The Postmodern Palimpsest: Narrating Contemporary Rome

Eamonn Canniffe has been invited to give a keynote lecture at the above titled conference orgainised by Dominic Holdaway and Filippo Trentin to be held at the University of Warwick in February 2011

The Postmodern Palimpsest: Narrating Contemporary Rome

«What better place to await the end, to see if everything ceases or not?» (Gore Vidal, in Roma)

The city of Rome has always been privileged in its relationship with Western history: constructed over layer upon layer, from Roman to Fascist empires, with corresponding iconic images. More recently, films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini have contributed to capturing the changes modern Rome underwent, with suffocating traffic passing dazzling locations, long tracks down shadowed streets and lively social gatherings masking potential violence. These images have been qualified as embodying ‘modern’ Rome. The closing shots of Fellini’s Roma (1972) linger on dozens of mopeds fading into the distant black as they abandon the historical centre for an undefined urban sprawl. The sprawl, the latest metamorphosis of Rome, overlaps with historical images of the capital to form a shapeless identity, a fragmentary postmodernity.

This conference, which will take place at the University of Warwick in February 2011, aims to shed light on contemporary imagined geographies of Rome: it will investigate the void at the end of Roman palimpsest, addressing the following questions:

– Where present and past intersect and overlap synchronically, is it still possible to represent ‘reality’, or possible only to capture fragments of it? Can we still perceive the city as a ‘master narrative’, or do we need to challenge the notion of one city? How can the city be perceived in relation to Italian and to European landscapes? How does the image of Rome relate to contemporary global cities? How is this historical shift represented in global cultural products, and how do they redefine our perception?

The interdisciplinary nature of this event is acutely represented by its two keynote speakers: Dr. Eamonn Canniffe (Manchester School of Architecture; author of The Politics of the Piazza: the history and meaning of the Italian square) and Dr. John David Rhodes (Literature and Visual Culture, Sussex; author of Stupendous Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome).

More details to follow.

Images and Memory


Immagini e memoria: Rome in the photographs of Father Peter Paul Mackey 1890-01

Sir John Soane’s Museum is hosting an exhibition from the photographic archive of the British School at Rome of the work of Fr. Peter Paul Mackey O.P., which presents a record of thecity undergoing rapid modernisation at the end of the nineteenth century. The expansion of the city and its new infrastructure horrified romantic artists in pursuit of a very late Grand Tour, but yielded vast amounts of new material for increasingly professionalised archaeologists. The tension between these two worlds, the simultaneous need to record and the desire to compose, are evident in many of the photographs, the ancient monuments seen against modern factories and before the maturing of present-day urban planting.

In his excellent catalogue essay Dr. Robert Coates-Stephens (Cary Fellow at the BSR) places the Dominican scholar Mackey’s images in their historical context of ‘Roma Capitale’, and the social context of the expatriate community of clerics, archaeologists and aesthetes, a society in which the word amateur still had its original meaning. The atmospherically staged exhibition continues at the Soane Museum until 12 September.

At present CiA staffer Eamonn Canniffe is researching a similar complementary collection of material, that of Captain J. Douglas Kennedy, held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. The collection presents a haphazard but enthusiastic account of the same dilettante milieu.

Notes from Rome


James Robertson, the Rome Scholar in Architecture, is approximately half way through his period at the British School at Rome. His research on the ecclesiastical architecture of Jack Coia has revealed many parallels in the twentieth century churches of Rome. James writes

“I have been getting together a fairly comprehensive list of churches contemporary with Coia, and up to about 20 years earlier, as some of these earlier Italian buildings seem to have some similarities to those by Coia. There seem to be several distinct groups, or types of church, starting with a kind of brick neo-Romanesque, through to the neo-Classical, semi-rationalist / fascist, full-blown rationalist and then a group which does not seem to fit properly into any of the above! There is one in this group by a rather obscure architectural historian called Bruno Maria Appolonj-Ghetti. He designed a church in Rome called Ss. Martiri Canadesi, which Fellini used in his film ‘La Dolce Vita’.”


The church interior, then recently completed, is used in the film as the setting for an encounter between Marcello and his intellectual friend Steiner, who plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on the church organ.

James is also researching at the Scots College, searching for evidence of the influence of Rome-trained clergy on the architectural direction of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and their commissioning of Coia.


Trans-Pennine Fraternity of the Seven Hills


CiA are gratified to see the installation of a fraternal studio group at the University of Sheffield School of Architecture with their own blog. Studio One, under the tutorship of Russell Light will be exploring the theme of ‘Rome – Travel, Authenticity and the Past’. As well as the group of ancient worthies from the Capitoline Museum illustrated above, there will be an eager audience on the Lancastrian side of the Pennines following developments in Sheffield with keen interest.

Meier versus Mayor

Is their heritage safe in Roman hands? To return to a question which has been asked previously on this blog, the new ‘post-fascist’ Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, has raked up an old controversy with his suggestion that Richard Meier’s two year old Museo dell’ Ara Pacis should be demolished. Ignore its popular (indeed even vulgar) success with last year’s sacrilegious Valentino exhibition, or this year’s rather more enigmatic collaboration by Brian Eno and Mimmo Paladino. Ignore the critical success of the museum building, outside the sniffiness of the thwarted Roman architectural establishment. Ignore the success of the public space which ties it into the city. Here is a building which requires, nay demands, destruction!

News background:
Rome mayor vows to remove museum
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno Upsets The Italian Elites
Mayor Alemanno Wants to Move the Ara Pacis Building?

Curve and countercurve: Zaha Hadid in Rome


The continuity of the urban grid of northern Rome is relieved by an infrequent series of curved structures, Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport, Renzo Piano’s Auditorium di Roma and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI , due for completion in 2009. The first two exploit the circular and elliptical geometries typical of the Roman tradition, whereas the latest addition to the area employs a series of curved fragments in the traditional material of concrete. The composite photograph shows the elevation to Via Guido Reni where the new concrete linear galleries intersect with the retained former barracks buildings typical of a quarter of the city which still has many military establishments. The compositional sensibility which has always characterised Hadid’s work is here evident in the balancing of the two concrete forms at either end of the banal existing structure with its conventional fenestration pattern.

We have to wait and see if the cranked linear forms of the galleries which stretch back into the block will overwhelm the work to be exhibited within.

The construction of the project is fully documented HERE and there are a series of podcasts available under the multimedia link.

The Scots-Italian Connection


James Robertson, a Ph.D student at the Manchester School of Architecture, has been awarded a Rome Scholarship in Architecture at the British School at Rome for the 2008-09 academic year. James will be continuing his research intended to  illuminate and challenge the received wisdom about the Glasgow architect Jack Coia and the ecclesiastical work of his practice Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. James’s period in Italy will allow him to cover three particular aspects of his study in detail, namely the influence of Coia’s Italian heritage and his travels there from the 1920s onwards, the relationship between his Scottish Catholic clients and the liturgical changes promoted by the Vatican in the mid-twentieth century, and the relationship between architecture and contemporary artists between the 1920s and the 1960s. James’s studies are supervised by Eamonn Canniffe and Dr. Bill Brogden (Aberdeen University).


A virtual tour of the British School at Rome is available HERE.



Ara Pacis, Rome 1938

Ara Pacis (Morpurgo)

A vintage postcard found in a flea market in Preston. It shows the pavilion of 1938 designed by Morpurgo to house the Ara Pacis. This building was recently replaced by a controversial new building designed by Richard Meier discussed in this post.

You can read the story of the discovery of the Ara Pacis and its subsequent housing at the Museo dell’Ara Pacis website. Extract:

Morpurgo, the pavilion’s designer, never came to terms with the ways in which the design had been simplified: cement and fake porphyry were used instead of travertine and precious marble, while the rhythm and course of the pilasters, both on the sides and the façade, had been changed. Behind these compromises was an unwritten agreement between the architect and the Governorship, to build only on a provisional basis and to return the building gradually to its original design after the inauguration. However the sums of money required, the uncertainty of the time-scale and the war hanging over the entire project, meant that this was never accomplished.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Museum



The long awaited rehousing of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome, by Richard Meier is a sensitive solution to the problems of a difficult site and a precious historical object. Although slightly heavily handled in parts the sense of durability is palpable. Of particular merit are the small public space with a fountain (already a popular meeting place), the evocative use of channels of water running along and over the travertine walls, and the steps and platforms which provide new context for the facades of the historic churches on the site, San Rocco and San Girolamo.

By all published accounts the interior is an exercise in clarity and light, despite the intrusive quality of the exterior’s glass louvres. However, visitors are at present denied this experience of the masterwork of Roman sculpture because of the misconceived exploitation of the building to celebrate the Roman fashion designer Valentino. A building which cost the City of Rome much in money, time and controversy but which represents an urban triumph is treated with no more care than a suburban outlet mall. Obstacles are created of the entry sequence, and the appreciation of the Ara Pacis itself is impeded by the serried ranks of mannequins. The terminating backdrop to the altar is even hung with mannequins staring blankly into mirrors, which gives the visitor some clue as to why this desecration has been tolerated.

The self-absorbed vanity of the Roman cultural elite always had a problem with an American architect building ‘within the walls’, and through Valentino’s exhibition (which would be improved by being located in a purpose designed space) they have the chance to insult all the ‘brutti stranieri’ who love Rome and contribute so much to its maintenance. The question needs to be asked – is their heritage safe in Roman hands?


Horologium Augusti

Space, Time and Architecture: Horologium Augusti in Rome


While Roman pragmatism found uses for the magnificent monumental areas constructed by numerous emperors, there was also the use of space itself as a display of power, no more amply expressed than in the complex of the Horologium Augusti, or Augustan sundial erected in the area of the Campus Martius to the north of the city, and built in relation to the mausoleum of Augustus and his altar, the Ara Pacis Augustae inaugurated in 9 B.C. The marble panels on the exterior of the altar enclosure instructed the Roman citizens in the benefits of Augustan rule and the imperial destiny of his heirs, making claims to dynastic political supremacy as being divinely sanctioned through its reference to Aeneas. The altar stood at the edge of a marble pavement measuring 160 by 75 metres with bronze inlaid lines mapping the hours of the day and months of the year, times indicated by the shadow of a massive 30 metre high red granite obelisk transported here to symbolise Augustus’s conquest of Egypt. On his birthday, 23 September, the shadow of the sundial’s gnomon was cast across the entrance to the enclosure of the Ara Pacis, linking the space of the city with the life of the emperor in a dramatic display of apparently cosmic power. The personal mythology of Augustus as offspring of the sun god Apollo was thereby expressed in physical terms through urban monuments.

Text and illustration from Eamonn Canniffe’s forthcoming book The Politics of the Piazza: Meaning and History in the Italian Square to be published by Ashgate in late 2007.