‘Vanished Rome’ Turns up on Facebook

A page on social networking site Facebook has been gathering and publishing historical photos of the city of Rome. Roma Sparita (‘Vanished Rome’) has so far clocked up more than 64,500 fans since January (it’s growing rapidly) and has more than 7,200 ‘vintage’ photos online. The site is becoming far more than its four administrators ever expected.

Most of the photos show Rome throughout the 20th century (up until 1990) and there are plenty of iconic scenes of people in the 50s and 60s riding Vespas or in vintage Fiats. Some of the photos also date back as far as the very beginnings of photography in the mid-19th century, showing the city in the days when it was still the size of some provincial towns. Although the population of Rome peaked at around one million during the Roman empire, it then dropped off and dwindled to around 30,000 during the Middle Ages. By 1850 the population was about 150,000, rising to about 200,000 in 1870 when Rome became part of unified Italy (and was then re-designated the capital in 1871). By 2007 there were 2.7 million people living in Rome, with almost 4 million in greater Rome.

Roma Sparita

Roma Sparita was set up in 2009 as a Facebook group by Daniele Chiu’, a civil servant in Rome, and it wasn’t until January 2010 that he expanded the page with the help of archaeologist and tour guide Lucia Prandi, IT specialist and amateur photographer Fabio Pucci and a computer programmer known by his Facebook name Tekkaman. The four administrators share the work of uploading and categorising the photos emailed in by fans of the site.

The photos show communities, fashions, cars, green fields where buildings now stand and the Tiber as it would have looked before the banks were strengthened with flood-resistant walls. They show Rome at a time before many of the modernisations of the 20th century had taken place before Mussolini built via dei Fori Imperiali through the Roman Forum and before the Ara Pacis was put back together and placed by the river where there was once a busy port.

Some photos also show some of the less savoury periods in the city’s history, such as Termini station decked out in swastikas for the Hitler’s state visit and others show the destruction of allied bombing and the rebuilding of the city during the post-war years.

Some of the earliest photos go back to the 1850s and some are of the Aurelian Walls and Porta Pia, which was bombarded during the seige of 20 September 1870 when Rome was annexed to the rest of Italy.

Rome’s Online Community

The site shows how a community of people can pool their own personal information (in this case photos kept in old family albums that might otherwise be lost) to create a public record of a city’s past.

The cultural identity of Rome and Romans is very strong and unique even within Italy and this comes through in the comments posted on the photos. There is a wealth of historical information that comes out in the comments, with some fans demonstrating an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s history and streets. Romans well known within Italy for their cheeky humour and quick wit don’t hold back on the comments and there are plenty of typical Roman jokes many of them written in ‘Romanaccio’ dialect.

Many of the photos are also personal and show families and grandparents in Rome during the wars, and during the post-war years when parts of Rome were badly bombed. Comments left by fans of the site show that many feel very emotional when they see the old photos of their city.

Roma Sparita Documenting the Lost City

One of the administrators of Roma Sparita, Lucia Prandi, first became interested in the page because of the photos showing archaeological sites during excavations and before modernisations or ‘restorations’. She believes that many of the site’s fans are archaeologists and historians interested in the development and the changes that have happened in Rome. She notes the photos showing the excavations of the temples at Rome’s Largo di Torre Argentina, the demolition of the theatre built on the Mausoleum of Augustus (now a ruin) and the 19th century views of the Roman Forum as being among some of the most interesting from an archaeological point of view.

There are photos showing some of the city’s most famous ancient monuments in a very different state or context to the one they are in today. For example we see the Colosseum open to all and surrounded by grass a far cry from the ticket office, barriers and turnstiles there today. Some of the now-vanished monuments of the Roman Forum (such as the Meta Sudans, an ancient fountain) are photographed and documented, as are the excavations of the Roman villas now buried underneath the forecourt of Termini station.

The Roman Forum and the Colosseum

The Meta Sudans was a conical fountain that once stood 17m tall between the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine. It’s thought that it would have ‘sweated’ (hence the name ‘sudans’) water rather than having jets of water. The brick and concrete remains of the Meta Sudans can still be seen in the early photos of the Colosseum. It was finally dismantled by Mussolini in 1936. Some photos on Roma Sparita show the Colosseum without a gate and open to all, while the Roman Forum also appears in its pastoral state in photos before 1901 when it was still a pasture field for cows.

What’s Under Rome’s Termini Station?

Termini station is shown in its previous incarnation as a rather elegant 19th century railway station reminiscent of the Gare D’Orsay in Paris. The photos of the excavations of the Roman villas in the station’s forecourt are quite spectacular. The area around Termini is on the Esquiline Hill and would have been a fashionable residential district during the Roman empire. In front of Termini are the Baths of Diocletian. Comments on Roma Sparita suggest that the name Termini might come from the Latin/Italian name Thermae di Diocleziano although this is debated.

The Ara Pacis and the Lost River Port

The area around the present-day Ara Pacis (Augustus’ altar to peace) is also shown in its former context. The area has changed almost beyond recognition since the early 20th century and some beautiful structures such as the theatre on the Mausoleum of Augustus have been pulled down. Today the mausoleum looks like a neglected building site and is closed to visitors while some photos on Roma Sparita show the building before the 1930s looking majestic and dominating the neighbourhood.

The area in front of the church of San Rocco, where Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis building now stands, was once a river port called Porto di Ripetta. The port was built by the architect Alessandro Specchi in 1707 and was a much-loved area of 18th and 19th century Rome.

Work began in the 19th century to strengthen the river banks to prevent flooding and the port was demolished in around 1901. The Cavour bridge was built instead of it (following the construction of a temporary iron bridge) and the whole area where the Ara Pacis now stands was built over the old port. Judging by comments on Roma Sparita, the loss of Porto di Ripetta is something that the local Romans regret bitterly.

Photos on Roma Sparita also show the original Fascist-era construction built to protect the Ara Pacis a small boxy wooden shed. This too was torn down and Richard Meier’s modern white building replaced it in 2006.

These are just a few examples of some of the fascinating photos giving some insight into Rome’s evolving urban space. Comments left by the site’s fans leave no doubt that the Roman people are very attached to their city and want to see it preserved in the best way possible which isn’t always what those in charge over the past century have succeeded in doing.

Photos courtesy of the Facebook page ‘Roma Sparita‘, added by fans of the group.