Porto di Ripetta: the vanished harbor and the lost connection between Rome and the Tiber

The porto di Ripetta was spectacularly designed by Alessandro Specchi at the beginning of the 18th century as an exemplar landmark in the Campo Marzio area, which ideally linked the Spanish Steps up to the Tiber river. For the time being, only old photographs, engravings and paintings can bring that harbor back to light, thus recalling the fascinating aspect of a vanished Rome in harmonious connection with the Tiber river.

A new harbor for the waterway trade

Pope Clemente XI Albani needed to redevelop the areas along the Tiber river, so he decided to commission the building of the porto di Ripetta (also called “porto Clementino”), together with the tiding up of the porto di Ripa Grande (the main harbor linked to the maritime traffic of wares) and the Forum Boarium.

You find it here

Giovanni Battista Falda, Chiesa di San Girolamo della natione de’ Schiav.ni nella regione di Campo Marzio a Ripetta, 1665-1669, etching (289 x 171) cm. [1] Here the irregular landing place is still visibile before the construction of the harbor.

Giovanni Battista Falda, Chiesa di San Girolamo della natione de’ Schiav.ni nella regione di Campo Marzio a Ripetta, 1665-1669, etching (289 x 171) mm. [1] Here the irregular landing place is still visibile before the construction of the harbor.

The porto di Ripetta was especially destined to arrange and improve the inland waterway trade. It had to offer docking for small boats, receiving wood and foodstuffs like oil and wine coming along the Tiber river from the northern Latium and southern Umbria regions. In the meantime, this new enterprise was intended to show an accomplishment in the range of the program of reforms debated by the “Congregazione del sollievo”. [2] The new harbor then took on the essential function as urban junction, entering in osmosis with the newly reevaluated area of Tridente (composed of three streets: via di Ripetta, via del Corso – formerly via Lata – and via del Babuino) and ideally connecting the Tiber river up to Trinità dei Monti, later embellished with the building of the Scalinata (Spanish Steps).

The building of the harbor proceeded very quickly: decided in 1703 [3] [4] [5], it was fulfilled in the following year, [6] although the commemorative plaque dedicated to pope Clemente XI was affixed in 1705.

Portrait of Niccolò del Giudice, engraving, via Bildarchiv Austria, Porträtsammlung.

Portrait of Niccolò del Giudice, engraving, via Bildarchiv Austria, Porträtsammlung.

Monsignor Niccolò or Nicola del Giudice (Naples 1660 – Rome 1743) was the superintendent of this work in his capacity as “Presidente delle acque e delle strade” (literary, “president of the waters and the streets”), leading the Tribunale delle Strade, an institution in charge of the urban decorum in Rome, like arranging, cleaning and building the streets. The administrative office at the Tribunale delle Strade was managed by architects, each one of them having the jurisdiction over the lots belonging to one Rione at least (a district of the city). [2]

In spite of choosing Carlo Fontana, one of the most affirmed architects in Rome at that time, Del Giudice decided to entrust the project of the porto di Ripetta to Alessandro Specchi (Rome 1666/8 ? – Rome 1729), one of the architects under his direction and also one of the main Roman collaborators of Carlo Fontana’s studio. [2] In particular, since 1702 Specchi was “sottomaestro delle strade”, being involved in the Tribunale delle Strade lead by del Giudice. The period of Specchi’s main activity as an architect wavers between the beginning of the 18th century and the early 1720s. [7] [8] [9] [10] Specchi was also well known for his activity as an engraver of the plates designed by Carlo Fontana, illustrating many works by the same master or concerning Rome’s topography and architecture. His role allowed him to deepen the study of architecture through the engravings. [6] [11]

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the porto di Ripetta (Veduta del Porto di Ripetta), ca. 1753, etching (54,2 x 78,9) cm. [12]

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the porto di Ripetta (Veduta del Porto di Ripetta), ca. 1753, etching (54,2 x 78,9) cm. [3]

Alessandro Specchi and his spectacular invention

The new harbor shined as an exemplar urban intervention and it was interpreted by Alessandro Specchi as the occasion of enhancing the modern bent distinguishing the area of Tridente, according to the surrounding buildings. [2]

Ettore Roesler Franz, La Fontana Clementina al Porto di Ripetta, 1878, watercolor on paper.

Ettore Roesler Franz, La Fontana Clementina al Porto di Ripetta, 1878, watercolor on paper.

Accomplishing his evocative invention, he gave the possibility of ascending towards via di Ripetta from the bank of the river through an elaborated stairway, characterized by multiple centering with stringcourses. The undulating shape of the staircases in a double S movement looked like an extension of the wavy water. At the top, an airy semicircular piazza was enclosed by a panoramic balustrade, adorned with a fountain and comfortably equipped with a spacious seat. The 16th century façade of the chiesa di  San Girolamo degli Illirici (also known as chiesa di San Girolamo dei Croati or degli Schiavoni) was raised as the visual fulcrum of this spectacular landmark. [2]

The Fontana dei Navigatori (or Fontana del Navigatore) at the center of the piazza was designed in the same years by Alessandro Specchi. This fountain has been decontextualized because it was moved aside and it is currently arranged in front of the façade of the Palazzo Marescalchi at piazza del Porto di Ripetta, near the Palazzo Borghese at Largo della Fontanella Borghese.

View of the porto di Ripetta, 1750, via Sistema Bibliotecario Sapienza. [13]

View of the porto di Ripetta, 1750, via Sistema Bibliotecario Sapienza. [13]

Inspiring models for the harbor design

Anonymous, Porto di Ripetta, ca. 1865, photograph.

Anonymous, Porto di Ripetta, ca. 1865, photograph.

Particularly for this project, Specchi rejected the classical repertoire which then distinguished the master Carlo Fontana. [6] He rather found inspiration in the most creative achievements of the modern architecture, molding this imaginative work of art as the perfect blend of elements by Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona.

Specchi drew in fact new scenographic effects from a fluid elaboration of curved lines, still reminiscent of Francesco Borromini’s plastic conception of space. In particular, the central part of the stairway can be qualified as Borrominian in his concave-convex movement. [6]

Giuseppe Vasi, Casino al Pigneto del Marchese Sacchetti, engraving, plate 183, via Vasi’s Grand Tour. [14]

Giuseppe Vasi, Casino al Pigneto del Marchese Sacchetti, engraving, plate 183, via Vasi’s Grand Tour. [14]

On the other hand, the space conceived by Specchi was linked to Pietro da Cortona due to his capacity of creating an exchange between architectural structures and the naturalistic landscape in the surroundings, as in the vanished Casino di Villa Sacchetti al Pigneto designed by Cortona, where the presence of the basin well represented the harmony of architecture and water. The movement created by Cortona was not completely curvilinear nor centralized as in Specchi’s architecture, yet a similar conception of space caused an interruption of the stairway movement, blocked by rectilinear sections. Moreover, a similar Cortonesque idea of the flights of stairs descending from the above-ground terracing still survived in the porto di Ripetta.

Alessandro Specchi (attr.), Project for the Scalinata di piazza di Spagna, first quarter of the 18th century, mixed technique on paper, (664 x 438) mm, via Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, Fondo Lanciani, Rome.

Alessandro Specchi (attr.), Project for the Scalinata di piazza di Spagna, first quarter of the 18th century, mixed technique on paper, (664 x 438) mm, via Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, Fondo Lanciani, Rome.

Furthermore, a prelude for the double flights of stairs of the porto di Ripetta could hark back to the projects by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the Scalinata di piazza di Spagna (at that time piazza di Francia). [2] Before the final 18th century design by Francesco De Sanctis, Bernini conceived in fact some projects for the dynamic stairway linking the piazza di Spagna to the chiesa di Trinità dei Monti. The projects were drawn by his workshop around 1660, the year of the early commission, and they were left unfulfilled. Later around 1717, pope Clemente XI thought again of this stairway, fostering several architects to submit new ideas on the occasion of a contest. Alessandro Specchi took into consideration Bernini's projects while designing the porto di Ripetta, also influencing the Scalinata di piazza di Spagna, in turn. The connection between the porto di Ripetta and the Scalinata di piazza di Spagna seems confirmed by the existence of some projects attributed to the same Specchi for the latter architecture (ca. 1717-1718).

Vincenzo and Felice della Greca, stairway of the chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Sisto, ca. 1654-1664, Rome.

Vincenzo and Felice della Greca, stairway of the chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Sisto, ca. 1654-1664, Rome.

Another inspiration particularly for Specchi’s curvilinear hemicycle could be also found in the stairway of the chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Sisto, based on the little tower which determines a structure of two flights of lateral stairs ascending to a little terrace in front of the church façade. This stairway was designed around 1654-1664 by Vincenzo della Greca, an architect coming from the Sicilian city of Palermo, together with his son Felice. [6]

Moreover, Specchi’s invention was likely inspired by the engravings belonging to the treatise on architecture by Andrea Pozzo. [15] [2]

Andrea Pozzo, Plant and perspective of a stairway, tavv. 112-113 [15]

Andrea Pozzo, Plant and perspective of a stairway, tavv. 112-113 [15]

The Dogana di Terra

Alessandro Specchi also designed the palazzetto della Dogana di Terra, next to the chiesa di San Rocco which still showed an unfinished façade (“a rustico”), before the Neoclassic intervention dating to the 19th century.

Antonio D’Alessandri (1818-1893), View of the old porto di Ripetta (Sponda sinistra, Porto di Ripetta, Vedute del Tevere in Roma prima della sua sistemazione), 1878, albumin photograph (270 x 379) mm, Rome, Museo di Roma, Inv. AF 6059/8.

Antonio D’Alessandri (1818-1893), View of the old porto di Ripetta (Sponda sinistra, Porto di Ripetta, Vedute del Tevere in Roma prima della sua sistemazione), 1878, albumin photograph (270 x 379) mm, Rome, Museo di Roma, Inv. AF 6059/8.

Aimed at clearing the incoming wares through customs, the building was annexed to the harbor and provided with storehouses, offices and two overlapping rental apartments. [2] According to the practical use of the customs building, the simple rationalism of the dogana stood out near the dynamic and scenographic stairway of the harbor, arousing a contrast typical of the early 18th century architecture. The severe cubic structure of the dogana was only distinguished by the sober and regular windows, vertically articulated by flat pilasters.

The building offered diversified façades on via di Ripetta, the harbor and the Tiber river. The balconies and the terrace allowed a breathtaking view beyond the river up to San Pietro and, on the opposite side, beyond the palaces of Rome up to the Pincio and Trinità dei Monti. [2]

Porto di Ripetta viewed from the chiesa di San Girolamo degli Illirici (Prospetto del nuovo navale dalla banda della strada del Popolo), early 18th century, engraving from Domenico de Rossi’s printing workshop.

Porto di Ripetta viewed from the chiesa di San Girolamo degli Illirici (Prospetto del nuovo navale dalla banda della strada del Popolo), early 18th century, engraving from Domenico de Rossi’s printing workshop.

The river embankments and the lost connection with the Tiber

Anonymous, View of the old porto di Ripetta with the ponte di Ripetta (Sponda sinistra, Porto di Ripetta, Vedute del Tevere in Roma prima della sua sistemazione), 1887, photograph.

Anonymous, View of the old porto di Ripetta with the ponte di Ripetta (Sponda sinistra, Porto di Ripetta, Vedute del Tevere in Roma prima della sua sistemazione), 1887, photograph.

Several changes affected the harbor during his relatively brief existence throughout two centuries.

The porto di Ripetta, a bridge made of cast iron and metal was added just in front of the chiesa di  San Girolamo degli Illirici in the second half of the 19th century, in order to connect the two banks of the river. Nevertheless, the bridge was later destroyed and its function was substituted by the new ponte Cavour.

The structure of the harbor has been largely buried underground on the occasion of the construction of the embankments along the Tiber river, in the late 19th century. Even if this decision was made in order to prevent recurring floods, the embankments have entailed the loss of the deep-rooted connection between Rome and the Tiber river.

Ponte di Ripetta and the construction of the Tiber embankments, 1887, photograph, via Archivio fotografico Ceccarius.

Ponte di Ripetta and the construction of the Tiber embankments, 1887, photograph, via Archivio fotografico Ceccarius.

Other transformations occurred in the same area during the 1930s, on the occasion of the Fascist demolitions and then the arrangements of the near piazza Augusto Imperatore.
For the time being, only early photographs, engravings and paintings can bring the porto di Ripetta back to light, yet the hope of seeing it somehow rebuilt still remains.

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Via di Ripetta in Rome, ca. 1742 – 1744, oil on canvas (87,5 x 149) cm, Düsseldorf, Museum Kunstpalast, Inv. M 246.

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Via di Ripetta in Rome, ca. 1742 – 1744, oil on canvas (87,5 x 149) cm, Düsseldorf, Museum Kunstpalast, Inv. M 246.


Chiesa di San Girolamo degli Illirici next to chiesa di San Rocco in piazza del Porto di Ripetta in Rome, at present.

Chiesa di San Girolamo degli Illirici next to chiesa di San Rocco in piazza del Porto di Ripetta in Rome, at present.


References

[1] G. B. Falda, Vedute delle fabbriche, piazze et strade fatte fare nuovam.te in Roma dalla S.ta' di N. S. Ale[s]sandro VII, Roma: Date in luce con dirrettione et cura di Gio. Iacomo Rossi, 1665.
[2] G. Curcio, "Lo stato della Chiesa. Roma tra il 1700 e il 1730," in Storia dell'architettura italiana. Il Settecento, G. Curcio and E. Kieven, Eds., Milano, Electa, 2000, pp. 146-183.
[3] A. M. Taja, Lettera e poetici componimenti in ragguaglio e in encomio della Nuova Ripa presso al Sepolcro de' Cesari in Roma, ridotta per intendimento e per ordine della Santità di N. Signore Papa Clemente XI a foggia di sontuoso navale [...], Romae: Typis Cajetani Zenobji, 1705.
[4] T. A. Marder, "The Porto di Ripetta in Rome," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 28-56, March 1980. Online [accessed July 2015]
[5] A. Busiri Vici, "Il palazzo della dogana al porto di Ripetta," Capitolium, no. 49, pp. 490-497, 1965.
[6] R. Wittkower, Arte e architettura in Italia. 1600-1750, Torino: Einaudi, 1993 (1958).
[7] B. Principato, "Documenti inediti per la vita e l'opera di Alessandro Specchi," Palladio, vol. III, no. 6, pp. 97-118, July-December 1990.
[8] T. Manfredi, "Specchi, Alessandro," in In Urbe Architectus. Modelli, disegni, misure. La professione dell'architetto, Roma 1680-1750 (catalogo della mostra, Roma, Castel Sant'Angelo, dicembre 1991 - febbraio 1992), B. Contardi and G. Curcio, Eds., Roma, Argos, 1991, pp. 445-448.
[9] E. J. Olszewski, "Specchi, Alessandro," in Dictionary of Art, vol. 8, Willard, Ohio, Grove, 1996.
[10] G. Spagnesi, Alessandro Specchi : alternativa al borrominismo, Torino: Testo & immagine, 1997.
[11] T. Ashby and T. S. Welsh, "Alessandro Specchi," The Town planning Review, vol. XII, no. 4, pp. 237-248, December 1927. Digitization
[12] G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma disegnate ed incise da Giambattista Piranesi Architetto Veneziano, Roma: Presso l' Autore a Strada Felice nel Palazzo Tomati vicino alla Trinità de' monti, 1839.
[13] G. Roisecco, A. Alamannus and P. Capelli, Roma antica, e moderna o sia Nuova descrizione di tutti gl'edificj antichi, e moderni, tanto sagri, quanto profani della città di Roma formata con l'autorità del cardinal Baronio [...], vol. I, Roma: appresso Gregorio Roisecco, mercante di libri in piazza Navona, nella stamperia Puccinelli, 1750.
[14] G. Vasi and G. Bianchini, Delle Magnificenze di Roma libro decimo che contiene le ville e giardini più rimarchevoli [...], Roma: Nella stamperia del Chracas presso S. Marco al Corso, 1761.
[15] A. Pozzo, Prospettiva de' pittori, e architetti [...], vol. II, Roma: Stamperia di Antonio de' Rossi, 1737 (1700). 

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