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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brutalist Rome

Brutalist architecture is an offshoot of the International Style. It was popular (or unpopular) from about 1955 to 1980. Coined in 1954, the term "brutalist" is apparently derived from the French "beton brut," meaning raw concrete, the building material most identified with the style, and the word "brutalist" was popularized by architectural historian Reyner Banham in the 1966 book, The New Brutalism.

Brutualist architecture has some or all of the following characteristics, in order of importance: the use of lots of poured concrete slabs; unfinished surfaces and, more generally, the desire NOT to disguise the rough materials of which buildings are made; geometric repetition of building elements and forms; and the exposure of steel beams, ventilation ducts, and other elements of a building that are normally hidden from view. Many brutalist buildings would be described as massive, and most clash with their environment is ways that many observers find unappealing.

Brutalist architecture looked for inspiration to the work of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, particularly his 1953 Secretariat Building in Chandigarh, India. Among the most influential Brutalist works is Paul Rudolph's Yale University Art and Architecture Building, completed in 1963.

There isn't much brutalism in Rome and environs. We found this high school (left) in Monteverde Vecchio, off via Fonteiana, just above via di Donna Olimpia.

One project that has some of brutalism's characteristics but not others is Corviale, a housing project southwest of Rome's Centro. Corviale was begun in 1972 and the first tenants moved in a decade later. It is certainly massive: 1200 apartments, 9 floors, 980 meters long! Although the front of the building does not use concrete in the way most brutalist buildings do, the concrete corridors in back are classically brutalist (below right). As one might expect, Corviale has had its critics, among them Prince Charles, who once remarked after visiting the building, "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble." A story from the popular culture has it that Corviale's architect committed suicide when he saw the finished product.

The lovely example of brutalism at top and at right is in our own neighborhood, right behind the market in Piazza San Giovanni di Dio, up the Gianicolense in Trastevere. The Church of Our Lady of Salette occupies the highest ground in the immediate area. The main entrance is off the Piazza Madonna della Salette (La Salette refers to a small town in the Alps where a miracle occurred in 1846--the sighting of the Virgin Mary, or perhaps the last date someone found a parking place in the piazza).

The church was designed by architects Viviana Rizzi and Ennio Canino, about which not much is known except that they also designed the Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo (1969) in the zone of Monte Sacro Alto. The Salette structure was begun in 1957 and completed in 1965, to serve a new parish in the then rapidly expanding Monteverde Nuovo. The photograph of the interior was taken on Easter Sunday. Bill

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

White Lines, Big City

No, this isn't Rome. We've never seen a newly painted pedestrian crosswalk in Rome, never seen the painter guys freshening the white lines.

This is by no means a trivial matter. Although crosswalks are hardly inviolable spaces, many Rome motorists will respect (tolerate might be a better word, or maybe "dislike less") pedestrians who cross the street in the crosswalk--that is, at the white lines. Romans know this, and some believe so deeply in the right to cross the street at these designated places that they'll venture into a white-lined zone without even looking.

The problem, we all know, is that Rome's white lines have nearly disappeared, victims of wear and tear and lack of attention, mere ghosts of white lines past, virtually invisible to the harried businessman in the Lamborghini, to the guy on his Bergman 650 with the cell phone tucked in his helmet, to the nearsighted pensionato (retired person), to the secretary late for work--to anyone, really.

Traffic experts seem to agree that accidents involving pedestrians would be reduced if the white lines were really white. But the responsibility to do this work lies not with the mayor or the Rome city government, but--so we've been told--with the more local "municipi," which have apparently decided to spend their money elsewhere. Don't wait up for the painting crew.

The photo was taken in Genova.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Roman or Romanian? Will the true gladiator stand up?

We can't help but get a chuckle out of those guys hanging outside the Coliseum, persuading (amazingly enough, often successfully) tourists to pay to have their photos taken with them. Guess they're centurions, tho' everyone calls them gladiators, and, whatever, they add to the local color.

But this year they also added to the Roman/Romanian debate. Turns out there is territory to be protected and with tourism down, the pie to be divided is smaller. Today's Romans solicit business outside not only the Coliseum but other places, like Castel Sant'Angelo (Hadrian's Castle)--where the photo above was taken.

And, the Roman centurions decided it was un... well, unRoman, for Romanians to be horning in on their business. The Romanians were taking up positions outside Castel Sant'Angelo, leaving the Coliseum to the "Romans" (and how "Roman" are they, one could ask?).

All this can seem a bit silly, when Italians often complain the Romanians don't engage in legitimate businesses and um.... that they're not really "Romans". Romanians, on the other hand, claim a special tie to Rome, going back to Trajan (conqueror of Dacia, present-day Romania) and, of course, to their related Latin language. The tourists, of course, can't tell the difference.

So should we care? Let the games begin.

Dianne - for more on the Romanian immigrant presence, see Bill's post.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Keeping Rome Clean: Part 2

Rome has a few street-sweeping machines, the kind with rotating brushes that tidy up near the curbs. But because automobiles normally take up both sides of the streets, most of the sweeping is done by hand, with long-handled, curved brooms of the sort favored by the Wicked Witch of the East, tools descended from the Dark Ages. We've never tried one--it doesn't seem as if they can be bought in stores--so we can only assume that the odd-looking things are functional for the outdoor work they do, that the curve of the broom makes it possible to get around and under the city's cars and trucks, many of which haven't been moved for months, as the owners fret about never finding another parking place.

In recent years, the storied straw version of the street broom has been replaced with green plastic. The march of progress will doubtless trouble the traditionalists, but those with an artistic bent may have a different view. We like the dash of color in the line-up above, where brooms in a row await their sweepers. Bill

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Italian Empire: the Nasty Side

Yes, Italy once had an empire. The new nation acquired its first colony, Eritrea, in 1890 and remained a colonial power until 1947, when, having lost the war, it was forced to cede all its possessions, including Eritrea, Ethiopia (acquired 1936), Libya (taken in a war with Turkey in 1912), and Somalia (1889). [The 1947 date is the legal one, but Italians lost de facto control of most of their colonial possessions in 1941, to the British armed forces].

 Italians valued their empire as a way of impressing the major world powers; as a way uniting a fractious nation under the banner of Italian manifest destiny; in some cases, as a place to settle its unemployed; and for its role in linking Fascism with the imperial glories of ancient Rome. One can see Fascism's pride in the empire in the massive map at left, a permanent feature of the Casa del GIL (House of the Italian Fascist Youth), completed in Rome in 1936. We take our readers there in Rome the Second Time.

Perhaps because all or most of these seemed like good and progressive ideas, the story developed that Italian colonialism was more humane and benign, and less violent, than that of other countries. And there were some accomplishments, including the Cinema Italiana Mogadiscio, the first one in the city. It opened in 1937.

Not surprisingly, most people don't like to be conquered and colonized, and there was plenty of resistance to Italian expansion in North Africa. To suppress that resistance, Fascist Italy fought military campaigns--on the ground and in the air--in Libya and Eritrea in the 1920s and in Ethiopia and Somalia after 1935.

What is surprising is how nasty these campaigns were. In the Cyrenaica region of Libya, the Italians used forced marches, sixteen concentration camps, and massive population transfers in what some historians consider the first 20th-century use of genocidal tactics outside a World War. In Eritrea, they deported leaders opposed to colonization and jailed their families and relatives. By the late 1930s, Mussolini and his lieutenants favored execution over deportation. And during the Ethiopian conflict in the late 1930s, Italian aircraft bombed twelve Red Cross hospitals, violating international law.

When World War II was over, Italians were shocked to learn that their government had used poison gas, and lots of it--again in violation of an international agreement, this one made in 1925. As the English-language newspaper reveals, others knew much earlier. The material was mustard gas; its vapors were deadly, and so were the drops that got under the skin, causing blisters and lethal lesions inside the body.

The photo below right shows the effects of mustard gas on an Ethiopian being treated by the Norwegian Red Cross.

The Italian air force dropped thousands of mustard gas bombs in its Italian colonies--about 2000 in Ethiopia alone, many on civilians. To be sure, the Italians weren't alone; France used poison gas in Morocco, and the Japanese used it against China in 1937. And we all know what the Germans did, and, in August 1945, the Americans. We've attached a video of the Italian use of mustard gas in Ethiopia in 1936.

Here's the point: despite its bellicose Roman heritage, in the 20th century the Italians have developed a reputation as a likable, rather timid people, unsuited to war and lacking the inclinations to brutality possessed by some other nations. The truth is more complex. Bill

(The material above is adapted from Italian Colonialism, ed. Ruth Ben-Ghiot and Mia Fuller (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). We thank the editors and authors.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Broken Pediment

For years we've been wandering around Rome, noticing a distinctive decorative form: a triangular pediment, usually over a door or a window, but incomplete. We wondered what it was.

Pediments (we were tempted to add "of course," but we just learned this) were a feature of Greek buildings as well as many structures built in the Renaissance. The Parthenon is the best example. In ancient Rome and in the Renaissance, pediments were also used as non-structural, decorative elements--what we observe here. In the photo above, of a doorway in Rome, the pediment is both "broken" (that's the technical term) at the top--that is, not completed--and "open" (another technical term) along the base of the triangle.

It wasn't long ago (and it may still be true) that the "broken" pediment was considered "decadent," an example of "excess"--that is, just plain bad taste. One of those criticized for using the form was Giacomo Barocchio (1507-75), who succeeded Michelangelo as architect of St. Peter's. A tough act to follow.

In New York City, the most famous, or notorious example of the broken pediment is Philip Johnson's AT & T building (now occupied by SONY), with its "Chippendale" top. This is one of the first "post-modern" structures--essentially a modern building, but with an 18th-century twist.

The facade of Santa Maria del Popolo plays with the concept of the broken pediment, the cornice doubling to suggest a broken pediment, its two parts potentially meeting (some say rather awkwardly) at the center window. Bill

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mixing religion and politics in the lively Campo de' Fiori

The dark metallic statue of Giordano Bruno, head lowered under his Dominican cloak and hood, has always seemed anomalous in the lively Campo de' Fiori. We force ourselves to think about a heretic burned at the stake in this center of Rome commerce and pleasure, where revelers party until dawn each night.

Bruno was burned alive in this piazza 409 years ago, on February 17, 1600, and the Church thought it had good reason. A defrocked monk, Bruno briefly joined the Calvinists (Protestants!) in Switzerland, and questioned a) Jesus as the Son of God, b) transubstantiation, c) the worship of Mary, and yes, d) all of the above (and more)--at least that's what came out in his trials under the Inquisition. He spent 1592-1600 in Inquisition jails. And, of course, unlike his contemporary, Galileo, he never repented.

Bruno was not only a heretic, but also a man ahead of his time. Before even Galileo, he held the stars were not fixed in the universe; he may have been the first person to theorize infinity. He combined scientific theory with a fascination for magic, making him a tough guy to appreciate in later centuries. [See Ingrid Rowland's new biography: Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic.] Bruno's work was intellectually revived (having been unknown for centuries) in the 19th century by the anti-Church forces, starting with (as usual) students at the University of Rome. After trying to make him into a figure of resistance to the Church through seminars on his work, the students came up with the notion of a statue. Intellectuals around the world, including George Ibsen and Victor Hugo, supported the cause.

The statue, designed by anti-cleric sculptor Ettore Ferrari, and erected in 1899, was the completion of the Italian conquest of Rome over the Papacy, "at least symbolically," according to historian David Kertzer in his 2006 book, Prisoner of the Vatican: the Popes, the Kings, and Garibaldi's Rebels in the Struggle to Rule Modern Italy (see Chapter 19: "Giordano Bruno's Revenge"). The planning for, and erection of the statue, was intended as a direct confrontation and affront to the Pope. When you're in Campo de' Fiori, imagine a parade of 10,000 people coming towards it, then only those with tickets in the Campo itself, over 130 members of Parliament on the reviewing stand, and the royal family and royal hangers-on not-so-discretely renting window seats in the then-poor apartments overlooking the square. There's still public acknowledgement of Bruno as a standard-bearer of "free thinkers" on February 17 each year.

So when you're throwing down a beer with fellow students at midnight, or having an 8 Euro glass of Fiano at the newest Campo wine bar at 7 p.m., or wrapped in nostalgia as the vendors set up their stands at 6 a.m., take the time to look closely as Bruno's presence. As one of the inscriptions says, "To Bruno - from the Century that he divined, here where he was burned at the stake."

If you're interested in more on the Inquisition tour, stop at the church just behind the Pantheon, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The monastery (open to visitors) attached to the church is where Galileo stood trial in 1633.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Gidget takes on the Skinheads

In a comment on our recent "Found Art" effort, Jessica mentioned Rome's stencil artists, about which we know nothing--or almost nothing. We offer this smallish piece of stencil art (maybe 18 inches high), found during a giro around the university district, at the corner of viale Regina Elena and via Tiburtina, across from the cemetery. Pony-tailed, mini-skirted chick tossing swastika into trash basket. Visions of the 1960s? Gidget goes to Rome? Third-wave feminism?