Off the well-worn tourist track, on the North bank of the Tiber in the Eternal City, hidden away in the Foro Italico sports complex, is a vast, open-air shrine to the idealised male form that most visitors to Rome are unaware exists.
Which is rather odd – seeing as it is essentially a huge, if tastefully done, gay gang-bang in Carrara marble.
The Stadio dei Marmi (‘Stadium of the Marbles’) is an open-air sports stadium completed in 1928 as a training centre for the adjoining Academy Physical Education. But it is not a sports stadium like you have seen before, outside of Falcon videos.
59 statues of classically-styled athletes surround and dominate the stadium with their various states of perfect nakedness – some with fig-leaves, some in jock-straps, many completely stark naked except for the occasional boxing glove or cricket bat.
The Foro Italico sports complex which contains Stadio dei Marmi was built during Italy’s fascist period and originally called the ‘Foro Mussolini’ – the Italian dictator took a close personal interest in the design. The statues of the Stadio dei Marmi were of course meant to glorify Il Duce and Italian fascism and associate him and it with strength, virility, purity and imperial Rome’s conquests.
Photos by M Burns
However, the sculptors involved seem to have gotten carried away. To the modern eye, this celebration of firm male flesh looks like a spornographic scandal. It really has to be seen – to be experienced – to be believed. Standing in the middle of the stadium surrounded by all that virile marble, it’s difficult not to feel you’re the centre of a neo-classical bukkake – the still-fresh white Carrara marble ejaculating against the blue Roman sky.
But it’s when you go around the rear of these god-like chaps that the real fun begins. The bubble buttocks on display are simply divine in their detail. All that carefully symbolised furious activity suddenly becomes irresistible passivity. Not at all what Il Duce had in mind.
One of the sculptors has even autographed one of the statues ‘A. Buttini’. A joke that doesn’t really work in Italian – but I like to think he knew I was coming.
If you squint your eyes against the sun, it’s easy to imagine a young Dolce and Gabbana here with a packed lunch, furiously sketching away – getting inspiration for their famous underwear advertising campaigns in the Noughties, featuring tarty athletes. Which were then followed in the Tweens by fellow-Italian Armani’s saucy underpants campaigns starring sporting heroes Beckham, Nadal, and Ronaldo.
Perhaps it’s just a trick of the Mediterranean light. Perhaps it’s just an effect of hindsight. But whether or not the 20th Century martial-marble propaganda of Stadio dei Marmi fed into 21st century hyper-sexualised depictions of male athletes, it’s well worth a visit. And a really good gawp.
Mark Simpson is the author of several critically-acclaimed books, including Male Impersonators and Saint Morrissey. He has written for far too many publications around the world, including The London Times, Arena Homme Plus, Playboy, Out, The Seattle Stranger, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Financial Times, Vogues Hommes International, Attitude, Details and contributed to the catalogue for the Victoria & Albert’s Fashion Vs Sport exhibition in 2009.