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Trajan's Mall

THE FORUM OF TRAJAN IN ROME: A Study of the Monuments.\o7 By James E. Packer\f7 .\o7 University of California Press\f7 .\o7 $550 until June 30, $650 thereafter\f7 .\o7 Volume I: 528 pp., 18 color plates\f7 . \o7 Volume II: 128 pp., microfiche\f7 .\o7 Volume III: 35 folded sheets\f7

May 25, 1997|JOSEPH RYKWERT | Joseph Rykwert is author of "The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture" and Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania

Of all the Roman emperors, Trajan has had about the best press from his contemporaries, as well as from later historians, better even than Augustus himself--even if he was an excessive patron of circus games and a moderate persecutor of Christians. He came into the empire as the adopted son of Nerva, a goodish and law-abiding emperor (though weak) whose reign came as a relief after a succession of tyrannous and unstable rulers.

Trajan was a brilliant administrator and an honest prince and was loved by his army. In Rome, his fame has long been associated with a tall column dominating the center of the city, garnished with imperial images and amply inscribed in letters that have been regarded as the model of near-perfect letter-forms since Michelanglo provided an enclosure for the base early in the 16th century. Its shaft was decorated by scrolled, spiraling accounts of Trajan's military campaigns against the Quadi and Marcomanni who had occupied Austria and Silesia and were threatening northern Italy.

Trajan's column was the hallmark of the imperial forum, the northernmost, most opulent and the last of those open spaces in Rome that provided citizens with a kilometer of partly covered walkways and a parade of public art. The forum was Trajan's most magnificent gift to his city and was probably the largest paved area (at least until then) ever given over to pedestrians. It was designed to be the climax of a sequence of forums, to which there would be no sequel. No monarch or tyrant of recent times--not even Hitler in his grandiose plan for Berlin--has provided as much relaxed magnificence for his subjects. Nor has any republic, however rich, ever spent such a fortune from the public purse for its prestige and the pleasure of its citizens.

The achievements of Trajan and his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, have at last been worthily commemorated. James E. Packer's sumptuous "The Forum of Trajan in Rome" has the scope and bulk appropriate to a definitive study of this vast and stately monumental complex, and no student of Roman architecture will be able to do without it from now on. Such a work could not be a one-man enterprise, of course; for more than 20 years, Packer led a large team, supported by the Getty, Graham and the Kress foundations as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and his own university, Northwestern, in measuring, surveying and reconstructing Trajan's forum.

The book is not cheap--not even inexpensive--though condensed as it is into three volumes, it is certainly cheap at the price. Volume I is 528 pages with 157 illustrations, including 18 color plates, and contains the narrative of the excavations and a restoration of the monuments, as well as a catalog of the surviving architectural and sculptural fragments. Volume II is 128 pages with 859 illustrations and provides a photographic survey with microfiches of all the excavated fragments. The third is a set of 35 folding plates, 24 in black and white, 11 in color, which provides a complete plan and section survey of the ruins in their present state, as well as outlines of the proposed restorations. The reader is advised to have a sizable clear table (or a spread on the floor) before tackling the last volume.

The reader can therefore recreate an achievement which does not have any recent parallel: In the Roman Empire, such an enterprise was considered essential to civic life, while sumptuous 20th century public buildings serve only--like the palace of Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest--the ostentation of despots. Since recent corporate building has overreached despotic ambitions and public spaces or monuments are obstructed and constrained by politics and expense, "The Forum of Trajan" can almost be read as a provocation.

Yet when Trajan planned his forum, nearly 2,000 years ago, he was emulating the work of several of his predecessors. The original forum, called the Roman Forum, was at the foot of the city that, according to legend, Romulus had founded on the Palatine hill in 753 BC. It was constantly improved and enriched but had grown too small for the thronging crowds by the time of the first Caesar, approximately 700 years later. This forum was venerable because it contained many temples, monuments and statues connected with the earliest history of the city. Its main space was outlined by two basilicas, in which gladiatorial fights were held. Spectators watched from the colonnades on the second story. Julius Caesar, who completed one of those basilicas (which served as law courts and exchanges), also built the first additional forum just to the north of the original. It was located at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and bore his name. It was dominated by a temple of Venus Genetrix, who, being the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas, the founder of Rome, was acknowledged as the ancestress of the Julian family.

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