In my Italian travels I have encountered the exquisite work of many great architects; some of whom have featured here, whilst others preceded my camera and keyboard. Andrea Pisano, Fillipo Brunelleschi, Giovanni Pisano, Jacopo Sansovino, Borromino, Bernini, Michelangelo, Michelozzo… I could easily go on for I am only scratching the surface of Italian masters, many of whom were also great artists in their time.
So you would imagine that on visiting Rome I’d be rushing to share some of its delights with you, and I may indeed in a later post, but for now I’m in less enthusiastic mode.
The end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th was an important time in European architecture with movements in France, Spain, Germany and the UK that would produce masterpieces. This period, which was fuelled by burgeoning economies and some national pride, found an additional ingredient to add to the mix in Italy; the recent unification of the country, and so perhaps this, coupled with a reputation for being architectural virtuosi, led to buildings that just went too far.
Take for example the Palace of Justice. It combines elements of Baroque and Renaissance styles in its design, both styles at which Italians have excelled, but they architect (Calderini) clearly didn’t have subtlety in his design vocabulary. The place is vast (covering about 6 acres) and is built on the silty soils of the Tiber’s banks, so unsurprisingly has required more work to stabilise it since it’s construction. In a country of “furba” many suspect that this may be due to corruption. So whether due to its appearance or its origins, it is know in Rome as Palazzaccio, the ugly or bad palace. It reeks of the municipal.
But for the citizens of Roma there is a still more conspicuous target for their derision, yet one that is visited by thousands (including me). It is slightly smaller than the courthouse, but far more imposing.
One of the things that I often reflect on when gazing in awe at the craftsmanship that followed the Renaissance, is that we will never see their like again. After all who would sponsor the decorative excesses these days? We produce buildings with dramatic gestures rather than fine detail (Grand Arch rather Arc de Triomphe). There is a structure in Rome that belies this however, resplendent in sculptures, fountains, pillars, friezes and the whitest of marble.
Would it have been less offensive in some other material? Visually yes, but morally?
Construction of the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) celebrated the unification of the state under their first king; Vittorio Emanuele II of Sardinia. To do so they removed a huge section of the Capitoline Hill and the medieval part of the city that had stood there for centuries to memorialise a royalty that lasted only decades. The surviving Piazza del Campidoglio at the summit of the Capitoline is small, beautiful… a designed by Michelangelo. It is dwarfed by the Altare, which is also known as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.
Unless you’re Roman. They refer to it less grandly as “the wedding cake”, “the trifle”, “the typewriter” and perhaps least lovingly of all… “the dentures”.