But few buildings in Florence match aesthetic to functionality as seamlessly as the central station does.

10 Nov 2016

Education: Building and Bending – The History of Italian Architecture Spotlight on Architecture and Fascism

This seems a particularly good time to talk about the legacy even a fascist government can bequeath to a city.

This week’s US presidential elections have us all asking ourselves a lot of difficult questions to answer about our future and the future of our children. Of course, many parallels have been drawn between Trump’s election and some equally checkered figures in Italy’s not too distant past: Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini. Common to all these analyses is the idea that over time, the Italian people have repeatedly resisted and continue to resist and thrive, despite their government or their country’s assumed political identity, when incongruous with that of its individual citizens. So today’s post will try to shed a light of hope on a future that seems bleak by looking at three fascist-era buildings in Florence that continue to have use and even beauty long after their original design turned concrete.

Look for another post about Italy’s transition out of fascism – a spotlight on our Resistance and Uprising class – later this month.

 

Santa Maria Novella central train station

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Designed by Giovanni Michelucci and the Gruppo Toscano, the “new” Santa Maria Novella Station was built between 1932 and 1934. Sources disagree about its links to fascism and the futurist movement – both representative of Italy during Mussolini’s regime. Some argue that its breadth, horizontal expansion, and the disposition of its train tracks are architectural manifestations of the fascio littorio – or bundle of wooden sticks with an emerging axe at the top: the symbol of the National Fascist Party. Others maintain that while a prime example of modernity – mixed styles in full artistic freedom – it displays nothing of the earlier “rationalism” more often connected with fascist architecture. All agree, however, that its innovative shape – a contrast to the looming vertical constructions around it -, interior design, and façade all speak to a  new Italian urban reality.

Many consider it an eyesore in a sea of perfectly balanced Italian Gothic masterpieces. But few buildings in Florence match aesthetic to functionality as seamlessly as the central station does. A symbol of the machination and movement of its time, whether necessitated by fascism, a product of it, or a revolt against it, Santa Maria Novella remains an area of high traffic connection to the rest of Europe in the heart of historical Florence.

 

Stadio Artemio Franchi

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Close to another historical train station, Campo di Marte, sits Florence’s football stadium: Stadio Artemio Franchi. A hailed work of the Italian rationalist tradition, it was designed by Pier Luigi Nervi and Gioacchino Luigi Mellucci and built between 1930 and 1932. It boasts a number of innovative architectural elements, like its overall horizontal design, spiral staircases and the “Marathon Tower” that sprouts out vertically above the center of the stadium’s widest set of bleachers. It is perhaps best known, however, for its unique D shape, which, many have argued, is a political tribute to the Dux or Duce at the time: Mussolini. Nervi denied these allegations, describing the D shape, instead, as the necessary consequence of mandatory building guidelines. Critics and historians of architecture, however, continue to view the stadium as a work of political propaganda still to this day.

The stadium was inaugurated on September 13, 1931, and since then, has hosted national and international football championships, fairs, exhibitions, and concerts of all types.

 

Teatro Puccini

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Another work of Italian Rationalism, erected and inaugurated in the thick of the Second World War, Teatro Puccini perhaps best embodies both the ideals of Italian fascism, and the strength of the later reaction against it.

Like the previous two structures discussed, it is a squat building – curving and designed on a horizontal plane – featuring a vertical cylindrical glass and stone projection over its main entrance, modelled according to Nervi’s Marathon Tower. This deliberate play with volume, along with the starkness of its flat, white façade, and its mix of round, square, and parallel structures, most obviously characterize it as a building in the Rationalist movement. It was built in 1939 and inaugurated in 1940 as a place of leisure for employees of the neighbouring Manifattura Tabacchi (tabacco manufacturing plant), built a few years prior and formerly occupying Saint Ursula’s convent and the church of San Pancrazio.

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Its history has been marked by periods of alternating success and failure. Immediately following the war, it was used as a concert hall, dance hall, and boxing ring, while occasionally hosting very important figures of Italian entertainment. After a brief stint as a municipal theatre, It later shut down, reopening in the 1960s as an independent cinema. It resumed its originally intended function as theatre only in the 1990s and continues to showcase works of comedy and political satire – an unlikely function, given its beginnings. The Manifattura Tabacchi, by contrast, closed its doors definitively in 2001. Since then, very seldom used as an alternative location for expos and pop-up shops, there has been much speculation in Florence about whether it will eventually be repurposed (many parties are interested, including the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale) or demolished.