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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joining the Roman Crowds

One of the cultural shocks of modern Rome is how Romans get into lines... or don't.

Each time we return to Italy (even if we're gone for just a few days), we have to adjust to the Roman concept of a ticket line - everyone crowd to the front and try to ace out everyone else. Believe me, the little old ladies are as good at this as anyone else. It's not done with any sense of bad faith, it's just the way they do it. Once in a great while someone will take to self-managing a line, trying not to let obvious late comers squeeze in ahead, but that's the exception.These two photos also illustrate some exceptions.

This first one shows a line for the first day showing - in English - of the film Angels & Demons in central Rome. So the people in this cue were primarily English speakers. They did, however, adhere to one of the Roman rules for lines - just let them go out into the middle of the street. If you have to line up, don't do anything sensible like wrap a line around a sidewalk or building. Putting yourself out into traffic is secondary to maybe losing your place.

This photo, of a woman pulling a ticket # at a market, is one answer to Romans' inability to queue-up, as the English would say. These ticket machines have become ubiquitous in markets, even in stalls at farmers' markets and open-air markets, post offices (compounded by a lettering system for the type of service you want) and, of course, at bakeries. They're also common in hospital waiting rooms. Yes, take a number there too. Even with the numbering system, we've seen heated (even by Italian standards) arguments break out over whose turn it is to get a medical test.

Our advice if you find yourself in one of those all-crowd-in "lines" for anything in Rome (tickets to the opera, buying bread) is that you better learn the custom; otherwise you'll truly be left out in the cold. But, like Italians, do be good natured about it.


Friday, December 25, 2009

How Mussolini Almost Stole Christmas

It was December 1941, and Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini--the Duce--was in a foul mood. He had taken his poorly prepared country into an ill-advised war as an ally of Japan and Nazi Germany, the latter a nation and people he and most Italians despised. The Americans had entered the war on the 7th; the vaunted German army faced surprising resistance on the Eastern front; and the Italians were getting beat up by the British in Libya (about all that remained of their empire).

There were a great many things to worry about, and one of them, the Duce decided, was Christmas. "Mussolini has again attacked Christmas," wrote his son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano in his remarkable diary. Mussolini had always hated the bourgeoisie--Italy's monied middle class of merchants and businessmen--for its self-interest and lack of grit, and he must have thought that Christmas was a bourgeois holiday, all about things.

But it was more than that. Although Italy was a profoundly Catholic country--the Pope's residence, after all, was just across the Tevere--and God can be very popular in the midst of war, Mussolini hated religion in general and the Papacy in particular. "He is surprised," Ciano wrote, "that the Germans have not yet abolished this holiday, which 'reminds one [what follows is Ciano's recollection of the Duce's words] only of the birth of a Jew who gave to the world debilitating and devitalizing theories, and who especially contrived to trick Italy through the disintegrating power of the Popes."

He did not ban Christmas (as if one could). But he did prohibit newspapers from mentioning it. And on Christmas day, with the churches full, he purposefully scheduled an unusually large number of appointments. "Christmas is nothing more than the twenty-fifth of December," he announced on that day. "I am the man who in all this world feels least these religious anniversaries."

And that's how Mussolini almost stole Christmas. Bill

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pope and Us - views from the bar

With Christmas coming, we think some mention of the Pope is in order.

The photo here, taken at Bar Tony, in Monteverde Nuovo, is a perfect example of the Italians' mix of ... well, just about everything.

As we walked into Tony's this day, the TV was showing the Pope giving an address (I can't recall on what just now). He was framed by two Bar signs: one listed "Happy Hour" (yes, in English - with the picture showing a cup of coffee and a croissant but the wording advertising a buffet and drink), and another listing other tasty items such as sandwiches filled with "Hamburg," along with "Pasta a Peso" - pasta by the weight (1 Euro per etto (about 2.2 ounces) "by Tony".

After snapping this photo, we took our glasses of wine to the side room of this small bar, enjoying a break from the rain showers, when a group of 4 men came in. They were speaking Spanish, ordering and enjoying their beers while they chatted. Then in came a group of mothers with children of various ages, clearly picked up after-school. Gelato was quickly ordered and the children spilled over the tiny tables next to us. And then there was us, trying to get love notes to each other on the TV show by texting into the cell phone #s listed on the screen. The convivial combination of people, ages, classes, languages, media, food, drink... is partly what defines modern Rome.

If you get up to Monteverde Nuovo, and the large street, Circonvallazione Gianicolense, walk just across from the market at Piazza San Giovanni di Dio and try Tony's, reputed for having the best vanilla ice cream (i.e. gelato and flavor/gusto - crema) in the city; sometimes through a window in that side room, you can see them making it.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

RST Top 40. #32: Alexanderplatz Jazz Club

We're almost embarrassed to have Alexanderplatz on the RST Top 40 list, because it's in the Rome-the-first-time guidebooks; even Rick Steves knows about it, and Rick defines the word "square." It's on the list because it's very groovy (another word from the 1950s, visions of hipsters digging a wailing sax, of Jack Kerouac hammering on the table in ecstasy at having discovered the soul of the Negro), the kind of place no longer found even in New York: a dimly-lit, stuccoed rathskeller, its walls inscribed with the names of the jazz greats (and not so greats) who have blown their guts out on the tiny stage in the tiny center room (see our photo above).

And there's the rub: if you're in that center room, which seats about 12 people, you're in for an evening of Kerouacian ecstasy, and the bar right behind (photo right) offers views almost as good for a few more patrons. The side rooms, with most of the seating, are fine for sound but offer somewhat less intimate, more distanced, arch-framed views (photo above left), and folks sometimes talk more than listen and (women especially) seem to want to confirm what a fine time they're having by sending video of Stefano Di Battista to their friends. Still, these side rooms are satisfactory. Avoid the upstairs balcony, to the back of the club.

Our best experiences have been in that center room, at the table in the foreground of the photo that opens this post. It's perfect. But to get that table or another in that room, you'll likely have to make a reservation, arrive an hour before the time of the performance and have dinner. We've done that twice, and both times the food was very good--on a par with a good Rome restaurant--and reasonably priced. The last time, as we finished eating and were congratulating ourselves for another coup of perfect positioning, a huge Italian guy sat right in front of us. Luckily his girlfriend recognized our visual plight and changed places with him.

Alexanderplatz dates to 1982 and bills itself (see their website) as the oldest jazz club in Italy. That could be, but there may be some places in Bologna and Milan that would take exception. Oldest or not, it's worthy.

The club is located at via Ostia 9, in the Prati district. Its season opens in September and closes in late May or very early June.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Touch of the Stork

We found this delightful bas relief on via Elvia Recina, in the out-of-the-way neighborhood of Appio Latino. It likely dates to the decade after 1925. Not worth a separate trip, but if you're on the street to dine at Mithos, one of our favorites, don't forget to look at the building across the way. For directions to the street and a review of the restaurant, see Rome the Second Time, p. 213. Bill

PS - Mithos is no longer in this location (you won't see the stork from across the street).  It's now in the nearby Piazza Scipione Ammirato.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

RST Top 40: #33. Carlo Bilotti Museum in Villa Borghese

We came across this gem of a museum accidentally one day - a year after its 2006 opening. It has a fascinating history and a small collection worth viewing.

So here's the story : Carlo Bilotti, big deal cosmetics guy, originally from Southern Italy but long a U.S. citizen and resident, goes to Rome's then Mayor, Walter Veltroni, known as a patron of the arts (and author of the introduction to Rome the Second Time) and they cut a deal - Bilotti contributes his collection, and Veltroni kicks a bunch of government workers out of a long-neglected building in the middle of Rome's largest and most famous park and restores it to house the collection. Bilotti died in late 2006, the year the museum opened.

Bilotti's collection features more than 20 works by Italy's premier artist of the 20th century, Giorgio de Chirico (de Chirico thought pretty highly of himself too), although some have carped Bilotti's are not the best de Chiricos. A de Chirico from from the collection is at right. The collection also has art by the famous U.S. artists Bilotti palled around with, including Warhol and Larry Rivers (some of them portraits of Bilotti and his family).

On its ground floor, the museum hosts excellent temporary exhibits, often of very large pieces of internationally known contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and Jenny Saville. The New York Times' review of the museum's opening gives you the flavor.

The building is older than the park itself and served many purposes, including as an"orangery" - or "aranciera," beautifully restored after centuries of neglect and misuse (including bombardment during the French defense of the Pope in 1849). Picture at top is from the 18th century. You'll see signs in the Villa Borghese to "Aranciera" - that's it. The City of Rome's website on the museum has excellent background information in English, as well as opening hours, ticket information (you don't need a reservation) and directions.

So here you have it all - famous Italian paintings that will immerse you into 20th-Century Rome, top U.S. contemporary artists, and a fascinating building.

Of course, it's hard to be in the shadow of the incomparable Borghese Gallery itself - and Bilotti's museum is "due passi" (two steps) from the Galleria Borghese, which would be in anyone's Top 40, not their second top 40.... but once you've done the biggies, Museo Carlo Bilotti, we think, is definitely on the "second time" list.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rome Noir

Although Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective novels are mostly set in the desert basin of Los Angeles, we think he would appreciate the mysterious, film noir quality of this photograph, taken from the balcony of our Flaminio apartment on a drizzly evening in April, 2008.

Chandler's work, the publicity photo for the 1955 film The Big Combo (at left), and the photograph above, of a neighborhood constructed in the 1940s, evoke the doubts and anxieties of the early postwar era, when the inconceivable death and destruction of the most horrific war in the world's history seemed to hang like mist in the night air. Bill

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RST Top 40. #34: a Fascist Era Post Office

Two of Rome's masterpieces of architectural geometry are located within a stone's throw, across the street from each other in via Marmorata, at the intersection of the Aventino and Testaccio districts. One is the ancient Piramide Cestia (the Cestia Piramid). The other is the neighborhood post office, a modernist gem designed by architects Adalberto Libera and Mario De Renzi and opened to acclaim in 1935, with Mussolini presiding (see photo above). Architectural scholars Mirella Duca and Filippo Muraia describe the building's elegant interior as "one of the most original spaces constructed in Rome in the 1930s." The via Marmorata post office is on Itinerary 4 in Rome the Second Time.

Libera was only 30 years old when he began working on the project, though he was already well known as a founder of the Movimento Italiano per L'Architettura Razionale (Italian Movement for Rationalist Architecture) and feted for his facade for the monumental Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution (photo at right), which opened in 1932 in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, also a collaborative effort with De Renzi.

Though apparently not a zealous Fascist, Libera's close links with Fascist Party officials allowed him to compete for the regime's choice commissions, including the Palazzo dei Congressi, which he designed for the EUR complex. One of Libera's last works, accomplished with several other architects, was the Olympic Village (see photo at right), which housed athletes competing in the 1960 Rome games (including boxer Cassius Clay, who was seen taking photos of the complex). It is located in the Flaminio district, not far from Parco della Musica.

De Renzi's first commission, for the enormous 1931 Palazzo Federici apartment complex on via Aprile XXI, near Piazza Bologna, has also become one of his best known; it was the setting for Ettore Scola's 1977 film Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren in a drama set in Fascist Rome in 1938. The building is on Itinerary 8 in Rome the Second Time.