corpse of Rome.
He asked a question that remains relevant today: “Whodunnit?”
Or, perhaps, “Whatdunnit?”
MyMovies.it – La notte dei morti viventi
For Montaigne, the answer seemed obvious.
Rome had been sacked and buried by envious enemies — and in cold blood.
“The world,” he wrote, “jealous of (Rome’s) prolonged empire, had first broken her admirable body into pieces, and then, when they perceived that the remains attracted worship and awe, had buried the very wreck itself.”
In other words, Montaigne — to borrow a phrase from Horace Walpole – theorized that Rome’s ruins had themselves been ruined.
Triumphal arches that had once embraced the pomp and glory of parading legions, Montaigne believed, had been deliberately buried to their midriffs in mud.
Overwhelmed by the scale and scope of Rome’s cataclysmic demise, Montaigne struggled to replace conjecture with comprehension.
But he returned to France without an answer.
Fast forward 200 years – 206, to be exact.
It’s November 1, 1786, and down from the north for a visit to the living dead city comes a German poet, novelist, intellectual and literary superstar who calls himself Jean-Philippe Möller.
As Möller’s carriage passed through the Porta del Popolo, the best-selling author of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” looked up at the Aurelian Walls of Rome with optimism and expectation.
At age 37, despite early success that had won him fortune and fame, Herr Möller was having a mid-life crisis.
He made no secret of his hope that eternal Rome, caput mundi of classical antiquity, would rekindle his creative powers.
What he did make a secret of, even among friends, was his real name:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
View of 18th century Rome from the North – Giovanni Panini
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin–Preussischer Kulturbesitz
At first, Goethe thought 18th century Rome was paradise.
The Age of Reason had helped revive the buried medieval city that Montaigne had seen.
Some of the dirt that covered ancient streets and avenues had been removed.
La Fontana di Trevi was flowing.
The Spanish Steps climbed toward the Piazza Trinità dei Monti.
The Spanish Steps – 18th century – Gian Paolo Panini
Metropolitan Museum of Art
From his rooms at 18 Via del Corso an elated and spellbound Goethe looked down on the endless opera in the busy street below.
Goethe in Rome, looking out his window at 18 Via del Corso
Portrait by Tischbein
Zenda – Fantasmas de Roma: Un Paseo Romántico
María José Solano – 22 Jan 2017
But, like Montaigne two centuries earlier, and like Adam long before that, Goethe began to suspect that Eden has a dark side.
“(Roman) architecture rises out of its grave like a ghost,” Goethe noted.
Goethe in Rome, reclining on a shattered Egyptian obelisk
Portrait by Tischbein – Google Art Project
A short walk from Goethe’s window was the Campus Martius, where a toppled, shattered obelisk lay exposed to his questioning gaze.
Broken pieces of the obelisk of Psammetichus II being readied for repairs and re-erection in the Plaza di Montecitorio, where it stands today.
Sketch by Giuseppi Vasi
Rome in the Footsteps of an XVIIIth Century Traveller
Once used as the gnomon of towering sundial, the huge (21.7 m.) obelisk lay broken into five pieces.
Somehow the red granite monument, quarried and carved at the order of Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus II and shipped to Rome in 10 AD by Augustus, had been broken and buried.
A few decades before Goethe’s arrival, it had been found and excavated.
Like all but one of the 13 ancient obelisks in Rome, it had been toppled by a force or forces unknown, possibly by the same disaster that had broken all 11 of Rome’s aqueducts and buried the city alive.
The romantic poet had been expecting Roman cityscapes that resembled the idealized engravings on the walls of his father’s study in Frankfurt.
Instead, he saw a crumbling city where barnyard animals grazed in the shadow of imperial splendor.
The Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine in the 18th century.
During the two centuries that had passed since Montaigne’s visit, the capital of the ancient world had remained a ruined remnant of its classical grandeur.
Harvard Art Museum
When Goethe saw it, the great amphitheater – where countless thousands had died to amuse the cheering throng — was still surrounded by mounds of the earth and sand that had buried the living dead city.
Cattle and sheep, wandered among the remains.
They grazed above underground streets where Roman crowds had parted to let imperial chariots pass.
“When I approached the grand ruins of the Coliseum and looked through the gate into the interior,” Goethe wrote, “I must frankly confess that a shudder ran through me, and I quickly returned home.”
Goethe would not have been able to see this corridor beneath the Coliseum.
It had been buried by the disaster that destroyed Rome.
He would not have been aware that far below ground were Roman plank walkways, right where the disaster left them.
At the far end of this excavation, two people can be seen atop the deep layers of sand, dirt and mud that were still being removed in the 1930s.
In the days of the empire, this “backstage” area below the Coliseum, known as the “hypogeum,” was a maze of chambers and passageways, some of which gave direct access to the arena floor via a total of 48 lifts, [ https://beruehrungspunkte.de/magazin-7/die-loewen-fuhren-aufzug/ ramps, and 36 trap doors.
Goethe was troubled by the same dark thoughts that bothered Montaigne; the stark contrast between the stately Rome of textbook history, religion, culture and art, and the devastated Rome that kept poking up through the ground.
“One reads history quite differently (in Rome) than anywhere else in the world,” Goethe wrote.
“Everywhere else one starts from the outside and works inward; in Rome it seems to be the other way around.”
Earnestly seeking the great city of history and legend, Goethe took short trips around Rome, including an expedition to “destroyed gravesites along the Via Appia.”
Like Montaigne, he could see plainly that something horrendous had happened to Rome.
But what was it?
He struggled to understand, calling on the broken city itself to help him grasp the truth.
Image of Santa Maria Antiqua in the 18th century
Watercolor by Francesco Valesio.
Temple University Museum
Some 15 meters beneath a cow pasture called the Campo Vaccino was the early Christian church of Santa Maria Antiqua.
In the late 18th century Goethe could have looked down through excavation shafts to the pavement of the Roman Forum below.
He might have watched convict laborers working with shovels and wheelbarrows to free the ancient church from the heavy overburden of earth that had hidden it for centuries.
Goethe would have wondered why this holy place had been submerged in dirt, which was not fully removed until 1900 AD.
The History Blog
Directly above the buried Santa Maria Antiqua was the baroque 17th century church of Santa Maria Liberatrice.
It was built on top of the dirt that filled the Roman Forum.
In 1900, as excavation of the Forum neared completion, Santa Maria Liberatrice was demolished to make room for more digging.
The three columns from the Roman temple of Castor & Pollux were finally exposed in toto.
Buried secrets that hindered Goethe’s quest for answers were now being revealed, 68 years after his death.
On the 1st of April, 1788, after 17 months in Italy, Goethe said goodbye to 18 Via del Corso.
He had found love and happiness in his travels, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the architecture, monuments and statues of Rome were only “a world of illusion.”
Faust and Mephistopheles on the Blocksberg – Delacroix – 1826
Städel Museum – U. Edelmann – Artothek
Did Goethe sense that the real history of the living dead city lay unrevealed beneath the streets?
The History Blog
As Goethe’s carriage rumbled toward the Porta del Popolo and the long climb up to Weimar, it may have crossed the busy Piazza Venezia.
If so, Goethe would have passed above the one Roman ruin that might have meant more to him than any other: the long-buried Athenaeum of Hadrian.
Famous in antiquity for attracting the greatest orators, poets, philosophers, playwrights and scholars of the Roman Empire, the athenaeum was only rediscovered in 2013… seven meters below the streets of modern Rome.
With a unique arched ceiling, the athenaeum of Hadrian was an auditorium that seated 900 patrons and students of the arts.
They came to listen and learn from the greatest minds of the age.
If he had lived in Roman times, Goethe would have been among them.
History of Democracy – Senate of Rome
Most archaeologists say the athenaeum was built in 123 AD and survived for five or six centuries until the roof caved in, slowly declining from a center for the arts to a metalworking shop to a barn for livestock.
Other scholars and researchers, such as Gunnar Heinsohn say that Rome did not decline gradually.
The classical city and its western empire were struck down by a massive natural catastrophe in the 10th century AD.
Civilization was cast down, destroyed in a hellish disaster that left survivors foraging for food and shelter in a devastated world, much of which – in Rome and other places – remains buried to this day. Rome and its western empire never recovered.
Mainstream archaeologists claim that the athenaeum was built in the 2nd century AD and continued to serve various purposes until the 9th century, when Rome was hit by an earthquake.
However, the stratigraphy-based research of Gunnar Heinsohn shows that the ruins of the Athenaeum reveal only its original Roman construction from the early 2nd century.
After the catastrophe, survivors used the Athenaeum and other places as primitive shelters against the weather and marauders.
This later usage could well have taken place in the 10th century.
After all, it was not until the 11th century that Rome began to slowly recover from the catastrophe.
In 1790, two years after returning from Rome, Goethe published the first pages of his masterwork, the epic poem “Faust.”
Faust is a timeless allegory of good and evil.
A successful and educated man, Faust – like Goethe in Rome — has everything he needs.
But Faust wants more.
He wants unlimited enlightenment and knowledge, and will sell his soul to get it.
Was Goethe using Faust to reveal his quest for the knowledge that escaped him in Rome?
One scholar observed,
“The story of Faust is a message coming from antiquity; from the world of shadows.”
“Faust falls to the ground at the appearance of the Earth-Spirit.
Now, however, he will follow the star which has arisen within him; he will prepare “the twofold realm;” the spirit-realm of antiquity, which has vanished from his consciousness …”
Mephistopheles and Faust – The Sketch 1908
Hell is below ground.
In his deal with the Devil, Faust wants the kind of knowledge that Goethe had sought among the ruins of the Roma Aeterna.
Both Montaigne and Goethe descended into the living dead city.
Both left Rome without learning how and why the center of the ancient world had fallen.
Faust sells his soul to understand the past, to acquire the wisdom that was denied to Montaigne and Goethe.
In Rome, the evidence he wanted was right beneath Goethe’s feet.
But the excavation of the Roman Forum was still 112 years away.
The discovery and excavation the Athenaeum was 214 years away.
If Goethe had known of the research of Gunnar Heinsohn and the many articles published in MalagaBay, it might have saved him a trip to Rome.
The secret that Goethe sought so avidly, Heinsohn holds, is that Rome was struck down not in dim antiquity but only about 70 years before the beginning of the High Middle Ages.
Sybil and the Ruins of Rome – Giovanni Paolo Pannini
The terrible truth that Goethe saw in the ruins of Rome, but which he was unable to comprehend is that…
Rome was Unbuilt in a day.
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With thanks to Gunnar Heinsohn and Tim Cullen.