Rome Travel Guide

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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

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