The mystery of Trionfale V

I came across this building by the ICP architect Innocenzo Sabbatini a few years ago (2011 to be precise), while going through a bulky file on Rome at the Rome State Archives. Back in those dates, researchers were able to photograph any document they wanted without any charge (alas, not any more), so I took a photo and simply filed it away. At the time I was working on finally finishing my never-ending (happy update: now ended and published) book of Fascist Rome, so Sabbatini was a rather peripheral and shadowy figure in the glistening world of the Piacentinis, Paganos, Terragnis, and the like. Sabbatini was a memorable stunt in my world. His building, though memorable, could not really complete with the Danteum, the Palazzo del Littorio or the Casa delle Armi.

Fast forward two years. On a blistering hot afternoon of June, I arrived in Rome to attend an extraordinary conference on architecture in Rome, organised by the Biblioteca Hertziana and the German Historical Institute in Rome. I had the unenviable task of speaking about Armando Brasini – an architect I never liked, even if his grandiose (and usually failed and forgotten) plans did detain me disproportionately in my own research. But Sabbatini was one of the stars of the show; his name was dropped in every other paper. I became aware of his significant register of construction dotting the periphery of Rome. Locations I had barely heard of before – and never visited to photograph – danced around the conference room. Sabbatic, it seemed, did matter. And yet, the books I was reading and the documents I had amassed made scant reference to him. No matter. I carried on estranged from him. I did, however, felt the need to expand the section of my book dealing with the ICP building project. I also spent an entire afternoon in Garbatella, walking by and photographing his ‘alberghi suburban’. One step closer. Not close enough.

It was during my 100 days in Rome, as a fellow of the British School of Rome, that Sabbatini chose to make a spectacular, forceful, and addictive entry. Through the eyes of others, I saw him differently – as a genius designer of popular housing, working in the late 1920s with breath-taking assiduousness to produce an extraordinary subset of buildings, each of which looked unlike any other he had designed previously or built afterwards, and yet each almost unmistakably his, beaming with the most irreverent ideas, reflecting his creative, expansive, inquisitive mind. Garbatella, San Lorenzo, Testaccio, Trionfale – these were the new locations that I had to train myself to recognise on the map of Rome.

All of this strange pursuit – an aside of my research here – has really come down to this building – the fated ‘casa economica’ constructed under the aegis of the ICP in Trionfale, on the north-west of the Vatican complex, in 1927. Trionfale V, it was called. A haunting image this, showing a completed building with a unique capacity for synthesis, capturing a moment of maturity for the so-called ‘Roman school’. The prolific Sabbatini concocted this building while working on a myriad other projects in Garbatella and elsewhere. His fruitful association with the ICP came to a rather unceremonious finale in 1929-31, essentially putting an end to his architectural legacy in Rome.

Trionfale V then … Google has a handful of photographs and plans of it. Books mention it as built in 1927 with no other information. Some authors are a little bit more helpful – it must be close to Circonvallazione Clodia, with this facade looking ‘towards’ Piazzale Clodio. No mention of demolition or damage. And yet, I can find no trace of it. Google Earth cameras and Apple Maps Flyover drones seem to have missed it too. Was it demolished? There is a suspiciously empty area around the Piazzale; but I have found no reference to its current status as ‘demolished’. Is it living a secret life camouflaged under subsequent accretions, to the point that it has become unrecognisable? Books are parsimonious when it comes to information about its precise location. Trionfale IV has got an address; ditto for other major buildings by Sabbatini. Not so Trionfale V – its topographical signature remains bewilderingly elliptical – “on Circonvallazione Clodia”. Twenty blocks or so. Not very helpful.

So, while I am chasing the ghosts of ‘mediterraneita’ during my residence in Rome and reading about the E42 competitions, I also have been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) obsessing about Innocenzo Sabbatini and his nefarious Trionfale V pretty much since my arrival here. It is now just over a month; I have visited and photographed about twelve of his buildings in Rome. But Trionfale V has eluded me. Maybe this is some kind of belated revenge for the three fleeting mentions that he gets in my book.

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