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Stadio Olimpico: The history of Rome’s great stadium and its sad decline

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 17: A general view of Stadio Olimpico before the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 second leg match between SS Lazio and Sparta Prague at Stadio Olimpico on March 17, 2016 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

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L’Ultimo Uomo (Federico Di Vita and Fabiagio Salerno) The first time you go into the stadium is like when you’re sitting in the back seat of the car as a child and, as it rounds a bend, you see the sea suddenly appear under the bright August sun. You get the same feeling the first time you run up to the top of those stairs – you feel dizzy, just for a moment, as you see that great expanse of grass stretching out below you. Then comes the noise, the voices of people selling soft drinks, the colour of the scarves, the section filled with away fans, the masses of people all supporting your team, the banners, the flags being waved, the chants, the songs, the smell of people smoking (and not just tobacco) – then come the teams for their warm up, players practice shots from distance, firemen hose down the athletics track, then out come the ball boys.

Rome’s first ever stadium was built by Domitian – his 30,000 seat stadium stood on what is now the Piazza Navona, and its remains can be found underneath the otherwise forgettable Piazza di Tor Sanguigna. Not much is left of Domitian’s stadium, apart from a few remains that have been absorbed into the walls of the nearby palazzi, because no one in the Baroque period ever considered the idea of ‘conservation’ – so much so that the Pamphili didn’t think twice about knocking it down and building a wonderful piazza in its place complete with an obelisk and fountains.

Rome was thus left without a stadium until the 20th century (it had previously been one of the few cities in the world to boast such a large stadium), but its absence wasn’t really noticed: people simply didn’t view competitive sports, and places where they should be played, in the same way that we do now. It was actually circuses that were widespread rather than stadiums up until at least 1896, the year of the first modern Olympics.

Opening of the Stadio Nazionale (in the Passeggiata Flaminia), 11th June 1911.

Building another stadium in Rome

It was a series of events involving Pierre de Coubertin that led to the idea of building a new stadium in Rome. Rome and Berlin were competing for the right to host the 1908 Olympic Games, and de Coubertin (who never hid the fact he was desperate to host the Olympics in Rome) tried to award the games to the Italian capital by putting it forward as the only candidate (Berlin obligingly withdrew its candidacy). However, the bid’s success was not only unexpected, even to those who had nominated Rome as a candidate, but the news also went down particularly badly in the capital, as Italy was in the middle of an economic crisis (as if that wasn’t enough, Vesuvius had also recently erupted) and wasn’t capable of holding the games, as it meant they would have to build a stadium worthy of the event. The mayor of Rome, Ernesto Nathan, was firmly opposed to the project, realising that the costs for the new stadium would bankrupt the city.

In the end, London hosted the 1908 Olympics, building the 20,000-seat White City Stadium in just a couple of years (which they then demolished, in typically Anglo-Saxon style, 80 years later).

However, by now it was clear that the capital needed a stadium that was able to host major sporting events, as at the time this was one of the most groundbreaking ways to show how modern a city was. As a result, after reluctantly abandoning the idea of adapting the Circus Maximus into Rome’s new stadium, in 1911 it was decided to entrust the project of building a stadium completely from scratch to the sculptor Vito Pardo and the young architect Marcello Piacentini, who would go on to design more or less everything built in Rome for the next 30 years. The Stadio Nazionale, which was to be built in the Passeggiata Flaminia (the area where the Stadio Flaminio is now), was designed to be a less elaborate version of Domitian’s stadium: long, narrow and shaped like a horseshoe.

1928, Tamarri in front of the Stadio P.N.F.’s facade. The new Stadio Flaminio, which was inaugurated in 1959, was later built on its remains.

However, the Stadio Nazionale (named the Stadio Nazionale del P.N.F., the National Stadium of the National Fascist Party) was soon considered inadequate to represent il Duce’s Italy, as it looked dated and was in stark contrast to the regime’s ideas about rationalist architecture. Mussolini endorsed the construction of a completely new, modernised sports complex on the opposite side of the Tiber, between Monte Mario, the Farnesina hills, and the Ponte Milvio. The plans for this futuristic city of sport were drawn up by Enrico Del Debbio, and took the name of Foro Mussolini (now known as Foro Italico).

In the meantime, Cesare Valle and the young Pier Luigi Nervi were called upon to redesign the Stadio P.N.F., but their designs were so imposing (it was envisaged that the stadium would have a capacity of 150,000) that it was of course never started – at least, not in Italy. Nervi and Valle’s designs for the redeveloped Stadio P.N.F. weren’t destined to remain on paper forever – they later became the basis for the plans for the Maracana, built for the 1950 World Cup hosted in Brazil.

Designs for the redeveloped Stadio P.N.F, which would have a capacity of 150,000.

Announcement of the construction of the Maracana for the 1950 World Cup.

There comes a point in the construction of any new urban complex where the public can start to see things taking shape. It’s the moment when you realise that there is a before and an after, and in this case it might have been nothing more than noticing the marshy ground at the foot of Monte Mario. 4th November, 1932 was the date of inauguration for the two most important structures in the Foro Italico: the Stadio dei Marmi, which was where athletes would train, and the Stadio dei Cipressi (also known as the Stadio dei Centomila), where the real competitions would take place. The Stadio dei Cipressi, designed by Del Debbio in 1928, would eventually become the Stadio Olimpico: although numerous changes have been made in the last 80 years, the actual layout has never changed from the original.

These two stadiums represented the heart of the Foro, which itself had a modern take on the classic historic city centre from which all the city’s new roads would branch out (following the same blueprints that town halls and churches had previously used when designing new settlements). This place was designed to create a shared memory for all those who came to watch the events it would host, and consequently, when Foro Italico was inaugurated on 4th November, 1932, it became to all intents and purposes a part of Rome.

In the foreground, the Academy of Physical Education and the magnificent Stadio dei Marmi. In 1928, the Stadio dei Cipressi (in the background) looked more like a racecourse.

The Stadio dei Marmi and the Stadio dei Cipressi were positioned on the fringes of the Piazzale della Vittoria, the immense space that contains the Fontana della Sfera and the obelisk. The most eye-catching of the two was unquestionably the Stadio dei Marmi; up until 1937 the Stadio dei Cipressi only had a single row of terraces and seemed more like a racecourse. In 1936 it was decided that Del Debbio and Moretti’s ground needed to be expanded and renamed, and so work began on improving the stadium. This time it would be worthy of an Olympics and was designed to hold 65,000 people, though only 35,000 would be seated. The stands would be curved, following the designs trialled by American football stadiums and which were subsequently brought to Europe by Gavin Hadden – at the time the style was extremely cutting-edge. The fundamental principles of the design were to encourage a ‘spontaneous public gathering’ in the half-moon shaped stands, and that the best view to watch a game from was from around the halfway line. The Americans realised this before anyone else, which may be because there was no such thing as the culture of the curva in the USA.

Now that the Fascist regime finally had a modern stadium worthy of being put on the world stage, they chose Foro Italico to be the scenic backdrop for Hitler’s visit on 5th May, 1938, and the Stadio dei Cipressi would be the venue for the parades. On this occasion, to satisfy the Fuhrer’s tastes, the grandstand would be decorated with 24 towers (topped with imperial eagles) made of ‘carpilite’, a material patented by the engineer Gino Carpi which was made of cement mixed with straw, usually hollowed out on the inside.

New lease of life

The stadium fell into disuse during the war, but following the Liberation of Rome it found an unexpected new function when the Anglo-American troops, who were astounded at its magnificence, decided to use it as a place to park their military vehicles. The fact that the Allies established their headquarters in Foro Italico was a decisive reason why the complex maintained an excellent state of preservation during the war.

“My poor Rome made of travertine, you’ve been dressed up all in cardboard to show off for a dauber who thinks he is your master!” The majestic ‘carpilite’ towers, built for Hitler’s visit to Rome (1938).

Theseus’ paradox asks us if a ship is the same ship if all of its components have been replaced piece by piece but still retains its original form. Up to this point, the stadiums we have been looking at suggest not as, if their structure changed, then the name would have to change as well. However, things are different from now on as this is the point when this stadium, the nephew of Domitian’s stadium and (at the very least) the uncle of the Maracana, becomes the Olimpico. Valle and Roccatelli began the works to redevelop and expand the stadium in 1950 (and were soon joined by Vitellozzi), and with the country already starting to feel the benefits of an economic boom they were given the task of ensuring the 1960 Olympic Games were awarded to Rome.

The stadium’s new perimeter was the first thing to be established, and its elliptical shape expanded to encompass the concrete steps built in 1938. The main work to be done was on the Monte Mario stand, as at that point there was no real structure to it – it simply leant against the eponymous hill in the style of an ancient Greek theatre. Although it would no longer be called the Stadio dei Centomila, according to the press releases the Olimpico really would be able to hold 100,000 people (this figure was soon reduced to 65,000), though only one part of the ground would contain comfortable wooden seats to sit on. The only section that was covered by a roof was the press box, positioned – as it is today – in the centre of the Monte Mario stand.

The Stadio Olimpico on a 1958 postcard. Note how the Monte Mario has been excavated to allow the construction of the reinforced concrete stands. Before then, the stands simply leant on the hill in the style of ancient Greek theatres.

Two major international sporting events were soon organised to mark the stadium’s opening on 17th May, 1953: the first was a Central European International Cup match (the predecessor to the modern European Championships) between Italy and Hungary, and the second was the finish to the Naples-Rome stage of the Giro d’Italia. The aim was to open the ground by offering the best the country’s national sports could offer, with everything taking place in just over 2 hours, all in a magnificent setting “which seemed more like a model than a stadium for 100,000 spectators”.

Italy were finally given the opportunity of showing what they could do in this new, shiny ground, and were promptly resoundingly beaten 3-0 by Puskas’ Hungary. Just half an hour after the final whistle though, Giuseppe Minardi – nicknamed Pipazza – restored the crowd’s wounded sense of pride with an epic sprint finish.

From memory, not including the Olympics, it’s hard to recall 2 events of such importance taking place in the same stadium so close together. The timing was deliberately arranged in order to show the International Olympic Committee that the Olimpico – and CONI – were capable of coordinating multiple events at the same time. Their demonstration was successful, and Rome was finally given the Olympics.

After Italia ’90

If you sit at a certain height in the Distinti Sud or the Tribuna Tevere and look up through the gap between the top row of seats in the Monte Mario stand and the roof, you can see the distant and incongruous golden Madonna of Don Orione, which gazed mysteriously down at the stadium below, watching the outcome of every game for 20 years. After meeting her gaze, you used to be able to cast your eyes further up to see a pleasant panoramic view of the wooded hills behind the stands, but when Italy was awarded the 1990 World Cup it was clear that every stadium that was due to host a match needed major renovations. The Olimpico, which would host Italy’s first 5 games as well as the final, had to be included in these sweeping changes, and once again it was the architect Vitellozzi (the same person who oversaw the expansion in the 1950s) who led the project.

Olympic Games opening ceremony, 1960. The Stadio Olimpico didn’t yet have a roof – how good is that view of Monte Mario behind the ground?

The new plans were to expand the ground to a capacity of 85,000, for it to be completely covered, and for the two Curve to be brought 10 metres closer to the pitch. There were also a host of improvements to services and facilities: giant screens would be installed and the wooden seats would be replaced with – horrible – plastic ones. The most striking change, which would change the Foro Italico skyline, was unquestionably the construction of the roof over the stands. It was designed – coincidentally – by the ancestor of one of our primary school classmates: Federica Piacentini. When she was 7 years old, she boasted that she was descended from the person who had signed off on the designs (even though the architect was Vitellozzi). Thinking about it, it was impressive of Federica to observe that the aforementioned Marcello Piacentini – a figure somewhere between a municipal surveyor and Bertolaso – still had an influence on the major Roman civic projects decades after the Fascist period. Her great-grandfather was the official architect of the Fascist regime and, despite all the time that had passed, was still able to cast his sinister shadow over a young schoolgirl during the late 1980s.

“A UFO couldn’t land at Lucca,” Fruttero and Lucentini would say, but what about at Monte Mario…

Inspired by the velarium of ancient Roman amphitheatres, the Olimpico’s roof is an extraordinary example of quality engineering and architectural finesse. The white steel crown seems to hover slightly above the top of the stands, and as it overhangs the stands they tend to disappear from view and remain constantly in the shadows.

Whether you arrive at the stadium from Foro Italico or are looking at a panorama of the city – from Lo Zodiaco, for example, or from the top of St Peter’s Basilica – the feature that allows us to spot the stadium is its gleaming white roof. It changed the city skyline, but with a certain grace. While it’s true that the old Olimpico, with the Monte Mario stand leaning against the hill, was more integrated with its surrounding environment, the truth is that it’s impossible to imagine Foro Italico now without its bright diadem. Its famous halo suspended above the stands isn’t just an illusion – it actually is. The roof is held up by 16 external pillars of white steel, as the structure of the stands simply wouldn’t have supported the roof’s weight. A tensile structure (like a bicycle wheel) branches off from the suspended crown’s supports (a lattice girder 14m high); the tension elements are steel cords, which are in turn held in suspension by the cantilevers. Attached to these is the exterior layer which gives it the impression of a velarium. The roof is covered with a glasswool membrane coated with PTFE, which protects it from sunlight and bad weather (very cutting-edge technology for the late ’80s, particularly if you consider the same thing was used to cover the Allianz Arena over 15 years later; the same substance is also used to make non-stick pans and what my grandmother would call Teflon).

Works on the roof ahead of Italia ’90. The stadium’s white crown, which has been the defining feature of the Olimpico ever since, has a lattice framework.

These enormous cantilevers should collapse down onto the stands, but they are tied by steel ropes to the lattice framework.

The Teflon velarium.

Since Italia ’90, the stadium has remained essentially the same. There might have been a few changes in how the flowerbeds outside the hospitality section are arranged, and the goals have been switched a few times (the new ones always have a certain style), but these are minor details – the vast interior has remained unchanged and is ready to turn into a cauldron full of fans who know how to create a vibrant, unforgettable atmosphere at any moment (though these moments are now increasingly rare, given that the ground is hardly ever full any more).

The lack of division within the stands of such a big stadium encouraged, one might almost say demanded, huge choreographies, which became models for other fans (even on other continents) to follow. Just think of the derbies – both Curve ready to display their choreography simultaneously, waiting for exactly the right time to pull out and hold up their rectangular plastic sheets of red, yellow and orange (OK, and white and blue as well) towards the pitch.

Which other stadium could provide a spectacle like this?

In recent years, the match day experience at the stadium has changed across Italy, not just in Rome. Fans used to meet unthinkingly, carefree, outside the ground before going to the game – at the Fontana del Globo, at the obelisk, at the tennis stadium – but this has been undermined by a system of controlling movement more akin to a military regime: some of the filtering barriers go all the way down to the Lungotevere.

While it’s understandable that some measure of control is necessary, there are doubts about the scale of the area subject to this control. It’s almost impossible to visit the Foro Italico without getting the impression that you’re entering a city under siege or being watched by officers in riot gear. It’s true that the barriers are open and there are no police when there isn’t a game on, but on the other hand it’s equally obvious that very few people visit Foro Italico unless there’s a match on (or an international tennis tournament). To make things worse, both Curve inside the Olimpico were physically divided last year. From a purely architectural point of view, inserting barriers wasn’t a big change and – by cutting the two sectors in half – it ensured the stadium retained its maximum UEFA stadium ranking, thus allowing it to continue to be able to host major tournament finals (the Olimpico is currently the only Italian stadium that has a maximum Category 4 ranking). However, the same can’t be said of the symbolic impact of the barriers, as their installation made the two sets of fans’ brooding resentment finally explode in fury.

Where is the sense in this?

It’s a complex issue, but there are serious doubts over whether it’s worth sacrificing the Olimpico’s full Curve in order to retain its Category 4 ranking. Does it really benefit CONI and Italian football as a whole (not to mention the city of Rome as well, given that the decision on the barriers, a punitive and experimental decision at that since there is nothing else like it in Europe, was made by the prefect) for there to be two plexiglass barriers dividing empty seats at the derby instead of there being two pulsating Curve with all the spectacle that they bring?

The impression is that Rome’s Stadio Olimpico is currently going through one of the saddest phases of its great history. As much as it might sound like hyperbole, installing barriers at a time when everyone else in Europe is trying to pull theirs down has clearly only led to misery and fans giving up.

Original article (in Italian) on L’Ultimo Uomo

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