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.

Authenticity and Ruin

Andreas Huyssen’s article Nostalgia for Ruins focuses on sanitized ruin experiences and questions whether “authentic” ruins even exist, i.e., when does a ruin become an exhibit, and when has it been preserved so heavily that it is no longer “ruined”, but transformed into a designed object?i

These questions colored my own experiences at Ostia Antica and later the Palatine Hill. Both are “exhibits” in the sense that you have to pay to get in, there are signs put up all over the place telling you what you are looking at, with other things of touristic and historical significance noted along with reconstructive drawings of what it would look like in Roman times, et cetera. However, at Ostia Antica you basically pay to get in and are then turned loose. There are few areas cordoned off, you are free to roam in, around, and on the ruins, and although they have been “sterilized” by the concrete caps to prevent further erosion, the level of intimacy you can get with these ruins is extremely high.

The Palatine Hill on the other hand has virtually everything of note separated from the actual walking path of the user, and is more of a zoo for ruins. Where at Ostia Antica you can actually take rubbings of bricks and inscriptions, be in the ancient spaces, use your imagination, and climb up onto the walls of buildings and look out, the Palatine Hill has a much more prescriptive nature, with the views carefully constructed, and everything interesting separated from where you will actually be walking.

However, the answer to which is more “authentic” isn’t so clear-cut as that. Yes, at Ostia it is possible to climb up and around and be inside, but the ruins are carefully preserved with the aforementioned concrete caps – the ruins were discovered and subsequently designed (through admittedly minimal intervention) to create a new entity, that of a ruins-themed park. In contrast, at the Palatine Hill only those pieces of ruin that come in regular contact with people are especially preserved, and much of it even more minimally – brick coursing around ancient pieces of mosaic to keep them in place, for example. The earlier zoo metaphor is lacking when it is noted that ancient ruins are not in fact wild animals: by sectioning off and framing sections of ruin (and it must be said that much of it is now overgrown and gone to seed), and most importantly by preventing access, they remain perceived as things of the past and not the present.

i Huyssen, Andreas. “Nostalgia for Ruins.” Grey Room, no. 23 (May 1, 2006).

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis and Temporal Consideration

The origins of Piazzale Augusto Imperatore in a Fascist master plan, and its being carved out of a thick and dense part of the city, raises an interesting design question for Museo dell’Ara Pacis: since not only the location of the altar and the precedent of having a building to house it were Mussolini’s decisions but also even the fact that a piazza is there to house it in the first place, when does the contextual argument stop being spatial and start being temporal? One of the main criticisms for Richard Meier’s museum (while deliberately ignoring larger political issues that may be at play) is that, stylistically, it is an extracontextual construction; the palette is too cold, the decoration too spare, et cetera. But is it not perhaps also the case that, stylistically and functionally, it is being considered entirely within the wrong context?

Victor Morpurgo’s design for the Ara Pacis enclosure

Invoking some willful reductionism: there really isn’t that much of a difference between the original, designed by Vittorio Morpurgo, and the current: both are, essentially, glass boxes that serve to enclose the altar and protect it from the elements. Of course, the program is simple, but the spaces don’t have to be. The problem may lay in the choice of architect: Italian Fascist architecture is noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles (there are some brilliant examples bordering Piazzale Augusto Imperatore). Richard Meier’s architecture is similarly noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles.

The real contextual problem isn’t the colors, or the fact that it is Spartan in adornment, or that it lacks pomp and grandiosity – it is that, although Meier was commissioned by then-Mayor of Rome and liberal Francesco Rutelli, he proceeded to build another Fascist building in the center of Rome. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with fascist architecture; many fascist works are in fact well-receivedi, e.g. the buildings of Giuseppe Terragni famously championed by Peter Eisenman. However, maybe the temporal association isn’t the greatest for a major Roman monument?


Richard Meier’s design for the Ara Pacis enclosure

On the other hand, it may be the perfect association – after all, the altar is only there because Mussolini moved it. He aligned himself with Augustus, another man of power who had considerable influence on the Roman fabbrica della cittàii, who had the altar created in the first place specifically to celebrate the peace that war brought. Similarly, Italy’s engagement in World War II was in part influenced by imperial ambitions of the fascist regime, which sought to restore a “Roman Empire” in the Mediterranean region. Presumably, this would also bring peace, or at least respite from what is remembered as the most dramatic war in modern history. Whether Italian military ambitions were justified or not, it would be remiss to not address this important period of Italian history.

It is a little absurd to suggest that Meier had in mind the idea to generate controversy with a major landmark design as a sort of performance art masquerading as architecture in order to frame the entire debacle as commentary on Italians’ relationship with their past, but it is an interesting thing to consider. After all, there is room enough in the world for argument.

iAlthough always with an amusing rush to explain that “While this reviewer disagrees with fascist policy…”

iiAugustus is famously the emperor that “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”

Italian life and culture: Opera

Monteverdi, Cavalli, Piccinni, Paisiello, Verdi… with so many Italian opera heavyweights, and as an opera fan myself, I knew I would have to see one at least one during my stay in Rome, but thought nothing of it for a while. However, by chance, I was eating lunch and noticed a flyer advertising a small Werner Herzog film retrospective, and took it (of course, I’m a big Herzog fan as well). The server noticed and said to me, “if you like Herzog, and opera, he will be here: he is directing an opera.” And so then I knew I had to make plans sharpish. Trucking down to the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma I found that he was directing a staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s I Due Foscari, and would have bought tickets then except they were closed. I was so excited at the chance to see one of my film heroes direct a performance of one of my favorite  art forms.

Of course, by the time I was able to get down to buy tickets, they were sold out. So I made arrangements to go to Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns instead. I had seen it before on video, but this would be my first live opera. Despite not getting to see Herzog’s I Due Foscari, I was excited: Saint-Saëns is a composer I admire greatly, and Samson et Dalila is nothing if not dramatic.

The drama of the night actually started when my date and I left a little too late to get to the theater with a comfortable margin of time. There is a bus by our apartment that takes us very near the theater, so we stood at that stop in what we quickly decided was a futile attempt. Panicked, we rushed up to the tram that goes from our neighborhood to Largo Argentina. There is construction related to a new tram line, so much is cordoned off and bottlenecks abound, forcing us to Bogart our way upstream to the bus stop. The bus came and went without us, as we noticed how many people it was carrying and decided that after doing our best salmon impressions we didn’t want to also pretend to be sardines. We did what was previously unthinkable. We hailed a cab.

It was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had in a car. We got across Rome in two minutes.Upon entry, we made our way up to the nosebleeds, and took our seats. We envied those sitting further forward than we, and noted that there were some empty seats in the front row. As soon as the lights dimmed, before any coherent thought could go through our minds such as “we should go sit in them things up there”, a horde of Romans leaped over the backs of seats to occupy those spaces. We shrugged our shoulders, resigned to our fate in the back.The show itself was really neat; the costumes were really contemporary (the Philistines’ costumes had an especially cool cyberpunk theme involving spring stilts, hockey masks, and QR codes) and they made great use of a projector. Despite being epic in length (three hours, give or take), it went by quickly. The main, mezzo-soprano aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” was done well and moving when Samson joined in for the duet portion, and the bacchanale in the final act was surprisingly physical and involved. It was definitely a wonderful live performance to have as my first live opera, and a great memory from Rome.

Italian life and culture: il Giardino di Ninfa

If there’s one thing that can be said about Italians (and there are at least five), it’s that they design everything. “Made in Italy” is a phrase that indicates quality workmanship, ergonomics, attention to detail, premium materials, etc. So, it’s no surprise that a visit to the gardens of Ninfa showcased Italian design applied to green space.

First, some background: Ninfa was a medieval town that was deserted in the 16th century due to outbreaks of malaria, and revitalized in the early 20th century by using the ruins as a backdrop for the park. It is now something of an oasis, being host to over a hundred bird species as well as a diverse array of flora – including many varieties of my favorites, magnolia and Japanese maple.

To get to Ninfa from Rome is something of a task, especially without a car. There is a train from Rome to Latina, and then there are taxis to convey you the ~€15 distance to the gardens themselves. Latina lies along the Appian Way, and is a doable 68 kilometers for the dedicated cyclist, but for the rest of us it is more cost-effective to make sure to get a regional train from Rome (€4/person compared to the €9-11 high-speed ticket on the line to Naples) and go with some friends to split the cab fare. Also, a good camera, your favorite macro and wide-angle lenses, and a fresh battery are necessities.

Latina Scalo, the train station, is best described as “charming” – a cute design from the ’30s, two tracks, a taxi stand, and a bus stop outside are what welcomed us to Latina. The station is actually nine kilometers from the city center, so there isn’t much. The station has a bit of a Wild West vibe, actually: the dingy attached bar was filled with flies and rough-looking men playing video slots, while the taxi drivers smiled in a way that says “finally, easy marks” in any culture. So of course, we took a taxi. The ride to Ninfa was uneventful and pleasant, and the fare wasn’t too inflated. Entrance to the gardens cost €10 each to pay for a guide, and we entered.

The gardens are laid out amongst the ruins of the town, and various buildings are still recognizable as the town hall, castle, etc., making it one of the most hospitable post-apocalyptic landscapes I’ve seen, in fiction or in real life. There is water and green everywhere; one of our fellow tourists remarked that it was “like Alice in Wonderland”, which is either extremely accurate or not at all, depending on how you view Wonderland. Also, the microclimate surrounding Ninfa is really something spectacular, with a certain spot – the warmest and the only area that needs regular watering – even able to grow mild tropical plants such as avocado and banana.

At the end of the tour is an additional €2 fee to gain access to the hortus conclusus – walled garden – which in contrast to the main gardens is an Italian formal garden which, while not as horticulturally impressive as the main garden, is an excellent end to the tour, where we were left alone to stay as long as we wanted amongst the box hedges and grapefruit trees.

Italian life and culture: bistecca

For the past three and a half days I (meaning we, meaning us so-called “Sooners in Rome”) have been in Florence, experiencing la dolce vita in a leisurely way befitting the smaller size of the city. Just kidding, the sweet life was lost in a haze of sketching. Upon arrival in Florence at 9 AM, the hostel disallowed checking in until 2 PM, so of course there was nothing to do but sketch. The meetup times over the next two days had us sketching, and on Sunday before we left – why, what else but sketch? So much collective ink and graphite was used over the trip that, were it to be force-fed to a student via gavage, it would produce the most succulent of sketch-themed foie gras. A delicacy, to be sure! Maybe even its own dish: fegato grasso alla fiorentina.

Speaking of ____ alla fiorentina, the bistecca adventure. The setting: Osteria Santo Spirito, on recommendation of Dr. Pilat. The meal: bistecca alla fiorentina, a steak rumored to rival those of legendary (if perhaps ignobly) Amarillo attraction The Big Texan Steak Ranch. A fellow student and I (name withheld to protect the guilty) felt that when in Florence, do as the ridiculous tourists who want huge steaks, right?

We arrive. We sit. We scan the menu: €35,00 for this behemoth. We are brought bread: it is good. There is an olive tapenade: it makes the already-good bread better. Fun fact: although tapenade is a French word, the oldest tapenade recipe is found in de Re Rustica, Lucius Columella’s twelve-volume opus published in the first century CE, some thousand or so years before the appearance of anything resembling a discrete French. We banter. We are excited. French is a time of saying one syllable and whizzing through nine letters, so we read the menu aloud and enjoy Italian phonetics. Steak is ordered, and we are informed that it is a kilogram. Bring it on, we say. Challenge accepted. Never trust an American bearing hunger, particularly if their meat intake has been drastically reduced since arriving in Italy. Steak is coming. Steak arrives. It was 1.2 kilos, the waitress apologizes. Pfft, we say. Kid stuff, we say. Only 42.3 ounces – not even 60% of the 72 ounce Big Texan T-bone, ripped from a frozen wooly mammoth they keep in the back. Cut, tear, salt, put on plate. Chew, swallow. Easy. Cut, rotate, put on plate. Place in mouth, chew, swallow. For us, consuming all the steak is an all-consuming goal. We finish, and we are not sated. Our dormant stomachs, growing used to Italian portions, have been awakened by this challenge and they yearn for more sacrifice. Gnocchi is considered, agreed upon, and handily dispatched. Il conto, per favore, we ask smugly. We know this. We are highly able to enter and leave a restaurant without any rude awakening, gosh why does the check say €42,00 for the steak this is not correct at all and we demand an explanation.

The restaurant prices bistecca alla fiorentina based on weight. If only it said that on the menu. If only this was made clear by our waitress. Lesson learned for next time, we grumbled, and paid up. After all, it was still worth it – even at that price.

Italian life and culture: caffè

My name is Michael Dean.

I’m working on an assignment for class with my pal Grant. We have to document Italian life and culture. I am not Italian. He is not Italian. We are in Italy, but do not belong here.

My name is Michael Dean. I have a headache. Coffee. Caffè latte. Cappuccino. Caffè macchiato. The words roll off of my tongue as I practice ordering. Buongiorno, vorrei un caffèccino. I messed up. The woman looks at me like I have three heads. For all I know, I do. Grant isn’t with me. He could save this; he’d say something funny and we’d all laugh. Mi dispiace; vorrei un cappuccino. I hand over €1,30. In Italy they use commas as decimal points. While I’m patting myself on the back over this knowledge the lady scowls and gives me back the €0,20 coin I overpaid.

My name is Michael Dean. I have to keep it in my head so I don’t lose myself. Mi chiamo Michael Dean. The headache never went away. Grant still isn’t here. I don’t know why he would be; I never asked him to come. On the TV there’s a commercial for CRYSTAL PARTY. It’s mesmerizing. It’s from the early 90s, it has to be. CRYSTAL PARTY wants me to buy things from it. CRYSTAL PARTY is so self-consciously cheesy I can’t tear my eyes away. CRYSTAL PARTY is my entire world for the next twenty seconds.

My name is Michael Dean. I’m being jostled by Italians. Why do Italians like to jostle? I’m in their way, obviously. Scusi. Permesso. I’m taking up valuable space at the coffee bar. Cafffè Camerino: il caffè con tre “effe”. I struggle to figure out what this means. Why is there an extra F? It’s making my headache worse. CRYSTAL PARTY isn’t helping, at all. It’s the third time I’ve seen the commercial. I am so confused. I do not speak Italian. I pat my shoulders to reassure myself I have only one head. The barista looks at me even more strangely than the lady at the register did.

My name is Kool Moe Dee. I am so kool. I have achieved this level of kool by jostling, and by speaking Italian. I am Italian. Il conto, per favore. Buonasera. I can sling travel-guide phrases with the best of them. I do it with confidence. Wherever Grant is, surely he is also Italian. We are jostling together, in spirit. The embarrassing €0,20 comes in handy because I want another coffee. I don’t mess up this time. Vorrei un cappuccino. Perfetto. Va bene. Bravissimo. CRYSTAL PARTY shows up again. I dismiss it. CRYSTAL PARTY is banishèd forthwith. I jostle my way back to the bar. The barista nods approvingly. The cappuccino is delicious, better than the first one.

My name is Michael Dean. I am in Italy. I can buy coffee. My headache is even gone.