Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Night at the University: Mario Sironi's monumental Aula Magna Mural

We were attracted.
We're always eager to get official access to Rome buildings we haven't been in, and so in mid-May we headed off eagerly to the university--La Sapienza, as this one is known--to explore an evening open house.  Not much was open, actually, but the dinosaurs in front of one of the science buildings caught our attention, and we headed over.  That building is standard Fascist-era issue (most of the buildings here are of mid-1930s vintage), nothing about it of significant interest, really, even for RST, a fan of most of the era's architecture (including Gio Ponti's mathematics building on this campus).

Lots of people enjoy looking at rocks.
Still, we enjoyed puttering around in an old-fashioned museum of mineralogy, about which we know nothing.

Nude miners, mining

We were surprised to learn that Sicily was a center of sulfur mining, and that the mining was done by nude men.  Why nudity was required is not clear, though the poster's fine print might have offered an explanation.

Aula exterior

Having had enough of even very beautiful rocks, we took a chance and headed to the Aula Magna--the big hall on the campus that hosts concerts and other events (the official name is Aula Magna del Rettorato della Sapienza).  We had seen the exterior before, but had never been inside the building or its main hall, which features an important mural by Mario Sironi, a significant artist of the era (and the subject of a large retrospective a year or so ago). The outside of the Aula was suggestively lit for the evening, and--lo and behold--the doors to the auditorium were open.

Students with photos of themselves portraying very different
types of people (bride, hipster, etc.)
Inside, art students presented their work, a quartet offered music, and free wine was being served. We had talked to the students at the table (see left), and they were watching us.

And inside the hall, an orchestra was playing. And there was the Sironi mural.  We sat down, listened, and looked.

The mural is enormous--90 square meters--but even so, it can be difficult, as I'm sure readers will understand, to absorb the contents of such a work when there are distractions--an illuminated
The hall from our seats
audience, the music, the contours of an 80-year old modernist space, the thrill of being there. Here's what we later learned:

The mural is titled "L'Italia fra le Arti e le Scienze"--Italy between [probably better translated and] the Arts and Sciences.  As the story goes, the lead architect for the new university, Marcello Piacentini, approached the Duce with Sironi's name.  In 1933, Mussolini received the artist and acknowledged the great difficulty of presenting Fascism on the grand wall of the grand hall of the grand new university.

Sironi took the commission (we wonder if he had any choice) and, in two months, produced his mural.  It includes representations of astronomy, mineralogy, botany, geography, architecture, literature, painting, and history--the latter symbolized by the woman, at front/right, back turned, a book in her hands.  When it was unveiled, along with the rest of the university, in 1935 or 1936, it included a triumphal arch--the symbol of Roman conquests--a Fascist eagle, the Fascist date XIV (14th year of Fascism, or 1936), and a figure, presumably Mussolini, on horseback.  He liked to ride.
The mural was severely damaged a few years later, during World War II, and the early 1950s restoration by Carlo Siviero was freighted with guilt and embarrassment over Mussolini's regime and Fascism.  As a result, the restoration eliminated the man and the horse, re-sized the arch and the eagle (although we can't see the eagle), eliminated the Fascist-era date, and changed the "looks" of some of the figures.  Much was painted over.

Another, quite limited restoration took place in 1982.  The current restoration, which promises to restore the mural to something like its original state, began on July 1, 2015, just 6 weeks after our visit.  A reason to return.

Exiting the university through a Fascist-era arcade, its lines softened by the contemporary banners.


Anonymous said...

This video
shows the restoration in progress and includes several shots of a black and white photo of the original mural. In that photo one can clearly see the fascist date and triumphal arch. Even without the Italian narration in the video, the close-up views of the mural and restorers at work is revealing. The close-ups also make it clear that the mural is installed on a curved surface and seems to extend onto side walls as well.

In 2011 we heard a wonderful concert of Beethoven music in the Aula Magna.


Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Good article! Made me curious about the nude miners. (great bodies by the way) Led me to an article entitled Sulphur, Sicilians and the Exodus to the U.S.