In defense of the Vittoriano: Monumental Reception and Ambiguity

Terry Kirk’s article Monumental Monstrosity, Monstrous Monumentality focuses on reception of the architectural sublime, and when the sublime crosses a line into monstrosity, using the Altare della Patria (pseudo-affectionately nicknamed “Il Vittoriano”) as a case study. Kirk underscores the need to realize and internalize the line we straddle as designers when designing monuments or other places of public gathering/service/etc. When dealing with the problem of effective memorialization, there is always the chance (particularly when lacking background in the event) that the design will be inadvertently offensive – even monstrous.

It is without a doubt a landmark in Rome – descriptions of just how out of scale it is read like the classic form joke: “How big is the Vittoriano? Well, it’s so big that…” Possible completions include: “it’s taller than the Saturn V rocket”i, “over 20 people attended a banquet in the stomach of the horse in the equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emanuele II”ii, and “there are three different museums inside itiii”. Its white Brescian marble towers over the city, visible throughout Rome in spite of its odd stacked structure and lack of a dome.

The Vittoriano follows all the “rules” of political monuments – it is grandiose, ostentatious, bombastic, and inspires a certain feeling of inadequacy in the viewer – but it is executed in such a way that plants it firmly in the school of Albert Speer, Étienne Boullée, etc., particularly when resolved while considering Italy’s Fascist period in conjunction with it. Mussolini capitalized on the monument, transforming it into the “locus of the hypnotic nightmare of Fascism”iv, and thus transformed its meaning – the way in which its expression of the sublime is experienced. It went from being awe-inspiring to loathsome, from minimizing the viewer in the face of unimaginable and steadfast unity to minimizing the viewer in the face of an uncaring, despotic government.

However, Kirk additionally mentions that the only people who “actually like it” are tourists, who by definition have no cultural memory.v This seems to indicate that the form is fundamentally sound – by following the rules, it remains able to capture the attentions of people, and take their breath away, in much the same way as it did in the early 1900s. Its success amongst these cultural neophytes is undeniable – one has only to walk near Piazza Venezia in tourist season to see swarms of people ooing, aahing, and taking photos.

However, by traditional measures of success, the result is less clear-cut: a common axiom still employedvi when discussing Italian culture is that it mostly doesn’t exist – that the allegiance of Italians is primarily toward their cities rather than the concept of “L’Italia”, and that Italians only identify as such when outside of Italy. What this has to do with the backlash against the Vittoriano can probably never be determined, and anyway falls more under the jurisdiction of more social sciences. However, it is amusing to note that the monument is relatively inaccessible despite its humongous size, and there are guards patrolling to ensure that visitors refrain from smoking, eating, sitting, talking, etc. – all things that are expected, even welcomed, in the public spaces of Italy.vii This is ostensibly because the Vittoriano is so precious to Italians, but Kirk is far from the only source asserting the opposite. In this light, its reception can be seen as such an incredible failure that it cannot even be treated as a normal public space, with its superintendents unable to reconcile how it would be used with the intended idea of it.

I propose that its ability to continue generating controversy – in all its forms – is in fact admirable, as it shows that although a designer cannot control the reception of their design, this frees up the definition of success (particularly when speaking about monuments) to mean something subtler: the ability to keep people engaged in discussion, so that it remains relevant, and with it, the event it is memorializing.

i 135 meters to the Saturn V’s 110

ii Attended by then-Mayor Torlonia, the owner of foundry Bastianelli which made the statue, and 21 workers

iii The Central Museum of Italian Unification, the Sacrarium of the Banners of the Armed Forces, and the Italian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

iv Kirk, Terry. “Monumental Monstrosity, Monstrous Monumentality.” Perspecta, no. 40 (January 1, 2008).

v Ibid.

vi As of 2013, a full 143 years after Italian unification

vii It is really beyond bizarre that a monument celebrating “Italianness” would prohibit public talking and smoking – extremely popular Italian pastimes.

One thought on “In defense of the Vittoriano: Monumental Reception and Ambiguity

  1. my 2 cents: I like the Vittoriano even if I’m not a tourist ;), my opinion is that it’s for sure a public space but it’s at the same time a monument and a grave (for all unknown soldiers) so it need respect and no one is allowed to sat down on it or eat or something else.

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