Roman Aquarium

The building that stands at the centre of Piazza Manfredo Fanti was designed in 1885 by Ettore Bernich. The building was intended to be an original meeting place for the middle class people living in the area, and was supposed to host an aquarium and a fish farm. This bizarre idea was the brainchild of the fish farming expert Peter Garganico, who wished it to become a true centre for scientific experimentation, in line with the theories propounded by Quintino Sella. The latter envisioned development initiatives to improve society through education and the development of private business ventures for Italy’s fledgling capital city. The Roman Aquarium was thus born with a purpose that was at once commercial-entrepreneurial and aimed at education and outreach; it was to have a mixed public-private management.

In the initial project, much of today’s Piazza Fanti was occupied by an artificial lake, also incorporating the remains of the Servian walls. These were to be used in accordance with contemporary taste as a decorative monumental feature that accentuated the area’s Romantic and picturesque appearance. The main building, now home to the House of Architecture, takes up the marine theme in its architectural decorations and interiors, and was meant to host the aquarium tanks and some structures belonging to the fish farm.

After the abandonment of the project, there were a series of attempts starting in 1892 to convert the structure for other purposes. However, these only resulted in a temporary use of the spaces for theatrical performances, exhibitions and conferences. In the early twentieth century, the structure finally found a more long-term purpose and was used for several years as a cinema and theatre: gradually, however, it was downgraded to a storage facility for Opera House sets. Whole generations of inhabitants and visitors to the Esquiline have been fascinated by this place, drawn by the mystery of a strangely shaped building with an incomprehensible name and by the pond surrounded by Umbertine buildings. In 1985, at last, radical conservation work began on the whole structure. The new life of the Roman Aquarium has seen a long series of temporary events: its unusual structure has made it the ideal venue for cultural events, workshops and exhibitions, which have sometimes succeeded in enhancing the elliptical space and brightness of the monumental hall. In recent years, the space has become home to Rome’s Order of Architects and in its new role as the “House of Architecture” is often used as an exhibition centre for contemporary architecture. This original monument, after more than a century of restless existence, has finally taken on a stable role in the neighbourhood.