‘The mutability of all things’ The rise, fall and rise of the Meta Sudans fountain in Rome

Elizabeth Marlowe

Next to the Amphitheatre of Titus one can still see the remains which are called Sudans, so called because abundant waters flowed down from it and relieved the thirst of those who had been at the spectacles in the amphitheatre . . . Here you can see the Amphitheatre of Titus on one side of the Meta and the Arch of Constantine on the other. You can also see Joannes Grossus engaged in his usual practice of showing Roman antiquities to German nobles. They, like the French nobles, are keenly interested observers of these antiquities, and rightly so. For in addition to the fact that an honest pursuit such as this befits honest men as a means of spending time both profitably and enjoyably, while others waste their time and squander their fortunes in activities that are incompatible with honesty and in the many evils that typically accompany leisure, the source of all wrongdoings, these German nobles will also profit from their reflection by recognizing the
mutability of all things [rerum omnium vicissitudinem]; that is, how many things are now humble that once flourished. . .

Giacomo Lauro, Antiquae Urbis Splendor, 1641


The ostensible subject of the ninetieth plate of Giacomo Lauro’s collection of modern and reconstructed ancient buildings in Rome is the monumental ancient fountain known as the Meta Sudans, built by the Flavian emperors during the first century ce in the open square in front of the Colosseum (Figure 2.1).1 Though originally faced with marble and almost as tall as the 67-foot Arch later erected by Constantine just to the south, all that remained of the Meta Sudans by the seventeenth century was a scrappy, 30-foot tall brick core, whose original appearance Lauro reconstructs on the basis of ancient numismatic depictions.2 As both the image and the caption make clear, however, the real subject of Plate 90 is the juxtaposition of the present and the past, and the good that emerges from that confrontation. Led by the dapper, labelled figure of Hans Gross of Lucerne (member of the Swiss Guard and financer of this edition of Lauro’s volume), the emphatically modern tourists assembled in the foreground examine the fountain in its emphatically ancient, long-vanished appearance. Lauro’s textual emphasis on the vicissi­tudes of fortune sits curiously beside the image of the miraculously repristinated monument. To appreciate the ‘mutability of all things’, the German nobles would have had to compare and contrast both Lauro’s engraving of the monument in its ancient splendour and the extant, crumbling ruins.3 Plate 90 conflates not only past and present, but also those two moments of autopsy.

No other image in Lauro’s collection includes the depiction of modern observers, nor is the text elsewhere ever so self-conscious about the act of contemplating the past. It is impossible to determine what prompted Lauro’s choice of the Meta Sudans as the vehicle for this discussion; nor could he have guessed how appropriate a choice it would prove to be. There is, perhaps, no ancient monument in the city of Rome whose post-antique life has seen such extremes of fortune and misfortune. While countless classical structures were stripped of their marble adornments, saddled with awkward Christian reinterpretations, appropriated by would-be emperors, over- optimistically restored or simply bulldozed, only the Meta Sudans has undergone every single one of these metamorphoses – and not in the order one might expect. The example of this monument pushes us, I believe, beyond the question of ‘misprisions of place’ and forces us to confront the essential emptiness and availability of the signs of the past in changing urban contexts.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm