The Spread of Art Déco in Tunisia:
An Analysis of the Works of Three Italian Architects:
Vito Silvia, Fr. Marcenaro and Giovanni Ruota
The emergence of the European city of Tunis:
Before beginning this study it is important to point out that the new European city has expanded since 1881 beyond the perimeter of the old city of Tunis which is still confined to its limits drawn by the Medina, touched on two sides by its two suburbs: the Northern suburb of Bâb Souïka, and the suburb of Bâb el-Jazira in the South. The old city also encompasses the Jewish quarter, hâra, a kind of ghetto near the zaouïa of Sidi Mehrez in the Northern suburb, and the Frankish quarter of the Christians at the Eastern confines of the agglomeration.
With the establishment of the French Portectorate, the Frankish quarter progressively stretched out towards the East in the direction of the lake, giving rise to the new city of Tunis which was structured according to a grid plan and fragmented into several quarters, with marked spatial, ethnic and social segregation.
Furthermore, the government used local or foreign labor (mainly European and Jewish) needed for an important construction program steered by the General Administration of Public Works, newly created in 1882.
The new constructions reflect new artistic styles foreign to Muslim Tunisia and display an exteriorized architecture with monumental façades widely opening on to public spaces.
Thus, different architectural trends developed in the quarters of the new city of Tunis. Some drew their inspiration from a western artistic repertoire, with new forms and expressions -the Eclectic style (1881-1900), Art Nouveau (1900-1920) and Art Déco (1925-1940)-, while others referred to the country’s construction traditions and demonstrated some continuity with the ancient heritage -the Neo-Moresque style (1900-1930) and, finally, the Modernist style (1943-1947)-.
In this article, we will attempt to concentrate on the richness of the Art Déco heritage of the capital, Tunis, where the most interesting examples are found. This movement was developed by a majority of Italian architects, and we will briefly analyze the characteristics of some of the works of three great Italian architects: Vito Silvia, Fr. Marcenaro and Giovanni Ruota.
The spread of the Art Déco movement:
Art Déco appeared around 1925 in Tunisia. It was an austere artistic trend which was sober and bare, affirming the preeminence of structure over decoration. This new style was characterized by the use of stylized floral motifs and purified forms leaning rather towards abstraction. The orthogonal aspect of pure volumes and the utilization of a geometrical ornamentation thus became distinctive features of Art-Déco style apartment buildings of the capital (Plates 1 and 2).
The Art Déco movement was widespread, mainly among the middle class of Tunis, thanks to its conceptual aspect that was easy to achieve, avoiding the complex architectural and decorative forms of the two earlier artistic styles (the Eclectic and Art Nouveau styles).
A large concentration of Art Déco edifices was noticeable along some of the capital’s arteries (such as Constantine Street or Athens Street). Other isolated buildings were spread in the already widely urbanized quarters of those times, around the main axes (France Avenue, Jules Ferry Avenue, Carthage Avenue, Paris Avenue, London Avenue), or in the zones that were still hardly constructed (the quarter of Lafayette and the Passage, not far from the old Jewish cemetery).
In this large series of constructions, containing Art Déco traces that were more or less obvious, we could see small-sized edifices and others which were more impressive and majestic, depending on the location.
The most remarkable Art Déco public edifices of Tunis are: the Colisée Commercial and Residential Complex along Jules Ferry Avenue, built in 1931-1933 by architects George Piollenc and Marcel Royer; the National Commercial Center in France Avenue; Enicar apartment building in Republic Square, built in 1932 by René Adineau; Daniel Osiris Synagogue in Liberty Street, built in 1932-1938 by architect Victor Valensi; the Tunis Train Station at Train Station Square; the Zirah villa, also in Liberty Street (Plate 3).
The Italian architects responsible for the spread of the Art Déco movement:
Among the Italian architects who contributed to the spread of Art Déco, we will attempt to analyze the works of Vito Silvia, Fr. Marcenaro and Giovanni Ruota.
An observation of the spatial devices used in the various plans drawn by Silvia, Marcenaro or Ruota demonstrate their reference to classical French typologies. However, the exterior design of the projects was not quite the same among these three architects. Indeed, unlike Silvia’s unimpressive constructions (Plates 4, 5 and 6), Marcenaro (Plates 7, 8, 9 and 10) and Ruota (Plates 11 and 12) opted for a monumental aspect of their works.
The difference also resulted from the varying degrees in the use of the Art Déco vocabulary; since, for Silvia and Marcenaro, it was a matter of relatively limited general characters (a simple structure with the utilization of Art Déco elements for dressing and ornamentation of exterior covering; while for Ruota, it was a matter of innovative models giving the impression of a more dynamic approach, reflecting « well-thought out » designs of obvious exterior signs, rather than the « mechanistic » application of simple characters specific to Art Déco style.
Using typical Art Déco elements and models, Ruota produced private constructions with systematic references to this new movement, giving these individual residences a special esthetic which accommodated the new needs for comfort and modernism of the different social and ethnic groups.
The taste of Ruota’s customers also made him resort to a vocabulary that was more « Art Déco » than the very classical one of his colleagues: portals and wrought-iron bars, pergolas, rounded volumes and built columns; so many elements which characterized certain Art Déco constructions of the 1930s.
Throughout this analytical approach, we have attempted to understand the value of the architectural and formal balance of certain Art Déco edifices. This has enabled us to better understand the logic, the quality, and the conceptual options of the three architects through their diverse composition techniques.
Thus, and based on this brief study of a few Art Déco monuments of the Tunisian capital, it is imperative to distinguish between the buildings which display authentic Art Déco looks (at the level of the conceptual compositions and of the decorative repertoire of façades), and those that are connected to this movement through the modest utilization of some elements (wrought-iron bars and balustrades, medallions placed above windows) on classical façades (symmetry, central body and lateral bodies).
Art Déco spread differently in different quarters during a brief period of 15 years, and declined around the beginning of the 1940s. Nonetheless, it has deeply marked the urban landscape of the capital by its conceptual and ornamental simplicity, which evolved in harmony with the architectural and decorative traditions of the country, mainly in its tendency towards abstract forms and decorative models.
Certain edifices are considered real successes, while many other buildings seem to only display simple applications of decorative or structural elements drawn from Art Déco.
Furthermore, in other Tunisian cities, construction projects reflecting the same style were built in the new quarters, according to the programs and choices of different architects. Yet, several conceptual, architectural and decorative similarities are visible between Tunis and cities like Bizerte, Sousse and Sfax.
 Paradoxically, Art Déco was hardly present and was not very popular in Italy, but had flourished in Tunisia thanks to the Italian architects, decorators and contractors. For them, the Tunisian territory provided a site for the application of this artistic movement.
 Art Déco is the least studied of all the artistic styles which appeared in Tunisia during the colonial period. There are only a few brief references in some articles, especially by Luca QUATTROCCHI.
 The 1930s witnessed intense construction along the different arteries of the Tunisian capital, hence the widespread Art Déco style.
 Like some other major edifices of the capital, this building is characterized by the installation of clocks on exterior façades.
 Architect born in Tunis. His achievements include apartment buildings in Palestine Street, n°19, 20 and 25 (1934-35) and n°16, Paris Avenue (now Liberty Avenue), 1934.
Vito Silvia was able to achieve infinite variations and quite simple compositions, using elements arranged differently.
 Architect born in Tunis. Quite eclectic in his early years, then embraced Art Déco. Built a number of apartment buildings in Sousse. In Tunis his achievements included n°3, Greece Street (between 1927 and 1934), n°52, Carthage Avenue (1931-1933) and constructions in Houcine Bouzaïne Street (1934).
With Fr. Marcenaro, functional and architectural Art Déco elements became decorative ones, sometimes heavily molded.
 Architect. Sometimes associated with Fr. Marcenaro. He contributed to the spread of Art Déco, applying its rules in his projects, which include the superb apartment building, Tabone , n°22, Algéria Street, the Zirah villa in Liberty Street, and the Disegni villa in Paris Avenue.
Giovanni Ruota’s architecture shows a wealth of formal inventions.