Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Roma: The Seven Hills

Vienna, June 24, 2015

In order to remember the names of Rome’s seven hills, Victorian school children used to memorize a rather silly phrase--Can Queen Victoria eat cold apple pie?--where the first letter of each word stood for the name of each of the hills: Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine and Palatine.

I would like to propose another mnemonic trick to get a more topographic sense of the Roman hills. Try this: put your right hand facing down on the table with your fingers pointing to the left. Then,

1) your thumb will represent the southernmost hill, the Aventine.
2) the tip of your index will correspond to to the Palatine Hill;
3) and its knuckle to the Caelian Hill.
4) The tip of your middle finger to the Capitoline Hill,
5) and its knuckle to the Esquiline Hill;
6) your ring finger will represent the Viminal hill,
7) and your pinkie the northernmost hill, the Quirinal.

(Yes, an accurate map would require a rather improbable contortion of your fingers, but if you let your hand rest with its natural curvature, you’ll get a close-enough picture.)

Now, with a little bit of imagination you can continue to draw the map of Rome on top of your hand. Trace a line around first knuckles and the tips of your fingers and you’ll have a pretty good depiction of the Servian Wall, roughly the extent of the city at the beginning of the Roman Republic (4th century BC.) You can locate the Forum between your middle (Capitoline Hill) and index (Palatine and Esquiline hills) fingers. Or the Circus Maximus between your index (again, the Palatine) and your thumb (Aventine Hill.)

And you could keep going, locating the Campo Marzio--with the Pantheon, the Stadium of Domitian (eventually Piazza Navonna,) etc.--to the left (west) of your finger tips...

Monday, March 9, 2015

Roma: New Antiquities

Rome, March 9, 2015

Walking through Rome you continuously encounter antiquities amidst the contemporary fabric of the city. Some are rather small, like the two fragments of Agrippa’s Baths projecting out of the street façade along the Via dell’Arco della Ciambella, while others cover large areas, like the Imperial Forums. And you assume that those ruins have been there since the buildings were built. And they have, of course (at least in most cases.) But there were not always open to view, but unexcavated under later buildings. Which means that whatever we encounter today is a more recent choice, a modern choice I would dare to say, of what gets uncovered and how it gets framed and displayed.

Take for example Largo di Torre Argentina, a large block with major antiquities including several temples dating from the Republican period, as well as remains of Pompey's Theater. It looks as if the ruins had been there open to view for the last couple millenniums. Now, look at the name of the street at the eastern edge of the block: Via di San Nicola de Cesarini. Interesting, isn’t it? Where is the church that gives the name to the street? Nowhere to be seen. As it turns out, that whole block of Roman antiquities was actually uncovered in the late 1920s--yes less than a hundred years ago!--as the Fascist  government was actively reshaping the legacy of Ancient Rome for its own purposes (the area was actually inaugurated by Mussolini himself in 1929.) Only a few years earlier, you would have encountered not only the church of San Nicola but the dense medieval fabric surrounding it. Both the fabric and the church (marked with the number 883) can be seen in Nolli’s map of 1748.

(With thanks to my friend and colleague Ezio Genovesi, who first told me about this, as of so many other things in Rome.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Tugendhat City

Rome, January 11, 2015

Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno is undoubtedly one of the canonical masterpieces of Modern Architecture. A casual view from the street however, surprises the visitor with a rather unassuming, almost underwhelming one-story blank volume. To reach the main areas of the house one has to climb down to the level below, where the most extraordinary sequence of spaces unfolds, with its grid of cross-shaped chrome columns, honey-colored Moroccan onyx partition, semicircular Makassar ebony enclosure and floor-to-ceiling plate glass envelope.

Mies’s project not only took advantage of the slope of the building plot in a brilliant and unconventional way--placing the bedrooms at street level and the living areas below--but also managed to align the house in relation to the city at large. Before one turns left to enter the house, there is a break in the volume facing the street, leaving a covered gap that frames a layered view Brno, as if painting a picture of the city’s history: the tree canopy of the Luzanky Park (1786) in the foreground, the buildings of Brno’s Ringstrasse (1860s) beyond, the skyline of the historic urban core further back, culminating with Spilberk Castle (began in the 13th century) on top of the hill in the background.

Both Greta (née Löw-Beers) and Fritz Tugendhat came from German-speaking Jewish families of wealthy industrialists in Brno. For centuries a provincial capital of the Habsburg Empire, Brno became into a city of the newly formed (and short lived) democratic republic of Czechoslovakia after WWI. It may not be too much of a stretch to argue that in their house, Mies gave the Tugendhats a way to look a their social and historic place in the fluid culture of their city and their time.