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How To Define Intolerance? A Roman Quandary

In late February 1997, a group of Roman artists and intellectuals met to prepare for the millennium. Unlike its cultish counterparts, this group did not expect any universal shifts to come with the year 2000. The members believed that life in the 21st-century would probably look much like it did in the 20th, and the 19th and before. Their task, as they defined it, was not to prepare humankind for redemption but to take the change of centuries as an opportunity to learn from history.

Specifically, the group envisioned a provocative learning institution that might draw meaning out of the past and stimulate critical self-reflection in the present. Following philosopher Hannah Arendt, they believed in the banality of evil and hoped to bring to Rome an awareness that violence is part of normal human experience. By the end of its February meeting, the group proposed an ambitious municipal project: a major new museum of intolerance and genocide.

Luca Zevi, a leading Roman architect and a member of the group, drew up plans for the new museum. He designed an elaborate complex, featuring a core exhibition space documenting European intolerance and genocide and three twisted arms reaching out to hold exhibits on violence in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Zevi and his colleagues brought the proposal to Rome’s Jewish community leaders, who had been developing plans for a Holocaust museum, and together they presented the plans to an enthusiastic Walter Veltroni — then Rome’s minister of culture, now its mayor — who gave Zevi the go-ahead. The future looked promising for the Museum of Intolerances and Exterminations, and Rome seemed to be headed toward a serious reconsideration of history and memory.

But as the millennium approached, bureaucratic hurdles gave way to substantive obstacles, and the project got caught in the middle of an intense and revealing Jewish communal debate on the nature of intolerance. Members of the Jewish community wondered whether it might be better to commemorate the Holocaust first, before broadening to include other atrocities. Zevi argued that a museum taking a broad view of atrocities itself constitutes a commemoration of the Holocaust, and a museum that focuses narrowly on Jewish experience misses the point.

And Rome is just the place for the Jewish community to take a universalistic approach, Zevi argued. The only Jewish community in the Western world with a continuous presence for more than 2,000 years, the Roman Jewish community is “very Roman,” he said. “Without the split identity that sometimes makes other Diaspora Jewish communities identify so closely with Jewish suffering. Given its unique position, Zevi argued, the Roman Jewish community could be expected to take a broad view of intolerance.

But the Jewish community pushed for a Holocaust museum, and the municipality gave its consent. Zevi stayed on as the project’s architect, but the design elements of his initial scheme have changed. When he presents his latest plans January 27, Italy’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, there will be no twisted arms or contorted core, only a heavy gray box, pressing down over the entrance and the whole of the building. No Museum of Intolerances, only a Museum of the Holocaust.

At stake in the transition is more than just architectural plans. Lost was what Zevi considers the “most deep lesson from the Shoah”: that intolerance against one group is a danger to all. For Zevi, an examination of the intolerances and genocides of our time is a direct response to the Holocaust, one that acknowledges the full implications of the Jewish genocide rather than focusing myopically on the tragedy of Jewish experience in World War II.

At a time when every European city seems to want a Holocaust museum, perhaps it should not be surprising that Zevi is in the minority in Rome’s debate. In the shadow of Berlin’s Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind and Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman, London, Vienna, Paris and many smaller cities have erected their own museums and memorials. Applying architecture to the memory of the Holocaust, European cities mark their distance from World War II, demonstrating the progress of their recovery in the 60 years since the war. Serving a dual function, these new museums have taken on the tough job of redeeming European cities from the ghosts of their past and from the urban problems of their present. Expected to perform something like the “Bilbao effect,” in which Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum sparked a rise in tourism and an economic renaissance in the Spanish industrial city, these new Holocaust museums are counted on to spur a rebirth that is more psychological in nature.

But in a city as old and as layered as Rome, perhaps no museum is needed to dredge up the past. In Rome, where buildings are hardly ever torn down, and the urban fabric serves as a historical record of civilizations, past and present seem to coexist in a way that some say is unique to the “eternal” city. “Rome is a town of great synthesis,” Zevi said, speaking from the architecture studio on the first floor of his family home, just four blocks northeast of the site of the new museum. “The Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the Renaissance” are some examples of that great synthesis. The Jewish community is another.

“We are very Roman,” Zevi said, and explained that he can trace his paternal lineage back to Rome in the first centuries C.E. Speaking of the Jewish community as a “unique phenomenon,” he argued that its continuous presence in Rome allowed for the development of a Roman Jewish community that counts among the city’s great syntheses.The distinctive experience of his community, Zevi suggests, manifests itself in a Jewish identity that includes none of the outsider mentality, none of the sense of marginalization or identification with oppression that characterizes so much of the Diaspora Jewish Experience. With such an identity, the Jews of Rome should have no need to focus narrowly on the suffering of Jews; they are, Zevi suggests, in a unique position to take a universalistic approach to human rights.

Uniquely positioned as the Roman Jewish community may be, though, it remains a Jewish community with a memory of the Holocaust, and, like so many other Jewish communities, a profound need to have that memory made public. It’s not because Italian Jewish history is particularly violent, in the scheme of things — in fact, compared with Germany and its other neighbors, Italy was relatively good to the Jews during World War II. Mussolini had no personal investment in Jewish genocide, and Italy joined in only when Germany invaded, late in 1943.

But perhaps because World War II chipped away at the great synthesis that was the Roman Jewish community, or because communities are inherently interested in preserving their own, Jewish community leaders withdrew support for Zevi’s museum and lobbied for legislation enabling a Holocaust museum. Perhaps because of the new popularity of Holocaust commemoration in European cities, plans are under way for a federal museum in Ferrara, near Venice, for a memorial in Milan and for Zevi’s municipal museum in Rome.

Disappointed as he was about the failure of the Museum of Intolerances, Zevi agreed to work on the Holocaust museum, along with co-architect Giorgio Tamburini. Their plans include a heavy dark box fronted by a 10-meter-high wall of light spanning the facade of the building, with names of the more than 7,000 Italian Jewish victims of the Holocaust scrolling across it. Inside, temporary and permanent exhibition spaces, a library, classroom space and a cafeteria will host an ambitious educational program, including a collaboration with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation collection of survivor testimonies.

The architecture is heavily symbolic: The wall of light underscores the disparity between light and dark, and the heavy box evokes the weight of tragedy. But, like Libeskind’s Jewish museum in Berlin, the museum will be symbolic without being rhetorical; evocative without being literal. By his own admission, Zevi’s designs for the Holocaust museum are less ambitious and more conventional than his designs for the Museum of Intolerances. As the moral agenda of the museum scaled back, the architecture did, too.

But there’s one thing that keeps Zevi excited about the Holocaust museum. The project is sited for the grounds of a 19th-century neoclassical estate now being redeveloped into a museum park. The estate, Villa Torlonia, served as Mussolini’s country home for a short time while he was dictator, and the irony of that coincidence has not escaped public notice and may even have contributed to the municipality’s decision to site its Holocaust museum there. Appropriately for Rome, the history of the site is layered, and conflicted.

There is another aspect of the project’s site that has deeper historical resonance for Zevi. Located beneath the grounds of Villa Torlonia is a Jewish catacomb, one of five in Rome. For Zevi, the labyrinth beneath the villa symbolizes the history of Jewish struggle, the persistent undermining of authority and assertion of identity that characterize Jewish history.

Zevi’s father, eminent architectural critic Bruno Zevi (1918-2000), spoke to the Roman Jewish community in June 1974, saying that the series of wandering underground passageways “literally corroded, undermined the very foundations of the great Roman city that stretched above them,” going underground “to burst the earthly city above.”

For Bruno Zevi, the catacombs served as evidence of a historical assertion of a Jewish identity that manifests itself in the wandering of the underground passages. For Luca Zevi, the catacombs that lie beneath the site of his new museum add another level of questions to the project. The passages, which will be restored and made open to the public as part of Zevi’s museum project, will beg questions about the museum above.

Adina Lopatin researched the life and work of Bruno Zevi at his archives in Rome last summer, thanks to a Marshall-Allison Fellowship from the history of art department at Yale.

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