Ex Urbe
August 20, 2013 1:40 PM   Subscribe

"But Freud had a second fear: a fear of Rome's layers. In formal treatises, he compared the psyche to an ancient city, with many layers of architecture built one on top of another, each replacing the last, but with the old structures still present underneath. In private writings he phrased this more personally, that he was terrified of ever visiting Rome because he was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible. He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right."

Ex Urbe is a blog of well researched long-form (yet highly readable!) articles on ancient to Renaissance Italy, written by a professor of European History. Some highlights:

"Machiavelli made two big, big breakthroughs. If I treat each in turn, with the proper historical context, I think I can make Machiavelli make sense.
Machiavelli, founder of Modern Political Science and History.
Machiavelli, founder of Utilitarianism/Consequentialist ethics.
The latter issue is where Machiavelli picks up such titles as Arch-Heretic, Anti-Pope, and Destroyer of Italy (also father of modern cultural analysis and religious studies). The former, however, is even more universal in its penetration into modern thought."

Machiavelli I
Machiavelli I (Addendum)
Machiavelli II - The Three Branches of Ethics
Machiavelli III - Rise of the Borgias
Machiavelli IV - Julius II, the Warrior Pope
Why We Keep Asking "Was Machiavelli an Atheist?"

Spot the Saint
"Renaissance art, religious art especially, is aesthetic, but it is also narrative. Sculptures, paintings and other artifacts were created to retell and comment on stories and people whom the audience was expected to already know. Being able to identify different subjects, especially saints, by their vocabulary of recurring attributes is a kind of cultural literacy which all Renaissance people had, but most modern viewers lack."

John the Baptist and Lorenzo
Sebastian and Catherine of Alexandria
Peter and Paul
The Heavenly Court
Reparata and Zenobius
Franciscans (Friars Minor)
Nicholas and Befana
Agatha and Lucy
Spot the Saint mini-quiz
Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist
The Four Evangelists
Jerome and Cosmas & Damian


Accuracy in Historical Fiction
"She's not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century. But I guess it's not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn't been published yet."

A Passion for Porphyry
"The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source. Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church? Loot it from a Roman temple. Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven? Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus."

The Scariest Library
"I am going to spend the next 5,000 words complaining about library architecture. Let's see if I can keep you excited."

Venice I: What's Carnival Really Like?
Venice II: Mask Culture
"In Venice one is either (A) in Saint Mark's Square, (B) on the Rialto bridge, or (C) lost."

Really Real Fake Centurions
"Legio I Italica is a group of top quality, professional Roman Legionary reenactors, who travel around Italy by invitation, making camp in various towns and cities in order to educate Italians, young and old, about the real life of the legions and the ancient world."
posted by Paragon (29 comments total) 245 users marked this as a favorite
Ok, this looks fascinating. Thanks!
posted by zarq at 1:52 PM on August 20, 2013

It's great sites like this that make me realize how woefully short my attention span has become on a 'puter. Oh, look! Porphyry!
posted by steef at 2:19 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Aach! I first read this as Freud was afraid of Rome's Lawyers!
posted by Sintram at 2:23 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow, I have had thoughts like Freud's, regarding Rome. An irrational, hard-to-phrase sense of panic at the incomprehensibly dense layering of buildings, ruins, and buildings.

Two solutions come to mind:

1) Raze everything built in Rome after 800 AD and turn the rest into a nice clean dig.
2) Avoid such messy places and stick to America west of the river, where history is only two or three layers deep at worst.
posted by General Tonic at 2:25 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Someone recommended the blog to me a few days ago and I've been steadily reading back through. Not only have I been laughing like an idiot at a lot of things (Italian bathrooms: Carelessness or Intentional Deathtrap? It's a question I've asked myself a lot.) but I've been getting to wallow in topics I love dearly. So, so good.

Also, she's clearly a Spot The Saint master. I always get confused with all the bishop-saints.
posted by PussKillian at 2:31 PM on August 20, 2013

I just read the first link. Fantastic story! Thanks for the post!
posted by shivohum at 2:38 PM on August 20, 2013

Brilliant post in every way. Well done & thanks.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:46 PM on August 20, 2013

I had a colleague who was studying Roman altars, half of which you could only get at by ringing the bell of strangers’ apartments and saying: “Hello! I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?” to which the standard response is, “Oh, yes, come on in, it’s in the basement next to the washing machine.”

Fascinating article! And the Freud hook is genius. (I wish they'd make a Psychonauts that is like this)
posted by yoHighness at 2:49 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

On the other hand, Freud was fascinated by Egypt-- one of the few places the layers might actually be more numerous and go a bit deeper-- and was, for his time, a notable collector of Egyptian antiquities.

But that essay itself was incredibly deep and gave me a sense of Rome and Roman history (saying very illuminating things even about Mussolini and fascism!) that I've never gotten from anything else and yet lacked the wit to be aware of a lack of.
posted by jamjam at 2:52 PM on August 20, 2013

possibly needs NSFW tag for underground pagan blood orgies in first link :/

(sometimes I wish metafilter had the img tag...I have the best picture of a disappointed mother wagging her finger that would be so appropriate here. Oh wait...here.)
posted by sexyrobot at 2:54 PM on August 20, 2013

I went to Rome on one of those terrible EF tours in high school, and was blown away that all those ancient ruins you see in books are, like, right there in the middle of the damn city. Here in Canada, city buildings are lucky to last more than 30 years.

(I also had a classmate from Cairo who tried her best to convince me that the pyramids were also right there in the city, but I was having none of it; in every picture I'd ever seen, they were out in a barren desert. It wasn't until years later when Google maps became a thing that I realized my idiocy.)
posted by Sys Rq at 3:00 PM on August 20, 2013

What a terrific post. What a terrific blog.
posted by Prince Lazy I at 3:01 PM on August 20, 2013

I've only read the first article, and it is brilliant. I studied the early medieval history of Rome a long time ago, and this gets across the excitement I felt looking at those layers of things and meaning so well.

Rome is not unique among European cities in this respect, though with such a long history of urbanisation it is probably the most densely layered with what you might call architectural archaeology. For example, York has Roman baths in the basement of a pub.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:07 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I want to favorite this post a million times! I was in Rome for the first time last fall, and loved it - I *like* all the layers - it's fascinating, and makes it feel more alive to me.
Thank you so much for this post!
posted by dbmcd at 3:17 PM on August 20, 2013

I'm surprised exurbe.com was free for the taking. The blog looks cool and I'll be reading more of it.
posted by ersatz at 3:33 PM on August 20, 2013

Now, that's an FPP.

Many thanks!
posted by Thorzdad at 3:59 PM on August 20, 2013

So many beautiful quotes to pull. Here's one from the Borgias article:

After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards. Ooooh. Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century. In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere. Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere! You have a mistress! And a daughter! And a brothel! And an elephant! And take your elephant to your brothel!
posted by feckless at 4:32 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is fun.

Another good quote:

The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:37 PM on August 20, 2013

That was one of the best fpps I've seen on metafilter in a long, long time. Those previous good fpps have been buried under layers of successive fpps, but they're still there.
posted by happyroach at 7:42 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

This history of Florence is at least as good as the Rome one, and quite a bit funnier and more sarcastic. Excellent stuff.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:05 PM on August 20, 2013

Oh, and the Florence one has an (entirely appropriate) shout out to Assassin's Creed 2, which was exactly what I was thinking of when I was reading about the Palazzo Vecchio.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:09 PM on August 20, 2013

Freud was preceded by Madame de Staël, author of Corinne, or Italy (1807), the hugely popular novel which was half travel guide, half romance:
"From the top of the Capitol, such as it is now," said Corinne, "we can clearly see the Seven Hills; we will go over them all in succession; there is not one but teems with historical recollections." They took what was formerly called the sacred or triumphant road. "Your car passed this way," said Oswald. " It did," answered Corinne: "such venerable dust might have wondered at my presumption; but since the Roman republic, so many a guilty track hath been imprinted on this road, that the respect it once demanded is decreased." She led him to the stairs of the present Capitol; the entrance to the original one was by the Forum. "I wish," she said, "that these steps were the same which Scipio ascended; when, repulsing calumny by glorious deeds, he went to offer thanks in the temple for the victories he had won; but the new staircase and Capitol were built on the ruins of the old, to receive the peaceful magistrate who now monopolises the high sounding title of Roman senator, which once extorted reverence from the whole universe. We have but names here now. Yet their classic euphony always creates a thrill of mingled pleasure and regret. I asked a poor woman, whom I met the other day, where she lived. 'On the Tarpeian Rock,' she answered. These words, stripped as they are of all that once attached to them, still exert some power over the fancy."
posted by jokeefe at 10:02 PM on August 20, 2013

This bit from the first part of the series on Machiavelli is funny:
1508. The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest. Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield. Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe. If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources. How will it fall out? Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France? Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg? Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French? Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean? Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried? (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.) All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove. He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations. At last a courier rushes in with the news. The day has come. The alliance has formed. It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.

O_O ????????

Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.

I am being only slightly facetious. The War of the League of Cambrai is the least comprehensible war I’ve ever studied. Everyone switches sides at least twice, and what begins with the pope calling on everyone to attack Venice ends with Venice defending the pope against everyone. Between this and the equally bizarre and unpredictable events which had dominated the era of the Borgia papacy and pope Julius’ rise to power (another day, I promise!) Machiavelli was left with the conclusion that the current methods they had for thinking about history and politics were simply not sufficient.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:33 PM on August 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

This guy is a great communicator in general. Italian history is endlessly interesting, but experts who try to explain it to laypeople inevitably either get bogged down in minute details of Roman bureaucracy, or hung up on the particularly grotesque and odd, like the Cadaver Synod.

But this manages to present a wealth of information, put it in historical and geographical context, pepper it with curious tidbits, and be extremely entertaining and easy to read.

He should write a book. I'd buy it.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:33 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

He has a knack for dropping in a surprising, clever joke when you least expect it, actually. This made me laugh out loud:
And we’re off! Fountains! Busts! Triumphal arches! Equestrian bronzes! Romanesque loggias! Linear perspective! Mythological frescoes! Confusing carnival floats covered with allegorical ladies! Latin! Greek! Plato! Galen! Geometry! Rhetoric! Navigation! Printing! Libraries! Anatomy! Grottoes! Syncretism! Philosopher princes! Ninja Turtles! Neo-Stoic political maxims! Neo-Platonic love letters! Lyre-playing! Theurgic soul projection! Symposia hosted by Lorenzo de Medici where philosophers and theologians lounge about discussing theodicy and the nature of the Highest Good! All that stuff that makes the Renaissance so exciting!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:35 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

So so so so good! Just through the fist link, but happy to have a lot more in front of me. Thanks
posted by abecedarium radiolarium at 3:09 AM on August 21, 2013

Do you guys know about the Coursera MOOC on Roman architecture that starts in January? It looks pretty freaking good. I'm signed up for it.
posted by ChuckRamone at 10:51 AM on August 21, 2013

This blog is so amazing! Thanks for the most excellent link, Paragon.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:12 PM on August 21, 2013

Jesus, on top of all the other awesomeness, there is this:

FOOTNOTE: For those who care, the context of that Anime Answerman quotation:

Kid writing in: “Dear Anime Answerman, my friend tells me that Inuyasha is a more violent show than Elfen Leid, and I don’t believe them, but I can’t tell them they’re wrong because my Mom won’t let me watch Elfen Leid.”

Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”

posted by A dead Quaker at 6:09 PM on August 22, 2013

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