September 30, 2010


Built to Last. By David Macaulay. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.95.

The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City. By Stephen Dando-Collins. Da Capo. $25.

     We live today in a throwaway world, for all that the environmental movement is trying to encourage reuse and recycling. Actually, in a sense, even reuse and recycling can be a form of throwing away, if the original objects disappear or are put to different uses from those for which they were designed. The tendency to tear down and redo extends far beyond everyday consumer goods – houses, for example, are often torn down so new ones can be built in their place, sometimes reusing certain old materials but sometimes not. Even modern monumental works were not necessarily intended to last for ages: the Eiffel Tower, for example, was planned as a temporary display before it became iconic. Some human constructions, however, were planned to remain long past their builders’ lifetimes, and David Macaulay discusses three examples in considerable detail in Built to Last. Two-thirds of the book is, ironically, recycled: Macaulay wrote Castle and Cathedral more than 30 years ago, and now they are reappearing together, along with a new section called Mosque. The older material has been well updated – Macaulay explains some of the “how” in introducing the book – and the three sections blend well while still retaining distinctive identities (Mosque is the only one using watercolors, for example). Although this is essentially an architecture book, it is one with a strong narrative voice, as Macaulay explains how his fictional structure in Castle is closely based on ones built between 1277 and 1305 to help King Edward I conquer and hold Wales; how the imaginary Cathedral is constructed using methods employed from the 12th through the 14th centuries in the building of European cathedrals; and how the fictional complex of buildings discussed in Mosque is modeled on actual architecture built in Istanbul between 1540 and 1580. Because the castle, cathedral and mosque are not real, Macaulay is not required to deal with the history of specific buildings – he can focus instead on how certain types of buildings were constructed so they would serve their purposes for many centuries. This lets him choose specific elements to which to pay attention. For example, he can show how the pipe from the cistern runs into the castle kitchen and where the garderobes (toilets) were placed so that waste would accumulate in a cesspit at the foot of the wall, to be cleaned out periodically. He can easily explain and illustrate how a cathedral’s window frameworks were made (they were cut from templates) and how wooden centerings were constructed to make it possible to build the flying buttresses that would prevent the structure’s heavy ceiling from pushing the walls outward. And he can explain the unfamiliar-to-many-readers parts of a mosque, such as the hypocaust and hamam, while also showing what sort of work could be done during winter even when snow and ice covered the building’s foundation. Built to Last is a fascinating piece of historical reportage as well as architectural explanation, and its very extensive illustrations – attractive in themselves – clarify the text and make the buildings and some of those who erected them seem very much alive.

     Older and longer-lasting than anything in Built to Last are the remains of some of the structures of ancient Rome. The Roman ruins – and some elements of the city that remain in use, such as parts of its ancient aqueducts – have survived not only time and periods of deliberate destruction by invaders and Christian rebuilders, but also catastrophes that occurred within Rome’s glory days themselves. One of the most infamous of those destructive events was the great fire that happened in the year 64 A.D. – the one during which, famously, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Except that that never happened. For one thing, fiddles did not exist. Nero did play the lyre – likely doing so, among other times, on the night that the fire broke out – but that does not mean he played it from madness or some sort of grotesque joy at the city’s destruction. Australian historian Stephen Dando-Collins demolishes this and many other myths about Nero and the Rome of his time in the very well-written and very well-paced The Great Fire of Rome. Dando-Collins is in fact something of an admirer of Nero, to whom history has been less than kind. Nero was the last of the Roman emperors in the Caesarean line, and his eventual suicide in the year 68 – when he was just 30 years old – led to civil war that produced the infamous Year of the Four Emperors: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian all held power in 69 A.D., and the first three were toppled that year. Nero, as Dando-Collins tells it, was young, na├»ve, artistic, bisexual, and the subject of the unremitting hatred of numerous powerful Romans. He was certainly no saint, although his relatively modest depravities (by the standards of the time) scarcely compare with those of his predecessors (Caligula comes immediately to mind). And Nero was a builder: not long before the great fire, he began construction of a 160-mile shipping canal, and his creation of the Golden Palace (at whose entrance stood a 120-foot-high statue of the emperor himself) is famous (or notorious), and later became the site of the Colosseum (its name perhaps taken from Nero’s statue, which was called the Colossus). Dando-Collins weaves a wealth of historical information, much of it from primary sources, through his tale of the flames that broke out in a shop beneath the Circus Maximus and eventually spread through most of Rome, nearly burning the Eternal City to the ground in one week. But if Nero did not “fiddle” during the inferno, and did not blame the Christians of Rome for setting the blaze (a longstanding innuendo), then what really happened, and why did Nero become the scapegoat for the disaster? What Dando-Collins does so well, in addition to re-creating the sense of Rome 2,000 years ago, is explain both the confluence of events leading to the fire (including problems with the city’s water supply and poor firefighting arrangements) and the later circumstances that led to the besmirching of Nero’s name: he had no heirs (his wife, Poppaea Sabina, died while pregnant, along with their child), and the history of his reign was written by political enemies who had many reasons for vilifying the unfortunate emperor. The Great Fire of Rome will not, of itself, reverse nearly two millennia of anti-Nero propaganda, but it is a clearheaded, intelligent look at what sort of man the last Caesar seems really to have been, and how the devastating fire for which he was wrongly blamed led to the ruin of his rule and reputation – but not, it should be noted, to that of Rome, a city that was truly built to last.

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