Lessons from Rome 1: Every Man’s House Is His Palazzo

By Pauline Marie Zeren 
This post is the first in a series of Lessons from Rome. I am delighted that Tamara has invited me to comment here on some elements of urban design in Rome that are useful tools for creative thinking about modern cities.  To read more about my current projects, you can visit https://tiberisrestaurandus.wordpress.com/

In her post about Urban Fabric Pizza Tamara describes the urban experience that is possible when a place is defined by including– by building types-instead of excluding– by building uses. In Rome a key ingredient in the inclusive urban fabric is the palazzo building type.  We could say that it is the cheese the holds the neighborhood together.
If every man’s house is his castle, in Rome that castle is often literally a palace, or palazzo.  The palazzo developed from the ancient Mediterranean courtyard house.  In courtyard houses, extended family groups utilize flexible indoor and outdoor spaces to socialize and create household goods.
House of the Faun, Pompeii.  Image: "HoFBuildingPlan". Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HoFBuildingPlan.gif#mediaviewer/File:HoFBuildingPlan.gif

House of the Faun, Pompeii.     Image: “HoFBuildingPlan”. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia

The Evolution of the Palazzo
As Roman houses developed through the medieval period, added elements of fortification, such as towers and gated doors, served a practical purpose in a city that was often besieged.

the medieval Torre della scimmia as painted by Ettore Roessler-Franz

The medieval Torre Della Scimmia as painted by Ettore Roessler-Franz

In the renaissance palazzo, this culture of fortified multipurpose spaces was refined by the addition of the symbolic language of classical forms.  Literate or not, the average Roman would understand from the architectural design something of the civic importance of the family inhabiting a palazzo.
Palazzo Altemps, with a decorative loggia in place of a defensive tower.

Palazzo Altemps, with a decorative loggia in place of a defensive tower.

Interior courtyard of Palazzo Altemps

Interior courtyard of Palazzo Altemps

 A Mix of Uses in the Renaissance Palazzo
The basic form of the renaissance palazzo has three parts. The base of the building, containing a large door and courtyard, was a place for business and for secure storage.  Above this, an elevated and enlarged floor, called the piano nobile, held the important public spaces of the noble family.  The floors above the piano nobile, the top of the building, could be subsidiary family space or room for tenants, and staff.

Palazzo Altemps Courtyard

Interior courtyard of Palazzo Altemps, showing middle Piano Nobile zone.

A single palazzo building could therefore contain commercial, residential, and industrial spaces, all united by the patronage of the noble landlord.  Rather than keeping different activities and uses in different buildings, the Palazzo keeps them all together, separated by floor, room, or hall.

QMZ Palazzo diagram 1

Infinite Flexibility is Sustainable and Helps Build Community
As an urban building type, the palazzo form has the advantage of infinite flexibility.  Because a palazzo is not designed for any one purpose, many different uses may come and go in the same building over the course of its history, provided the basic construction is  of durable materials.

The diversity of residential space adds another kind of flexibility.  Romans of different social and economic status live and work in the same building today, as they always have.  A rich public life is possible because of this diversity.  All classes of citizen are represented in the neighborhood markets, festivals, and daily routines.

The Magic of the Six Story Building
There is also an apparent limitation in the palazzo form which actually has had an advantageous effect on Roman urban life.  Load bearing masonry construction limited the height of the renaissance palazzo to about six stories.   This limitation to the number of upper residential floors provides neighborhoods with a population density high enough to support commerce, but low enough that a resident can know their neighbors.  It supports the kind of relationships necessary for civic life.   In short, it makes it possible to know one’s neighbors.   This height limitation also means that an elevator is also not an absolute necessity, and a comfortable walk up a stair, like a comfortable walk down a street, is good for the citizen.

QMZ Palazzo diagram 2
Graceful Integration
In contrast to Roman neighborhoods, many American cities separate uses into distinct geographical areas: the suburb, the shopping district, and the industrial park.  This separation was once an understandable response by city planners to the changes which the industrial revolution brought to the nature of work.  No one wants to live next to a giant glue factory after all.  However, the physical environment that results from separated uses has other trials: long commutes, over-sized industries with related pollution, isolated residences for separated socioeconomic classes.  Perhaps it is time to revisit the graceful integration possible with the vertical urban walk of a palazzo.

Diagram of an ideal Palazzo (left) and the variations possible due to site constraints (center and right)