As I peered out the metro window I could hear the leisurely melancholic melody of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film despite ambiguous conversations, the shrieking of the tracks, and the PA announcing our next stop: “LA PROSSIMA FERMATA: EUR MAGLIANA”. Its tempo of trumpet and saxophone constantly building ever so gracefully over a drum background that almost resembles the sound of a clock ticking…
What is Rome? Is it a city, a decaying historical graveyard, or simply a living concept? How does a place so deeply enamored by many for its storied past plan for the future ahead?
I struggled with these engulfing philosophical questions on the city’s collective identity. Like many before me who have been lucky enough to visit Rome, I undoubtedly fell in love… with all of it.
Its uniquely charming characteristics; it’s staggering architectural, gastronomical, and cultural beauty, and ability to somehow work despite all its inherent chaos. And of course, on the contrary, its bad and ill-favored ones. Its drastic shortcomings for many of those struggling to survive and for its tainted and dark relationship with fascism.
With a city so infatuated with its charming beauty and former glory, it does beg the question of what the future may hold. For many at one point, chiefly the infamous Benito Mussolini, EUR was that answer.
Envisioned first in 1936, EUR was destined to be showcased as a revived symbol of Italian strength to the world at the World’s Fair of 1942. Mussolini, planning for the future ahead, believed that a memento of a city couldn’t pave the path for a future of greater things.
Rome needed to expand at all costs.
It needed vigor, strength, and the adamant constant reminder that the individual is smaller than the state. His dream of victory through action and architecture as we know failed, but EUR curiously went on.
For a history aficionado, a fan of architecture, or a present or former Roman resident, this makes EUR extremely unique. Its complexities, its irony, and its beauty should be explored by everyone visiting Rome. It can be well-argued that EUR is just as Roman and if not more so than any of the central districts the millions of tourists, artists, and youth from the countryside flock to annually; based on its historical significance alone.
And for me, it is.
I packed up my thoughts and belongings and headed for the exit of the train to see Rome’s most distinctive architecture.
Coming out of the metro station you notice EUR’s openness. Its streets and roads do not mimic central Rome. It’s “newer”; not newer in the modern sense but not “typical’ Roman either. It is the suburban attempt to mix government buildings, business parks, housing, and culture in one place. And while there are some very charming cafes and clothing shops on the lovely tree-lined Viale Europa, the striking obelisk dedicated to Marconi, and even the exquisite Tre Fontane monastery; EUR can be summed up by three of its most powerful examples of Roman rationalist architecture.
Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana
Initially designed in 1938 by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto La Padula, and Mario Romano, the “Square Colosseum” didn’t open to the public until 1953, when it served as the home of the Roma 1953 Agricultural Exhibition. Since then, it has become synonymous with film. And when walking down the barren Viale della Civiltà del Lavoro looking in its direction, I couldn’t help but think of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist”.
A film shot partially in EUR and dedicated to themes of individualism, normalcy, and life under the fascist regime. Clerici, its protagonist, (a fascist secret police officer), loathed the state but desperately wanted to belong. To not stand out in the crowd.
Something we all desperately want, one way or another. As an Italian-American, one of those people with a diluted cultural identity, this concept hits home – especially when in Italy. Walking the streets of Rome many of us just want to blend in; to be seen as Italian and not as a tourist or just another “American”. That sentiment comes out when looking at the palazzo’s deep and empty hollowed-out arches. Its clean monotone off-white marble color and contrasting dark arches almost stare at you like the “eyes” of the government. They undoubtedly force you to feel smaller and look within.
Yet its constant stillness is mesmerizing, grandiose, idyllic, and beautiful. Setting the stage as a backdrop for a new Roman age. It is the quintessential example of how rationalist architecture in EUR has evolved from a dark past to be celebrated today as a unique space for the arts, and of course in this instance, contemplating cultural identity.
Palazzo dei Congressi
Leaving the “Square Colosseum” I headed directly south along Viale della Civiltà del Lavoro or “Avenue of the Civilization of Work” to the Palazzo dei Congressi. Another eerie reminder of the neighborhood’s fascist past and stern attempt to encourage those living during its regime to sacrifice all for the glory of Rome.
Begun in 1938 by Italian architect Adalberto Libera, it was also halted due to the war and not utilized publicly until the 1960 Olympics — when EUR was chosen as a hosting ground.
Its theatre-like facade is understandably less dramatic than the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana yet its infamous rows of marble seats and interior stairway (also featured as a mental hospital in “The Conformist”) are iconic. Line after line of marble in perfect unison with an unsympathetic off-white background. It’s dreadfully boring yet simultaneously infinitely fulfilling.
As I sat there I continued to think about EUR, my thoughts about Rome’s collective identity, and even my own. I wondered what Clerici would have done today. Would he work in tech? How would he have responded to modern problems like police brutality, privacy, or data issues? How would he have defined what “Italian” even is? I noticed I wasn’t in solitude sitting and staring at that commanding wall, which would have been odd anywhere else but here… It almost felt right.
Like Clerici, did I find comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone?
Basilica parrocchiale dei Santi Pietro e Paolo
I naturally had to end my walk here. Call it Catholic guilt, call it whatever you want. But one thing is certain; religion and Rome cannot be separated. No matter where you go in this city, they are intertwined and interwoven in every part of the social fabric whether people like it or not.
Now, this basilica wasn’t featured in “The Conformist”, but I think its impressionable stature needs to be visited. Like the other rationalist buildings in EUR, there is extreme simplicity when it comes to the yellowish structure and interior of the building. The fact that it is a dreary fascist-inspired edifice of religious significance in a city where churches are venerated for their frescos and gold roofs, makes this building stand out in a league of its own.
Conceived in 1936, the basilica was designed by a team of Italian architects in the shape of a Greek cross to echo Michelangelo’s plans for the new St Peter’s Basilica. From a distance, you notice its dome perched high on the top of a bluff on the end of Viale Europa. And at first glance, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a church. Its evident dome overpowers the rest of the structure and almost feels like a mausoleum. Half of me contemplated if it was mourning the loss of fascism and on the other celebrating that it was over and that Rome could go on.
Oddly this final example of rationalist architecture ties up the EUR as a complete package of visual emotion for me. Architecture, like other mediums such as film and music, is intended to make you feel something. EUR fulfills that in several ways. At times, it can make you feel hollow, like when visiting a helpless relative in the hospital, while in the same vein make you feel grateful you yourself are not ill. Its ironic coldness makes you feel warm.
And that I think is the answer I was looking for. That Rome makes you feel alive in every capacity regardless of who you are. Italian or not. Those that come here never leave as the same person. Whether they gain an eye for architecture, a fashion sense, palate, or cultural affiliation. And that EUR is special; that it occupies the necessary beauty of endless monotone that Rome almost demands. A city, no, strike that, a state of being so legendary it was almost destined to be lived in black and white.