Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian

October 29, 2014

I went with a friend to the Baths of Caracalla on a splendid summer day in 1997. We were walking through the ruins, contemplating their vastness in both size and time. You could add influence to that list. I remember vividly. Kathy was talking about a book about people having multiple lives over the millennia, call it reincarnation. I do not harbor exactly the sort of belief. Yet, when you stroll through the grounds of a place where people have walked through nearly two thousand years and you contemplate the huge ruins that have remained there, in one form or another for the entire time, you can cultivate all sort of notions about the persistence of human beings, our artifacts and our memories over time. 

 

Caracalla knew about memory. He built this, the second largest bath complex in Rome, which is one of the foremost means by which we remember him. Further down on the list are his horrifying actions as a genocidal and fratricidal dictator. He had his own brother, Geta, briefly his co-emperor, murdered. True dictators don't share power, now or ever. Caracalla had a damnatio memoriae instituted against Geta. Coins with his face were melted down and sculptures destroyed. Though certain enterprising sculptors could change the likeness from one emperor to the next when such circumstances dictated. Paintings with both of their images might be left simply with a blank spot. 

 

Accordingly, it's truly amazing that we revere anything done by Caracalla, but architecture and time behave in strange ways.  

 

The complex was always meant to be an instrument to assuage the masses, to sway their associations of Caracalla to creature comforts and civic recreations. They had the happy secondary purpose of generating enormous taxes on the wealthy to distract them in different ways. The baths were sprawling and luxurious. They had their own aqueduct. Their hypocaust system allowed for hot and cold running water with convenience that purportedly advanced civilizations would not have again well into the twentieth century. They had mirrored libraries for Greek and Latin texts. The entire north wing was a row of shops. All amenities were free.

 

The Baths of Caracalla capture the imagination for size and sophistication, certainly, also for the not incidental reason that they were the most sophisticated purpose-built piece of architecture built...ever, maybe? They weren’t simply large, They were complex. Rooms had differences of size and shape, depending on their purpose, whether they were for crowds or small groups. Whether they were grand or intimate. Whether they were ceremonial or functional. In the same manner that Latin has more tenses and declensions than we use in English, indicating a precision and specificity of language fitting itself together that we just don't use any more, the Baths of Caracalla were precise. I believe that such a property-precision within complexity-is as much a source of fascination with them as is their actual size.

 

 

 

Scamozzi's drawing is actually the Baths of Diocletian, a significant chunk of which survives as the Renaissance Santa Maria degli Angeli. But similar principles apply. Interestingly, Palladio's disciple created this work with an ambition suited to the sophistication of Rome. Palladio wrote one of the era's, indeed one of history's greatest guidebooks to Rome. Scamozzi came in with renewed ambitions for architectural drawing, more sophisticated than his boss ever mastered (Palladio was a master of lucidity and proportion in architecture. His drawings were not so remarkable as art), with hopes to reconstruct and reveal the Baths in their full glory. Look at this drawing. It is partly a plan, partly a section, partly an elevation. It says with clarity that the study of architecture needs to be all of these things at once. 

 

The Baths of Caracalla were in use through the 6th century and the battle of the Ostrogoths (which a certain online source may affirm). Substantively, the history of its construction is, for obvious reasons, fairly well recorded. But perhaps the history of its destruction is equally important. Those 100 ton granite columns didn't just get up and walk away. Certainly, it is compelling as a ruin, and artists through the centuries have captured it in exactly that fashion. 

 

Yet to Scamozzi, the real importance was to reconstruct (as he did with the Baths of Diocletian). Indeed, here is an indication of the changing views of the centuries. Do we marvel at the baths as a ruin, in Piranesian fashion? Or do we attempt to reconstruct them, as did Scamozzi (with the Baths of Diocletian)

 

Of course, if it is the twentieth century, we attempt to rebuild it, to at least some degree, as is the case of McKim Mead & White's Penn Station. It is not so remarkable that they felt uncomfortable inventing a new kind of architecture, but instead chose to clad their building in the garb and with the ceremonial central spaces of ancient Rome. They needed grandeur, and they knew where to find it. What is remarkable is that something so old could still be convincing as the site–Penn Station–for one of humankind's most powerful displays of industrial mastery. 

 

They used to enter New York like Gods, Scully would say. Now they scurry around. Like rats.

Monumentality. Actually, McKim Mead and White had a pretty convincing grasp on the architecture of iron. And they knew enough about train stations to know what it would like when left unclad to exhibit its own esthetic properties. They chose to hide it within the structure of the existing building. 

 

Iron seemed like an architectural embarrassment, but the legacy of Caracalla, perhaps cleansed by the intervening centuries, did not matter. 

 

The building lived again for a time, but of course, in the 1960s, it came down so that the widely reviled Madison Square Garden could go up. Penn Station is gone, but for the memory, the photographs and drawings. We used to enter New York like Gods, said Scully, but now we scurry around, like rates. (He is quoted saying scuttle. I recall him saying scurry…) 

 

But the ruins of the actual baths of Caracalla remain. I don't know if the souls of real people are reincarnated or not. I tend not to think so, but I don't know. Either way, it could hardly be more remarkable than the death, rebirth, and general persistence as spirit and body of the Baths of Caracalla.  

 

 

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