For over a decade the Palazzo delle Esposizioni was the venue for some of the most important exhibitions in Italy, implementing a policy of continuous use of its spaces and a programme that largely relied on the Rome City Council, apart from the five sections of the 10th Quadriennale that took place between December 1972 and July 1977.
The first highly significant initiative was the one devoted to the latest trends in art entitled The Vitality of the Negative in Italian Art 1960/1970, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva and the Incontri Internazionali d'Arte. The exhibit was not intended to be an ascetic reconstruction of the events of a decade, but an inquiry into how new poetics based on the vitality of the creative act had arisen at a time when traditional styles were being questioned and a great variety of new directions were being explored, no longer striving after absolute values: "Art ceases to be the zone where the forms and the exemplary nature of the artistic experience are hoarded; it is transformed into a dark region where nothing is certain." (Achille Bonito Oliva).
It was an extraordinary exhibit that brought together such resources as Roman artists' ventures into pop art as well as conceptual art, the happenings of the period and body art; along with the materials used by the minimalists, kinetic art, and the recent experiences with Arte Povera.
The 10th Quadriennale opened in November 1972 and was divided into five sections that were to document the different aspects of the Italian art scene: 1) Aspects of Contemporary Figurative Art - New Directions in Images; 2) The State of Abstract Art; 3) New Trends in Aesthetics from 1960 to 1970; 4) The New Generation; and 5) Foreign Artists Working in Italy. Alongside the artists invited to exhibit in each section, the first two sections also included a reconstruction of the historical backdrop to the trends examined: The Direction of Figurative Art in Italy from ‘Verismo' in the Late 19th Century until 1935, in the context of the figurative art section, and The Direction of Abstract Art in Italy from 1930 to 1965, coordinated by Nello Ponente, a reconstruction of abstract art in Italy.
Along with the exhibits on classical art (particularly memorable The Civilisation of Primitive Lazio in 1976), the policy of the Rome City Council in those years was to devote special attention to the most interesting features of 20th century culture, by means of both important retrospectives (the ones dedicated to Turcato in 1974, Man Ray in 1975 and Savinio in 1978) and investigations into the European avant-gardes, first with the exhibit Majakovsky Mejerch'old Stanislavsky (1975), mounted by Maurizio Di Puolo, who revisited the constructivist modules that projected out towards the outside of the building; then with the exhibit on the theatre in the Weimar Republic in 1978. These interdisciplinary exhibits harnessed the potential of the exhibition spaces, with performances, conferences, concerts and screenings, an example being the exhibit on the Polish avant-garde, during which Tadeusz Kantor previewed his show Ou sont les neiges d'antan.
Nicolini, the councillor then in charge of culture, thus described the essence of the exhibition policy in those years: "At the core of the programmes we created at the time were two important questions: the fate of the avant-garde and the intellectual's role in the 20th century. Naturally it was not a matter of adding ideologies and interpretations to those already in existence, but to document what was only partially understood."
These were the same ideas that were behind the exhibit Directions in Art in Italy from 1960 to 1980, curated by Nello Ponente, who held the chair of contemporary art at the University of Rome, and who died before the exhibit opened. This exhibit could boast a very wide-ranging documentation of what had taken place in Italy in the various fields of artistic endeavor: from the visual arts to photography, to musical composition, visual poetry, and auteur cinema.
The architecture exhibits reflected the desire to explore in-depth how contemporary cities were formed; they managed to make architecture, a field not always accessible to the public, intriguing and even spectacular: exhibits such as Function and Meaning: Architecture - Home-City in Holland, 1870-1940 (1979); Red Vienna: Residential Policy in Socialist Vienna (1919-1933), curated by Manfredo Tafuri in 1980; and Architecture in the Soviet Nation in 1982. When, however, parts of the stucco decoration crumbled during the exhibit Five Billion Years: A Blueprint for a Museum of Science, organised in collaboration with the University of Rome and mounted by Maurizio Sacripanti, in the wake of the damage it became clear that a very extensive renovation of the entire building could no longer be put off. The architect Costantino Dardi was assigned to the task.
Key elements of this project were: the reappropriation of original features of the building, freeing the spaces of all those dubious additions that had accumulated over the years; the return to the concept of natural lighting for the building from above; and the restoration of verticality to the design, by joining the building's three levels and those spaces even higher. This last entailed reopening the two interior staircases that provided access from the Via Milano level to the main floor; restoring the inside balconies that allowed visitors to perceive the spaces from above and vice versa; and finally, recreating that uninterrupted passage that was meant to connect the interiors from the access on Via Nazionale to the side facing Via Piacenza. A renovation with a critical eye, therefore, but one that had to transform a building erected according to 19th century canons into a facility that could easily meet the most modern requirements for exhibitions.
The construction work, which dragged on for years due to bureaucratic and financial hurdles, did not in fact realise the architect's design to the full, least of all in its most innovative features. Among these the plan for the roof, transparent and airy, including room for an outdoor theatre, was certainly one of the most fascinating parts of the project, yet the building commission rejected it twice. In the same way, the structures installed to replace the skylights, great ‘machines of light' which were to calibrate the natural light to artificial light by means of a system of moving window frames, were built without any way to regulate them automatically: rendering them useless.
There were many other features that distinguished this restyling (the geometric pattern in travertine and peperino on the floors, the restoration of the marmoridea on the walls, and other original decorative elements), but above all the creation of a multimedia hall and a small, perfectly equipped theatre for multidisciplinary activities that was original to the project, a ‘Kunsthalle' for Rome, suited to the most advanced needs of contemporary culture.