Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 650 posts

Monday, March 22, 2010

RST Top 40. #20: The Strange World of Coppede'





It was not long after we met in the winter of 1993--he was a graduate student in my class in the American Studies Department at the University of Rome, La Sapienza--that Massimo realized that Dianne and I had rather odd touristic tastes; while we enjoyed the standard fare, we savored the funky and unusual. And so began a series of journeys, with Massimo presenting some of his native Rome's more curious sites. On one occasion, we motored around the city in the morning darkness in pursuit of all-night bakeries, where we ordered our pastries directly from the baker, through a back door. On another--a dreary, rainy day--Massimo drove me to an early modernist shopping center somewhere on the fringe of the city, a place so little known he's forgotten he took me there and that I've been unable to locate.


And then there was Coppedé. It was nearing midnight when Massimo stopped the car in a piazza somewhere in the the north of Rome, and we got out. My first impression--and hardly an original one--was of an architecture both playful and, at that hour, menacing (the piazza appears in Dario Argento's 1980 horror film, Inferno)--and, above all, original. I had never seen anything like it anywhere--echoes of Spain's Gaudi, perhaps, but much more, too--and certainly not in Rome. And that's why it's #20 on Rome the Second Time's Top 40. The piazza's Palazzina del Ragno (spider) is at upper left. Below right, that's Dianne in her Fidel cap, demonstrating the playful side of Coppedé.





There is much more to it than I saw that night: 15 buildings by the architect Gino Coppedé, for whom the Quartiere Coppedé is named, and some 40 buildings in all, amounting to what one critic has described as an "urban hallucination." Despite the name, Coppedé is not an official "quarter." It's actually at the southwest end of Quartiere Trieste, 2 blocks northeast of Piazza Buenos Aires, which is on viale Regina Margherita, and about 4 blocks west of via Salaria.


It would be delightful to come across Coppedé by chance, as writer Martha Pichey did in 1987, compelled to make sense of the lions' heads, Latin inscriptions, giant bees, and other decorations that, well, don't make much sense. For the majority who prefer to plan, perhaps the best entrance to the area is through the massive arch on via Dora,
not far from Piazza Buenos Aires. Start there, move on to Piazza Mincio (where Massimo took us), then amble. There are other Coppedé works on via Brenta (#s7, 9, 14 and 16), via Ombrone (#8-10, 11), via Serchio (#2) and via Olana (#7). The forest is lovely, but don't miss the trees: the gates, fences, ceramic urns, winged serpents, hanging lanterns, a sundial, and other ornamentations that lend Coppedé that air of weird excess. One way to enjoy the area is to try to pick out elements of the great variety of styles Coppedé employed, including baroque, Moorish, gothic, Renaissance, and--yes--Babylonian. The photos below are of Piazza Mincio's Villino delle Fate (fairies), so named because of its extravagant decoration.

There is no easy accounting for what Gino Coppedé accomplished here, but it won't hurt to know something about the architect. He was born in Florence in 1866, where his father had a workshop, Casa Artistica, where Gino and his brother learned to carve the decorative flourishes that Firenze's upper class favored for their fireplaces and armoires. By age 24 he had combined that practical training with two advanced degrees: one from the Professional School of Industrial and Decorative Arts, another from the city's Academy of Fine Arts. Coppedé's first home project was outside Genoa, where a Scot, Evan McKenzie, hired him to "reconstruct" his substantial villa.
Completed in 1904, the conversion brought him instant recognition and s spate of other home projects for ambitious and intrepid Genoese elites. The Rome adventure began in 1919, when Genoese financiers, familiar with his work, hired him to design 18 palaces and 27 smaller villas--early condominiums, essentially, designed to be sold to civil servants and professionals. By 1926, less than half had been built. Aside from the Quartiere, Coppedé had only one other Rome commission--a simpler building at 7 via Veneto, completed in 1927, the year he died.

Most scholars would describe Coppedé's work as an example of art nouveau (called liberty in Italy), while noting that that the Quartiere's bold and extravagant use of the style is in a certain way perverse, given that construction took place long after art nouveau had reached its peak and while modernists forms and expressions were in ascendancy in architecture and design.

One authority notes that Coppedé's version of nouveau rejected the sexualized motifs common in France and Germany for playful but more stolid and moral expressions having appeal to Italy's middle class.

At the risk of scandalizing our architectural-critic readers, it seems not unreasonable to use the word "postmodern" to describe the quartiere. Although "postmodern" is usually employed to mark the decline of pure modernism and the rise of a more eclectic style of pastiche in the 1970s, it could be argued that Gino Coppedé was there first, toying with an emergent modernism, holding the nascent rationalism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus at arm's length while insisting on the vibrant variety of architecture's history.


Bill