Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, November 20, 2022

Rome's "Other" Pantheon: Julio Lafuente's Little-Known Gem Is Now Decathlon


A rather weird interpretive perspective on the Air Terminal Ostiense. The ancient ruins in the foreground certainly don't exist where they are portrayed here, and never did. The composite photo
seems a superficial effort to recuperate certain ancient forms.

Many Romans will have experienced architect Julio Lafuente's Air Terminal Ostiense building, if only because since 2012 it's been the Rome home of Eataly. Eataly may have saved the structure from demolition, but damaged it by converting its enormous, hangar-like space into several department-store like floors. Today, it resembles a post-modern mall. (See photo, right.)

Decathlon's version 

Across the street from Eataly there's a more modest, circular building (see above)--so modest, in fact, that hardly anyone seems to know that it, too, was designed by Lafuente. Indeed, both buildings were designed for the 1990 soccer World Cup. The building's reputation may have suffered from its history. For a while it was occupied by a toy store--Rocco Giocattolli ("Rocco Toy Store"). Later, it was known by the letters that graced its roof--Balocco, a variety store that was a dark, messy, and somehow gloomy place that sold a variety of items nobody would ever want (and that we wrote about in 2016, not knowing the building was by Lafuente). See photos below.

Balocco, 2016. The elevator may have been original to the building.

We're surprised that this smaller building has received so little attention, because it has a back story that puts it at the heart of Rome's history.

Born in Madrid, Spain, Lafuente emigrated as a child to France. As a young man, he studied architecture in Paris, returning to Spain in 1941, when the Germans occupied the French capital and much of the country. Soon after the war ended, Lafuente returned to Spain to continue his studies. His education complete, he intended to travel to the United States, but instead opted for the "Grand Tour" of Italy, aboard a BMW motorcycle.

When he arrived in Rome, his life changed. Just a tourist at that point, he encountered the Pantheon. He was overcome by the building: its shape, and especially the oculus, which bathed the interior in natural light. 

In 1990, he took his Pantheon experience (adding a dash of the Coliseum) and used it to design his own Pantheon. Like the Pantheon, it's round. And, like the Pantheon, it has its own version of the oculus--a glass ceiling (and partial glass walls) that bring in natural light. It's now an outlet for one of the big box stores of sporting goods chain Decathlon, which has restored much of the building's architectural presence. From Pantheon to Decathlon.

Lafuente's 1990 structure. Now (above) a Decathlon store. 

And here's the rest of the story. Much taken with the Pantheon and with the city's roster of fine modern architects, Lafuente decided to make Rome his home. In looking for work, he visited the studios of Ludovico Quaroni, Mario Ridolfi, and the prolific Luigi Moretti (whose best known building may be the Watergate complex, in Washington D.C.). His search ended at the Studio Monaco-Luccichenti, where Lafuente felt most accepted. 

Lafuente had a distinguished career as a creative modernist, designing a number of buildings in Rome and environs as well as the Middle East. Among his best-known works is the Tor Di Valle Hippodrome, designed for the 1960 Rome Olimpiad. [His studio's website is still accessible - his daughter, Clara - still maintains the architectural practice -  and has many more photos of his work.]

We were first introduced to the Spanish-Roman architect in 2006 when there was an exhibition at Istituto Cervantes on Piazza Navona, celebrating his 50 years of his work. Lafuente was there; he was very congenial; and we had a great talk with him that opened our eyes to his works in Rome.

Hippodrome, Tor di Valle, 1959 (now "ex [former] ippodromo Tor di Valle")

Lafuente's 1980 Esso building (below), in the business park Parco dei Medici, will be familiar to anyone traveling the limited-access road to the Fiumicino airport. In June, our driver pointed out the building and explained how much he liked it. We think it's spectacular--one of the most interesting and innovative structures in Rome's orbit (we tried - and failed - to get inside it).

Among Lafuente's other area buildings are the offices of SAIE, on viale della Letturature 30, in EUR; Villa Fiorito (1965), an apartment house in the Aurelia Quartiere (via di villa Betania, 31 [photo below]; the Rome Church of Scientology (off via della Maglianella 375--Google street views suggests that the church is not visible from the road and is likely not open to the public); and the Stabilimento Ferrania (1959), a storied company famous for making the celluloid which the great neorealists used, active until the early 2000s [photo below]. The Rome complex, which Lafuente designed, is at via Appia Nuova 803, now part of Autocentro Balduina (an enormous car sales and service organization, with multiple outlets).

Villa Fiorito, Quartiere Aurelia 

Stabilimento Ferrania, 1959

Julio Garcia Lafuente died in Rome in 2013, at age 92. 


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Neo-fascism comes to picturesque small-town Italy


Men outside Caffè Europa in the Roman hill town of Rocca di Papa.

We've always enjoyed watching the men (it's always men) in local bars, sitting around, playing cards, talking. It seems very communal, a good place for these apparently retired Italians. We were consequently horrified to see the small town where the photo above was taken, our favorite small town in the Alban Hills outside of Rome, identified by the New York Times this past week as a hot bed of neo-Fascism.

We had become inured to the fact that Giorgia Meloni, head of the Fratelli d'Italia party ("Brothers of Italy"), would become prime minister. For months the polls had shown her leading, even if her party received only about one-quarter of the vote. She made a pact with some other devils, including Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, on her way to the top post in Italy. Salvini was rewarded with the position of Deputy Prime Minister and - get this and don't choke - Minister of Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility (no wonder Italian Facebook went nuts over this Brave-New-World-speak).

We've also been keenly aware of the posters and graffiti around Rome that even decades ago promoted neo-Fascism. We wrote about some of these in our posts on posters and right-wing "heroes." (See here and here.)

What appalled us (and we can hear all our Roman friends going, "DUH!") was that our charming, special, sweet town voted 38% for Meloni's party, knowing they were reviving Fascism.

Are those men above likely Fascists? The New York Times featured the bar across the way, Bar Centrale. But my guess is, yes, you're looking at the right-wing there playing cards.

We had noted in a 2014 post a building we thought likely had been Fascist headquarters until after World War II. It's got the bulky look of buildings of that era, it's now a municipal building, and the date is obvious:  "A.D. 1935." One of our loyal readers, Marco, questioned that interpretation, saying: 

"I find it unlikely that the building in the photo may have been once the Party's HQ - not only the style is not Fascist in appearance, but the Fascist Era (Anno XIII E.F.) mark is nowhere to be seen on the building's façade, as are any remnants of chipped-away fasces one'd expect to find on such buildings."

He makes some good points, and perhaps we were wrong about the past (if there were some other factors we had taken into account there, I don't recall them), but there's no question about the present for Rocca di Papa.

One reason we favor the town is that it's the starting point for one of our best hikes, up Monte Cavo. In fact the photo we took, right, of Monte Cavo from the town, was taken from the now infamous (to us) Bar Centrale.

It's not hard to find men hanging out outside the bars or in the very large square that dominates the lower part of the town. (See photo below.)

From now on, we will have to listen more carefully to their conversations, though maybe we won't like what we hear.

Caffè Europa  is dear to our hearts because it's not only where we've always started (coffee) our hikes, it's also where we've ended (beer) them, and parked our scooter. The photo below was taken with our 2nd of three scooters (historically, not all at once), the foregrounded Malaguti, while the guys play cards, per usual.

That the town is picturesque is an understatement, and it's beautifully sited below Monte Cavo (see photo at end of this post). Its "shield" features the "rocca" or fortress - on the fountain that graces the top of the large square in the photo below. And the "Papa" is for a 12th century Pope who lived there (Eugenio III).

Another view below is from the cemetery, and in the distance the ruins of ancient Tusculum, a Roman town. Everything in Rocca di Papa, including the cemetery (and that 1935 building above) is on a slant, given its position on the steeply sloping hillside.

More in a later post on Mussolini and the rise of neo-Fascism.


The town of Rocca di Papa, seen from the main piazza. The first phase of the hike to Monte
Cavo is getting to the top of Rocca di Papa via picturesque city streets. The mountain itself is straight ahead but is not visible in the photo.