Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Rome: Walk(s) on the Wild Side

When we first imagined Rome the Second Time as a book, we roughed out a chapter--ideas, really--titled "Walk on the Wild Side" (from the 1956 Nelson Algren novel, A Walk on the Wild Side or the 1972 Lou Reed song, "Walk on the Wild Side"). The chapter would be aimed at the most intrepid of Rome tourists, and it would include elements of the Rome experience, past and present, that were mysterious, somewhat forbidding or intimidating, or unusual enough to jar the sensibilities, to give one a sense of having contact with a Rome that was hidden and seldom seen. We decided against the chapter title--we didn't want to scare off our core audience--and toned down the content for Rome the Second Time, yet we tried to preserve a sense of real adventure.

We were reminded of all this not long ago when Jason Hitchcock Creeley, writing on the Rome the Second Time group Facebook site, asked whether there was "a tour of some kind in Rome or a mention in a guidebook...about the more surreal, even seedier side of Rome. Maybe Pasolini's haunts? Things Fellini found quirky and off-beat?"

We don't know too much about Fellini's off-beat tastes, but we do know something about the poet, novelist, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and his way of being in Rome is a good place to start. Pasolini was into the "other"--the people of Rome who were different from him and from other, middle-class Romans--and for Pasolini (and anyone else with the same goals) that meant exploring the society and culture of Rome's poor--what Marx called the "lumpen proletariat." He found them, as one would find them today, on the outskirts of the city, in Rome's far-flung neighborhoods, which now are middle class and don't seem so far out: Monte Sacro was one, Monteverde Nuovo another, and a third an area called Mandrione, a triangle of land formed by via Tuscolana, via del Mandrione, and via Porta Furba. He found them, too, in and around the public housing projects that had been built under Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s; his Ragazzi di Vita is about teenage young men who lived in or near one of those high-rise projects, the one (still) located in Piazza Donna Olimpia, in Monteverde Nuovo, where Pasolini would go to talk with the boys and kick a soccer ball around. And Pasolini found them on the banks of Rome's rivers--on the Aniene near Monte Sacro, and on the Tevere--where boys without much money went to swim and cavort.

It's not that hard to locate landmarks of Pasolini's life in Rome, and through them to see and experience something of what he felt. You can read Pasolini's books--especially Ragazzi di Vita (1955) and the realistic novel, A Violent Life. You can also visit some of the places where he spent time, including Mandrione (there's a small booklet on the area and its history, in Italian). Itinerary 9 in Rome the Second Time takes you into Monte Sacro and down along the banks of the Aniene, along riverside paths used almost entirely by locals, complete with private (and probably illegal) gardens and, here and there, a rogue tent (at left). We also describe our attempt to reach the confluence of the Aniene and Tevere Rivers, an effort that ended when we encountered a village of (no doubt illegal immigrant) squatters and were warned to turn back.

At least in Rome, the banks of the Tevere, with their huge 19th-century and early 20th-century flood walls, are more open and less intimidating than those of the Aniene, but long walks along Rome's major river will undoubtedly take you, now and then, by Rome's homeless, getting along under one bridge or another.

We also had a wonderfully interesting walk (not in Rome the Second Time) along the right bank of the Tevere. We found the path just beyond Piazza Meucci at the south end of the Marconi district, paralleling (for a while) via della Magliana, then along Lungotevere di. Magliana: warehouses, horses, gardens, makeshift homes. Poor people with homes dug out of hillsides or built into narrow valleys can be found in many places in Rome. We describe one such encounter in Itinerary 9, "Monte Mario," and another in Itinerary 11, "Parco del Pineto," where we were kindly escorted through the the narrow walkways of an immigrant squatters' village in the center of the park by one of the residents, who sensed we needed the help.

Mussolini's public housing projects (case popolari) are accessible, too, and with some imagination one can get a sense of the world Pasolini found there in 1955 or 1960. There's one on the Monte Sacro/Aniene itinerary mentioned above; another, extensive and quite evocative (not mentioned in Rome the Second Time), in the Flaminio district at Piazza Melozzo da Forli, which is along viale del Vignola; a lovely, thoroughly gentrified project on Itinerary 7 (Piazza Bologna); and the towering, sculpted, and somewhat decayed buildings on Piazza di Donna Olimpia, noted above.

Had Pasolini been alive when the massive public housing project known as Corviale was finished in the early 1980s, he would surely have been attracted by the kilometer-long building with its 1202 apartments. Located southwest of the Rome's center near via Portuense, it's fascinating but also somewhat intimidating. We looked around a bit and took some pictures, but with due circumspection. Still, it's a phenomenon--one of the world's most famous public housing projects, like modernist, crime-ridden Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis (1954/55, demolished 1970s).

Today, Pasolini would be seeking contact with Rome's new immigrants, some legal and some illegal, many from North Africa and Eastern Europe, some living in official immigrant camps, some in informal ones. It would be fascinating to walk around these camps, but also quite dangerous, we think, and we don't advise it. The closest we've come to one of the informal camps was while walking along a wide asphalt path (via del Ratardo) that ambles along the left (east) bank of the Tevere north of the city. We got access to the path at Ponte Flaminio (that's what we remember, anyway) and had walked a ways, passing by all manner of athletic facilities (the banks of the Tevere are dotted with soccer fields), when we saw the immigrant camp down and on the right. Another place to find immigrant communities (and some drug addicts) is on the city's night buses. After midnight, when the restaurants close in Trastevere and the #8 tram inexplicably stops operating, the area's dishwashers and other low-level workers pile on the buses going up viale di Trastevere. You can join them on the bus. Be prepared to be squished.

The young have their own weird places to go and be, and we're neither young nor fans of rock music nor into drugs, so the mysteries of youth, and the often-seedy locales where they do their thing, are mostly beyond us. Still, over the years we've found some of these spaces and recommend them to the adventurous. Among the better known is Monte Testaccio, home to dozens of late-night clubs and bars dug into the mountain. The area in back--a road and a large parking lot--is known for drug deals, and we wouldn't circle the mountain after dark. Another club area is located in a warehouse district between via Ostiense and the Metro line, just past Circonvallazione Ostiense, in Garbatella (as we recall); it's got a certain dark, clandestine feel to it. The district of San Lorenzo is better lit and better policed, and it still has some of the raunchy, sometimes pathetic clubs and general messiness that Jack Kerouac would have seen as "authentic." The Pigneto zone is at the cusp of gentrification, but it's full of immigrants (as well as Italians) and young people and funky attractions, and after dark the narrow, tree-lined side streets have a film-noirish aura unmatched elsewhere in Rome. Pasolini spent a lot of time there many years ago, and, despite changes, he probably still would today. See our "An Evening in Pigneto" in Rome the Second Time.

Because Rome is a center of government and tourism, it can be difficult to observe Romans doing what writer Paul Goodman referred to in Growing Up Absurd as "real man's work." Watching the barrista make your latte doesn't qualify. We have three suggestions. To get a feel for an older industrial and warehouse area, try the "alternate route" for Itinerary 4 (see map), which begins at the Pyramid and circles a part of Ostiense. Second, along the left bank of the Tevere, down a gravel road called via di Riva Ostiense (entered from via del Porto Fluviale, at the river), you'll find the Factory Occupata--assuming it still exists, which it may not--an experimental art and cultural space created a couple of years ago when some young people, disturbed by the decline of the city's industrial buildings, occupied one of the area's unused factories. A poster for a Factory Occupata event, at left, features a gazometro, an iconic feature of the area's industrial landscape. The place is bizarre; if there's an event there when you're in town (we saw ex-Black Panther David Hilliard give a talk)--no matter what it is--go. Across the city, we recommend the streets just to the south of Piazzale del Verano,
where craftsmen cut the stones that adorn the adjacent Verano Cemetery (at right). Piazzale Verano is also well known as the site of a deadly and destructive allied bombing raid in World War II.

Of all the unusual Rome spaces we've come across, none is more "surreal" (to use Jason Creeley's term) than one inhabited almost exclusively by the young: Forte Prenestino, a real fort and, for some years now, a real alternative social center. We have written about the place in Rome the Second Time (pp. 192-93), and we fondly recall the shock and awe we experienced at walking its dark corridors and underground passageways (left)
for the first time. Da non perdere; not to be missed. Also high on that index is a walk through Rome--Rome the First Time: the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Trastevere--between 4 a.m. and just after sunrise. Not the "wild side," but unforgettable. Maybe even surreal.



Anonymous said...

To clarify one point:

Whether Pasolini would have been attracted to the Corviale rests entirely on how one interprets the term. If we interpret the term as disinterested physical pull (though in his case I would think more revulsion or indignation) - perhaps.

Any other understanding of the term would be a great misinterpretation of his work.

Pasolini was not positively attracted to the case popolari at all. In his eyes they were a form of greater degradation and violence against the poor which, in addition, kept them isolated both politically and socially. A good example of this belief is his film 'Mamma Roma'.

He was however greatly interested in, and his Roman work really is inseparable from, the Roman borgate. Here Pasolini found hope in an alternate or alternative society (an example you rightfully mention being the area of Mandrione). This was an Other however bound to disappear in the 1960s with the construction of ever more case popolari and private flatblocks in the speculation of the "boom" economy.

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

I didn't mean to say, or even to imply, that Pasolini thought the public housing projects of the era were great places to live. Rather, he knew they housed people he cared for and, in his way, could learn from. In other words, you're right. Thanks for the excellent comment.