The future of the past

Have you ever seen those programmes and films from the ’50s and ’60s that were concerned with how we would be living in the future? Futuristic cities in the sky, hover cars, and jet packs. Lots and lots of jet packs.

EUR, a southern suburb of Rome is a bit like that.

But perhaps a bit more fascistic.

The genius of the sport, Italo Griselli

Planned and begun under Mussolini as the intended site of the Esposizione Universale Roma, a world fair to celebrate the beginning of the Fascist era. Designed as a modern echo of the ancient city, construction began in 1939 but was abandoned due to the entrance of Italy into the second world war. Works stopped in 1942 and the site was more or less abandoned until the 1950s, when the authorities recommenced building works with the intention of creating a new business district for modern Rome.

The Palazzo dei Congressi (formally the Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e dei Congressi), now with added BMXer

Although it has had its ups and downs, the recent renovation of some of the buildings has resulted in a resurgence of interest in the area.

I was visiting on a Saturday and, in the usual way with business districts, the area was half deserted. I did run into little clusters of people around particular buildings and there was constant traffic on the main road but many of the streets and piazzas were completely devoid of people. This made me think of those futuristic but bleakly apocalyptic films in which all the people disappear due to alien invasion or as the result of human folly.

 

My initial interest in the area was because it’s where the Museo Nazionale dellAlto Medioevo, the medieval museum, is situated. In a city with so many sights, museums and historic buildings, this museum seems to get a little overlooked, possibly due to its location away from the tourist centre. The museum concentrates on the period from the late-antique to the medieval; 4th-14th centuries and contains a range of religious, household, military and decorative objects.

I’m not going to post lots of photos from the museum here, I’ll link a separate post later because the collection is really worth a look. It’s only about 20 minutes on the metro from Termini and a short walk to visit this museum so do make the effort if you can. It’s worth it.

When I left the museum I headed west to have a look at some of the fascist-era and other 20th century buildings. Many of the buildings, open spaces and public art have been designed as a sort of echo of Rome’s ancient imperial and renaissance past. So buildings are arcaded; there are curving colonades; there are monumental statues, friezes, mosaics, pools and fountains.

Materials used in construction are mainly travertine marble, granite and tuff, giving the area a gleaming whiteness, echoing ideas of classical purity (though not the more colourful reality of the ancient world).

Right next to the museum, in the middle of the, frankly, lethal road*, the Via Cristoforo Colombo, is the Obelisco di Marconi. Built in 1959, for the 1960 Summer Olympics, this obelisk is decorated with scenes from Marconi’s career and achievements.

Just along the road is the Piazza dell Nazione Unite. Begun in 1938 but not completed until 1952, this consists of two large semi-circular arcades on either side of the main road,

 

On the external walls are these high relief panels.

Quite a bit of this was boarded up when I visited and it looks, generally, like a number of the buildings are either in the process of, or waiting for renovation.

Next I walked over to a really nice, relaxing, cooling spot by the Salone delle Fontane, there are these cool lines of water fountains, flanked with near-spherical bushes. It’s all very very architectural but with just enough greenery to soften its edges.

In the pool there are mosaics, mimicking the monochrome mosaics seen at Ostia Antica. These are, unfortunately, quite faded and difficult to photograph, but you can get at least an idea of how they look.

  

This one looks like a map of the area.

Standing in a wooded area nearby, the Parco del Ninfeo, is this statue of a youth, apparently called ‘The fields are redeemed’.

This statue is interesting because, even though it’s a modern rendition, it looks like the sculptor has consciously mimicked the look of a bronze statue created using the lost-wax technique.

 

The building here is the Palazzo degli Uffici di EUR and the entrance at the end of the fountained pool is flanked by this monumental bas relief panel by Publio Morbiducci; ‘The History of Rome through its buildings’.

   

This is a really interesting artwork, taking modern Rome and mixing it with its ancient counterpart, presenting them as the same. It shows events, building works, industry, notable people; it’s like Mussolini’s very own ‘Trajan’s column’.

And so to the really iconic building of EUR; the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, also known as the Colosseo Quadrato (Square Colosseum).

Designed in 1937 by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano, the building works were begun in 1938 and finished in 1943 but, due to the cancellation of the trade fair, the building remained empty for over a decade. It has been used on and off over the years since 1953 but its latest incarnation is as the headquarters of the Italian fashion house Fendi.

 

It sort of echoes the tiers of regular arches on the Colosseum and the ground level is lined with classical-esque statues and flanked by sculptures. The inscription at the top of all four sides is taken from one of Mussolini’s speeches, made on 2 October 1935: “Un popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di pensatori, di scienziati, di navigatori, di trasmigratori”, trans: ‘a nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of migrants’.

Fendi has restored the  building to it former glory and hosts public exhibitions as part of its programme of ‘giving something back’. Fendi has also funded the renovation of several other sites in Rome, including the Trevi Fountain.

The ground level of the building is populated with ‘classical’ statues, emphasising Roman virtues such as industry, commerce, invention and so on, again emphasizing the connection between modern and ancient Rome

And so I spent a short afternoon in EUR. Not enough time at all, as there was much more to see, but it was good to at least have a brief look at the area. As so much of this trip was spent looking at ancient Rome, this area provided a really interesting counterpoint.

EUR can be reached by taking the Metro, Line B south from Termini or the historic centre. I got off at EUR Fermi for the museum. There are also plenty of buses from other parts of the city.

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* there are several roadside shrines attesting to the lethal nature of this road.

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