When you arrive at the American Academy in Rome you are handed a packet with your keys, a set of rules, in case you did not dowload the ones sent to you and a pamphlet with the names of all The Rome Prize Winners. Below each person’s name is their profession and in approximately 147 characters, their stated project I went through the list of recipients to see who I might have something in common with. Ruth W. Lo stood out: Feeding Rome: Food, Architecture and Urbanism of City Markets, 1907-1943. The Randall’s Island Urban Farm, has put urban ag on my radar. The idea of someone focusing on a such a rarefied subject matter, like urban ag during Fascism intrigued me.
Phyllis: What brought you to study this period?
Ruth: I came to this topic rather circuitously. For my master’s thesis, I looked at the designs of rational kitchens, especially as they were written by the so-called “domestic scientists” in Italy. These were female writers who were inspired by the works of other women, such as Christine Frederick and Grete Schütte-Lihotzky, during the 1920s and 1930s. For this project, I researched Italian food policies during this time to understand how they might have influenced ideas of kitchen design.
For my doctoral dissertation, I decided to broaden the scope of my study beyond the domestic realm, so I conceived of a project that looks at how food could shape the urban environment. My current research builds on my previous work and knowledge of the food situation during fascist Italy, and I look at Rome as a case study.
Phyllis: Can you talk about the period 1907-1943 – why that period?
Ruth: This period is defined by mayoral terms in Rome beginning with the inauguration of Ernesto Nathan as mayor in 1907 and ending with the tenure of Giangiacomo Borghese, the last governatore appointed by the National Fascist Party. Nathan was a very important figure in Rome’s city history. Historians have widely credited him as the mayor who modernized Rome by municipalizing the city’s power grid as well as emphasizing sanitation in city planning. He worked with Edmondo Sanjust di Teulada, an engineer, to come up with the piano regolatore of 1909, which included the planning of markets and other buildings for food processing and vending in Rome. Many of the projects that Nathan initiated were not finished until the fascist regime came to power in 1922.
During the fascist ventennio (1922-1943), food was an exceptionally important subject due to the political situation at the time. There were huge food propaganda campaigns, including the most well-known “The Battle for Grain,” as Italy aimed to achieve self-sufficiency. These campaigns only intensified after the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Italy — consequences of the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 — which motivated the country to be even more autarchic.
My project thus traces the architecture and planning of food buildings that started under Nathan’s administration and finished during the fascist period in Rome.
Phyllis: What interests you about this topic?
Ruth: I think of this project as one of the many ways of looking at Rome’s urban planning and development shaped by food availability, politics, technology, and so many other factors. Food is also such a central part of Italian culture, so I find the resources for this project to be extra rich and layered.
At this time, specifically, many of these buildings are under threat of being torn down by the city or in the process of being transformed into something else (eg. the ex-wholesale market currently being reconceived as a multi-use social center). I find this moment to be an exciting time to dig into Rome’s history and look at how the city was shaped by a very quotidian and indispensable part of life.