When you are in Rome and soaking up some of its two thousand and more years of history it would be easy to arrive at the Baroque period and then heave an exhausted, “basta!.” Let's face it, sightseeing is hard work. However one of Rome’s most eccentric and quirkiest little corners is still not yet 100 years old but well worth a visit, especially if you find yourself along Viale Regina Margherita, not far from the zoo and the Borghese Gallery.
Building started on the quartiere Coppedé when The First World War was drawing to a close and was finished in about 1927. Rome had been going through a housing boom. It was only forty years since it had become the capital of the new state of Italy and in thirty years (from 1870 to 1900) the population increased from 200,000 to one million.
This particular zone had been nominated “the most salubrious in Rome,” by all the fashionable magazines of the time. A co-operative society, “Edilizia Moderna,” set up by the Cerutti family; influential Genoese financiers who had bought 30,000 square metres in the area commisioned Gino Coppedé to be the architect to design the 18 palazzi and 27 villas destined for a medium middle class market.
Gino Coppedé had previously built a neo-mediaeval castle in Genoa for a Scottish Lloyds underwriter and Dante expert, Evan MacKenzie, that could have come straight out of Disneyland. He was also in demand as an interior designer of luxury yachts and ships. The Ceruttis gave Gino Coppedé carte blanche in drawing up the plans for the development. Perhaps, with such a large area at his disposition, Gino intended to make this project his swansong, the sum of all his experiences and influcences; a kind of catalogue of his life’s work. Or a visual encyclopedia of architecture.
The best and usual way to enter the quartiere is through a triumphal archway (a tribute to imperial Rome perhaps) adjoining two palazzi, supported by two Michelangeloesque statues, and under which hangs a hefty wrought iron mock-mediaeval lamp. The feeling is rather like having stepped through the looking glass. All of the buildings have been liberally decorated and adorned with grotesque figures, conucopia, lions, dragons, and a zoo full of animals including spiders and dozens of bees, possibly as a reference to the ancient and influencial Roman Barbarini family. There is a definite sense of having entered a secret place, and the noise of the city seems muffled on the other side of that looking glass. Go into Piazza Mincio where the frog fountain is gently gurgling. Dario Argento used the square for some of the scenes in his film “Inferno” and it is also a favourite location for shooting television commercials.
The first building to be completed (on the left as you enter through the arch) soon aquired the name of the Ambassadors’ Palaces, (Palazzi degli Ambasciatori) after two ambassadors bought up apartments and moved in. The use of reinforced concrete, a relatively new material, meant that significant savings could be made, and these went towards ensuring that the apartments were the last word in modernity. All the apartments had electric interphones and underground garages were linked by lift to all floors. (During the Second World War these garages were used as air raid shelters by the people in the surrounding area.) The bathrooms were equipped with everything that was thought necessary for the modern family’s hygienic needs whilst the kitchens were fitted with gas and coal burning ovens and cookers, copper boilers, marble sinks with every minutest detail finished to the highest quality. With the arrival of the ambassadors the Ceruttis raised their sights in attracting buyers from the highest levels of society, and for high ranking civil servants, diplomatic staff and others high up in government owning an apartment in the quarter became essential if you wanted to impress.
Piazza Mincio forms the nucleus and holds the most interesting buildings belonging to quartiere Coopedé. The “Fontana delle Rane” (Fountain of the Frogs) in the centre of the square is Coppedé’s tribute to the fountains of Rome and in particular Bernini’s “Turtle Fountain” in Piazza Mattei. The building at No 2 Piazza Mincio is characterised by medieaval loggias and balconies, with monstrous faces looking down onto the square; probably the last to be completed by Gino himself, who died in 1927. Its most beautiful feature however is the entrance, an arched porch decorated in monochromatic blue and white mosaic, apparently inspired by the 1913 film, Calibria.
Opposite stands the Palazzo del Ragno (Spider Palace) named after the mosaic of a giant spider above the door.
The prize for the most ambitious and striking of all the villas and palazzi however goes without doubt to the so called Villa of the Fairies (Villa delle Fate.) A sort of Renaisance Swiss chalet which is in fact three seperate houses in one single unit. It boasts covered turrets, roofed external stairways, overhanging eaves, loggias with romanesque pillars and arches and is extensively covered in frescoes, depicting scenes of Renaisance Florence, medeaeval ships, Romulus and Remus and the she wolf. The whole is surrounded by an elaborate wrought iron fence bearing sea horse motifs. Once home to a famous opera tenor, Beniamino Gigli, it it has recently been magnificently restored by the present owners. On the inside too the walls are frescoed as is even the canopy over the fireplace in the (at the time extremely modern) kitchen.
Gino Coppedé’s style might be baffling to pin down. Is it Liberty? The later Italian version of Art Nouveau. No. Gino had no interest in following other trends. He was a non intellectual, not caught up in the architectural movements of the time, though he was one of a number of “eclectic style” architects at work in Italy at the end of the 19th century. He would though have been been aware of a number of current styles listed by Italian architectural magazines such as the neo-medieaval and neo-renaisance styles (think of British mock Tudor and Gothic styles of the same period.) Neo-hellenistic and neo-baroque, and these he seems to have mixed all together with influences from his native Florence. All in all he knew what he liked, and ascribed to the idea that an architect must be a dreamer of fantasies. A photo of him shows a dandyfied gent, straight out of a Manet painting, wearing a peaked yachting cap and a George V beard with pointed waxed moustaches. His naive and even provincial preferences which excluded him from jumping on the bandwagon of Liberty or in the exact opposite direction of Modernism has had its reward. He remains the only Italian architect to have his name given to a style, stile Coppedé.
Getting there; Metro line B, get off at station Policlinico and catch trams no 3 or no 19 in direction P.zza Thorvaldsen or P.zza Risorgimento. Get off at Piazza Buenos Aires. By bus from Termini Station. Buses nos 86 and 92, via Via Veneto to Piazza Buenos Aires. Bus no 53 from Piazza San Silvestro to Via Salaria. Passes the Borghese Gallery on Via Pinciano.
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