Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joining the Roman Crowds

One of the cultural shocks of modern Rome is how Romans get into lines... or don't.

Each time we return to Italy (even if we're gone for just a few days), we have to adjust to the Roman concept of a ticket line - everyone crowd to the front and try to ace out everyone else. Believe me, the little old ladies are as good at this as anyone else. It's not done with any sense of bad faith, it's just the way they do it. Once in a great while someone will take to self-managing a line, trying not to let obvious late comers squeeze in ahead, but that's the exception.These two photos also illustrate some exceptions.

This first one shows a line for the first day showing - in English - of the film Angels & Demons in central Rome. So the people in this cue were primarily English speakers. They did, however, adhere to one of the Roman rules for lines - just let them go out into the middle of the street. If you have to line up, don't do anything sensible like wrap a line around a sidewalk or building. Putting yourself out into traffic is secondary to maybe losing your place.

This photo, of a woman pulling a ticket # at a market, is one answer to Romans' inability to queue-up, as the English would say. These ticket machines have become ubiquitous in markets, even in stalls at farmers' markets and open-air markets, post offices (compounded by a lettering system for the type of service you want) and, of course, at bakeries. They're also common in hospital waiting rooms. Yes, take a number there too. Even with the numbering system, we've seen heated (even by Italian standards) arguments break out over whose turn it is to get a medical test.

Our advice if you find yourself in one of those all-crowd-in "lines" for anything in Rome (tickets to the opera, buying bread) is that you better learn the custom; otherwise you'll truly be left out in the cold. But, like Italians, do be good natured about it.


Friday, December 25, 2009

How Mussolini Almost Stole Christmas

It was December 1941, and Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini--the Duce--was in a foul mood. He had taken his poorly prepared country into an ill-advised war as an ally of Japan and Nazi Germany, the latter a nation and people he and most Italians despised. The Americans had entered the war on the 7th; the vaunted German army faced surprising resistance on the Eastern front; and the Italians were getting beat up by the British in Libya (about all that remained of their empire).

There were a great many things to worry about, and one of them, the Duce decided, was Christmas. "Mussolini has again attacked Christmas," wrote his son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano in his remarkable diary. Mussolini had always hated the bourgeoisie--Italy's monied middle class of merchants and businessmen--for its self-interest and lack of grit, and he must have thought that Christmas was a bourgeois holiday, all about things.

But it was more than that. Although Italy was a profoundly Catholic country--the Pope's residence, after all, was just across the Tevere--and God can be very popular in the midst of war, Mussolini hated religion in general and the Papacy in particular. "He is surprised," Ciano wrote, "that the Germans have not yet abolished this holiday, which 'reminds one [what follows is Ciano's recollection of the Duce's words] only of the birth of a Jew who gave to the world debilitating and devitalizing theories, and who especially contrived to trick Italy through the disintegrating power of the Popes."

He did not ban Christmas (as if one could). But he did prohibit newspapers from mentioning it. And on Christmas day, with the churches full, he purposefully scheduled an unusually large number of appointments. "Christmas is nothing more than the twenty-fifth of December," he announced on that day. "I am the man who in all this world feels least these religious anniversaries."

And that's how Mussolini almost stole Christmas. Bill

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pope and Us - views from the bar

With Christmas coming, we think some mention of the Pope is in order.

The photo here, taken at Bar Tony, in Monteverde Nuovo, is a perfect example of the Italians' mix of ... well, just about everything.

As we walked into Tony's this day, the TV was showing the Pope giving an address (I can't recall on what just now). He was framed by two Bar signs: one listed "Happy Hour" (yes, in English - with the picture showing a cup of coffee and a croissant but the wording advertising a buffet and drink), and another listing other tasty items such as sandwiches filled with "Hamburg," along with "Pasta a Peso" - pasta by the weight (1 Euro per etto (about 2.2 ounces) "by Tony".

After snapping this photo, we took our glasses of wine to the side room of this small bar, enjoying a break from the rain showers, when a group of 4 men came in. They were speaking Spanish, ordering and enjoying their beers while they chatted. Then in came a group of mothers with children of various ages, clearly picked up after-school. Gelato was quickly ordered and the children spilled over the tiny tables next to us. And then there was us, trying to get love notes to each other on the TV show by texting into the cell phone #s listed on the screen. The convivial combination of people, ages, classes, languages, media, food, drink... is partly what defines modern Rome.

If you get up to Monteverde Nuovo, and the large street, Circonvallazione Gianicolense, walk just across from the market at Piazza San Giovanni di Dio and try Tony's, reputed for having the best vanilla ice cream (i.e. gelato and flavor/gusto - crema) in the city; sometimes through a window in that side room, you can see them making it.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

RST Top 40. #32: Alexanderplatz Jazz Club

We're almost embarrassed to have Alexanderplatz on the RST Top 40 list, because it's in the Rome-the-first-time guidebooks; even Rick Steves knows about it, and Rick defines the word "square." It's on the list because it's very groovy (another word from the 1950s, visions of hipsters digging a wailing sax, of Jack Kerouac hammering on the table in ecstasy at having discovered the soul of the Negro), the kind of place no longer found even in New York: a dimly-lit, stuccoed rathskeller, its walls inscribed with the names of the jazz greats (and not so greats) who have blown their guts out on the tiny stage in the tiny center room (see our photo above).

And there's the rub: if you're in that center room, which seats about 12 people, you're in for an evening of Kerouacian ecstasy, and the bar right behind (photo right) offers views almost as good for a few more patrons. The side rooms, with most of the seating, are fine for sound but offer somewhat less intimate, more distanced, arch-framed views (photo above left), and folks sometimes talk more than listen and (women especially) seem to want to confirm what a fine time they're having by sending video of Stefano Di Battista to their friends. Still, these side rooms are satisfactory. Avoid the upstairs balcony, to the back of the club.

Our best experiences have been in that center room, at the table in the foreground of the photo that opens this post. It's perfect. But to get that table or another in that room, you'll likely have to make a reservation, arrive an hour before the time of the performance and have dinner. We've done that twice, and both times the food was very good--on a par with a good Rome restaurant--and reasonably priced. The last time, as we finished eating and were congratulating ourselves for another coup of perfect positioning, a huge Italian guy sat right in front of us. Luckily his girlfriend recognized our visual plight and changed places with him.

Alexanderplatz dates to 1982 and bills itself (see their website) as the oldest jazz club in Italy. That could be, but there may be some places in Bologna and Milan that would take exception. Oldest or not, it's worthy.

The club is located at via Ostia 9, in the Prati district. Its season opens in September and closes in late May or very early June.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Touch of the Stork

We found this delightful bas relief on via Elvia Recina, in the out-of-the-way neighborhood of Appio Latino. It likely dates to the decade after 1925. Not worth a separate trip, but if you're on the street to dine at Mithos, one of our favorites, don't forget to look at the building across the way. For directions to the street and a review of the restaurant, see Rome the Second Time, p. 213. Bill

PS - Mithos is no longer in this location (you won't see the stork from across the street).  It's now in the nearby Piazza Scipione Ammirato.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

RST Top 40: #33. Carlo Bilotti Museum in Villa Borghese

We came across this gem of a museum accidentally one day - a year after its 2006 opening. It has a fascinating history and a small collection worth viewing.

So here's the story : Carlo Bilotti, big deal cosmetics guy, originally from Southern Italy but long a U.S. citizen and resident, goes to Rome's then Mayor, Walter Veltroni, known as a patron of the arts (and author of the introduction to Rome the Second Time) and they cut a deal - Bilotti contributes his collection, and Veltroni kicks a bunch of government workers out of a long-neglected building in the middle of Rome's largest and most famous park and restores it to house the collection. Bilotti died in late 2006, the year the museum opened.

Bilotti's collection features more than 20 works by Italy's premier artist of the 20th century, Giorgio de Chirico (de Chirico thought pretty highly of himself too), although some have carped Bilotti's are not the best de Chiricos. A de Chirico from from the collection is at right. The collection also has art by the famous U.S. artists Bilotti palled around with, including Warhol and Larry Rivers (some of them portraits of Bilotti and his family).

On its ground floor, the museum hosts excellent temporary exhibits, often of very large pieces of internationally known contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville. The New York Times' review of the museum's opening gives you the flavor.

The building is older than the park itself and served many purposes, including as an"orangery" - or "aranciera," beautifully restored after centuries of neglect and misuse (including bombardment during the French defense of the Pope in 1849). Picture at top is from the 18th century. You'll see signs in the Villa Borghese to "Aranciera" - that's it. The City of Rome's website on the museum has excellent background information in English, as well as opening hours, ticket information (you don't need a reservation) and directions.

So here you have it all - famous Italian paintings that will immerse you into 20th-Century Rome, top U.S. contemporary artists, and a fascinating building.

Of course, it's hard to be in the shadow of the incomparable Borghese Gallery itself - and Bilotti's museum is "due passi" (two steps) from the Galleria Borghese, which would be in anyone's Top 40, not their second top 40.... but once you've done the biggies, Museo Carlo Bilotti, we think, is definitely on the "second time" list.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rome Noir

Although Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective novels are mostly set in the desert basin of Los Angeles, we think he would appreciate the mysterious, film noir quality of this photograph, taken from the balcony of our Flaminio apartment on a drizzly evening in April, 2008.

Chandler's work, the publicity photo for the 1955 film The Big Combo (at left), and the photograph above, of a neighborhood constructed in the 1940s, evoke the doubts and anxieties of the early postwar era, when the inconceivable death and destruction of the most horrific war in the world's history seemed to hang like mist in the night air. Bill

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RST Top 40. #34: a Fascist Era Post Office

Two of Rome's masterpieces of architectural geometry are located within a stone's throw, across the street from each other in via Marmorata, at the intersection of the Aventino and Testaccio districts. One is the ancient Piramide Cestia (the Cestia Piramid). The other is the neighborhood post office, a modernist gem designed by architects Adalberto Libera and Mario De Renzi and opened to acclaim in 1935, with Mussolini presiding (see photo above). Architectural scholars Mirella Duca and Filippo Muraia describe the building's elegant interior as "one of the most original spaces constructed in Rome in the 1930s." The via Marmorata post office is on Itinerary 4 in Rome the Second Time.

Libera was only 30 years old when he began working on the project, though he was already well known as a founder of the Movimento Italiano per L'Architettura Razionale (Italian Movement for Rationalist Architecture) and feted for his facade for the monumental Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution (photo at right), which opened in 1932 in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, also a collaborative effort with De Renzi.

Though apparently not a zealous Fascist, Libera's close links with Fascist Party officials allowed him to compete for the regime's choice commissions, including the Palazzo dei Congressi, which he designed for the EUR complex. One of Libera's last works, accomplished with several other architects, was the Olympic Village (see photo at right), which housed athletes competing in the 1960 Rome games (including boxer Cassius Clay, who was seen taking photos of the complex). It is located in the Flaminio district, not far from Parco della Musica.

De Renzi's first commission, for the enormous 1931 Palazzo Federici apartment complex on via Aprile XXI, near Piazza Bologna, has also become one of his best known; it was the setting for Ettore Scola's 1977 film Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren in a drama set in Fascist Rome in 1938. The building is on Itinerary 8 in Rome the Second Time.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Mushroom Building

It's tucked away. Indeed, "tucked away" hardly seems sufficient. The building seems to have been squeezed or poured onto its site. You'll be able to tell what it is, in a recent incarnation, from one of the photos. And you may recognize Dianne doing her Amelia Earhart thing in another. So where is it (that we know, more or less), and what was it (that we don't know). Bill


Friday, November 27, 2009

RST Top 40. #35: The Gino Severini Mural at the Palazzo dei Congressi (EUR)

One day a few years ago we went out to EUR and to the Palazzo dei Congressi (the translation, Palace of the Congresses, sounds dumb), eager to see Massimiliano Fuksas's massive, avant-garde new hall (we thought), "Cloud." Once inside, we looked everywhere but the basement, even going up some stairways that were obviously not intended for the general public and poking around on the floors above. We were disappointed in not finding "Cloud" (we learned later that it did not yet exist), but more than pleased at what we did find: an enormous, didactic mural by Gino Severini, completed in 1953 (the same year the building itself opened) for the International Exhibition of the Federation of Agricultural Enterprises. We have included a view from the side (above left), sufficiently unrevealing that it shouldn't spoil your encounter with it. The mural employs a seasonal motif that Severini had first explored in the painting "L'Estate" (1951) [below right], part of the collection at the Museo Carlo Bilotti (a newer museum in the Villa Borghese - we recommend it).

Note Severini's murals, as well as the other EUR sites mentioned in this post, are on the EUR walk in our latest book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.   See the end of this post for more information on the book.

Severini was no spring chicken when he did this mural (at 70, more like a winter chicken). He was born in Cortona, Italy and moved to Rome in 1899, at 16. As a young artist he was influenced by Futurism (he was a signer of the important 1910 Futurist Manifesto) and by Cubism, and, living in Paris, a good friend of Modigliani. The photo at left captures him on the scaffold, paintbrush in hand, working on the mural with artist Stefania Lotti. It was painted on Masonite (disclosure: my father was for a time Manager of Industrial Sales for the Masonite Corporation), often incorrectly referred to on Italian websites as Maronite.

Enjoy the mural. But don't miss having a good look at the splendid building in which it is housed. The Palazzo dei Congressi was one of many buildings planned for E42 (Exposition 1942), planned for the 20th anniversary of the March on Rome--the establishing moment of Italian Fascism. It has strong classical lines, as did many buildings of the Fascist era, but it also speaks to a modernist sensibility that was part of 20th-century culture all over the world, and which was deeply influential for many of the architects working under Fascism. Construction began in 1938, but the war intervened and delayed completion.

The building's architect was Adalberto Libera. In the late 1920s, Libera was one of the founders of the Italian Movement for Rational Architecture, based in Rome. He was influenced by both Futurism and Rationalism and maintained close ties with the Mussolini government--close enough, anyway, to get commissions and keep working. He also designed the superb post office on via Marmorata and was one of five architects who worked on designs for the Olympic Village (1960; a 5-minute walk from Parco della Musica in north Rome).

The Palazzo dei Congressi has many features, but none so obvious or original as that big cube in the middle, which houses the Salone dei Ricevimenti (Hall of Receptions, or Welcoming Hall). The cube is 38 meters on each side, big enough, as it is often said, to hold the Pantheon (though getting it there and inside would be daunting). The rounded top may have been necessary to bring the cube to Pantheon dimensions, but whatever its purpose, it's the Palazzo's signature feature.

To get there, take the Metro B line to the Fermi exit. When you walk out of the subway you'll be about 5 blocks south/southwest of the Palazzo. So walk north/northeast through EUR until you find the building.


 Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RST Top 40. #36: Il Goccetto

#36 is really an authentic wine bar... and we've picked Il Goccetto as a stand in for the few wine bars we think rate as having some sense of authenticity. Because we've blogged about Il Goccetto before (early in October plus it's in Rome the Second Time), what follows is a repeat of the earlier blog (and a few suggestions for other wine bars at the end). And we'll give the address this time (in case you're chalking up your Top 40 list): via dei Banchi Vecchi, 14; open lunch time and after 7:30 p.m. - not on Sundays (or lunch Mondays) - not far from Campo de' Fiori.

There are wine bars and there are wine bars. As noted in Rome the Second Time, we've been entranced by Il Goccetto ("the little drop") since we first discovered it for ourselves,--no mean feat, since it had no sign (it now has a tiny one above the door), no outdoor space (unless you count the steps and sidewalk), and a small, dark interior not easily visible from the street. (And, we're sorry our friends who call it "smokey bar" haven't been back since the Rome smoking ban.)

But it turns out we aren't the only ones in thrall to this unassuming wine bar not far from the overrun Campo de' Fiori. Princeton professor Leonard Barkin spent a year in the late 1980s in Rome, virtually alone at first, then gradually adding groups of friends, almost all centered around the appreciation of fine wine. And, he turns out to be the most expert of them all (at least according to his retelling of that year in his book: Satyr Square: A Year, a Life in Rome [2006]). Yet he also ends his year at, of all places, the unassuming Il Goccetto.

We couldn't be more different from Barkin. The last thing we are is oenophiles (wine experts - I had to look it up to spell it), and, we're never alone looking for friends in the wine and food business. Nor do we live to cook and eat, the way Barkin seems to. Through most of his book, I couldn't imagine Barkin and us sharing anything in Rome (except maybe his fling with Charles Bukowski's books and his taking different walking routes from Piazza dei Satiri to the Vatican library--those I liked).

But at the very end of Satyr Square, he seems to set his high-falutin' oenophile friends aside and discovers Rome, and himself, at Il Goccetto. Here is his description:

  • None of my now vast circle of wine acquaintances in Rome has ever mentioned Il Goccetto. I came upon it by mere chance....These are not the posh surroundings of Jeffrey's tastings or the slightly faded grandeur that surrounds Sandro's, but something a little more raffish, in a neighborhood where captains of industry and leatherworkers are shoulder to shoulder. In place of Clara, in place of Jeffrey, in place of Sandro, there is Sergetto--gentle, frisky, direct, occasionally fantastical. No formal tastings here, no professorial master of the revels who has come from across the sea to instruct us, just an ongoing seminar about Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, pecorino and mozzarella, as well as the dreadful inhumanity of those who support the Lazio soccer team against Roma.

You had me, Leonard, at (or finally at) "Il Goccetto." Dianne
Other wine bars of note: Al vino al vino (via dei Serpenti, 19 - up from the Coliseum), Taberna Recina (via Elvia Recina, 26 - a few blocks from San Giovanni in Laterano), and Trimani Il Wine Bar (via Cernaia, 37b - not too far from Termini), and uve e forme (via Padova, 6/8 - in the Piazza Bologna area).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

RST Top 40. #37: Parco della Musica

This gorgeous new (2006) complex of music space has been highly successful. The performances are many and varied - suiting every taste and pocketbook: classical to folk to dance to new music, Euro 150 to free.

Many of the US's top artists perform here. See the English website for events. It's easier to navigate than PDM's (as it's called, or sometimes it's called just the Auditorium).

Whether or not you're going to a performance, the complex is worth a visit. It's in the Flaminio district, a short tram ride from Piazza del Popolo. Renzo Piano, one of Italy's best known international architects, hit his stride with these buildings. Piano also designed the New York Times building in New York City that opened earlier this year and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's large addition, that opened last year. But we think Parco della Musica is another degree better than his commissions in the US. (It's in Rome the Second Time as a music venue, Chapter 7; and also a highlight of the Flaminio walk in our latest book: Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler. More on the book at the end of this post.)

You can also get food and drink here (and in the adjacent Flaminio neighborhood - in Rome the Second Time, Chapter 8; and in the Flaminio walk of Modern Rome).

Take a look at the basketball stadium, Palazzetto dello Sport, as you walk from the tram to PDM. The Palazzetto was designed for the Rome 1960 Olympics by one of that era's most well-known Italian international architects, Pier Luigi Nervi, a master with concrete - we were taken to the Palazzetto as college students by our Stanford art prof who was trying to get us to appreciate modern architecture (wow, he got what he wanted from us!).  The Palazzetto also is featured in Modern Rome.


As noted above, these sites are feaured in the Flaminio walk of our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Now and Then: The Romanian Academy

With its funky art shows accompanied by wine, the Romanian Academy is one of our favorite social venues. The building itself is an impressive neo-classical structure. Here we offer two views of the building, one contemporary, the other from 1968, when Piazza Thorvaldsen, on which the building fronts, was the scene of a historically significant, violent confrontation between police and students. Bill

Sunday, November 15, 2009

RST Top 40. #38: The Wall Museum

Rome's walls define it in myriad ways. They defined the city, and how it could protect itself - or not - from the 4th century BC to 1870 and even to the present. No second trip to Rome should miss an up-close-and-personal experience with the walls. The best way is the city's Wall Museum, located inside the enormous, twin-towered, San Sebastiano gate. You can poke around, go up into the towers, walk along inside the walls... a small, but nifty thrill. These walls, of course, are the newer ones - the Aurelian walls, built in 271-275 AD (Wikopedia has some good historical facts.) There are only a few pieces of the 4th century BC Servian walls left in Rome (see around Termini - the central train station).

The museum's location means you also get to walk in and around the old Roman road, now via di Porta San Sebastiano - the beginning of the famed Appian Way (via Appia Antica). You can also pair this Top 40 #38 with #39, graffiti - which is just outside the gate.

Photos here are of the gate (above - inside; below, outside the gate).

The museum entrance is on the inside, right (as you look out) of the gate. Hours 9-2 Tuesday - Sunday, ticket office closes at 1:30. Tickets generally Euro 3. There's a lot of history and some old photos (but who needs old photos, when you've got "old" right in front of you??) on the city's website for the museum and gate (in English).

There's also a well-groomed, newly refurbished family park just before the gate. Parco degli Scipioni.

An alternative to the Wall Museum for seeing Rome's walls is the museum of Porta San Paolo near the Pyramid (on Itinerary 4 in Rome the Second Time).


Thursday, November 12, 2009

RST Top 40. #39: Graffiti, via Appia Antica

You can't leave Rome (the 2nd time) without appreciating its graffiti. Most of the high quality drawing is either far from the center or safely viewable only from moving trains or with gang member friends as guides. We found a very good, very dependable, and reasonably accessible site. From the Baths of Caracalla, follow via di Porta San Sebastiano (this is an old Roman road, high walls, no sidewalks, fast moving one-way traffic - but people do walk it [we have]) south, about half mile through the wall and gate and just beyond, to the underpass created by via Cilicia. You can't miss the art work here on the beginning of via Appia Antica, but we especially recommend the display of talent as one moves left and under the nearby exit off via Cilicia. Poke around. Really quite something.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Rome the Second Time Top 40. #40: The Cloaxa Maxima

Beginning with today's post, and over the next few months, we'll be rolling out a list and offering a challenge: Rome-the-Second-Time's Top 40: the 40 sites you shouldn't miss (da non perdere) once you've seen the "big" tourist attractions, or if you want to experience the Eternal City in a different, more alternative, perhaps less Eternal, way. We'll call it the RST Top 40.

Many of our Top 40 are on one of the itineraries in Rome the Second Time or in the entertainment chapter, and we expect the ambitious (or crazed) to acquire the book, if only to make the quest easier. But the list will include new discoveries and new adventures, including a few that emerged from our 2009 sojourn in Monteverde Nuovo. For the new ones, we'll provide fuller descriptions and and directions. From time to time, we'll also present our "regular" posts.

Comments on the list, and suggestions for items you'd like included in the next go-around (or even this one, if you make a compelling case - just think of the arguments/discussions ["discussioni, argomenti"] we had getting to one list of 40 between us) are welcome.

As with any "Top 40" we're starting with #40 and will work our way up to #1.

RST Top 40. #40: The Cloaxa Maxima

OK, so it's just a big drain opening on the Tevere (Tiber River), and a messy one at that. But it's ancient (as in ancient Rome), and there's a good story behind it, which you'll find in Rome the Second Time. We've heard that it's possible to get a tour of the drain, but we haven't done that, not being fans of slime, rats, slugs, leeches and other things that thrive in slow-moving water in the dark. The 19th-century Jeanne Gauchard print, above, shows the Cloaxa Maxima in the context of its immediate environment, and before the Tevere's huge walls went up. It hangs, framed in gold, in our living room in the States, a gift from Dianne to Bill.

Bill and Dianne

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Battle of Valle Giulia

We have been known to drag visitors to a site familiar to many Romans but entirely unknown to tourists: the School (the Italians say Facolta', or Faculty) of Architecture, which fronts on via Gramsci, with the slope of Parioli above, Villa Borghese below, and the quartiere (quarter) of Flaminio just a ten-minute walk toward the Tiber. Valle Giulia refers not only to the general area, which also includes the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art) and several national academies and cultural centers, including those of Great Britain, Japan, and Romania, but also to the Faculty of Architecture itself, housed in an unassuming, late-modernist building. Inside (and you can walk in and poke around), you may find (assuming it's still there) a photo exhibit on the history of the place and, especially in warm weather on the large patio in back, you can feel and glimpse the energy and creativity of the current generation of architecture students.

Still, the reason we're suggesting you find your way to Valle Giulia has more to do with the front of the building, and events that took place there and on the hillside, more than forty years ago, on a sunny Friday in the early spring of 1968. In February of that year, students had occupied the building. (See photo below.) Their demands and concerns were similar to those of college and graduate students everywhere in the 1960s, whether at Berkeley in 1964 (the site of the Free Speech Movement) or Columbia in 1968. They were opposed to the authoritarian and hierarchical methods and structures then common in higher education, and to a university that was accessible largely to the privileged; they wanted a share in decision-making and more egalitarian access to the university. They also believed that the architectural school--and other parts of the University of Rome--were in the business of draining the students of their capacities for oppositional and critical thought, while producing pacified citizens who would accept subordinate roles. Some students--especially those on the political right--looked at all police as "Fascists," and wanted them out of the University. School officials felt differently, and on February 29, police ended the student occupation and established a police presence in and around the building. The stage was set for the "Battle of Valle Guilia." (If all you want is a short video showing some of the conflict, and a famous Italian song that goes with it, scroll down to the YouTube url. For background, read on.)

On Friday, March 1, some 4,000 students rallied in Piazza di Spagna (at the bottom of the Spanish Steps), perhaps a mile from Valle Giulia. About half went from there to Citta' Universitaria (the main campus of the University of Rome) and half down via Babuino, through Piazza del Popolo, up via Flaminia, and right, up the hill on viale Belle Arti to the Piazza Thorvaldsen, a stone's throw from the Faculty of Architecture, determined to liberate the building from the police--although they had never before done anything like that. Many were dressed in coats and ties; most of the men had short hair; and the overwhelming majority were unarmed, though some took apart wooden benches for clubs as the march proceeded.

What they expected and what they found when they arrived--besides large numbers of police and carabinieri--is hard to say. One student remembered a friend saying, "Nothing can happen today: the Socialists are in the government." Another recalled that the police were "ready for war," and "organized," while another said "they were few, and not very warlike. Indeed, what really struck me was that they were old....Old, and few, and relaxed, too, like us. " The photo at right was taken on the hill just below the school, with the art gallery in the distance. The sign "Fuori D'Avack" names the rector, whom the students wanted to resign.

"We stepped on to the gate," that last student continued, "as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and suddenly they attacked us." Others say the students launched the assault, throwing eggs and then rocks. The police responded with tear gas--the canisters could be deadly if fired straight rather than up in the air--and, at first, with isolated beatings. When a young man went down and another went to help him, gesturing as if he deserved immunity for his "Red Cross" action, "he was beat up mercilessly," according to one account, "because rules don't hold anymore, this is not a sport." As the fighting intensified, police in Fiat jeeps in the piazza drove in circles while hitting students with clubs. The photograph below left was claimed by both left and right; it appeared on posters sold in left-oriented Feltrinelli bookstores, but the right claimed that the first line of students pictured in the photo were from its camp. According to one account--not necessarily trustworthy--only about 200 students, most of them rightists, engaged in real fighting, while many of those on the left sought the security of nearby gardens or supported the confrontation from a distance.

The photo at the top of this post captures the intensity of the hand-to-hand fighting, but also--in the background--the curiously removed attitude of some of the police.

The students won the Battle of Valle Giulia.... "At last we entered the School of Architecture," one student recalled. "There were a few policemen in the hall, and Oreste [Scalzone, one of the leaders] made a very amusing speech--amusing to think about now. That is, he granted them immunity if they went out with their hands up. Literally. 'Don't be afraid,' he said: 'You shall not be hurt, just raise your hands and go.' The cops were kind of surprised, too. It was fun. And it wasn't militaristic; it was the power of politics against the power of weapons; because we were completely unarmed but--the feeling was, we had scored, we had made fools of them, we were home free." At a considerable cost. Some 150 policemen and 480 students were injured. (The photo above is of a wounded student on the grounds of the Japanese Cultural Institute, across via Gramsci from the Faculty of Architecture). More than 200 were arrested or detained. Eight police vehicles were burned. Because most police did not have firearms, and those that did did not use them, no one was killed.

The sense of having achieved an historic victory came through, about a year later, in the words of the song "Valle Giulia," written by singer/songwriter Paolo Pietrangeli and recorded with folksinger Giovanna Marini in 1969. It can be heard (in Italian, of course), as the accompaniment to the following VIDEO, which offers a sense of the chaos and fury of events that day. There are many verses (and an Italian friend of ours calls it "positively ugly"), but two elements of the song stand out to this day. One is the chorus, probably a reworking of slogans chanted by the marchers as they approached Valle Giulia: "No alla scuola dei padroni! Via il governo, dimissioni!/Down with the bosses' schools! Out with the government, resign now!" The second testifies to the courage the confrontation required, and to the sense that something extraordinary had happened: "They drew their batons/and hammered us like they always do/and suddenly it happened/a new thing, a new thing/"Non siam[o] scappati piu', non siam[o]scappati piu'/we didn't run away anymore/we didn't run away anymore."

....But they may have lost the war. The joy of the students must have been tempered in June, 1968, when Pier Paolo Pasolini, the celebrity leftist poet and filmmaker, then living in Rome, raised doubts about the Battle of Valle Giulia in "Il PCI ai giovani" (The Communist Party to the young people), published by the magazine L'Espresso. Pasolini, who had not been present at the Battle, argued that the mostly middle-class demonstrators had chosen the wrong enemy and abandoned the cause that mattered most. "At Valle Giulia yesterday," he wrote, "there was a fragment of the class struggle; you my friends (although in the right) were the rich; and the policemen (although in the wrong) were the poor." And in a set of chilling lines, he took sides: "When yesterday at Valle Giulia you and the policemen were throwing blows, I sympathized with the policemen! Because policemen are sons of the poor, they come from urban or rural outskirts." It would be too much to say that Pasolini was right or wrong, but the remarks hit home. Some students turned away from the University and toward the workers at Apollon, a Tiburtina factory that was threatened with closing. A high school student recalled, "I was instinctively aligned with the students, but a healthy doubt arrived in my mind, thanks to Pasolini."

Many of the recollections quoted above are from Alessandro Portelli's The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), which has a brief but important chapter on the events at Valle Giulia. The book is available from and at many libraries.


Monday, November 2, 2009

More meat!

Somehow paintings of meat figured in our recent gallery hopping around Rome. What is it with the raw meat fascination?

Although the paintings we saw were from earlier in the 20th-century, apparently the artists' attraction to meat has a long history and a contemporary bent.

Francis Bacon's 1954 Figure with Meat (a take off on a painting of Pope Innocent X - so more Rome connections) may be the most famous "meat pic", but other artists have gotten into it, so to speak, including contemporary artist Zhang Huan's "meat suit."

In any event, we offer some paintings we saw this year, at a gallery on via Piacenza, along with the real thing coming off trucks at our local market.

Thoughts, anyone??


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rear Window

It happened more than a year ago. We were living in Flaminio, occupying a first-floor corner apartment with a rather narrow balcony (that's us up there), in a building known to film historians as the place where the second bicycle theft occurred in DeSica's neo-realist masterpiece. It was late afternoon, and I took my fluted glass of Falanghina outside to watch the Romans go about their business, mostly, at this intersection of via Pietro da Cortona and via Ghirlandaio, the endlessly fascinating dance of cars and scooters searching for parking places.

Kitty-corner from our own angolo, a large, set-back apartment building filled the view. And there I saw it. A young boy--as young as four, as old as seven--appeared with his back to the open, unscreened window. He seemed to be standing on a table, so his feet were at sill level, and as I watched, he backed toward the window and--yes, it's true--took his pants down, perhaps in some sort of protest. Now I was concerned for the boy's life, as any misstep would send him two floors to his death, and whatever mischief or trauma had brought the pants down could, I thought, trigger just that sort of tragic miscalculation. Dianne joined me on the balcony, and we watched until, when it seemed we had to do something, anything, hands reached out and pulled the boy in--as we were taking this photograph.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Graffiti: A Rome Primer

Although New York and Los Angeles are the most famous graffiti sites in the world, Rome is an active center of this controversial art form. Like Los Angeles, Rome is a city of stucco walls, perfect surfaces for graffiti artists, and they've taken advantage of these canvasses--and other surfaces, too, covering the city with drawings and paintings. Although much of it still strikes us as the work of talentless adolescents with too much time on their hands, we vowed to learn more. We were blown away by Steve Grody's book, Graffiti L.A. (Abrams), which taught us the basic terminology (tags, signatures, crews, fill, simples, throw-ups, shout-outs); convinced us that many graffiti practitioners are serious artists; gave us a sense of the culture and politics of graffiti; and even raised the disturbing possibility that all the junk that Rome's tourists complain about may be a "necessary" preliminary to the production of the good stuff, the "real" art. The blogsite has some nice 2007 examples of Trastevere graffiti. The one at lower right features two tags, one by Lucas, the other, in the center and less obvious, by Croels. Tagging is a controversial aspect of graffiti writing, because it seems so much like scribbling. The upside is that by writing his name 5 times on this wall, Lucas is developing his talent.

Jessica's Rome Photo Blog also has some good graffiti pix - put "graffiti" into the search engine on her blog.

In Rome, we met with the city's queen of graffiti, Maria Teresa Natale. While not herself an artist, Maria Teresa knows more about Rome's graffiti scene than any one else, with the possible exception of Gabriella Tarquini, with whom she manages the website lascia il segno (leave the sign), essentially an online, annotated graffiti library, focusing on Rome, Milan, and Berlin, and housing more than 11,000 images. There's another link to the website on the right of this site. (And, don't bother with "English"; all the good stuff is pictured in the Italian parts of the site.)

Over coffee in Monteverde Vecchio, Maria Teresa told us about the Rome graffiti scene. Rome, she explained, is the only city in the world where both regular trains--she mentioned the ones that run from the Ostiense station to Lido d'Ostia (to the beach) and the metro cars--are "decorated," as she put it. In Milan, she said, graffiti writers were more likely to be designers who functioned like regular artists, presenting their work in gallery exhibitions. Rome hasn't reached that stage, although its better educated artists, some of them engineers or architects, are often working with posters or stickers, while the poorer and less educated are more likely to be doing the spray can thing, making letters or figures ("puppets," in the English translation from the Italian).

Among Rome's notable graffiti artists are sprayers Thoms, Bol, Soeww, and Genuine Crew; the letterer Kemh; and street artists Lex, Hogre, JB Rock, Diamont, and Sten (not to be confused with Stan), whose puppets are legendary. One of Sten's atypical yet iconic puppet figures for the Teatro Vascello, in Monteverde Vecchio, is at left. The works of these artists, and that of others, is likely to be found in train stations (Maria Teresa mentioned Nuovo Salario and Appiano) and Centri Sociali (social centers), notably Forte Prenestino (see Rome the Second Time for a description and directions).

Most graffiti writing in Rome is against the law. The liberal, reform-minded former mayor Walter Veltroni initiated a "conversation" with graffiti artists, likely in an effort both to recognize the artistic merit of the form and to bring it under some control. He offered the artists about a dozen "legal" walls, each about 100 meters long, outside the city center, and other walls--some in train stations--for which artists could sign up to paint and control that particular space for a three month period. In retrospect, those were the good old days. The 3-month wall program has been suspended, and heavy fines are levied on anyone caught painting train cars.

Maria Teresa told us that most of the best graffiti is located far outside the Centro, where artists are less likely to interrupted by the police. Still, we've found several worthy, close-in sites. For political graffiti, we recommend the left-leaning community of Garbatella, easily reachable on Metro B. See the subtle example at left, one of several on the building.

On the other end of the political spectrum is the graffiti sponsored by businesses that would rather have a nice drawing on their saracinesca (metal shutter) than messy tags.

Another good site, described in Itinerary 10 in Rome the Second Time (p. 150), is Forte Braschi, located in Parco del Pineto, where the art work lines the outside perimeter of the military installation.

The third close-in site is an underpass on via Appia Antica, less than 100 meters outside the city wall. The art that opens this post, at top left, is from there.