Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Circus Maximus: A Contemporary Public Space

Seemingly an abandoned void, the Cirucus Maximus is in fact a contemporary piazza. Between the Aventine and Palatine hills in the Vallis Murcia leading to the river, the Circus Maximus is the oldest and largest circus in ancient Rome built traditionally by Romulus in the seventh century BC. Today, it is an easily accessible yet ambiguous ancient “monument.” Buried underground but still in use, this mass entertainment venue since antiquity now embodies a very contemporary idea of public space.


The Cirucs Maximus is embedded within systems of archaeological and transit zones. In the 2000 General Regulatory Plan of Rome, the Circus Maximus is part of a major environmental (and pedestrian) connection extending from the Appian Way towards the Tiber River. Thus it connects the archaeological park in the periphery to the city center.
The continuous use of the space since antiquity shows its prime location in the city.

Archaeological park zone in green
Sphere of strategic planning for the Tiber-area-Objectives,
Central sector, scale of 1:10,000 (Urbanistica, 2001)

The Circus Maximus is also a point on the existing north-south metropolitan metro B line from Termini-Colosseo to Piramide-San Paolo-EUR. Similarly, in the overall Strategic Plan of Rome places the Circus Maximus at the intersection of the Monumental Archeological Park Zone of the Forums - Appian Way and the north-south zone of Flaminio-Forums-EUR. Thus the Circus Maximus is easily accessible with both archaeological and transit significance in the city.

Different strategic planning spheres in Rome,
Overall view, scale 1:20,000 (Urbanistica, 2001)
Blue: Tiber; Red: Flamino-Forums-EUR area; Green: Monumental Archaeological
Park of
the Forums and the Appian Way; Violet: Belt Railway; Yellow: The Walls

Contemporary Uses

Throughout its history, the Circus Maximus has supported different events and functions for Rome. At the end of the 19th century, the Circus Maximus had agricultural plots, a Jewish cemetery, warehouses and industrial buildings. In 1934, the Fascist government's plans to build a new road leading to the Circus Maximus and use the space quickly dismantled these structures. During the Fascist period, the Circus Maximus was an exhibition space as a means to display political propaganda of the regime. The parading of bodies of Italian athletes in the Circus Maximus was part of a ritual commemorating the twelfth anniversary of the regime. Fifteen thousand athletes from all over Italy paraded before Mussolini in the Circus Maximus.

From 1937-1939, the Circus Maximus held four important temporary exhibitions: la Mostra delle Colonie estive e dell'Assistenza all'Infanzia (summer camps and assistance to children, 1937), la Mostra del Tessile Nazionale (Exhibition of National Textile, 1937-38), la Mostra del Dopolavoro (Exhibition of Recreation, 1938) and la Mostra Autarchica del Minerale Italiano (Autarchi Exhibition of Italian Mineral, 1938-39). These exhibitions were a way to express the regime's social and economic policies. The space became a container of exhibition halls designed by architects such as Alberto Libera, M. De Renzi and Franco Petrucci. The exhibitions provided opportunities to test the modernist language in architecture.

Aerial view of Circus Maximus with Fascist Temporary Exhibition in 1937

Pavilion for the Mostra del Minerale by Franco Petrucci in Cirus Maximus, 1938

Presently, the Circus Maximus is a public park on most days. At times, the Circus Maximus becomes a big piazza holding various functions such as art installations, concerts, political rallies and celebrations. In July 2005, Live Aid concerts held to raise world awareness in poverty chose Circus Maximus as the venue. The concerts were also held in other notable places in other cities such as Philadelphia Museum of Art, Hyde Park in London and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, suggesting the Circus Maximus as Rome's iconic place and symbol. Political rallies often use Circus Maximus as a venue.
In May 2006, students protested against Gelmini's Law 133 that cut state funds to public universities by lighting candles and forming "NO 133" on the slope of the Circus Maximus.

On a grander scale, a protest on was organized in April 2009 to criticize the government’s economic policies. The organizer, the largest labor union confederation CGIL claimed 2.7 million attended the protest. The rally culminated at the Circus Maximus arena. Thus the Circus Maximus as a gathering point and terminal point for large crowds where traditionally only a stadium could hold. The flexibility of the Circus Maximus- no entrance fee nor gate control- gives the space a democratic dimension. The Circus Maximus becomes a space to gather and express collectively at a large scale where the spectacle of the crowd and the sheer size of the space add an additional dimension of power to the event.

National Boards of Cgil, Cisl, Uil called a one-day
general strike to voice support for workers' rights.
Organizers claimed 3 million people attended, April 16, 2002.

Crowds gather to watch the funeral of Pope John Paul II
in the Circus Maximus, April 8, 2005.

Crowds in Circus Maximus celebrating Italy's victory
in the 2006 World Cup, July 9, 2006.

The largest labor union confederation, CGIL organized a protest against the Berlusconi's inadequate response to the country's economic woes, April 4, 2009.

Hybrid Public Space

Contemporary in nature, the Circus Maximus does not have a single defined function. As the many examples suggest, it is a hybrid space. Contemporary cities considering the historical preservation of historical areas and monuments often encounter the problem of finding appropriate new functions for buildings or landscapes of historical importance. The debate is often about whether to preserve the monument as it is or to regenerate the space by adding new uses (often commercial or institutional). The Circus Maximus in a way is at the forefront of such discourse by maintaining a hybrid space accessible to the general public. It is not fixed as a park, nor is it fixed as an exhibition space. Not excavating the Circus Maximus and transforming it into a traditional monument-museum enables the city to diversify the uses of this space created by an ancient urban intervention.

Thus the idea of leaving this important space as a void, green space, place for ephemeral events reveals the contemporary approach to preserving an ancient space. The Circus Maximus maintains its charisma despite having no built form by its hybrid nature and flexibility in use. The contemporary events demonstrate that the space is beyond simply a memory of the past, but it is a symbol of available public space in the city.
It has been said that Rome is a city where one feels “inside” while being outside. Although not designed, the Circus Maximus is defined in contemporary times as a multi-purpose piazza. Political in many ways, the space has to do with the the city and its people where collective memories are made and reminded. The architecture of Circus Maximus, ancient or contemporary, inspires its citizens with its enduring form and space for making collective memories. Perhaps this is an example of Antoine Grumbach's idea of "inverse archeology," where true architecture pertains to "objects of long-term duration, whose quality is permanence, indifferent to differences, and evident of something already there."

Art installation in the Circus Maximus for La Notte Biana, September 8, 2007.


Berezin, M. (1997). Making the Fascist Self: the Political Culture of Interwar Italy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 119, 121.
Richardson, L. (1992). A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, p.84.
Grumbach, A.. (1977). "A Challenge to Architecture" In Sartogo, P. et al. (1979). Roma Interrotta:
[exhibiton organized by the Incontri internazionali d'arte, Roma, Mercati di Traiano, May-June 1978]. Roma: Incontri International D'arte.
Urbanistica no.166 (2001). Istituto Nazionale di Urbanistica. Giugno, pp. 104, 109.

Photos: panoramic photo of Circus Maximus by author; please click on other photos for their sources.

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