Goodbye Via Alessandrina

Missing: Via Alessandrina
Circa 2015 when Via Alessandrina was open to pedestrians

This post is a reflection on a road which from the 16th century until recently traversed the Imperial Fora in central Rome. It wasn’t a great road like Via Giulia, and in fact in recent years it was often closed, abandoned, overgrown. But like any road it was a connection, it offered a path for people in the city.

Until the 1930s it was the central artery of the Quartiere Alessandrino at the foot of Monti. This neighborhood fell victim to Mussolini’s sventramenti, the fascist era demolitions of large swaths of the medieval and Renaissance city. At the time, parts of the Imperial Fora (which lay —and still lie — at ancient ground level here) were excavated and then reburied, landscaped over as an archaeological park aligning the huge triumphal boulevard Via dei Fori Imperiali.

There are various other phases of the story and — if this were a research paper and not a reflective blog post — I would go on the illustrate the various proposals and projects for the Via dei Fori Imperiali, all very interesting, all the subject of animated discussions before being archived and forgotten.

In one of these episodes that involved me personally I helped the association Tevereterno Onlus, of which I was director at the time, draft a proposal to make Via Alessandrina a civic space with the installation of movable chairs (a nod to urbanist Holly Whyte). Although the project itself would have cost nothing, the administration didn’t have the funds to launch the open competition which was required so that, if any other organization wanted to donate free seating, they could compete fairly to do so (not kidding). The project never happened.

Circa 2014, Via Alessandrina fenced off
Tevereterno proposal for Via Alessandrina, 2014

I recall the street being open, so one could walk along past the Forum of Augustus to Trajan’s Column, a scenic historic tour on which I took students for years. Then for a period it was closed for supposed archaeological excavations for which there was never any funding. Under Mayor Marino, the same mayor who finally succeeded in banning cars from Via dei Fori Imperiali, they reopened the street, a simple and yet revolutionary move.

Now that section of road has been removed, with the effect being, on the one hand, to unify the Forum of Trajan with Trajan’s Markets, as they were in antiquity, but on the other to interrupt (for good?) the road. In effect, a museum has been enlarged at the cost of civic space.

At first glance the unification of the archeological park seems like an improvement, both for visitors who have paid admission and can now explore a more cohesive site, and also for visitors above who can better understand the ancient complex in its entirety.

But on another level, the literal level of today’s Rome, this is yet another example of what my friend the architectural historian Allan Ceen calls Roma Cancellata, the fencing off and erasure of historic public space in the city.

And as archaeologist Jan Gadeyne pointed out in conversation just now, it represents the erasure of one of the few remaining traces of the post-antique Forum. For Gadeyne this is a simplistic approach to intervening in archaeological sites which should have been superseded generations ago. Sure, a small piece remains at the level of the Forum of Augustus but instead of a road which goes somewhere it is a dead end museum piece.

The elimination of Via Alessandrina is indeed one more disturbing episode in the ongoing trend of closing public spaces. Examples include the barricades in Piazza Colonna and other government hotspots, the creation of new “pubic” spaces like MAXXI that were born gated (open only at certain times and for certain types of behavior), or the closure of so many formerly pedestrian piazzas by (not to) private motor vehicles. In cases like Piazza Farnese the public benches and a large part of the piazza have been privatized by the French Embassy in the name of security, and the center of the piazza is occupied, illegally, by parked cars. What was once an open civic space where children played has become effectively closed to anyone not protected by their own automotive shell.

What could have been done instead at Via Alessandrina? It’s not hard to imagine an intervention that reopened the continuity, literal and visual, of the Foro di Traiano while keeping a passage, a passerella, following the traces of the Renaissance Via Alessandrina. I’m thinking of a lightweight steel structure, in the language of Francesco Cellini’s bridge over Via degli Annibaldi or the Nemesis/Labics project for the walkway at the eastern edge of Trajan’s Forum. Now that the cars have been removed from Foro Traiano (this is actually the name of the piazza adjacent to Trajan’s Column), it should also be redesigned as a civic space and not simply left as the car-less parking lot it is today.

Sketch of a possible passerella solution