An already extraordinary trip to the secret life of the Fori Imperiali in the heart of Rome took a fascinatingly bizarre turn when we started descending the steep staircase to the basement  of the medieval Torre dei Conti, at the corner of Via Cavour and Via dei Fori Imperiali.

The 13th-century medieval tower had its fair share of an eventful life. For centuries occupying a vintage position overlooking the decaying area of the ancient forum, by the nineteenth century it had been engulfed by the dense urban tissue of the Quartieire Alessandrino, covering almost the entirety of the ancient Fori Imperiali. After Rome became the capital of the Italian Kingdom, a new avenue was carved from the railway station to the Forum, named after the Piedmontese prime minister of unification Camillo Cavour. Via Cavour expired awkwardly close to the tower and for decades urban planners debated how to connect it to the area of the Forum. Meanwhile, the first wave of serious excavations in the area, under the aegis of the archaeologist Corrado Ricci, also brought to the table the issue of connecting Piazza Venezia with the Colosseo, implicating the question of the connection with Via Cavour.

But it was under the Fascist regime that the area was transformed beyond recognition. Extensive excavations in the area of the Forum obliterated the residential quarters that had grown around and above its remains, literally paving the way for the opening of the Via dell’Impero in October 1932. Finally, Via Cavour acquired a meaningful conclusion at its junction with the avenue. Meanwhile, in 1933 a large triangular plot of land on both sides of Via Cavour – incorporating the Torre dei Conti at its westernmost tip – was earmarked for the most ambitious new project of the Fascist era in Rome – the construction of the Palazzo del Littorio. An architectural competition took place in 1934, followed by the clearing of many remaining structures in anticipation of the execution of the winning project.

Inexplicably, while the competition produced a shortlist and a second round, the location the Via dell’Impero was abandoned in favour of a new one in the Aventine quarter. The tower now stood at the tip of an incongruously empty plane. Apparently in 1934 Mussolini had formally handed it over to the Arditi, a nationalist para-military organisation that had its origins in the effervescent days of D’Annunzio’s chaotic adventure in Fiume but by the 1930s had been ‘normalised’ and integrated into the formal Fascist apparatus.

I know very little about the Arditi. Until yesterday I also knew nothing about a certain Alessandro Parisi, head of the organisation until his death in a car accident in 1938. But descending into the basement room of the tower was like entering a prohibited, eerie inner sanctum. Parisi’s body is apparently there, inside a Roman sarcophagus. An austere wooden cross covers most of one of the walls. The floor is covered with mosaics that were inspired by motifs and symbols of the Knights of St John. The room itself, dimly lit by through small openings just below the vaulted ceiling, must have incorporated remains of the old Fori Imperiali. Airless, full of unexpected shadows, dotted with the most intricate spider web formations. And somewhere there, maybe, hidden well inside the sarcophagus, the decaying body of Alessandro Parisi.

We made up all sorts of stories about the basement – about Parisi and his Arditi and their secret meetings in front of the cross and the rituals of a para-military organisation and the distorted echoes that could have filled up the room in its bizarre heyday. But Signor Parisi must have kept his secrets safe enough. I found his obituary in the Arditi newspaper – four full pages of praise for his personality and military virtue. And a photo – the only photo I could find on the internet. There is a file for him in the State Archives that I may ask to see one of these days; but I am sure that nothing in it will dispel that strange intuition that there was much, much more of Alessandro Parisi and his Arditi comrades invested in that basement hall than any document, however unguarded, could possibly betray or confirm.

 

 

 

 

 

What do you get when even Mussolini dismisses one of your proudest creations an ‘infortunio’? Armando Brasini – visible yet maligned architect, urban planner, member of the Academia d’Italia, prolific visionary of the most dubious taste, judge of some of the most important competitions of the Fascist period, chief architectural curator of the Vittoriano – left behind a register of works in Rome (as well as elsewhere in Italy and in the Fascist colonies) that puts other architects, far more respected than him, to shame.

Even ‘academic’ architects took immense pleasure out of belittling his work and ridiculing his aesthetic taste. Marcello Piacentini threatened to resign from the expert committee for Rome’s 1931 regulatory plan if any of Brasini’s ideas and suggestions were to be taken seriously into account. Pier Maria Bardi, the enfant terrible of the ‘rationalist’ cultural circles of interwar Italy, used his as the straw man of everything that was wrong with Italian architecture – ad nauseam historicism, fanciful revivals of a unique brand of Roman neb-baroque, a complete lack of content with modern currents, a regressive attachment to backward-looking monumentalism. Yet Brasini built and built and built. His Palazzo INAIL is probably the only major building constructed within the historic core of the city. He designed churches (Sacro Cuore Immaculate di Maria in Parioli) and bridges (Ponte Flaminio) and entire quarters (Flaminio again) that he was lucky to see completed, even if his most grandiose projects (the ‘Foro Mussolini’ at the heart of the Renaissance quarter; the Mole Littoria; the Beacon of Christianity) were shelved at the last minute. With the exception of Piacentini, Aschieri, Del Debbio, and the ICP-related architects, such as Sabbatini, Brasini left a built legacy in Rome where others failed abjectly.

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Maybe I am missing something about him. Robert Venturi did manage some seriously effusive praise:

[quote]What you see is a harmonius and dissonant architectural symphony of complexly layered elements — formal and symbolic, masterfully defined by shade and shadow, combining rhetoric and substance, Baroque fanfare in Palladian drag, and whose juxtapositions — or rather, collisions — of curves, rectangles, diagonals — as squat columns, gross piers, useless buttresses, eloquent walls and voids, domeless drum, protruding and receding segmented pediment — must in the end compose in the Fascist era a glorious final gesture of what can be considered Baroque survival.[/quote]

It is undoubtedly unfashionable to even tolerate Brasini’s brand of architecture – not so much for what it was and looked like but for what it represented at the precise time that it was conceived and executed by him. He was a nuisance, bypassing established processes to seek privileged direct access to Mussolini in order to kill off competition. Surely his blatant disregard for ‘modern’ architecture at a time that it was vying for cultural hegemony in Italy is both disturbing and strangely admirable. A Roman master? Maybe. There is after all something strangely compelling in his ability to fuse through utterly excessive juxtaposition. Yet, for me Brasini always screams for attention, stretching his aesthetic freedom to the limits of balance and eloquence – and quite often, well beyond it, into a sphere of devastating, irreverent yet self-absorbed anachronism. His stark incapacity for change, for absorption and mediation or at least critical rejection of new experiences, I find unique, and uniquely disturbing.

A few steps away from Libera’s and De Renzi’s signature post office on Via Marmorata, on the edge of the Testaccio working class district that was designed and largely built in the last years of the 19th century, Innocenzo Sabbatini collaborated with his namesake Costantini under the auspices of the ICP to produce a couple of ‘super blocs’. I did not know of this aspect of his late work (1930-31), nor that he had even built something in Testaccio. Sabbatini never fails to confound me. I stood under the building picture above, looking at it, thinking ‘could it be?’, searching frantically on the iPad to find any reference to his in relation to Testaccio. Unlike my ever-more-frustrating search for traces of his Trionfale V, the Internet search threw up a long list of encouraging finds, until I came across this article from ArchiDiap (http://www.archidiap.com/opera/case-icp-a-testaccio-2/) that confirmed the first impressions. Sabbatini left his traces gloriously on Testaccio, along the incongruous Via Marmorata that switches so spectacularly from the pyramid of Gaius Cestius to the austere Ostiense station, to the 1933 post office, then to vintage neo-classical palazzine, and finally to the distinct, fascinating layer of ICP eclectic mega-structures …

Anyone who has travelled by train in Italy has probably encountered one of Angiolo Mazzoni’s railways station buildings. Even Termini in Rome, more famous for that extraordinary curved lobby at the front (completed in time for the 1950 Jubilee by a design team featuring Leo Calini, Eugenio Montuori, Massimo Castellazzi, Vasco Fadigati, Achille Pintonello, and Annibale Vitellozzi, with Pier Luigi Nervi acting as the technical architect), was originally designed by Mazzoni. His original plan for the station (in a city exhilarated by the prospect of holding the 1942 world fair that never was) underwent numerous modifications in the late 1930s before getting the final approval. By the time that the war put an end to all works, Mazzoni had overseen the construction of the two long side colonnades, along Via Giolitti and Via Marsala.

The register of Mazzoni’s work for the Ministry of Transport is extraordinary in both scale and inspiration. From Palermo to Venice, Mazzoni became identified with some of the most consistently imaginative modernist architecture of the Fascist era. His designs for the Trento and the Ostia stations in particular reference eloquently the work of an architect that kept experimenting with pure forms in the most fluent and elegant structural compositions. As an architect with strong early attachment to Futurism, Mazzoni understood the creative power of movement and speed, capable of celebrating with combinations of glass, steel, and stone the cult of technological progress and the revolutionary potential of the fast rhythms of modern life.

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Along with his celebrated designs for railway stations, Mazzoni also authored a number of post office buildings, like the one in the ‘new city’ of Sabaudia. In fact, his involvement in the ‘new city’ projects of the Agro Pontino was significant, especially in Latina (formerly Aprilia), where he completed the duo of railway station and post office.

But it was the construction of the new main railway station for Rome that was meant to be his centrepiece – the crowning achievement of a life dedicated to a celebration of modernity through architecture innovation. It was not meant to be. A vocal supporter of the Fascist regime, Mazzoni could not rebuild his reputation and career in postwar Italy, unlike so many other architects who had flourished under both Fascism and the First Republic (Libera, Piacentini, Moretti etc). He spent the last two decades of his life in self-exile in Colombia, awaiting in vain some form of rehabilitation. He died in 1963, long before his work was reassessed and re-appreciated, if always with some degree of unease for his Fascist past. Termini of course still bears his creative signature, even if his name has been overshadowed by the teams that extended and completed the station, with a very different design, in 1950.

I have been working my way through the E42 at the Archive Centrale dello Stato in Rome. One of the many joys of this collection is that it is very well documented and punctuated by numerous drawings, original plans, and photos of models. I have stopped feeling guilty for lacking close focus, a guilt that took away some of the pleasure of shamelessly digressing during my first weeks here. Now I simply amass, camera in hand, €3 apiece, happily ploughing my way through bulky folders, getting excited when encountering an oversized plan that needs careful unfolding and fills up the entire table for four.

The original model for the E42 quarter is a gloriously unreal sight. One can debate the merits or demerits of the architectural style chosen for the quarter. But when I see the aerial photo of the zone in 1953, a haunting monumental waste land, the graveyard of an obsessive illusion, the most spectacular nonfinito of Fascist hubris, I recall the mental image of the model presented to the organisers of the world fair in 1939. By that time, Marcello Piacentini alone was running the show; all his initial collaborating architects had abandoned the ship – Giuseppe Pagano the most embittered of the lot. Still, there is something strikingly attractive and fascinating in glancing over the scaled simulation of such a gigantic project.

I often wonder how even this model would have looked had other designs been selected from the entries to the various competitions for specific buildings – in particular, that for the Palazzo dei Congreessi e Ricevimenti that attracted the highest quality of entries. But this is a matter for another post. Today I found out that the committee in charge of planning matters for the E42 and the associated quarter kept meeting until 13 June 1943. Yes, June 1943 – a year after the fair was meant to have taken place. The agenda for this meeting contained one single item – “Examination of the situation of work in progress”… No record yet of the minutes yet. I am curious to read whatever they were debating in June 1943, beyond perhaps a frustrating post-mortem.

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.