I’ve now finished the “Eat” section of this book, or in other words the section in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about her stay in Italy. The book is growing on me, or maybe I’m becoming accustomed to her style of writing. I’ve already written about her comments on how Italians cheer themselves up after their football team has lost a match by eating cream puffs, but there a couple of other things caught my attention in this section.
The first is a reference to Dante – I’ve written several posts on Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Florence. Elizabeth goes to an Italian class to help her learn the language. She explains how for centuries there was no “Italian” language - Italians wrote and spoke in different local dialects – and it was only in the 16th century that a gathering of intellectuals decided that the official Italian language (in its written form at least) was the language used by Dante; the language in which he had published The Divine comedy in 1321; the language spoken by his fellow Florentines.
The other most interesting discovery I made in reading “Eat” is about the Augusteum – a big round ruin near the Ara Pacis, the Altar to Peace. I didn’t know its name before, nor its history. I first visited Rome in 1992. I had been doing an Open University course on Roman History and wanted to see various sites, including the Roman Forum, the Coliseum and the Ara Pacis. This large round ruin intrigued me; it’s such a contrast to the Ara Pacis, which is an enormous, gleaming white marble altar, showing the Emperor Augustus’ triumphal entry into Rome, consecrated in 9BC. The Museo dell'Ara Pacis website gives the history of the altar and details of its renovation.
The entrance to the ruin was gated and locked and all we could see were some wild cats – there are lots in Rome - and a lady who had come with some food for the cats. It looked a really mysterious and forbidding place and I wanted to know its history.
Elizabeth Gilbert explains that this is the Augusteum, which was originally a mausoleum built by the Emperor Augustus to house his remains and those of his family. It fell into ruins after the fall of the Roman Empire and his ashes were stolen. By the 12th century it had been turned into a fortress for the Colonna family, then later became a vineyard, a Renaissance garden, a bullring in the 18th century, a fireworks depository, then a concert hall. In the 1930s Mussolini restored it to its classical foundations and intended it to house his remains.
Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t mention the Ara Pacis, but says that the Augusteum “is one of the quietest and loneliest place in Rome, buried deep in the ground. The city has grown up around it over centuries. (One inch a year is the general rule of thumb for the accumulation of time’s debris.) Traffic above the monument spins in a hectic circle, and nobody ever goes down there – from what I can tell – except to use the place as a public bathroom. But the building still exists, holding its Roman ground with dignity, waiting for its next incarnation.”
Yes, it was lonely went we went there (and it did smell, too). Both the Augusteum and the Ara Pacis were very quiet and with very few people around. We went back to Rome in 2003 and again both sites were very quiet, we were the only people there – a treat in such a crowded, busy city.