martedì 23 giugno 2009


The "Mediaeval" chandelier hanging under
the arch looking towards Piazza Mincio

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.

Palazzi degli Ambasciatori and arch.

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.

Corner tower of the Palazzi degli Ambasciatori

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 Porch at N° 2 Piazza Mincio

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.

The Fountain of the Frogs

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.

The blue and white mosaic in the porch at N° 2.

The Spider weaving its web above the door.

Opposite stands the Palazzo del Ragno (Spider Palace) named after the mosaic of a giant spider above the door.

Palazzo del Ragno

Palazzo del Ragno

Villa delle Fate and the Palazzo del Ragno

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.

Villa delle Fate

Villa delle Fate

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.

Villa delle Fate

Piazza Mincio

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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giovedì 18 giugno 2009

A‘ Chiena. A Festival and a Water Fight.

The first trickle of water makes its way into town at about
2.30 pm.

When the river Tenza breaks its banks the citizens of the town of Campagna (in the province of Salerno, 70 miles south of Naples) have already shored up their houses with planks and sandbags, because it does so with surprising regularity; every Saturday and Sunday from the middle of July and into August at half past two in the afternoon. And its been doing so for the last twenty years.

On his way for a unscheduled dunking.

And then fished out again

The “Chiena” (meaning “full” as in “full to overflowing”) as it's called, is a revival of an antique method of cleaning the streets; when mule trains, passing through the town in the summer months carrying iron ore, clay and wood from the lofty forested Pincentini mountains would have left their mark on the cobble stones. And in the summer months their passing would have left a noticable puzza in the stifling air too.
Mule dung is no longer a big problem for the town council, so nowadays the Chiena is a good excuse for a party.

Watching the waters go by.

Above the waterfall just outside of the town a miniature canal was built in the mid nineteenth century to redirect some of the river water. Half goes through the town’s drainage system and the other half back into the river. The opening taking the water back to the river is blocked and the pressure of water gushes up through a grating and tumbles down past the post office into the piazza and on through the town.

Check to see the going's good.
The River Tenza running through
the town of Campagna

At midday a test run in which a small amount of water is diverted through the streets beguiles the numerous tourists with its relaxed mood. Locals set up tables and stalls along the route from which free drinks and snacks are offered, and families quietly stroll through the icy water. Enjoying the unusual and pleasant experience of paddling barefoot over cobblestoned streets.
It’s in the afternoon that the fun starts. The whole town is out to watch the spectacle, and the town’s young male population are all dressed in trainers and swimming costumes, the girls cover up slightly more, but not much. They know they aren’t going to stay dry for very long and want to make sure they will look enticing enough to the boys when wet through, without being too revealing.

Even since its original and functional application it has been an occasion to drench each other, and anyone else.

A disco rings the changes but the bucketsful are flying in every direction as in times past; although a plastic bag full of water makes as good a container as any. And as the waters rise so does the tempo, and inevitably the girls are singled out by the lads who carry them kicking, screaming, laughing and resigned to a soaking; either where the water piles up as it turns a sharp street corner, or no messing and straight in the fountain in the piazza.
Tourists and the older inhabitants look on from the margins, and if you decide to paddle your way to another vantage point a sort of truce is observed to keep at least your top half dry. But it’s sometimes difficult to avoid being in the line of fire. And who really minds too much anyway?

Though carrying a camera around can give you some worrying moments and it can be a good idea to have something to cover it with to keep any stray water off.
The last a’ Chiena of the summer takes place at midnight on either Ferragosta, August 15th, or on the following day.

Although a small town of only 15,000 inhabitants Campagna manages to organise a variety of events throughout the summer to accompany the Chiena. In July of last year the Band of the Royal Marines were among the attractions.

Campagna, August 2004. Updated June 2009.

Get there by car. A3 southbound from Naples and take the exit for Campagna. Follow the signposts for Campagna on the SP38.

Visualizzazione ingrandita della mappa