Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Born Again in Piazza Fiume: La Rinascente

Piazza Fiume.  As Rome piazzas go, it's not much.  Today, its main purpose is to move vehicles from one place to another: the North/South, one-way thoroughfare via Salaria drains the Trieste quartiere, dumping tens of thousands of cars and scooters daily into the piazza and onto Corso Italia, where they hurtle down the Muro Torto to Piazza del Popolo, or take a mysterious left turn, cutting back through a section of the Aurelian city wall, to access the Corso going east.  Except for a small section of the piazza on the northwest, where the intersection with via Bergamo creates a bit of civil space, Piazza Fiume is a mess. 

That doesn't mean there aren't some things to see.  Gather your pedestrian skills and cross Corso Italia with the traffic coming down via Salaria.  There, on the southwest corner, you'll find a bland 1950s building, now occupied by Barclay's Bank.  Bland, yes, but over the entrance to the left, now looking north, are a curious set of painted protusions affixed to the wall.  Like a fifties album cover.  Cool, man!

Across via Piave (the extension of via Salaria) is one of Rome's few neo-Gothic structures, with those pointed windows that seem so out of place in this mostly neo-classical city. 

And on that building--appropriately on via Piave--note the large plaque honoring the Italian soldiers who fought and died in a dramatic and successful effort to hold off an advancing Austro-Hungarian force at the Piave River in northeast Italy during World War I. 

Walk up the street, toward the piazza (beware motorists turning left!) and enjoy the interesting section of the wall and a bunch of columns in front of it (we have no explanation for this craziness, except it's eclectic Rome at its best).

Across the street, an underground bookstore boasts a section of Roman wall, jutting out into the room, and black and white photos of the city here and there. 

So there's more to Piazza Fiume than meets the eye, especially for Rome-the-Second-Time bottom feeders.  But we've saved the best for last. On the northwest corner of the piazza is a department store, La Rinascente (roughly translated "rebirth").  Against all odds and, it would seem at first glance, common sense, it's a registered and protected architectural landmark.  It was designed by the Milanese team of Franco Albini and Franca Helg--their only building in Rome--and constructed between 1959 and 1961, when it opened.  Albini was an architect of considerable reputation, his career going back to the 1930s, when he designed public housing.  

It was the second La Rinascente store in Rome (the first, opened in 1887, was until recently at the corner of via del Corso and via del Tritone--the building still exists), and Albini and Helg used the basic massing of that first store in their design for this one.  Beyond that, the modern store, for all its apparent ordinariness, was new, fresh and innovative, inside and out.  The structure is of reinforced concrete and steel frame.  The exterior infill panels--an outstanding feature--are of masonry, not flat but folded--Baroque "movement" in the facade design, some say--and tinted to recall the color of porcelain in ancient Rome.  One observer has described it as a "Renaissance facade redone with contemporary technology." 

Another important feature is the substantial, open, steel cornice, referencing Michelangelo's cornice--surely the most famous in the city--for the Palazzo Farnese. 

The Sorgente Group, which has owned the building since 2006, claims that La Rinascente "is considered the best example of the setting of a modern building within the historical context of the city."  Architectural critic Reyner Banham, likely to be less biased, nonetheless shares the Sorgente Group's admiration, while noting the limitations imposed by the era.  Albini, he notes, faced severe "cultural restraints."  "He was designing a building for a conspicuous site in the history-laden ambiente of Rome, at a time when the historical nerve of most Italian architects had failed almost completely (these were the years of Neoliberty nostalgia)."

Inside, you'll find a modern department store, recently refurbished.  Shop 'til you drop. And as you do, consider three elements of the interior.  On the top floor there's a modern bar/cafe.  Avoid it or embrace it as you choose, but don't miss a chance to look out the windows, where you'll have an extreme close-up view of the steel cornice. 

Descending on the escalators, you should know that these were installed in 2011 by the firm of Tim Power Architects, perhaps replacing an elevator.  The Tim Power firm makes much of this makeover, emphasizing the importance of redoing the building's circulation so that customers could reach the upper floors rapidly and without waiting.  (The Power folks even cite starchitect Rem Koolhaas, for whom escalators are a "key metaphor for the expanding city.")  

The Albini/Helg staircase
We hope we haven't lost you here, because there's one more gem in this building.  The chiocciola--the word means both "snail" and "spiral staircase"--which once provided much or all of the building's circulation, is a masterpiece, an "expressive shell" that draws architectural historians to the building.  You'll have to poke around to find this wonder in Veronese red marble.  Each rung of the metal railing has a small curve at the end, marking the era. 

It may well be the most sensational staircase in Rome, though modernists will claim that honor for Luigi Moretti's chiocciola in the ex-GIL (a Fascist-era youth center) at the intersection of viale di Trastevere and via G. Induno. 

The Borromini/Maderno staircase
The Albini/Helg staircase is most often compared to the 1627 marvel by Francesco Borromini and Carlo Maderno, in Palazzo Barberini.  A photographer who admires both claims that the "api" (bees) that were a required element in anything created for the Barberini family, also appear in the staircase at La Rinascente.  Check that out. 


1 comment:

Richard Peterson said...

Another wonderful piece Bill. None of which I previously knew. When I saw the stair, I thought, I bet he won't mention the Barberini one, but sure enough you immediately did! A tiny typo: its Carlo Maderno.

Richard Peterson