When in Rome By Joe Brancatelli
No. 4: Why Rome Wasn't Built in a Day
That old saw about Rome not having been built in a day is more true than you know. There are many buildings still in everyday use that date back more than a thousand years. Romans, in fact, are obsessed with their shared architectural past.
The reason why the city's subway system, the Metropolitana, isn't particularly useful for visitors is because every time they start construction of a tunnel, up pops a Caesarian relic or a Middle Age building that was literally buried by time. The historians sweep in, deem it, well, historic, and new building ceases.
A decade ago, in fact, a new station was planned for a site just a few hundred feet from the Piazza Navona. The station and entrance was to be at a relatively open space in front of the Chiesa Nuova (New Church). But the "new" Church was built in the 16th Century--and it replaced the old 12th Century one that stood on that spot. And don't you know that the excavations for the new station turned up parts of the 12th Century "old" Church. So that ended any chance of a train stop and station near the heart of Rome's famous central piazza.
This obsession with the past, laudable as it may be in archeological terms, has made the Romans rather loony on the topic of modern architecture. They hate it with a passion. Nothing satisfies them.
The last spate of real building in Rome was back in Fascist times. Mussolini built the EUR district at what was then the outer edges of town. It was sort of Rockefeller Center with a fascist icing. It's now a much-desired residential neighborhood--and Romans have grudgingly accepted it for what it is: a rather perfect example of the Fascist era.
Mussolini also built (or rather ripped out buildings to build) the Via del Corso. It is probably central Rome's most important street and it links the Piazza del Popolo with the Piazza Venezia. Why did Mussolini rip up, straighten and widen a street in Central Rome? Why make it almost a mile long? To give him a "grand" street on which to parade his troops and brown shirts. Even at that, though, the Via del Corso is just barely four lanes wide. But it does serve its purpose in a way: Today, the street is often closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays so Romans can promenade down Mussolini's grand road.
The Piazza Venezia at the terminus of "the Corso" also helps explain the Roman antipathy to modernity. It is home to Il Vittoriano, the biggest, the ugliest and most marble-y edifice in Rome.
Built between 1885 and 1925, the building is routinely derided as "the typewriter," "the false teeth" and "the wedding cake." It backs up against the Capitoline Hill, which is festooned with some of Michelangelo's most gracious public spaces. Even Il Vittoriano's color and composition (a blindingly bright white marble) is out of step with the earth tones that dominate Rome's buildings. The monument is too big, too: about 440 feet wide and more than 230 feet high at the top tips of its winged roof statues.
It was built as a monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. It now houses Italy's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Alter of the Fatherland (that's Mussolini-speak at its Hilter-inspiring finest) and an oddly fashion-centric museum that traces the history of the Risorgimento (resurgence), the term Italians use to cover the struggle to unify Italy in the mid-19th century.
You must visit Il Vittoriano because a) it is amazing; and 2) the Romans are right about it. It's an eyesore and massively out of scale with the city. Still, there are some lovely views from the top steps. And on those days when the rooftop cafe is open (and it's not often), the views are better still and come with coffee and snacks. You can also pay to take a pair of panoramic elevators to the top.
The Wedding Cake so put Romans off modernity that there hasn't been all that much of note built since then. But if you're searching for modern architecture in Rome, you'll find the following notable examples.
RADISSON BLU ES HOTEL is located near the back end of Termini, Rome's primary train station. It's a glass-sheathed minimalist tower built about 15 years ago. It's one of the few buildings of its type in Rome.
PARCO DELLA MUSICA, a complex of three new buildings, was built in 2002 and designed by Renzo Piano. This one has actually won raves and hosts more guests than any cultural complex except Lincoln Center in New York. But its location, north of the Borghese Gardens, isn't threatening and isn't part of the core of Roman life.
MUSEUM OF THE ARA PACIS, opened in 2006, is threatening. Romans loathe it almost as much as they hate Il Vittoriano. Designed by Richard Meier and built over a decade, it's sleek, glassy, boxy and brutally modern--everything Rome is not. Walter Veltroni, mayor of Rome when it was completed, even threatened to tear it down. He came to his senses, but his successors have made it more party and exhibition space than museum. (It officially houses the massive Ara Pacis, the so-called Peace Altar built in the first century.) The Museum is located at the end of my favorite boulevard in Rome, the Via della Scrofa.
MAXXI took a decade to build and opened in 2010. It's a modern, curvy building constructed with steel and concrete and functions as Italy's national museum of contemporary art and architecture. It hasn't been nearly as controversial as the Meier-designed space because it's not white, it's not nearly as stark and it's located in the Flaminio residential neighborhood. In fact, you could make the case that it's "tucked away" in Flaminio because, well, because it's modern and the Romans hate modern. (11-20-17)
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