Two years ago, we made a family trip to Rome to check out possible schools for the children, give them a concrete sense of where we would be moving, and explore potential neighborhoods to look for apartments. We had absolutely no sense of where we were going as we traversed the city. As we stood on street corners trying to GoogleMap our way around, I complicated matters by insisting that we avoid—at all costs—walking through Piazza Venezia. I had taken an instant dislike to it.

Despite its renown, many first-time visitors find Rome off-putting. Compared to Florence or Venice, it can feel too crowded, too clamorous, too dirty, too chaotic, too confusing. And if there was ever a location this might ring especially true, it is Piazza Venezia. Piazza Venezia is the geographic heart in the center of Rome, almost like a bull’s-eye. The piazza is named for the Palazzo Venezia, which was the foreign embassy of the Venetians and then the headquarters of Benito Mussolini.

The historic center of Rome has some other open urban spaces, such as Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and St. Peter’s Square. These, too, are not my favorite parts of the city. But at least they retain some Baroque charm. In contrast, Piazza Venezia just feels chaotic to me– thousands of cars, buses, and motorcycles constantly wrapping around the circle doesn’t help. Neither do throngs of tourists stepping far away from their beloved to take photos that include lots of backdrop, thereby forcing everyone else to have to walk off the sidewalk and into the imposing traffic to pass by. There are hawkers selling plastic replicas of the Colosseum, or cans of coke for five dollars, or cheap scarves. The area is also a major bus transfer point. It’s a Roman maelstrom.

There’s still a lot there that I adore. For example, Michelangelo’s work on the Campidoglio is fantastic, unveiling a spectacular city view on top that is—surprisingly for its time—secular. There are no Christian religious elements among all of the highly decorative statuary. And rather than have each new building make its own “statement,” Michelangelo created buildings that fit with their surroundings. This idea, I have learned, was revolutionary. Up until that time, Renaissance architecture had been about single, isolated buildings—the aim was to display each individual building to its maximum advantage, not to create an aesthetically unified whole with the surrounding buildings. Michelangelo’s concept here of creating a unified outdoor space was utterly new, and it is beautiful, and it changed the way we think about how neighborhoods should look.

Unfortunately, a huge marble pile erected in 1911 now blocks the view of the Campidoglio and blatantly violates the very principle that Michelangelo championed. This one building is the singular source of my intense dislike of Piazza Venezia. The culprit is the Victor Emmanuel Monument. I’m not alone in my vitriol. This monstrous neoclassical building is widely– and deservedly– reviled. Locals call it “the Wedding Cake.” This is because it looks like it has been slathered with sugary frosting and should have giant plastic matrimonial figurines stuck on top.

The Wedding Cake in the center of the piazza was built to celebrate Italy’s unification and was named after the nation’s first king. Though it took forty years to build, it is lamentable. I won’t hold back here to make it perfectly clear how I really feel: it is an architectural calamity.

The monument is pompous, overblown, oversized. I wish I could put it in PhotoShop, crop it, and reduce the image by 70%. To add insult to injury, it is made from an antiseptic looking, stark, white marble that heavy-handedly grabs all of one’s visual attention. In the midst of all of this bulk and superfluous decoration is also the grave of Italy’s Unknown Soldier, attended by two live guards. Yet the grave is practically invisible amid the welter of visual distraction. So any simple, moving, or subtle message is drowned out. It is like a huge, artificial mountain was dropped in the center of this beautiful city. It reminds me of a puffy, cheap taffeta wedding dress purchased from a tacky discount outlet. There is no charm or grace, only volume.

So I always avoided walking through this piazza, just to prevent this hideous building from bearing down upon me. I did not like the way it distracted me from what I love to look at in this city. Seeing it was enough to sour my mood.

But over this year, something changed.

Like an annoying colleague who talks too much, but can also be counted on to express something at a meeting that needs to be said, I realized how helpful the Wedding Cake could be. It has become an immensely useful and reliable orienting device. I can climb any hill, turn any corner, get lost in any labyrinth, and it comes into view, marking the heart of the city. The Wedding Cake has helped me find my way home many times. It has guided my explorations to unknown neighborhoods. Now, when I venture to a less familiar part of the city, I find myself looking for the Wedding Cake to give me a sense of where I am relative to the center. When I’ve hiked up some ridge or climbed some tower or castle to take in a panoramic view, the Wedding Cake is always there when I emerge on top, like a “You Are Here” pin on a map, helping me to place other landmarks. Often, en route somewhere, I glance up at it to ensure that I’m generally heading in the right direction. And I have to admit: it is comforting. I never feel lost amidst the narrow winding streets and unexpected hills of Rome as long as I can see the Wedding Cake somewhere in the distance.

Now I am willing to yield a little and acknowledge that the monument works better at night. Maybe it comes across more as its builders had intended? The bright white behemoth is flooded with spotlights and is transformed into something that looks grand. Against the black sky, the massive hunk of white and glimmering gold becomes an extravaganza. It is no longer architecture, but theater.

These days I think of the Wedding Cake as the hub of a wheel, around which the rest of the Eternal City continually whirls.

Dare I say it? I think I’ll miss seeing it every day.

— Seth

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