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Rome: Wild rhinoceros

Palazzo Rhinoceros is home to Alda Fendi’s latest art space, as well as the Rooms of Rome, a bold new hotel concept that counts Michelangelo drawings among the decor

Published 29 May 2019, 09:17 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 15:19 BST
The Rooms of Rome
The Rooms of Rome.

There are hotel suites and then there’s apartment 25 at The Rooms of Rome. The view through the window is classic Rome: the Foro Boario — an ancient cattle market — with its pair of tiny temples and the Tiber snaking behind it. Craning my neck, I can see the start of the long green stretch that is the Circus Maximus.

Turning back into the room, I’m plunged into a scene straight out of a glossy design magazine. On the one hand is an aesthetic so deconstructed that various layers of paint are crumbling off the walls. A whitewashed rectangle suggests an erstwhile door. By the window, a bearded man smoking a cigarette is pencilled straight onto the fading paint.

But there’s nothing shabby chic about the rest of the room — a high-design affair of dark, minimalist leather furniture plus lashings of stainless steel, from the bedside shelves to the kitchen island. Then there’s the giant, floor-to-ceiling stainless steel cube in the middle of the apartment that separates the bedroom from the living area and conceals cupboards, drawers and a full — also entirely stainless steel — bathroom. 

This breath of fresh air has been delivered to the Eternal City by Alda Fendi, who, along with her four sisters, helped turned the family fashion house into a global brand. In 2001, after Fendi was sold, Alda turned her attention to art, setting up arts organisation Fondazione Alda Fendi, which stages pop-up artistic and theatrical productions in Rome.

The Fendis are no strangers to Roman design. The fashion house paid for the 2014 restoration of the city’s Trevi Fountain. In 2015, it rented what’s known as the ‘Square Colosseum’ — a monumental, rectangular take on the Colosseum with a neoclassical-meets-brutalist facade built by Mussolini’s regime — as its headquarters. Fendi turned the ground floor into a modern art gallery.

But Alda Fendi has gone one step further with The Rooms of Rome. Eight years ago, she bought a dilapidated, six-storey, 18th-century palazzo overlooking the Arco di Giano, a fourth-century arch next to Rome’s legendary, open-mouthed Bocca della Verità sculpture. Architect Jean Nouvel was tasked with transforming the building, which he christened Palazzo Rhinoceros, into a gallery and cultural space (Fondazione Alda Fendi - Esperimenti) — with integrated hotel and restaurant. 

Nouvel’s bold project sees the building stripped back to its bare bones: the 25 apartments have crumbling layers of paint, there’s exposed brick, stone, plaster and joists around the staircases and corridors; and even the central heating pipes are encased in glass. Leaving the building’s past on show, the only thing Nouvel has introduced is all that stainless steel and a sprawling roof terrace with stunning views of the Palatine hill. 

The building is a dialogue between public and private, and between Roman culture and outside influences. The gallery comprises three spaces — on the ground, first and third floors, interwoven with the hotel — plus projections in the stairwells of past Alda Fendi productions. During my stay, a Michelangelo statue — accompanied by 14 architectural drawings, on display throughout the building — takes pride of place. It’s here for three months on loan from St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, which is releasing a different artwork to the gallery each year for the next three years.

When the gallery is closed, the sculpture is out of bounds but the sketches aren’t; every time I return to my apartment, I have a private view. It’s just me and Michelangelo, divided by a sheet of glass and 500 years.

Then I push the steel door to my room and come back to the 21st century. 

The Rooms of Rome has double rooms from €233 (£200) a night, B&B.

Click here to see the 12 designs shaping modern Italy.

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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