E42 – The white town

Written by Alessandra Contessa
Translated by Maria Letizia Pazzi (IT Version)
Ph. Giuseppe Felici (instagram.com/giuseppe_felici/)

Painter Giorgio De Chirico wrote to his friend and colleague Ezio Gribaudo in a letter dated 23rd January, 1969: “Similarly to black, white contains mystery; it has no limits, no shadows, where such colour really exists and whether it does exist is not known.”[1] The myth of white, which inspired De Chirico in some of his most representative works, such as Piazze d’Italia, is rooted in the classical period, in the ancient Greek and Roman architecture, as well as in sculpture.
In such series of paintings, architectural memories of a distant past stand out on a quiet and desolate landscape, which is only inhabited by statues and small men, unable to break the silence around them.        Such town project, which would seem to shy away from the limits of time and space, did not result in a mere metaphysical pictorial representation, but rather in one of the most courageous Fascist projects: district E42 in Rome.

In 1936 Mussolini decided to hold a world exhibition in the Italian capital, aiming to give more prestige to the country and his regime, because he had considered exhibitions to be a propaganda tool, an expression of a totalitarian culture, art and politics since the 1932 Fascist Revolution. The outcome, though incomplete, impressed everyone and anyone who nowadays walks through such places and is dragged into a theatre play, where each building and perspective serve as a theatrical setting. Moreover, it is no coincidence that Mussolini made spectacularity and Mannerism an effective persuasion instrument.
Therefore, building the new expansion area of ​​Rome acts as an excuse to create spaces and volumes, which celebrate the rebirth of the new great Mussolini empire by emulating the classical shapes and traditions, and employing white in accordance to the Roman Imperial diaphanous architecture.

Marcello Piacentini, who was appointed superintendent of architecture for parks and gardens, told Vittorio Cini, commissioner of the entire organisation: “(…) I believe the greater Exposition buildings, which will then become permanent facilities, should be assembled and create a huge forum. Images to be in the middle of the Roman forum, between squares, columns, leaps, arches, etc. and see the Colosseum on the bottom left and the Capitoline Hill on the bottom right. A similar classic yet modern vision, very modern: all the exhibitions that enhance the Latin and Fascist culture.”[2] A huge open-air museum where the architecture, interpreted as the ultimate idea of ​​symmetry, rhythm and proportion, gave birth to a purely “Fascist” style, which also drew inspiration from the coeval stylistic expression of many other buildings, such as the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the headquarters of the Soviets or the works of Albert Speer[3].
The whiteness of the marble and travertine, increases the monumentality and plasticity of the volumes and  accentuates the contrast between light and shadow, between solids and voids; such duality had extraordinarily been anticipated by De Chirico paintings, where the architectures enlightened by the sun create shadows on the ground, which seem to hide profound mysteries and enigmas, especially human existence. Although the De Chirico enigma remains unsolvable, his work becomes expresses of art that aimed at escaping from reality, in order to discuss something else in complete autonomy; it also reaffirms the typical classicism of the Thirties architecture promoted by totalitarian regimes, such as Nazism, Communism and Fascism. De Chirico marks a radical change from the modern and revolutionary stylistic trends of the Modern Movement.
The “white town”, as it was later called, investigates on the purity and the refined aesthetic perfection of that time; each element stands in balance with the entire structure. Similarly to Piazze d’Italia by the pictor optimus (great painter), the architecture is subjected to proportions, linearity and harmony of shapes and white contributes to the enhancement of such relations, by playing the protagonist role. De Chirico himself said: ‘I believe the term “metaphysics” is not disturbing: the material seems metaphysics due to its tranquillity and baeauty, and the object are even more metaphysical. Such elements mark the antipodes of any confusion or nebulosity by means of the clarity of the shades and the accuracy of the propositions.’[4]

The current E42 is actually nothing but one part of Mussolini’s bold project: the Palazzo dei Ricevimenti e dei Congressi della Civiltà Italiana by Guerrini, Lapadula, and Romano, the Palazzo dei Congressi by Libera, the Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo by Foschini as well as other buildings, should have been a part of a much more complex and elaborate design, which would culminate at the end of the exposition in the great triumphal arch by Adalbero Libera. However, the war and the horrors that were brought about, forced the dux to postpone the long awaited opening, which unfortunately never took place, since the conflict proved to be longer and bloodier than expected, and affected the entire country. For years, EUR has remained a solitary and silent “dead town”, the symbol of neglect and decay: the historian Fulvio Irace said: ‘A metaphysical landscape which seems to derive from a De Chirico painting, mutilated statues, broken plates, monoliths of suspended factories. Moreover, it resembles a Piranesi-style fantasy of ‘Roman antiquities’[5], an obvious transposition of emotions from the painter’s mind to the physical work by means of an almost visionary intuition, where the architecture and the landscape blend harmoniously and deny the existence of human traces. In 1951, when the E42 project was planned to be ultimately finished in a more contemporary, yet respectful vision compared the original idea, the whiteness of marbles and travertines was completely denied, since it was considered as  a too direct reference to the banned Fascism. New structures were built by using steel, glass and brick, which is a poor material that reflected the character and the real needs of the society. The citizens, who had been oppressed by wars, did indeed flee any ideal of omnipotence.
The Palace dedicated to the exhibition of LL.PP. in EUR acts as an example. Augustus Baccin, Luigi Orestano, Luigi Vagnetti, Augusto Cavalli Murat and Arturo Capo designed it in 1938, imagining white marble to be the main material; however the structure was completely built in brick in 1955, distorting the original idea. Although the image that had first distinguished the area has been modified over the years, the white town has still preserved charm and beauty, which proved to be stronger than time, similarly to the picture that has always transmitted the same emotions each time someone stops to watch it.

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[1]   G. DE CHIRICO, “I bianchi di Ezio Gribaudo” letter, 23rd January, 1969

[2] Lettera di Marcello Piacentini a Vittorio Cini, 23rd January, 1937 in Mussolini architetto, edited by P. Nicoloso, Turin 2011, p. 200.

[3] G. CIUCCI, Dall’E42 all’Eur. Una storia ancora incompleta in “Casabella”, a. 51, n. 539, October 1987, pp. 34-37: p. 36.

[4] C. BERTELLI, G. BRIGANTI, A. GIULIANO, Storia dell’Arte Italiana, Milan, 1992, p. 431.

[5] F. IRACE, “L’architettura dell’Eur” in Esposizione Universale di Roma. Una città nuova dal fascismo agli anni ’60, edited by Vittorio Vidotto, Rome, 2015, p. 53.