Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Acquario Romano

Today I'd love to talk to you about another of those cute buildings that you can't easily spot in Rome but that are indeed there.
Inaugurated on the May of 1887, this cute little thing was originally planned to be a scientific pivot of the Capital, then designed into the focal point for the residential zone of Esquilino, then turned into a mere storeroom just to be restored and given some dignity in 2002, when it became the seat of the Casa dell'Architettura-- We're talking about the Acquario Romano.
The inspiration about a center dedicated to the study of fish farming, and the concept of an aquarium in the city of Rome dates around 1880, by the idea of Pietro Garganico, an expert of fish farming from the Northern city of Como.
The idea was that of turning Rome into a center for the scientific development, so to make it fit as a world's capital.
The government agreed on Garganico's project only after the idea of the "aggregation point for the borgeouis class" prevailed over the scientific issue: in 1882 the scientist was granted the use of an area by the Esquiline rione, recently turned into a residential area, with the intention of enriching the location; the architect who was given the task to turn Garganico's idea into a cute space for the middle-class to enjoy was Ettore Bernich, a young architect all filled with that need to give modernity and charm to his creations, without turning his eyes from neoclassicism, so popular in the period.
The building was completed in 1887, but unfortunately it grew less and less popular in the years, so much that in 1888 Bernich himself was arranging Carnival parties and dancing events in the building.
In 1920 the aquarium was definitely dismissed, turning it into a theatre for ballet and operetta's events.
Later it turned into a storage for the Teatro dell'Opera, but even for less artistic documents, like the results of the election polls.
It was used as a storage 'til 1984, then it was plainly left to rot.
Only later started the restoring job, as the place was fixed and reconstructed in its original look (when possible) by the Order of Architects of Rome, who claimed it and turned it into their main exhibition and conference hall in 2002.
Despite being a place destined to architects and students of Architecture, it's open to the public within certain hours and free to access, as are the exhibitions and conferences held in there.

But let's quit it with the talk, and let's take a look at the exterior:


The idea of giving to the building a refined, pseudo-classic look is quite obvious and blatant.
The most obvious references seem to be the Pantheon for its rounded plant, and the Triumphal arc for the facade.
Originally two ponds and a series of bridges were placed in what is now the park in front of the building.
The chronicles of the time said that it was possible to rent little ships to enjoy the ponds, and even fishing there.

The exterior of the building is richly decorated with statues of allegories and all kind of marine symbols.
The first ones are those of Fishing and Navigation, sculpted in plaster and painted in fake bronze:

Above the allegories, you can spot two tondi featuring scenes related to the art of fishing, framed by two caryatids:

Now, this may look a bit scary--
At the top of the building is a statue of Venus on her chariot, led by a triton and a nereid...
...Unfortunately the faces of the statues have been terribly damaged, so now Venus and the triton look like two mannequins! UGH!!
You have no idea how much it creeped me out when I noticed it!!

Now that we enjoyed the exterior, let's take a look inside.
We get into the atrium, decorated in a fake Pompeiian style, quite pretentious and flamboyant-- Despite the continuity with the classicity sported outside, the contrast is still quite vivid:



The idea of styling the entrance to the aquarium as if it's some kind of "vestibule" of a Roman therma is quite fun and capricious in its fantasy.

Now, I would like to focus your attention to these tiny paintings that you can find at the entrance of the two lateral corridors (now closed)--
This is nothing but the depiction of how the aquarium looked at the time of its inauguration: you can see the ponds, the bridges and how the park was arranged back then:
--On the opposite side is another painting portraying another monument in Rome which was being build in that same period... Can you guess?
--It's the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, how originally designed by Giuseppe Sacconi!
Sacconi was a dear friend of Bernich, and this was the latter's way to pay an homage to the work of his friend, but also to stress the importance of his own building, conceived as the center of Roman "smart set", both monuments being fresh examples of modernity and progress.

But let's open the door to access the main hall--
The inside sure is peculiar and I can see how it was more fitting to dancing or theatrical events rather than the scientific display of the marvels of the marine world:

The aquariums were inserted in the tiny "frames", now walled-in, that you can spot at the lower point of the walls.
It's obvious that their placement was more as a decoration rather than the focus of the hall.

We saw the damages of the ouside already, but it's difficult to realize the original conditions of the inside: consider that the walls were all painted in grey, covering the original frescoes and paintings.
A series of charming mythology-themed tempera paintings by Giuseppe Toeschi decorated the false ceiling, linking it to the skylight like a sort of vault. The false ceiling has been destroyed by the humidity and replaced by a simpler, plain one.

Even the little paintings on the top of the tanks were covered by paint, and it's incredible how the most of them regained their original vitality:

They are the work of a young painter, Silvestro Silvestri, who picked marine, ambiguous little scenes animated by nymphlets and cupids to link the aquariums to the design of the hall and the ceiling.
--I found them quite disturbing, but they sure are an intriguing evidence on the taste of the time!

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