Monte Mario: my first view of Rome

Tom Brigden was Giles Worsley Travel Fellow at the BSR in 2012. Here he tells us about his time at the BSR, his work as an architect at a leading international architectural practice specialising in conservation, and what J.M.W. Turner has got to do with Rome.

 T. Brigden, Nuova Pianta di Roma 2012, graphite and ink, 42x30cm

T. Brigden, Nuova Pianta di Roma, 2012, graphite and ink, 42 x 30 cm

Few cities could be said to approach Rome in terms of sheer density of historic and cultural sites, crowded as they are – quite literally in some cases – one on top of another. Given the opportunity, then, to live and work in such a place, what would be your first destination?

It is 9am, on a beautifully sunny October morning in 2012, my first morning in Rome. I’m heading north from the BSR, leaving the clustered domes and pinnacles of the city’s beguiling skyline behind me. My destination is the Riserva Naturale di Monte Mario to the northeast of the city. First impressions are not promising. Crossing the Tiber south of the Foro Italico, a tortuous knot of seemingly impregnable motorway slip roads and roaring traffic separate me from the park’s rusting barbed entrance gates.


Within, things do not initially improve, confronted as I am with littered scrub, vandalised bins and graffiti covered walls. However, as I begin climbing the steep, switch-back cobbled road which ascends the mountain I soon find myself immersed within a tangled ancient forest. Of course, ancient this forest may be, but to assume it is untouched by human hand in a place such as Rome would be a mistake; shattered walls and terraces revealed at each hair-pin bend hint at diverse former vocations ranging from Roman cemetery to seventeenth-century pleasure gardens and nineteenth-century fortress.

Though the gradually diminishing hum of the traffic I left behind seems an un-welcome modern interruption within this tranquil forest, the cobbled tracks traversing the mountain once formed the final triumphal stage of the so-called Via Francigena, the ’road from France’ European pilgrims took en-route to the Vatican. As such, these tracks once thronged with weary pilgrims and heavily-laden animals, drinking in their first views of the city and St Peter’s basilica beyond.


T. Brigden, City, Landscape, Fragment II, 2012, graphite and ink 42 x 30 cm

This magnificent panorama of the city, the sinuous Tiber sweeping in a broad meander between the Milvian Bridge and Mausoleum of Augustus, framed by elegant stone pines and backed by distant blue-grey hills, is an unforgettable introduction to the city. These wooded slopes were once the prized locations for grand villas, most notably the villa of the Roman poet Martial, Pietro da Cortona’s Pigneto Sacchetti (destroyed) and Raphael’s Villa Madama (left unfinished and largely altered), all of which carefully manipulated the contours of the hillside to take maximum advantage of the vista.

Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the atmospheric ruins of these artistic and architectural treasures became a popular stop on the Grand Tour. Reaching an unusably decrepit bench at the summit of the hill, I muse on the idea that writers William Wordsworth and Henry James, artists Claude Lorrain, J.M.W. Turner, William Marlow and Richard Wilson, among many others, have all stood on this spot and admired the view. In fact, the popular depiction of this viewpoint, on countless canvasses, in numerous books, in hundreds of prints, contributed to its absorption into the British popular imagination; aristocratic gentlemen soon referred to the particular characteristics of a view from their Thames-side villas as equal to that of Rome’s Monte Mario. And yet, despite this fame, I enjoy this silent belvedere alone – you will not see the coach parties that crowd the Janiculum, the posing lovers of the Pincian or the group ‘selfies’ of the Capitoline hills here.


T. Brigden, City, Landscape, Fragment IV, 2012, graphite and ink 42 x 30 cm

This brings me to why I could not resist Monte Mario as my first destination in Rome. My research interests lie in the contemporary phenomenon of view preservation within urban and historic environments. My PhD dissertation explored the history of view protection in London, which has some of the strictest view management policies of any world city, tracing its origin to the picturesque movement and the popularisation of a particular view of London, the view from Richmond Hill. As a final post-script to my dissertation I was keen to explore the connection between the Richmond Hill and Monte Mario views, which were frequently directly compared by writers, architects and artists, including Turner, Marlow and Wilson. My time at the BSR, generously supported by the Giles Worsley Fellowship allowed me the unrivalled opportunity to gather material and connections, in the libraries of the BSR, American Academy and in the city’s many public and private collections of art. Without the generosity and support of the BSR’s staff and other scholars, I could not have hoped to achieve this. As an architect with conservation specialist Purcell LLP, I utilise the skills I gained at the BSR in practice as well as in my academic work. This includes the preparation of detailed context and views analysis documents which inform the development of architectural and urban design proposals. As a practice, our work utilising such skills has included a huge diversity of complex projects, Tower Bridge, Durham Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster among them.

Every resident scholar, artist, architect or visitor to the BSR will have different ideas for their first excursion in the city. Those I met during my time at the school had plans ranging from following an itinerary of churches authored by Andrea Palladio, to the Beaux-Arts sculpture of Hendrik Christian Andersen, to the ossuaries of the Capuchin monks. It is this exposure to ideas, to different ways of seeing, experiencing and thinking about the city of Rome that I feel is one of the BSR’s greatest assets – I very much look forward to returning in the future, and another chance to see the city from a whole new perspective!

Dr Tom Brigden received a commendation for his PhD dissertation The Protected Vista: An Intellectual and Cultural History, As Seen From Richmond Hill at the Royal Institute of British Architect’s President’s Awards for Research 2014.

Applications are being invited for the 2015-16 Giles Worsley Rome Fellowship. See for further details. The closing date for applications is 18 February.