15 November 2012
What’s THAT? The question always comes up. It comes up whenever I’m with first-time visitors to Rome anywhere within eye-range of the “Vittoriano”. The Neoclassical-style gleaming white marble monument to the unity of Italy and its first king is about 24 stories (230 ft) high and very hard to miss. It backs up to the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill in the heart of ancient Rome. Several principle traffic artieries point directly towards it, then wrap around its sides upon arrival, making it a principle point of reference for those driving through the city center.
Built to celebrate Italy’s Unification, when the mosaic of city-states were united to form the modern nation of Italy in 1860, it also honours Victor Emmanuele II, the first king of the unified Italy.
Romans refer to it rather snidely as the “white typewriter”, “wedding cake” or even “marble dentures” putting to question its size, location and aesthetics.
Why does this national monument seem to have such a negative reputation with the locals?
Part of it has to do with the space it occupies-
An entire medieval neighborhood was torn down in the 1880s to make room for building the monument.
Part of it has to do with one’s aesthetical opinion-
Architect Giuseppe Sacconi was inspired by the enormous Hellenistic temple complexes of the Roman republican period, like the temple of Palestrina or the Altar of Pergamon. He reinterpreted these in the eclectic Neoclassical style of the 1880s, which was to be the model for art and architecture for the new nation. As the popularity of artistic styles and movements rise and fall over time, currently this style doesn’t seem to be at an apex of appreciation.
Part of it has to do with color –
Even the color of the monument irks the sensibility of some. The extremely white Botticino marble from Brescia (northern Italy) covers the monument from head to toe. Originally travertine, the local buff-colored stone from which the entire city is built, was to be used. It would have blended in with the fountains, statuary, buildings-see the nearby Colosseum- down to the street curbs. The Prime Minister Giovanni Zanardelli, who wrote the decree for the building of this national monument, was Brescian……Ironically, it seems to get whiter and whiter as it weathers.
Part of it has to do with access –
The structure was conceived as a series of public monumental piazze that rise up to a height of 81 feet above the heart of the city, culminating in terraces with breathtaking 360° views. The last generations of Romans have only been able to look at the monument from outside the locked iron gates which have closed the entrance for about 40 years. Fortunately in the last 9-10 years there has been gradual progress. The terraces have been progressively opened to the public as restorations have been completed in various portions of the monument. Six years ago a new glass elevator was installed to access the top terrace. Now if one embarks the climb to the top terrace, there is even a bar with outdoor seating from which to enjoy the view.
For all of its controversies, the monument holds some great surprises for those who take the time to explore the area below the stepped exterior.
Two museums are housed beneath the terraces and are accessible to the public on ground level:
- The Central Museum of Italian Unification, which hosts series of temporary art exhibits as well as displaying a permanent historical collection.
- The Sacrarium of the Banners of the Armed Forces is a military museum containing mostly objects from the Italian Risorgimento period (1750-1870).
Occasionally the subterranean galleries, dug into the tuff rock below the monument’s foundations, are open to the public on special guided tours. The dense network of galleries were originally old quarries (approximately dated to 2nd century AD) used for the extraction of tuff stone. They were used by thousands of Romans during the Second World War as air raid shelters as the city was bombed by the Allies in 1943. Touching graffiti is still visible on the walls from this period—“hungry as a wolf”, “double hunger”, “fettuccine” and “July 19, 1943, 11:10, first bomb dropped”—where 1500 civilians were killed.
In an even deeper level from the archaic period (used up to 126 BCE when the Tepula aqueduct was built to serve this area), there are tunnels dug for the collection of rain and subsurface waters. Filtered through the rock, the waters were intercepted by these tunnels.
Is there a monument in your city that’s often overlooked or misunderstood? Tell us about it!