Rome UNESCO Heritage

Rome UNESCO World Heritage

Rome – eternal city! All roads lead to Rome: few quotations have been subjected to greater inflation in connection with Italy’s present-day capital and home to several UNESCO World Heritage monuments. Rome UNESCO World Heritage: The Old Town, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint Peter’s Square were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1980, the Vatican City in 1984. Does Rome rightly bear the nickname eternal city? Rome as the capital of Italy: Situated in the region of Lazio on the banks of the Tiber, Rome today has about 2.8 million inhabitants, and about 3.3 million in the agglomeration. This makes Rome the most populous city in Italy.


„It can be said that Rome remained a village that gradually became a cosmopolitan city.“1 Rome is the centre of Catholic Christians worldwide, the seat of the Parliament and several diplomatic as well as consular representations. Furthermore, the National Library (Vittorio Emanuele), the Vatican Library, the Vatican Archives and the Alessandrina University Library, founded in 1661, are on site. This list, like the following list of architectural and cultural monuments, is rudimentary and includes only some of Rome’s most important cultural and educational sites and political institutions.


The list of Rome’s architectural and cultural monuments is equally impressive: the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the churches of Santa Francesca Romana, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, the Trajan as well as the Marcus Aurelius Column, the Bridge of Angels, the Popes‘ Castel Sant’Angelo (formerly Hadrian’s Tomb) and St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon (Santa Maria ad Martyres), the Spanish Steps with the church Trinità dei Monti, the Piazza Popolo, the Campo Fiori and the Piazza Venezia with the Monumento Vittorio Emanuele II, which Romans jokingly and slightly derogatorily call the ‚typewriter‘.


Although Rome’s political, military, theological and cultural relevance has repeatedly sunk into absolute insignificance, it has been able to reappropriate the reputation of the eternal city from time to time. The winged word „eternal city“ goes back to the poet Tibull, who first brought Rome into this context around 100 BC with the lines „Romulus had not yet built the walls of the eternal city.“2 According to the legend of Romulus and Remus, founded on 21 April 753 BC,3 Rome in its three-thousand-year history was first a small settlement on the banks of the Tiber, then the centre of the Roman world empire and around 100 BC a city of millions. The Imperium Romanum experienced its widest expansion in the years 115 – 117 under Emperor Trajan.4


In 300, the imperial residence was moved to Constantinople. As a result, the population declined and Rome was besieged several times: in 410 by Alaric, in 455 by Geiseric and in 546 by Totila. It was not until the Middle Ages that the marble stones of the ancient buildings fell victim to the lime kilns, and large parts of Rome’s historic buildings became quarries. The Forum Romanum became a cow pasture (campo vaccino), the Capitol became the Goat Hill (monte caprino). At that time, Rome had no more than about 1000 inhabitants.


As the seat of the popes, the destination of pilgrims and the Rome campaigns of the emperors in the Middle Ages, Rome’s ideal significance was far greater than the actual power of the eternal city. The ancient buildings were dilapidated or looted, in 1084 the Normans caused great destruction in their fight against Emperor Henry IV, the establishment of a Roman republic5 and other power struggles between nobility and clergy often forced the popes to leave Rome for long periods of time. Despite the unconsolidated situation, many Roman churches were rebuilt in the 12th century.6

Despite their relatively great power in the 13th century, the popes often failed to assert themselves against the nobility; influential antagonists during this period were, for example, the noble families of Colonna and Orsini. Three popes, 24 cardinals and several secular princes came from the Orsini family, which still exists today and belongs to the European high nobility. When the popes resided in Avignon in the 14th century, Rome was smaller than many other European cities, with a population of about 20,000. It was not until the return of Pope Gregory XI in 1377 and the ending of the Western Schism7 with the election of Pope Martin V on 11 November 1417 that the popes regained unrestricted rule over Rome.


Around 1500 and for the following 3 centuries, Renaissance and then Baroque buildings shaped the cityscape of a newer urbanity of Rome, whose character remains to this day. Despite the sack of Rome by (mercenary) troops of Charles IV in 1527,8 Rome became the undisputed intellectual centre of the European continent around 1500 through the work of personalities such as Bramante, Raffaello, Michelangelo9 and their contemporaries around the papal court.


In 1588/90, under Pope Sixtus V,10 the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (at that time St. Peter’s Church) was completed according to Michelangelo’s plans. Many of the buildings completed later were based on Sixtus‘ plans. These include large churches, palaces, streets, squares, columns, obelisks, gardens and villas. Other figures who shaped the cityscape of Rome after Sixtus V were Maderna (nave and façade of Saint Peter’s, 1607-1620), Bernini and Borromini under Urban VIII and Alexander VII in the 17th century.


It was not until the 18th century that Rome began to preserve its ancient remains; until the 17th century nothing had been done about the looting of the buildings as quarries. In 1812, Rome had about 117,000 inhabitants, Napoleon named the city the second of his empire. The ghetto, which had existed since 1555, was abolished by Pope Pius IX in 1847 and the population increased again.11 We owe the present appearance of the city of Rome, and in particular the old town, to the two epochs of the Renaissance and the Baroque, which are decisive for the granting of the Unesco World Cultural Heritage designation to Rome.


The Tiber, from whose floods the Romans had suffered for centuries, was also regulated and enclosed with high embankment walls. In 1929, the Lateran Treaties created the Vatican City. During World War II, despite its status as an open city, Rome was bombed by the Western Allies in the outskirts, causing the early Christian basilica of San Lorenzo to be badly damaged in 1943, but later rebuilt (by 1948). Because Nazi Germany’s troops fortunately did not defend Rome, the Allied troops were able to enter a largely undestroyed Rome on 4 June 1944.

After this brief – but hopefully fruitful – excursion into the three thousand year history of the eternal city of Rome, the question posed to the reader at the beginning can certainly be answered easily.


To see the image caption in  English click on the circular infopictogram  on the right below the enlarged photo.

1 Leonardo Benevolo, The History of the City. Frankfurt/New York, 9th edition 2007 in Rome: The City and the World Empire p. 176.
2 Tibull, Carmen 2,5,23 f.
3 According to the scholar Varro ‚Natale di Roma‘.
4 * 18 September 53, Roman emperor from January 98 to † 8 August 117.
5 By Arnold of Brescia, duration of the Republic from 1145-1154.
6 For example, Santa Maria in Trastevere.
7 Temporary division of the Latin Church from 1378-1417.
8 Sacco di Roma, Rome had about 55,000 inhabitants in 1526.
9 Donato Bramante, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.
10 *13 December 1521, pope from 1585- †27 August 1590.
11 Population figures Rome: 1861: 184.000; 1901: 463.000; 1921: 692.000; 1943: 1.500.000; 2019: 2.800.000.