Massimiliano Fuksas. My Rome
Childhood memories and extraordinary layering: the great italian artist tells us of his city
I was born in no-man’s land, on the slopes of the Janiculum near Villa Sciarra, at the edge of what was about to become the new suburbs, but surrounded by huge gardens. My childhood is tinged with the green of the Villa, which was refurbished by George Wurts in the early 20th century.
Today it’s not as I remember it: although in 2005 they did some work to restore the gardens, the little temples and the eighteenth-century groups of marbles were dismantled and taken away somewhere… On the other side was the Janiculum, which seemed very distant to us kids, but was in fact a stone’s throw from Via Garibaldi, behind the beautiful American Academy. From there we’d go to the Vatican or down the river towards Castel Sant’Angelo. We used to spend our days in the streets; we felt we owned the city. It was a safe and welcoming place in those days, dotted with fountains and drinking fountains. The Fontanone, which stands at the point where Garibaldi reached the top of the Janiculum, just before Porta San Pancrazio, is the showpiece terminal of the Acqua Paola aqueduct. When I was a teenager, I used to swim there on summer nights. Today you would’t dream of it, but then we were tolerated! Then there are the nasoni, the drinking fountains so beloved by us Romans. A lot of them were cut off by a short-sighted administration; they were never a waste of water, but an effective way of maintaining the drainage system. We knew them so well we could tell which aqueduct they came from. Rome was a city that cost nothing, it gave us everything we needed: fruit from the trees and the coolest of water… Especially in summer, we could be outdoors all day and we lacked nothing, even swimming in the river on the other side of the Milvio bridge.
Ancient Rome was the city of water: as soon as a new emperor came along, he’d build an aqueduct, and fragments of them are still there. To understand Rome today, first you have to understand what’s changed: when Victor Emmanuel II arrived in 1870, Rome was a small city huddled in a bend of the Tiber. Very different to what the king had imagined: the Palatine, the Forums, the Circus Maximus were all places where the Romans took their livestock to graze. In the late Middle Ages the city had barely 15,000 inhabitants, while in the time of Augustus it had had two million. The Piedmontese partially eliminated Medieval Rome to make way for Baroque Rome: lacking in-depth knowledge of the shape of the land, they built a Palace of Justice which ended up with one storey less than intended because it was sinking into the Tiber; they planned the demolition of the Spina di Borgo between Castel Sant’Angelo and St Peter’s, which was only carried out later - from 1936 - to replace it with Via della Conciliazione, inaugurated for the 1950 Jubilee. Today there are 127,000 people living in the centre of Rome and the entire city has a population of around three million. What we call outskirts is actually Rome itself: EUR, Garbatella and Testaccio are important and integral parts of the city centre. Imperial Rome, Medieval Rome, Baroque Rome, the 20th century… in district after district in Rome - as perhaps only in Naples - you see this extraordinary layering of eras and styles. Alongside the rare examples of Romanesque architecture still in existence - Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Clemente and Santa Maria in Trastevere are the best-known - the Renaissance has left its powerful mark, passing on to us its architectural legacy and its close links with the ancient city. Palazzo Farnese, built by Alessandro Farnese - the future Pope Paul III - to commemorate his family, is an example of a Renaissance building which housed a magnificent collection of ancient art. But for me, 16th-century Rome is at its best in Via Giulia, street of the Florentines: the Basilica di San Giovanni, designed by Bramante and completed by Sangallo and Galilei, but also the many homes of the great artists who lived there: Raphael and Sangallo himself, to name just a couple. Meanwhile on the Aventine, the Medieval is interwoven with the 18th century and the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi: on one side there’s Santa Sabina, one of the best-preserved early Christian churches in the world; on the other there’s Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta and the surrounding buildings - most notably the church of Santa Maria del Priorato - designed by the Venetian architect who became famous in Rome under Pope Clement III. 19th-century Rome is summed up in my mind by the facade of San Pantaleo, and above all in the transformation of Piazza del Popolo, both the work of Valadier, who we also have to thank for many other buildings in the city. 20th-century Rome belongs to Mussolini: being from the provinces, he wanted to build an imperial city which would recreate the splendour of Ancient Rome. Via dei Fori Imperiali was constructed in 1932 as part of a major urban project which, however, completely destroyed the continuity of the Forums. Marcello Piacentini, the leading proponent of Fascist architecture, nevertheless had vision: Via Cristoforo Colombo - which forms the heart of the EUR district - is an axis I respected when I built my Cloud convention centre, and it still makes sense today. And then there are the post offices: the one on Via Marmorata is another admirable example of the regime’s architecture.
However, my heart remains in the historic centre of Rome: as I mentioned, I was born on the Janiculum and my first studio - at 18 I was a young painter starting to sell his work - was on the top floor of a beautiful 16th-century building at number 13, Via del Portico d’Ottavia…