Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Francesco Rutelli: on Building atop Rome's Ancient Heritage

Former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli was explaining why it was so difficult to build the Metro "C" line, which at one point was designed to run from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, under via del Corso.  All the ground beneath that route, he said, to a depth of about 25 meters, was covered with
Oops!  Excavations for "C" line at Piazza Venezia reveal
extensive ancient ruins.  Better cover them up!
ancient ruins.  To avoid destroying the city's heritage, one had to go deeper--below 30 meters.  That could be done, he added, but one problem remained: "you could not get out"--that is, you couldn't get people out of that deeply buried Metro line, or for that matter into it, without doing untold damage. 

Rutelli, Mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001, one-time cultural minister and now Senator, told several personal stories to underline his thesis at a recent talk at John Cabot University in Rome on "Contemporary Transformations in the Most Complex City in the World."  The interplay of
archaeology with contemporary building seems obvious, but it took on  new meaning for us with Rutelli's detailed and personal knowledge of Rome's archaeological layers. (Rutelli studied architecture at the University of Rome/La Sapienza.) 

Protesters at the opening of Meier's "box" for the Ara Pacis,
April 2006
Piazza Augusto Imperatore, which shows up on Rome the Second Time's Top 40 list at #9, sparked discussion from the audience after Rutelli presented slides of Richard Meier's "box" for the Ara Pacis and the discovery below of an ancient Roman harbor - that prevented putting the Lungotevere road underground  - at least for now.  We hadn't known that Rutelli alone made the decision to engage U.S. architect Richard Meier.  Why not a competition?  Or at least an Italian?  "If I had chosen an Italian," he said,
"the resulting squabbles would have been like those of a Sardinian village, lasting centuries."  As a result of his choice, however, Italian architects (left out of consideration) are irate; one said Meier's building belonged on the outskirts of Los Angeles; another likened it to McDonald's.   The right wing also detests the building.  We were there for the opening and their protests in April, 2006. 

And now a professor of architectural history asks Rutelli - why no interplay with the fascist architecture of the piazza?  With all the fascist writing on the buildings around Augustus' tomb?
Rutelli pointed out one reason he selected Meier was for his "rationalist" style, which naturally harmonized with the monumentalist Fascist architecture of the piazza. 

Parco della Musica, also known as the Auditorium, is Renzo Piano's very successful (in our opinion) set of music halls in the Flaminio quarter.  We also have seen the pre-Roman village partially unearthed during the building of the Parco della Musica structures.  What we didn't know, and Rutelli
Piano's Parco della Musica.  Handsome, but too many
stairs, not enough elevators, some think. 
relayed, was that his administration was absolutely certain there were no ruins in the area - that was one reason the location was selected.  And yet, there they were, the remains of a 2700 year-old rural village that no one had ever mentioned or knew about, according to the former Mayor.  Hence, Piano had to redesign his complex.  A cinema and hotel were left out to accommodate the display of the ruins.  And, added an audience member - is that the reason there are too many steps and not enough elevators?  Ah, said Rutelli, Piano loved his structure and there was considerable negotiation with him over elevators.  In other words, be glad you have the few you do.  He also relayed the story of a building in Pienza, a perfect design by an architect who left out kitchens and bathrooms - so that the architecture would be absolutely perfect. Parco della Musica is on one of the 4 tours in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler. See below for more information.

Palazetto Zuccari
Rutelli's practical side showed itself in two other projects.  One began with a 1994 competition to gut
and totally reconstruct the Bibliotheca Hertziana--that is, the interior of the 17th-century Mannerist Palazetto Zuccari (on via Gregoriana, near the Spanish steps).

The new library sits atop this matrix of steel beams.

In 2001, construction revealed the remains of the Horti Luculliani, gardens from the Republican era.  Architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg and engineers found a solution: above the ruins, they suspended
huge steel girders--essentially a floating, artificial basement.  On top of that, they put the new library. 

The new library.  The 17th century?  Gone. 

Rutelli had more to do with the 2nd project: an elevator for the Altare della Patria, also known as the
Rutelli's much-reviled elevator.  Great
views from the top!
Vittoriano.  Indeed, it was his idea.  Frankly acknowledging the criticism he's received for this intervention, Rutelli defended it, emphasizing that the elevator was close to the (back of) the structure, but not part of it, not attached to it.  "It could be removed in a day," he said.

After the talk, at a reception hosted by John Cabot, we gave Rutelli a copy of our book, Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries that Don't Go to the Coliseum."   A few minutes later, as we left the building a few steps behind the mayor, he turned, smiled, and said, "non vado al Coliseo" (I'm not going to the Coliseum!).

Dianne and Bill
 Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  In addition to the tour of  the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio (including Parco della Musica), along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics, Modern Rome features three other walks: the "garden city" suburb of Garbatella, the 20th-century suburb of EUR, and a stairways walk in classic Trastevere. 

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores,  and other retailers; retail price $5.99.


Marco said...

Interesting post, as always. However, I still don't like at all the "new" elevator located at the back of the Vittoriano.

By the way, a minor correction: the correct (Italian) spelling for Coliseum would be "Colosseo", not "Coliseo".

Joan Schmelzle said...

Though I knew about the ruins stopping the Metro and the underground road by Ara Pacis, I did not know what was behind the marvelous face(s) of Palazetto Zuccari before this post. I have a picture of the faces prominantly hanging on my living room wall along with many other pictures taken from slides some of which go back to 1961, my first trip to Rome. Also while the elevator on the back of the Vittoriano doesn't fit with it, it is hidden. And a ride to the top has been my go-to visit and look all around on my last day in Rome for two or three trips now.
Joan Schmelzle

Jenni Oh said...

Extremely fascinating as always, Dianne and Bill. I am only starting to scratch the surface of what an architectural melange Rome truly is with the examples spanning centuries and your posts on 20th century architecture are truly interesting. Looking forward to learning more.

Certainly, beats reading about the latest place to eat a carbonara!!