The strange vision of one man, the Quartiere Coppedè is just north of the city center and makes a charming visit off the tourist track.
Nestled in Rome’s leafy, upmarket Trieste-Salario district, not far from well-trudged paths through ancient sites but rarely visited by foreign tourists, a wonderful few hours can be spent experiencing the eccentric side of the city’s 19th and 20th century architecture by combining a short visit to the genteel Quartiere Coppedè with a longer stroll around Rome’s park of follies, Villa Torlonia, just 15 minutes’ walk away.
Just a block from the busy suburban artery of Viale Regina Margherita, in the sought-after residential district between Corso Trieste and Parioli, the Quartiere Coppedè is a crossroads of four city blocks, concentrated around a central fountain. Each building that makes up one corner of the block has a wildly different and fantastical style, which will be explained below.
The entire zone was built between 1921 and 1927 by Florentine architect, artist, and sculptor Gino Coppedè (that final accent means the name is pronounced with emphasis on the last syllable: coh-peh-DEH).
He was responsible for another six mansions in the surrounding streets, which are charming, but somewhat more pedestrian than the fantasies he created for the center of his quartiere.
Its otherworldly architecture has made it popular as a filming location, and it has been used as backdrop for the Italian movies “Inferno” and “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, both by director Dario Argento. It was also visited by the Beatles in 1965.
The architect: Gino Coppedè
Born in Florence in 1866, Coppedè – sometimes referred to as Italy’s Gaudí – was an artist and sculptor, as well as an architect. He became known for his elaborate and eclectic style, which embraced contemporary trends and ancient styles, combining elements of expressionism, classical architecture, futurism, baroque, art nouveau, the medieval, and art deco – with large dashes of his own whimsy thrown in for good measure.
You can find other Coppedè creations all over Italy, most notably a line of mansions and a modern-day castle on the seafront in Genoa, and a series of palazzi in Messina, Sicily.
Despite the mishmash of influences, he managed to achieve a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, – and even though many of his buildings are wildly different from each other, with their proliferation of detailed flourishes they remain unmistakably ‘Coppedè’ – after visiting the quartiere you will likely recognize another of his creations if you see it.
The architect never saw his eponymous quartiere fully completed. The final parts of the construction were completed by his brother-in-law Paolo Emilio André, and the Fountain of the Frogs wasn’t inaugurated and switched on until just after he died in 1927.
Coppedè had some influence on a few contemporaries, as may be seen by a few other 1920s constructions in Rome that mimic some of his quirks, but he does not appear to have had a huge influence on subsequent architects. This was probably to a large part because, even though he completed some commissions for Mussolini, his eclecticism deviated significantly from the single-minded focus on the neo-imperialist futurism of the fascist regime of the 1920s and 30s.
It is also likely that his influence on future architects was muted due to the sheer costs required to realize his elaborate visions, which despite their incorporation of modernist flourishes were more suited in scale and overall style to the previous century; few could afford the massive budgets required for such a variety of materials, artistry, and craftsmanship, especially not in ruined, post-war 20th century Italy. Thus he remains a unique eccentric – his legacy being the buildings he left behind, rather than a philosophical or artistic movement.
The Palaces of the Ambassadors (i Palazzi degli Ambasciatori)
As you approach the quartiere from the main street, the first thing you will notice is the famous arched entrance to the zone: two adjacent buildings joined by a huge two-story archway topped with a roof terrace, from which dangles a giant outdoor chandelier.
These “palaces of the ambassadors” were created to house diplomatic missions, but despite the South African and Moroccan embassies being located in the quartiere, there is no embassy located in either palazzo.
There is road access beneath the chandelier, and these days the road unfortunately provides parking to a large number of cars.
One of the palazzi is accessed up the steps and through a doorway surrounded with black and white tiling in a faux-middle-eastern style that bids the guest welcome in Latin. The other is plainer and has its entrance elsewhere.
Coppedè himself brought his family to live in apartment 2 in this building.
The Palace of the Spider (il Palazzo del Ragno)
An imposing art-deco-style face glares towards the fountain over the heads of the visitors to this palazzo, which gets its name from the spider motif picked out in stained glass above the front door.
Seemingly inspired by Babylonian design, the building also features animal-head gargoyles that stare menacingly down at the visitor.
The Fairy Houses (i Villini delle Fate)
The most ornate of all the buildings in the area, this mansion features a tower, and loggias with wooden pillars reminiscent of the cloisters of a Florentine monastery. It uses travertine, marble, and wood in its construction, and features bas relief sculptures and elaborate frescoes of Dante and Petrarch.
On one side it celebrates “bella Firenze”, while on the other it carries a likeness of the lion of Venice.
The Fountain of the Frogs (la Fontana delle Rane)
The centerpiece of the quartiere, this elaborate fountain is famous for an incident in which the Beatles famously (but only allegedly) outraged local sensibilities by jumping in after an evening of festivities at the nearby Piper Club in 1965. Amazingly, the Piper Club is still running, pandemic notwithstanding.
The fountain itself echoes a much earlier fountain that stands in Rome’s Ghetto – the Fountain of the Turtles – replacing one aquatic animal with another.
Below the upper basin (which itself is based on the shape of an imperial Roman bath), on which are perched the eponymous amphibians, are elaborate shells in the same style as those found on the Fountain of the Turtles, but rather than stylised dolphins spitting water, the flow is achieved here by cartoonish frogs and chubby nymphs.
The mystery of the horsefly
The Fountain of the Frogs carries a motif, four times around its base, which contains a conundrum on a half-shell: elsewhere in Rome, front of one of Coppedè’s less flamboyant constructions, stands a famous classical fountain.
In front of his elegant but unusually staid office building at Via Veneto 7, a few miles from the quartiere, is a baroque fountain created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1644 for Pope Urban VIII: the Fountain of the Bees (la Fontana delle Api). This simple construction comprises a large scallop shell carved out of marble, with three bees standing below on it spitting water into the basin.
These bees are the symbol of the Barberini family, and appear all over Rome on works they commissioned, particularly those by Pope Urban VIII, who was originally called Maffeo Barberini.
In Coppedè’s Fountain of the Frogs, there appears to be an embedded homage to this famous sculpture: a scallop shell in a similar configuration, with an insect below it – but the insect depicted is clearly not a bee but a horsefly (tafano).
Before gaining a Pope, the family did indeed have a horsefly as its symbol, but it was “upgraded” to a more dignified insect when the swarm of Barberini arrived in Rome and began packing the Vatican with family members “to suck the honey of the Church”, as one contemporary wryly remarked.
Since no documentation appears to exist about this particular part of the fountain, it’s unclear what Coppedè intended by this: was the lowly and unpleasant horsefly a subtle insult to the Barberini family, harking back to its less grand roots – or was the humble fly instead an homage of authenticity to fellow Florentines?
As with many of Coppedè’s creations, the multiple layers of symbols and references within raise many questions, but give few answers – which is part of the mysterious charm of this unique architect.
How to get to the Quartiere Coppedè
Touring the quartiere will take a maximum of half an hour, so as a visit it is probably best combined with a visit to nearby Villa Torlonia. If doing this, the nearest metro is Bologna. Alternatively it’s about 10-15 minutes’ walk from the Galleria Borghese.
If you want to travel directly there, take Tram 3 from Trastevere or Tram 19 from Prati, alighting at the Piazza Buenos Aires stop, from where it’s less than 5 minutes by foot.
If you’re taking a taxi, any taxi driver will know where the Quartiere Coppede is.