An early-20th-century Roman neighborhood you won’t fìnd on any postcard is actually one of the most enchanting areas of the entire city. A tiny corner of Rome to the north of the historic center-much too small to be considered an actual district-Coppedè is a wonderland straight out of a dream. Fairies, castles, and imaginary creatures are at home in these few city blocks, where an architect’s wildest fantasies were transformed into concrete creations.
Named for architect Gino Coppedè, the four blocks between Via Tagliamento and Via Regina Margherita, and centering on Piazza Mincio, are a delightful fairytale world suspended in the middle of a modern metropolis. The buildings ignore all the conventional designs of the day, and Coppedè, a master carver from Florence, achieved sheer unpredictability with his brilliant imagination as well as the variety of materials used, specifically wood, stone, and iron. Coppedè proved to be without rival when it came to working with diverse materials, and this ability translated into a rich and elaborate style that stretched almost as far as full-on eclecticism. And although the combination of so many styles and materials may seem incongruous, it’s rather a tribute to the Roman baroque style, in which the intention was to surprise and delight the viewer with optical illusions. In addition, influences from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance can be seen in details like cast iron, perforated marble, stained glass, mosaics, and enamel.
Despite the architect’s versatile spirit, he also possessed a sensitivity to the needs of the day, and thus, many of the constructions are a direct response to the practical demands of modern life. The neighborhood would go on to become a residential area for state officials who wanted not just homes but status symbols. Coppedè created structures brimming with decoration-at times macabre and grotesque-that opened the doors to social recognition for the upwardly mobile members of society.
Incredible is perhaps the best adjective to describe the aesthetics of the area. Visitors come upon it through a grand archway on Via Dora strung with a chandelier and topped by two asymmetrical towers. This is the Palazzo degli Ambasciatori (Palace of the Ambassadors). The palazzo and the neighborhood’s other remarkable buildings may not be open to visitors, but can nevertheless easily be admired from the outside. Peek through the palace’s Fiorentine double windows and bow windows for a glimpse of its refined ceiling vaults, and admire the loggias that seem to make the travertine walls vibrate.
Next, marvel at the so-called Villini delle Fate (Fairies’ Cottages), further examples of Coppedè’s genius. The delightful structures are a combination of medieval and Art Nouveau styles, and are sunk within thick green 15th-century-style gardens. The effect of these architectural tricks is to emphasize the ephemeral aspects of Piazza Mincio, making it a fantastic setting full of visual surprises. The interior of these villas is where Coppedè reached the maximum expression of his genius, with his dreamy perception of the history of art: many styles and eras are incorporated into an almost visionary dimension, ranging from Da Vinci-esque frescoes to Pompeiian mosaics. In perfect Art Nouveau style is the Palazzo del Ragno (Palace of the Spider), where Coppedè attempted daring combinations (Assyrian-Babylonian with Byzantine and Medieval), rich with symbols and allegories. The enormous facade with its mosaic of a spider at the entrance are spectacular, especially at night.
In the center of the piazza is the bubbling Fountain of the Frogs, the unofficial symbol of the neighborhood. Built in 1927, it is adorned with frogs that drink from the edge of the upper pools, and large shells supported by pairs of kneeling figures. This fundamental element of the piazza exalts Rome’s artistic tradition, and sustains the neighborhood’s elite vocation. Today, more than ever, the Coppedè quarter is an unattainable object of desire for the city’s inhabitants and this magical wonderland for Roman Alices is destined to remain so, due to its sky-high real estate prices.