Wonders of the World

Wonders of the World

By Aaron Britt
Though not strictly modern—well, not modern at all, really—the Wonders of the World series of books from Harvard Universtiy Press remains my favorite ongoing run of architectural tomes. Classicist Mary Beard is the series editor, and each of these trim volumes takes up the subject of a particular building. Ranging from Stonehenge to the Parthenon to the Temple of Jerusalem, imagine these scholarly works as biographies of buildings. And starting on December 15th, race to add the newly released Roman Forum and Piazza San Marco to your collection.

As I happened to score an advance copy, I've already torn through Roman Forum, by emeritus Cambridge University professor of the history of architecture David Watkin. Walking the line between scholarly and popular prose, Watkin elucidates the complex of structures nicely, taking the 18th-century etchings of Giovanni Piranesi as his guide.

The well-illustrated little book traces the Forum from antiquity to today, and serves as an able roadmap to the historical eras and ideologies written across what may have been the most striking expression of Roman architecture. Popes, plunderers and preservationists all play roles in this book, and it's an ideal stocking stuffer for those who take their architecture with a solid dose of intellectual rigor. And that the book will tuck nicely into a blazer pocket is only a welcome bonus.

This drawing taken from Roman Forum by David Watkin is by Henry Parke (c. 1810) and shows a student of architecture climbing up to the top of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, measuring rod in hand. The drawing shows an idealized temple, not the ruin that Parke would actually have seen.

I must also speak out on behalf of University of Chicago lecturer Cathy Gere's entry in the Wonders of the World canon: The Tomb of Agamemnon. I read it last year, and it was a wonderfully lively tale of Mycenae, its mythic king Agamemnon, and the popular and academic understanding of the site down through the ages. Debates raged about whether the golden death mask discovered there was really an impression of Agamemnon's face, as well as the chilling appropriation of the site by the Nazis. From Homer to Himmler, I liked this one even better than Roman Forum.

Check out this splendid interview former Dwell editor Geoff Manaugh did with Mary Beard on the series, and be sure to pick up the entire set, yourself. I'm awfully glad I've got mine, and can't wait to tuck into the next one. I believe that Westminster Abbey is calling my name.


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