Sooners study architecture in the Hogwarts of Rome: The Cenci Family Palace


Cenci Palace. Photo by Minh Tran.

While the white wig clad servants in gilded coats, maids ducking quietly through secret doors, and members of Rome’s high society have long vanished, the Cenci family palace still maintains the essence of palatial life in Rome during the late 1500’s. The outside of the building is like so many others in Rome and can go almost unnoticed to a passersby in the piazza. But upon crossing the threshold of the massive green doors, visitors are instantly flung back in time. A hike up the monumental travertine spiral staircase (which is rumored to have been designed in such a way that Lord Cenci could ride his horse up them) takes you to the landing at the third floor where a heavy dark door opens into the studio spaces.


Cenci Palace stair. Photo by Minh Tran.

Marble floors, fresco covered walls, elaborately vaulted ceilings, and hand plastered columns make up the grand foyer. The floor of the building that the studio resides on undoubtedly must have been used for public audiences and hosting guests who needed to be put in their place by the majesty of the Cenci Palace. A visitor would have to progress through a series of rooms before reaching the actual room that Lord Cenci would be in. The first room, where most people would spend the majority of their time waiting, has a large stone fireplace and is now where the main library is located. Shelves around the room contain volumes of both contemporary and classical works of architecture, design, and history. The next room is slightly smaller in size with a much smaller fire place, this is where the students from Iowa State have their studio. The next two rooms are studio spaces for the University of Oklahoma. They are more elaborately decorated and would have been used to stage and queue visitors before they actually proceeded into the final room of the wing (our lecture hall) in which Lord Cenci would have greeted them with his notoriously terrible attitude and awful temper.

Cenci Palace by Klaas Reimann-Philips.

Cenci Palace by Klaas Reimann-Philips.

The Cenci family1 was your typical dysfunctional high ranking family of Rome’s glory years. Lord Francesco Cenci was quick to anger, fond of immorality, and an abusive husband and father. After years of crying out for help to the local officials, his wife Lucrezia and daughter Beatrice conspired to kill him while the family stayed at their summer castle. After the first attempt with poison failed, the pair resorted to more gruesome means with a hammer before shoving the Lord off a balcony to his death. Like all perpetrators of poorly executed plans of passion, they were caught and later beheaded in a public spectacle. Legend has it that on the anniversary of her death, Beatrice’s ghost crosses the Tiber River with her head in her hand.

Whether or not this ghost story is true, the Cenci palace has a long and fabled history in the heart of Rome. Walking through the narrow doors of the studio spaces on a daily basis will certainly have a lasting effect on each of us, much like the cobble streets of the city around it will. Having such fine quarters with new faces in a new place will be a grand experience for the lives, educations, and future careers of the students from the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture.

– Grant Newby

1   Knopf, Alfred A. “From Ponte Sant’Angello to the Ghetto.” Rome. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2005. 254. Print.

Hadrian’s Villa and Villa D’Este in Tivoli by Cal Cornwell

 The Roman emperor Hadrian is more prominently known in the architectural community as possibly the best candidate for having designed and created the Pantheon.  Our professor Catherine Barrett explained to me while walking through Hadrian’s villa that he was one of the first emperors to both travel to all the corners of the Roman Empire and also the first to have his residence outside of Rome.  This brings up many questions about his desire to live outside of the capital that he ruled, but also provides evidence of his scholarly knowledge as well as his understanding of different types of architecture.  On the journey through Hadrian’s Villa I was accompanied by two of my friends who were visiting Rome but not studying architecture. They also had no knowledge of Hadrian before the trip to my temporary home, or that his massive estate in Tivoli existed.  This turned out to be a wonderful experience for me as I got to listen to their questions and ideas about the massive estate, and also channel what information I had on the emperor, his villa, and ancient Roman architecture as well.

 On approach to Hadrian’s Villa we were instructed to look for specific axes that Hadrian used and also to try to identify some of the different architectural techniques and styles that he used in the creation of his extremely large and extravagant residence.  After the Professor’s explanation my two friends and I (Dakota and Lizzy) began to wander around the thousand plus year-old ruins and imagine what it must have been like when the ruins were newly constructed with all of the ornament and landscaping that would have been placed at the Villa.  The first element that is seen once entering into the first courtyard is the hundred-yard long pool that stretches away from the villa towards the hillside of the estate that overlooks the valley below.  This immediately captured our interest but we wanted to see all of the places at the villa that we had decided on when looking at a plan of the area first.

The two non-architects with me stared up at the ruins fascinated and paying more attention to scale and time period than the actual buildings themselves (which I expected).  This was kind of a positive for me because I was able to really think to myself all alone about how this place was actually built, the techniques used, and over all the different styles of architectural influence in the different sections of the villa.  Although no one has a clear evidence of the exact influences that Hadrian used or even how many of his buildings were constructed, it was clear that different kinds of ideas were used when planning out his multi-axis, multi-building style villa.

From many of the lectures from both of our professors here in Rome (Dr. Pilat and Dr. Barrett), we have been able to learn many things about both the ancient architecture in Rome and how revolutionary it was in its time and also how this ancient architecture has influenced all practice in the field after it.  With these lectures as well as comparative strategies on dating and explaining architectural details, I have been able to learn different ways to view and analyze different time periods of building styles throughout Rome.

I mention this to tie back my previous conversation about Hadrian’s Villa.  Earlier in our time here in Rome we were lucky enough to travel to Ostia Antica, which is the ancient port of Rome and like Hadrian’s is an area of ruins that are preserved and still studied by architects and archeologists alike today.  At the villa I began to compare the similarities and differences between Hadrian’s Villa and Ostia Antica.  This was one of the most influential periods of my trip, although small, it had an enormous impact on my understanding of architecture at its most elaborate but also functional phase in history.  The Romans, even though they were maybe the most egotistical civilization in all of history, were also the most innovative and determined people architecturally, socially, and militarily then and for a great deal of time after their empire fell.

After we left Hadrian’s Villa, we went up into the town of Tivoli and traveled to the Villa D’Este which, like Hadrian’s was a villa, but it was built in the Baroque period (began in late 16th century).  This villa was a welcome break from Hadrian’s in the way that the more “modern” architecture that the villa was built in was able to be preserved enough that the entire estate was accessible.  This time period too saw a great amount of wealth for a small amount of people.  This palace was surrounded by gardens that were more elaborate than any I had ever seen in my life and for multiple hours my friends and I walked through the fountains and flowers.  With my mother being a landscape architect and my inherited love for vegetation and floral design, I was in an amazing place stuck between elaborate and ornate architecture and beautiful fountains and a display of flowers that I had never seen anywhere in my world travels before.

This day trip was possibly the most influential day viewing architecture and its surroundings alike that I have seen in my entire schooling career.  For the last three months I have been lucky enough to walk through the streets of Rome every day, but on this day I was able to see two different amazingly influential times in architecture and was able to relate them to different things I have seen in Rome the history of architecture.  This experience combined with the fact that I was able to live a part of my mother’s legacy allowed me to take something extra from this trip that I do not know if anyone else on the outing was able to.  This gave me a new purpose for my schooling in design and taught me that there are other things besides building design that can dramatically affect the experience of a place.

–Cal Cornwell

Scavenger Hunt from Week 1


Watercolor sketch of the Colosseum by Amy Shell.

During the first week of our program students were given a selection of ancient sites to visit and sketch including the Pantheon, Colosseum, and Palatine Hill.


Amber Conwell- Jan 28, 2013 1244 PM - IMG_0665

The Palatine Hill by Amber Conwell.

The Colosseum, by Cathleen Townsend.

The Colosseum, by Cathleen Townsend.


View from the Palatine Hill by Kymber Kincannon.

View from the Palatine Hill by Kymber Kincannon.

Diagram of the Colosseum by Annie Kientz.

Diagram of the Colosseum by Annie Kientz.

The Colosseum by Minh Tran.

The Colosseum by Minh Tran.

Illustrating the History of Rome

Understanding the layers of a city with nearly 3,000 years of history can be a challenge, especially for Oklahomans.  In order to begin to grasp and order the people, places, and events that have shaped the city students created illustrated timelines in their history course this week. The timelines include major figures, events, and monuments from the founding of the city through the Baroque era.

Nathan Harwell's illustrated timeline of Roman history from the founding of the city to the Baroque era.

By Nathan Harwell.

By Yichen Wang.

By Yichen Wang.

By Klaas Reimann-Philipp.

By Klaas Reimann-Philipp.


Rome: Architecture and Urbanism in the Eternal City


The Spanish Steps of Rome.

The city of Rome has played a central role in the development of architecture and urbanism for millennia. Just a few of the many key sites includes: Ancient works such as the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Forum; the medieval palazzi that still form the core’s urban fabric; great Renaissance and Baroque churches and piazzas; and contemporary works by Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas, Richard Meier and many more.

In the Spring semester of 2013, twenty students from the College of Architecture will spend a semester living and studying immersed in the Eternal City of Rome.  The program will be led by Assistant Professors Stephanie Pilat and Catherine Barrett. It will include a number of day trips as well as a 4-day/3 nights trip to Florence.

We invite you to follow our travels and adventures here.  Please join in our conversations by blogging responses.

Sites of Contest: Power and Politics in Urban Rome


Mussolini demolishing buildings surrounding the Mausoleum of Augustus, from the Journal Capitolium.

Rome’s many rulers—emperors, popes, kings, dictators, presidents and prime ministers—have all attempted to shape and reshape the city as an expression of their power.  Sites in the city have been subject to serving political needs on the world stage that is Rome; architecture and urbanism have been used to represent, codify, and solidify power.  This course examines the sites that have been the focal point for such expressions from ancient through modern times.  Our study will range from ancient sites such as the Imperial For a and Hadrian’s Villa, to Papal constructions during the counter-reformation such as Piazza del Popolo, as well as more modern projects including the EUR, a city district designed to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Fascism.  Additionally, we’ll explore the periphery and surroundings of the city including sites such as the Centocelle Airport, and the Fascist New Towns outside of Rome.

Through readings, writing, discussions, and site visits students will analyze and deconstruct these sites in order to understand how architecture and urbanism can be used to express political intentions.  We’ll examine sites where intended meanings have been transformed and changed by the people who use them through resistance, new constructions, and the development of collective memories.