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Friday, July 10, 2009

Manhole Covers: Art and Politics


If we didn’t know that Bocca della Verita', now one of Rome’s major tourist attractions, was once a manhole cover, we might have been more reluctant to introduce today’s subject. Even so, we don’t expect the average tourist to spend the day looking down, eagerly anticipating the next “cover,” or stooping to feel the patina created by thousands of shoes over many decades, or pondering the date of a particularly compelling version of the genre. But then we’re not writing for the “average” tourist. So here goes.

The manhole cover above has two worthy elements. Like many covers, it has the letters SPQR, for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the people of Rome). Once used on the shields of Roman legions, the letters were also popular with Mussolini’s Fascists and today appear on the coat of arms for the city of Rome and on all manner of other things, from sidewalk poster frames to…manhole covers. In this case, SPQR are carried out in a highly stylized, modernist lettering common in Italian design in the early 1930s--note the similarity to the typeface used in the Cherry Show poster from 1932--so it’s likely that this cover was made in that period.

The design to the left of the letters is apparently a version of the Celtic Cross. The Celtic Cross is a very old religious symbol, especially dear to Presbyterians and Catholics and, according to some, invented by Saint Patrick in the 5th century in an effort to combine the Christian symbol of the cross with the pagan symbol of the sun. However, the Celtic Cross on this manhole cover comes without the “ring” that represents the sun, and it doesn’t even have the shape of the standard Christian Cross; all sides are of equal length. So what we have here is a highly derivative version based on the Celtic Cross, but adapted for modern design purposes.

Manhole covers are part of the city’s maintenance system, and so they’re marked in practical ways that help workers know what’s down there. The cover below and to the right, with Arresto SPQR on one side, and Saracinesca on the other, explains that when the cover is removed, you’ll find a valve or nipple (saracinesca) that can be turned off or stopped (arresto). The letters around the center--ACEA--refer to Rome's public/private power and water company.

Some covers tell us where they were made, and by what company. The one below was obviously made in Giovanni Berta’s foundry (fonderia) in Florence—a foundry located, actually, in an area just north of Florence called “delle Cure.” It’s not famous for manhole covers (not, anyway, until this blog), but the name reflects an ancient trade once practiced there: the washing of linen cloth to soften and whiten the material. Fascinating! The crown above reveals that Italy was still a monarchy, and the attenuated Celtic Cross appears once more, in the same position.

This cover, too, has the SPQR, and with it, the fasci, symbol of Fascism. That combination—SPQR and fasci—appears on our final example (below), located in viale delle Provincie, running off Piazza Bologna—don’t miss it!




This gem tells us that there’s water service inside (Servizio Idraulico); that it was made at the Roman Foundry; and—an added treat—that it was manufactured in the tenth year of the Fascist Era (X is ten, EF is Era Fascista)—that is, ten years after the 1922 March on Rome, or 1932. (We have not pinned down the meaning of the A and V letters. They might stand for an Italian version of Annular Velocity, a term in fluid dynamics that refers to the speed of a fluid's movement in a column; or refer to a common abbreviation for the Province of Avellino. Or something else.)

On one level, these are just details. But they can help us toward an answer to a question on which there is a difference of opinion: under Fascism, were the letters SPQR “Fascist”? Because it was common to combine the letters with the fasci of Fascism, it seems likely that the letters, too, carried a Fascist valence—then, if not now.

Keep your head down....happy hunting! Bill

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was in Rome a few weeks ago and to my surprise saw a manhole cover with SPQR. I knew it couldn't have been from ancient Rome but wondered about the significance. Thanks for the info.

Lorenzo Grassi said...

I think that A.V. means "Acqua Virgo". Can you kindly tell me where did you exactly find that manhole?

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Ciao Lorenzo. I can't be precise about where that manhole cover is. But looking back at my 2009 photos, the cover is somewhere between a) a working/semi-industrial area off Piazza Verano and b) the intersection of Viale Regina Elena and Viale Ippocrate, a long block away. Thanks for the suggestion of Acqua Virgo (or perhaps Acqua Virgene?); you could be right.