by Frederick B. Fisher and Stephen Harby


Venturi’s Rome is a guidebook to the city of Rome seen through the eyes of Robert Venturi, re- interpreted by two subsequent Rome prize fellows and architects, Frederick Fisher and Stephen Harby.

Robert Venturi wrote Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture at the age of 37 in 1962, after completing his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. When it was published in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art, Vincent Scully, renowned Professor of Art and Architecture at Yale University, called it “… probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture) published in 1923.” [1]

Venturi looks at architecture, landscape and art as different manifestations of common themes. When we were students (at UCLA, Fredrick Fisher, and Yale, Stephen Harby), the book was assigned to us and was fundamental to the development of our outlook on architecture as it was for most architects of our generation. Venturi wrote the book during a two year Rome Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and there is no doubt that the city had a profound influence on his thinking, and many buildings used as examples to illustrates his theories are located in Rome.. From the Pantheon, through works by his favorite artist, Michelangelo, and on to 20th century buildings by Armando Brazini and Luigi Moretti, Venturi reveals Rome as a complex and contradictory city.

We propose to take the reader on a journey through time and ideas by visiting and discussing thirty-four Roman buildings that exemplify the revolutionary ideas of Venturi’s book. Interspersed with Venturi’s ideas are our own, drawn from our practice and observations as architects. In that sense the book will be an essay, and it will incorporate Venturi’s vision with our view of the way we human beings live in a fragile relationship to nature, with our houses figuratively and sometimes literally built on ruins.

Venturi’s Rome will be a slim volume of ten chapters, fewer than 100 pages, full of watercolor illustrations painted especially for this book. Venturi illustrated his book with small black and white photographs and drawings. Artist Stephen Harby will create imaginative and analytical watercolor illustrations for Venturi’s Rome inspired by the original images.

Introduction to the watercolors

The architectural forms that captured Venturi’s attention are all revealed through the play of light and shadow. When Venturi saw these buildings, often for his first time, they were still enshrouded in the dusky, atmospheric layering of many centuries worth of soot. The photographs he used (often classic views produced by the Alinari brothers) preserve them in that state. Today, many of the buildings can be seen in a more pristine condition, a result of the cleaning campaign inaugurated for the jubilee of the millennium, the year 2000.

The process of producing these watercolors is based on revealing the effects of chiaroscuro (an Italian word meaning clear/obscure or light/dark) both the result of strong light and contrasting surface color. The forms are revealed and perceived in the condition of strong light, just as they were in the original photographs. When strong direct light strikes the forms, shadows are cast by projecting elements like cornices or columns, and enable a full understanding of the three-dimensional form. The contrasting coloration of the material goes from the stark white of pristine travertine to darker tones on recessed surfaces, due to the accumulation of grime over time.

Watercolor is a transparent medium, and the expression of light is the result of “reserving” the white of the paper. This is quite different from the technique of oil or acrylic paint, where the pigment is opaque, and the expression of light is dependent on the use of light pigments. This is what makes watercolor a highly challenging medium, and one which is particularly suited to the expression of the play of light.

The technique to produce views of Venturi’s Rome involves the use of successive layers of transparent sepia toned washes,  to communicate the gradations of natural light reflected by the architectural forms. An area of light or white tonality would rely on the maximum reflection of the white of the paper, and would be “reserved” free of the application of any wash. Conversely, areas that are in shadow or comprising a material dark in tone would receive successive layers of the wash or at times a dark wash less diluted with water.

Step-by-step images show the evolution of selected works in the series. To see this, go to


A Guide to the Guide

This guide is intended for all travelers to Rome, whether of the armchair or shoe leather variety, and whether the traveler is novitiate or veteran. It is said that it takes a lifetime to know Rome: Much as its present day manifestation is a palimpsest, altered but still bearing traces of its original form.  Many layers have piled up throughout Rome’s recorded existence spanning three millennia. A visitor’s familiarity grows with each successive contact, and as interests change over a lifetime, so too do the offerings of la citta eterna, to satisfy the current obsession.

Venturi sums up this nature of selectivity in his Preface: “The examples chosen reflect my partiality for certain eras: Mannerist, Baroque, and Rococo especially. As Henry-Russell Hitchcock says, ‘there always exists a real need to re-examine the work of the past. There is, presumably, almost always a generic interest in architectural history among architects; but the aspects, or periods, of history that seem at any given time to merit the closest attention certainly vary with changing sensibilities.’” [2]

Venturi’s Rome follows the organization of Venturi’s own text, and buildings in Rome are presented in Venturi’s order and theoretical context. We present the original citation of the building, place it within Venturi’s immediate contextual argument, and then move on to present historical and factual details. The intention is to enrich the visitor’s experience of the place, and conclude with a broader consideration of the architectural importance of the building today, while looking back to speculate about what it meant to Venturi. In this way, our book is like the Roman god, Janus, who looks forward and back at the same time, and whose crest depicting two back-to-back human profiles, was adopted by the American Academy in Rome.

The American Academy in Rome was the launching pad for Venturi’s groundbreaking treatise, and also the setting that inspired one of us, Frederick Fisher to reconsider Venturi’s work when he was a Rome Prize Fellow in 2005. Stephen Harby came to the Academy as a Fellow in 1999 to study the effects of light and shadow as framed by the architectural details of  classical tradition. His watercolors in this volume are a continuation of the investigations he began  at that time.

Of the thirty-four buildings presented here, some qualify as major must-see attractions on any visitor’s list, such as Saint Peter’s, while others may not be as well known. Most are readily accessible to the public, or exterior sites. Some are centrally located, while others are off the beaten path. A few are not normally accessible to the public and may require some perseverance to gain access. In such cases we provide information on how to make a request for a visit, which of course, may be out of date by the time this book reaches the reader’s hands. Just as Rome was not built in a day, it is hoped that the discoveries of this guide may render their rewards over a lifetime. The authors have spent their lives returning to Rome, and each visit is rewarded by some discovery or visit to a place new to them, often difficult of access.


The Lay of the Land

Rome can be confusing to the first time visitor. Its age and evolution of time denies it an orienting street grid, and its river, the Tiber, meanders like a writhing snake, and thus fails to provide any navigational assist. Getting around on public transportation (bus, tram and two metro lines) also takes more time to master than the length of the average visitor’s sojourn, and travel by car or taxi is stymied by the mostly pedestrian only streets in the centro storico (historic core). Walking then, is the most practical way to get around, with the occasional bus or taxi for longer trips out of the center. Best talismans to help memory and orientation are first and foremost the city’s topography, consisting of its famous seven hills set upon the flat flood planes of the river valley. Next, consider these in relation to the city’s growth from the center and layered accretions of monuments, streets, and defensive walls from those early origins. One is almost constantly within sight of a famous monument, fountain, street, square or defensive wall, and as the visitor’s memory map becomes populated with these recognizable signposts, then the confusing jumble of history can be mastered and possessed!

[1] Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, New York: The Museum of Modrn Art, 1966; Second Edition, 1977. P. 9. For the purposes of this text all page and illustration references will be to the larger format second edition.

[2] Op. cit, p. 13.