Rome’s population (residents, workers, tourists) has always been an audience, the target for certain forms of spectacle be they military, religious, cultural or commercial.
To feed this audience, in recent decades the spectacular basis of urban photography has spawned the phenomenon of giant advertisements concealing construction projects. Their location in historically important sites, where they might be relied upon to appear as unconscious intruders in the holiday snaps of pilgrims and cultural tourists, presents a form of product placement the entire basis of which rests on the promotion of the values of the urban lifestyle.
In the context of Italy, with the international prominence accorded to design, even the most significant cultural sites are not immune. The exploitation of such sites of revered heritage as advertising hoardings for the products of global consumer culture encodes the long history of the culture of the piazza with the latest language of urban sophistication. As Gabriele De Giorgi writes in his recent book Roma: Follie, deliri e contaminazioni (Edizioni Kappa 2004) the “sponsor-restyling” (sic) results in a “Poster-City” (sic) through the explicit strategy of a new ephemeral city superimposed on the architecture of the past.
In these situations the conventional values of civic representation are obscured by the dominance of the photographic image, with the contingencies of three dimensional actuality superseded by the two dimensional hyper real perfection of the object of desire. Beyond the disjunctions of scale a deliberate confusion is also introduced where the abiding monuments of a city are temporarily replaced by often provocative publicity shots, their values of authenticity and permanence somehow now associated with the brand, hermetic iconography complemented by the instantly recognisable logo, representing an interchangeability between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural values. The political expression of the public realm in the present time is therefore one where the attachment to substance has been replaced by image.
The question, therefore, arises as to the impact of this commercialisation process on the cultural landscape of the city. Does Richard Meier’s Museo dell’ Ara Pacis, with its attempt to create a transparent container for a 2000 year old imperial advertisement present a desecration of an important urban exhibit, the neutralisation of a politically suspect environment, a physical explanation of a significant archaeological site such as the Mausoleum of Augustus to which it is adjacent, or a shambolic attempt to graft contemporary design on to antiquity?