The Altar of the Fatherland (Altare della Patria in Italian, but often also referred to as the Vittoriano) is one of the most visually striking buildings in Rome. A tribute to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy, the massive structure stands proud with its 135 meters (443 feet) of width and 70 meters (around 230 feet) of height, and is visible from many places in Rome – including the Orange Garden, the Palatine Hill and the Janiculum Hill above Trastevere.
Tourists typically walk by the Altare della Patria on their way to the Colosseum, as it is located right in Piazza Venezia on the junction with Via dei Fori Imperiali. Most will admire it from a distance, but not many actually visit – probably unaware that this is a great vantage point to get incredible views of the Colosseum and of Rome in general.
Since it is so centrally located, it’s actually very easy to add the Altare della Patria to your Rome itinerary. To help you understand why you should visit, what you should expect and to give you some practical information to help you plan your visit, I thought I’d put together this short guide.
The History Of The Altar Of The Fatherland, Rome
The Altar of the Fatherland is a national monument in the Italian capital, but it isn’t anywhere near as ancient as other Roman buildings. Work on this enormous landmark started in 1885, built in honor of Victor Emmanuel II – the first king of a unified Italy since the 6th century. Located between Piazza Venezia and the Capitoline Hill, the Altar of the Fatherland is loaded with symbolism related to the unification of Italy.
After Victor Emmanuel II’s death in 1878, there were a number of ideas on how to celebrate his life and contribution to the country, namely the unification and the liberation of various parts of Italy from foreign domination.
The plan was for the monument to be a symbol of national patriotism. The project was designed by Giuseppe Sacconi in 1885 and was inspired by Hellenestic (ancient Greek) sanctuaries; these were altars and shrines to ancient gods, such as the famous Pergamon Altar.
It was basically a chance to create a modern-day Roman forum in a historic slice of the city that was open to citizens, with spaces for visitors to walk through or sit and enjoy the view from up high. In order to create such a sizeable structure, numerous buildings that were already situated on the site had to be demolished.
Sadly, this included centuries-old buildings and the medieval street plan that they followed.
But the idea was to bring Rome to the modern day (of the late 19th century, at least), rivaling the great monumental structures of other European capitals such as Berlin, London and Vienna. The Victor Emmanuel II Monument – its proper name – was to be a symbol of the new Italy. Italian sculptors were drafted in to help adorn the project with statues and carvings.
Though still incomplete, the monument was inaugurated on 4th June, 1911, for the 50th anniversary of Italian unification. Work on the new building continued into the 20th century. In 1921, following World War I, the body of an unknown Italian soldier was laid to rest under the statue of the goddess Roma. This then became the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and is to this day a scene for official ceremonies and memorials.
With the rise of fascism in 1922, the monument naturally became a place for military parades. Benito Mussolini also used the monument as a backdrop for his speeches, as he addressed crowds below from a balcony in the Piazza Venezia. Further imagery and sculptures relating to fascism were added, and the monument was finally fully completed in 1935. But that wasn’t the final stage of its life.
In 1946, following World War II, any Fascist symbols were stripped from the structure. The monument was returned to its original purpose: a secular building dedicated to the Italian nation. This, however, has not always been true. Public opinion in recent years has questioned the monument’s relevance and purpose in modern day Rome.
Altar Of Fatherland Nicknames
Although it’s usually called the Altar of the Fatherland – Altare della Patria in Italian – this is actually only a part of this colossal structure. The official name is Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II (in Italian) or Victor Emmanuel II Monument, as I mentioned earlier, because of the first Italian king that was honored here following Italian unification.
However, Italians have their own names for this enormous monument.
They’re all down to the way it looks. One of these nicknames is the Wedding Cake. Another is the Typewriter, and it is also sometimes called the False Teeth. These are not meant as compliments. In fact, a lot of Romans think it is ugly and a blight on an otherwise historical city backdrop.
Another nickname for it is the Mole del Vittoriano, or simply Vittoriano.
And it is also sometimes just called the Altar of the Fatherland, even though that’s just one part of the monument.
Why do Romans hate it?
It’s a good question. For the most part, Romans believe it is simply too big and overbearing for the city. It’s big and cumbersome and feels way too large for the pretty area of the city in which it is located.
It is not just that we Italians think it’s ugly – we also are simply disinterested in it. More than that, its position as a symbol of national identity doesn’t sit right with most – in fact, it represents tragedies of the 20th century, including fascism and colonialism. Some people even believe that it should be demolished.
After a bomb attack on the monument in 1969, it was actually closed off to the public for several decades. Around the 2000s, however, the barriers were lifted, and the public were once again allowed to climb the stairs to the monument. Still, police were often watchful of anybody “disrespecting” the monument.
Some say that the view from the top of the monument is the best in all of Rome. Why? Because you can’t see the Altar of the Fatherland from here!
Personally, I try to go beyond everything it represents and take it for what it is: a huge monument visible from a distance and offering some of the most impressive views of the city. That’s enough for me to appreciate it.
Main Sights Inside And Around The Altare Della Patria
Tomb of Unknown Soldier
Following World War I, the Altare della Patria was selected as the location for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is where the body of an Italian soldier who had died in the war was laid to rest. His identity was always unknown. It was part of a global movement of such tombs, where the single body of one soldier represents all soldiers who lost their lives in the war.
The soldier was laid to rest, under the statue of the goddess Roma, on 4th November 1921. This was the Day of National Unity and the Armed Forces. An estimated million people attended the solemn ceremony. Originally an altar to the patron goddess of the city, the internment of the unknown soldier led to its current name, Tomba del Milite Ignoto. It is watched over by two eternal flames and a guard of honor.
It used to be possible to see into the Eternal Crypt of the Unknown Soldier by entering from the Sacrario delle Bandiere (the Shrine of the Flags) museum where you’d be able to see the subterranean room here, but this is now closed. The chapel is inspired by early Christian buildings, particularly catacombs, and is in the shape of a Greek cross with a domed roof.
Fountains of the two seas
At the base of the monument, you will find two fountains either side of the stairs. Each fountain with its large round basin, represents a different sea: one the Adriatic and the other the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Vittoriano Monument itself is supposed to represent the whole of the Italian peninsula, with the seas on either side.
External staircases and terraces
As the Vittoriano was originally conceived as a modern-day forum in the heart of the city, it needed stairways and terraces to allow access to the public. The monument sits on the slope of the Capitoline Hill, and the stairways adapt to the incline of the hill.
At the entrance is an enormous staircase that leads to the Altare della Patria and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is the center of the monument. The path then continues onto the highest point of the building, the portico; two terraces here spread out to either side.
Altar of the Fatherland
The actual Altare della Patria is arguably the most famous and well-known part of the Vittoriano. This is the part of the monument that gives it its name (for many), after all. Designed by sculptor Angelo Zanelli, who won a competition in 1906, the altar features two vertical marble bas reliefs flanking a statue of the goddess Roma. It’s the grand focal point of the whole monument, and is guarded at all times.
Equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel II
This bronze statue by Enrico Chiaradia depicts Victor Emmanuel II, sitting atop his horse. Interestingly this is the only non-symbolic representation in the whole of the Vittoriano. It weighs in at 50 tons and sits on a marble base, which is carved with personifications of Italian cities.
Statues of noble cities
Situated at the base of the Victor Emmanuel II statue are personifications of 14 noble Italian cities carved directly into a marble plinth. These aren’t the statues of the most important Italian cities, but rather they represent ancient cities that were kingdoms or republics in their own right before unification in 1861. It’s all about celebrating the different historical foundations of Italy.
You will have heard of many of the famous cities depicted here, which include Venice, Genoa and Pisa.
Portico and propylaea
Continuing upwards along the Altare della Patria you’ll find the portico. One of the most eye-catching parts of this massive structure, this slightly curving portico features enormous Corinthian style columns, and two propylaea: monumental gateways to temples in the ancient world. From here, look upwards and you’ll be able to see that the underside of the gates are beautifully engraved with colonnades and decorative embellishments.
Statues of the regions
Like the statues of the noble cities, there are also depictions of various historical regions of Italy to be found at the Vittoriano Monument. Make your way up the staircase that leads to the Terrace of the Redeemed Cities, and you’ll see 16 statues, each representing the Italian regions that existed at the time of the monument’s construction. Each of the statues stands at 5 meters (16 feet) tall, and was each sculpted by a sculptor from the corresponding region.
The structure is so big that it actually features multiple museums inside it. All of them are dedicated to the history of Italy, with a focus on the 1861 unification and the events that led to it. The main one is the Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, or the Central Museum of the Risorgimento; you can reach this via the left hand side of the monument. The history here runs from the 18th century to World War I, and hosts various memorabilia from weapons to diaries and documents.
Then there’s the Sacrario delle Bandiere (the Shrine of the Flags). This adjoins the Central Museum, and is where flags of dissolved military units, police squads, the Italian air force and decommissioned naval ships are on display.
Temporary exhibitions are held at the Ala Brasini Wing. Dedicated to Armando Brasini, an urban designer and architect, the works shown at this art museum are often very impressive. Think Jackson Pollock, for one example.
Practical Information For Visiting The Vittoriano
Altare della Patria opening hours
The monument is open to the public every day from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm. Those are also the opening hours of the panoramic terrace.
Altar of the Fatherland tickets
Access to the main terrace is free to the general public, so you can see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Altar of the Fatherland without paying anything.
However, if you want to access the top tier you will have to take the elevator. Tickets for the elevator are available on site, and cost €12 for adults. There are discounts for students, children and seniors though.
How to get to the Altare della Patria
The official address of the Victor Emmanuel II National Monument is Piazza Venezia, so you’ll find it on the way to the Colosseum right before Via dei Fori Imperiali.
It is served by metro station Colosseo (Line B), or you can get bus 40 from Termini Station, making sure to get off at Piazza Venezia. You can also take tram 8.
Make sure to read my post A Short Guide To Piazza Venezia.