Sunday, 11 March 2007

Two piazze in Brescia

The lumpen character of Marcello Piacentini’s architecture forms subtle connections with the existing urban fabric and the spaces beyond, the new piazza attempting in its geometry and iconography to bring to summation Brescian urban development. Visual connections to medieval and renaissance spaces were allied to an orientation and formal typology having their explicit source in the remains of the Roman town of Brixia. In both cases a rectangular space running north-south was delineated, with the principal public structure aligned axially at the northern end.

Piazza della Vittoria, completed between 1929-32, was itself the final result of a large planning exercise to improve the functioning of the city, a rationalisation which was abandoned due to expense in favour of the rhetorical monumentalization of an area of the historic centre, medieval in date and deemed an obstacle to progress. However, functional planning was abandoned in favour of a more overtly representational scheme, though the immediate reason for the site of the new piazza was the demolition of an existing unhygienic quarter. The new public space thus created glorified Mussolini directly, being completed to celebrate his tenth anniversary in power, but the variety of its profile and materiality attempted to obscure the fact that it was entirely constructed within a few years. Paradoxically, despite the attempt to portray an organic but deceptive history, each element is treated as an individual monument, with peripheral connections through ground floor arcades to form the enclosed civic realm that had been favoured by Sitte. The purpose of a public forum was signalled by the honorific position provided for the modern mean’s of communication, the post, telegraph and telephone office, but also by the placing of an orator’s podium or aregno decorated with scenes of Brescian progress up to Fascism, and standing at the foot of a small tower (“of the revolution”) which was originally adorned with a portrait relief of Mussolini on horseback. Diagonally opposite the aregno, a 12-storey office tower, the torrione, provided the largest single element in the piazza while a figurative connection to this symbol of urban progress was established through the siting of a colossal naked male statue at its base, Arturo Dazzi’s The Fascist Age. The statue’s presence was intended to evoke the same form of heroism associated with Michelangelo’s David in Piazza della Signoria in Florence from four centuries earlier, although its sculptural quality was far below the level of that model.

All the major piazze in Brescia follow the pattern established by the Roman forum, but far from imitating that origin, the elements of Piazza dell Vittoria subvert their antique precedents. The portico of the capitolium can be seen to have its parallel in the facade of the post office. The Corinthian order, however, was too feminine for this robust example of state patronage, and instead Piacentini reduced the members to a blunt banded pier whose profile vaguely resembled a fasces. The bronze statue of the personification of Victory discovered in the early nineteenth century after whom the new square was named was herself too delicate in scale and form for the new environment. She was replaced as the presiding figure by the hulking form of Dazzi’s The Fascist Age with its clenched right fist echoing the architectural raised fist of the torrione.

Piacentini’s work enabled authoritarian power to be validated through the appeal to specific urban memories, resting on foundations which were archaeologically speculative, reconstructed for propagandistic purposes. Such memories were themselves simultaneously invalidated by the representation of this cultural excavation as itself progressive and advanced, when it systematically subsumed the future to a highly selective interpretation of the past. Genuine Roman archaeological remains, uncovered during the clearing of the densely built-up medieval quarter, and therefore an authentic urban memory, were not allowed to disturb Piacentini’s chill reinterpretation of an atrium for the tower of the revolution. Similarly the organic process of historical decay in Piazza del Foro could not be allowed to give witness to the true fate of empires. Instead history had to be reversed and a false memory constructed as a more theatrical ruin.

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