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In the ancient heart of the mother of cities, there is an ugly excrescene that totally ignores all the lessons of urbanity and townscape that Rome has to teach.

It still hurts and makes you want to shout in rage. Every time you go to Rome, the colossal monument to Vittorio Emanuele II rears itself at the end of a vista and crashes into quiet, urbane, historical dreams. It covers a flank of the Capitol hill and was ruthlessly created at the end of the last century by Giuseppe Sacconi (who won an international competition which had 98 entrants in 1885) to make a memorial to the first king of Italy, and to celebrate the unification of the country.

It fronts the Piazza di Venezia at the end of the Corso, the Via Flaminia, down which in ancient times the legions marched in triumph after their victories. The trumpets blared, the man in the leopard-skin apron whacked out the booming rhythm on the big drum, and the vanquished clanked in irons in the middle of the procession. At the front was the chariot of the triumphant general in whose ears a slave was required to constantly whisper `Remember that thou art only human'.

Alas, such modesty was not regarded as a virtue in the euphoria of Italian unity. If ever a building was made to boom and blare, this is it. And it does so with awful brashness. It could have been been made of the local travertine, creamly warm and rough in texture, from which all the greatest buildings in the city have been made from ancient times to now. But it is built of white Brescian marble so that it looms over the nearer parts of the city with the impressive threatening clinical chasteness of a bandaged limb (the Romans use other analogies and call it `the wedding cake' or `typewriter').

The monument was chopped with terrible brutality into the immensly complicated fabric of the hill, and layer after layer of civilisation was cold-heartedly destroyed. Michelangelo's wonderfully delicate Campidoligo is just round the corner: a masterpiece which with very subtle geometry turned Rome's urban impetus from the south (the ancient Forum) to the north and the newly invigorated intra muros sector between the hill and the Piazza del Populo. The Vittorio Emanuele monument was intended to consommate the orientation.

Its histrionic gestures are doubtless entirely correct in turn-of-the-century Classical terms, and it gave sanction for a host of gross authoritarian buildings which ended up with the megalomanic notions of Hitler and Speer. It is in many ways an architectural historian's or Prince of Wales' version of architecture: every detail is classically right but the whole is monstrous and gross, with no respect for place (which is, after all, the focus of the longest-lived great city in the world). The first emperor, Augustus, said that he had found Rome in brick but left it in marble. He was, like any arriviste, keen to put his stamp on the externals while not worrying about what happened behind the neo-Grec columns and pilasters. Sacconi doubtless thought that he was making a suitable Augustan gesture.

Yet, the Vittorio Emanuele monument is much more well built in marble than the structures that Augustus clad in travertine. It is a very solid piece of city, and a document of the Italian nation (for. instance, it contains the tomb of the First World War's unknown soldier). So it can never be pulled down. Sadly.
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Title Annotation:the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Rome
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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