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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Coins - but not in the fountain; modern Romans and money

Cultural differences over change? You bet! First we noticed many Italians (just Romans?) don't like to put change into your hand.... like dutiful Americans, we held out our hands, only to have money dropped on the counter. When we got back to the US, we had to learn to hold out our hands again.
The shops even have a small tray for you to put your money in and the cashiers to drop your change - and your "scontrino" (receipt).

On the other hand (ahem), Italian shopkeepers will reach into your hand, or your coin purse, to get the correct change, if they see you fumbling a bit. At first, we thought it was just us foreigners; they thought we didn't get the monetary system or understand them. But, no, they do it to everyone. More than once we've watched a waiter or shop person reach inside a person's coin purse (which he or she held open for him) to pick out the correct change.

Then there's just the mania (as we see it) for change. If you give a cashier anything that requires even a little bit of change, they ask you if you have coins to make it a coin of a larger denomination. For example, for a Euro 3.3 item, if you give them Euro 4, they'll ask you for the 30 cents. Or, if you don't have that, do you have 50 cents? Anything to pare down the change.

At major museums, there are signs for correct change. So, tourists at Castel Sant'Angelo are supposed to have the Euro 6 exactly? How can this be? How can they not have enough change? This is a far cry from US shops that have "we need 5s and 1s" or "we don't take anything over $20) - that's nothing compared to the Italian coin mania.

We thought maybe this coin obsession dated to the Italian conversion from Lire to Euros in 2000 - were there not enough coins to go around? But a long-time English bookstore owner told us the Italians ran out of small lire coins in the 1980s and were giving a piece of candy instead of some lire in change. She told us she saved up enough candy from the "change" her regular coffee bar had given her to pay for a cup of coffee with the candy, and the bar owners (who may have been taking advantage of the apparently coin shortage) were clearly ticked off at this.

Anyone with better explanations for these cultural differences - we'd be happy to hear them.

In the meantime, another money fact to bear in mind is a study that showed older Italians are better at math conversions than the rest of us - it appears because they had to convert all those ridiculously large amounts of lire into amounts that made sense to them. Since the lira disappeared in 2000, we assume the Italians will gradually lose this edge. Of course, 9 years later, there are still signs in shops (especially meat stalls in markets) showing prices in Euros AND lire. Some things, even if they're ridiculous (like pricing in lire) die hard.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

California Dreamin': The Pop Vernacular

For decades, Los Angeles has been the center of in-your-face kitsch marketing: the 1991 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on Western Avenue that resembles a bucket of chicken; the 1954 Capitol Records Building that looks like a stack of records with a stylus on top; the Petersen Automotive Museum, with a car suspended from the facade; Randy's Donuts on Manchester near the airport, featuring a giant donut atop the minimal modernist structure.

Except for the guys at the Coliseum dressed up as Centurions, there's not much kitsch in what is, after all, the Eternal, not the Ephemeral, City. Still, we found this example, in the upper reaches of Trastevere, up the Gianicolense, about two blocks downhill from Piazza San Giovanni di Dio. As its cone logo suggests, Old Moon Bar has ice cream.

But that's not why you ought to go. We know Old Moon as the "Fellini" bar; it's weird and entertaining, with a touch of the decadent: bar, ice cream parlor, cigarettes, wines, baked goods, newspapers and magazines, sundries. A few tables outside and 3 interior spaces: a quiet back room not much used except in winter; a Paris cafe-like front room with tables (additional charge to sit down), and a center room with a sweet curving bar of metal and glass. The dude presiding over the register is a piece of work; he isn't fast and you won't always get a receipt (the law notwithstanding), but he's got style. Inside Old Moon Bar, it could be 1962. Bill

Monday, September 21, 2009

California Dreamin'--in Rome!

Romans love their sunshine, and the city--the newer parts, especially--is appropriately laced with terraces and balconies, all with floors of cement or stone. So we were shocked to see an actual wooden "deck" being built, and so near to our apartment in Monteverde Nuovo, just down the street, in fact. We congratulated the owner for bringing a bit of California to Rome. Not long after we took the photo, a table and chairs appeared, stained the color of the deck, which now seemed to us a tad small for the expected family gatherings. Below the deck, and stretching around the corner into the street side of the property, the beginnings of an elaborate vegetable garden--perhaps another sign of the growing influence of the Golden state. Bill

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fascism: Patron of the Arts

Prompolini, Carpanetti, Terragni, Libera, De Renzi, Maccari, Sironi, De Chirico, Marini, Torres, Casorati, Guttuso. We would be surprised if you'd heard of more than one or two--De Chirico perhaps, or Sironi, or, less likely, Libera or Guttuso. But even these are not household names, and the others--and the list we've offered is only a beginning--rest in obscurity. Yet between the great wars, in the Fascist era that began with the March on Rome in 1922, all did significant work as painters, sculptors, muralists, or architects, and the products of their labor can be found in Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna or, in the case of the architects, in the city's public buildings.

We have often wondered why these men, and their contributions to 20th-century culture, aren't better known. We found one answer in Marla Susan Stone's The Patron State: Culture and Politics in Fascist Italy (Princeton, 1998). As Stone explains, until quite recently the artists who designed buildings under Fascism or made paintings for its exhibitions were understood as having subordinated their talents and artistic interests to a Fascist dictatorship, damaging themselves and producing inferior, politicized work in the effort to generate a Fascist aesthetic.

According to Stone, something like that happened during Fascism's later years, after 1935, when Italy's invasion of Ethiopia signaled a new determination to be a colonial power, and especially during the war, when the alliance with Hitler's Nazi Germany led the Italian Fascists to advocate a public art that celebrated the unified national state and glorified Fascism's imperial and military ventures. One result, in architecture, was a turn toward a monumentalist style designed to link Fascism with the power and splendor of ancient, imperial Rome. The best example is the complex of buildings designed for E42 (below right)--the Exposition of 1942, intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Rome--constructed south of Rome's center. E42 never opened; construction was abandoned during the war.

But before 1934, as Stone makes clear, Fascism proved a tolerant patron of a wide variety of artistic and architectural styles, practicing what she calls "aesthetic pluralism." In architcture, the regime embraced and supported the rational language of international modernism, though sometimes with a monumental flavor. In the early 1930s, rationalist architects designed four post offices in Rome and one in nearby Lido di Ostia, accessible through YouTube.

At the Venice Biennale and other exhibitions, Fascism patronized (and purchased) the works of a wide variety of artists from every major movement, including the Novecento group, which incorporated modern and traditional expressions around Italian themes. Top left, a 1918/19 work in the Novecento vein by Felice Casorati.

Fascist patronage also included aeropittura, which emphasized images of flight; the concretisti, a group that opposed Mussolini but participated in Fascism's national exhibitions; and the scuola Romana (Roman school), which tended toward images of ordinary urban life. At left and below, Mario Mafai's Demolizione dell'Augusteo (1936), from the scuola Romana. The title refers to demolitions carried out in the 1930s near the tomb of Augustus, apparently to make way for the monumental, Fascist structures that now grace that piazza.

This sort of pluralism was unique among the dictatorships of the day. The Nazis followed a very different course. Stone offers the example of Giorgio De Chirico, whose stylized, metaphysical modernism was purged from German museums yet welcomed and celebrated by Fascism.

So, that's a partial explanation for why there's so much excellent 20th-century Italian art and architecture, and for why nobody knows about it. For those with an academic bent and interested in pursuing the matter, we recommend Marla Stone's important book.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Home is where the art is: "in situ" from Rome to Los Angeles

The wall-to-wall art displays in Renaissance Roman palazzi never cease to amaze us. That there are collections still in place is more amazing still.

The first time I can recall seeing one of these "my art tops your art" excesses was the Pitti Palace in Florence. And one of the Rome ones we saw recently for the first time is Galleria Colonna very close to the busy Piazza Venezia (and the wax museum). Inured as we are to Renaissance excess, Galleria Colonna is a stunner. Perhaps because it doesn't have blockbuster pieces that people come to see, ignoring the rest, we were enthralled. Maybe too because it's only open for a few hours on Saturdays (and not all of those either, as we painfully discovered), it seems exclusive. Adding charm as well is the cannonball remaining on the interior steps of the Galleria, where it landed when shot thru the Palazzo Colonna wall in 1849. The cannon belonged to the French who were then besieging Rome to take it back for the Pope after it has been claimed by the Garibaldi forces; the French and Papacy won that one, but lost for good in 1870. (click on the British flag at the bottom right for English)

In keeping with our theme of Los Angeles/Rome comparisons, the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation museum, which we recently toured seemed to us a modern version of art-in-every-room-of-your-house, and on every wall and surface. It too has an exclusivity, since tours are only for a few mid-day hours Monday-Friday and you must be accompanied by a docent for the hour and 40 minutes, as well as make a reservation ahead of time (and arrive only within 5 minutes of that; waiting on the streets of the exclusive Holmby Hills, just west of Beverly Hills, is prohibited). Weisman has some blockbusters too, and some Italians, including an interesting, relatively colorful DeChirico and several Giacomettis. (photos of the interior generally are not permitted; best we could do is this photo of the "sun room"; the website has good photos of the rooms)

Art put in place by collectors must drive curators nuts. And we have to admit having only a sheet of paper with names of the works of art and the artists by room - where you have to hunt for the works - can be frustrating. But there's also something pleasurable about the surprise and even idiosyncracy of the vision of a self-educated collector. Seeing Giacomettis next to flowered chintz overstuffed chairs (the Weismans kept the furniture in the house as they bought it - tho' why one can only guess). One of the stories we heard about Weisman is that he kept a hammer and nails beside his bed - and would wake up in the night and move the paintings around. Another tidbit - Frederick Weisman is the father of Richard Weisman, from whose LA home millions of dollars worth of Warhols were stolen last week.

We encourage suggestions for everyone's favorite "private" gallery in Rome (or even elsewhere - the Frick in NYC?) - Doria Pamphili? Spada? Palazzo Corsini in Trastevere?

Dianne (title by Bill)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Gates of Heaven

Due to the overwhelming response from metal heads everywhere to "Manhole Covers: Art and Politics," we present our second offering in the made-of-iron series, this one on gates. Like manhole covers, they're everywhere and, with few exceptions, they're made of real iron, shaped by real iron workers. Our focus here is on late-19th and, especially, 20th-century gates. Precise dating is beyond us, but we'll do our best.

Our first gate, at left, is in the "Liberty" style. Liberty is the Italian word, and it derives from Arthur Liberty, who owned a decorative arts store in London; in most places it's known as late Art Nouveau. Popular from about 1900 to the mid-1920s, Liberty is ornate but restrained--the style is related to the Arts and Crafts movement--with curves and designs often based on floral and other organic motifs. We found this gate in Coppede', a section of Rome named after Gino Coppede', who designed many of its buildings between 1919 and 1926. One of Rome's most unusual architectural spaces, the quartiere Coppede' is located just beyond the Centro to the northeast; it's bounded by viale Regina Margherita (it begins there as one goes out), via Nomentana, and via Salaria.

Italians love their airplanes, and the nation was at the center of aviation history in the early years of the last century. One of Mussolini's favorite Fascists, Italo Balbo, found fame as an aviator, not to mention Fascist glory, by leading a squadron of planes on a non-stop flight from Argentario, not far from Rome on Italy's west coast, to Chicago, in 1933. Then there is celebrated futurist artist Tulio Crali, who painted almost nothing but airplanes. Crali's "Nose Dive on the City" (1939) is above left. The gate above right, which captures the joy of flight and the wonders of Italian aviation, was probably fashioned at that time or perhaps a few years before. It's located in the sleepy town of Acilia, west of Rome.

The gate below left has some characteristics of the Liberty style, but it's probably much older. The stars and strips are the symbols of the Aldobrandini family, and this gate is located on the grounds of the spectacular Villa Aldobrandini, built by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in the early 17th century. Just up the hill from Frascati's main piazza, the villa is on the Frascati/Tuscolo itinerary in Rome the Second Time.

We came across the worn but lovely creation, right, on a side street in Monteverde Vecchio, not far from where Pier Paolo Pasolini lived as a young man.

The gate below can be dated precisely, because it's topped by Fascist-era coding: the "E" means Era, the "F" Fascist, the "A" anno (year), and VII refers to the 7th year of Fascism, beginning with 1922 and the March on Rome. So the gate is from 1929. It's located in Coppede'.

Most gates serve practical purposes rather decorative ones, and none more so than the gate below, protecting a rogue garden on the right bank of the Aniene River, not far downstream from the quartiere of Monte Sacro (all on the Aniene itinerary in Rome the Second Time). Not the first gardener, and not the last, to build a gate around a bed spring. Bill

Monday, September 7, 2009

Gimme an R, gimme an O, an M, an A, an N, an S...what's it spell?

We're taking a break from the Roman heat, vacationing in Southern California, where the mercury hit 107 a few days ago. While cruising white hot Olympic Boulevard, we noticed that Los Angeles High School's athletic teams had adopted the name "Romans." That made some intuitive sense--Romans are competitors (Charleston Heston on a chariot in Ben-Hur [1959]) and are often identified with gladiators (Russell Crowe in Gladiator [2000]--and see our August 23 post). The symbol on the school's facade resembles a centurion--a commander of Roman soldiers.

It's unlikely that the committee that selected the name chose it from a list of potential mascots linked to Italian cities, for an odd list it would be: Palermos, Napolitanos, Milanos, and so on; if named after a city, Rome was the only possibility. More likely the choice had something to do with the large, powerful and aggressive Roman Empire (see map). The competition with other empires was weak; we've never heard of a football team named after any other empire--not the Assyrian, or the Persian, or the Ottoman, or the Han, or the Gupta, or the Holy Roman, or the Mongol (although Go Mongols! has a nice ring to it). Bill

Friday, September 4, 2009

Art where you find it

Rome, being well, Rome, is home to absolutely stunning locations for art installations. Art in situ is fantastic for, first the places themselves - often places you might otherwise not get into, and second for the creativity of the artists in applying their talent to these awe-inspiring (even awesome) locations.

It takes a lot of guts, too, for these spots in Rome to let the artists have their way. Some of our favorites of the past few years include the Villa dei Quintili, 5 (of course) Roman miles outside of the dead center of Rome; the Swiss Institute, just off via Veneto; the Villa Medici (the French Academy); and the area of the Sabine Mountains (more like hills - the Monti Sabini.

The Villa dei Quintili hosted a group show of contemporary artists throughout its immense archaeological site a couple years ago as well as works this year by Itto Kuetani, the Japanese-born "environmental sculptor" who has studied and works in Rome. The villa is a ways out of Rome, and the address is on via Appia Nuova (1092), but you also can get there off via Appia Antica - so take the buses (including the Archeobus) that go there. We wouldn't miss it. [Photo at right above with "chicken" sculpture + Roman villa buildings in background from group show; Kuetani's is the single white sculpture in the photo below right.]

The Swiss Institute sits high on a hill near the via Veneto and, when the art is displayed all over its grounds you can freely roam the grounds and villa, including its high tower with fabulous views of the city. [Photo at top of post with plastic dragon over the Institute's "grotto" and at right through a small sculpture on its rooftop wall.]
The Sabina area has had a program each of the past three years featuring young foreign artists who put up 20 installations in various small towns in the region, including the stunning Abbey of Farfa ( - only in Italian). On weekends during the art show, art students from nearby Rieti give free tours of the installations (our 2 guides in photo). It's not easy to get in and around these small towns, but worth any effort you make. There's a frequent train running between the Fiumicino airport (and Rome stations) to one of the towns, Fara Sabina, and Rome bus service to the towns as well. You may want to reserve your lodging - there are almost no hotels in the region. The website above lists some nearby B&Bs.

The French Institute at the Villa Medici (top of the Spanish Steps-- a few steps north of the church) periodically opens its 6th century AD cistern for art installations. One of these installations was a dark pool of water full of Euro centesimi (pennies) that equalled the artist's stipend for his installation (sorry, too dark for our camera!).

Earlier this year we went to installations at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Valle Giulia (near the National Modern Art Gallery (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna) at viale Bruno Buozzi, 113, and especially liked the ribbon-wrapped fence and statues outside the institute building. [Photo right + see post of 5.20.09]

Don't miss a chance to see any art in situ. Push aside Dan Brown and pale attempts to use Rome's fabulous sights (and sites) for literary schlock. Let's hear it for the real artists. Dianne