Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Let's "chattare": Is the Italian language losing it?

It's a bit scary for me to take on the Italians' adoption of other languages into their own.

All languages do this (witness "disco" from "discotheque" - even tho' our daughter-in-law [really, probably both of them] childes us that "disco" is passé (there you go, another one from the French!), and the word is now "club" - in many languages). And, we in the U.S. are particularly good at turning verbs into nouns and vice-versa. My favorite, from a local sports announcer (you have to be an American football fan to understand this one): "the team first-downed." You can catch an older post from the Constructive Curmudgeon on this last turn (ho ho) of events.

The Italians seem to be especially good at absorbing other languages. Some of this seems healthy for the language. We like, for example, the Italian use of the word "vernissage," which is a bit like "lagniappe" for New Orleanians [which means a little something extra - like the 13th donut in a baker's dozen]. "Vernissage" is (usually) an opening, such as an art opening, with something extra - wine and cheese, beer if it's at the British School, a full spread in some cases. And, because we love these "extras," we like the word "vernissage." I don't think it has a plural in Italian.

Or the word, "kermesse." While it supposedly means "festival," I think the closest meaning is a "happening" [I know that's old and cold too] or "event." From the Dutch, it appears. I'm told we English-speakers use it too; I've only encountered it in Italy.

But... (and here she goes), "CHATTA" for "CHAT"?? I searched the site of one of Italy's major newspapers, La Repubblica and found the use of "chatta" for "chatting" on the Internet, etc., goes back there 10 years. The ad above, for the Italian telecom company that is promoting its wireless service, says "Luca chats with his friends and drinks a coffee."

I can take "club" (pron. "cloob" - like, hmm, boob). But "Show girl" for, well, "show girl" (witness the recent stories about Berlusconi's candidates for political office)? "lo stress" for "stress"? "il weekend" for "the weekend"?

And, it really bugs me that caved in to "mappa" for "map," when the Italian word is - or should I say was - "carta" (as in "paper" or "chart" - the way we use "cartographer").

There's also the consumer industry appropriating terms - such as the Fonz, from Happy Days, illustrated at right.

I recall our friend Patrizio N. was keeping a list. And I really should have checked in with his list first. But I'll just throw this post out there and see if some of you want to add particularly odd usages to the list.

And, to close the post, I'll throw in "aperitivo panty", which you may recall from a post almost a year ago - a photo from our local (coffee) bar - at right. (And, yes, I know, "aperitif" is often used in the U.S.)

Ciao all, and let's drink to that - preferably a cappuccino.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Berlusconi and "The Bachelor"

We're big fans of ABC's long-running hit reality show, "The Bachelor"--since, that is, our son Bennett Graebner began sculpting the program's story lines as Supervising Story Producer. And so we were intrigued, pleased, amused, and shocked when Columbia University journalism professor Alexander Stille, writing in the The New York Review of Books, figured out that Silvio Berlusconi's bizarre performance in office was straight out of reality TV, and specifically, "The Bachelor."

"Berlusconi," writes Stille, "has transformed the political life of a major nation into a kind of reality TV show in which he is star, producer, and network owner: he is the ultimate "Survivor," who will lie and cheat to kick others off the island as well as 'The Bachelor,' distributing roses to a group of beautiful young women."

Well, we've heard he distributes more than roses, but that aside, we wondered if Mike Fleiss and the folks who produce and cast the show would consider
the Italian premier as their next Bachelor.
Silvio could be the first married Bachelor, or wait until the divorce proceedings initiated by his wife had run their course. By that time Vienna Girardi might be available. We think he'd find her irresistible.


Monday, March 22, 2010

RST Top 40. #20: The Strange World of Coppede'

It was not long after we met in the winter of 1993--he was a graduate student in my class in the American Studies Department at the University of Rome, La Sapienza--that Massimo realized that Dianne and I had rather odd touristic tastes; while we enjoyed the standard fare, we savored the funky and unusual. And so began a series of journeys, with Massimo presenting some of his native Rome's more curious sites. On one occasion, we motored around the city in the morning darkness in pursuit of all-night bakeries, where we ordered our pastries directly from the baker, through a back door. On another--a dreary, rainy day--Massimo drove me to an early modernist shopping center somewhere on the fringe of the city, a place so little known he's forgotten he took me there and that I've been unable to locate.

And then there was Coppedé. It was nearing midnight when Massimo stopped the car in a piazza somewhere in the the north of Rome, and we got out. My first impression--and hardly an original one--was of an architecture both playful and, at that hour, menacing (the piazza appears in Dario Argento's 1980 horror film, Inferno)--and, above all, original. I had never seen anything like it anywhere--echoes of Spain's Gaudi, perhaps, but much more, too--and certainly not in Rome. And that's why it's #20 on Rome the Second Time's Top 40. The piazza's Palazzina del Ragno (spider) is at upper left. Below right, that's Dianne in her Fidel cap, demonstrating the playful side of Coppedé.

There is much more to it than I saw that night: 15 buildings by the architect Gino Coppedé, for whom the Quartiere Coppedé is named, and some 40 buildings in all, amounting to what one critic has described as an "urban hallucination." Despite the name, Coppedé is not an official "quarter." It's actually at the southwest end of Quartiere Trieste, 2 blocks northeast of Piazza Buenos Aires, which is on viale Regina Margherita, and about 4 blocks west of via Salaria.

It would be delightful to come across Coppedé by chance, as writer Martha Pichey did in 1987, compelled to make sense of the lions' heads, Latin inscriptions, giant bees, and other decorations that, well, don't make much sense. For the majority who prefer to plan, perhaps the best entrance to the area is through the massive arch on via Dora,
not far from Piazza Buenos Aires. Start there, move on to Piazza Mincio (where Massimo took us), then amble. There are other Coppedé works on via Brenta (#s7, 9, 14 and 16), via Ombrone (#8-10, 11), via Serchio (#2) and via Olana (#7). The forest is lovely, but don't miss the trees: the gates, fences, ceramic urns, winged serpents, hanging lanterns, a sundial, and other ornamentations that lend Coppedé that air of weird excess. One way to enjoy the area is to try to pick out elements of the great variety of styles Coppedé employed, including baroque, Moorish, gothic, Renaissance, and--yes--Babylonian. The photos below are of Piazza Mincio's Villino delle Fate (fairies), so named because of its extravagant decoration.

There is no easy accounting for what Gino Coppedé accomplished here, but it won't hurt to know something about the architect. He was born in Florence in 1866, where his father had a workshop, Casa Artistica, where Gino and his brother learned to carve the decorative flourishes that Firenze's upper class favored for their fireplaces and armoires. By age 24 he had combined that practical training with two advanced degrees: one from the Professional School of Industrial and Decorative Arts, another from the city's Academy of Fine Arts. Coppedé's first home project was outside Genoa, where a Scot, Evan McKenzie, hired him to "reconstruct" his substantial villa.
Completed in 1904, the conversion brought him instant recognition and s spate of other home projects for ambitious and intrepid Genoese elites. The Rome adventure began in 1919, when Genoese financiers, familiar with his work, hired him to design 18 palaces and 27 smaller villas--early condominiums, essentially, designed to be sold to civil servants and professionals. By 1926, less than half had been built. Aside from the Quartiere, Coppedé had only one other Rome commission--a simpler building at 7 via Veneto, completed in 1927, the year he died.

Most scholars would describe Coppedé's work as an example of art nouveau (called liberty in Italy), while noting that that the Quartiere's bold and extravagant use of the style is in a certain way perverse, given that construction took place long after art nouveau had reached its peak and while modernists forms and expressions were in ascendancy in architecture and design.

One authority notes that Coppedé's version of nouveau rejected the sexualized motifs common in France and Germany for playful but more stolid and moral expressions having appeal to Italy's middle class.

At the risk of scandalizing our architectural-critic readers, it seems not unreasonable to use the word "postmodern" to describe the quartiere. Although "postmodern" is usually employed to mark the decline of pure modernism and the rise of a more eclectic style of pastiche in the 1970s, it could be argued that Gino Coppedé was there first, toying with an emergent modernism, holding the nascent rationalism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus at arm's length while insisting on the vibrant variety of architecture's history.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nelson: The One-Eyed King of Torre Argentina

We are pleased to inaugurate Rome the Second Time’s guest blogger initiative with a post by author and Italophile Bo Lundin. Bo first came to Rome as a student in 1960, staying in a pensione that he describes as “high up in the buildings at the Piazza Repubblica.” His guidebook, Om Rom (About Rome) was published in 1984 and is now in a 6th edition (in Swedish only), and he adds with enthusiasm that it shares a good deal in content and sensibility with Rome the Second Time. A frequent visitor to the Eternal City (including this coming May), Bo’s latest passion is the more temporal pleasure of Capri, the subject of his new book, Pa Capri (On Capri).

Lots of buses, a very good bookshop, some cafés and bars, a famous theatre where The Barber of Seville in 1816 met his first audience and was booed off the stage. The Pantheon three blocks away to the north, Piazza Navona and the Tiber more or less equally distant to the northeast and to the south: you can’t be more in the middle of Rome than you are here at Largo di Torre Argentina.

The name has nothing to do with Argentina; the small 12th-century tower at one corner of the large square was owned by a family from Strasbourg – and Strasbourg was Argentorum in Latin. Nobody cares much about the tower these days, but a lot of tourists peek down into the excavation, compare their maps with their view and try to find out which of the Republican temples down there is Temple A and Temple B.

In the 1920s Mussolini’s town planners had ordered a large department store to be built right here. Old houses were pulled down, bits and pieces of the temples came to light, and as so often in Rome the plans had to be changed, antiquity winning over the present day.

But there is still life among the ruins, to the delight of the tourists. Down in the Area Sacra live hundreds of cats in all sizes and all colors. Kittens play around fallen columns, cats are dozing on the temple steps or walking gracefully in the grass. A popular pastime is trying to count all the cats you see; however careful you are, you’ll find that there is always one more, peeking out from under a pillar or suddenly appearing beneath a staircase.

It was in Largo di Torre Argentina I met Nelson. I remember the date--it was April 21st, Rome’s birthday--but not the year: it must have been in the early 90s. I went down the steps in the corner closest to where via Arenula goes down to the Tiber and came for the first time to the cat sancturary hidden away in the vaults beneath the busy street.

It was – and is – run by a couple of extraordinary Roman women helped by a large crowd of volunteers from all over the world: art students, au pair girls, even diplomats’ wives. The dynamic duo Lia Dequel and Silvia Viviani came here in 1994 and have spent all their time since then caring for the cats many hours per day, 365 days per years, come rain or come shine. That's Lia in the photo at left.

When I happened to look down into the sanctuary they had more or less just started, and just the day before a kitten with his fur so full of lice and dirt that it had to be shaved off had been dumped there. He sat in a small cage, feeling rather sorry for himself, but still with a hopeful glint in his eye.
Yes, his eye. He had only one left, so of course he was christened Nelson. (See the photo at right and above left, walking toward Lia).

I did what I have done every time I’ve been in Rome since then: petted the cats, donated some money for cat food (and, even more important, for spaying and neutering the cats coming to the sanctuary) and talked to Lia and Silvia.

Every time I passed Largo Argentina Nelson had become larger and more majestic. After a year or two he was the undisputed King Cat of the colony, often sitting at the first step of the stairs leading down, so the passing tourist could marvel and maybe even walk down to contribute to his and his fellow cats’ welfare.
His fame grew. Deborah D’Alessandro, an American volunteer, wrote a book about him. Nelson il re senza un occhio won a literary award in Italy and is translated into English as Nelson the One-Eyed King. TV teams came from all over Europe to interview Lia and Silvia and Deborah.

Nelson is no more. His health suffered from the damp conditions in the sanctuary (Roman authorities have turned a very cold shoulder to calls for the place to be connected to the main sewer system), and when he finally was adopted and went to Germany he survived for a year, but died of kidney trouble, hopefully comforted by central heating and lots of love.
Now he is a legend and a symbol. I am glad that we met already at the beginning of his career, and I still visit Largo di Torre Argentina every time I’m in Rome.

So do a lot of other foreigners: once I met a German bass singer, in Rome for a season as Sarastro in "The Magic Flute"; he came every free afternoon to talk to a blind cat he had fallen in love with the year before.

You don’t even have to go to Rome to visit the Largo Argentina cats: their website ( is large and colorful and gives lots of opportunities for helping Lia and Silvia and the others by adopting cats for real or by sending money for food. You can even buy Nelson the One-Eyed King. Do that.

Bo Lundin

Monday, March 15, 2010

RST Top 40. #21: Sant'Agnese fuori le mura: a haven in a heartless world

Churches - they're everywhere in Rome; are there 300 of them? 500? 900 say some. Should one even be in the Top 40 of RST? With some coaxing from me (Bill never saw a church he willingly would go into - unless it was brutalist architecture - see his post of 8/30/09), Sant'Agnese fuori le mura ("outside the walls") comes in at #21.

One of the divine qualities of this church is where it is - amid the busy traffic of multi-laned via Nomentana, pushed up against the now dense high-rise residential area of Trieste, decidedly outside the walls of ancient, even Renaissance Rome. But there it is, placed in "a courtyard bathed in peace, greenery, and light" (to quote ourselves from Chapter 3 - "Beyond the Wall" - of Rome the Second Time).

Sant'Agnese fuori le mura is also one of those fabulous lessons in the layers of Rome: pagan, Christian, Medieval, Renaissance, contemporary. There are ruins from a 4th century AD covered cemetery built by the Emperor Constantine (the first Emperor who converted to Christianity) or by (or for) his daughter or possibly granddaughter, both named Constantia. There is the mausoleum for Constantia, now called the mausoleum of "Santa Costanza" (a nun, not Constantia, and not officially a saint), reputedly built over the bones of Sant'Agnese - got all that?. And, there is the 7th century basilica of martyred Sant'Agnese - built (over the 4th century one) alongside the mausoleum and containing extensive catacombs (which one can visit). The catacomb level was then the first floor; now it is several floors below ground level. The portico is 16th century. Add a medieval tower. The soccer fields and snack bar (when we were last there) are contemporary.

Saint Agnes is the patron saint of virgins, because she refused to give herself to anyone except God. In various versions of her story (in one she is 13, in another an adult), the pagan Romans strip her of her clothes, and her hair grows to cover her nakedness. She's also the patron saint of the wonderful Borromini church in Piazza Navona, Sant'Agnese in Agonia (Saint Agnes in Agony).

That toughest of art critics, Georgina Masson, calls Sant'Agnese fuori le mura "one of the rare Roman churches which has best preserved the appearance--and the atmosphere--of a very ancient Christian place of worship."

Dianne - This one's for you, Bruce P!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Aqueduct Hunters: water and 2000 year-old mysteries

It's not often we go gaga over another blog, but the Aqueduct Hunters hit us in a sweet spot.

We're entranced by Rome and water (as those of you who've read even just a few pages of Rome the Second Time no doubt know - the first chapter is titled "The Waters of Rome"). We've also fantasized trying to find the source of some of the aqueduct waters, and have been close (Lago Bracciano, Horace's farm, etc.). But these Aqueduct Hunters are the real thing. Their recent discovery of the source of Aqua Traiana (as in Trajan's Aqueduct, from the 1st century AD) made international headlines. And, they've started a blog where you can follow them on video sloshing around inside these 2000-year-old aqueducts - one such slosh started at the Villa Medici atop the Spanish Steps - a cistern there is in the photo at right.

Recall we're the ones who located (with the help of some scholars) the 15th century eel trap for the Acqua Paola (Pope Paul's Renaissance aqueduct): that square building covered in graffiti in the midst of a traffic circle (no, we didn't put that on the itinerary -but at left, a photo). And, we try to interest you in the ancient cloaxa maxima, basically an old Roman sewer drain, even covered as it is now in old plastic bags and other detritus (photo below).

So naturally, these hunters appealed to us. Not to be missed: - we've added to our Other GREAT Rome websites on the right of the blog.

And, we've opened and closed this post with a couple photos from the Parco degli acquedotti - because it's above ground that they're so beautiful.

Dianne -

PS - and if you wonder why the Italian for aqueduct is sometimes acquadotto and sometimes aquadotto - it's the difference between the Renaissance ones (with the "c", the Italian spelling) and the Ancient ones (Latin, without the "c").

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

RST Top 40. #22: Lang's Metropolis meets the ancient world: Centrale Montemartini

One of the stranger museum sites in Rome is Centrale Montemartini, in the post-industrial wasteland (that we like - think of Soho and Chelsea before they became hot) of Ostiense, just outside the city walls near the Pyramid.

Centrale Montemartini was the 20th century thermoelectric plant for the city, opened in 1912, with the 2 large diesel engines installed in 1933. The plant was decommissioned in the 1960s. While the Capitoline Museums on Campidoglio were being remodeled in the late 1990s, the City opened up a new exhibition space in the old plant for much of the Capitoline collection. The result was such a hit, that the City kept the space, even after part of the sculptural collection was returned to Campidoglio in 2005. So Greek and Roman sculptures, new acquisitions by the City, and experimentation in museum display (including how to show the scientific research involved) are the focus of today's museum at Centrale Montemartini.

The spruced up turbines and engines, with classical statuary arranged around them, is a site you simply have to see - hence it rates in our Top 40. It's also Rome the Second Time because the location means many people just don't get there on a first visit to Rome. In fact, we encountered a beleaguered tourist in the Villa Borghese who was asking directions to Centrale Montemartini. He knew it was there, that he wanted to see it, but couldn't afford the time.

Since we, along with Jessica of, are rather fond of Ostiense's industrial detritus, we included it on Itinerary 4 in Rome the Second Time, right after the Gazometro and just before "Hip Cafes Come to Ostiense."

Open Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. (early closures Christmas and New Year's Eve), closed Christmas, New Year's, and May 1. Good information is available in English (click on Eng at upper left) at Tickets can be purchased in combination with other City museums.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

RST Top 40. #23: Sant'Eustachio Caffe

Last time we were at the Sant'Eustachio coffee bar, we noticed a yellowed clipping, probably from the 1970s, of Henry Kissinger having a coffee there. We've never thought of Henry as a foodie, but after all those late-night, never-ending negotiations to end wars (the Christmas bombing in Vietnam in 1973 was a nice touch) he may be an expert on a good cup of coffee. Or perhaps we've just underestimated Henry. Just maybe, we thought, since he knew about Sant'Eustachio, he might be versed in other hip, Rome-the-Second-Time activities. We fantasized about a funky Henry Kissinger Rome Itinerary, rivaling Jack Kerouac's 1954 (we made that last part up). Alas, a lengthy search on google provided no evidence that Henry had been anywhere else in the Eternal City. Maybe he just flew in for the coffee.

That isn't as absurd as it might seem. Since its founding in 1928, people have said some amazing things about the coffee, if not the place. Most often quoted is William Grimes, who once wrote for the New York Times: "When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant'Eustachio Caffe. The espresso will be perfect. A little expensive, but surely worth the trouble." That's probably what Henry did.

A little expensive, to be sure, especially if you sit at one of the small white tables outside. So we don't normally go there without a good reason, usually to touch base with our friend Luca, who works for the Italian Senate in a building that's about 50 feet away. We get coffee and bottled water and play catch-up, all for about E15. We pay the bill and Luca does the ordering; we're on his turf. He knows (as the yellow sign says) that if you want your coffee without sugar, you have to order it that way.

Besides the coffee, what's so good about Sant'Eustachio? The view from the tables outside is nothing exceptional, although it does feature the curious facade of the Sant'Eustachio church, with the classic symbol of the saint's miracle: seeing the stag with his antlers in the shape of a cross. The interior is small and smells great (they're roasting on the premises) and has the patina of a place that's been around for decades. And we never fail to find gifts there for our American friends: mugs (small by our standards), bowls, chocolate-covered coffee beans--and of course, the 100% Arabica itself.

Being a purist, and not wanting to corrupt the moment, Henry probably just threw down his espresso and had the taxi return him to Air Force 1.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cherry Box Warhol

Color, Repetition, and the Marketplace. Those ideas were at the center of the pop art revolution. Our cherry boxes don't quite reach the level of the Campbell's soup cans, but we think Andy would have appreciated this photo, taken in Genova--especially if we'd showed it to him in 1962.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Scooter Feminism

First, a confession. About 15 years ago I got it into my head that there was a market out there for a coffee-table book featuring Nikon-made photographs of Roman women navigating the city on scooters and cycles. My camera has changed--it's digital now--but the adolescent fantasy remains, weakened by an aging body but also strengthened by my decision, a few years ago, to get a scooter and ride those streets. You won't believe it, but my interest in this subject is feminist; riding a scooter on the streets of Rome requires courage, a certain athleticism, decisiveness, even strength. It is liberating. Let's call it scooter feminism.

Waiting for the light to change and the charge to begin and there, on my left and on my right, chicks on bikes. One on a small scooter, perched on the front of the seat, reaching for the handlebars with short arms, knees pressed against the metal, all earnestness. Another policing an unruly skirt in the breeze. A single working girl, headed home from the office, in slacks and impeccable white blouse, purse on the floorboard. A tough girl in leather and full helmet, astride a fast bike known, perhaps unfortunately, as a crotch-rocket. (The girl in pink, above, is on a crotch-rocket). Most girls wear jeans. Occasionally, high heels (photo at left) and often, sandals (last pic), which offer scant protection when you're underneath a scooter that's sliding down the asphalt.

One day in the spring of 2007, I dropped Dianne off at Castel Sant'Angelo, where they were doing a show on art work that had been stolen and recovered, or something like that. Instead, I planned to take some pics of chicks on bikes. I crossed the Tevere on the nearby Ponte Sant'Angelo, then crossed the wide and busy thoroughfare known there as the Lungotevere Tor di Nona, and took up a position downriver on the corner of Via Paola, my camera ready.

The results were not what I had hoped for. It proved harder than I ever imagined to identify at a distance a woman I wanted to photograph, and harder still--indeed, impossible, given my skills-- to capture the action moving by at 35/50 km per hour. About all I could manage were still photos of women sitting on their cycles and scooters waiting for the light to turn green.

And even that was challenging, not to mention embarrassing. The ladies know what you're up to, even if you don't (see right). I like the yellow top. A good example of dressing for safety.

The book project is on hold.