BMCR 2020.10.48

Architectural restoration and heritage in imperial Rome

, Architectural restoration and heritage in imperial Rome. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 301. ISBN 9780198848578 $99.00.


This book originates from a PhD thesis submitted to the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. Two very instructive examples frame the work the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, which was destroyed and rebuilt several times and the ancient paradox of the ship of Theseus. Both hint at a central aspect of the study’s conceptual framework: namely, the notoriously precarious relationship between identity and alterity of a building as soon as it becomes subject to discontinuities in form and material.

The book aims to shed light on the Roman concept of built heritage by reference to the theory and practice of restoration. It focuses on public buildings in Rome, especially, but not only, between 64 and the early 120s AD. The author’s central hypothesis is as follows: during the period under study restoration, simply understood as repair or reconstruction, was carried out generally in an innovative manner. It was often accompanied by enlargement or the application of new building techniques and forms. Usually, a structure damaged or destroyed was not necessarily reproduced in the previous form. Cases in which the earlier form was partially or completely taken into account must be regarded as highly specific exceptions. These exceptions were based primarily on religious interventions. Therefore, in the case of Roman architecture, Siwicki generally considers as ahistorical those assumptions that try to associate the formal or material structure of restored buildings with their past. That refers especially to intentionally reproduced elements, which at first glance seem to remind of faithful restoration or historicist façadism in the 19thand 20th centuries. In ancient Rome, he argues, when historical value was attributed to a building, it was not based on physical, but on local or nominal categories.

The Introduction is followed by theoretical problems and definitions (Chapter 1). In Chapter 2, Siwicki outlines the aspects of his core hypothesis. Chapters 3-4 deal with two case studies, concerning the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Casa Romuli. In Chapters 5-6, referring mainly to literary sources, Siwicki discusses the relationship between continuity and change in the case of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and of the urban organism of Rome after the fire in 64 AD. The work ends with a conclusion, bibliography, index locorum and a general index.

In Chapter 1 “Definitions and Parameters” Siwicki defines restoration as an act of repair or reconstruction of a pre-existing building. Following that assumption, the archaeological data of Rome herself—a metropolis subjected to notoriously massive and multiple transformations during the period under consideration—trigger examination. Emic conceptualizations defining engagement with buildings as historically relevant are missing in Roman literature, as Siwicki shows. In his eyes, scholars of Roman architecture previously examined the problem of restoration in a rather selective and superficial way, often narrowed by the burdening theorem of cultural memory. Instead, the author considers it more appropriate to rely on the theorem of (built) heritage, understood by him as a variegated bundle of historical associations influencing the perception of and the engagement with buildings. On this theoretical basis, Siwicki legitimately tries to challenge the conventional denotation which automatically assumes that a respective building acts as a lieu de mémoire. He would rather consider Roman architecture in a more differentiated manner according to distinct categories such as form, size, material, site, name.

In Chapter 2 “Restoration: Why, Who, How” Siwicki discusses the generally positive evaluation of restoration and the generally negative evaluation of ruins in the city of Rome that have existed over a longer period of time. In the archaeological, epigraphic and literary tradition there is no evidence at all that a dilapidated building in Rome was intentionally preserved and ostentatiously exhibited as a ruin. Instances which might point to the contrary are either not ruins in a strict sense (e.g., the Vacci prata, where the destroyed structure continued to exist only as a memorizing toponym), or belong to literary contexts whose relationship to the actual practice of urban planning in Rome is problematic. Siwicki mentions a variety of actors involved in Roman restoration practice. Regarding their different spheres of influence, he submits that ideological interpretations of Roman restoration projects so predominant in recent scholarship may be oversimplified—an approach he succeeds to work out convincingly in the following case studies. On the basis of a series of literary references and archaeological examples the author argues that innovative restoration should be seen as the clearly prevailing mode. An outstanding discussion of the building history of the Pantheon contrasts fruitfully with the building history of the Campanile of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice in the early 20th century. Apparent continuities in acts of repair or reconstruction can always be explained as a result of practical considerations, as Siwicki convincingly shows for the round temple in the Forum Boarium and the Regia in the Forum Romanum.

In Chapter 3, Siwicki examines the multiple phases of destruction and reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. He first traces the transformation that the temple underwent throughout the centuries. He then focusses on the continuity purposefully pursued during this transformation process, namely through the retention of the temple’s ground plan. Because of the sporadic archaeological findings, it is clear that Siwicki is forced to deal primarily with literary evidence. He compares the haruspices’ stipulations for the Vespasianic reconstruction mentioned by Tacitus (hist. 4.53) to other cases of religiously based conservation, as they occur, e.g., in Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan. He embeds them systemically in the network of other actors involved in Roman building practice. While many scholars go beyond the goal of preserving the pax deorum reported in Tacitus and attempt to make far-reaching political-ideological explanations, Siwicki suggests to better integrate such interpretations within the sphere of ancient reception aesthetics. According to him, the idea that the preservation of a ground plan was an intentional form of engagement with Rome’s past and identity should be rejected as an overinterpretation—an interpretation which owes much more to general tendencies of recent scholarship than to actual evidence.

In Chapter 4, Siwicki turns to the Casa Romuli in Rome, a hut in an old-fashioned construction technique which has been continuously maintained in its original form. It appears to be another prime example of restoration and dealing with built heritage in Rome. It also seems to be a central counterargument to Siwicki’s basic hypothesis that Roman restoration is always innovation-driven. To an even greater extent, the sporadic archaeological evidence forces the author to work with literary sources. He analyses the situation of the (at least) two Casae Romuli of similar appearance on the Capitoline and the Palatine hill, whose conceptual similarity nevertheless allows him to speak of one Casa Romuli. Siwicki puts into perspective the supposed Augustan instrumentalization of the hut and its restoration. He considers that approach as driven by overarching interpretation patterns in scholarship rather than being based on evidence. Also, he criticizes the tendency to take literary interpretations of simple and old huts as moral examples too seriously and to conclude that the retention of their form was driven by similar intentional concepts. He sees no evidence for a connection between the status of the hut as a historical monument (which itself is beyond question) and the conservation of its specific architectural form. Siwicki uses the hut as a parallel to the wooden Pons Sublicius in Rome. According to the literary tradition, the bridge was continuously destroyed and repaired in always the same way. Also, it is recorded that—as in the case of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus—religious observance was part of the process. As Siwicki rightly puts it, the identical reproduction of the bridge “resulted from an attempt to preserve the pax deorum, not to create a historical pastiche” (p. 165). The parallel allows Siwicki to make religiously based intervention plausible also for the preservation of the appearance of the Casa Romuli, while he is well aware of the individual functions of his examples.

The aspect of reaction and valuation is systematized in Chapter 5 “Ancient Responses to Restoration”. The complexity of such a discourse and the large number of actors involved – and so the fragmentarity of ancient tradition – is colourfully demonstrated in the building history of the modern Ara Pacis Museum. This is followed by a close reading, aimed at connotations instead of explicit denotations, of pertinent ancient texts on the reconstruction of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus under Catulus (Cic. Verr. 2.4.69) and Domitian (Mart. 5.10 and Plut. Pub. 15.3-5). Well aware of the numerous voices and perspectives competing in these passages, Siwicki points out that the innovative component of reconstruction is consistently evaluated positively. Negative, mostly moralizing evaluations also occur but they are never justified by the fact that the old structure was not taken into account.

In chapter 6 “Roman Thoughts on the Rebuilding of Rome”, Siwicki expands the spectrum of reactions to restoration. He takes a closer look at the city’s transformation in its entirety. As in the previous chapter, he states that the transformation of the cityscape after the fire of 64 AD is unanimously considered as an improvement across different actors and perspectives. The focus switches to passages in Seneca (epist. 91.13-14) and Martial (5.7; 5.19). Finally, a key passage in Tacitus (ann. 15. 41) seems to connect paradigmatic urban categories as utilitas, decor and salubritas with an appreciation of the pre-64 cityscape rather than its reconstruction. This exceptional passage, however, is put into perspective by Siwicki’s showing that, firstly, the irreplaceable losses caused by the fire deplored by Tacitus do not embrace the architecture of the city; secondly, the burning of the sun in the wider streets of the new city which Tacitus mentions is not necessarily to be interpreted as a primarily urbanistic evaluation, but as an allegorical allusion to an increased social vigilance associated with the deity Sol under Nero.

In the conclusion, Siwicki summarizes his investigation. He points out that the deeper reasons for the characteristic separation between the historical identity of Roman buildings and their concrete physical existence are still to be discussed. The fact that the profession of Roman architects and their products enjoyed a comparatively low reputation, he suggests, could be one aspect to be taken into consideration there.

Siwicki presents a well-structured study of one of the most important aspects of Roman architecture. Throughout his book, he succeeds in clarifying his hypothesis of an innovation-led character of Roman restoration on the one hand, and the categorical separation between historical value and physical structure of Roman buildings on the other. The structure of argumentation—four case studies illuminating the intentional and the reception-related aspects of Roman conservation respectively—is well chosen. That distinction might at first glance seem to be one between archaeological findings and textual responses. Yet with the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Casa Romuli the author has chosen cases that can only be reasonably dealt with by critically interlinking all types of sources. Perhaps one could also consider to distinguish a priori between architectural-urbanistic practices discernible through archaeological evidence on the one hand, and rhetorical-poetic constructions in epigraphic and literary genres on the other. But this would certainly require the discussion of other examples. Both approaches are well established in Classical Archaeology. Both do have different hermeneutical advantages and disadvantages. In any case, Siwicki definitely has succeeded in presenting a highly readable as well as a convincing research: he interprets both archaeological and textual evidence thoroughly and establishes a substantial systematization explaining the complicated status of restoration in Rome.