Rome Travel Guide

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Centocelle: Rome's New Rochelle

We doubt that any of our readers have been to Centocelle, the mid-20th century suburb
located about 7 km to the east of Rome's Centro, between via Casilina on the south and via Prenestina on the north. Nor had we until recently, perhaps because the name (literally, one hundred cells) led us to imagine a degraded, high-crime community characterized by enormous, sterile apartment buildings. We went anyway, attracted by a photo exhibit (now closed) on Centocelle, brought to our attention by a friend (thanks, Jennifer!). The exhibit was mounted in a 1935 church, in Piazza San F. da Cantalice, just off via Casilina. The center of community life, if not in the center of the community, the church ushers one into town from the south (see photos of the exterior of the church soon after construction, and the interior, then undecorated). What we found was more like New Rochelle than the South Bronx.

Although aerial photos in the exhibit show the site sparsely populated in 1934
(the church is in red, Rome to the right, via Casilina at top), and densely populated by 1977, our walk revealed several examples of buildings constructed in the 1920s, some marked with the Roman numerals of the Fascist system, and others built in the early 1930s, including the school below right, with its Anno EF XI (Fascist Era Year 11) dating, above the arches.

The town's inviting, tree-lined main street (via del Castani), running northward off the front of the church, is filled with shops of all kinds, including, on the left (heading north) and in the first block, a high-end gift shop ensconced in small structure whose facade still features the faded mosaics fashioned when the place was built around 1930.

Further down, the circular piazza (Piazza dei Mirti) that only recently was doubtless the center and hub of Centocelle's community and commercial life is suffering from the construction of Metro Line C, whose opening will surely be delayed longer than any of us can imagine. Perhaps in anticipation of the line, a trendy apartment building was recently completed nearby (below right). The area is currently served by streetcar.
A block west, mixed-gender youth soccer teams were having a spirited game on a small, fenced-in pitch.

Our visit featured intermittent rain. Waiting for it to subside (we were on the scooter), we spent a pleasant half hour over glasses of wine
(available only in small bottles) in Bar Gelateria, across from the church, where a dozen locals, many sitting in the covered area outside, had also taken refuge. That's Dianne's back in the photo.

Celebrities don't flock to Centocelle any more than tourists do, but Pope Giovanni Paolo was there, probably in the 1990s; the photo exhibit revealed the community's rich religious life. And Centocelle's airport, a busy place in the 1930s,
saw Charles Lindbergh passing through and witnessed an historic--and fateful--encounter between Hitler and Mussolini on May 4, 1938. Neither, we're sure, ever got to New Rochelle.




Kataroma said...

Thanks for posting these lovely comments about Centocelle. My husband and I are thinking of buying a place there (we're long time expats in Rome). I'm aware of Centocelle's reputation and lots of more upper class Italians seem horrified that we would buy there but we like it. We're able to afford a decent place, the people seem very friendly and normal and we just like it.

Like you, I'm kind of wondering what the reputation is based on. I'm from New York City so when I hear the word's 'bad neighborhood' I think the South Bronx circa 1977. Centocelle is anything but.

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

Thanks for your thoughts and confirmation of our revisionist take on Centocelle. I've been rummaging through your blog ( and especially enjoyed your post on Italian baby foods--though I'm way beyond babies. Bill

Anonymous said...

Is anybody using this blog still? I'm fascinated because my mother lived there in the 1930s, right there on the via dei castani. Last year I went back there for the 2nd time - the first time I didn't find it but last year I did and I was able to recognise the building from photos taken at that time. Your photos are fantastic and I'm pleased that interest in this area survives.

Laura Lelli said...

My parents were both born there in the 30's and lived there until they migrated to Australia in 1965 with three children. I loved Centocelle when I lived there for a few weeks with my aunt quite some years ago. Poorer area but good people and very close to the centre of Rome. Some great talent has come from Centocelle, like Claudio Baglioni

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

In response to Anonymous, Laura Lelli, and others, RST adds that response to the Centocelle post has been strong: over 2100 page views since the original posting.

Anonymous said...

Salve a tutti, è bello leggere di persone che sono state legate al mio quartiere dove vivo e sono nato da circa 40 anni. Io posso dire che tutta questa criminalità non l'ho mai vissuta sulla mia pelle, forse prima degli anni '80 era diverso, ma anche per sentito dire da chi c'era non ho mai percepito questo clima negativo. Alla fine è un quartiere dove si vive bene e c'è tutto a disposizione. Speriamo solo che non sparisca tutto questo clima positivo o che non si rovini... Un caro saluto.