In 2012 I spent a month in Italy scoping out what would become Beauty’s Rigor. I found Nervi buildings and archives throughout the country that all proved important in the research–and in convincing the American Academy that I had a serious proposal. Some were easy–the Palazetto dello Sport in Rome is well-known, and basically open to the public as it’s the home of the city’s professional basketball team. Others, like the Gatti Wool Factory, took some doing and some professional help.
One that should have been easy was the Stadio Giovanni Berta, in Florence, which is still home to the city’s iconic soccer team, Fiorentina. But the weekend I spent there was also the weekend of a Madonna concert. “È chiuso,” the cop at the gate told me. “Molto chiuso.” I settled for some long shots for reference, and ultimately went with archival images from MAXXI for the book.
I’m in Rome this week and next for hastily (and happily) arranged meetings with the team of engineers, architects, and historians working on a Getty-sponsored preservation plan for Nervi’s 1960 Stadio Flaminio in Rome, and I thought a good introduction to the trip would be to–finally–get inside the Stadio Berta, now renamed the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Fortunately, connections paid off, and I spent this morning walking around it with Marco Scannerini, the stadium’s director, who knew quite well the structure’s history before, during and since it’s 1931-32 construction.
The stadium is known for its looping helical staircases on the later, east stand, but Marco started our tour in the entry hall of the original, west stand, pointing out that Nervi build an enclosed helical stair before the daring exterior ones. This one was structurally simpler, since it can rely on the curving wall behind it for support. But it’s an interesting design moment, too. The stadium complex is really a mashup of influences that shows clearly the aesthetic confusion latent in fascist era design. There’s something for everyone–classicism, futurism, and point-blank modernism–in Nervi’s work, some of which was forced onto him by local architects hired by Luigi Ridolfi, a wealthy local, keen supporter of Mussolini, and financier of Fiorentina from its beginning. Giovanni Berta was a fascist martyr, allegedly beaten to death by a communist mob in Florence, and the entire enterprise was part of Mussolini’s plan to build a stronger populace through sport.
So, Nervi’s staircase and evocative structure were all hidden behind a wrapper of stripped classicism straight from the fascist’s playbook. Note the window patterning–definitely not Nervi’s, and a clear sign in 1931 that Ridolfi was at least a quiet supporter of the Italian/German axis.
The main stand has been kitted out with luxury boxes and an extended roof, all of which clutter up Nervi’s original, expressive cantilever. The field, too, has been lowered, so everything to the right of the walkway in the photo above is new–all for the 1990 World Cup. It’s a fine looking stadium, but nothing like the purity of the original:
Marco told me–and I really hope this is true–that when the last of the scaffolding in the back was removed, none of the laborers on the job site would stand under the roof–only Nervi and the city building official were willing.
The diagrammatic cantilever of the west stand is iconic enough, and it represents Nervi’s first real foray into structural expression. But it’s the east stands, build the next year to accommodate the growing crowds, that shows Nervi’s burgeoning lyrical sensibility. In addition to the futurist Torre Maraton (Antonio Sant’Elia was a student at Bologna at the same time as Nervi…), the east stands feature a much more finely tuned structural frame, with members of surprising slenderness connected to one another by expressive, flaring moment connections. The frame is probably the least interesting part of the stand, but it’s beautifully done and maintained, an essay in structural logic and beton brut detailing a generation before its time.
The greatest moments of the whole complex, though, are the still-astonishing helical staircases that provide access to the top of the east stand–correcting a problem that Nervi had noticed in the original, since early arrivals coming in from the bottom of the stand would occupy the best seats, closest to the pitch, and block access from later arrivals who had to climb past them to reach the remaining seats at the top. By bringing in all patrons at the top of the new stand, Nervi improved circulation. But he also gave himself an opportunity for true pieces of engineering art, helical staircases that cantilever out from a twisting support beam that itself is braced by an equally-sized cross beam. More than eighty-five years later, it’s still a compelling piece of static gymnastics.
If the Stadio Flaminio is in grave danger after being abandoned for nearly two decades, the Florence stadium is in reasonably good shape. It’s patchy, but those patches are signs of constant maintenance–over two million Euros a year, according to Scannerini. But there are clouds on its horizon. Fiorentina, enjoying a resurgent audience for Serie A football, has plans to build a larger, roofed stadium on the city’s outskirts. It would cater to a generation that demands greater comfort for higher ticket prices; a roof, Scannerirni notes, is necessary for a sport for which attendees actually sit in their seats for most of the match, unlike American sports, where a seat often serves as more of a parking spot between runs for food, drinks, games, etc. If Fiorentina leaves for the suburbs, it’s difficult to imagine how Nervi’s stadium–even with its World Cup updates, which are now approaching thirty years old–will be put to use. It could suffer the same fate as the Flaminio, its necessary upkeep budget unfunded by a successful professional team. Here’s hoping that the American fad for nostalgic ballparks (at least in one of our national pastimes) translates, and that Italian football fans find some comfort in the relative discomfort of an aging, but classic, stadium…