Sunday 24 January 2016

[Author's note: Music to read this post to. I felt like an Empress on top of the world that afternoon Beethoven's Emperor Concerto]

For the second day of my visit I had to do the good Catholic thing of making a pilgrimage to the Vatican City. I was looking forward to seeing the pictures from my Leaving Cert History of Art book come to life. Additionally the concept of a city within a city like a Russian doll fascinated me. Being from Limerick this was nothing new as historically the city comprised of three distinct towns.
When I booked my flights I was unaware of how the Epiphany was still such an important Holy day. I am deficient the necessary patience to deal with long queues. Luckily for me it appears that everybody paid a visit to Pope Francis' gaff the previous day so I only had to wait about ten minutes. This involved airport-like security (I suppose we were entering a new country after all) walking through a metal detector and bag x-rayed. St Peter's Basilica was designed principally by Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini. It is one of the largest churches in the world and regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines. The area now covered by the Vatican City had been a burial ground for the numerous executions in the Circus of Nero. On first entering you are faced with Bernini's impressive colonnade four columns deep frame the trapazoidal entrance to the Basilica. This is St Peter's Square on a quiet day. It is a shame that the fencing is there (as seen in photo) as it gave the area a theme-park feel. 

Nothing prepares you for the richness or the ornate interiors. Everything is vying to attract your eyes. The visitor feels completely dwarfed by the scale of everything in the building. This church was designed first by Michelangelo with Maderno's naves added later. The wonderful Baldacchino (pavilion-like structure beneath the dome) was designed by Bernini. At 30 metres tall it is claimed to be the largest piece of bronze in the world. It is always very strange seeing a famous work of art in the flesh. Michelangelo's Pieta is smaller than I had imagined but nevertheless the maternal love and heartbreak of a mother holding the dead body of her only child cannot fail to move you. After taking in the beauty of the ground floor it was now time to move up towards the heavens and make the climb to the cupola of the Basilica. Michelangelo had redesigned Bramante's dome in 1547.The dome rises to a total height of 136.57 metres from the floor of the Basilica to the top of the external cross. It is the tallest dome in the world.
Being cocky Irish people we of course got tickets to go 'a piedi.' The lift was for the old and infirm. Tickets were €6 per adult. Still inside the building I started to see what type of height we were dealing with. All the people below were so small as you can see in the photo to the left with the protective grating. Boy was that climb tough! To keep us motivated every now and so often I would say "we have just earned two scoops of ice-cream", "we have just earned four scoops of ice-cream." It was a bucket I think by the end of it. You would not want to be a person carrying a lot of weight to be able to be able to fit through the monastic-like spiral staircases towards the top. The ascent was well worth it once we got to the top and visually took in the city. Every building unified in this exquisite architectural sea. My eye of course was drawn immediately to the Aula Nervi as it became known. Enigeer Pier Luigi Nervi's Paolo VI Audience Hall was commissioned by Pope Paul VI in 1963 and it was inaugurated in 1971 (see image below left). A family affair this reinforced concrete building was realised with the assistance of his architect son Vittorio Verdi. The auditorium can accommodate up 12,000 people covered by a double curving parabolic vault. Next to grab my eyes of course was the magnificent St Peter's Square with the Vatican Obelisk at its centre. Standing at 25.5m tall, made of red granite this obelisk was removed from Egypt by August to the Julian Forum of Alenxandria where it stoof until 37 AD when Caligula ordered the fourm demolished and the obelisk transferred to Rome. It was moved to its current site in 1586. As Rome was the centre of the Roman Empire the Papal City was the city of the powerful Roman Catholic empire. 
Alberti's 1776 V-shaped boulevard
The square is approached by the Via della Conciliazione which is linking the Vatican City and the centre of Rome. It lends the Basilica extra grandeur similar in Ireland to the main street of the estate villages in the lead up to the entrance to the landlords demesne. This road was constructed between 1936 and 1950 but plans were drawn up several times over the centuries. One such plan was Alberti's 'open' plan in 1776 consisting of a single V-shaped boulevard. Widely opposed instead for a 'closed' plan maintaining the 'spina' or spine of the structures between the square and the river Tiber. Mussolini resurrected the idea of a grand thoroughfare symbolically connecting the Vatican to the heart of the Italian capital. To fulfil this vision he turned to the fascist architects Marcello Piacentini and Attilio Spaccarelli. The controversial demolition began in October 1936 with many residents displaced en masse to settlements outside of the city. Mussolini would create his own version of the square with the obelisk in the EUR district which I visited a few days later (future post). My breath was taken away with the view, the use of my legs from the hundreds of steps so it was the lift on the way down for us. I'll finish Day 2 in my next post with the Patheon and a fit out by David Chipperfield Architects, Of course the day was completed with lots of gelato!

Wednesday 20 January 2016

My taste in buildings has always been relatively young (40-90 years) from those of the International Style, the super cool Art Decos, the Modernists right down to the Bruts of the seventies. This day last week I returned to Ireland after a week in Rome, a city that surprisingly satisfied my architectural grá. Rome is not frozen in time like Florence or Venice but nevertheless she is not a modern city. However she still retains her concrete expression of power, dominance and a vain attempt to return to ancient imperialism. The physical manifestation of the ideology of Mussolini's fascism remains. 

Rome to me is a marriage of two dominant personalities; the commanding presence of the quiet, wise older centre who jostles beside his younger louder, feisty queen. Each side stands their ground equally in this unlikely union full of drama; the grace and stature of the older city tempering the brash, high-spirited youth. He has seen many a war; she was never tested. The pomp of the younger pale marble structures compliments the confidence of the raw, earthy, rusty colours of the rendered older city. In terms of its morphology the city's medieval core has had no previous partners as you'd expect such as Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, etc. Rome does have contemporary buildings such as the MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects and the new Congress Centre and hotel nicknamed 'the Cloud' by Fuksas Architects which is still under construction but already looks impressive. However the glory of the ancient and early twentieth century eras will never again be repeated. 

A recent friend I made in Dublin captivated me with the descriptions of his adoptive city of Rome. Having studied History of Art & Architecture and later Building Conservation in Irish universities the majority of our course material was centred around the principles of Classical architecture. The Georgians looked to what they perceived as the aesthetic truths of Vitruvius and Roman antiquity for inspiration. The symmetry and rhythm of Georgian architecture is what I grew up with near Limerick's Newtown Pery which made Dublin all the more familiar to me. In history of Art we learned about the Grand Tour that the landed gentry were expected to undertake in their youth taking in ancient ruins of Greece and Rome. Italy was a country that I had always planned on visiting but it was never in my top three. With the benefit of free accommodation I was presented with the opportunity to visit the city that was the originator of Irish architecture from the 18th century up to the present day with the odd trend of Georgian pastiche new builds. 
My plane landed in Fiumicino- Leonardo da Vinci International airport which is currently undergoing expansion. I could see the curve of the new roof from my seat like the beautiful contour of a woman's hip. During the short drive from the airport to the city we passed the EUR district. I could see Mussolini's Palazzo della Civiltà Italiano near the motorway, his so-called Square Colosseum. This heightened my excitement for my trip immensely and what was in store for me in the days to come. I will discuss that wonderful building in my next post. From there the car drove through an archway in the ancient city's walls and passed the Circus Maximus. It was as if we drove back in time. My first day (Wednesday) was spent walking around the centre near the Colosseum and the magnificent ruins of the Forum of Augustus. Halfway through the tour I was given a rooftop view of the city. The type of view the renders one speechless. What stroke me was each individual building was beautiful especially those who wore the passage of time without the touch up of paint or render. All the buildings in this ancient sea of bricks and mortar were of the same palette or russets, browns and some peach almost to the point of orange. 
It is indeed the colour orange that I take away with me from my trip and not just from the streetscapes. Every morning upon opening the shutters, to receive the soft morning kiss of
the January sun, I was greeted by the oranges on the tree outside. I was Eve in my Garden of Eden away from it all back home. My host's fruit ball was also full of the fruit. The food alone I could gush about. Bread that went stale the next day as it wasn't full of preservatives like Irish bread, the simplicity of the pasta and pizzas.....and the gelato. Everything there was just so relaxed. I think it's because everybody vents their rage through their cars! Even on the last day of my visit I still could not get my head around walking across the zebra-crossing with the green pedestrian light and still have all the cars and mopeds gunning for me. It is a small price to pay for the lifestyle. People live in the city centre over the shops and cafés. Villas converted to offices and apartments for single people, professional couples, families. All the laneways are full of life bursting with all kinds of shops including bookshops just for books printed in English. The trams and Metro system was very easy to navigate and a €1.50 gave you 100 minutes (from the time of first use) on all public transport. 

I will finish the post with the images taken on Day 1 of the Imperial Fora constructed between 46AD and 113AD. These forums were the very centre of the Roman Empire.  I have included a plan below that has Mussolini's new street he created in the 1920s outlined in red which destroyed part of these ruins. Buildings that we are all familiar with but were like a dream to me. Music everywhere and Italian sounded like poetry to my ear. Even the trees to me were sculptural and architectural. You will see that the roads run so close to these monuments. Some might tut but this is a living city and the traffic is the life force being pumped around it's urban arteries. I started falling for Rome the moment I clapped eyes on him with the bright blue skies and the rusty coloured rooftops. The unpredictability while always revealing something new. Never stopping. Familiarity and contradiction. It's inhabitants rushing in their cars as if in a Grand Prix but then stepping out to dine al fresco with a glass of wine stretching out that peaceful moment like magic. Truly living in it. Being in it. So relaxing and so intense at the same time. My eyes saturated with the visual splendor. Beauty that nearly brings you to tears. Tethering on the edge of bliss. 
The forum of Caesar and the Temple of Venus Genetrix
The Forum of Augustus with the temple of Mars Ultor
The new street in red cut through the forum of Augustus and also rows of homes which naturally sprung up around in during the intervening centuries.

The Altare della Patria (the Altar of the Fatherland). This was the most visible landmark to me walking around the various parts of the city. 

Sunday 3 January 2016

Happy New Year! January is a time of reflecting on the year behind us while simultaneously looking forward to what lies ahead like the two faced Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates, which the month derives its name from. It has been a long time since I have welcomed a year as much as I do 2016 with such high hopes and excitement.

I am also looking back on how I began 2015- day trips away from the city to dear small towns in West Clare which still hold onto their distinct 'Irishness' which our cities are losing at an alarming rate. By this I do not mean the influx of foreign businesses such as restaurants, cafés, boutiques, etc.  These generally slot into their streetscape but with a twist such as an injection of colour or signage. What I despair of is the ubiquitous global fast food and retail chains striping the main streets of these towns of their individuality. Often now on being shown a succession of main street photographs of towns I have known my whole life I interrupt with "what town is that?"

One lovely example is Miltown Malbay, a relatively young town which has only been in existence since about 1800. Please ignore the blight of uPVC windows on the upper level! Instead let us enjoy the character the visual array the collective painted shopfronts creates, the lettering, the door, moulded consoles, pilasters, plat bands and architraves. It tells the story of a bygone age when we lived above our shops. (I am typing this in my room above a former shop in Dublin myself; it's shopfront still intact. I must take some snaps and upload them here in the near future). 
So let's celebrate the ordinary. On what is for a lot of people the last day of their Christmas holidays before they return to work, take advantage of the dry weather and travel to a small town and have an old fashioned Sunday stroll. 

 Having attended a pub quiz in the town I can tell you with confidence that it boosts thirteen pubs such as Clancy's Bar wrapped in this delightful patterned tiling. 
Isn't this canopy fantastic!

The town capitalises it's musical tradition with the annual Willie Clancy festival. Again it's great to see a town with an indigenous festival that celebrates it's unique culture. I roll my eyes every time I see a town mimic trends hastily throwing together a hip hop festival or celebrating American Independence as they picked up boxes of cowboy hats and red, blue and white bunting for a steal!

Some recommended reading to get you started on this topic is Patrick & Maura Shaffrey's Buildings of Irish towns: treasures of everyday architecture (O'Brien Press, 1984) and Seán Rothery's  A Field Guide to the Buildings of Ireland - Illustrating the Smaller Buildings of Town and Countryside