Those who live and work in Rome are presumably aware of, but perhaps rarely visit, a place called “EUR.” The three letters are an acronym for “Esposizione Universale Romana,” that is the “World Exposition in Rome.” And what exactly is that? As a place, EUR is a district in the suburbs of Rome, to the south of the city and in the direction of the Roman International airport “Leonardo DaVinci,” usually called “Fiumicino,” the name of the town where the airport is located.
EUR was originally built for a World Exposition that was to be held in 1942, but due to the outbreak of World War II, the Exposition never took place. The buildings meant for the event were erected under the direction of Benito Mussolini, “il Duce” (the Leader), Fascist dictator of Italy from 1925 to 1945, who desired to eventually use the exposition space as an entirely “new Rome,” which would carry on the tradition of ancient “Imperial Rome” and compete with “Papal Rome” and all that it stood for. This meant that the architects of EUR were not designing temporary pavilions that are usually associated with world expositions sites, and able to be dismantled after an exposition, but buildings to last.
In their design, the structures at EUR reflect the Fascist mentality of the times in which they were built. The main architect of EUR was Marcello Piacentini, with others contributing to the project as well. Fascist architecture was partly influenced by the architecture of ancient Rome, but the Fascist influence means that the buildings at EUR might best be described as soulless and bland compared to those of ancient Rome in the historic center of the city.
With no World Exposition taking place in Rome in 1942, the EUR site was virtually abandoned during the war years, but after World War II and the defeat of the Fascist government, the development of EUR carried on well into the 1950s. In stark contrast to the center of Rome, with serpentine, narrow and cluttered streets, EUR was a model of urban planning, with wide and functional straight streets, broad green parks and even a man-made lake. Lacking the charm of old Rome, EUR is an impressive site nonetheless and today primarily a residential and administrative quarter, easily reached on either the Metro (subway) or city buses from all over Rome. However, there are not many restaurants, shops or hotels in EUR. Hence, it is not really a tourist destination.
What were supposed to be the exhibition halls at EUR were for the most part constructed of white marble. These buildings now accommodate offices, both business and medical, as well as museums, including the “Museo della Civiltà Romana,” or “Museum of Roman Civilization,” with displays of life in ancient Rome, using models and reconstructions. One of the most notable is a to-scale model of Imperial Rome at the time of the 4th century AD Emperor Constantine. Also at the Roman Civilization museum are plaster casts from the otherwise difficult-to-see bas reliefs of the Trajan Column at the Forum in the center of Rome.
One of the best known buildings in the EUR district is the “Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro,” or “Palace of the Civilization of Labor.” This multi-storied building was begun in 1938 and in appearance seems to echo the look of Rome’s Colosseum. The Palace of Labor was to be the centerpiece of the world exposition of 1942. Square in shape, the Palace has huge regularly spaced Romanesque exterior windows, and is known by the locals and taxi drivers as “the Square Colosseum.” The first row of arcades contains a number of statues, representing different professions and industries. As a “Palace of Labor,” complete with statues, I can’t help but think the original intention was to create a “competition building” with the “place (or palace) of prayer,” which Saint Peter’s at the Vatican embodies for Catholics. Rome and its environs continue to be places of contrast and apparent vying between the sacred and the secular.
The “Palazzo dei Congressi” in EUR, that is, the “Palace of the Congresses,” is a building of architectural interest as its design includes a huge dome made of stone. This low-domed building was designed by Adalberto Libera and apparently intended it to reflect the architecture of the Pantheon in Rome. Construction of the Palace of the Congresses began in 1938 and was only completed in 1954. It is still used for government functions.
EUR is divided by a long rectangular artificial lake built for the 1960 Olympics, which is edged with thousands of Japanese cherry trees. The Olympics of 1960 did take place, and the lake is used today by boaters, mostly rowers. On one side of the lake are the buildings described above and on the other side of the lake is an impressive building that has played an influential part in modern architectural history. It is called the “Palazzo dello Sport,” or “Sports Palace,” also constructed for the 1960 Olympic Games, used mostly for basketball.
The structural engineer for the sports complex was the Italian Pier Nuigi Nervi, who lived from 1891 to 1979. He designed many famous buildings around the world, including the cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, California, in 1967, and the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican in 1971. The sports building at EUR is crowned by semi-circular concrete dome with a diameter of 328 feet that rises from a glass cylinder that is almost 70 feet high. Inside, the dome has numerous concrete ribs. It is now a multi-purpose sports and entertainment arena, which can hold 12,000 spectators.
With this sadly being the year of seeing a modern bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, a roof give way at an ancient church near the Roman Forum and parts of Castel Sant’Angelo near the Vatican falling to the ground, one can only hope and pray that other modern and ancient “wonders” in Italy stay intact. Poor design, earthquakes and traffic of autos and subways that rattles foundations, are all cited as reasons for these various recent tragedies and the loss of life.
There has been no mention of “holy sites” in EUR and that is because they seem to be few and far between. One exception is the Minor Basilica church of Saints Peter and Paul in EUR. It is said that Mussolini intended the church as his own mausoleum. That never happened, though. The church was designed by Arnaldo Foschini and constructed between 1937 and 1941 on the highest point in EUR, dominating the entire district. The floor plan of the church is a Greek cross, with four equal-length aisles. The large dome, not unlike Saint Peter’s at the Vatican, though smaller, is covered in little tiles overlapping each other, like fish scales, but this detail is lost from viewing the dome at a distance.
A visit to EUR is not on the top of my list for visitors to Rome with limited time. For those who are here for a longer stay, it is an interesting and in some ways a lovely place to see, but you might have to remind yourself that you are still Rome, when one could as easily be thinking that he or she is in some other part of modern Europe. The quickest way there is on Metro Line B, getting off at the “EUR Palasport” station. The buildings and church described above as well as the lake are an easy walk from the Palasport Metro station.
I seldom go to EUR, but recently had occasion to do so, accompanying one of the monks of our curia Sant’Ambrogio for a check-up appointment after his cataract surgery earlier that day. The doctor’s office we visited is in a modern high-rise building in EUR, a ten minute walk from the Metro station. The very pleasant couple of hours in EUR on an early September afternoon was a welcome break from the bustling “centro storico,” the historic center of Rome, where I usually spend my days, both indoors and outdoors, or as Gertrude Stein described Saint Teresa of Avila in the play, “Four Saints in Three Acts”: “very nearly half inside and half outside the house.”