(Nobody’s ever thought of that pun before)
Since the 1600s, Oxford students with more money than sense have been disappearing off to the Continent for Grand Tours – pleasure trips, disguised as education. These last few weeks I’ve been
extraordinarily busy preparing work-in-progress seminars, studying languages, or whatever it is that I claim that I do, so I decided to investigate this custom over the weekend. All roads lead to Rome, so that’s where I ended up.
Unlike the Grand Tours of old, the whole trip was very cheap. The flight was £109 (Regrettably, the days of £1 flights are over) and accommodation in central Rome for the weekend was another £80 at “Hotel Beautiful 2”.
(It really lives up to its name)
Rome is a very full town – I spent most of the time gawking at things and many more things remain to be gawked at on a return trip (particularly the Vatican). Despite my camera growing deeply confused about its battery life, I took some three hundred photos – not all of which are blurry. The best thing of course was the gelato:
Flavours include: profitterol, basil, and “English Soup”
But the monuments were also fairly gawkworthy and photogenic. I’ll post the photos to facebook at some point and talk here about just one less celebrated sight: the Altare della Patria. This gargantuan marble structure, built in the 1920s to celebrate the unity of Italy covers half the Capitoline Hill (meaning that it can’t be excavated), is already beginning to wear at the joins, and is popularly known by such names as “the Typewriter,” “the Wedding Cake” and “the Monstrosity.”
And needs a wash.
I think it’s fantastic. Fascinating as ancient Greece and Rome are, what people do and have done with them is even more interesting. The Monstrosity is drenched in ancient Rome (quite apart from the vague suspicion that its marble was robbed from Roman ruins). There are are the columns and pediments, river gods (the guy in the bonnet at the left), quadrigas driven by Victories, the statue of Vittorio Emanuele looks a lot like that of Marcus Aurelius up the hill, there is much gratuitous Latin, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And building a colossal, self-praising, over-wrought, soon neglected, edifice over the top of other people’s monuments to celebrate violent refoundation of peace, unity, and freedom by an unaccountable autocrat is just so Roman. The very things that make it an ideologically problematic and tacky pile to us would have appealed to the Romans. Magnificent in the sense of being made big, awesome in the sense of inspiring awe, incredible in the sense of being unbelievable, the Monstrosity is a worthy successor to Monstrosities of Ancient Rome like the Arch of Septimus Severus, the Flavian Amphitheatre, and the Altar of Augustan Peace.