Roman Levittowns

Mussolini found that one of the best ways to display his leadership and power was to align himself with great Roman emperors. This is a common practice–to pick up where once great leaders left off in order to prove your worth and validity. Mussolini, for example, drained the marshlands southeast of Rome to build a new communities as Caesar had originally planned to do. Mussolini then initiated the development of several new towns in a quest to  create a ‘new’ Roman-Italian empire.

Sabaudia. View of parish church looking northwest from tower of town hall G. Cancellotti, E. Montouri, L. Piccinato, and A. Scapelli, architects and planners, 1933. (photo: ENIT, Rome)

Sabaudia. View of parish church looking northwest from tower of town hall
G. Cancellotti, E. Montouri, L. Piccinato, and A. Scapelli, architects and planners, 1933.
(photo: ENIT, Rome)

This idea of building new towns to define a new building model for Italy could have been wildly successful if planned well, but what Mussolini designed could just be considered a type of Levittown. Granted, what was built was far from America’s white picket fenced suburbia, but the same ideas were applied to an Italian context. Small towns centered around a government and public service buildings, branching out to streets lined with residential homes and apartment centers, all with similar designs. Designed in just over a month, and beginning to be built after three months, these towns popped up overnight like Levitt & Son’s post war prefabricated homes. Each center and home met the street in a similar fashion, with very little attention paid to smaller details (like those considered in the design of Garbatella a neighborhood in Rome from the same period).

Even the structure of the town had similarities to Levittown. The town were divided into smaller groups of homes much l like what I would imagine a home owner’s association to be like. The only difference I can recognize is the towns efforts to appear more established. In American popup towns, everything must appear new, pristine, and clean, but that would not have been suitable for an Italian town, which I now understand to be old, well established, and with just the right amount of gritty.

Unfortunately these towns did not achieve the proper level of Italian feel, the designer had one last shot at trying to make these towns more appropriate for their context by adding a monument in tribute to those from the area who had passed in the 1914-1919 war.  “Perhaps it was intended to provide a sense of belonging, a sense of place and continuity that would otherwise have been absent” (Millon 332).

Overall, these towns created a sense of forced community, something that was not genuine and developed over decades of coexistence, but was rather a strictly confined town made up of small angry neighborhood associations.

Millon, Henry A. “Some New Towns in Italy in the 1930’s.”

Marvelous Monstrosity

When we first arrived in Rome I was lost. That is a slight understatement; sure I knew the main street to walk from my apartment to school and back, and I knew which way as north, but other than that I was lost. I fought and fought the first few days not to use a map and look like every other misplaced American tourist. I began to fall back on basic navigational instincts that I had developed as a child, I looked for a landmark. The river is pretty easy to remember but it is not like the Arkansas river, where you are either on the east or west side, between 2 blocks the Tiber will snake around you and what you thought was north is now west. Largo Argentina is a great place to help orient oneself (since it is where you can get on a bus and go to any part of Rome) but it is a ruin, and like most of ancient Rome, is 20ft below the ground and not easily spotted from a distance. But then it dawned on me, how could I not have thought of this sooner, The Wedding Cake Building (also referred to as the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel  II, but I prefer the Wedding Cake Building).  This grand white altar towers over Rome with its only competitor being the dome of Saint Peter’s. No matter where you are in the city, if you look up, you will see the horse drawn chariot and instantly know how far you are from the center and in what direction.

Looking up to the monument from the base of its stairs

Looking up to the monument from the base of its stairs

Vittorio Emanuele  II was the first king of modern Italy and a monument dedicated to him was deemed necessary. Two different competitions were held to find a monument design worthy of Vittorio Emanuele II. It was not until 1882 that they found a contender. Giuseppe Sacconi designed a large, ornate altar dedicated to their once great leader. Of course, like most things built in modern Rome (the term modern is being used loosely here) it is surrounded by controversy. This white marble ‘monstrosity’ slowly tiers up at the base of Via Del Corso and Piazza Venezia. Terry Kirk describes it as monstrous and explains that the word “evidently comes from monstrare, ‘to show,'” and everyone agrees that it shows something whether that be positive and/or negative (Kirk, 7).

“Contrary to the small, smooth, and soft of the beautiful, sublime architecture is massive, rugged, and hard-edged. An overwhelming scale … of an arduous construction with strong contrasts of light, inside and out, day to night, create an overpowering effect” (11). This stark contrast is why I consider the monument to be successful. It distinguishes itself from the rest of Rome, and the historical context that it is surrounded by. No longer was Italy broken and in ruin, Vittorio Emanuele II united the country, and because of this he deserved a monument that creates a new standard.

Despite what critics say, I like it. It is gaudy, domineering, and monstrous; which people seem to forget was implied in its programmatic requirements. Unfortunately Kirk states that “only tourists – by definition viewers without cultural memory – actually like it,” which I hope not to be true (Kirk, 14).

Kirk, Terry. “Monumental Monstrosity, Monstrous Monumentality.” Perspecta 40 (2008): 6-15. Web.

Antica streets of Ostia

Our first field trip outside of Rome was to the city of Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s port city. Abandoned in the ninth century, the city was once a thriving town at the mouth of the Tiber. After it was abandoned and sacked the city was gutted by roman architects looking for scrap marble and other antiquities. There it laid for over a thousand years, gathering dirt, debris, and burying itself like most forgotten roman artifacts. Small excavations started in 1909 but it was not until 1938, when Mussolini and his obsession with the ancient roman empire, that a large scale excavation of Ostia was ordered. This excavation process continued on and off until the 1970’s. As William MacDonald explains, “Restoration went swiftly forward, partly out of sheer necessity, so great was the quantity of half-wrecked structures from which the protective debris of centuries was removed” (MacDonald, 298). Used as a training tool for archeology students, this excavation caused a break in the community. A debate formed on whether to use historical methods and preserve what was still existing, or to rebuild and use it as a model of what once was.

DSCN0845After many arguments they seemed to have settled on capping off half demolished walls, replacing those that needed it, and restoring only small parts, and what they did is amazing. The city still has its cobblestone streets, markets, temples, and houses in tact. You are able to walk down an ancient street and walk into what was once a bakery, with its large mill stones and brick oven still laying there, untouched. Moving from room to room you are able to look through a senators home while looking at plaques of what they assumed it once looked like.

What is probably the most amazing feature of Ostia Antica is that it is not roped off. We walked through the buildings, crawled into cellars, jumped over walls, and climbed stairs to what would have been a second floor but is now just a concrete cap. Each house is still clearly defined and mosaics are still in tact. It was so different from every museum  in America, we were encouraged to venture out, make our own path, touch/experience, and enjoy the environment; instead of being constantly monitored, on a strict corridor, roped off and 10 feet back from anything of interest.

The look but don’t touch policy of modern museums diminishes the visitor experience but this is not the case in Ostia Antica. “In the imperial age Ostia was a city where most buildings were characterized by plain, even brickwork, unmolded window and door openings, and uncomplicated architectural shapes” (MacDonald, 306). But these simple schemes are what lasted and still sit there today. The simple forms and straightforward architecture  do not have to be blocked off; visitors are free to explore, climb, touch, and imagine. Essentially, Mussolini created an adult playground, where you are free to run with your imagination.

DSCN0806MacDonald, William L. “Excavation, Restoration, and Italian Architecture of the 1930s.” In Search of Modern Architecture: A Tribute to Henry-Russell Hitchcock (n.d.): 298-320. Print.