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The Palazzo della Farnesina

The Palazzo della Farnesina
Portal of the Italian language

The building that houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation was designed by the architects Enrico Del Debbio, Arnaldo Foschini and Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, and owes its name – Farnesina – to the ancient and pre-existing Farnese family estate on the site.

The first call for tenders

It was originally conceived as the Palazzo del Littorio Palace, the headquarters of the National Fascist Party and its related bodies, and was supposed to be built on what was then the Via dell’Impero, now Via dei Fori Imperiali.  The first call for tenders, published on 27 December 1933, marked an important stage in Italy’s architectural and urban debate, which was split between opening up to new international research and the regime’s need to have an imposing form of state architecture representing the party and inspired by Italian tradition and imperial Rome.

Despite the success of the first tender, which attracted more than 100 projects, many criticisms appeared in specialist magazines on the choice of the area behind the Colosseum, which was considered to have a historic value that was not compatible with the intended building in terms of urban planning.

Palazzo della Farnesina Scalone d'onore
Palazzo della Farnesina, Scalone d’onore.

The final project

The definitive site in the Foro Mussolini area, now the Foro Italico, was identified in 1937, and the Selection Committee’s decision was announced in the same year. The Committee selected a project by Del Debbio, Foschini and Morpurgo, describing it as a “happy work, highly worthy of current times”. Committee secretary Marcello Piacentini praised the absence of any arbitrary movement of masses and useless contrasts of ratio, in favour of a return “to the severe and healthy elementarity of surfaces”, without conceding any space to decoration but rather focusing on “the expressiveness of a single, logical and essential idea”. It is a very imposing building – 169 metres long, 51 metres high and 132 metres wide – with a large central courtyard and two smaller side courtyards, with an overall volume of 720,000 cubic metres and corridors for 6.5 kilometres.

In 1940, while construction was underway, the building’s intended use was changed. The modern city was expanding southwards due to the E42 project, now the EUR, and it was decided that the Palazzo della Farnesina would house the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had been in the Palazzo della Consulta until 1922 and later in Palazzo Chigi.

When works were interrupted during World War Two in the summer of 1943, the building was structurally complete, as was its exterior.  When construction resumed, the same architects oversaw the work to adapt the building right up to the official inauguration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1959.

Del Debbio, Ministero Affari Esteri, Disegno
Enrico Del Debbio, Ministero degli Esteri (già Casa Littoria) – Soluzione Definitiva, 1940 circa, MAXXI – Collezione Enrico del Debbio

The end of the construction site and the decoration campaign of the 1950s and 1960s

The monumental exterior was mirrored in the vast interior spaces, for which important artistic and decorative works were commissioned in the 1950s and 1960s.

In particular, the false ceilings by Alberto Bevilacqua (Mosaics Room), Pietro Cascella (International Conferences Room), Francesco Coccia (Ambassadors’ Antechamber), Giorgio Quaroni (Minister’s Study), and Amerigo Tot (Victory Room), as well as the large chandeliers in Venetian Venini glass designed by Enrico Del Debbio and based on a model by Carlo Scarpa, date back to the 1950s.

Two national competitions launched by the Ministry for Public Works and published in 1965 and 1968 in the Gazzetta Ufficiale, led to the addition of the access ramp wall blocks (Pietro Cascella), the sculptures to the rear of the atria (Osvaldo Calò and Pietro Consagra), the travertine cladding of the fountain in the Court of Honour (Pietro Consagra), the mosaics in the Hall of Honour (Luigi Montanarini and Toti Scialoja), the three tapestries for the first floor halls (Gastone Novelli, Sergio Selva and Antonio Scordia), the sphere on the landing (Arnaldo Pomodoro), and other paintings and sculptures elsewhere in the Ministry.

The monumental nature of the building has also proved ideal for hosting a collection of artworks: in 2001 the institutional nature of its collection was formalized as the Farnesina Collection of Contemporary Art.

Arnaldo Pomodoro, Sfera Grande, 1966-1967
Arnaldo Pomodoro, Sfera Grande, 1966-1967