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Tale of two eternal cties

Letter from Rome

Rome and Istanbul have striking similarities: both are imperial cities, capitals of the Roman Empire, where history blends with chaotic modernity. But their differences are equally intriguing, says Owen Matthews

  • Portrait of Xenia Gravchenko and Owen Matthews, Rome, October 2023, by Monica Fritz

Rome is to New Rome as an elderly father is to a vigorous young son. After 15 years in the second Rome we have moved to the first and found the family resemblance striking. Most obviously, both are a jumble of ancient and modern. Both contemporary cities are directly mapped onto the contours of the ancient, with traffic looping around city walls, imperial temples and circuses. The bones of classical buildings are locked into the fabric of medieval ones. The mania for recycling is the same – mismatched classical columns and pedestals show up in both churches and mosques built over a millennium after the fall of the last Western emperor.

Perhaps less obviously, the rebuilders of both Turkey and Italy after the First World War shared an architectural taste for monumental international modernism. The public buildings of 1930s Rome and Istanbul are interchangeable – white stone and brick, stern, boxy, with classically inspired rhythms. Stranger still, post-war suburban Rome also bears a strong resemblance to Istanbul, even down to the familiar urban patterns of hairdressers, bakeries and cafés. Through half-closed eyes, the concrete jungles of BostancI and Ostiense are virtually indistinguishable.

What is most striking is the similarity in the mood. The two cities’ chaos rhymes. So does the robust but very welcoming vernacular culture, the affectionate impiety towards the relics of the past, the broken pavements, the spilling cafés, the wandering hawkers (in the case of Rome, all Bangladeshi), the erratic parking, the shouting in the street, the tourists flowing like wildebeest around the main sites. Rome, like Istanbul, is also home to a very large number of charming and apparently unemployed high-society people who seem to have escaped from the set of La Dolce Vita…

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