A modern fountain?


The Colosseum valley as it appeared from the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s, with white outlines marking the locations of the demolished Meta Sudans and Colossal statue base

as if Mussolini were seeking to convey not his revival of the grandeur of ancient Rome but his power to destroy that which is old, unsightly or super­fluous (Figure 2.8).

For the next sixty-odd years, it looked as if this were the end of the story of the Meta Sudans, the only exception being some important archaeological explorations of its remaining foundations in the mid-1980s and 1990s.46 But perhaps no episode in the long, tortuous history of the monument is as strange as the one unfolding today. In recognition both of the Holy Jubilee of 2000 and of its own fortieth anniversary, the Rotary Club Roma-Est has recently proposed to recreate the ancient fountain on the site. The project was outlined and promoted in a widely distributed, 34-page, folio-sized publi­cation entitled The Meta Sudans: The Most Ancient Fountain of Rome.47 According to this volume, the project would be overseen by the Rotarian, Maurizio Pouchain, head of a firm specializing in architectural restorations, and appeared to have the backing of the Soprintendenza Archeologica of Rome, perhaps because the Pouchain firm agreed to pay for the preliminary archaeological studies. The idea is not so much to rebuild the ancient structure as to recreate its effect:

limited to a recomposition only of its vertical element, not by means of masonry, but through a play of water and effects of lighting to recreate the memory of that monument which was probably covered in sparkling marble, and which, even as a ruin captured the imagination and piqued the curiosity of Romans and of thousands of visitors to the Eternal City, for so many centuries.48

The stipulations are, of course, that nothing irreversible be done to the site, and that no harm come to the ancient foundations. Nevertheless, the published report suggests that when it is complete, the hydraulic capacity of the fountain will be around 180 litres of water per second.49

Despite the Rotarian rhetoric that the recreation of the fountain will foster scientific discussion and reach a wide audience (thereby signalling a new way of ‘doing Rotary [fare Rotary] in the new millennium’), the project is unabashedly political. The very first page of the proposal notes that the fountain survived intact from the ‘Rome of the Kings to the Rome of Mussolini, only to be destroyed by him in 1936 to make room for his troops to celebrate the triumphs of Fascism by marching through the Arch of Constantine’. It goes on to state that the project was first proposed by Urban Planning Professor and Rotarian Piero Lugli, son of the archaeologist Giuseppe Lugli, who, we are told, was ‘the only intellectual who dared to protest the demolition’. The proposal to rebuild the fountain can thus be understood as an attempt to undo the legacy of the Fascist era on the ancient monuments of the city centre and, as such, was very much a product of its political moment under the centre-left Amato government.

In this regard, Rotary’s Meta Sudans project is quite similar to the contemporary endeavor to replace the glass shell erected around the Ara Pacis during the Fascist period with a new, more conservation-minded building, designed by the architect Richard Meier. It is perhaps not a coinci­dence that it was also the Roman Rotary Club that paid for the glass of that original Ara Pacis building. They themselves make the connection in the very first line of their Meta Sudans publication, as evidence that the proposal is nicely in keeping with ‘the tradition of the Roman Rotary Club’, albeit mentioning neither the Fascist context of the Ara Pacis project nor the fact that their glass had just been torn down.

It seems possible that neither project will survive Italy’s marked turn toward the right, heralded by the re-election of Berlusconi, and evident in the increasing number of public expressions of nostalgia for the Fascist era.50 One of the first acts of Berlusconi’s government was to stop all work on Meier’s project; his Undersecretary of Cultural Affairs [Beni Culturali] Vittorio Sgarbi has even commissioned an alternative project that deliberately echoes the demolished forms of the Fascist pavilion.51 Likewise, the large, proud sign that was installed at the Meta Sudans site in March 2001, promising the ‘Archaeological Excavation and Restoration’ of the fountain by June 2002 and advertising the sponsorship of the project by the Rotary Club and an additional private company,52 has since been quietly taken down.

While the Rotary proposal promises to rebuild the Meta Sudans in a way that is physically non-invasive, historically minded and politically neutral, none of this is true. That much is clear not only from Rotary’s own language but also from the wider lens of the fountain’s tumultuous history. The current project is only the latest in an infinite cycle of appropriations. Today, as in Mussolini’s day and as in antiquity, what one does with the Colosseum valley monuments depends on how one wishes to present one’s relationship to previous builders there, whether it be to liken oneself to them or to memori­alize one’s erasure of their traces. The shifting fortunes of the Meta Sudans remind us that there is no true, objective past which we can simply restore or celebrate or ‘mis-take’ (in the sense of a ‘misprision’), only an intrinsic ‘mutability of all things’, our own innumerable rewritings of that past.


This article has benefitted greatly from the insightful comments of a number of friends and colleagues, including Joshua Arthurs, Barbara Kellum, Michael Koortbojian and Robert Nemes, as well as the members of the classical seminar at the American Academy in Rome: Sinclair Bell, Rebecca Benefiel, Eric De Sena, Archer Martin, Milena Melfi, Peter O’Neill, Shilpa Prasad and James Woolard. I am also grateful to Dana Arnold and Andrew Ballantyne for organizing the stim­ulating conference session out of which this piece grew, and for their stewardship of the written version as well.

1 Some of the issues are discussed by J. Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital. Rome in the Fourth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 70-90.

2 On Maxentius’ building programme, see M. Cullhed, Conservator Urbis Suae: studies in the politics and propaganda of the Emperor Maxentius, Stockholm: Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Rom, 1994; and F. Coarelli, ‘L’Urbs e il suburbio. Ristrutturazione urbanistica e ristrutturazione amministrativa nella Roma di Massenzio’, in A. Giardina, ed., Societa Romana e Impero Tardoantico, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1986, pp. 1-35.

3 Aurelius Victor, Liber de Caesaribus, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994, 40.26.

4 E. Cizek, ‘Neron chez certains auteurs d’abreges du IVeme siecle ap. J.-C. (Aurelius Victor et Festus)’, in J.-M. Croisille, R. Martin and Y Perrin (eds), Neronia V. Neron: histoire etlegende, Brussells: Latomus, 1999, pp. 21-35.

5 Cassiodorus, Varia, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1992, V.42; G. Ville, ‘Les jeux de gladiateurs dans l’Empire Chretien’, Melanges de l’Ecole Frangaise de Rome 72, 1960, 273-335.

6 R. Valentini and G. Zucchetti, Codice Topografico della Citta di Rome, Roma: Tipografia del Senato, 1940-53, v. II, p. 196 and v. III, p. 219.

7 M. Fagiolo, ‘La scena delle acque’, in M. G. Bernardini and M. Fagiolo dell’Arco, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Regista del Barocco, Milan: Skira, 1999, p. 139.

8 R. Preimesberger, ‘Obeliscus Pamphilius. Beitrage zu Vorgeschichte und Ikonographie des Vierstromebrunnens auf Piazza Navona’, MOnchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 25, 1974, 95-100.

9 P Jacks, op. cit., 137-65.

10 Codex Vaticanus Chigianus Latinus G. II, f. 249r, cited by Jacks, op. cit., 147.

11 H. Hager, ‘Carlo Fontana’s project for a church in honour of the "Ecclesia Triumphans" in the Colosseum, Rome’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 36, 1973, 319-37.

12 C. Fontana, L’Anfiteatro Flavio, Rome, 1725, 5.1. The complete text of Fontana’s lengthy treatise on the Colosseum, which served as a prelude to his designs for the new church, is given as an appendix in M. Di Macco, Il Colosseo. Funzione simbolica, storica, urbana, Rome: Bulzoni, 1971, pp. 385-431 (quotation at 430).

13 F. Ficoroni, Le Vestigia e le Rarita di Roma Antica, Rome: G. Mainardi, 1744, pp. 36-8; see also A. Cassio, Il Corso dell’acque Antiche Portate da Lontane Contrade Fuori e Dentro Roma Sopra XIV Acquidotti, Rome: Giannini, 1757, pp. 192-201.

14 This approach to city-planning in Rome was first articulated during the period of French occu­pation (1809-1815), when the Commission des Embellissements de Rome called for a ‘place circulaire’ and a ‘grande allee elliptique autour du Colisee’. Cited by A. Capodiferro, ‘Anfiteatro flavio e meta Sudans’, in B. Tellini Santoni et al., Archeologia in Posa. Dal Colosseo a Cecilia Metella nell’antica documentazione fotografica, Milan: Electa, 1998, p. 21.

15 E. g. A. J. C. Hare, Walks in Rome, London: Strahan, 3rd edn, 1872, v. I, p. 206.

16 Valadier was affiliated with the Academy of San Luca; the quotation is from a letter to the Deputy of the Direzione degli Ornamenti di Rome. Cited by Di Macco, op. cit., p. 101.

17 The story of the transformation of Rome during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been told a number of times recently; see for example L. Cardilli Alloisi and D. Fuina (eds), La Capitale a Roma. Citta e Arredo Urbano, 1870-1945, Rome: Carte Segrete, 1991; I. Insolera, Roma Moderna: un secolo di storia urbanistica, 1870-1970, Turin: Einaudi, 1971; S. Kostof, The Third Rome, 1870-1950. Traffic and Glory, Berkeley: University Art Museum, 1973.

18 Commissione Incaricata di Esaminare i Piani di Ingrandimento e di Abbellimento della Citta di Roma, 1871, cited by Capodiferro, op. cit., p. 21.

19 A. Cederna, Mussolini Urbanista: lo sventramento di Roma negli anni del consenso, Rome: Laterza, 1980; D. Manacorda and R. Tamassia, Il Piccone del Regime, Rome: Armando Curcio, 1985.

20 R. Visser, ‘Fascist doctrine and the cult of Romanita’, Journal of Contemporary History 27, 1992, 5-22. D. Atkinson, ‘The road to Rome and the landscapes of Fascism’, in K. Gilliver, W. Ernst and F. Scriba (eds), Archaeology, Ideology, Method. Inter-Academy Seminar on Current Archaeological Research, Rome: Canadian Academic Centre in Italy, 1996, pp. 39-53. L.

Canfora, Le Vie del Classicismo, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1989; D. Cofrancesco, ‘Appunti per

un’analisi del mito romano nell’ideologia fascista’, Storia Contemporanea 11, 1980, 383-411.

21 Speech given 31 December 1925; cited by Kostof, op. cit., p. 14.

22 I. Insolera and F. Perego, Archeologia e Citta: storia moderna dei Fori di Roma, Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1983; L. Barroero, Via dei Fori Imperiali: la zona archeologica di Roma, urbanistica, beni artistici e politica culturale, Venice: Marsilio, 1983.

23 A. M. Colini, ‘Meta Sudans’, Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 13, 1937, 15-39.

24 Panella, op. cit., 1990 and 1996.

25 A. Gabbrielli, La Meta Sudans. La Piu Antica Fontana di Roma, Rome: Dedalo, 2000.

26 Gabbrielli, op. cit., 8.

27 Gabbrielli, op. cit., 33.

28 Evident in, to name only a few examples, the well-attended public commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome on 28 October of this year (2002), or the sale in the bookstalls of Rome of a humourless Mussolini calendar for the year 2003.

29 According to reports in La Repubblica and Il Tempo of 19 June 2001.

30 The Fondazione BNC.

Chapter 3

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm