Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Rome’s Modernist marvel was designed to host a World Expo that never was, but the bustling business district today is home to museums, monuments, and more.
The year is 1942. It has been two years since Italy joined the war as a member of the Axis powers, one year before it would switch to the side of the Allies with the Armistice of Cassibile. In November, Allied forces would land in North Africa, prompting the Germans to launch Operation Anton, in which Italy would occupy Corsica as part of its bid to ‘reclaim’ territories it deemed belonged to it. The Raid of Algiers would take place the following month. It was the year of the 10th annual Venice International Film Festival. That year, however, very few countries would participate. World War Two was in full swing, and the film festival would be suspended temporarily beginning with following year.
1942 was also the year Italy would host the World Expo, an international exhibition that takes place every five years and that represents a country’s achievements as they relate to universal themes. Past world fairs have included that of Paris in 1889, for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed in celebration of the centennial of the French Revolution. Although the project was conceived back in 1936, after Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, this world fair would never take place due to the events that would unfold in that time period.
It was an ambitious project, meant to rival even the grandeur of Ancient Rome. EUR, or E42 as the project was originally called after the year in which it was supposed to be held, stands for “Esposizione Universale Roma”, or “Rome World Exposition”. Tourists will likely be most familiar with the historic centre of Rome, where the city’s major landmark sites are all huddled together, most within walking distance of each other– the Trevi fountain, Piazza di Spagna, the Pantheon, Piazza Venezia, the Colosseum, the Vatican. The business district of EUR lies on the periphery, though. It is the penultimate stop on the Metro B line in the Laurentina direction.
The area was designed to commemorate twenty years of Fascism from the March on Rome in 1922, in which the mass demonstration organised by the National Fascist Party led to its establishment as the ruling power in Italy. Though the project was left uncompleted at the time it was supposed to be presented, work resumed in the 1950s and the district was inaugurated as a residential and business area. The Palazzo dello Sport and the Velodromo were completed just in time for the 1960 Olympics. EUR is now home to the headquarters of many multinational companies, and it has featured in more than a few classic films, including Federico Fellini’s Otto e Mezzo (“8 ½ ”), Bernando Bertolucci’s Il Conformista (“The Conformist”), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”).
The main attractions of EUR centre around what was originally called Piazza Imperiale (“Imperial Square”) and is now Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, named after the inventor of the wireless telegraph. In the middle of the piazza looms a tall obelisk inscribed with depictions of his inventions among other scenes, including dances and allegorical scenes.
The buildings, mostly in travertine and limestone, are paradigms of modernist, Fascist architecture, which itself was inspired by classical Roman Imperial architecture. The Palazzo dei Congressi and Palazzo Uffici are prime examples of this. The latter was the only building to be entirely completed before Italy’s foray into World War Two. It also contains an air raid shelter. The scene in front of the Palazzo Uffici is quintessentially Roman, with its stone pines and nude male statues. The bronze statue, standing proudly in full fascist salute near the entrance to the building, was originally called “Genio del Fascismo” (Genius of Fascism) and rechristened “Genio dello Sport” (Genius of Athletics/Sports) after the fall of the regime. The building itself still bears one of Mussolini’s most famous quotes, declaring the incipit of a “Third Rome” that would usher in a new era with all the old glory of Imperial Rome.
Walking through EUR is like walking through a magical realist painting, or de Chirico’s Piazza d’Italia, the Song of Love, or Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. It is beautiful, in a bleak, minimalist way, and blindingly white in the summer sun. Perhaps the most iconic emblem of the district is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, or Palace of Italian Civilisation, which locals call the ‘Square Colosseum’ (‘Colosseo Quadrato’). Under its arcades stand statues, which represent the arts and different trades. At the top of the building are inscribed the words, “Un popolo di poeti di artisti di eroi/di santi di pensatori di scienziati/di navigatori di trasmigratori” (“A people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, explorers and travellers”). Since 2015, the palace has been the headquarters of fashion giant Fendi.
EUR is populated with museums, testament to its original purpose as an exhibition in honour of Italy’s cultural grandeur. One such museum is the Museo Nazionale delle Arti e Tradizioni Popolari (National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions), which, with its sterile white portico and colonnade, is another example of the architecture that characterises the district. The museum is a sort of ethnographical exposition. It documents daily life before industrialisation, from the end of the nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century. Public transportation, agriculture, various professions, and traditional music are some of the facets covered. EUR would fall short of its purpose without the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilisation), which boasts a large collection of all things Ancient Rome–copies of statues, bas-reliefs, and architectural models small and large. Other museums include the Museo Nazionale dell’Alto Medioevo (National Museum of the Middle Ages) and the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico (Prehistoric Ethnographic Museum).
Touring EUR gives you all the feeling of being in a ghost town, which sounds strange to say, as the district is very much still populated, bustling even. But its history has left an indelible impression on it, and the rationalist architecture, while striking in its own unique way, is eerily impersonal in its geometry and rigid lines. Absent are the ornate, baroque flourishes that characterise so much of Rome.
This is no-nonsense. The rigorous attention to structure reveals a deep fixation with discipline and uniformity, two qualities the fascist regime imposed upon the Italian people. It was a doomed enterprise from the beginning, though. Italy loves life too much to stay put within narrow, dictatorial confines. Returning to Policlinico that day, on my way to meet a friend, I smiled to notice a small poster on one of the walls that border the university and hospital complex. “Sapienza antifascista,” it read, “Fuori i fascisti dall’università! La cultura rivuole il suo spazio” (“Sapienza is antifascist. Out with fascists from the university! Culture is reclaiming its space”). The tides of history have changed, and the Roman youth today remain fully committed to remembering the lessons of the past.
Reaching EUR is simple. Take Metro B in the Laurentina direction, getting off at the EUR Fermi stop. Proceed to Via Cristoforo Colombo, around which most of the attractions spread out. EUR boasts plenty of lovely restaurants, from Italian to ethnic cuisine. There is also a lake and an adjacent park with hundreds of cherry trees. It is an excellent way to pass the day. For those interested in also seeing Rome’s historical centre, there is a host of tours to choose from. From walking food tours for foodies to photography tours where you can take advantage of some of the most beautiful backdrops to immortalise your trip to the Eternal City, there is no shortage of ways to experience Rome!