Velabro, with its surfeits of ancient monuments and timeless atmosphere, is one of Rome’s culturally richest quarters. Less than a kilometre south of the Imperial Fora, just west of the Palatine Hill and skirting the bottom edge of the Ghetto, it is cluttered with the heritage of ages: over here is the Bocca della Verità; right there is the Temple of Hercules Victor; a 50m stroll and you’ve reached the first-century BC Temple of Portunus (walk another 500m and you’re on the Isola Tiberina).
It is about as ancient Roman as any bit of Rome can get. Now Velabro is also where one of the world’s most celebrated architects has embarked on his first project in the Eternal City: the rehabilitation of a centuries-old palazzo, perched on a rise next to the fifth-century Arch of Janus and the seventh-century church from which this area (the Roman Velabrum) takes its name.
The architect is Jean Nouvel – a man who has made an award-studded career out of structures conceived to contextualise and converse with what surrounds them – and the project is the new seat of the Fondazione Alda Fendi – Esperimenti, the non-profit arts foundation created by Alda, the youngest of the five sisters who together revolutionised the powerhouse Roman fashion brand that bears their family name. Since its inception in 2001, the foundation has put on free exhibitions and performances, enlisting international talents from the worlds of music, dance, film, theatre, opera and the visual arts. Under the creative direction of Raffaele Curi, it stages provocative theatrical projects in often unorthodox locations, including the Curia (the Roman Senate House), the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Miranda and the Mercato del Pesce degli Ebrei – the ancient Jewish fish market, next to the Circus Maximus. The likes of actor Vincent Gallo, late visual artist Jannis Kounellis, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and American Ballet Theater principal Roberto Bolle (dancing to music by Marilyn Manson, no less) have all participated. In fact, to say that Nouvel has never worked in Rome isn’t exactly accurate: in 2013, he designed set elements for a Fondazione Alda Fendi – Esperimenti production called INACCESSIBILE.
For most of its 17 years, the foundation has been housed in the 19th-century Palazzo Roccagiovine on the Forum of Trajan, built atop the ruins of the second-century Basilica Ulpia – in its era, the largest basilica in ancient Rome. The foundation financed extensive excavation projects here, unearthing significant architectural relics including pristinely intact marble floors (all of which are now showcased in Silos, the bi-level gallery and exhibition space Fendi created on site).
But it’s this palazzo in Velabro – which she acquired in 2012 – where Fendi, with the help of Nouvel, plans to make her lasting mark on Rome’s culture. “For some time this whole area felt rather poorly maintained, though it enjoys an incredible position,” Fendi told me in July. “I became fascinated by it, and the palazzo in particular” – which had in fact been neglected for years – “I had the idea that it could be made into a place for living with art, both for artists and also just those who love it – with residences for artists and enthusiasts, a restaurant, some exhibition and performance spaces. I saw it as another, ongoing experiment.”
“A place for living with art” is precisely what they have created. The palazzo – christened Rhinoceros – is six floors and 3,250sq m of space dedicated to the concept. It comprises a ground-level, multiroom exhibition area, 25 residences ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments and a bi-level rooftop bar and restaurant – boasting what are without question the most comprehensive views of the Palatine and ancient Rome from any public terrace in the city. The latter will be host to an outpost of Caviar Kaspia, the perennially chic Franco-Russian restaurant in Paris.
Rhinoceros is Fendi and Nouvel’s aspiration to create a new kind of arts environment in Rome, where visitors can enjoy an exhibition, assist in a theatrical production, stumble across an installation or just have a drink on the roof, admiring the embarrassment of monumental riches both within and surrounding Velabro. The residences, which can be booked from three days to three months, are available to artists and performers – but also to anyone who loves art and is keen to participate in what Alda Fendi aspires to make a total immersion experience.
Nouvel, an avowed contextualist (he once conceded, with pride, to a critic’s claim that he lacks a coherent aesthetic), was arguably Fendi’s perfect partner in this endeavour. “For me, the conservation of a historical building is always a good thing,” Nouvel says. “Even a relatively conventional 17th-century building [like the Rhinoceros] has a life that can be enhanced; you can show how a future will exist there. My main goal was to make sense of that future – to understand what was possible, and to create the dialogue with the incredible monuments that are all around it.”
The palazzo’s façade is listed, so Nouvel restored rather than altered it (even leaving some graffiti intact); an exterior lighting design now dynamically illuminates its cornices and dimensions through the night-time hours. But it’s the interiors – where the interplay between what existed and what Nouvel has added, or taken away, creates a singular tension – that most captivate. Nouvel speaks lyrically of his rigorous restoration process: he describes the choices to retain certain materials from the original interiors as “a kind of random archaeology; you don’t know why any one thing has been removed or demolished. You have to work from what is suggested by what remains.” He likens the palazzo’s layers of patina to the lines on a person’s face: “These little wrinkles, fractures, handicaps – they are a way to discover the character of the building. I tried to respond to and play with this ‘face’, if you will, of an older epoch – the relationship between the modernity and invention of today and the past, with all its depth and heterogeneity.”
A walk through any of the 25 residences, each unique in layout, reveals a palimpsest of original, untouched design elements in dynamic conversation, or confrontation, with Nouvel’s reprisals of them, as well as with entirely new elements he has introduced. A ragged-edged section of original floor tile, left in situ, is in one residence surrounded by new tiles that echo them in tone or pattern – and in another a lone remnant, framed in austere poured concrete. Elsewhere, floors are polished to a high finish, and ceiling beams glossed bright white, but the walls have been left in a state of mottled stratification, layers of plaster and paint – burnt yellow, oxblood, pale grey – forming a patina that testifies to a century-and-a-half worth of lives lived there. Concertina shutters for each large window reveal remarkable photographic linings of carefully framed images of the rooms as they were before work commenced. (As these are opened and closed, they make of the palazzo’s exterior a sort of living art installation, the windows showcasing an image to the outside world.)
The most striking interior element, however, is the remarkable steel-block unit in every residence, tailored for each space. At first they appear to be geometric, decorative abstractions: a wall, or a room-within-a-room or even a corridor. But the polished panels fold open to reveal various combinations of state-of-the-art kitchens, bathrooms, wardrobes and work stations, all ingeniously fitted into the single unit. Nouvel, who created the steel-block concept expressly for Rhinoceros, describes it as “an expression of this age… in a large-scale way, it extends the contextual game; I did it for an optimal contrast between the existing and new”.
Then there is the extraordinary dialogue between these spaces and ancient Rome, just outside. From almost every residence there is a singular view, often framed as beautifully as a fine-art photograph: the Arch of Janus, or the church of San Giorgio in Velabro through tall Roman pines or the mystical Temple of Hercules Victor.
Experimentation is a fundamental part of Fendi’s vision, but the value, and universal appeal, of conventional art is not lost on her or Curi. To this end, the foundation has entered into a three-year partnership with the Hermitage Museum, whereby one major work a year from its collection will be exhibited in the Rhinoceros exhibition spaces for three months. First is Michelangelo’s marble Crouching Boy (L’Adolescente) sculpture. “It’s important that we continue to experiment,” Fendi says, “but we won’t ever discount the importance of more classic art.”
That said, she and Curi are embarking on their next series of experiments when Rhinoceros is inaugurated in a couple of weeks’ time: among them a performance and installation underneath the Arch of Janus (followed by a presentation of a permanent lighting scheme for the monument, underwritten by the foundation) – moments that will definitely cast Rome in a brave new context.