the central hall of the Roman Aquarium
Visible in all its grandeur, in a single, circular volume, as soon as one enters the central hall, it is characterised by a rich decorative scheme, a refined covering meant to highlight the formal qualities of the architecture and confirm the theatrical style of the elliptical space.
The space of the hall is structured around a double order of Corinthian columns made of pig iron, supporting the upper gallery and the ceiling. A matching double order of Corinthian semi-columns and pediments runs along the perimeter walls. The overall effect is that of a visual weave covering, on the ground floor, the space of the fish tanks, today walled in, which were closed off by panes of glass; the openings on the level of the first gallery provide continuous perspectives of the hall, while the door apertures of the upper gallery connect the ring corridor with the balcony. This ongoing interplay is heightened by the action of the light, which darts back and forth between the central space framed by the ringed corridors and the set, but practically ephemeral space determined by the glassed-in fish tanks. In actual fact, the aquarium tanks, small in dimension compared to the oversized setting, were tubs made of masonry, bounded by a pane of glass on the side of the opening facing onto the central hall and built in the space behind the circular corridor. Decorated with rocks, in imitation of grottos, they received light directly from the windows of the corridor, designed as a service space that wound around the hall, with a suspended wooden platform from which the fish could be fed and cared for.
Decorative pleasure was thus one of the chief characteristics of the interior, where the viewer was won over by the glittering colours and lights and enthralled by the spectacular impact of the structure as a whole, plus the vast array of decorations. As part of his painstaking handling of the decorative elements, Bernich also set aside specific spaces for pictorial decorations: the mirrored sectors placed above the fish tanks and adorned by the young painter Silvestro Silvestri, much of whose work is still visible, plus the vaulted ceiling of the hall, unfortunately lost in the intervening period, around which the tempera paintings of the more mature artist Giuseppe Toeschi wound. A highly distinctive element of the hall is the large central skylight, whose current appearance is slightly modified compared to the original structure, revealed to us by the lone surviving image - once again a photo engraving - showing the central hall of the Aquarium at the time of its unveiling.
Originally the ceiling of the hall consisted of a semi-vaulted suspended ceiling, painted, as mentioned earlier, by Toeschi, and coordinated with the opening of the skylight, which followed an elliptical design. In all likelihood during the 1930's, on account of water infiltration, the ceiling was replaced with the current flat suspended ceiling, which follows the dodecagonal structure of the skylight with a larger opening, though, unfortunately, it partially compromises a proper appreciation of Bernich's original idea. The paintings of Toeschi, known to us only through descriptions of the period, were inspired - as were all the other decorations - by themes from classical mythology regarding water. A series of individual scenes - the triumph of Anphytrite and Neptune, Galatea and Polyphemus, Neptune taming a storm, Circes waiting for the ships of Ulysses to be battered by the storm - were arranged around the ceiling, linked by figures echoing the activities of man on the sea. The pictorial language used for the decorations avoids complicated allegories and, in keeping with the spirit of "folk motifs filled with images" which Bernich brought to his evocations of ancient architecture, adopts a lively and easily understandable style of illustration for the themes of pagan mythology tied to the building's function.
While the ceiling was the centrepiece of the decorative scheme, the works of the young painter from Spoleto, Silvestro Silvestri, found above the aquarium windows, had the difficult task of shortening the lighting effects of the aquariums with a polychromatic technique, as well as the lighting effects of the hall. Silvestri managed to find a brilliant solution to the decorative problem, opting, probably on account of the limited time available for the project as well, for a single compositional layout with a horizontal division between the gold backdrop and the aquatic seascape, a device repeated in all the scenes. Thanks to his learning in the field of archaeology, Silvestri was also able to draw on a figurative repertoire that allowed him to give form to his unfettered creative inventions, resulting in pleasing scenes absolutely in keeping with the site and its recreational function, with figures of asexual babes, cupids and even fauns, as well as nymphs and revellers of Bacchus, teasingly chasing and playing with each other, symbolic of moments that would appear to combine a carefree idyll and licentious fun. A teacher at the Museum of Industrial Art, where he himself had studied, Silvestri makes reference to contemporary decorative works, such as the paintings for the cupola of the Rome Opera House, done by Annibale Brugnoli a few years earlier. Still, the figurative solutions he decides upon appear to extend beyond the bounds of simple decorative painting, with an added touch of quality and originality pointing to the work then being done in Roman artistic circles by the painters of the group In Arte libertas, with whom Silvestri was in contact through his friendship with the painter Giuseppe Celini, who had done the pictorial decoration for the Sciarra Gallery during this same period.
The paintings were recovered during the recent restoration, which removed a number of layers of later painting that had covered over the building's entire decorative scheme. The third and seventh paintings from the left, as one enters, were repainted at a later date, while two other paintings are missing; in the case of the works closest to the side exit, the restoration was made more difficult by the painted "Exit" signed that had covered them during the period when the building was used for entertainment events.
The rest of the decorative elements are inspired by ornate classic figures with clear symbolic ties to the theme of water. The traditional features of Neptune, meaning the dolphin, the trident and the shell, are repeated continuously, creatively reformulated in variations on the theme. The polychrome effect highlights the overall vigour of the decorations, with the use of blue, in addition to gold, as the backdrop for a number of the capitals and bands that run under the indented border of the first and second orders.
A perfect example of the minute, refined touches of the decorative approach is the royal box, with horizontal pieces in the form of a ship's bulwark, the frieze of dolphins running under the balcony, and the Doric capitals with another motif of dolphins and shells on the upper band, in a polychrome echo with the hues of gold, silver and steel. Further enriching the hall is the mosaic paving, whose design, through the use of different techniques, emphasises the elliptical form of the hall while proposing anew, at its centre, the form of the skylight structure. A series of furnishing elements, from the stage curtains to the velvet covered handrails, as well as the satin curtains on the windows, completed the original decorative scheme.
contents and images are taken from the web site of Comune di Roma