The Altar of the Fatherland raises many questions. Just what is that huge white building in the middle of Rome? The one with the chariots on top?
The Altar of the Fatherland is often nicknamed called "The Wedding Cake" and sometimes "The Typewriter", but as you might imagine, it has a more important meaning.
Its correct name is the Complesso Vittoriano, which means the Victorian Complex, and it was built to honor King Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a unified Italy. (The Altar of the Fatherland is only one part of this complex.)
It's a monument you can easily visit and much of it is free. There are plenty of things to see in and around the building, and its central location in Piazza Venezia makes it easy to include in your sightseeing itinerary.
On this page we'll go over:
The Altare della Patria, or altar of the fatherland, is a monument in Rome, Italy.
It's part of an enormous building called the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, or Complesso Vittoriano.
The Complesso Vittoriano was built to honor Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of a unified Italy.
The monument was built not long after the "Risorgimento", which was the long push for Italian unification, fought between 1849 and 1870.
Because King Victor Emmanuel ii was the first king after the unification of Italy, this monument dedicated to him is also seen as a symbol of Italian Unity, a national landmark. (But this does not mean that all Romans or even Italians like this building! Keep reading to find out why.)
The building is most accurately called the Complesso Vittoriano, or Victorian Complex because it is in fact made up of several sections with important dedications.
It has a neoclassic design that was modeled after ancient buildings including those inside the Roman Forum, but also Hellenistic sanctuaries, such as the Pergamon Altar and the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina.
The colossal monument features Corinthian columns, fountains, sweeping stairways, a long portico composed of an imposing colonnade with two propylaea (monumental gateway typical of Ancient Greek architecture) on either end, and two quadrigas (chariots drawn by four horses each) on top.
Every year the Vittoriano hosts important national celebrations.
The President of Italy officiates and lays a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Also, you can witness a flyover by the Italian Aeronautica Militare, the Italian Air Force, in which jets flown by the special team "Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale Frecce Tricolori" leave plumes of the colours of the Italian flag - green, white, red.
Italians often refer to the monument as the "Mole del Vittoriano", or just the "Vittoriano". It's also often referred to as the "Altare Della Patria" even though that is technically only a small part of the entire complex.
The Altare Della Patria, or altar of the Fatherland, is located in the center of the complex and is arguably the most important part.
It includes a statue of the goddess Rome and also a shrine to honour the tomb of the unknown soldier.
The tomb is inside the monument but one end of it faces outward and that part is guarded 24/7 by two Italian soldiers, rain or shine. On either side of them are two eternal flames, a custom dating back to Ancient Rome.
The Complesso Vittoriano and its Altare della Patria are in Piazza Venezia, symbolically linking Ancient Rome with Modern Rome, thanks to the streets that emanate like spokes of a wheel from the piazza.
Piazza Venezia takes its name from the palazzo on one side of the square, Palazzo Venezia (Venice Palace.)
It was built by Pietro Barbo, a Venetian Cardinal who would become Pope Paul II (1461 - 1471.)
The Basilica of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, is next to the palace.
Palazzo Venezia was once the embassy of the Republic of Venice in Rome.
The building and church are made in part with materials quarried from the Colosseum, which was a common practice before the 18th century.
The Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini used Palazzo Venezia as its headquarters.
Mussolini gave many of his speeches from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, including, perhaps most famously, his declaration of war against France and the United Kingdom on June 10, 1940 during World War II.
In the opposite direction, the Via del Corso will take you through Rome's Baroque district that includes the Spanish Steps, and straight to Piazza del Popolo on the other end.
I remember the first time I visited Rome years ago. I assumed this imposing monument was from Ancient Rome. (Obviously, now I know better!)
And even today, when I tell visitors that it's quite modern, they are often surprised, telling me that they too thought it was from Ancient Rome.
We could all be forgiven for thinking such a thing.
After all, the design is something of a neoclassical re-imagination of the Roman Forum (hence all the imposing white columns and Corinthian capitals.)
Anyway the answer is no.
This is not a building from Ancient Rome at all.
The Victor Emmanuel II monument was built mostly between 1885 and 1911 to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king after the unification of Italy.
He is not, however, buried here. He is buried, along with his son King Umberto I and Umberto's wife, Queen Margarita, in the Pantheon.
The monument was inaugurated in 1911 and completed in 1935.
The Victor Emmanuel II monument is not a fascist building.
A slightly more detailed answer is that "fascist architecture" is a bit of an overly generic term.
Even so, we cannot say that the Victorian Complex is Rationalist architecture (we have plenty of Rationalist architecture in and near Rome. But this is not one of the examples of it.)
The style could be considered eclectic.
Some people also consider it to be a prime example of kitsch.
In any case, the building has no real connection to Fascism other than the fact that Mussolini liked to hold speeches in Piazza Venezia where the monument is.
The monument is 135m (443 ft) wide, 130m (427 ft) deep, and 70m (230 ft) high.
This makes it the largest single modern monument in the city of Rome.
However, it is not the largest structure in Rome. The largest ruin in Rome is in fact....not the Colosseum!
It's the Aurelian Walls.
Constructed out of brick-faced concrete, the walls are 3.5 m (12 feet) thick and 16 m (52 ft) tall. They originally ran for 19 km (12 miles), and even today we still have 12 km (7.5 miles) of them standing nearly intact.
King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy died in 1878. He was the last ruler of the Kingdom of Sardinia and the first king of Italy and Parliament decided to erect a monument in his memory to be forever remembered in the Eternal City.
The architect chosen was Giuseppe Sacconi.
Construction began in 1885.
But it took some time for the works to even begin. Large parts of Medieval and some of Ancient Rome had to be demolished. (And this might give you a hint as to why many Romans don't like this building.)
During these demolitions, archeological finds would come to light, slowing or halting the works.
Another factor that caused the construction to take so long was the building materials.
Initially, they used Carrara white marble but the quantity needed meant that costs soared. So they used Botticino from Brescia, which cost considerably less.
Sacconi died in 1905, so did not get to see his moment completed.
The complex was inaugurated on June 4, 1911, on the occasion of the Turin International world's fair and the 50th anniversary of Italian unification.
The equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II was added the following year.
In 1921, the body of the Unknown Soldier, who represented those lost during the Great War, was buried in the complex.
As Fascism took hold in 1922 with Mussolini's March on Rome, the Vittoriano became the backdrop for events and parades that exalted the regime. The Wedding Cake was covered with Fascist symbols and so became closely associated with the Fascist ideology which was of course, not the original intent of the building.
The monument was completed in 1935.
After World War II, the monument was stripped of all its Fascist symbols and it lost its lustre.
Many saw the monument as too self-aggrandizing.
Italians often associated "patriotism" with "nationalism", which was in turn associated with fascism and didn't like the idea of a monument celebrating the "fatherland."
It fell into disuse and disrepair until the year 2000 when President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi decided to restore it and bring the symbolism back to the original intent.
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Tourists tend to gaze in awe at the Vittoriano. Some Romans love it, too. But quite a few don't.
There are a few reasons.
First, in order to create this behemoth of a building, large swathes of Rome had to be demolished.
Some parts of Ancient Rome along the via dei Fori Imperiali and on Capitoline Hill were destroyed.
Can you imagine if somebody wanted to tear down part of Rome's ancient walls or even a whole neighborhood to build something today? There would be outrage!
So this is one reason not all Romans were thrilled about the construction of this monument.
And if you visit, you might be able to see another reason why.
The monument is just enormous, somewhat out of proportion to its surroundings.
And the kind of white marble, which initially should have been from Carrara, (so-called “White of Carrara) was quarried instead from Brescia, as it was considerably cheaper.
And this stone (so-called “White Botticino) is a very stark, cold white, which makes the monument look unfriendly, if we can ascribe this emotion to a building.
Finally, the more recent (and inevitable) association with Mussolini, albeit fleeting, gives it a negative connotation.
Since the Complesso Vittoriano represents the Italian nation, it is flanked by two fountains that represent the two seas bordering Italy.
The fountain representing the Tyrrhenian Sea is on the right-hand side as you face it, and the Adriatic Sea is on the left-hand side. In front of the fountain with The Adriatic Sea
, you can see remnants of a ruin from the 1st century BCE, which was somehow spared during demolitions.
When you first enter the monument from the front, you'll climb a staircase that will take you up several levels.
The first thing you may notice is the tomb to the unknown soldier, with the two soldiers guarding it and the eternal flame.
As you climb, you will come to the large equestrian sculpture of King Vittorio Emanuele II himself, for whom the monument is named.
Something not many people know is that upon completion of this monument, the workers had a meal inside the belly of the equestrian statue of the horse! Yes! They did. You can see a photo here.
Climbing past the statue, you'll come to the main colonnade which is flanked by an imposing portico. Each of the columns is topped with a statue that represents the 16 regions of Italy that existed when the monument was made (today there are 20 regions.)
This huge space is called the Piazza del Bollettino, named for the "bollettino", or Bulletin of Victory, a document signed on November 4, 1918, by General Armando Diaz, Supreme Commander of the Italian Royal Army, which signified Italy's victory in the first World War. The words of this bulletin are engraved along the portico’s border.
Look carefully for the block of stone from Monte Grappa, which represents the First Battle of the Piave, an important moment of World War I for Italy.
The Victor Emmanuel Monument also has several things to see and do inside, including:
This central museum houses artifacts and documents that show the transformation of the political scene in Italy in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, leading up to the unification of Italy.
The collection consists mostly of photographs, letters, and other manuscripts, along with some clothing, personal effects, and weapons of some of the protagonists of this important moment in Italian history and the city of Rome.
This is where the Museum of the Risorgimento used to be. For a time, temporary art exhibits were held here. The space is currently being restored.
The Shrine of Flags at the Vittoriano houses the War Flags of the dissolved Departments of the Army, Air Force, Carabinieri, and the Armed Corps of the State as well as the Combat Flags of the disarmed units of the Navy since 1935.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is here, buried on November 4, 1921.
As of this writing, the site is temporarily closed to visitors. We do not know when it might reopen.
Previously, you could visit the lower areas and see the internal area of the monument where the Unknown Soldier’s tomb lies. At this time, this area is closed to visitors.
One of the most recent additions to the monument is an elevator that allows you to visit the very top, with arguably the best views in all of Rome.
For a small fee (12€ at the time of this writing), you can take the elevator to the terrace where you can enjoy 360-degree views of Rome.
You'll also be able to spot many landmarks, thanks to panels that lay out what's in front of you.
And with viewfinders, you can get an even better look. There is nothing like visiting this terrace at night and enjoying the sunset from there.
For more details about the monuments history and architecture, including all the allegories, the various architects who worked on this building, and more, you can visit the official page of the Vittoriano here.
The Complesso Vittoriano is open every day, from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm (last entry at 6:45 pm), except December 25 and January 1.
In summer, the monuments often open until late at night. Check the official website for details.
The changing of the guard takes place every hour.
There are several layers to this building and different things to visit. Some are free.
You used to be able to just walk up the steps and meander around at liberty.
Since reopening after Covid lockdowns, some things have changed.
First of all, the underground areas that include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and also the Sacrario delle Bandiere (Shrine of the Flags) are still closed.
Second of all, you must now enter one at a time through the main gate at street level and proceed up the right-hand side to explore what the monument holds. You will exit down the opposite side, or sometimes they direct people down the internal stairs inside the whole structure.
To visit the panoramic terrace of the Altare della Patria, you must purchase a ticket.
This ticket also includes entry to the Museum of the Risorgimento, as well as the museum at Palazzo Venezia just adjacent to the monument in Piazza Venezia.
I think it's worth a visit to the Victor Emanuel II monument even to explore the main outer areas without going up to the roof.
But I do also think it's worth taking the elevator to the roof. It's a truly unique perspective up there.
This visit doesn't have to take long.
You can spend as little or as much time as you like on the roof. Every time I go up, I spend around 15 minutes there, no more.
Once you have this ticket, you should indeed visit the museum of the history of Italy's unification.
It's included in your ticket, and you'll pass it as you come back down.
It takes maybe 15-20 minutes but is quite interesting.
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