Florestano di Fausto’s work in Rhodes

Rodos Casino

Born at Rocca Canterano, a small village outside Rome, Florestano di Fausto (16.07.1890 – 11.01.1965) was an engineer, an architect and a politician. He served as a technical consultant to the Ministero degli Affari Esteri, where he designed and constructed numerous Italian diplomatic offices throughout Eastern and Western Europe, South America, and the Near East. But he is most recognized for his colonial urban planning schemes and government buildings from 1923 until 1940 in North Africa and the Aegean.

During 1922, following the Dodecanese islands forced annexation to Italy, the Italian Deputy Minister Mario Lago was appointed governor of the islands. Di Fausto was directly called upon in Rhodes, where he stayed until the October of 1926. He completed a range of projects that express the Italian colonial ideology of the times and underline the process of italianization of the island. Most of his buildings stand as a counterpoint to other European modernists of the period who sought to remove any lingering symbols of the past from their plans, façades, and interiors while others try to engage a dialogue between the modernism and the islamic architecture. Nevertheless, the result can be safely regarded as completely out of context in the Dodecanese islands.

One of the first undertakings for Di Fausto in Rhodes was the drawing up of a new city plan early in 1926, including the organization and definition of the city’s predominant port area adjacent to the central historic Castello of the Knights of Rhodes. In addition to simplifying the visual and physical access to the historic center, the plan proved to be a system by which the architect used modern Italian buildings to situate the historical. Soon after his final drawings were presented to the Governor, Luigi Piccinato commented in an essay (remember those were the days that saw the rise of the fascist movement in Italy) : “If, by Italian virtue, a new city is to arise, it has to be beautiful and at the same time grandiose, and in the environment of Rhodes it must not appear out of place.”

Under Di Fausto’s direction, the entire ancient walled city was retained — a political and spatial strategy he would later duplicate in Tripoli, Libya. Outside the historic walls, Di Fausto envisioned a Garden City plan organized about the installation of villini and squares, presumably into which the former occupants of the ancient area would be moved. Despite corrective measures planned for the historic center, the old city of Rhodes became a physical and symbolic double for the embodiment of a new Italian city. Central Rhodes was considered an ancient city (centro storico), with its walled quarter and nearby new settlements constructed on the periphery of the enclosed center. Within the walled city, however, the term restoration pointed to the removal of signs indicating the buildings’ Ottoman past. One might link this to an archaeology of surfaces in which colonial architects such as Di Fausto, Alessandro Limongelli, and Armando Brasini, in addition to those architects on the peninsula including Giuseppe Terragni and Marcello Piacentini, sought to reveal that which had been hidden under the accumulated layers of misapprehension and misuse. For Rhodes, this meant
the stripping of post-medieval mashrabiyya and visually liberating the vestiges of the center from five centuries of ottoman dominance.

Unlike in Italy, where the augmentation of medieval buildings in towns such as San Gimignano and Ferrara allowed for such embellishment to stress a building’s or city’s visual connection to the past, these acts stand in direct contrast to the new architecture implemented under Di Fausto along the waterfront and port area in Rhodes. In Di Fausto’s plan of Rhodes Town, the application or insinuation of medieval and Renaissance-style motifs sought to reinforce an Italian character abroad. As recent scholars have noted, Di Fausto’s recycling of vernacular elements among the volumes and façades of these new buildings was the syncretic equivalent of what one critic called a mixing of clandestine stylistic blends. Such was Di Fausto’s discerning ability to fabricate seemingly Byzantine motifs while underscoring the convergence of ottoman and italian spaces. One of his central structures in Rhodes is the Palazzo Governatore of 1926, a quasi-Venetian structure reminiscent of the Palazzo Ducale with its sgrafitto of alternating stripes and contrasting materials, crenellations, and gothic arched windows.

Likewise, the design of the new market (Nea Agorà Nέα Aγορά) became the hinge among the new town, walled city, and the port of Mandraki. Like the Palazzo Governatore, a semi-public arcade invites comparison to the islamic context with the exterior arcade’s absorption of the street into the building. Neither inside nor outside, the arcades of the palazzo and the market point to Di Fausto’s sensitivity to the climate as well as attention to the scopic disciplining of commerce. The interior of the market, with its semi-circular courtyard ringed by stalls and shops, foreshadows Di Fausto’s 1932 renovation of the artisanal Suq al-Mushir in the medina of Tripoli. In both examples, as Brian McLaren has shown, “an ambiguous territory between restoration and new construction” was opened by Di Fausto’s colonial architecture that “was largely dictated by the demands of the tourist economy.” In other words, through Di Fausto’s studied use of complementary forms from ancient Italy, Greece, and later Ottoman patterns, the Palazzo Governatore and the new market, like its architect, embodied the liminality of mediterraneità. Hybrid in function and outlook, the central market’s polygonal enclosure surrounds an interior pavilion for fishmongers; an entrance pavilion surmounted by a dome; and an entirely porticoed center. The appearance of arabisances, those accents derived from Near Eastern architecture, act as appropriative comments; the repetition of essentialized arches and abbreviated columns extends the mercantile aspect of the structure.

Di Fausto’s design for the Albergo delle Rose, a large tourist hotel complex perpendicular to the primary route of the port, is an example of the architect’s assimilation of the minimal forms exhibited by its precursor, the Castello of the Knights of Rhodes. Seeking to forge a touristic enterprise adjacent to the confines of the historic city, the architect adapts the domed tower and flanking structure to accommodate guestrooms, restaurants, a casino, and a garden. With extensive stucco ornamentation affixed to the façades, Di Fausto flattens decorative patterns as a means to offset the minimalist aesthetic favored by modernists and perhaps introduce a more inviting scene for visitors. In the February 19, 1933 edition of Il Messagero di Rodi, a commemorative album of images highlighting the tenth anniversary of Mario Lago’s rule, a large number of photographs depicted scenes from Di Fausto’s various buildings including the Albergo delle Rose, shown from a distance, as well as the pivotal market along the main route of the new town. Photographs clearly indicate that inside and out, the market structure was based on economic and visual exchange. Akin to postcard images of indigeni taken in the colonies, Di Fausto’s new market fixed a panoptic discourse of economic and social viability in the modern colonial city. The colonial gaze, foregrounded by modern architecture, cemented the status of Rhodians as colonial subjects. Di Fausto was able to negotiate the voluble histories of the island(s) with a blending of Italian signifiers demonstrating the ambiguous territory between historicity and modernity for the architect in the colonial context.

In Rhodes and on the nearby island of Kos, Di Fausto pursued an appropriate Italian architecture modeled on the figurations of an ancient past. He strove to advance the limits of purificazione among preexisting buildings, both inside the medieval walls and outside in the new city of Rhodes. “By translating the medioevo to the island,” according to D. Medina Lasansky, “the regime legitimized their claim to Rhodes as an extension of Italian territory.”

That which was being decoded here, however, was an erstwhile Mediterranean character located not in the structures themselves but in the territory between old and new. Di Fausto’s and other architects’ structures lining the rehabilitated Port of Mandraki, renamed the Foro Italico, including a dominant cinema on axis with the Palazzo Governatore, was a means by which the colony projected an image of itself using a novel syntax. Such is the case in Asmara, Eritrea, as well as later in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Italian architects considered themselves as arbiters of a collective memory in order to fashion proverbial newness within the colonial capitals.

In the Dodecanese, Di Fausto generated spaces and buildings that simultaneously obliged precedent while embodying an unrestricted Italian modernity. By contrast, in Tripoli, the historic center or medina remained on the edges of the public’s consciousness in the renovation of the dominant colonial or Italian public spaces. Behind its rusticated walls, the Tripoli medina was an isolated space for the performance of exotic “native” gestures. Similarly, one writer claims that retaining the walled portion of Rhodes in harmonious isolation, the old city became a vehicle by which the image of a new picturesque city emerged. Referring to the broader representation of Rhodes as both an ancient and modern city, Gustavo Giovannoni earlier quipped, “What will be the stylistic character to give to the buildings of the new town? Will it be advisable to continue along the path of ancient repetitions and imitations indicated by the architect of the church now being built? Frankly, no. In our view, it would be a very serious mistake.” Since, as Eliana Perotti has suggested, one of the goals of the regime was to preserve historical structures associated with the Knights of Rhodes in addition to fabricating new structures using a reductive medieval style, the buildings along the sea edge of Rhodes Town visually and spatially restructure the island’s primary port of entry, with a modern Italian identity.

The most striking element in the city plan of Rhodes is Di Fausto’s strident linearity along the waterfront and among other boroughs in the new town. The road network developed under the same auspices as those for all the colonies allowed for the preexisting terrain of the island to be uncovered. As a result, Di Fausto “allowed for certain remains and alignments of the orthogonal mesh laid down at the foundation of Rhodes in 408-407 BCE by Hippodamus of Miletus”. Conversant with other seaside colonial cities, the bracketing of the waterfront and the horizon allows for the manufacture of two artificial natures: that of the colonial city and its Mediterranean mirror. With the new market at one edge and the sea at the other, the Foro Italico binds the historic port and its new architecture. The assemblage of government and communal structures placed in between the two edges embody in name and disposition symbolic allegiances to Romanità. Coincidentally, Di Fausto’s master plan was engineered at nearly the same time as the eponymous sporting complexes in Rome among whose halls and fields the regime’s locution of physical might continually reference the ancient hero. In his urban plans and buildings for the Dodecanese, Di Fausto shies from the making of copies. Rather, among his acts of renovation and excavation in Rhodes, the architect imparts an iconography of mediterraneità: what it means to be Italian, that is, a conscious and perpetual negotiation of the colonial and modern.