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Week 19 – Water, Water, Everywhere

January 18, 2010


Rome's Tiber River - high water at the Ponte Sisto in January 2010

Rome's Tiber River - typical water at the Ponte Sisto in autumn 2009

It’s been a rainy winter here in Rome.   A week or two ago, all that rain was clearly visible in the height of the Tiber River (Tevere in Italian) which rose about 7 or 8 feet over the lower sidewalks along the river’s edge.  Thankfully, the rains have stopped, and the Tiber has now receded back almost normal levels.  Last winter, you may recall from the international news, the Tiber rose so high that it overflowed the huge stone retaining walls (approximately 30-40 feet high) which channelize the river, spilling into the historic center of Rome.

Late December - early January 2010: the half-submerged red sign on the lower sidewalk is usually 7-8 feet above the water level.

The historic center of Rome (the Campus Martius in antiquity) has been subject to frequent flooding for millennia.  That flooding, and the silt and alluvial depositions that came with it, has been partly responsible for the 9 meter (30 feet) rise in the grade of street level today as compared to in antiquity.

Idrometro - the master flood measuring marker for Rome

All across the center of Rome, small stone plaques appear on the facades of buildings, marking the heights of particular floods.  To me, the most interesting of these is a sort of “master marker” of all major floods.    It is essentially a vertical measuring stick of marble, erected in 1821 in the façade of the church of San Rocco (right near the fountain of Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum).    The height and date of major floods of Rome, before and since, are carved into this marble measuring stick.    In a certain sense, it reminds me of the simple wood doorframe in the kitchen of the house where I grew up, covered with many small pencil marks at various heights, each noting the age and height of one of  my three siblings or me at various points in time.

This flood marker is interesting in so many ways – it records a single aspect of the city’s rich and deep and multi-layered history, in a public space.  It is essentially a dynamic document – intended for updating by each subsequent generation.

This marble flood marker is also a microcosm of what historic preservation can be, and might aspire to be.   It helps to preserve the collective memory of the city and its people across time, and helps us to make connections with the events and generations that came before us.   Rather than being moved inside to a museum for its better protection and preservation from the elements, it continues in its original location and context, still serving its original civic function.  And rather than being frozen in time to the date of its original construction, it continues to evolve, becoming all the richer because of the thoughtful and considered marks that each subsequent generation has left on it.   In that way, it is like the city of Rome itself.

Close-up of a small section of the Idrometro - with marks and dates visible for floods of (from bottom to top) 1495, 1660, 1870, 1637.

The periodic floods have also left their mark on the historic resources of Rome.    If you look closely at the frescoes and murals in the churches in Rome’s historic center, you’ll often see a greater level of loss (or damage, or restoration) on the lower areas, as compared to the upper areas, of the fresco or mural.

Water takes its toll not only on wall paintings, but on historic buildings – from Rome to my native Boston and everywhere in between.   When I visited the work at the Palazzo Braschi/Museo di Roma a few days ago, I was chatting with the Architect, M. Antonietta Russo, about water-related deterioration of historic buildings.    She was showing me her repair drawings from another one of her projects, on an early 20th c. arched vehicular passageway through the ancient Roman city wall.   The wall has been taking on a lot of water at the top, which is seeping down through the wall, eroding the mortar, and causing brick and masonry to drop into the roadway below.  It sounds similar to many of the masonry deterioration problems I’d examined in the U.S.

My experience on historic buildings from the 1700’s to the present in New England, a climate with very cold winters and severe freeze/thaw action.  The Architect Russo’s  experience is on buildings and structures primarily from antiquity to the 1700’s, here in Rome, a mild climate with virtually no freeze/thaw cycles.  Two different continents, two different climates, two different construction traditions, and two different time periods of experience, and, yet we seem to have reached the same conclusion:  water is the most common agent of deterioration on historic buildings.   My Week 14 post shows what can happen to a stone façade, even in a mild climate like that of Rome, over time as a result of water-related deterioration.   In the northern U.S., that level of deterioration would have occurred much faster than it did here in Rome.

Next week I’ll look at the very thoughtful design and detailing of the stone window surrounds of the Palazzo Braschi, and how they manage water to help make the building (c. 1790) durable.

Palazzo Braschi (under renovation), as viewed from Piazza Navonna

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