Randall Mason Looks at Giovannoni’s Rome at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Peroni Brewery complex in Rome, designed by Gustavo Giovannoni in the first decade of the 20th century
Randall Mason
a drawing that accompanied one of Giovannoni’s early, seminal articles (1913) about urban conservation, showing proposed destruction to create a park and wider road around the medieval Tor Sanguigna (just north of Piazza Navona).
The condition of Tor Sanguigna today – not all the demolition was carried out.
excerpt of a 1931 plan showing the influence of Giovannoni’s conservation and planning ideas about “diradamento”

Randall Mason is the winner of the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation and Conservation and an Associate Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation in the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.

What part of the United States did you come from?
I grew up on the southern New Jersey coast near Atlantic City, and have lived in different places, but mostly in New York since the early 90s.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?
With a sabbatical to take and the need to figure out what my next big projects would be, I wanted to be in a great city. Since my wife Ellen and I work in cities (and prefer to live in them), that part was easy. I’d also harbored an interest in Gustavo Giovannoni for years – he was a Roman architect of the early 20th century who did very interesting conservation and planning work and is little known in North America. I thought Rome would be the perfect place to study his work – and the reputation of the American Academy as a place to work is stellar.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.
As a set, the walks and trips organized by Kim Bowes have been a real highlight – exposing me to parts of Rome and Italy that I wouldn’t have known about or understood.  Also running along the Tiber, watching the city and the urban connections unfold at the slow steady pace of middle-aged running.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?
I’ve followed the purposes of my original project pretty closely, but also found a number of other aspects of the city to study while I’m here. Walking and wandering around, reading more deeply about the city and its designers, being immersed in Rome just by living here, has broadened my appreciation for the city and at the same time reinforced by deep interest in how the city changed around the turn of the 20th century.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?
Working in the personal archives of Giovannoni, seeing his hand in the drawings, all his letters, the designs of others he marked up, all gives a sense of looking over his shoulder (100 years after the fact) for which there is no substitute. And in talks and chats and meals with other Fellows, sparks of insight always surprise me – and make me realize a connection or the larger meaning of something I hadn’t grasped.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?
Constantly improving my grasp of Italian so I can appreciate the nuances of what Giovannoni, other architects, historians and critics were arguing.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?
How much the trees create wonderful urban space – London planes along the rivers, umbrella pines in so many other places.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?
In the first few months, I’m trying to concentrate on doing the research and writing for my project; towards the end of the fellowship we’re planning more travel around Italy.  A lot of the travel (in Rome and around Italy) also has the angle of looking at Giovannoni’s built work and plans.  

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?
It is simply giving me time to think, apart from the weekly routine of teaching, lecturing, doing projects and being an administrator.  The time and the great support of having the studios, library, the bar and meals, and the community of fellows and visitors and staff, create some space to think about longer-term work.  So I’m sure the ideas I hatch or discard this year will shape what I decide to do in the next several years.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?
Favorite spots at the Academy are my studio (quiet and with great light and a big table) and the bar – a nice social center in the midst of a pretty solitary worklife.  Nearby: Bramante’s Tempietto – I had no idea it’d be around the corner. I love the sequence of fountain, memorial, Tempietto, as one descends from the Academy gates down to Trastevere.