chapter  2
40 Pages

The Politics of Mediterraneità in Italian Modernist Architecture

ByMICHELANGELO SABATINO

The political landscape of Italy as an emerging nation state in the early twentieth century was shaped by a complex interplay of reactionary and democratic forces.1 Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of Italy’s Communist Party from 1927 to 1964, once described Fascism as an “eclectic ideology” in which a social democratic agenda could coexist with totalitarian ideals.2 In this complex political context, from the late 1920s into the early 1970s, the notion of a “Mediterranean ideal” functioned as a creative catalyst for modernist architects in Italy. The ideal of Mediterranean­ness or Mediterraneità was grounded in a dialogue with Italy’s classical past as well as its pervasive vernacular architecture, the anonymous building traditions that have persisted over centuries across the diverse regions of the Italian peninsula (and the Mediterranean basin). Many of the architects who dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Mediterraneità during the Fascist period subscribed to a design approach that rejected a priori styles typical of nineteenth­century historicism in favor of a “rational” approach that took program, context, and site as the catalysts for design. It has been argued that the question of Mediterraneità ceased to be a force in Italian architecture with the fall of Mussolini’s regime.3 While it is true that the terms of the debates surrounding Mediterraneità with all of its attendant regional, national, and transnational implications shifted significantly between the 1920s and the 1970s, there was renewed interest in vernacular traditions among architects working in Italy after the Second World War. The Rationalist movement galvanized during those “reconstruction years” laid the groundwork for the Tendenza or Neorationalist movement of the 1970s, spurring a critical reassessment of the Rationalist legacy in Italy and beyond in an exhibition at the XV Triennale of Milan in 1973.4 In reviews of the exhibition, ironically, it was not Italian but rather foreign commentators who were quick to notice formal continuities between the “new” Rationalists (Aldo Rossi et al.) and certain strains of Fascist architecture.5 During those same years, Peter Eisenman assimilated the architecture of Rationalist architect Giuseppe Terragni to his own formal metaphysics.6 I would argue that such appropriation – whether it involves classical or vernacular precedents – points to continuity rather than rupture during a historical period characterized by such complexity and conflict.7