Engineering Rome

Palazzo Pio, Construction from Ancient Rome to Modern Day

by Andrew Wang

Figure 1. South View of Palazzo Pio towards Campo de’ Fiori

Introduction:

I’m walking atop the black cobblestone road with a hefty backpack and my suitcase rattling as I drag it along barely holding on. Sweat beats down my neck in the early fall heat of Rome as I stare at my phone figuring out which direction google maps wants me to go. Eventually, I make it to my apparent destination as I stop in front of a typical Roman facade with multiple arches and fancy columns and windows. To the left, there is a restaurant preparing outdoor tables and on the right a butcher shop not far off. Right in the middle, there are two large black metal doors and on the panel, on the left side of the doors, there reads UW Rome Center in tiny texts above one of the buzzers. I’ve finally arrived, at Palazzo Pio, home to the UW Rome Center.

Figure 2. Palazzo Pio by Guiseppe Vasi da Corleone,1742

Theater of Pompey:

The Palazzo Pio is built atop the ancient Theater of Pompey, which was completed in 55 BC by Pompeo Magno. The theater is a combination of an amphitheater and a theater constructed out of stone and concrete foundation and cladded in marble. It was the first permanent stone theater in Rome, as theaters and amphitheaters were built out of wood as temporary structures. Pompeo was able to construct the first permanent structure by building the theater outside the city walls and building a temple in the center of the cavea (curved seating area) dedicating it to Venus Victrix. The design of the theater is influenced by earlier Greek theaters with the differences of being built on their own foundations and being enclosed on all sides. The Theater of Pompey became the model for nearly all future theaters in Rome.

Fun Fact: Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Theater of Pompey in 44 BC when the theater was the temporary meeting place for the Roman Senate.

After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, the theater remained in use but was abandoned after the Gothic War in 554 AD. During the Early Middle Ages, the marble cladding was repurposed for other buildings and the flooding from the Tiber further deteriorated the theater. Later in the Middle Ages, Piazza di Campo de’ Fiori was built and the remaining parts of the theater were quarried for stone for more recent buildings in modern Rome.

Figure 5. Aerial view of a model of Imperial Rome during the reign of Constantine (Museo della civilta Romana)

In present times, the remains of the Theater of Pompey are buried under the buildings of modern Rome. The graphic document of Forma Urbis, which is a monumental marble plan of Rome from the Severen period, shows the partial plans of the theater. Traces of the theater can also still be seen from the streets today. Most clearly is the road Via di Grotta Pinta which is curved following the cavea of the ancient theater underneath.

Palazzo Pio:

Palazzo Pio is built atop the ruins of the temple of Venus as seen below in figure 8. In or around 1450, Cardinal Francesco Condulmer, nephew of Pope Eugenius IV, bought a portion of the theater turned “trullum” which corresponds to the Palazzo Pio of today. The building at the time possessed the characteristics of a medieval family stronghold including a tower facing Campo de’ Fiori. The Palazzo changed ownership multiple times, one of which was the rich and famous family of Orsini. In the second half of the 17th century, architect Camillo Arcucci, was hired to organize the building. Arcucci designed a three story facade to be wrapped around the pre-existing structure. The Baroque inspired facade, however, was never finished, ending on the edge of Campo de’ Fiori. It was during this renovation that the tower was also removed entirely and in its place a small terrace still here today.

Figure 8. White Overlay of Theater of Pompey of Modern Rome with Palazzo Pio Highlighted

During the Fascist era (1922-1943) under Mussolini’s rule, many ancient Roman monuments were excavated even if that meant destroying entire neighborhoods. The Theater of Pompey was on the list of excavations, but the area had been thoroughly integrated into the surrounding fabric. However, as noted in the periodical “Capitolium,” the plan was to raze all the buildings in the area to uncover the theater. Fortunately, the plan was never carried out.

Figure 12. Aerial view of Pio Block and Environs (UWRC)

For the Jubilee of 2000, the Palazzo’s facade was cleaned and restored and has been in its best condition since the 17th century. The color of the facade has darkened a bit, but the newly cleaned facade can be seen in the photo in Figure 13 below.

Figure 13. Palazzo Pio facade 2001 (UW archive)

Modern Day Renovations (UWRC):

The Palazzo Pio has gone through many renovations and is now home to a variety of offices and living spaces including the University of Washington Rome Center (UWRC) and even a couples rental room. The first UW Rome program was in 1970 established by Professor Astra Zarina. In 1983, with the support of the university, several floors of Palazzo Pio were able to be leased, and in 1985 the UWRC was officially inaugurated. Recent renovations began in 2019 with years of planning beforehand. The project was staged in three phases including updates to structural, electrical, and mechanical works, fire safety, and new lighting, flooring, and educational technology. A lot of paperwork was needed for this project as all plans needed to be approved by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, to maintain the history and prestige of the building. Some key additions include new bathrooms, kitchenette, new seminar rooms, and opening up the terrace. The fresco in the conference room was restored depicting Juno, Aeolus, god of the winds, and the nymph Deiopea. Renovations were completed in early 2022.

UW Rome Center Experience:

The UW Rome Center lives inside Palazzo Pio, taking up sections on the first and third floors. To reach the Rome Center, one enters through a smaller door attached to the large double doors of Palazzo Pio. Walk down a large open corridor and on the left is a spiral staircase leading up to the top floor. On the first floor, one will find an inconspicuous door with a small tag for the University of Washington. Once through the door, one is greeted by a modern hallway/waiting area with sleek white walls with modern lighting.

References:

History of the palazzo pio. UW Rome Center. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2022, from https://www.washington.edu/rome/palazzo-pio/

Teatro di Pompeo. Iampica.com. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2022, from https://readitaliano.com/wiki/it/Pompey%27s_Theater

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