Rome Travel Guide

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monteverde Stories 1: Skyscrapers, Devil Woman, School Tragedy

In April, when we first scootered down the hill from our Monteverde Nuovo apartment on Piazza Madonna della Salette, and around the big, gentle curve of via Falconieri to the busy intersection below, we were immediately taken by the enormous apartment buildings that lined three sides of the square and dominated the cross street, via di Donna Olimpia, for a block each direction. We recognized the complex as a particularly extravagant version of Case Populari (Popular Houses--that is, public housing), this one built under Fascism, the first portion completed in Fascism's 10th year, 1932. We wrote about the complex briefly, and included some photos, in an April 5 entry. For video of the opening of the Donna Olimpia development, complete with Fascist salutes, lick on the following link:

What we didn't know then is that these buildings, and the piazza formed by the five streets that come together to make it (via Falconieri, via Ozanam, via Ugone, and both directions of via di Donna Olimpia, comprise an historic 20th century site, remembered by Romans--and for the most part, fondly--for events that took place there more than half a century ago, events that involved and brought together Romans that could not have been more different: the ordinary, working-class Romans who lived in the case populari (we would call them the "projects"), and a middle-class young man who lived just up the street and was on the cusp of a brilliant career as a poet, novelist, and filmmaker: Pier Paolo Pasolini. That story to come. But first, some geography, and then a story that most residents would rather forget.

Monteverde (green mountain, named after the yellow/green tufo mined from the area's many caves and outcroppings) was laid out in the 1909 city plan. It is composed of two zones (quartieri), Monteverde Vecchio (old Monteverde), closer to the Tevere and today an upscale area of smart shops and expensive homes and condominiums, occupied by those who can afford them; and Monteverde Nuovo (new Monteverde, developed later in the 20th century), further from the river and less pretentious, home to Rome's middle- and lower-middle classes and, temporarily, to us. In a sense, the story of the two Monteverdes is our story; Dianne longs for the good life in Monteverde Vecchio, while I prefer the less toney and more "authentic" experience of Monteverde Nuovo.

The whole of Monteverde is an extension of the better known Gianicolo, the hill to the south of the Vatican, justifiably famous for its views of the city. At the base of the hill is viale Trastevere on the east, near the river, and then the Gianicolense, today a tram route, which curls and climbs a ridge on the south and west sides of the hill. One of the more hilly and complex areas of a hilly and complex city, Monteverde is essentially a series of ridges, separated by narrow valleys. The major streets run parallel to each other in the valleys (like via di Donna Olimpia and viale dei Quatro Venti) or on the ridges (like via Carini and the Gianicolense). The hilly routes crosstown, against the grain, are less common and, on foot, more strenuous. One of the streets that does so--creating energy as it spills down the hillside from Piazza San Giovanni di Dio and crosses via di Donna Olimpia--is via Ozanam.

The dividing line between Vecchio and Nuovo is via di Donna Olimpia. It runs more or less north and south, with Vecchio to the east and Nuovo to the west (if it sounds like West Side Story, it is). The street's current name derives from Donna Olimpia Maidalchini, the tough and powerful 17th-century sister-in-law of Pope Innocent X, a Pamphili. Signorina Maidalchini had married Pamphilio Pamphili (with a name like that, you've got to be wealthy), and she used her position to enrich her family at the expense of the Vatican which, to be honest, could afford to be fleeced. She and hubby lived in splendor in--guess where?--Villa Doria Pamphili, which is in the neighborhood, right there at the end of the street that bears her name. Before 1914, when it was filled in, today's via di Donna Olimpia was only a gully or ditch called the via or Fosso (here, gully) di Tiradiavoli, watered by springs in the Villa that today sustain the moss-covered remains of the spectacular Pamphili fountains of centuries past. The odd name "Tiradiavoli"--one scholar translates it as "drag devils" or "devil's drag"--was the source of stories about Donna Olimpia, who is said to have relished terrifying midnight rides through the city at breakneck speed, her carriage pulled by snorting black horses in full lather, whipped to a frenzy by her driver: the devil. She must have been a very bad woman.

Our modern story opens in 1932, when the first of the Case Popolari were completed and occupied, and when most of the area--especially Monteverde Nuovo--was unoccupied, just rocky hills and small plains of stubble and underbrush. It was the first public housing in the area--the first, also designed by architect Innocenzo Sabbatini, was built in about 1920, up the hill at the intersection of via A. Algardi and viale Quatro Venti. But Sabbatini's new project was different, and not just because it was bigger and taller. In line with the political and social ideas of the Fascist regime, the new project was designed to project a new "proletarian," working-class identity. Dispensing with the middle-class decorative touches and sensibilities of the earlier project, it celebrated functionality, sheer mass, and the new lives of the "ordinary" people on whose support Fascism depended. As the buildings opened one by one, the first residents were mostly those who had been forced out of the Centro and the Borgo (a neighborhood near the Vatican) by the demolitions required by Mussolini's urban renewal programs. (For what it's worth, our interest in Rome's public housing is shared by Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti. See his sweet scooter tour on YouTube:

Whatever else the tenants felt, they were impressed by the size of the buildings, referring to them as the "grattacieli," or skyscrapers. Despite their height, there were no elevators until after the war, and the apartments had no toilets within. In an apparent effort to teach the residents middle-class values (toilets and elevators would have been a good start), fines were levied for (incredibly) the time-honored Roman practice of hanging clothes out the window to dry. Many of the men worked in one of two existing factories. Il Ferrobeton was a huge ironworks making railroad track, up the hill from the housing project and a few blocks southward; La Purfina belched black smoke as it produced tars and resins at a location further down via Donna Olimpia and across the Giancolense. The hundreds of children and youth who lived in the complex spent their days rummaging through piles of old mortar and plaster, competing in the card game zecchinetta, playing soccer in small spaces behind the building or on a larger, flat open space off present-day via Fabiola, now occupied by the Fabrizio de Andre' elementary school, and exploring the hills above, to which they gave names that may or may not have been ironic: Monte di Casadio (house of God), and Monte di Splendore.

The community was shocked and deeply saddened by a tragedy that took place in 1951, at the neighborhood's elementary school, Scuola Elementare Giorgio Franceschi. Located just across the street from the apartment complex in the corner formed by via di Donna Olimpia and via Ugone, it was opened in 1941. During and after the war, the school was used to provide shelter for families from San Lorenzo, Pigneto, Tiburtino, and Casilino, neighborhoods where homes had been destroyed in the allied bombing raids of July 1943. The building was still being used as a shelter in March 1951, when a portion of it collapsed, killing four people and injuring many others. With a portion of the school in ruins, some of its residents got together and decided to nest in open apartments in the skyscrapers across the street, where some of the buildings were only then in the final stages of completion. Apparently they were allowed to remain.
To be continued.... Bill

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