Italy: Script vs. Reality

Italy! The name alone sparks fantasies of drinking wine in green vineyards while enjoying beautiful gardens, and architecture. It has been mentioned by a countless number of authors, and shown on the big screen in a more than a number of feature films. The influence of these mediums has reached far and wide, to the point that Italy has become romanticized in the minds of most the population. People flock to Rome, Venice, Florence, or even the Tuscan countryside in search of Italy’s enticing beauty, and many find it when they come to visit. These people are not wrong in doing so either, Italy is a truly beautiful country, only the reality of life in Italy is far different than what is shown through the lenses of cameras and paintings.

When I first arrived in Rome, I was quite surprised to find that most of the walls, doors, and even a few windows were covered in graffiti. Trash and other unpleasant objects littered the ground, and I quickly learned to pay careful attention to where I was stepping. Tourist were crammed into the most widely known corners of the city; my romanticized expectations of Rome were instantly shattered. I didn’t begin to piece together a new picture of Italy until I began exploring places that one wouldn’t find on any tourist map.

I took a visit to the neighborhood of Tiburtino, located just outside of central Rome. The neighborhood was built during the housing crisis that follow the Second World War, and it was here that I began to understand exactly what it is that makes Italy beautiful. Tiburtino wasn’t the grandiose and elaborate Italian neighborhood I had originally anticipated, it was instead quite humble. The designers of the neighborhood were seeking to create an architectural vocabulary that acknowledged Italy’s long history, all while avoiding the country’s more recent connections to the fascist party. While the neighborhood itself may not appear to be much on the surface, closer inspection reveals a methodically planned out system that integrates architecture from a portion of Rome’s past commonly overlooked: the medieval era.

Each block of Tiburtino had been planned to emulate the organic building style that was formed from human necessity during the medieval era, while simultaneously integrating the comforts of modern living. It was a functional housing block that managed to go beyond the copy and paste architecture so commonly seen in America. I was also shocked to find a place that appeared completely humble on the surface, yet had been carefully and meticulously planned and detailed. But it was the effort the designers had made to connect to a particular portion of their history that impressed me the most.

Throughout my time in Rome I have visited a handful of other neighborhoods, each with their own architectural vernacular that tied them to a specific region or place in time. I realized that it wasn’t the romanticized version of Italy that is so commonly seen that makes it great. Despite the trash, graffiti, and occasional shady environments, it is the continuing desire of the Italian people to connect their buildings to a particular place or time that make Italy truly beautiful.

Nostalgia for a garden

The gardens at Ninfa are set amongst the medieval ruins of the town of the same name. During the medieval period the town of Ninfa lay between Rome and Naples so it became an important stop on the way to or from these two cities. The location of the town was at the bottom of mountains where they had access to fresh water, but this also meant that the city lay in a swamp and was prone to malaria outbreaks.  After a successful period the town was repeatedly sacked by barbarians and was abandoned for a more fortified location in the 17th century.

One family retained ownership of the town during its period of decay, ruin and revival as a romantic garden. The town lay relatively untouched until the early 20th century when a member of the Caetani family began planting and cultivating a garden within the ruins.  Today one can stroll along the manicured paths and observe the ruined walls and streets of the original town with carefully placed and arranged flowers and plants. The effect is very thoughtfully articulated with every plant knowing its place, all arranged to make the image of the ruins a perfect backdrop for the plants and the plants an ideal accessory for the ruins. The romanticism associated with ruins has made Ninfa the ideal tourist spot. The ruins are open to the public on the first weekend of the month — although only during spring and summer — which further enhances a desire to see these hidden, special, antiquated gardens.

The magic of Ninfa lies not in the ruins but in the meticulous cultivation of its image. Without the gardens Ninfa would likely be no more than old stones of interest only to dusty old academics. The subject of how ruins come to be regarded with a sad longing was touched on in Nostalgia for Ruins by Andreas Huyssen: “How can we speak of ruins as we remember the bombed out cities of World War II (Rotterdam and Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden, Warsaw, Stalingrad, and Leningrad). Bombings, after all, are not about producing ruins. They produce rubble.”1 Time changes our view of most things.  Bombings in WWII were horrible, similar to a town being invaded by barbarians and destroyed, yet what is left behind is the same and eventually the bad memories are discarded or forgotten and the romance of a time long passed are called forth. The most popular ruins are ones that were once monuments to a society of great power, now discarded and destroyed. We do not look at these ruins and see sickness or suffering or displaced people, we see an idealized past full of unseen futures.

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

The Parking Thief

The affecting Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette) is an example of how highly Italians value personal mobility. When the main character’s bicycle is stolen his entire world is shattered and he desperately searches for the thief, for without it he cannot work. His anxiety increases throughout the film culminating in a desperate attempt by him to steal a bicycle himself in front of his son in a scene full of empathy and heartbreak. The protagonist comes full circle in the effort to recover his mobility and provide for his family.

In modern Rome, one can draw certain parallels between the protagonist’s need of a bicycle (the job he has just secured will only keep him if he has a bicycle) and the perceived need of a vehicle in today’s culture. Romans love their cars and regularly try to fit them down barely adequate streets, squeeze into spaces an American would never consider a parking spot, and angrily wave pedestrians out of the way. Although compared to many US cities Rome has an adequate public transit system the desire for the freedom of personal mobility seems to win out. Also visible today is the lengths to which people will go to secure their vehicle against theft, car alarms are a common sound and steering wheel lock bar a common sight. The lure of the open road is a strong pull for Romans although never an open road will be found in Rome.  Transport was reaching a critical mass even in the postwar period of the film, one scene shows an overcrowded trolley with men hanging off the sides, and in present day Rome during rush hour or the tourist season a comfortable bus or tram ride will not be found.  Yet, in a lecture by Tom Rankin he stated that there are 85 cars for every 100 people in Rome1 so how is it that the public transit system seems to be at a breaking point? We now have a city where most of the people own cars that do not appear to improve their day-to-day lives.

In many ways, comparing the sad, almost hopeful struggle of the family in Ladri di Biciclette to secure work for the husband by trading their only other possession of value (bedding given to them for their wedding) for the bicycle at the pawn shop, to the modern day Romans desire to move about with absolute personal freedom is ridiculous. Yet Italy and Rome have come so far in the last sixty years that the problems of modern day Romans have been reduced to sadness over a missed possible parking space on a sidewalk where they can avoid paying the parc-o-meter. The desperation for survival of 1940’s Rome has morphed into the desperation to keep up with the Joneses of present day; lest your neighbor upstage you by moving from a two wheeled motor vehicle to a four wheeled one before you can.

1 Rankin, Tom. “7 Themes for a Sustainable Rome.” Lecture, University of Oklahoma, Palazzo Cenci, Rome, IT.

Architecture Abroad

Just as filmmaker Nanni Morretti took a satiric look at Italian life in his movie “Caro Diario” (Dear Diary), I do the same as I evaluate how this semester of studying architecture in Rome has affected my studying and personal experience. Here in Rome, I got to see how much Roman and Oklahoman lives differ. What’s so great about Rome is not just the culture but it’s also the people. The modern culture of Rome is a mix of the arts, music, fashion, and historic architecture.

Daily life revolves around religion and food. There are more than 900 churches in Rome so walking to Sunday Mass is never a problem because the closest church might be right next to where you live. Sometimes two churches  can be located within 50 feet from each other such as the twin churches Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto in Piazza del Popolo. Furthermore, Vatican City, home of the Pope, is located in Rome and for this reason, many consider Rome to be the most important city in the world.

Food is no less important than religion to the people here. When people speak of Italian food, many think about pizza, ravioli, and spaghetti smothered in tomato sauce. It’s amazing how many ways people can use one ingredient: the tomato (or as Italians call it il pomodoro). Another thing that I will definitely miss is the water, which is not only abundant in quantity but also very amazing in quality. For someone who doesn’t drink alcohol and few soft drinks, I am very picky when it comes to drinking water. I would rarely drink out of tap water from the sink or water fountains in Oklahoma but when I tried the tap water here in Rome, I never stopped drinking it. The best thing about it is that you can come up to a water fountain (or nasone) every five blocks while roaming the streets of Rome, which is my favorite thing to do.

Here in Rome, you can walk everywhere unless you want to spend your money on public transportation. Walking to school not only helped improve my health but also allow me to appreciate the beauty of Rome. Sometimes it is the journey and not the arrival that matters most about traveling. But how does this trip affect my studying and my way of designing? As I have learned from one of the reviewers at my final presentation, the concept of a project is important but what’s more important is how my attitude about design has changed over this semester. Concepts are often a one-time use while attitude can be the main inspiration for the rest of my designing career. The answer is: I definitely have more confidence, which does not only affect my life, it is also reflected in my design. I remember months ago, I was uncertain about signing up for this trip because I was worrying about being away from home, living in a foreign country, learning a foreign language. However, by the time Spring Break came, I was used to taking care of myself, not being so dependent on my family and was more confident than ever. I contemplated, reevaluated, and found that confidence in my project, in which I now see expression instead of neutrality, radicalness instead of conservativeness, and complexity instead of simplicity.

Caro Diario = Dear Diary. Prod. Nanni Moretti. By Nanni Moretti. Dir. Nanni Moretti. Perf. Nanni Moretti. A Lucky Red Release, 1993.

– Minh Tran

Renaissance Corner Conditions


Palazzo Strozzi Corner Condition (Florence)



Bramantes Cloister Santa Maria della Pace


Palazzo Vecchio


Palazzo Pitti

Potentially one of the most difficult design problems faced by architects during the renaissance was how to deal with the interior corners of walls and courtyards.  At first thought an interior corner does not seem such a difficult design problem, until one tries to terminate a row of columns in a corner.  If one terminates a row of freestanding columns in the cornerwithout changing the size or shape of the cornercolumn, an undesirable optical illusion ensues in which said column appears shorter and less massive.  Although structurally sound the corner now appears frail and unbalanced.  Additionally an interior corner can be difficult to express if the columns are engaged into a wall.  If an architect maintained a “true” continuation of the column rhythm and shape, the column would be completely buried in the wall except for a tiny sliver implying the presents of a column.  This in turn also results in a somewhat awkward corner that seems structurally suspect since one would expect a larger mass in the corner where the forces meet.  I’m not sure a perfect solution was ever found, however, I believe that Bramante’s courtyard at Santa Maria della Pace Is relatively elegant, even if his corner column is buried in the wall.  The sketches posted in relation to this article detail some of the different approaches to corner conditions during the renaissance, and if one is feeling especially ambitious, one could attempt to “solve” the corner condition for oneself.

-Klaas Reimann-Philipp

The In-Between

The in-between: the stretch of time and space between point A and point B, the point where lives collide and form relationships, the places unconsciously ignored and patiently waiting to be discovered—It is the in-between that enduringly clings to us, imprinting a specific moment on our consciousness.

In the case of Rome, this intermediate space that hangs, suspended between where you were and where you are going, is made up of a dynamic urban fabric.  The tangle of twisting and turning streets wind their way through the city’s mass and pave the journey to the ultimate destination.  Like the plot of any good legend, all expeditions through Rome’s dense neighborhoods are not about the endpoint, but instead, the procession through the heart and soul of the story.  Each trip amongst the sidewalks full of moving people that spin around each other and cars that impatiently weave in and out, is an experience that permanently shapes your attitude and memory.

Since arriving four months ago, each day has begun and ended with a trip down Viale Trastevere past the same shops, restaurants, and pocket parks.  Stretching from the apartment to studio, this street is the in-between—the familiar that has become the framework for our daily life while also launching us into the unknown.  With nothing but blue sky, the unknown came in the form of a day trip to Tivoli.  The bus slowly followed along Viale Trastevere—this was a chance to break away from the sirens and bus fumes to view Rome from another time and place.  Situated fifty minutes outside the Centro Storico, Tivoli is a hillside town that lies amongst the Roman Campagna and the remains of Hadrian’s villa, one of the long-anticipated sites of the day.  Similar to Ostia Antica, the sprawling compound of Hadrian’s Villa is now a preserved park of ruins, tunnels, and scattered statues that give a vague glimpse into the daily life that took place inside the complex walls.  Although Hadrian’s villa is most notable for the exceptional remains of classical structures that still linger as an architectural collage that fuses Greek, Egyptian, and Roman forms into the emperor’s ideal city, it was the luxuriously sculpted space flowing between the ruins that held my attention.  Whether passing through the Maritime Theater or the grand terme, courtyards and gardens were ever-present and thoughtfully integrated into the villa’s fabric.

Situated just beyond the 650ft Poikile wall, I quickly found my favorite spot in the heart of the villa.  The palatial pool of water, previously lined by large porticos, stretches between two magnificent vistas of the mountains and the countryside.  It was and still is the fulcrum of the villa’s primary axes where celebrations took place and people gathered.  As I sat by the water’s edge, it became clear this peculiar state of the being between place and time extends well-beyond the architectural urban fabric of Rome and Hadrian’s villa.  Whether expected or welcomed, all of us came to Rome and were absorbed by a culture and way of life that inherently molds you.  Just like Viale Trastevere and Hadrian’s gardens, I am the in-between from who I was and who I’ll be.

–Amy Shell

The Progression of the Fascist Architectural Type

After a visit to the fascist planned areas of Garbatella and the EUR, I was struck by how different the two areas were. After reading an article about the planning of Garbatella by Antonella De Michelis I started to have a better understanding about why Garbatella differs so much from the other examples of fascist architecture.

Garbatella was built to house the industrial workers that would be supporting the maritime industry that was being planned for Rome. 1 Much of what shaped the look of Garbatella is attributed to the time period of its design, its being planned on the principles of the Garden City from Ebenezer Howard and also its location in far southern Rome. 2 The urban planners of the 1930’s, in contrast, were fully engrossed in the distinct style of the fascist party when they laid out the EUR. There are many other factors at play as well, like the completely different uses each neighborhood had: Garbatella was constructed for the Roman working class, whereas EUR was planned as the location for the 1942 world’s fair. While walking through the EUR and Garbatella one is struck with the evolution of the fascist party, from the early 1920’s to the late 1930’s, the movement toward expressing fascist power though architecture and planning progressed to monumental heights at the point when the EUR was planned.

Using the Garden City as the plan for designing a neighborhood is one of the main reasons that Garbetella diverges from the typical fascist style.  The planners of Garbatella took key ideas of the Garden City and adapted the British model into a distinctly Roman model, using ideas when they worked and changing others to suit the needs of a Roman community. 4 The success of the plan at creating a strong community and elevating the status of the inhabitants is attributed to the design and the layout.  The inhabitants lived in well-lit and ventilated spaces with access to gardens and could mingle with other members of the community in the shared/communal spaces and the public parks and piazzas. 5 The neighborhood expanded quickly to accommodate the rising need for housing.  De Michelis discusses how the population increases led to larger housing blocks being built, the scale did not mean that the attention to detail was lost and the original, adapted Roman take on the Garden City was kept intact effectively creating a healthy and desirable place to live, arguing that Garbatella took on a distinctive Roman character different from that of the fascists who created it. 6 Despite physical changes to the area and the transformation of the way the inhabitants lived, the spirit of the people and the neighborhood remained intact. 7 The later architectural style of the fascist party stands today as a clear and powerful symbol of a period most Italians wish to forget, while Garbatella is still a quaint desirable place to live without as strong a connection to the fascist period.

1 De Michelis, Antonella. "The garden suburb of the Garbatella, 1920-1929: Defining community and identity through planning in post-war Rome." Planning Perspectives 24, no. 4 (October 2009): 509-20.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

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.