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The interior of Maxxi, the new contemporary art museum designed by Zaha Hadid, looking up from the lobby. (Photo: Roland Halbe)

What would Pope Urban VIII have made of Maxxi, the new museum of contemporary art designed by Zaha Hadid on the outskirts of this city’s historic quarter? My guess is that he would have been ecstatic.

This 17th-century pope, one of the most prominent cultural patrons in Roman history, understood that great cities are not frozen in time. He loved dreaming up lavish new projects over breakfast with his artistic soul mate, the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. When Bernini needed bronze for the baldachin in St. Peter’s, the pope simply ordered it torn out of the Pantheon. Neither was afraid to make his mark on the city.

Since then the architectural scene here has become a lot duller. True, Mussolini commissioned some impressive civic works, most notably for the fascist EUR district. But for most of the last half-century Romans have been content to gaze languidly toward the past. The handful of ambitious new cultural buildings that have appeared, like Renzo Piano’s marvelous Parco della Musica, tend toward the dignified and respectable.

Maxxi, which opens to the public on Saturday for a two-day “architectural preview,” jolts this city back to the present like a thunderclap. Its sensual lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making everything around it look timid. The galleries (which will remain empty of art until the spring, when the museum is scheduled to hold its first exhibition) would probably have sent a shiver of joy up the old pope’s spine. Even Bernini, I suspect, would have appreciated their curves.

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Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times

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