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Italo Gismondi and Pierino Di Carlo: “Virtualizing” Imperial Rome for 20th-Century Italy

July 2008 (112.3)

Italo Gismondi and Pierino Di Carlo: “Virtualizing” Imperial Rome for 20th-Century Italy


Ricostruire lAntico Prima del Virtuale. Italo Gismondi. Un Architetto per l’Archeologia (1887–1974), edited by Fedora Filippi (Archivo storico a Palazzo Altemps 1). Pp. 356, b&w figs. 357. Quasar, Rome 2007. €20. ISBN 88-7140-327-4.

Roma Antica Com’Era. Storia e Tecnica Costruittiva del Grande Plastico dell’Urbe nel Museo della Civiltà Romana, by Carlo Pavia. Pp. 255, b&w figs. 87, color figs. 466.

Of the students of ancient Roman architecture in the last century, Italo Gismondi was perhaps the most important. Yet, as a practicing architect, he wrote very little, apart from an important essay on techniques of construction at Ostia during the Republic and Empire in the first volume of the Scavi di Ostia (Rome 1953). Rather, it is his numerous drawings that record his vast experience with and comprehension of Roman buildings. During his lifetime, he kept originals and copies at home in a neatly arranged archive (where the reviewer saw them in 1973). They are now widely scattered. At his death in 1974, some passed to friends, colleagues, and students, but most went to the two institutions for which Gismondi had worked during his official career (1910–1954): the Archaeological Superintendency of Latium–Ostia Office (Soprintendenza Archaeologica del Lazio–ufficio di Ostia) and the city of Rome (Comune di Roma). And there, largely forgotten, they remained for the next three decades until early last year when, to begin publication and study of the archaeological documents and drawings by Gismondi and others in the possession of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome (Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma), Filippi and her colleagues at the superintendency mounted a show on Gismondi at Palazzo Altemps in Rome (19 April–1 July 2007). With 37 essays of varying length and a recently discovered collection of Gismondi’s photographs (300–33), the work reviewed here is the catalogue of that show. The contents are arranged by section: an introduction (F. Filippi); Gismondi’s life (F. Motta, L. Attilia) and intellectual formation (M. Ricciardi, L. Marcucci); his archaeological documentation, reconstructions, and models (C. Giuliani, F. Filippi, H. Beste, R. Rea, M. Tomei, U. Wulf-Rheidt, C. Del Monte, C. Pavolini, H. von Hesberg, S. Sgalambro, C. Panella, J.F. Bernard, M. Dewailly, G. Ghini, B. Nobiloni, R. Ribaldi, M. Cianetti, A. Pellegrino, M. Tata, M. Moroni, A. Ten, P. Verducchi, V. Kockel); his proposals for modern buildings (L. Attilia, S. Gizzi); and his influence on the Italian architecture of the early decades of the last century (L. Marcucci).

Gismondi began his career at Ostia. His first six years of documenting the newly excavated monuments ended with military service in World War I (1916–1918). Guido Calza, superintendent of the excavations at Ostia after 1924, characterized Gismondi during his next 13 years of service on the site as the expert in architecture and engineering who resolved the numerous unexpected technical problems involved in the evaluation and restoration of the fragmentary, displaced architecture (26). From 1929 until 1938, Gismondi also worked during the summer at Cyrene in Libya, and by 1929, he was involved in the extraordinary archaeological recovery of Caligula’s sunken galleys at Lake Nemi. As Gismondi was finishing his consultations on the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis (February 1938), preparations for the Universal Exposition of 1942 began. Much of the still unexplored area of Ostia was to be excavated and restored, and, for that show, Gismondi’s help was essential. The outbreak of World War II canceled the exposition, but after the war, Gismondi undertook important projects in Sicily: excavation and study for the publication of the theater at Syracuse (1946 and later) and documentation of the Late Antique villa at Piazza Armerina (1954). Indeed, even after his retirement, he restored the theaters at Taormina and Catania, produced studies for reconstruction of the temples of Ceres and Neptune at Paestum, and supervised restorations of the Hellenistic theater at Pietrabbondante.

He also worked on ancient monuments and architectural displays based on Roman buildings. In 1929, he converted the octagonal hall at the northwest corner of the central block of the Baths of Diocletian into a planetarium. At Cyrene, from 1932 to 1934, he rebuilt part of the Propylaea, the formal entrance to the sanctuary of Apollo, and the Strategeion, a small, gabled, rectangular structure with a Doric entablature (217–23), work that “furnish[ed] visitors with an impression of the spaces and proportions of the buildings” (219). In his small Roman library at the Augustan Show (Mostra Augustea) of 1938, “one of the best demonstrations of the elevated influence of ancient models” (240), he based his design on two great public libraries: that in the Forum of Trajan and a smaller, private one in Hadrian’s villa (243). The original of his full-sized Roman dwelling in the same show (253–35, figs. 1–8) was a combination of the houses of the Surgeon and Sallust at Pompeii, and in one of his last major prewar projects at Ostia (227–31), he restored the facade of the theater (1938–1939).

Yet these impressive projects constitute only a small segment of his professional legacy, the greater part of which consists of documentation, reconstruction, and models, the means by which Gismondi effectively reproduced, in the words of Cairoli Giuliani, “the ‘savor’ of the original monument” (73). By itself, the documentation is impressive and, citing only the most important, includes renderings of the imperial fora in Rome (75–81), the Colosseum (83–94), the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill (95–106), the temple of the Divine Claudius (111–17), the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo (119–24), the so-called Baths at Albano (125–37), and the drains from the emissaries of the lakes at Nemi and Albano (139–47). Among the graphic reconstructions are the Meta Sudans, a fountain next to the Colosseum (151–59), Hadrian’s mausoleum (161–63), Domitian’s stadium (165–70), the Temple of Diana at Lake Nemi (175–78), and the House of Diana at Ostia (225–26). Drawings for the sites of Portus (245–49), Ostia (275–76), ancient Rome (250–51, 261–65), and Hadrian’s villa (277–80) were the basis for subsequently executed models.

The essays in this catalogue are an impressive collection of Gismondi materials, richly illustrated with drawings and photographs of the reconstructed buildings and models. And yet much has been omitted. For Ostia alone, the superintendency could mount an entire show from Gismondi’s working drawings and photographs in the archives at Ostia showing excavation and reassembly of the structures he restored. Contemporary on-site photographs could indicate the present state of the site. Moreover, since the materials presented here are drawn only from the archives of the Archaeological Superintendency, they omit most of Gismondi’s output for the city of Rome. Missing are his spectacular reconstructions of the Forum of Augustus1 and the Forum of Trajan.2 The model of imperial Rome in the age of Constantine (presently in the Museum of Roman Civilization; see below) is also sparsely treated. Photographs of the model and corresponding reproductions of Gismondi’s drawings, now in the museum’s archive (Archivio Storico del Museo della Civiltà Romana), and analyses of the sources he used for them could show how he worked. His designs for the model’s Theater of Pompey (figs. 1, 2 herein) reveal that, at least for the theater, he made only general plans (based mostly on those of Canina and Lanciani). Then, in response to specific questions from Pierino Di Carlo, the model maker, he executed detailed sketches.Fig. 1. Italo Gismondi’s drawing of the scaenae frons, Theater of Pompey, for the model of ancient Rome (courtesy Archivio Storico del Museo della Civiltà Romana).

While the Gismondi catalogue discusses the model of Constantinian Rome at the Museum of Roman Civilization only in passing, it is the chief subject of Pavia’s Roma antica. The book has 10 principal sections: (1) a short essay on the model by Anna Maria Liberati, a former director of the Museum of Roman Civilization (11–15); (2) a brief, profusely illustrated description of the model (15–37); (3) a biography of the model maker, Pierino Di Carlo (38–53); (4) a list of ancient Rome’s principal monuments accompanied by a catalogue of ancient coins (apparently sestertii and denarii) that depict the emperors from Augustus to Constantine (54–62); (5) an account of Pavia’s own voluntary apprenticeship with Di Carlo from 1975 to 1982 (63–80); (6) an illustrated series of Di Carlo’s photographs, documents, and newspaper clippings now in the possession of his son, including one (83, fig. 11) taken by Barbara Bini for the reviewer’s article on Di Carlo;3 (7) an account of Pavia’s own model building with Di Carlo’s techniques—this section includes step-by-step, richly illustrated instructions for constructing a model of the temple of Venus at Baalbek (89–208); (8) a short essay on the Rome model by Giuseppina Pisani Sartorio, another former director of the Museum of Roman Civilization (208–18); (9) a second, heavily illustrated list (219–50) of the model’s most important buildings; and (10) a final section on the future of the Rome model.Fig. 2. Italo Gismondi’s drawing of back of the Temple of Venus Victrix, Theater of Pompey, for the model of ancient Rome (courtesy Archivio Storico del Museo della Civiltà Romana).

From the discussions of the model, we learn much about its background, history, and character. The idea of “re-creating” ancient Rome goes back to fantastic reconstructions by Nanni di Viterbo (1498) and Marco Fabio (1538). Maps of the city and views of its ruins became traditional subjects that inspired later artists like Piranesi (1762) and the architect Canina (1842) to attempt reconstructions, both of the whole ancient city and of its monuments. Inspired by this long tradition and by the important archaeological discoveries that occurred in his own day as papal Rome was transformed into a suitable capital for Italy, Rodolfo Lanciani published a scientific atlas, the Forma Urbis Romae, of all the ancient remains known to him in the modern city (Rome 1893–1901). Lanciani’s work, in turn, in 1906, was the inspiration for Giuseppe Marcellini’s partial model of ancient Rome (the Roman Forum, the imperial fora, and the Colosseum), once exhibited at the entrance to the Roman Forum.4 Going far beyond what Marcellini had attempted, the French architect Paul Bigot made no less than two models of the ancient city. He displayed the first in Rome at the Baths of Diocletian. The second (three-fifths of the city in the age of Constantine at a scale of 1:400), he bequeathed to the University of Caen.5

The model at the Museum of Roman Civilization originated as a display for the Augustan Show of Roman Culture (Mostra Augustea della Romanità) of 1937. Gismondi designed it with the advice of important contemporary archaeologists (Guglielmo Gatti and Antonio Maria Colini). The chief sources were the Severan Forma Urbis, Lanciani’s Forma Urbis, and new archaeological discoveries. For the original display at the Palace of Expositions on the Via Nazionale, the model was visible only from the front, and, consequently, when it was reassembled and put on display at the Museum of Roman Civilization, Gismondi and Di Carlo had to add many new sections. As the result of new discoveries, they continued to revise the model until 1973. Scaled at 1:250, it is considerably bigger than Bigot’s work, and, to promote their visibility, some of the more important buildings are 15–20% larger.

Pierino Di Carlo, the model’s creator (fig. 3 herein), was born in Abruzzo on 16 May 1906.Fig. 3. Pierino Di Carlo and a part of his model of ancient Rome, ca. 1935 (courtesy P. Di Carlo). The architectural miniatures he crafted as a child encouraged his family to allow his apprenticeship to Luigi Bucci, “an artisan well known for his works in plaster who decorated the Ministries of the Navy and Public Instruction.”6 “I was employed [by Bucci] as a common workman, but Bucci very much appreciated me because he knew I had the passion [for such work].” In the evenings, Di Carlo attended scuola media, where he learned geometry. The scuola superiore curriculum included architectural design, modeling, and decorative sculpture, “but not the figurative kind.”

His studies ended at age 22, but he continued to work for Bucci for another three years. Then, his growing reputation as an architectural craftsman brought a commission for a model of the fairgrounds at Tripoli (1931). Displayed in Rome, this project was much admired: “Mussolini and [Italo] Balbo visited it, declared it a handsome model, and praised me.” Encouraged by such distinguished approval, he opened his own studio on Via Giulia, where he remained until 1933, the year he won the competition to build the model of ancient Rome for the Augustan Show. For that exhibition, G.Q. Giglioli, head of the project, “wanted a model better than that of . . . [the] Frenchman, Bigot” (7). The state gave Di Carlo a new, large attic studio at Palazzo Pantanella, a former bakery next to the Circus Maximus. For the next four years (1933–1937), with the help of three to eight assistants, he worked there on the model of ancient Rome. Exhibited at the Augustan Show (September 1937–September 1938), it returned afterward to Palazzo Pantanella, where, since the city of Rome had decided to display it permanently, Di Carlo revised and enlarged it for another four years. He described this work as follows:

Gismondi made the sketches [see figs. 1, 2 herein], passed them to me, and from them, I made the model. Some things, I also did. A little before the opening of the show in 1937, from my own imagination, I created some houses on the Aventine. Also many pieces were copied. For example, Gismondi designed a Roman house, then the molds were made and various copies were executed. The major monuments, the Temple of Claudius, that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the imperial fora, the Roman Forum, the baths, the Colosseum, are accurate. In the other parts, there is a bit of fantasy.

World War II ended this new project, but afterward, in 1946–1947, Di Carlo again worked on the model “when the city had the money.” The new display opened at the Museum of Roman Civilization in 1955, but until 1973, Di Carlo and Gismondi created additional sections and revised some of the older ones. Nine years later (1982), Di Carlo closed his last studio on the Via del Orso. After 10 years of retirement, he died at the age of 86 (30 June 1992).

Important as it is, both for its biography of Di Carlo and for its information on the Rome model, Pavia’s Roma antica has some problems. The numerous and varied photographs of the model (largely by the author) are extremely useful, and, in most, captions label the various buildings. Yet, although in color, these illustrations are disorganized and repetitious. Both scholars and the general public would have benefitted from clearly linking them to the section that lists the important monuments (no. 9) and to a plan of the city that could have shown the sections into which the model is divided and the positions of all the buildings and sites.

Then, too, Pavia does not seem to understand the model’s ultimate importance. For him, it is only a great work of art (which, of course, it is). Yet, in an excellent essay (no. 8) not closely integrated into Pavia’s text, Pisani Sartorio shows that, for the future, the model will be far more than a mere artifact. Noting that the Museum of Roman Civilization now plans, as a visual index, a digital, three-dimensional reproduction, she suggests linking those images to a database with information on the major buildings. From a DVD or the Internet, users could download images of the buildings and other relevant information. They could then inspect individual buildings closely and could thus identify Gismondi’s sources for his reconstructions and study the three-dimensional hypotheses that inform them. By so doing, they could begin to comprehend and assimilate the model’s true significance: the expertise on which Gismondi based his designs.

Finally, the section on model making (no. 7), while potentially useful, is somewhat misleading. Di Carlo’s craft is complicated and, to be used successfully, requires years of practice. Pavia’s account of his construction of a model, the Temple of Venus from Baalbek, gives little hint of these difficulties. With its curvaceous entablature and podium, the Temple of Venus is one of Roman antiquity’s most complicated structures. Any amateur craftsman who attempts to reproduce it accurately will confront many unforeseen, thoroughly discouraging technical difficulties. Also, since the photographs that show Di Carlo at work (64–80, 83) are not captioned, the reader can only guess which procedures they illustrate. Readers interested in Di Carlo and his craft will wish for a more accurate account of the maestro’s own techniques.

Despite these minor problems, as the author of the only complete study ever published on Di Carlo, his craft, and his model of ancient Rome, Pavia deserves considerable praise from all those interested in the study of Roman architecture and the history of its reception in the modern world.

Together, Ricostruire l’antico and Roma antica thus give a lively picture of a remarkable period in the cultural life of modern Italy. In a time of fascist extremism and international instability, the Italians turned to the distant Roman past for grandiose examples of cultural reassurance. The emperors had represented their successes to contemporaries in visually powerful, elegantly arranged architectural forms that recalled the achievements of the Hellenistic Greeks while surpassing them in the imperial present. The sophistication and centuries-long survival of these Roman buildings, as well as their modern revival in reconstructions, drawings, and models, encouraged the Italians of the first decades of the 20th century to believe that their current activities were modeled after the achievements of the Roman empire (visually expressed in its buildings). That particular interpretation of Roman imperial architecture may have been mistaken, but the allure of the studies on which it was based survives in the modern world, encouraging us even today to trace the origins of some of our own architectural forms to the charismatic buildings of imperial Rome as restored and actualized by the impressive achievements of Italo Gismondi and Pierino Di Carlo.

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Works Cited

Gismondi, I. 1985. “Foro di Augusto.” BullCom 90:341–61.

Packer, J. 1979. “Pierino Di Carlo: Master Model Builder.” Curator 22(3):185–98.

Pensabene, P., M. Milella, B.M. Tummarello, G. Piazzesi, L. Messa, and L. Ungaro. 1989. “Foro Traiano: Contributi per una ricostruzione storica e architettonica.” ArchCl 41:27–214.

Italo Gismondi and Pierino Di Carlo: “Virtualizing” Imperial Rome for 20th-Century Italy

By James E. Packer

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Packer

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