Defeating ‘His Majesty the pick-axe’
Florence: strong
development interests
ruled the day.
The achievement of national unity in 1860 found the
cities of Italy in a crucial phase of their development.
The creation of the unified kingdom served to acceler-
ate processes of change that had been triggered in
earlier decades by slow but constant economic growth.
This mainly affected the northern areas, ruled as they
were by the Savoy monarchy and the Austrians.
Until the mid-19th century, the main cities of the
peninsula were still enclosed within medieval, or some-
times more ancient, city walls. Their dense pattern of
streets had developed over the centuries. At the centre
of these urban spider webs lay the centri storici , within
which the various social classes lived together in close
contact. The palaces of the nobility were surrounded
by lower-class quarters in which the living conditions
were often dire.
The growing availability of capital, due to an expand-
ing middle class occupied in commerce, industry and
finance, gave rise to an initial process of outward
expansion in the middle years of the 19th century.
Old housing quarters in the centre gave up their sites
to new banking and insurance buildings, as well as to
elegant housing for the more prosperous.
The process of political unification had an impact
on these developments. The governing class wanted
to translate its political aspirations into architectural
scenes. These scenes were constructed in the new king-
dom’s three successive capitals: Turin, Florence and
Rome. The closest models for architects and planners
were the Paris works of Baron Haussmann (1853–70)
and Vienna’s Ringstrasse (after 1858). In these models,
broad streets lined with trees led out from the walls of
the old city. In Italy, just as in Paris, the chosen instru-
ment of change was modernisation. This involved
demolishing or making broad cuts through the original
city centres. Thus, in the names of health and safety,
decorum and functionality, large swathes of the urban
fabric were lost without too many tears being shed.
In Venice the process of filling in canals continued
from the previous decades. The Strada Nuova was
opened up from 1871 to 1873 to connect the Rialto
district with the railway station. The latter had been
erected in 1861, on the site of the demolished Palladian
church of Santa Lucia. Naples, Rome and Milan saw
similar measures in the 1880s and 90s. The old hearts
of the city were linked with the new stations, and
patriotically-named straight rettifilo roads were created.
In Milan, a project begun in 1865 attracted contro-
versy in the Lombard capital. A competition had been
won in 1861 by Giuseppe Mengoni to clear a vast area
around the Duomo. This included a historic market
area, the coperto dei Figini , and a group of medieval
houses to link the cathedral square with the Scala
opera house.
The scheme was opposed by the theorists of archi-
tecture and city-culture Camillo Boito (1836–1914)
and Carlo Cattaneo (1801–69). Despite this opposition
the scheme was partly realised in the shape of the vast
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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II , a powerful expression of
the commercial dominance of the capital of Lombardy.
In Florence the scheme to clear the old central
market area (Mercato Vecchio) to make way for yet
another civic square dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II
was executed against a background of protests from
1885 onwards. Protestors included the city’s consider-
able community of foreign residents. The city’s liveliest
old quarter had seethed with commerce, and been
home to the poorest, while still visited by the elite and
the middle class. Its disappearance meant the removal
of the towers erected by the earliest nobility of the city,
as well as guild halls, churches and wayside shrines. In
the name of the city’s public health, allowable perhaps
due to the area’s degraded condition, strong develop-
ment interests and greed ruled the day.
The guardianship of the heritage entered a new
phase as the 19th century ended. The new Italian
government had taken on duties of protection from
the ancient states it replaced. It still lacked an adequate
legal instrument with which to safeguard this heritage.
Ever since the 15th century, the question of heritage
had been addressed. The Popes, when they returned to
Rome from their exile in Avignon, had issued a series
of Bulls and Edicts against the despoiling of the city’s
artistic and architectural riches. Previous despoiling
had reduced Rome to a poor condition in its planning
and appearance.
For the three centuries that followed, despite far-
sighted declarations, an adequate structure of controls
was lacking. During the era of the Grand Tour, the
uncontrolled export of works of art from Italian lands
was common. A presumption that the Italian race was
indifferent to the splendour of the treasures from its
past gave rise to this hoarding by foreigners.
Examples of good government were not entirely
absent. For example, the Republic of Venice, the
Serenissima , had introduced from the 1500s a practice
of making inventories of fixed and moveable assets
with an aim to preserve them. Venice was in the
avant-garde in formulating principles of cataloguing
the heritage that remain valid even today.
During the despoiling in the Napoleonic era, a great
quantity of Italian art was lost. This prompted the
development of legislation against its export. Lists of
both public and private works were drafted for this
purpose. The Edict of Cardinal Pacca, issued in Rome
in 1820, gave an effective definition of guardianship.
This inspired other Italian states (still not yet unified)
to impose rules of their own.
Following unification, the new kingdom continued
its references to the Pacca Edict. It concentrated
its attention on controls of the art market, rather
than on a policy of safeguarding monuments. The
marked liberalism of post-unification governments
gave ample scope for speculative development. They
allowed invasive change, as already noted, in the name
of modernisation. The first comprehensive laws of
guardianship (the Rosadi measures) did not arrive
until 1909. It took until 1942, and the close of the
Fascist era, for the first national planning legislation
to arrive.
The legislation from the past on artistic and archae-
ological assets was not re-adopted by the national
Milan had to wait until
the 1930s for a plan.
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Brescia’s medieval
centre was cleared
to make way for an
imperial Piazza della
Vittoria in 1929. This
provincial forum is full
of bombastic references
to the buildings of the
ancient Romans.
government after 1861. The definition of a work of art
was not widened. It was still understood in terms of the
single recognised masterpiece, and neglected to con-
sider other works of art (especially architectural ones)
which might be visually modest but full of historical
There was plenty of awareness of the past in the
culture of 19th-century Italian architecture. Evidence
of this includes the renewed classicism in the new
styles of the early part of the century, and the revival of
gothic that was dear to the romantics. The pragmatic,
eclectic vision of the mid-century, with its Babel of
stylistic references (Romanesque, gothic, renaissance)
was derived from a wish to attribute merit to every
historical period.
It showed a conviction that rediscovering the
nation’s greatness depended on accessing its fertile
and inspired architectural past. In addition, the train-
ing of architects culminated in acquiring the language
and grammar of those styles so that, in carrying out
their projects, the highest aesthetic quality could be
transferred to the new buildings.
This can be seen best through the work of Camillo
Boito, the greatest theorist of Italian architecture
of the second half of the 19th century. Boito was a
professor in Venice, and later taught at the Polytechnic
and Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. His teaching pro-
gramme for the three-year course for future architects
included the styles of classical antiquity, then those of
the renaissance, and finally those of the middle ages.
The latter were seen as the most favourable for the
creation of a modern architecture, of a national style
that would be able to define the architecture of the
new Italy .
To each of the styles was attributed a specific role. As
a consequence, the city and other places filled up with
neo-Romanesque schools and service buildings, neo-
gothic churches, neo-renaissance palaces for banks,
insurance houses and the residences of the well-to-do,
and even industrial structures and power stations
loaded with references to 15th-century decoration.
Historicism exalted an awareness of the nation’s
past. It was founded in the hope of giving rise to a
new era of architectural greatness. However, it did not
avoid the simultaneous destruction of a great number
of authentic examples of this past, through the clear-
ances carried out in so many cities.
In Florence, along with the loss of the Mercato
Vecchio , whole groups of authentic parts of the
city disappeared to give way to false-renaissance
architecture. In Milan, genuine facades of churches
in the mannerist or baroque styles were replaced
with neo-Romanesque frontages. These changes were
carried out in the name of returning to the date of the
beginnings of the site.
From the late 19th century, Italian cities altered
through the accumulation of individual projects, lack-
ing any overall plan. It took until 1932 for town
planning to become part of the education in schools
of architecture. The plans for Milan and Rome date
to the same period, a decade before the first national
planning law of 1942. Meanwhile the country contin-
ued its growth. With this growth came the need for
public and private displays which impacted on the
redevelopment of historic centres.
Benito Mussolini, the Fascist leader, emphasised the
need for ‘thinning out’ the central areas leading to the
exaltation of great monuments, in particular those of
ancient Rome. In 1932 he launched out against the
‘picturesque but squalid’ aspects of the capital of the
empire. By this he meant the fabric of old buildings
that stood between and around the remains of ancient
Rome. These stood in the way, and would be given
over to ‘His Majesty the pick-axe’. In the name of
the splendours of the ‘New Empire’, the backbone
of the Borghi, the medieval quarter in front of Saint
Peter’s, made way for the grandiloquent Via della
Conciliazione (not finished until 1950). Even more
paradoxically, the two ancient forums were cut in half
to make way for the Via dell’Impero (now, Via dei
Fori Imperiali) and to create a grandiose backdrop for
military parades.
In the northern city of Brescia as early as 1929,
the medieval centre was cleared to make way for an
imperial Piazza della Vittoria. This provincial forum
seems to prefigure the Fascist regime’s architectural
apotheosis, the Roman E42 quarter or Eur, the last
project to be undertaken. It is full of high-flown and
bombastic references to the buildings of the ancient
Carlo Migliavacca is a
journalist in Milan with
Bell’Italia. His article was
translated and adapted for
Context by Graham Tite.
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