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Friday, October 16, 2009

Monteverde Stories 2: Pier Paolo Pasolini

This is the second of a 2-part series on Monteverde. The first appeared 10/10/09.

In 1954, the neighborhood around Piazza di Donna Olimpia acquired a new resident: Pier Paolo Pasolini. He was not then the up-and-coming director and screenwriter of Accatone (1961), though in 1957 he would write Roman dialogue for Federico Fellini's Nights of Calabria and three years later act in his first film, Gobbo. Born in Bologna and raised in the Friuli region of northern Italy, he was not even a native Roman. He had arrived in the city in 1950, 28 years old, and lived for a time near the Hebrew synagogue, with his mother (there are plenty of mothers in Italian stories). Within two years they had moved to via Tagliere 3, in Ponte Mammolo, east of the Centro a good ways. He was unemployed and, so he said, desperate, confessing in his letters to suicidal thoughts. To make ends meet while he wrote, or tried to write, he took a teaching position at a school in Ciampino (today, the site of Rome's second airport). The salary was so low and the job so exhausting that he complained bitterly to friends; "lavoro come un negro" (I work like a Negr0), he wrote. Despite the workload, a first book of poetry appeared in 1952.

From his base in Ponte Mammolo he was a frequent visitor to the Donna Olimpia area, fascinated by the area's factories, its public housing, the topography, and the life he observed on the streets. His interest in all of that could only have become more intense after the move to via Fonteiana (n. 86), less than half a mile from the Grattacieli (skyscrapers, a reference to the nearby Fascist-era public housing project). Though he was now close enough to indulge his fascination with the lives of the struggling working class, his neighborhood--up the hill, toward the Gianicolo, and in Monteverde Vecchio--was a world apart from that of via di Donna Olimpia. And the building he occupied [see photo above] (again, with his mother) was newly constructed for middle-class Romans seeking relief from the tumult of Trastevere--not then a chic tourist area. The building is still there, Pasolini's presence marked by a plaque in the lobby. It was in that apartment that he completed Ragazzi di Vita, his first novel, in April 1955, having given up the teaching position just a month earlier. The book was published later that year. Another move followed in 1959--further up the hill to via Carini 45, which also housed poet and friend Attilio Bertolucci (father of the filmmaker), who had introduced Pasolini to Livio Garzanti, the publisher of Ragazzi di Vita.

A natural athlete, Pasolini loved soccer and boxing, and over a period of ten or twelve years, beginning in 1950, he did both with the boys of the projects, getting to know them and, with some at least, earning their confidence. He joined soccer games up the hill at the field on (what is now) via Fabiola and at a much smaller space right in the Piazza di Donna Olimpia, and he observed the boys and their activities elsewhere, too. His visits became less frequent with the move to via Carini and the the completion of the book, as one might expect, but he continued to come by. On more than one occasion he arrived in the FIAT 500 given him by Federico Fellini for his work on Nights of Cabiria, leaving it unlocked so that the neighborhood boys could reach in and take the change he had purposefully left in the door pockets.

Pasolini's deep investment in the lives of the working class was a phenonmenon of the era, and not just in Italy. In Street Corner Society (1943), sociologist William H. Whyte compared "corner boys" and "college boys" in a Boston (Italian) slum. Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. examined the violent and highly sexualized culture of 1950s lower-class Brooklyn in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). Pasolini's Ragazzi di Vita tracked the lives of a half dozen foul-mouthed, ignorant, unemployed, and marginal young men--boys on the cusp of manhood, really, some of them from the Donna Olimpia neighborhood--as they walked and lived off Rome's periphery, stealing, carousing, gambling, drinking, having sex with prostitutes, and occasionally working. Somewhere between innocent and worldly, between angry and accepting of their circumstances, Pasolini's boys enjoy themselves, most of the time, even as most of their energies are dedicated to the day-to-day necessity of accumulating enough lira each day to get by. Like Rome the Second Time, the world Pasolini creates is one grounded in geographical detail ("Lenzetta generally hung around the Via Tuscolana, the Piazza Re di Roma, the Via Taranto, where there were neighborhood markets, barracks, and a soup kitchen run by the friars"), and it is a world beyond and apart from the central city. Indeed, Pasolini's text marks the boys' world--whether Monteverde or Tiburtino or Mandrione--as NOT Rome ("when you turned around toward Rome, the weather was still bad").

Although Ragazzi di Vita reads primarily as a narrative description of the boys' adventures, Pasolini frequently steps aside to analyze and contextualize their conduct ("they were all excited and full of fun, not even remotely aware of the fact that the joys of the world are brief, and fortune fickle"). By and large, he explains the behaviors and values of his protagonists as a product of their "environment," and defines them primarily as victims. But he also believed that the boys were in some way fortunate to have escaped, if inadvertently and not entirely by choice, the homogenizing culture of television and consumption that marked the Italian "boom."

Ragazzi di Vita is not just about the Donna Olimpia neighborhood, nor is it just about boys who came from there. But the first two chapters treat that area, and the book's main character--Riccetto (Orlando Marecchioni)--is a Monteverde boy. The Case Popolari are part of the story, too ("The thousand lines and diagonals of the windows and balconies of the Grattacieli were lit up, radios were going bull blast, and from the kitchens you could hear the clatter of dishes and women's voices yelling, arguing, or singing"). We first encounter Marcello (who lives in the Grattacieli) and Riccetto (who lives in the school across the street) during the war; there are German soldiers on the streets. We follow them as they steal iron from the Ferrobedo' (Pasolini's rendering of the factory name), lift manhole covers from the streets to sell as scrap, or go for a swim at a dingy, "private" swimming hole on the Tevere--one of several swimming scenes that bring to mind Lord of the Flies, William Goldman's 1954 novel about the inherent savagery of British schoolboys. For newsreel footage of several of Rome's Fascist-era public housing projects, clock on the following link:

The lives of Marcello and Riccetto are suddenly and profoundly altered by the collapse of school Giorgio Franceschi (see the previous post). Marcello has been to the school, looking for Riccetto, and is leaving the building when "he heard a terrible racket behind him, like a bomb exploding, and felt a violent blow on the back, as if someone had given him a sneak punch. 'That son of a bitch!' Marcello thought, and he fell on his face, an enormous crashing in his ears, and his eyes blinded by a cloud of white dust." And, for Marcello, that was just the beginning of the end. Riccetto's absence spares him personal injury, but his mother is killed, and the youth finds himself on the periphery with an irritating aunt and alcoholic uncle, and then on the road.

Pasolini's reputation in the neighborhood of the Grattacieli owes much to the work and enthusiam of Silvio Parrello, who appears in Ragazzi di Vita as Il Pecetto, a name derived from his father's employment at La Purfina, the tar (pece) refinery near the intersection of the Ponte Bianco and the Gianicolense. Il Pecetto is in only one scene--he's one of the boys who goes swimming in the Tevere--and the English translation of his name as Tar Baby makes him hard to locate in the English translation (available, but also hard to find). Silvio was only eight at the time, but he has served as the neighborhood's historian, telling the stories he remembers while collecting documents and artifacts about the Grattacieli, the collapse of the school, and Pasolini, and displaying them in his artist's studio, located at via Ozanam 134. Outside the studio he placed a reproduction of a plaque designed by the local government for the cortile of one of the buildings. It read:

In this neighborhood was born
the famous novel
Ragazzi di Vita
Pier Paolo Pasolini,
"Citizen of Monteverde"


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