R.J.B. Bosworth’s Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories is as much of a guidebook to Rome’s recent past as it is a history. It manages to keep us partially conscious of Rome’s present while discovering the city’s struggles during the past two centuries. The maps of modern sections of the city that begin each chapter are the first hints of the close proximity of Rome’s history to visitors’ experiences today. Although the book takes us from the 1800s to the present, Bosworth first focuses the reader on a small section of the modern city, rather like a tour guide, before delving back into history. He may lead us into a food and flower market, ask us to notice a certain monument – most intriguingly, “a dark statue of a cowled figure” – and then explain that here is where Giordano Bruno, judged a heretic by the Inquisition, was burned at the stake. Or he shows us a beautiful square with a cooling fountain and a church bursting with art, only to have us examine a plaque in remembrance of two patriots who supported a united nation and were subsequently sentenced to death by a nineteenth-century pope.
Bosworth acts as a guide who has researched every loose end in the city. Framing his tour is the struggle by the obvious factions – the Roman Catholic Church, the nationalists, the fascists. However, the periods for his literary tour group, recreated with astonishing detail, are decidedly less obvious and are the heart of our excursion. While the memories of Garibaldi or Mussolini still shout even into the present decade, Bosworth makes us stop to listen closely to those unknown Romans “whose whispers can still be heard in the modern city.” For instance, we hear from the patriot Luigi Pianciani, who dared to criticize Pope Leo XII, the pope who ordered the deaths of the two previously mentioned patriots. We hear the brief but important voices of nineteenth-century reformers like sociologist Domenico Orano and educationalist Maria Montessori, who attempted to publicize the extent of crime and poverty in the suburbs of Rome. Such names may be nearly silent in the immense crowd that is the city’s history, but we find that the smallest interruptions on our tour bring us closer to finding the “real” face of Rome.