The Rome We Have Lost
John Pemble
Oxford University Press,
192pp, 17 black and white illustration
Hardback, £18.99

'Rome – the city of visible history,' wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch in 1872, 'where the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral procession with strange ancestral images and trophies gathered from afar.' But another Rome was already taking shape when Eliot penned these words – the Rome of the Risorgimento, the unification of the Italian peninsula, and the creation of the modern Italian state.

John Pemble's The Rome We Have Lost is what the Victorian historian JA Froude would have called 'a short study of a great subject'. After 1870, the Eternal City underwent a sudden metamorphosis. Everything about Rome is massive – sometimes oppressively so in the ancient style, sometimes absurdly so in the fascist. Pemble cuts through the layers of rubble and rock to describe exactly what happened when 'Old Rome, the Rome of the sovereign popes' became '... New Rome, the capital of the kings and presidents of Italy'.

The details of Pemble's account are intrinsically fascinating, because the story of the Old Rome is the story of the art and thought of modern Europe. His conclusions, however, are surprising, and all the more alarming for being well argued.

Old Rome, writes Pemble, is the remains of ancient Rome and the Nova Urbs (New City) is first named in a descriptive guide of 1510. The new city was known as 'New Rome' until the end of the 19th century, when another New Rome, the modern city, was built. At which point, the early modern Nova Urbs joined Old Rome in the visitor's imagination. 'Everything about Old Rome was old, and only its ruins were older than its ruling dynasty of sovereign popes,' writes Pemble, of how Romantic poets and early Baedeker tourists saw Old Rome. 'The visitor breathed an atmosphere of relics and improbable survival, absorbed an afflatus of antecedence and antiquity… To go to Old Rome was to be afflicted by the wreckage of empire and by grim intimations of mortality; yet at the same time it was to be consoled by sights, sounds and silences that transcended the havoc of circumstance and time.'

Between 1870 and 1950, Rome's population grew tenfold, from 200,000 to 2,000,000. The 19-kilometre boundary of Aurelian's walls became a 50-kilometre ring road, connected to radial motorways by spaghetti junctions leading to the suburbs that have eaten up the rural campagna. The cultural signature of our New Rome was in 'journalism, fashion, films and football'. The visitor breathes an afflatus of exhaust fumes, is afflicted by the sight of cheap construction, and finds a havoc of too many sights and sounds, and not enough silence.

Rome was not Eternal. In the 20th century, Rome's 'momentum of self-repetition' failed. Pemble links this failure to 'a huge tectonic disturbance in the collective thinking of the Western world… a critical loss of cultural weight and anchorage'. Rome had been at what Goethe called 'the centre of the centre'; the heart of European history, religion and politics. Now, it is 'at the margins of Western consciousness', and it is even suspected of being a culprit, the precedent and ideological template for 20th-century tyranny.

In a crucial sense, we might have lost Old Rome, but we have not found a New Rome. Pemble suspects that Rome's marginality creates a vacuum at the heart of Europe, and that this contributes to the failure of the European Union, which offers its subjects administrative centres in Brussels and Strasbourg, but has failed to establish a spiritual or aesthetic capital in Rome, as previous rulers of the Continent once did.

Pemble's Venice Rediscovered, 1995, is an indispensable account of how 19th-century outsiders recast the image of Venice, from a decayed relic of a despised tyranny to a deathless repository of aesthetic liberations. The Rome We Have Lost is a magnificent companion to this volume. Lucid and authoritative, Pemble shows how Rome, even when absented from history as a 'heritage site', remains a shaping presence.

When George Eliot honeymooned in Italy, her husband fell out of a window in Venice and landed in a canal. Pemble makes us wonder whether modern Europe has thrown out its baby with the bathwater of kings, popes and empires.

Dominic Green