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, July 29, 2009

New Frontiers in Found Art

We've always been fans of "found" art, if only because it doesn't require the hard work of regular art. No long days in the darkroom or studio. You don't have to be an artist. Found art is out there; it just needs to be found--and then picked up or, if that's not possible, photographed.

Our experience with found art began in Bologna in 1989, where we were living and where we had our first intense experience with the Italian passion for posters--and then for posters that had been torn and torn again, to reveal random patterns and layers of unintended meaning. The poster/photo on the left is from that period. Instant Robert Rauschenberg. This was easy.

Back in the States, Bill began picking up pieces of metal that been rusted and flattened from being out in the open and run over by cars. His first find was this paint can, pried from the Macadam on Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo. He was thrilled.

Rome is full of opportunities for the found-art connoisseur. We thought the phone booth at right, decorated by university students and located at the corner of viale Regina Elena and viale Ippocrate in the Piazza Bologna area, was ready for MACRO. And just across the sidewalk, at the back of some medical institute, we found a lovely pile of objects ready to be welded into high art.

The real frontier of Rome's found art scene, however, is the electrical box. Oddly ignored by the city's art elite, the electrical box has been "found" by movers, who have covered the boxes in delightful displays of "traslochi" stickers. This is by no means one of the best examples of electrical box art, but it should be sufficient to suggest the enormous potential inherent in these unusual metal canvasses. Watch for the upcoming show at Gagosian's. Bill

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Summer in Rome: Beating the Heat

We're going to Rome in the summer; what should we do? That's a question we're often asked.

Being a northerner (born and raised in Seattle), the heat of Italian cities in July and August is, frankly, more than I can appreciate. "Follow the Romans, go to the coast or the mountains!" is usually my reply. As the Italians say, "tutti al mare" - everyone to the sea.

But there will be plenty of tourists and a few Romans left in the city next month. Some love the feel of August, hot as it is, with the non-tourist parts of the city emptied. Nanni Moretti (Italy's Woody Allen) captured this in his award-winning film, "Caro Diario" ("Dear Diary"). Watching him scooter along empty streets almost makes me want to do that too. See a clip from the Vespa YouTube site.

And, Rome is fabulously full of activities in the summer. So if you find yourself in or near Rome in July and August, and you don't want to join the crowds at the local beaches (tho' that's not too bad either - see our post on Fregene on May 28), get off the beaten tourist track and head for one of the wonderful events - bars on the Tiber (Tevere), plays in the parks, opera in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, jazz on the hilltops. It just doesn't get any better. Check out the website for their complete schedule and description of offerings under "Estate Roma" (Summer Rome). Note that anything not listed as being in English (plays, readings, films) very likely is not.

For the evening, here are two of our favorites:

First, stroll along the Tevere, sampling the food, drinks, and wares for sale, and of course don't miss the great people watching. At right is a photo of the scene early in the morning, long after the activities have ceased. You can reach this part of the Tevere by stairways from Trastevere (near Piazza Trilussa, near the Tiber Island [on both sides of the Tevere], near Viale Trastevere, etc.).
[Thanks to inromenow for the night photo; mine all disappeared into digital heaven.]

Second, go to jazz at Villa Celimontana. After an uphill walk of a couple blocks "in back" of the Coliseum, you'll find this hilltop park turned into a seasonal outdoor jazz venue is magical. We have heard great jazz here, from the big names to the unknowns. One night we found ourselves listening to very good Slovakian jazz, complete with a buffet provided by the Slovakian Embassy - all free. Another night we heard a stunning jazz duel between pianist Stefano Bollani and accordionist Antonello Salis. An upcoming event bound to be sold out is Bollani with one of the country's best trumpeters, Enrico Rava, on August 6. Villa Celimontana can be a bit difficult to figure out. There are a variety of bars and restaurants surrounding the stage and the limited seating area. Ideally you can go twice and figure out where you want to sit and how to make a reservation for the second time. Or, arrive early and get a seat in the chairs in front of the stage or on the steps leading to the restaurant areas. As in most things Italian, you can find a spot somewhere. It's impossible not to enjoy yourself here if you have any feeling for jazz and night music!

For the daytime, we recommend lying in your air conditioned hotel room and hitting the air conditioned museums--not exactly off the tourist track. But be sure to save your energy for the best part of summer in Rome - the evenings.

As the Italians say, buon estate - "good summer" - Dianne

Friday, July 24, 2009

Graffiti Wisdom (II)

It pays to get up early, before the merchants raise their shutters. On our mid-June early morning ride through the city, we found this query on a lowered saracinesca at Piazza Trilussa, in Trastevere. Bill

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Graffiti Wisdom (I)

Not long ago we encountered these words on a saracinesca in Appio Latino. Although the words themselves are not difficult, we asked our Roman friend and translator Massimo for the best rendering in English. His response: "We lead a sad life." There are two tags below, not necessarily by the person(s) who wrote the words. One is RAW and the other looks like F N (Fronte Nazionale), a right-wing political organization. There appears to be a partial swastika between the F and the N. Bill

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Swimming in art and history

The International Swimming Federation's (FINA) 2009 World Championships now going on in Rome are a great opportunity to see world-class athletes. But, for us, it's about the venue.

The main pool in the Foro Italico is graced with stunning 1930s mosaics by some of the Fascist era's best artists, including Angelo Canevari and Gino Severini.

Our photos here were taken during a national water polo competition, where we witnessed the excitement of a player being ejected. For more photos, see the Mosaic Art Source website.

We also give Rome credit (they need it after all the scandals involved in the building of pools for the event) for their publicity. We love this billboard featuring the Foro Italico's Stadio dei Marmi (best translated as Stadium of the Marble Statues), with swimming goggles on the statue.


(Rome the Second Time has some condensed information on the Foro at pp. 134-7.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Cheap at Twice the Price

We're always on the lookout for bargains, and we think we found one while window shopping on the via del Corso. We don't know how anyone with a toddler could resist dressing up the little tyke in these cute mini- sandals--and only 42 Euro, or about $59 US. Why not buy two pair? Or add those adorable silver track shoes, at only 48 Euro, perfect for getting your critter to the potty with time to spare. Surprise your rug rat with both for just $127! Bill

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Devil Made Me Do It

If driving in Rome weren't so much a version of Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell, we might not have paid any attention to the business across the street from our apartment on via Ghislieri: Autoscuola Damiano--Damian's Driving School. Of course we've known our share of Damians and even, this time, a Damiano--regular guys, all. But as film buffs, when we looked at that sign we couldn't help but think of cinema's best known Damian--the Damien of The Omen, the 1976 film featuring Gregory Peck as an American diplomat who discovers that the little guy he tucks in bed at night is actually the offspring of Satan, destined to be the Antichrist (jeepers creepers!). Damien is even nastier than most small children, and before you know it, people have been thrown off balconies, decapitated by panes of glass and, worse yet, chased by Rottweilers. The mayhem extends to several members of the crew, who were involved in a head-on car crash (!) as shooting began.

That would all be mere coincidence, we suppose, except that The Omen was--you're not going to believe this--SET IN ROME. Yes, set in Rome. And Damien's mother (a jackal--what else?) was buried in an ETRUSCAN GRAVEYARD. Yikes!

So it wasn't so totally unreasonable that we had some fun in our delirium imagining Rome's driving wantabees picking up the fine points of Rome's manic traffic scene from a youngish instructor named Damian, horns poking out over the dashboard. Who better to show the novice how to cut off another vehicle than the Prince of Darkness? Who would know more about the art of permanent double-parking than Beelzebub? And Iblis (that's Islam's devil, in case you didn't know), master of that raised, cupped hand--the Italian version of "what the....."

Involved in an accident? As Flip Wilson's Geraldine would have said, "The Devil made me do it." Bill

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cheapest Restaurant in Rome

We happened upon the small restaurant da Giovanni one evening when we were staying around the corner from it at a friend's studio on the Lungotevere between Trastevere and the Vatican. "Oh, she said, you mean Rome's cheapest restaurant." And, so it has been forever designated in our list.

Billing itself as "Osteria con cucina," or an "osteria" (more on that later) "with kitchen", da Giovanni is very small - maybe 8 tables - and in the past two years has remodeled a tiny bit and raised its prices a tiny bit. But it still remains very inexpensive, true to the Roman cuisine and good. It won't compete with higher-end trattorias in Rome, but you're bound to find a good meal here for just a few Euro. In fact, the take-out pizzeria next door could cost you more.

Recently we had (as we always do) a pasta with red sauce - always good, if not exciting (pastas run Euro 3-4.50). And, as usual, we ordered the involtini - thinly sliced roasted veal rolled up with a filling of carrots and spices with a red sauce (Euro 5.00). This time the veal wasn't as tender as in the past, but it was still tasty. We saw fellow diners ordering the eggs with asparagus - a main course (!). The portions are not large (thankfully, in our opinion). There is a printed menu with English translation, but the best bet is the daily items that are on a handwritten part of the menu - in Italian only. Some of the other prices (all in Euros) are: soup 2.50, daily plates 4.50-6.00, fish 5.50-12 [I'm not sure we've ever seen anyone order the fish], roasts 4.50-5, sides 2-2.50, desserts (usually only fruit) 3, and wine 4.50 for .75 liter, bread 1. You can follow the advice of our then teen-age son in Prague in 1989 when he ordered the top 2 most expensive things on the menu and figured he'd do fine.

I concur with an Italian review: :"If you're looking for an elegant, romantic restaurant and for unusual recipes, don't come to da Giovanni. This is a restaurant for those who love true Roman cooking with a very low bill. The decor is basic with tables practically on top of each other. The primos are well prepared, and don't forget the main courses, obviously in the Roman culinary tradition."

You might have to fight a bit for a table at da Giovanni. It's popular with Italians. There are no reservations and no inside waiting area. But the service is at da Giovanni is quick. Go when the tourists ebb or the weather is nice and you don't mind waiting. Note: waiting on the street is somewhat hazardous - it's narrow and has traffic. Showing up about 7:15, before they open at 7:30 (promptly) is a way to get seated as well.

via Lungara 41A (near the Mazzini Bridge on the Trastevere/Vatican side of the Tiber), noon-3 p.m. and 7:30-10 p.m., closed Sundays

Competing with da Giovanni for cheapest restaurant is Trattoria Ada e Mario, described in Rome the Second Time, on pp. 211-12. It's in the Appio Latino area. Because it's off the tourist track, it doesn't get the same kind of traffic, but it's usually pretty hopping. Ada e Mario has a small outdoor patio in front as well (that's it, in the photo). It's not too far from San Giovanni in Laterano, if you're in that area.

For great food (dishes, restaurants, take-away), see Katie Parla's blog, - and photos that make you want to eat your monitor.

We welcome other candidates for "Cheapest Restaurant in Rome" - only criteria (in addition to low price): the food is cooked on premises and is good.

A P.S. on "osteria." An osteria at one time was a very cheap, plain pub-like drinking hole, the word deriving from "host" or "inn." We always thought of it as one step below a trattoria, which traditionally is one step below a "ristorante" or "restaurant." (Those of you who've read Rome the Second Time and the sidebar on "one glass trattorias" understand the distinction.) But Roman friends and we were lamenting together recently that very high class places now call themselves "osterias" because it's now considered chic. So goes the language.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Manhole Covers: Art and Politics

If we didn’t know that Bocca della Verita', now one of Rome’s major tourist attractions, was once a manhole cover, we might have been more reluctant to introduce today’s subject. Even so, we don’t expect the average tourist to spend the day looking down, eagerly anticipating the next “cover,” or stooping to feel the patina created by thousands of shoes over many decades, or pondering the date of a particularly compelling version of the genre. But then we’re not writing for the “average” tourist. So here goes.

The manhole cover above has two worthy elements. Like many covers, it has the letters SPQR, for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the people of Rome). Once used on the shields of Roman legions, the letters were also popular with Mussolini’s Fascists and today appear on the coat of arms for the city of Rome and on all manner of other things, from sidewalk poster frames to…manhole covers. In this case, SPQR are carried out in a highly stylized, modernist lettering common in Italian design in the early 1930s--note the similarity to the typeface used in the Cherry Show poster from 1932--so it’s likely that this cover was made in that period.

The design to the left of the letters is apparently a version of the Celtic Cross. The Celtic Cross is a very old religious symbol, especially dear to Presbyterians and Catholics and, according to some, invented by Saint Patrick in the 5th century in an effort to combine the Christian symbol of the cross with the pagan symbol of the sun. However, the Celtic Cross on this manhole cover comes without the “ring” that represents the sun, and it doesn’t even have the shape of the standard Christian Cross; all sides are of equal length. So what we have here is a highly derivative version based on the Celtic Cross, but adapted for modern design purposes.

Manhole covers are part of the city’s maintenance system, and so they’re marked in practical ways that help workers know what’s down there. The cover below and to the right, with Arresto SPQR on one side, and Saracinesca on the other, explains that when the cover is removed, you’ll find a valve or nipple (saracinesca) that can be turned off or stopped (arresto). The letters around the center--ACEA--refer to Rome's public/private power and water company.

Some covers tell us where they were made, and by what company. The one below was obviously made in Giovanni Berta’s foundry (fonderia) in Florence—a foundry located, actually, in an area just north of Florence called “delle Cure.” It’s not famous for manhole covers (not, anyway, until this blog), but the name reflects an ancient trade once practiced there: the washing of linen cloth to soften and whiten the material. Fascinating! The crown above reveals that Italy was still a monarchy, and the attenuated Celtic Cross appears once more, in the same position.

This cover, too, has the SPQR, and with it, the fasci, symbol of Fascism. That combination—SPQR and fasci—appears on our final example (below), located in viale delle Provincie, running off Piazza Bologna—don’t miss it!

This gem tells us that there’s water service inside (Servizio Idraulico); that it was made at the Roman Foundry; and—an added treat—that it was manufactured in the tenth year of the Fascist Era (X is ten, EF is Era Fascista)—that is, ten years after the 1922 March on Rome, or 1932. (We have not pinned down the meaning of the A and V letters. They might stand for an Italian version of Annular Velocity, a term in fluid dynamics that refers to the speed of a fluid's movement in a column; or refer to a common abbreviation for the Province of Avellino. Or something else.)

On one level, these are just details. But they can help us toward an answer to a question on which there is a difference of opinion: under Fascism, were the letters SPQR “Fascist”? Because it was common to combine the letters with the fasci of Fascism, it seems likely that the letters, too, carried a Fascist valence—then, if not now.

Keep your head down....happy hunting! Bill

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Obamamania Italian style

Russians may be cool about him, but Italians are crazy for Obama, in our experience.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (he of the gaffes and young women scandals) takes every opportunity to be photographed with the U.S. President, as in this picture from April's G20 summit... yeah, that's Berlusconi in the middle with the thumb's up sign behind Obama's head, or as someone said "amateur hour at the G20". (For background on Berlusconi, see Frederika Randall's recent online piece in The Nation. Berlusconi also famously referred to Obama as "abbronzato," which means "tan." Not to be outdone by his own gaffe, Berlusconi later said he would arrive at the White House also "abbronzato."

Right now, of course, Obama is in L'Aquila, the large city devastated by the earthquake this Spring, meeting with the G-8. So photos of the U.S. President are everywhere.

We encounter Obamamania everywhere we go in Rome, and not just among our leftist friends.

The woman who runs the long-established trattoria "Il Vascello" in Monteverde Vecchio has a collection of Obama items, and can't stop talking about him... in the same loud and enthusiastic voice she uses to tell you the daily specials.

The co-owner and barrista at the wine bar, "Il Baccoco" in Trastevere, tested us out first. "Obama?..." he asked, when his voice implying a question. When we indicated yes, we are Obama supporters, he sped up his Italian and waxed well, if not eloquent, at least enthusiastic, about our relatively new President.

And, perhaps more surprising, the men behind the counter at our small, local P.O. in Monteverde Nuovo, are hardly disgruntled postal workers. When they discovered I was sending a letter to the U.S., they started quizzing me about Obama and debating about whether the "speranza" or hope would really turn into action--they hoped it would.

We still have a small roll of Obama campaign stickers ("I voted early for Barack Obama") from our 6 weeks last Fall working on the campaign in the suburbs of Cleveland. We doled them out to some of these Obama fans, who were clearly elated by the souvenirs.

A question we have for these Obamaphiles is whether they also support their right-wing Prime Minister Berlusconi and Rome Mayor Alemanno. Hard to tell.

But for now, we'll enjoy the enthusiasm of the Italians for a U.S. President (for a change).


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Grace when you need it: Italy's small shrines

Italy is a Catholic country, and we're reminded of it at every turn. There are over 300 churches in Rome, and hundreds more shrines on, it sometimes seems, every corner. It's easy to become inured to the ubiquitous symbols. Yet, there are shrines that make us stop and pause, and here are a few of them.

Almost every mountain top in Italy (and sometimes even just the top of a hill) has a cross. It's often the only way we know we actually got to the top, since usually there are no other markers. The one below, which we've posted previously, is particularly poignant. I thought an out-of-sorts teen had bent some of the metal around this cross, but the metal turns out to be a part of a small military plane that crashed into Monte Pellechia on Christmas Day, 1960.

The Virgin Maryshrine at the top of this blog would appear to be like hundreds of others. But this one made me stop because it is lit by a modern, eco-friendly fluorescent bulb. In the small hill town of Segni.

Shrines where people have died are increasingly common in the U.S., as well as in Italy. This one is beautifully arranged and maintained--complete with cigarette lighter, and it touched my heart. In the seaside town of Fregene.

Statues, usually to Mary, but not always, often show up on the beginning portion of a hike, and usually bless the mountains, the mountain town and, we hope, the hikers. On this hike, we went from the town of Sonnino to the top of the Lepini mountains' Monte della Fate (Mountain of the Fairies), part of a brigands hide-out area in the 18th and 19th centuries. The vista overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea and Circeo. Here we were protected by not one but two Marys--one at the beginning of the hike (with an apparent attempt to shield her from vandals) and one at the top.

We welcome additions to touching and unusual shrines and shrine locations. Dianne

Monday, July 6, 2009

Flash: Italian Caught Apologizing

OK, so we made a big point just a few days ago that Italians never apologize ("Sorry for this Lousy Post," 6/29). Well, never say never. Indeed, it seems the Italian train system--TRENITALIA--has institutionalized the practice, made a fetish of it, even. If one of their trains is late, they apologize, and not once but twice: once in Italian, and once in Brit-sounding English. And they do this at every stop. So if you're on a long trip, and the train is late from the start and all along your route, you'll be the recipient of dozens of multi-lingual apologies--enough, perhaps, to make one long for the good old days when Italians never apologized.

Our film clip of this new custom can be a bit hard to hear, so turn up the volume and listen to an Italian saying he's sorry. Who's next? The Fonz? Bill

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Stones of Rome

If you've been in Rome more than 15 minutes, you've noticed that many of the streets are paved with square black stones--very "picturesque." Here we have some pidgeons having an early morning pizza on this picturesque surface.

The stones are called sanpietrini (little Saint Peters--a reference to their use in the early 18th century in St. Peter's square, after the coach carrying the Pope nearly tipped over), and they have an inverted-pyramid shape that resembles a molar. They're a bit like icebergs, with most of their bulk below the surface. To give you some idea of an average-size sanpietrino, I asked Dianne to hold one in her hand (below right).

According to Fulvio Abbate's Roma, a "non-conformist guide to the city" (one of our favorite books when we can understand it), these paving blocks first appeared in the 16th century, to facilitate the smooth movement of carts through the streets. Having suffered through kilometer upon kilometer of sanpietrini on the back of a scooter known to have a rather stiff rear-end suspension (that's the scooter's rear-end we're talking about), Dianne isn't so enamoured of the "smooth" ride these blocks of basalt are presumed to produce. And, as every scooter driver knows, and as bicycle racer Denis Menchov discovered on a straightaway in the final kilometer of the last time trial of the Giro d'Italia, with the Coliseum in view and the finish line--and glory--around the curve, dampened sanpietrini are, well, really, really slippery.

If Dianne were mayor every street that we ride on would be dependable asphalt. But she isn't, and so we now and then can take pleasure in watching a sanpietrino (also the word for a craftsman who installs the blocks) ply his centuries-old trade (video below from Piazza del Gesu'). Rome's artists, too, have found the streets of sanpietrini the stuff of inspiration, as we discovered one evening at a small gallery in Ostiense (left), where Giovanni Liberatore was showing his sensuous, closeup photos of wet and oily pavement.

And, for the time being--until Dianne gets her way--Romans will now and then pick up a loose one, take it home, and use it for a doorstop. Bill