history of the Roman Aquarium

There are few period images still in circulation able to show us what the Roman Aquarium looked like back on 29 May 1887, the day of its inauguration. Slightly more than century has been enough to cancel from the unique history of this building any memory of the original appearance of the masterfully designed construction and its small but cheerful grounds, meant, together with the Aquarium, to serve both as a fish hatchery and a gathering place for the masses of the emerging middle class then populating the new Esquiline neighbourhood. The photo-engravings illustrating reports of the inauguration in Roman newspapers undoubtedly exaggerate the size of the grounds, expanding sightlines and perspectives and stressing the pleasure to be drawn from the site, which featured a small lake that branched out in a number of directions, rustic bridges, rock outcroppings and even small boats for unlikely sport-fishing expeditions. The point of the images was to recreate the bucolic air of recreational socialising that the sponsors of the aquarium initiative had pursued so tenaciously. The image of the inside of the elliptical hall is striking for the grandiose scale of the space, both airy and monumental, marked by the luxuriant abundance of decorations and furnishings. The display windows holding the aquariums appear few in number, given the majestic pitch of the structure as a whole, framed as small patches of light in the bottom portion of the magnificent overall composition. The reality hinted at by the image tells of the intricate mixing and compromising of purposes and interests that lay behind the creation of the Roman Aquarium.

Outside of the Roman Aquarium (from

The idea of building an aquarium in Rome originated with Pietro Garganico, an expert in fish breeding and a native of Como who came to Rome in the early 1880's to devote his energies and efforts to the creation in the Italian Capital of a fish-breeding facility and an aquarium. His requests and the plans he presented to the municipal authorities from 1880 onward fell within a precise design of politics and growth, in keeping with the outlook of Quintino Sella and his vision of Rome as a major centre of scientific activity. From the unification of Italy up to the 1880's, emphasis was placed on the establishment of scientific structures meant to bring the City in line with modern European capitals while providing unmistakable evidence of the secular, up-to-date path being taken by the new nation. In the proposal that Garganico backed with the determination of a businessman, the international prestige of the initiative is stressed, an especially important point for a City like Rome, whose role as a modern Capital always risked being suffocated by its past grandeur and historical memories. In the applications which the fish-breeding expert presented to the City Government, the construction of the hatchery facility was given precedence over that of the aquarium, revealing a mix of speculative intent, economic-productive concerns and educational proposals, all accompanied by the endorsement of forward-thinking social and urban theories, under which the less privileged classes were to be bettered through education and recreation.

Following an initial 1881 plan for building a fish-hatchery and aquarium on the Via Nazionale, the Municipal Council voted in the following year to grant to Garganico, free of charge, an area in the Esquiline district, meaning the eastern portion of the City, where efforts for the new urban development of the Capital were directed immediately after Italian unification. The zone selected was the centrally located Piazza Manfredo Fanti, a rectangular square that constituted an interruption in the grid-work of the blocks of the new neighbourhood: an "empty space" in the geometric design, created under the same concept as those of the neighbourhood's other squares: first and foremost Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, along with Piazza Dante and Piazza Guglielmo Pepe. The layout of the square, with its fenced-in grounds, was inspired by the squares of England; in this case, however, the role of the grounds, ennobled by the archaeological remains of the Servian Wall, is tied less to the surrounding buildings than to the function of supporting and servicing the new, monumental-style structure of the fish-hatching facility and the aquarium.

The project, which Garganico already saw as "polyvalent" in nature, was probably forced to adjust and modify itself to the demands of the new neighbourhood, as these were presented and interpreted by the construction firms operating in the zone. In all likelihood Garganico drew the funding for his undertaking from the capital of the real-estate concerns interested in the development of the Esquiline area. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the recreational features of the initiative were further reinforced in the final plan, with the new facility being characterised as a site for social aggregation. The Aquarium was to serve as a prestigious focal point for the residential zone, become one of the area's most important buildings destined for public use, and this at a time when the expectations for the modern development of the Esquiline and the area's potential to represent the new City and nation were on the wane. An example of this shift was the shelving of a project for the construction of a Government Archives Building in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, which had even been proposed as the site for the monument to King Victor Emanuel. It was during the first five years of the 1880's, with the gradual abandonment of the initial planning outlook, that there arose the future - and firmly entrenched - image of the Esquiline as a quarter for the less affluent classes rather than as a residential zone for the elite of the upper middle class. The Aquarium fit in with this new make-up of the zone, to which its history remained faithful throughout a period of more than one hundred years.

The talent and cultural background, as well as the professional experience, of architect Ettore Bernich were responsible for the ultimate form, meaning the concrete manifestation of the different and overlapping objectives of the Aquarium, as illustrated up to this point. In truth, Bernich would appear to hew closer to the needs of the Esquiline Development Company than to the intentions of Garganico, with his singular design, in which inspiration taken from classical architecture is combined with more modern motifs, such as that of the theatrical main hall. No remnants of the fish-breeding facility championed by Garganico have reached us, though it is easy to imagine that its relative importance, within the overall design of the building, was entirely marginal. Indeed, re-examining the actual size of the small lake on the grounds and the space set aside in the basement area for the fish tanks, there is reason to doubt the extent of its functional effectiveness from the start. As for the educational structure, meaning the Aquarium, it too must have played a minimal role in the characterisation of the building, with the twenty-two showcases in the main hall serving more as an embellishment and adornment. In short, a beautiful building designed for social intercourse and used as a site for various gatherings and encounters in both winter and, in the outdoor area, during the fairer months.

The Central Hall (from

The authorisation under which the area was granted to Garganico stipulated not only that the land, together with the buildings constructed on it, was to be returned to the City should the activities not prove to be productive, but also that construction was to be completed in a very short period of time. The building, together with its rich array of decorative elements, is recorded as having been completed at the end of 1885. Still, the inauguration, though announced on a number of occasions, did not take place until almost a year and a half later, at the end of 1887. Such a lengthy lapse of time gives the idea of the organisational and operating stall that affected the undertaking at a time when the development of the Esquiline as a whole was experiencing grave difficulty, highlighted by the collapse of a structure being built on the Piazza Vittorio in August of 1885 and by the gradual unrolling of the construction crisis that sent shockwaves through the economy of the Italian Capital in 1887. During this period Garganico was forced out of the initiative, and a series of court actions transferred control of the undertaking to the Acquario Romano, a company established for the purpose. With a similar background, Acquario Romano was destined to be short-lived. Newspaper accounts show that, just a few months after the official opening, during the Carnival period of 1888, Bernich was busy organising parties and balls in the building. But an abandonment of the initiative, following an initial deterioration of the structure, was close at hand, with reporters of the period expressing the fear that "Piazza Fanti will turn into a marsh inhabited by frogs". After another, intricate set of court proceedings, registering, among other developments, the bankruptcy of the Limited Aquarium Company, the City resumed ownership of the land at the end of 1891, also acquiring all of what Garganico had constructed. Right from the start, the structure posed no small number of difficulties for the Municipal Government, which had to undertake a multitude of maintenance operations for malfunctions and inconveniences inherent in the architectural structure and regarding the aquarium facility and the lake. From 1893 to 1900 the building was put to a wide variety of uses. The fish tanks of the central hall remained in operation until at least 1894, while the hall itself and the galleries, hired out under a temporary concession, served on different occasion as sites for expositions of wine and food, for assemblies and meetings of various associations, for art shows and pubic employment competitions, and even as a gymnasium for local schools. At the same time attempts were made to find a more lasting and suitable role for the building. The offices of the City government drew up a project for its transformation into a public baths facility (1895), but thought was also given to reviving the Aquarium's original role. Negotiations were begun in that same year with Decio Vinciguerra, former Director of the Aquarium and then the Royal Fish Hatchery, and these talks concluded in 1900 with the signing of an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce. But this attempt was not to meet with much success either. By the end of the first decade of the new century, the Aquarium had become a site used for entertainment events. It was a second-rate theatre compared to other, more prestigious halls, and one decidedly without pretensions in terms of both the public it attracted and the types of shows it held. The performers hosted included Petrolini and Viviani, while the playbill tended towards operettas and highly successful variety shows, such as a pair of reviews, Pantaloneide and Ornnibns, that were major box office hits in 1909. Up through the early 1920's, the building continued to be used as a theatre, movie house and, at times, a site for equestrian circuses. Strangely enough, the gradual deterioration of the building, in large part on account of the scarce maintenance work carried out by management groups that were not terribly attentive, and probably handicapped by a lack of financial resources, helped to ensure the preservation of the structure. By 1930, it had already been used for a certain period as a storage site by the City Government, with the materials housed inside including stage-sets for the Rome Opera House. Certain modifications, such as the construction of partitions and the filling of the openings facing onto the main hall, led to only a slight worsening in the general situation of abandonment, doing less damage to the original structure than would have been the case with other projects, fortunately never carried out, but proposed in requests for authorisation to use the building as a movie house and legitimate theatre. In fact, during the 1930's a series of applications were presented by private parties wishing to restructure the building in accordance with the new demands of capacity and function tied to the operation of a modern entertainment hall. The City Administration showed little interest in any of these proposals, being more concerned with the role of Piazza Fanti in the midst of the urban development work involving the area around the Train Station and Via Giolitti. As new convictions took hold in terms of taste, the building came to be considered an "eyesore", an excessively bulky and antiquated relic to be dealt with as part of the renewal of the area around the station. There was talk of tearing down the building and leaving the piazza as a park area filled with greenery, or of using it as a station for the motor vehicle lines that connected the City with the towns of the Latium and Abruzzo regions (1935), while yet another possibility was to transform the "unattractive structure, harmonising it with the new railway facility" by turning it into a movie theatre with a restaurant and a tavern (1940).

In the end, the building continued to be used as a "multi-functional" storage facility, also serving as a site for elections offices and a rationing office, in addition to housing the materials of the Rome Welfare Agency and continuing to collect scenery from the Opera House. The role of warehouse only ended in 1984, when the facility was cleared out for the start of the renovation work sponsored by the Municipal Administration, an effort which made it possible to recover almost all of the Aquarium's original appearance.


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