March 2014 / Rome
Expo 71: When in Rome
If you’re in the diplomatic game, you could do worse than a posting in Rome, where you’ll probably be put up in a palazzo fit for a pope. Just be careful not to show off.
Thousands of protesters will never take to the streets demanding more money for their foreign ministry. Online petitions begging the government to preserve the ambassador’s wine cellars will go unsigned. No protest songs will be performed about the closing of an embassy. More’s the pity.
Never before have embassies – the proud face that one country shows to another, the port in the storm for the worried traveller far from home – been so unloved. Partly there is the budget issue. Of course there is: even in times of plenty the foreign ministry struggles to convince the finance ministry that it really must get that 18th century chair in the dining room of the Mexico City residence reupholstered. In the wake of an economic crisis, good luck.
But there is also the feeling that diplomats have it a bit too easy, that it’s a bit too much fun. Cocktails and canapés, the semi-regular memo home, the occasional tourist in distress. So the diplomatic corps is cut, savings are made, outposts are closed. Those that remain try to keep their head down, avoiding the attention of penny-pinchers at home. In doing so they run the risk that their main purpose – representing a nation abroad – becomes diluted.
Rome is the perfect case study. These days it is not the most arduous of diplomatic postings. For some ambassadors it’s the cushy late-in-the-day, pre-retirement reward for all the difficult or dangerous jobs. (The British ambassador, for instance, was formerly based in Baghdad.) Yet Rome is also home to some of the world’s most beautiful embassies: palaces built for popes and princes. All of which means that the current crop of Rome ambassadors are faced with the dilemma of trying to show off their stunning missions just enough to impress but without reminding their capitals quite how incredible they are.
It is something that the Danish embassy, a 19th-century townhouse with a grand wooden staircase and ornate gold mirror frames, manages to achieve. “This is a typical Roman construction,” says the country’s ambassador, Birger Riis-Jorgensen. “We want to leave the impression that we are caring for it. That reflects good Danish value.” The residence is full of modern Danish furniture with contemporary Danish artwork on the walls.
That balance is a little harder for France and Brazil to achieve. The two grandest embassies and residences in the city are palaces in every sense of the word. The Palazzo Farnese, home of the French, stands tall at the end of a piazza in central Rome. Designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century its ceilings are covered with breathtaking frescos telling epic stories from Hercules to Ulysses. Rooms are full of Renaissance art. Everything is oversized: 3-metre-tall fireplaces, vast 400-year-old rugs hang from the walls. The white stone steps leading up to the Hercules room on the first floor are deep yet short, built that way to enable visiting noblemen to ride their horses up the stairs. (Today, those attending a conference of local small-businessmen hoping to invest in France just walk up them). Aspects of the modern workplace sometimes jar with the surroundings. There are plastic lightswitches and plug sockets cut into 200-year-old wallpaper. Fire-safety signs and metal detectors stand near 16th-century statues,.
In his vast office, as tall as it is long, Erkki Maillard, France’s deputy ambassador, argues that the Farnese alone is not enough. “It’s a fantastic tool. But having a beautiful embassy is not enough if you don’t have an appropriate message.” Down the road, Ricardo Neiva Tavares nods in agreement. Brazil’s ambassador to Rome can wax lyrical about his building but is clear that it is what Brazil does with it that makes a difference. Like the French embassy, the Palazzo Pamphilj was home to a pope. Innocent X lived here in the 17th century, buying up the entire building and employing two architects to turn it into something special. In subsequent years cardinals, the Russian ambassador and an orchestra have all made it their home before the Brazilian ambassador began renting the first floor in the 1920s.
As beautiful as the Brazilian embassy is, they almost gave it up in 1960. It was a time when Brazil was moving its capital from Rio to the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Brasilia. The ambassador to Rome was asked to find a plot of land in the city where Niemeyer could come to build a suitably modernist embassy. Land in Rome was, unsurprisingly, a little harder to come across than in Brasilia, so it was suggested that they simply buy the Navona. It cost Brazil just under $1m – around $7m in today’s money. A modernist touch was added, though. Sergio Rodrígues was asked to design new furniture: the Navona range – dark wood, leather upholstery, lots of right-angles. The design may have been Brazilian but the materials were Italian. “We have a very important relationship with Italy – there are 30 million Brazilians of Italian origin,” says Tavares. The furniture, he hopes, symbolises that.
In Ambassador Tavares, Brazil has a budding art historian and tour guide. Over the course of three hours he points out tiny details in paintings, enthusiastically tells the stories behind statues and wonders aloud about the provenance of frescos he’s yet to discover the story behind. “It’s unique in our service,” Tavares says with pride, before pointing out that the maintenance costs are lower than the rent of the embassy and residence in Brussels. “We mustn’t forget that.”