Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Monti, Gentrified

Most of our readers will know of Monti, the enchanting neighborhood (technically, a rione) located between via Nazionale, the Coliseum, and via dei Fori Imperiali. And most would agree with Monica Lamer, writing in Business Week in September, 1998, who described Monti as "the most authentic and tourist-free district in the modern city." "The district," Lamer continues, "has maintained its flavor and today attracts people looking for affordable homes in a unique neighborhood." Monti has long been one of our favorite haunts; in Rome the Second Time, we've introduced readers
to two of our favorite places: the jazz club Charity Café, on via Panisperna, and Al Vino Al Vino, a busy wine bar around the corner on via dei Serpenti (photo at left).

Monti still has picturesque streets and atmosphere to spare, but our views on the area have changed just a bit after reading Michael Herzfeld's Evicted from Eternity: The Restructuring of Modern Rome (2009). Despite the general subtitle, the book is all about Monti's recent history.

Herzfeld, a Harvard anthropologist who did field work in the rione over several years in the 1990s and the 2000s, argues that Monti is not what it used to be, fifty or even twenty years ago.
Monti no longer is home to ordinary, working-class Romans plying their crafts and trades in small shops; it no longer sustains a local, working-class culture; no longer densely populated, it cannot sustain the sort of local market for food, clothing, and household items that serve and sustain so many Rome neighborhoods--that, in a sense, define them as dynamic neighborhoods.

Monti has been gentrified. Hotels and short-term lets for tourists. Trendy shops.

The process of gentrification began in the 1950s and 1960s, when, as Rome's population grew rapidly, Monti's fell. In the 1980s, as the area became more popular, rents turned up, and some locals were forced to find accommodations in cheaper, new housing developments on the city's outskirts. Still, until the late 1990s, renters were protected from eviction by a legal requirement that owners demonstrate "a pressing need" for the property. That legal protection was eliminated in a 1998 housing law, supposedly designed to protect property owners from squatters. Under the new law, owners had the legal right to evict tenants for any reason. And they did. The 1998 law had support from the right, who thought the old law gave too much protection to tenants and, more remarkably, from Mayor Francesco Rutelli's (1993-2001) leftist coalition.

Herzfeld is critical of Rutelli, who lived in Monti for a time as a child, and whose wife was born there. He labels Rutelli a "bourgeois leftist from Parioli."
He links Rutelli to powerful construction companies that were building inexpensive housing outside the city, and he laments Rutelli's neoliberal vision of the city," sustained by "market logic," that included support for gentrification and for turning Monti into a mecca for tourists and living quarters for Rome's wealthy. Interestingly, this critique of Rutelli was shared at the time by Gianfranco Fini's right-wing Alleanza nazionale. "We do not wish," Fini said at the time, "for [Monti] to be deformed into an open museum."

As you walk around Monti, you can judge for yourself whether the area has been "deformed into an open museum." One place to engage that question is via degli Ibernesi, a short and narrow street at the southwestern end of the district.

In Evicted from Eternity, Herzfeld narrates in fascinating detail what happened on that street at #23, over a period of two decades beginning in the mid-1980s. In essence, 10 long-term residents of the 18th-century palazzo on the site fought a long, bitter, public battle against eviction, first against the Bank of Rome, then against Pirelli Tire, and a series of other owners, until 2006, when the remaining 5 residents were finally forced to leave the building--and the neighborhood--where most had lived for decades.

For those unable to visit the street, we offer this virtual tour of via degli Ibernesi; #23 is at the opposite end of the street, on the far right.

Today, a Google search for via Ibernesi 23 brings up the Roman Forum Residences website, on which one can book a room in a luxury hotel. A description on the website reads: "A unique luxury accommodation created to evoke sensations: an intimate residence full of delightful surprises where traces of ancient Rome cohabit perfectly with the modern comforts that the most discerning travellers require."


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let's "Chattare" Redux

In my "Let's 'chattare'" post, of March 29, I wanted to put in more about "show girls" and Berlusconi. There are so many English language words used whenever the media writes about the Italian Prime Minister and his escapades with scantily-clad young (often too young) women.

But I only made a brief mention of "show girl" because I found myself tripping up over "veline" (and sometimes I have seen "velini" - which seems like it should be masculine plural) and "showgirls". I couldn't figure out the difference - though obviously one word is Italian and one is American (I won't even deign to say "English"). So, I asked our Roman friend and linguist, Massimo. I love his answer and repeat it with his permission:

"I will do the best I can to clarify this subtle and unfortunate neologism: the singular of "veline" is "velina" and usually it is a girl (not many "velini" around - TV biz is a sexist world). It's a girl usually very attractive but not always (or necessarily) talented. A "showgirl" is a sort of umbrella term to mean a young woman that either hosts a show, or can dance and/or sing (rarely decently enough). There is NO way, in my opinion, that these persons can reach their "artistic" goals w/o hitting TV producers' (or politicians') beds or sofas first.

"Today, we tend to define "veline" as all the girls who "want to be on TV" and attend various shows w/o being particularly talented. But after all, hasn't one of them become a minister of the Italian government?

"The word "velina" re-entered our everyday vocabulary a few years ago, with a TV program called "Striscia la notizia" (a semi-serious TV news, which is still going strong). Scantily clad skating girls would bring the news to the anchors written on a thin sheet of paper: a "velina". "Carta velina" is the kind of paper that we used for carbon copies in the pre-PC era.

"During the Fascist ventennio (decades), "veline" were the copies of the official version of the news that circulated in the Department of Propaganda - and that's the origin of the word: according to the screenwriters of the program that was supposed to be ironic and funny."

I told you he was a linguist! And just today Bill and I were listening to a somewhat dated Italian news report on Berlusconi's problems last year with the scantily clad and maybe underage, and likely paid... prost... well, make that again young women. And in the newscast were English words imported into the Italian, such as "mission", "scup" (as in "scoop"), "gossip", "topmanager", "first lady"... to mention a few!


Thursday, April 22, 2010

RST Top 40. #18: Case Popolari/Mussolini's Public Housing

Officially and emotionally, the Fascist regime (1922-1943) emphasized the virtues of rural life and made an effort to keep Italians in the small villages and on the farm. Practically, it proved impossible to prevent country people from coming to the city to live, and especially to Rome, whose population grew from about 700,000 to more than 1,4oo,000 during Fascism. At the same time, Mussolini's government was tearing down large areas of the inner city, mostly to showcase the city's ancient Roman heritage and bring glory to the regime. Migration and "sventramento" (tearing down) put enormous pressure on the Fascists to provide housing, somewhere, for the new arrivals, the displaced, and thousands of new government employees. As a result, Fascist-built housing is everywhere in Rome--everywhere, that is, outside the Centro: in Flaminio, around Piazza Bologna, in Appio Latino, in Garbatella, and in Monteverde Nuovo--and, of course, in a dozen or more "borgate," the more far-flung suburbs where thousands of Rome's workers and their families were housed.

Public housing in Garbatella is featured in the first walk in our latest book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  More on the book is at the end of this post.

Our focus here is on one particular kind of public housing: Case Popolari (literally popular houses), built for the working class. One of our favorites, an intimate project on Piazza Pontida (see photo top), is on the first Piazza Bologna itinerary in Rome the Second Time. Another worth visiting, and more accessible because it is not gated, is in Flaminia, off viale del Vignola, just off Piazza Melozzo da Forli in Piazza Perin del Vaga.
Buiilt between 1924 and 1926, this complex was designed by Mario De Renzi, one of the architects of the more famous via Marmorata post office and a regular contributor to the rationalist element of the Fascist aesthetic. The sculpture in the photo is located in Piazza Perin del Vaga.

But if you're RST Top 40 "bagging" (like hikers bag high peaks), you'll have to head for Monteverde Nuovo, specifically Piazza di Donna Olimpia, at the intersection of via Ozanam and via di Donna Olimpia. The #8 tram on viale Transtevere will get you most of the way: get off at Piazza San Giovanni di Dio, walk left to via Ozanam and down the hill. (RST Top 40 daily double: the market in Piazza San Giovanni di Dio, followed by the Case Popolari in Piazza di Donna Olimpia).

This public housing complex was completed in 1938 (Mussolini and other dignitaries were present at the opening), and it's in a different spirit and aesthetic from the projects noted above. Beginning in the 1930s, and accelerating when Italy pursued its colonial fantasies in North Africa and then alliance with Germany, Fascist architecture pursued a "monumental" aesthetic--tall, massive, imposing.
This is a good example. The project included several buildings of 8 stories (referred to then as "grattaciele": skyscrapers), intended to house some three hundred families--or about 1200 people. Today the project is perhaps best known as one of the 1950s haunts of poet, novelist and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was fascinated by (and wrote about) the culture of the working-class boys who lived in the complex and who for a time lived with his mother just up the street,
in an apartment at #86 on via Fonteiana 86, the extension of via Ozanam (there's a plaque in the lobby, but no, you can't claim it as another notch on your RST Top 40 belt). We've written about Pasolini's links to Monteverde in posts of October 10 and October 16, 2009. The photo of Pasolini at right appears to have been taken behind the Piazza di Donna Olimpia projects.

No one will mind if you go in the entrance to the main building (which is obvious) and have a look. The stairway is cool, and so is the interior courtyard and its view of the curved back of the building.


As noted, "case popolari" are featured in our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Romanian Presence

This rack of magazines, found in the town/suburb of Acilia, 15 km to the west of Rome, illustrates the growing numbers of Romanians in Rome, its surrounding communities, and throughout Italy. The words in yellow translate as "Romanian Newspapers and Magazines Available Here." Interestingly, Acilia was the first community to be described by the term "borgate"--the translation might be "working-class suburb"--in 1924.

The first wave of Romanian immigrants arrived in 1999, and another, larger one, followed in 2002, when emigration from Romania to Italy became possible without a visa. As early as 2001 Romanians ranked second to Albanians for sheer numbers of immigrants to Italy. By the end of 2006 there were about 550,000 Romanians in Italy--15% of all foreign citizens--and they now number an estimated 1,000,000. Although Romanians consider themselves heirs of ancient Rome and bound to Italians by a common "Romance" language system, they are often viewed with suspicion by the natives. (As Dianne points out in her 8/23/09 post on the guys who dress up as "gladiators," even Romanian success stories can bring hostility. When Romanians moved into the Centurion-impersonation business at Castel Sant'Angelo, the natives resented the encroachment on their territory). In 2007, Italy began to deport Romanians with criminal records, a controversial project at best.


Dianne adds  More posts on immigrants and ethnic presence in Rome include the Chinese (and other) shops near Piazza Vittoriocampaigns against immigrants, the Pigneto neighborhood, and even the lowly (or is it?) kebab.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jazz, Ancient Statuary and 20th-Century Dynamos

As most of you blog-readers must know by now, we're jazz aficionados, and Rome hosts wonderful jazz concerts at every level and taste.

Rome has outdone itself this Spring as its spectacular Centrale Montemartini museum (see our blog post of March 9; it's #22 on our RST Top 40 list) hosts jazz weekends now through June 5. Run, don't walk, to the museum to buy advance tickets. They're only Euro 7. Wine and snacks will be available (cash bar, as we would say) too.

The concerts are at 8 and 10 p.m. each Friday and Saturday (except none on May 1 or May 14).

The performers are national and international stars, including drummer Roberto Gatto (right) who leads his quartet to close out the "Montemartini Blue Note" series, Danilo Rea, and Enrico Pierannunzi, to name just a few.

You can check out the series on the museum's website - note you can't get the info from clicking "Eng" at the top; you can let Google translate the page for you. The Eternally Cool blogsite also has some information on the series.

See our March 9 blog post (link above) for information on the museum. The easiest way to get there is to take Metro Line B (blue) to Garbatella and walk directly West (back over the tracks). It's more or less a straight line through to via Ostiense and the museum (at # 106); it's open Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. Closed May 1. Hope to see you at some of the concerts!


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Bears: Animal Encounters on Lazio's Yellow Brick Roads

"Lions and Tigers and Bears! Lions and Tigers and Bears!" That famous refrain from The Wizard of Oz ran through our heads as we thought about the world of fauna that one naturally encounters in hiking the hills and mountains outside Rome. The lions and tigers are few and far between, and in our experience there are no bears except in the Abruzzi. Even so, in Lazio you'll often have animals as hiking companions, and they can be intimidating--especially if, like suburban-raised Bill, your life experience with farms is limited to children's books. Having visited her Italian-American grandmother's farm outside Seattle in the summers, Dianne is more familiar with the bucolic. You'd be amazed at the use once made of the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

The pigs you'll encounter as you walk Lazio's ridges and valleys are not of the barnyard variety.

They're wild boars--cinghiali--brutish and potentially dangerous creatures. Fortunately, they flee at the first sight of hikers, even if they're already hundreds of yards away and off the trail. Our only encounter with more than one of these savory fatties was in Umbria, where we had gone to visit friends who had restored an 18th century farmhouse in the luscious rolling hills near Gubbio. To avoid farmers' fields and try something different, the two of us had set out to hike straight up a muddy streambed
(surrounded by trees, the stream we walked was just to the left of the center at the photo at left, taken from our friends' terrace; that's me looking toward the camera). Coming over a rise, we surprised about 15 of the beasts with their snouts in the watery muck some 50 yards away. They took off like bats outta hell, up the stream and away from us. We continued ahead but never saw anything of them again--and we were glad of it.

Sheep are a common presence on the trail and usually just mill around and eat, especially if tended by a shepherd (most of them now from Eastern Europe) and his dog. We had one experience that was different. We had come off the top of Monte della Fate, not far from Pontinia (one of the Fascist-built cities to Rome's southwest), and descended into a coll. Just ahead were hundreds of sheep, many of them large and fat, the flock unsupervised. As we approached, the animals reacted with dread, apparently convinced that we were terrorists. The pack exploded down the steep, rocky, adjacent hillside, a sea of wool in full flight, raising clouds of dust in their desperate effort to escape the threatening hikers. We were transfixed, horrified at the thought that our presence had precipitated what was sure to end as a sheep massacre, blood and broken bones everywhere. As it turned out, the sheep were more agile than we ever imagined, and not a one even fell.

While sheep generally prefer slopes and fields to the paths trod by humans, Italy's cows and horses are likely to be right there on the trail
as you come around the next bend. Our rule of thumb is that the cows will stand their ground and the horses will run for cover,
though neither is always true. If the terrain is open (right, above) and the trail proper a mere convenience, it's easy enough to skirt the cows and the occasional stationary horse, but often the trail is confined. (Below right, a bunch of skittish horses has taken off down a confined trail at our arrival; harder to see is one that decided to get away by going up the rocky hillside at the right).

Sometimes one must pass gingerly by the beasts. We are particularly cautious about cows with huge horns, which we identify as potentially mean bulls, especially if there are calves nearby that the bull may be anxious to protect. On one occasion, we were returning to the hilltop city of Norba via a set of terraces in back of the town--and only meters from paved roads--when our progress was effectively blocked by a large bull. We retreated to find another route (which proved dangerous and ultimately unsuccessful). Another time we had ill advisedly decided to finish a hike by going off trail toward some farm houses. We entered a narrow, sunken streambed that we imagined would take us past the farms to the road beyond. It was a good idea, but two enormous bovine stood midstream, and we scrambled up the bank.

We no doubt over-estimate the hostile intentions of cattle, female or male. The trail up Monte Gennaro, the most popular substantial climb close to Rome, is laced with passive cows, guys and gals, enjoying the sun of the high pasture or, as in the photo at the top of this post, taking refuge in the shade of the dry riverbank leading to it (the photo is ordinary; we were seconds late in capturing an episode of fornication). Another day, when crossing a huge open field with an Italian hiking group, we passed within 20 feet of a cow that had recently given birth, its calf still attached by umbilical cord. None of the animals seemed to mind our presence--but we did not linger to take photographs. You'll find donkeys
on the trail, too, and they are harmless. Here's one helping Dianne read the map.

Every farmer has a dog--and often more than one--and while they bark a lot, most of them are territorial to a fault and don't care much if you're not on their turf. And if the owner's around, he'll call them off. Still, if you're off trail and cutting through the bushes in a farmer's back yard (not so uncommon for us), the anxiety is palpable.

Yet only once have we been really frightened by dogs. It happened in the hills near Palestrina. We were nearing the end of a long--and needlessly difficult--day of hiking. We had missed the trail down into the enormous gorge in back of the city and, at Bill's urging, had plunged a thousand feet down a steep wooded ravine to the creek below, then up the other side (on a dirt road), finally, finally (Dianne was upset), emerging on the far crest of the gorge in lovely, flat country,
with the paved road to Palestrina and a cold beer less than half a mile distant. In that moment of temporary bliss, Dianne took the photo at right.

Within minutes (see the buildings at the left of the photo that promised our return to civilization), we understood that to get to that road we would have to walk through the middle of a rural homestead, several buildings on each side, with the holy grail of the paved road two hundred yards beyond. And there were dogs. One at first, then a few, then NINE (we counted), barking, snarling, teeth-baring, and all following us in a pack as we walked at a measured pace between the buildings. The farmer or his wife would appear at any second, we thought, to rein in their crazed mutts and appease us with pasta and wine, but never did. The dogs were at our feet, sniping at Dianne's heels, and to keep them off--but hoping not to provoke an attack--I poked at the more aggressive ones with my hiking pole, which seemed to give them pause. Ha Ha. And we methodically walked on. As the road got closer and their turf farther away, the dogs lost interest. We felt spared. And I had saved Dianne (Dianne remembers the event somewhat differently: she led the way through the pack of dogs, Bill following behind).

We have had close encounters with nice dogs, too. A scruffy white one met us in the main square of the small town of Calcata; followed us down into the Etruscan ruins of the Valle della Treja below and 4 miles,
some of it off trail, to Manzana, where the three of us ate our lunch; napped (see photo) on his full stomach; then took us back to his village. An inquiry at the local bar revealed that this is pretty much what this dog does. Once we knew he wasn't going to get lost, we enjoyed the company.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

RST Top 40. #19: The Big Fountain

NEW: the RST Top 40 Countdown list is at right, updated with each post.

"Il fontanone" - the "big fountain" - it's a casual and direct Italian nickname for one of Rome's most gorgeous fountains. And, because it's a little out of the way, on the top of the Gianicolo (up, behind Trastevere), this magnificent fountain doesn't get the attention of the Trevi Fountain. Therefore, this fountain, Acqua Paola, makes Rome the Second Time's Top 40.

"Acqua Paola" also means to Romans, "not so good," because despite its beautiful "mostra" or "show" fountain, the water, taken from Lake Bracciano, when brought into Rome by Pope Paul V in 1612, was deemed just not very good.

The aqueduct feeding this fountain, one of Paul's big construction projects for the city, urban planner that he was, uses in part Trajan's aqueduct from Ancient Rome (Aqua Traiana). There are many stories and lots of history behind Acqua Paola, but we'll leave that to Itinerary 2 of Rome the Second Time and to a plethora of online sites (warning - many of them have errors - e.g., this fountain was not moved in the 1890s - that was another smaller fountain, fed by the same aqueduct, now in Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere - I can't imagine moving this one). And, Wikipedia, it's spelled Acqua Paola, with a "c", because the Renaissance fountains use the word "acqua" from Italian, while the ancient ones, like Aqua Traiana, use the Latin aqua - without a "c"...

For those of you visiting Rome even the first time - don't miss the Gianicolo and Acqua Paola!

Acqua Paola is on the Trastevere stairways walk in our new book: Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  See below for more information on the book.

Dianne - a PS - our favorite book on Rome's fountains is H.V. Morton's The Fountains of Rome; even tho' out of print, you can find it.

Our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Priebke Vergogna: A Reminder that the Nazis were in Rome

We know Dianne took this photograph, in Monti, on June 19, 2007. But we could probably have come close to that date by looking carefully at its content. Much is standard: a shop's metal shutter; a concert poster; one of the ubiquitous yellow advertisements for an apartment for rent; a no-parking sign (sosta vietata); and the usual excess of bad graffiti on almost everything, including the smooth marble.

The white sign is what's distinctive. It reads:

Gli Italiani
Non Dimenticano
Fosse Ardeatine

The Italians
Don't Forget
Fosse Ardeatine

An old friend with whom we've shared Rome and who values our efforts in Rome the Second Time, nonetheless has expressed her irritation at the amount of attention we devote to the Nazis and the Germans in Rome. She's Jewish, and likely she's just tired of being reminded of what happened to Europe's Jews, including those who lived in Italy and Rome.

We appreciate and understand that sentiment, if it is, indeed, what she feels. But the white sheet of paper posted on the wall in Dianne's photo tells us that for many Romans these issues, and the distant past that produced them, are very much alive.
Priebe is Erich Priebke.
Born in Germany in 1913, Waffen SS Captain Priebke participated in the killings of 335 Italian civilians (including 75 Jews) at the Fosse (Caves) Ardeatine in 1944 (below right). Priebke later admitted to keeping the list of those who were to be executed, and of personally killing two people with a machine pistol. He may also have had a role in the deportation of 6,000 to 7,000 Jews from Italy to Auschwitz. But he thought the Fosse Ardeatine killings, personally ordered by Hitler, to be justifiable retaliation for the deadly bombing of a German troop column in via Rasella (we describe these events in more detail in Rome the Second Time).

Priebke was scheduled to be tried in the postwar era, but managed to flee to Argentina, where he lived as a free man for 50 years. After giving an interview to ABC's Sam Donaldson in 1994 in which he described the victims as "terrorists,"
Priebke was extradited to Italy, where before an Italian court he pleaded not guilty and again justified his actions. The judges ruled that the time limit for prosecuting the case had expired, and Priebke was released. On court appeal, Priebke was tried again in 1997, found guilty, sentenced to life in prison and, because of his age, put under house arrest in Rome.

Why, in June 2007, were Romans again concerned about Priebke? Because, on June 12 the court authorized him to leave his home in order to use his considerable skills as a multi-lingual translator in the office of his lawyer. After a day of protests led by the Italian Jewish community, a magistrate revoked the new work permit.

Dianne took the photo a week later.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Voice of Rome: Giuseppe Gioachino Belli

The minute a man becomes a priest,
that priest becomes a man made holy,
and no matter how he may sin, his sin
will fly away from him like a cricket from a net.

We welcome journalist and translator Frederika Randall, our guest blogger for this post. Randall left New York for Milan in 1986 and now lives in Rome. She has written about Italian society, arts, literature, film and culture for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and now reports on politics for The Nation and on books for the Italian weekly Internazionale. With a grant from the PEN Translation Fund, she is completing a translation of Luigi Meneghello's Libera Nos a Malo. The translations below are hers.

If you’ve taken the tram up or down viale Trastevere, you’ve probably caught sight of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. He’s the pensive gent in the top hat looking down from
a white travertine monument, just across Ponte Garibaldi on the Trastevere side of the river. “To their poet” says the inscription on the base, “from the people of Rome.” There’s also some fancy allegorical relief work front and back, courtesy of Belle Epoque sculptor Michele Tripisciano. Once upon a time Trastevere, once one of Rome’s poorest neighborhoods. This little corner was dedicated to Belli in 1910, when a group of poets petitioned mayor Ernesto Nathan to rename the square Piazza G.G. Belli and took up a public collection to pay for the monument.

Despite some attempts to put his poems into English, Belli isn’t very well known outside Italy--even though Pier Paolo Pasolini once called him “the greatest Italian poet.” Significantly, he didn’t say “greatest dialect poet,” the title by which Belli is usually known but one that seems to hedge its bets about whether literature in dialect is really literature. For Belli wrote not in standard Italian but in Romanesco, the lowlife Roman vernacular. Pasolini, poet, master of dialect, and a lover of lowlife Rome himself, knew whereof he spoke.

Giuseppe Gioachino Belli was born in Rome in 1791, just on the cusp of the French revolution. He died in 1863, only a few years before the Italian army defeated the backward, despotic Papal States— a theocratic regime, we’d call it today--and claimed the city of Rome as Italian territory. The seizure of Rome in 1870 was the last, symbolic act in the long unification process of the Risorgimento, a movement with strong secular and progressive currents.
Belli, a subject and employee of Papal Rome, thus lived out his life in a reactionary backwater during the century in which liberté, egalité and fraternité were the battlecries of change across Europe. (Rudolf Wiegmann's 1834 painting at right,looking down the Tevere with St. Peter's in the distance, captures something of that world).

And yet, Belli was nothing if not a man of his times, with all their contradictions. An accountant and later a censor in the Vatican bureaucracy, he belonged to the small Roman middle class, squeezed between the lordly, wealthy ecclesiastical elite, and the abundant masses. He was anything but a man of the people, yet in a wild burst of creativity during the 1820s and 30s he wrote some 2,279 sonnets, all in the rough and ready street language of the Roman populace, Romanesco.

It’s a dialect with a mouthful of consonants and a way of lopping words off after the accented syllable. The Romans say bbuono instead of buono, “good” and they say fà instead of fare, “to do”. Until the mid-20th century, most people in Rome spoke Romanesco, just as most Italians spoke one of the scores of local dialects as their first (and often only) language. Only the literate spoke, and read Italian. Though Belli’s sonnets were composed nearly two hundred years ago, the language still sounds a lot like that spoken on the streets of Rome today. As much as a language, Romanesco is a mode of expression: caustic, vivid, and frequently very vulgar.

Apart from his style and pizzaz as a poet, Belli was an astute observer and early ethnographer, making note, in witty rhyming stanzas, of the political beliefs and religious credences, the social customs and verbal expressions, the hopes and the
fears of the Romans. He “delved into plebeian sentiments as into his id, his other: the dark, misshapen bottom not only of society but of individual consciousness,” said Luigi Meneghello, himself a wonderful dialect writer and a great admirer of Belli. Something of a ventriloquist, Belli sometimes used “the people” as a mouthpiece to say things that otherwise it would be awkward, or even dangerous to say. But he also had an undeniable feeling for the humblest Romans, not unlike the painter (unknown) who depicted Italy's class divide in two rooms of an osteria, above.

Belli had been well-educated by the Jesuits, reading widely as a young man, both the eccelesiastical literature, and great philosophes of his day (Voltaire was a favorite). Although he was fascinated by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, he was also a loyal subject and employee of the papacy. Perhaps the only way he could cope with his divided loyalties and voice his enthusiasm for the liberatory, democratic and anti-clerical ideas coming from France was to put them in the mouths of the Roman proletariat: so Italian critic Pietro Gibellini has suggested.

But when Rome actually put those ideas into practice with the great Risorgimental uprising, the Roman Republic of 1849, Belli was so traumatized that he never wrote a single line of Romanesco again. The sonnets went unpublished in his lifetime. As an old man, he repudiated his Romanesco writings and asked that the sonnets be burned after his death. Luckily, his friend and executor, Bishop Vincenzo Tizzani, chose not to carry out that request.

“I wanted to leave a monument to the Roman plebe,” was how Belli once accounted for those 2,279 sonnets. The plebe: the Roman masses, poor, illiterate, disenfranchised, policed by the papal Carabinieri and kept in line by regular hangings in St. Peter’s Square. Belli gave voice to their pleasures, their misery, their cynicism and their deep fatalism—so deep for example that many, like the poet himself, actually abhorred the Risorgimento and its struggle to free Rome from papal rule, unable to imagine or countenance such momentous change.

In his very best sonnets, the witty, disenchanted voice of Rome’s populace is twined with the poet’s own wit and intellect. His barbs about religious dogmatism, authoritarian rule, about the gulf between society’s haves and its have-nots can sound remarkably fresh in the 21st century. Whether he’s writing about man’s tyranny over the animal kingdom (The Beasts of Earthly Paradise), about the justice meted out to the poor (The Precious Dead), about the hypocrisy of priests (The Priest), or about the Grand Tour’s perverse fascination with the gloomy Roman countryside and its “genuine” farmer’s cheese (The Wasteland), you can hear the hiss of anger, the sting of sarcasm, the snap of vulgarity, as if it were today.

Frederika Randall

For English translations of selected Belli sonnets see: Anthony Burgess, in the appendix to his novel Abba Abba; Harold Norse, The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli; Miller Williams, Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli; Mike Stocks, Sonnets-Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.

 L’amore de li morti

A sto paese tutti li penzieri,
tutte le lòro carità ccristiane
so ppe li morti; e appena more un cane
je si smoveno tutti li bbraghieri.

E ccataletti, e mmoccoli, e incenzieri,
e asperge, e uffizi, e mmusiche, e campane,
e mmesse, e ccatafarchi, e bbonemane,
e indurgenze, e ppitaffi, e ccimiteri!…

E intanto pe li vivi, poveretti!
gabbelle, ghijjottine, passaporti,
mano-reggie, galerre e ccavalletti.

E i vivi poi-poi, bboni o ccattivi,
so cquarche ccosa mejjo de li morti:
non fuss’antro pe cquesto che ssò vvivi.

Sept. 19, 1835

 The Precious Dead

In this town, all the attention,
all the faith, hope and charity,
go to the dead. Just let a dog die
and the whole place springs to life.

The litter, the candles, the incense burners,
the holy water, the matins, the music, the church bells,
the masses, the fancy biers, the gratuities,
the indulgences, the cemeteries, the epitaphs...

And meanwhile for the living—the unlucky—
taxes and customs, identity papers and guillotines,
the “by the authority vested in me”, the prison, the rack.

Yet in the end the living, good or bad,
are still better off than the dead,
for one thing, at least they’re still with us.

--tr. F. Randall

 Er prete
Ar momento c’un omo fa pprete
sto prete è un omo ggià ssantificato;
e cquantunque peccassi, er zu’ peccato
vola via com’un grillo da una rete.

Er dì ssanto a cchi pporta le pianete
è ccome er carcerà cchi è ccarcerato,
come scummunicà un scummunicato,
com’er dì a cquattro ladri “In quanti sete?”

Certe cose la ggente ricamata
nun le capissce, e ffra nnoantri soli
se pò ttrovà la verità sfacciata.

Sortanto da noantri stracciaroli
se sa cchi è un prete. La crasse allevata
pijja sempre li scesci pe ffascioli.

April 3, 1836

 The Priest

The minute a man becomes a priest,
that priest becomes a man made holy,
and no matter how he may sin, his sin
will fly away from him like a cricket from a net.

To say “holy” to him wearing the chasuble
is like putting a man who’s a prisoner in prison,
it’s like excommunicating the excommunicato,
it’s like asking four robbers, “how many are you?”

There are some things that the embroidered ones
can’t understand, and it’s only among us others
that you find the unvarnished truth.

Only we others, the trash pickers,
know what a priest is. The comfortable classes
can’t tell the difference between corn and beans

--tr. F. Randall

 Le bestie der Paradiso terrestre

Primo d’Adamo senza dubbio arcuno
er ceto delle bbestie de llà fòri
fascévano una vita da siggnori
senza dipenne un cazzo da ggnisuno.

Ggnente cucchieri, ggnente cacciatori,
nò mmascelli, nò bbòtte, nò ddiggiuno…
e rriguardo ar parlà, pparlava oggnuno
come parleno adesso li dottori.

Venuto però Adamo a ffà er padrone,
écchete l’archibbusci e la mazzola,
le carozze e ‘r zughillo der bastone.

E quello è stato er primo tempo in cui
l’omo levò a le bbestie la parola
pe pparlà ssolo e avé rraggione lui.

December 19, 1834

 The Beasts of Earthly Paradise

Before there was Adam, heaven knows,
in the animal kingdom up there,
they lived like real gentlemen,
without having to depend fuck-all on man.

No coachmen, no hunters,
no butchers, no beatings, no fish on Fridays…
and as for speaking, they all spoke
as fine as professors talk today.

But when Adam became the boss
there now appeared the gun and mace,
the carriage and the lick of the whip.

And that was when for the first time,
a man disarmed the beasts of speech
so he would always win the case.

--tr. F. Randall

 Er deserto

Dio me ne guardi, Cristo e la Madonna
d'annà ppiù ppe ggiuncata a sto precojjo.
Prima... che posso dì?... pprima me vojjo
fa ccastrà dda un norcino a la Ritonna.

Fà ddiesci mijja e nun vedé una fronna!
Imbatte ammalappena in quarche scojjo!
Dapertutto un zilenzio com'un ojjo,
che ssi strilli nun c'è cchi tt'arisponna!

Dove te vorti una campaggna rasa
come sce sii passata la pianozza
senza manco l'impronta d'una casa!

L'unica cosa sola c'ho trovato
in tutt'er viaggio, è stata una bbarrozza
cor barrozzaro ggiù mmorto ammazzato.

March 26, 1836

 The Wasteland (the Campagna Romana)
God help me, Christ and the Madonna,
may I never go out again to get that cheese from the farmer.
I’d rather…what can I say?…I’d rather
be castrated by a sausage-vendor at the Pantheon.

You do ten miles and never see a tree!
At most you stumble over a few rocks.
And all around, a silence thick as oil,
so if you scream, there’s no one there to hear.

Everywhere you turn, bare, scraped land,
as if the carpenter had passed his plane,
and nowhere, not even the shadow, of a house.

The one and only thing I ever saw
on the whole trip, was an upturned cart,
and lying by its side the driver. Dead.

--tr. F. Randall

[The last image is Paul Flandrin, Campagna Romana (1840); the second-to-last is Adolf Luben (1832-1905), Visitation of the Sick; above that, Henri Regnault (1843-1871), The Old Flea Market in Piazza Montanara]

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Viterbo Lobby: Fashion Statement

It's been several years since we scootered from Rome up to Viterbo, to see the sights. We stopped at a tourist office and asked about hotels, and a young woman enthusiastically directed us to Hotel Leon D'Oro on via della Cava.
We found ourselves in the front of the hotel, with "a room with a view"--unfortunately, of a major construction project across the street (photo above right, taken from the room).

Our disapppointment was mitigated somewhat when the saw the lobby, which had a style, well, all its own. Soviet chic meets Victorian excess?
Fabrics gone wild?

We are reminded of our willful 8-year old, who we let dress himself, and who regularly showed up for breakfast with checkered pants and striped shirt (it was the '70s).