The Spanish Steps and the piazza they lead to constitute one of Rome’s most famous landmarks, named for the adjacent Palazzo di Spagna, the Spanish Embassy to the Papal authorities. Those familiar with Rome today might remember the steps’ sometimes arduous climb as a conduit to the city’s luxury shops, the traditional English Babington’s tea room at their base, or the Keats-Shelley house nearby, a temple to Romantic poetry. In other words: a Mecca for foreigners. Yet the 135 steps, inaugurated by Pope Benedict XIII in 1725 and adorned at the bottom with the Ferdinand II-commissioned Column of the Immaculate Conception, are also host to a sculpture that is unmistakably Roman: the Fontana della Barcaccia. This fountain in the shape of a half-sunken ship was modelled after a small boat that, during the 1598 flooding of the Tiber, is said to have floated through the city and landed there. The fine emblem of Rome’s endurance even inspired Keats’ epitaph: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’
Most importantly, the fountain is a Bernini, product of father Pietro and more famous son Gian Lorenzo, whose remarkable expressions of baroque sensibility can be seen throughout the city. Can you hear it gurgle in Pallante’s recording? Even more so, the steepness of her 3D maps remind us of the questions the Steps’ architects faced, as they divined this design in order to urbanise the slope between Pincian Hill and the Church of Trinità dei Monti. Francesco De Sanctis’ proposal for the steps would create a lush vista at the top of a set of streets en route down to the Tiber, towards a vision that becomes even more scenic as pedestrians grow nearer to the river. In all their grandeur, the Steps resembles wings flaring out from the piazza, with other exciting baroque façades overlooking the side near Via Frattina.
In the 1/1 cymatic NFT video, the Castel Sant’Angelo is Pallante’s first stop on her tour through Rome’s ancient architecture. It is a fitting representation of her project’s motile and evolutionary approach to documenting the city, as the Castel itself has undergone many changes over its lifetime. Once Rome’s tallest building, it was constructed between 123-139 AD by the Roman emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family, enshrining his ashes and the remains of succeeding emperors. Located along the left bank of the Tiber, where Vatican City meets Hadrian’s Pons Aelius, the Castel is contained within Parco Adriano, whose tree-lined pathway almost resembles the towering peaks of Pallante’s 3D maps recording its audial resonances.
Approaching the Castel, one confronts both the beauty and brutality at stake in its history. The angel statues that greet visitors bearing instruments of the Passion, added to the structure in the Baroque period, conjure the Castel’s eponymous legend of the Archangel Michael appearing at its apex to redeem the city from plague in 590. Yet equally trenchant is the Castel’s history as a prison and execution facility for the Papal State, featured in Puccini’s Tosca and where the Renaissance polymath (and polytheist) Giordano Bruno was famously held captive. Since decommissioned by the Vatican in the early 20th Century, the Castel has served as a museum dedicated to the facts of its being. Can the traces of the Castel’s past be inferred from Pallante’s subtle yet eerie cymatic compositions? Rome, she demonstrates, is replete with such atmospheric experiences.
Violence and the sacred: if most of Rome’s architecture fulfils the latter obligation, the Colosseo takes on the former. Not far east of the Roman Forum, this oval amphitheatre—one of the largest and oldest ever built in the ancient world—still proudly stands, an altogether impressive feat, given centuries of assaults from earthquakes, stone-robbers, and now, the heavy foot-traffic of tourists who, even in the glaring Roman heat, will flock to the site on a daily basis. These visitors come to bear witness to the wonders of imperial Rome: a giant gathering place patronised by each member of the Flavian dynasty but completed by emperor Titus in 80 AD with funds from the spoils of the Temple of Jerusalem. Receiving its name from a colossal statue of Nero later moved beside the amphitheatre, the Colosseo was constructed on flat ground between the Palatine, Caelian, and Esquiline hills from a combination of limestone, volcanic rock, and concrete and, unique for its era, it is entirely free-standing.
The Colosseo is shaped like two back-to-back structures, with the surviving part of the outer facade comprising three storeys with layered arcades, pierced by windows and adorned by classical columns and mythological statues. The amphitheatre’s monumental staircases along its interior could hold up to 80,000 spectators at Roman festivities ranging from gladitorial shows to public spectacles demonstrating the power of the state but also, that of private citizens: animal hunts, dramatic reenactments (including mock sea battles), and of course, executions. Such events, so popular among the Roman public, lend the Colosseo, now depicted on the Italian five-cent Euro, an enduring legacy of merriment but also barbarity and savage force. Just as the Colosseo’s concentric architecture finds audial translation in Pallante’s rotund imagery, might not traces of jeering Roman voices be detected mingling with the sounds of tourists recorded walking around the amphitheatre in Augmented Rome’s juxtapositions of a city old and continually renewed?