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Twentieth century italian ‘colonial’
architecture in rhodes
For a long time neglected because of its unfortunate political connotations, the astonishing variety of buildings put up by the Italians during their occupation of the Dodecanese from 1912 to 1943, has been neither studied nor appreciated in proportion to its artistic merit. The Italians, who were late arrivals on the modern stage of Empire-building by comparison with the British or the French, sought to give a unifying architectural stamp to the Mediterranean and African territories which they occupied. At first they created a new, pan-Mediterranean, ‘Rational ist’ architecture which, by incorporating different elements of local traditions—Roman, Crusader, Ottoman, Greek, Islamic etc.—was intended to give the visible impression of the extent and diversity of Italy’s new empire. This gave rise to the period’s greatest and most imaginative buildings. But it was to prove a short-lived architectural ‘spring’: after 1936, with a new political Governor and the decla ration of the Fascist ‘Imperium’, architecture had to bend to the demands for monumentality imposed by more regressive and authoritarian politics. Some of the earlier buildings were even purged of their decorative elements in a ‘purification’ of the colonial architecture. Fortunately, many more of the early buildings have survived throughout the Dodecanese than the later ‘purified’ ones. The juxtaposition of the two, seen at certain points in the New Town, is starkly revealing.
The two phases correspond to the periods in office of the two longest-serving Italian governors of the Dodecanese, both of whom were actively interested in architecture, but who held opposing views: the more moderate Mario Lago (1924–36), and his successor, Cesare Maria de Vecchi (1936–41), who had formerly been Mussolini’s Minister for Education. It was Mario Lago who was responsible for the creation of Porto Lago on Leros, for the rebuilding of Kos after the disastrous earthquake of 1933, for promoting archaeological excavations on Rhodes and Kos, and for the commissioning of a comprehensive new Master Plan for the expansion of the city of Rhodes out side the walls, which was entrusted to the architect Florestano di Fausto and was approved already by 1926. The Master Plan envisioned the development of an area—already partially used by the Turks for administrative buildings and large residences—to the west of the port of Mandraki, between the Old City and the northern tip of the island. Against the theatrical backdrop of the City of the Knights, with all its convenient associations of a Western, ‘Latin’ dominance, a new Foro Italico of commercial and administrative buildings was to be spaciously laid out along the shore. Associated with this plan for the city was the wider project for the building of new streets and roads, and the creation of numerous agricultural settlements (‘San Benedetto’/Kolymbia, ‘San Marco’/ Aghios Pavlos, etc.) and resorts for villeggiatura (‘Campochiaro’/Eleousa), at different points around the island.
The architecture of Florestano di Fausto was highly eclectic. It grafted decorative elements from a variety of origins—Moorish domes, Venetian tracery, Gothic arches, and the clear, cuboid volumes of Aegean indigenous building—onto the framework of simple geometric forms favoured by ‘Rationalist’ architecture. It alternates in overall effect between a Crusader military purity at one extreme and an Oriental luxury at the other. Its most characteristic and architecturally courageous feature is the ‘sub merged’ arcade—a broad, generally Gothic arch, or series of arches, supported on very low, stunted columns, which give the impression of having sunk into the ground. The effect is not unpleasing, and accentuates breadth and horizontality over the soaring height customarily associated with the Gothic arch. The origin of this idea lies in the broglio, or lower arcade, of the Doge’s Palace in Venice; but it is much exaggerated when it reappears in the port-side arcade of di Fausto’s Rhodes Administration (today’s Nomarchia) Building of 1927. The other architects who worked in this period, such as Rodolfo Petracco and Pietro Lombardi, created buildings in a similar, if slightly purer architectural language. Lombardi’s design for the Baths at Kallithea is perhaps the most unified masterpiece of the whole movement. With Armando Bernabiti, there is a transition to a new generation of building in the late 1930s— purer, undecorated, and in every way more minimal and more consonant with the politics of the repressive Governorship of Cesare Maria de Vecchi. The simplicity is recognisable already in his early (1934) Aquarium building; but his later creations—the Puc cini Theatre, the Rhodes Town Hall (formerly the Casa Littoria, or Fascist Administration Building), and the church of St Francis—all tend ineluctably toward the military in spirit. It was in this later period that a number of di Fausto’s earlier buildings, such as his once extravagant Albergo delle Rose, were ‘purified’ of their decorative details and ‘arabesques’ to reveal a stern, more serious, core in unadorned ‘poros’ limestone.
Rhodes Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.