While there is good news on the Nervi preservation front with the scheduled public announcement of a preservation plan for the 1960 Olympics’ Stadio Flaminio in Rome scheduled for Tuesday, 27 October, there is another battle to save an equally important example of his athletics work brewing in Florence.
In 2017, while doing some research for an introductory essay to the Flaminio plan, I had a tour of Nervi’s Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, home of the city’s famed football club, Fiorentina. I was there to photograph details of the 1931/32 structure that had been a key experimental ground for Nervi and his two constructing collaborators—Nervi changed partners between the projects for the club’s east and west stands, and in the process began what I think of as the most important collaboration of his career, working with Giovanni Bartoli to develop the stadium’s famed helical staircases. This was the first of Nervi’s most imaginative, most integrative work, combining structural improvisation with a deep understanding of how things were to be built—with economy and efficiency—on site.
During my visit, my guide, a Fiorentina executive, excitedly showed me a model for a brand new stadium in the city’s suburbs, part of a planned commercial development that would give the club all of the requisite luxury boxes, stadium-related retail, and paid parking that today’s multi-million-dollar sports organizations see as vital to their operations. What, I asked, concerned, would happen to the Nervi structure that I was there to document once the team abandoned the central-city grounds it had occupied since for nearly 90 years? There was some uncomfortable shuffling and no clear answer, but earlier this year that plan—like so much else in 2020—fell through and the club focused on renovating and expanding Stadio Franchi.
While that would seem to be good news, there’s evidence that their plans for the revitalization are not well-intended in preservation terms. After the city of Florence approved the project in early August, two political parties quickly pushed through so-called “Stadium Unblocking” legislation that would exempt sports facilities from the country’s sturdy conservation and heritage laws. According to the trade journal The Stadium Business:
Three key amendments are said to have been made, chiefly the allowance to redevelop a stadium with a view to its “best usability”, even in the face of perceived architectural or cultural value.
Historic venues are now set to be permitted to adapt to international standards, such as bringing stands closer to the pitch. Meanwhile, while the “symbolic value” of a stadium will still be recognised, this will take a back seat to the “need to guarantee the functionality of the stadium” and the “economic-financial sustainability of the stadium”
Fiorentina has no official connection to the legislation, but Matteo Renzi, former Italian Prime Minister and former mayor of Florence, has lent his vocal support to the proposed amendments and from the timing it’s clear that the changes are intended to directly impact the team’s plans for Nervi’s stadium.
This is a worrying development, for three reasons:
First, Stadio Franchi is more than a collection of valuable ‘symbols’—its importance to Italian architecture and engineering, to the history of football in the country, and to Italian history in general lies exactly in its integration of engineering and contracting ingenuity and the architectural ‘wrappers’ that surround it. In 1931, Fiorentina was owned by Luigi Ridolfi Vay da Verrazzano, a WWI hero and outspoken supporter of Mussolini and Fascism; his new stadium was located on the city’s military grounds and originally named for Giovanni Berta, a Fascist martyr. Nervi’s original, west grandstand was covered in a façade designed in the stripped classicism that was de rigueur for the day—an architectural show of strength that formalized Nervi and Nebbiosi’s more graceful, statically-derived concrete work within. While the stand’s soaring roof was praised by Pietro Maria Bardi in neo-futurist terms that suggested it, too, could convey great power and strength, the contrast between the government-approved “typhoid classicism” and Nervi’s soaring roof stands today as a wordless commentary on the inherent contrast between the two schools of architectural thought. The second grandstand, with its helical stairs and its tall Torre Maratona, shows that Nervi’s expressive style—nascent here with the latitude allowed him by a truly collaborative partner in Bertoli—could negotiate between the dictates of the Fascist regime and the structural ‘truths’ that he saw as fundamental to any large-scale structures. Italy has, more than any other European country, taken pains to preserve and to frame the architecture of its darkest moments—Fascist monuments still form important elements of the Roman fabric and their continued vitality and provocation is a key part of that city’s rich urban experience. Nowhere in Florence are the difficult contrasts of the 1930s so evident as here. The stadium is also, of course, a vital piece of the Nervi oeuvre, the first structure to gain him truly international acclaim and the blueprint for his later stadium work at the Flaminio, Novara, Taormina, and for unbuilt projects elsewhere, including Rome and suburban London.
Second, the leverage that the proposed legislation gives team owners to demolish historic stadia anywhere in Italy sets a terrible precedent. Sports have provided vital, important moments in culture throughout Europe and worldwide, and while Olympic venues have seen much of the best-known historic overlap between athletics and society at large, the day-to-day presence of these venues in cities offers important evidence of their weaving into everyday life. In America, the wholesale erasure of urban ballparks from the 1960s through the 1990s has left us with only one truly integral example of how important the type was to daily life. Fenway Park in Boston (I’m biased, to be sure) is the sole surviving example of this now that Chicago’s Wrigley Field has been wrecked by a tissue of suburban development that has sterilized and commodified its formerly gritty, neighborhood scale atmosphere. The regret that has caused cities that have, over the last thirty years, desperately built imitation ‘old-style’ ballparks in an effort to rebuild that vital link is palpable, but the difficulties in re-establishing the link between urban fabric and ballparks that carry only ‘symbolic value’ can be seen by the fact that two of these retreads from the 1990s, in Atlanta and Texas, have themselves already been demolished and replaced. Stadio Franchi has hosted World Cup games, international football matches, and Six Nations rugby, in addition to numerous concerts (my first visit there was nixed because of a Madonna show in 2012). But it’s also held nearly 50,000 spectators for countless weekly matches—nearly four generations of fans have seen the team play in more or less the same surroundings.
Finally, the assumption that financially well-off clubs deserve breaks like this is one further step in the commercialization of sport and the stripping of these experiences from everyday fans. There’s no doubt that any plans to ‘revitalize’ the Franchi will include luxury boxes and high-end retail and will be unlikely to prioritize the cheap seats which the average Florentine could afford. Redevelopments that are claimed for the “economic-financial sustainability of the stadium” have a funny way of taking great public monuments and privatizing them even further. American cities can show countless examples of this—tax breaks for new stadiums that end up having no effect on the local economy but that give owners the excuse to raise prices beyond the realm of the average fan.
Interestingly, in 1950 Nervi and his sons produced a plan to expand the Florence stadium with a second deck over the east stands, complete with dramatic, forked cantilever structures that would have sheltered the famous helical staircases and competed with the remnant Torre Maratona. While the extension proposal only exists in a handful of sketches, it’s clear that the urgent need was for more seats—not luxury boxes or the department-store like retail arcades that disguise much modern stadium construction. To some, that will suggest the ultimate obsolescence of a classic sports facility, but given the longing many of us have for the atmosphere and aura of a truly classic ballpark, it may also point the way toward maintaining a unique and (in the reductionist parlance of the day), ‘brand-able’ experience for Fiorentina.
While the legislation is a done deal, allowing teams to demolish any stadium in Italy if it suits their financial ambitions—whether the structure is listed or not—there is a campaign, led by the Pier Luigi Nervi Project Association, to petition the EU to block the Italian legislation on the grounds that it violates their conservation and monuments directives. More to come on that.
In the meantime, pressure on the city of Florence seems the most likely route to influence the stadium’s preservation. After speaking with the Nervi Project Association, I’ve started a Change.org international petition addressed to Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence, here. If you’re as concerned about the effects of the Sbloccastadi legislation’s effect on Nervi’s historic structures there and want to make your voice heard, please consider adding your name to it.