Roman Culture

all roads lead to a city not built in a day

Roman History and Environment

leave a comment »

This was first published at

Yesterday I attended the conference “History and Environment in the Ancient Mediterranean”, hosted at the American Academy in Rome and the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae. I felt a bit the outsider, an architect amidst earth scientists and archaeologists, but the discussion was fascinating and I learned a lot.

The intensive discussion of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) brought me back to my undergraduate research on Urban Ecology in the American Southwest, the topic of my Princeton thesis.  At the time, I was investigating the connection between the ability of human culture’s to live within the constraints of their natural environment by designing communities and buildings according to passive solar principles.  My conclusions, as I recall, were that while the Anasazi were skilled at adapting to seasonal (and daily) fluctuations in temperature and moisture, they were unprepared for the trend in lowering of water tables caused by the erosion of soil and the creation of arroyos. Like the frog in the gradually warming water, they didn’t notice the change until it was too late. These concepts of trend and fluctuation were brought up in the talk by Harvard’s Mike McCormick who directs the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization I was fascinated by the existence of this site which “makes freely available on the internet the best available materials for a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) approach to mapping and spatial analysis of the Roman and medieval worlds.”

The conference was organized by William Harris, professor of history at Columbia University, who gave an excellent paper on Deforestation in the Ancient Mediterranean. I had never realized that the principle cause of deforestation in ancient Rome was not clearing land for agriculture, nor harvesting of lumber for shipbuilding and other building projects, nor even the need for heating fuel (although these were all significant);  it was the iron-smelting industry.

The question the conference left me with was this: how relevant is historical climate change to our current predicament? I believe that we can learn something from the innovative techniques adopted by cultures with more immediate restraints (lacking the miracle fuel of petro carbons) but also a far more diluted concentration of human settlement and therefor less potential negative impact. They had little choice but to live sustainably within their local carrying capacity;  those that didn’t, like the late Romans or the Anasazi or the Mayans, didn’t survive. By contrast, today we are coming to terms with global scarcity despite having technical means far superior to those of the ancient world. We have succeeded in overcoming local restraints with simplistic, inefficient means (primarily burning fossil fuels) but have yet to meet the potential for a complex, sophisticated response to our globalized, human-induced environmental challenges.  This is the present-day predicament. Perhaps the real relevance of the study of ancient Rome is not not for what we learn about earlier adaptations to earlier climate stress, as admirable as they are, but simply because encouraging the appreciation of cultural heritage and promoting its preservation we present a “saner” alternative to the contemporary culture based on consumption and runaway growth.  In the age-old battle between simplified pre-conceptions and complex scientific knowledge, the study of history provides data for the reality-based among us, data which may be essential toward solving our current environmental challenges.


Written by Tom Rankin

June 16, 2011 at 5:11 am

Via dell’Orso

leave a comment »

The other day. after a long afternoon with students from the University of Southern California, I walked back to where my bike was parked, taking a shortcut through Via del Orso.  I stopped to draw at a cafe which gave me plenty of time to note what was right about this street.  At street level are small shops, artisan workshops, the occasional restaurant and cafe, all things that enliven the street.  There are virtually no cars or scooters, which means it is quiet and pedestrians, especially children and elderly, walk with a confidence rare elsewhere in the city.  Above, building facades are gridded with windows and shutters set off against the patina of stuccoed facades with a range of color just enough to exude diversity and character without any one building taking over and shouting too loudly. The rooftops overflow with green. In short, a perfect Roman situation and one the city needs to recognize and “valorizzare.”  More on this at

A sketch I did last week at the cafe on Via dell'Orso



Written by Tom Rankin

June 10, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Architecture, Rome

Ponte della Musica

leave a comment »

The new bridge over the Tiber

After work today I biked up to see Rome’s newest bridge, the Ponte della Musica, designed by the English firm Buro Happold, with Powell-Williams Architects (credit which most of the newspapers covering the inauguration neglected to give).  Here’s my candid opinion.

Rome needs pedestrian infrastructure so the decision to build two new pedestrian bridges is a good one.  Was a good one, that is, 11 years ago when the competition was held. I question why it had to take 8 million euros and 11 years to span the Tiber, but what is done is done.  Well, it’s not actually done because apart from the bridge itself the context in which it sits is as unresolved as the most marginal urban fringe anywhere. The bike path actually stops 50 meters before reaching the pedestrian-bike bridge, forcing bikes to either slalom around pedestrians and illegal billboards on the sidewalk or mix with the speeding traffic on highway Lungotevere. On the Flaminio side in place of the tree-lined pedestrian avenue there are construction barricades and no traffic lights or even zebra strips.  It is literally a bridge from nowhere to nowhere at present.  Equally importantly, there is no connection to the banks of the river, a missed opportunity which is unpardonable. Rome’s traditional bridges have steep, smelly stairs to the river; this new one could have had spacious ramps down to the riverside bike path but, at least at present, there is nothing.  The only way down is 500 meters away, through a trash strewn dirt path sketchier than the shoulders of most highway off-ramps.

I don’t mind the aesthetics of the bridge; pretty much universal engineer’s white, the kind of steamship modern that inspired Le Corbusier mixed with a bit of Calatrava sculptural drama. The black asphalt in the middle is sad and a bit scary.  It’s too easy to imagine cars slipping through and feeling at home here. The techno-bollards which should lower to allow some uncertain electric bus to pass and then rise shut again may not last even as long as the old chain that used to keep scooters off Ponte Sisto (and even with the bollards scooters can go right through).  And then the flow of “official” vehicles (macchine blu) and emergency vehicles and false handicapped  and…before you know it it’s just another bridge to be saturated by motor-vehicles.  That’s what the asphalt says to me.

It doesn’t have to happen.  They can finish the job, welcome pedestrians where they don’t go now by completing the planned urban promenades, providing street furniture, calming traffic.  Truly sustainable transit alternatives can be created, dependable and zero-carbon, crossing the bridge, navigating the river, and zipping the public along the Lungotevere along rigidly enforced bus-lanes. I’ll go back when the job is done.

This is what greets you on the Flaminio side

...and this is on the Prati side (note the gas station on axis)

The techno-bollards and steam-ship rails

Written by Tom Rankin

June 1, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Segesta, Sicily

leave a comment »

Written by Tom Rankin

May 24, 2011 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Palatine and Velabro

leave a comment »

My sketch from Capitoline Hill

Openings and closings on the Palatine.  While some terraces, towards the Forum are seeing more closures, others, toward Velabro are now accessible to visitors. As is the House of Livia (a nice addition to the House and studio of Augustus which has already been open during limited hours for years.)  Yesterday I was sketching on the Campidoglio during my lunch break and enjoyed the combined view of excavations in the Forum, gardens on the Palatine and amazing roof terraces in the Velabro neighborhood.

Written by Tom Rankin

May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am

Building Maker Comes to Rome

leave a comment »

Just got a message from the folks at Google with whom I worked in l’Aquila recently.  The software we used for the virtual reconstruction is now available for Rome;  check it out at


Written by Tom Rankin

March 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Opening of Temple of Hercules Victor, Tivoli

leave a comment »

As of June, 2011, Tivoli’s vast Temple of Hercules will be open to the public for the first time ever. Built between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, the temple lies on the southeast slopes of the hills of the city, visible from the gardens of the Villa d’Este above.

A 700-seat theatre has also been restored and will be inaugurated with a summer performance series; this might bring back the role of Tivoli as an evening destination from Rome, famous in the Dolce Vita years but long in decline.

A museum has also been designed, a new structure built to house the extensive finds from the excavations of the 1980s.

Design work continues on ideas for the reuse of the area’s industrial archaeology which includes ex-munitions and paper factories from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

Further information:

Written by Tom Rankin

January 31, 2011 at 6:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

%d bloggers like this: