Poste Italiane

The Fascist era in Rome (1922-1943) was characterized by massive civic projects. From the draining of the Pontine Marshes to the construction of new roads in the historical center, Mussolini’s government brought massive changes to the character of the city. These urban projects reveal an oddly contradictory attitude toward history: on one hand respectful (the excavation of the Forum); on the other, dismissive (the re-burial of three quarters of the Forum for the construction of Via dei Fori Imeriali).

We’ve seen this attitude expressed stylistically through the strange synthesis of neoclassicism and modernism at EUR, but the post offices constructed in 1933 represent an earlier step toward that synthetic style, where classic elements may be present, but are not monumental.

The Poste Italiane on Via Marmorata [Map], by architects Mario de Renzi and Adalberto Libera (1933), is a composition of classically-proportioned volumes, stripped of ornament.  It’s worthwhile to note that architect Adalberto Libera  participated in the Weissenhofsiedlung Exhibition in Stuttgart (1927) at the request of Mies van der Rohe, an indication that these Italian modernists were not as disconnected from the international scene as it may sometimes seem. In this post office, there is clear evidence of international influence.

The abstracted colonnade provides a pedestrian pathway set back from the busy street, and establishes the entry piazza as a public space. Though is could be read as a classical element, it is clearly present for functional reasons. Libera & de Renzi’s post office is a good example of an synthetic style that has not yet been co-opted by monumental/rhetorical neo-classicism.

The post office at Piazza Bologna [Map], by architects Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fagiolo (1933), is more difficult to place in the narrative. The building is an oblong bar, whose curved facade deflects to emphasize the adjacent piazza. The sinuous line of the plan reveals a Baroque sensibility not often seem in Italian modernism, but with precedents dating at least to the early renaissance (the curved facade of Palazzo Massimo comes to mind), and reappearing even today (in the curves of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, for instance)

Angiolo Mazzoni was one of the most prolific Italian architects of the 1920s and 1930s, and his biography should show the competing influence of classical precedent and contemporary international culture. His Ostia Post Office (1934) [Map] should demonstrate the potential of a style drawn equally from both.

As the chief architect for the Ministry of Communication and for the State Railway from the early 1930s until the war, Mazzoni designed many post offices, train stations and other public buildings, aided by close family ties to Mussolini’s fascist regime.

He earned his architecture degree from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna (around 1919), where the instructors were heavily influenced by Wagner and the Vienna Secession. This is evident, especially if you compare his work to Sant’Elia: the tower here could have been taken straight from La Citta Nuova. Mazzoni was involved with the Futurists for long enough to co-author the “Manifesto of Aerial Architecture” with Marinetti in 1934, but by this time he was already building prolifically, and developing his own unique, if eclectic, style.

His work was incredibly varied, ranging from neo-classical (such as the flanking buildings at Rome’s Termini station), to vernacular-Italianate (La Spezia post office), to streamline modern (the Sabaudia Post Office, luckily undergoing restoration). The Ostia post office, however, is an incredibly interesting synthesis.

The  fountain with circular colonnade here has a clear classical precedent in Hadrian’s Villa, but also shows some modernist influences. Notice the lack of capitols on these ‘piloti’, the portal windows, and the unadorned light fixtures: ornament through functionality. Materially, everything is rendered in Roman brick and travertine, though the architect makes some interesting moves with those materials, like the detail on these columns (brickwork that could be his own invention, perhaps under influence from the Amsterdam School?).

The more I look at Italian architecture from this period, the more I’m fascinated by the ways the architects mobilize historical forms and materials, and the ways that modernism is filtered through the lens of Roman history. It often leads to incredibly interesting work. Though this use (and abuse) of history is conspicuously absent from some recent projects in Rome (Meier’s Jubilee Church, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI), in others (such as Renzo Piano’s Auditorium) the recognition that historically-charged materials and referential forms can be used in the service of architecture leads to work that is contextual yet contemporary, where the incredible burden of history is seen as a blessing, not a curse.