Roma 5 & 6 | Modernism and Modernity

Derive a Roma, Writing August 10, 2012
Montemartini detail Sketch

Montemartini detail Sketch

Route: metro to Statione Flaminio, took the mini tram to see Renzo Piano’s Auditorio de Musica and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI contemporary art gallery just north of the City Walls. Walked back to Villa Borghese (Rome’s Stanley Park), and visited Galleria d’arte Moderna in the park, Rome’s biggest modern art museum. Walked to Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis memorial to Augustus, gelato and wine in the afternoon shade, shopping in Trastevere, walked along the Tiber back to Piazza Navona for dinner. Tried to get back to Statione Barberini, got us lost. Stumbled upon Trevi Fountain at night. Serendipity.

Route: Metro line B to Pyramide, walk along Via Ostiense to Montemartini Art Centre, walk back, Metro line B to Metro line A, Metro line A to Flaminio, walk about Villa Borghese, read for two hours, then walked to Statione Spagna to get home.

Juxtaposition and Success

Friday and Saturday were a study of modernity in the city of ancients, as we visited some starchitecture within and around the city, and I read and summarized a 53 page reading on Modernism in Italy. What follows are my findings from the two journeys.

In sum. Romans have long pushed back against modernism because they are proud of their past, and the whole premise of modernism is rejection of the past and it’s associated values. I would also like to speculate that the strong presence of religion has also played a part in slowing the adoption of modernity into the city itself. But the rejection of modernism does not mean a rejection of modernity necessarily. In terms of transportation, conservation, and a history of reuse, Rome is in many ways much more modern and contemporary than most Canadian cities. Conservation of buildings and renovation over the building of new has a lot to do with the success of surviving artifacts and preservation of the historical fabric of Rome. Condominums atop of a 2000 year old theatre (Theatre of Marcellus, see Day 3)! Subsequently, modern architecture has had to work around this surviving fabric, literally at times.

Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica

During the construction of Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, ancient ruins were discovered while digging for the foundations; a problem commonly “run into” for new building projects, especially Roman metro lines. In the case of Piano’s auditorium, they were preserved and turned into a featured dig roped off as part of the buildings themselves. The three buildings also reference the form of ancient outdoor Roman ampitheatres, as they all approach on a large outdoor seating space. MAXXI we visited another day when it was open, but we visited three other galleries over the two days that are excellent examples of the juxtaposition of old and new that are all extremely successful.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Situated in the middle of old Borghese private property, the National Modern Art Gallery looks nothing like MAXXI, it’s other contemporary. Although it was built in 1911 at the height of modernism, it uses a neoclassical facade that fits in with the look and feel of the rest of the Villa, and is approached by a large descent that equals the ascent, giving it an imposing quality. It’s modernistic aspect comes from the most comprehensive collection of Italian modernist art in Italy housed inside.

The art itself is worth discussing in the “Modernism” section of these chronicles, because, like the building and other modernist architecture in Italy, it takes on new forms, new materials, and tries to struggle free from the holds of history and antiquity that steep and surround them. Marble sculptures in the vein of ancient and renaissance classics began to writhe and pull towards Rodin, set in a gallery with a broken mirrored floor. Experimentations with material and scale stand painfully beside the reminder of an arched doorway, rejecting the monochrome abstractions housed behind.

Why it works: because of the struggle that Italian modernists faced in both architecture and art, this museum stands as a testament and storehouse of a unique and complicated history.

Approach to the gallery.

Mirrored floor.

Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Augustae

One of my favourite spaces in Rome: Meier’s signature white concrete planes set beside a classical church facade and the ancient rotunda of Augustus’ Memorial. The straight planes were a welcome relief after having spent a week drawing column after column after column.

Inside, materiality felt consistent with the monument to peace that it housed, and it was extremely cool. Air conditioning! Ara Pacis refers to the era of peace brought about by Augustus, also known as Emperor Caesar. The monument to peace was discovered in the Augustus memorial (the brown rotunda), and placed outside for public visitation before it was determined that deterioration was inevitable and a building must be commissioned nearby to house the artifact.

Why it works: because it is a peaceful jewel of modernism that houses a jewel of ancient peace. It is non-confrontational but serenely bold. The colour palette breaks with Rome only insofar as it is white, carte blanche, tabula rasa.

Montemartini Art Centre

Again, located on the outskirts of the city, this time on the South side. Entry #6 in my travel book’s list of “Top Ten Beyond the City Walls” describes “Rome’s very first power station has been transformed into a remarkable showcase for Greek and Roman statues – parts of the Musei Capinolini collection…The effect is extraordinary, playing the monolithic might of modern technology off against the noble, human vulnerability of these ancient masterpieces.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The permanent exhibition, called Le Macchine e Gli Dei or “The Machines and the Gods” tells the narrative of the development of two kinds of power in Roman society: power through art and representation of important figures, and powering a city with resources. Against the stark contrast of black cast iron stand fragments of torsos, limbs, asses, all in white marble, shocked to find themselves surrounded by such heavy industry.

Why it works: because it is absolutely beautiful, surreal, and perfectly frozen in time.

Modernism failed in Italy for two reasons.

  1. It was mired by context and did not fit in with the palettes, forms, and shapes of the past.
  2. It was taken up by Fascism.

CIAM, the Congres Internationale d’Architecture Moderne formed by Corbusier and co. in the early 20th century, condemned Italian modernism for not breaking with the past. But with a history as strong as the Roman Empire, what reason did Italy have to reject it’s proud past? With the resurgence of powerful leadership under Mussolini, what choice did they have to really have in pursuit of a new world order? Rome especially found it’s out in the form of “The International Style” and in the proliferation of suburban low-income housing projects that Modernism became so famous for. Even today, commercialism remains the plague of Roman suburbs, leaving the historical centre clean and free from the apparent class divisions that Modernism claimed to want to solve.

One of the main goals of Team X following the dissolution of CIAM was equitable social housing for the masses. Although we passed through one of these suburbs, Garbatella, on our way to the EUR on the following Monday, we did not study them. It would appear that the suburbs are for the second-time traveller to visit and the full-time citizen to live in. They do, however, provide an interesting foil for exploring the historic core, to help define what a Roman Drift really means…