Many tourists gaze admiringly at this monument every day, taking countless photos of a site which they find attractive. But archaeologists, historians, and city planners think differently. We’re on their team–which is why our students routinely learn to refer to this site as the Big Ugly Heap of Rock from Hell.
What’s the fuss? This is the monument to Vittorio Emanuele, the first king of the united nation of Italy (d. 1878). Since “history is always written by the victors,” as the saying goes, you tend to get fed a story of great Italian revolutionaries who fought bravely and successfully united the Italian people, who had been split among over a dozen petty principalities and other political entities. But in reality, the revolution was very much a “top down” affair, led and financed in large part by secret society-types with a virulent and totally open hatred for the Catholic Church. It was the Church that was arguably the biggest loser in the unification of the Italian peninsula: the lands that comprised the Papal States were totally lost, with the exception of that tiny plot of territory known today as Vatican City State.
When Vittorio Emanuele died, his fans certainly weren’t interested in any kind of a religious monument. No, they wanted something super-grandiose and hard to miss! That’s why they came to what is almost the mathematically exact center of Rome, and erected this monstrosity, which they finished in 1935. Heedless of Rome’s past, its construction did irreparable damage not only to several Catholic churches in the vicinity (we told you about one of those here), but also to a part of the Roman Forum, which is under it. Needless to say, archaeologists aren’t going to be able any time soon to unearth those parts of the Forum which they know, with 100% certainty, are hidden beneath these tons and tons of white marble.
And speaking of white marble, the stone used to construct this thing isn’t local marble; it was shipped all the way to Rome from Botticino, in the far northern regions of Italy. Its deathly white color is unlike the pinkish-beige Travertine marble that was used to built practically everything else in Rome, quarried as it is in the hills relatively near the city. In other words, this structure doesn’t blend with anything around it.
Its huge size is also an urban disaster. The monument stands right next to the Capitoline Hill–which was once a majestic height overlooking the city–and several ancient Roman structures which were designed to impress by their great size. Instead, they are dwarfed and the effect intended by the ancients is lost. And on top of that, it completely monopolizes Rome’s skyline, where you now have to really search to find once-major sites like the Pantheon and the Column of Trajan.
What a mess! Romans quickly dubbed it “the wedding cake” and “the typewriter,” pretty accurate descriptions, if you can remember what a typewriter looks like any more. If you know its history, this monument to King Vittorio Emanuele is a disaster from start to finish. Rome would be a very different place without it … and we think it would have been better off.