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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rome the Second Time: In Hyperspace

Rome the Second Time is now available in a new hyper-linked version in all the basic e-versions.  Thanks to goading from Kindle and others, we hyperlinked the new Kindle, iBook, Nook, and other versions of Rome the Second Time.  The hyperlinks include links to websites in the book (such as the museums, wine bars, artists) as well as to additional historical, art, and other knowledge sites. 

All the maps now are overlaid on Google Maps (whew! I say) in these e-versions.  For an example of one, click here for the link to the Water and War itinerary on the Gianicolo

The hyper-linking also led us to current, real-time Updating.  These updates are linked in the eBooks and also are on this website:  look at the right for "Book Updates Link"  and by clicking on that, you'll get a current list of any changes to material in Rome the Second Time.

We're on the cutting edge here. Rome the Second Time is one of the first books to go up on Nook and other sites, and one of the most digitally sophisticated travel books available.  In some cases, we're part of the betas for these e-publishers.  So if you see anything that needs changing, or you come across any updates that should be included, let us know... this is a new world in publishing for everyone.

Welcome to hyperspace.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rome's Starchitects: Meier, Piano, Hadid, Fuksas, Portoghesi

Our thoughtful daughter-in-law sent along an article from amNewYork on New York City's "Starchitects," the flashiest of the architects who have built in the city, those who design projects that "capture the imagination," as a fellow architect put it. 

The article divides the New York stars into three categories: Elder Statesmen (Frank Gehry and Henry Cobb, both in their early 80's); Europeans (Sir Norman Foster, 75; Santiago Calatrava, 59, who is building what promises to be a spectacular transit hub at ground zero; Renzo Piano, 73, whose New York Times Building and addition to the Morgan Library, both of which we took in last month; and Jean Nouvel, 65; and Gotham Stars (including Bruce Fowle, Bob Fox, and Richard Meier (for his Perry Street Towers).  The age info is in the article, though why it's important--or relevant--we're not sure. 

Rome has a magnificent architectural heritage dating to the Republic and the Empire, and includes major contributions in the Renaissance and, less well known, in the 19th and 20th centuries.  But the past decade or so, and especially under the liberal, arts-oriented former mayor, Walter Veltroni, Rome has been active again, hiring Starchitects to design major museums, performance spaces, and--most recently--a convention center.  As far as we know, there are currently five Starchitects who have built or are building in Rome: Richard Meier, Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, Massimiliano Fuksas, and Paolo Portoghesi.  Three are Italians.  (And, several - including Piano, Hadid and Fuksas - are featured in our new book: Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  More information on the book is at the end of this post.)

Cleaning the paint of Dadaist vandals  from Meier's
box for the Ara Pacis, June 2009

Richard Meier, 76, was born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey.  Like Piano and Hadid, he's a winner of one of architecture's most prestigious prizes, the Pritzker (1984).  His best-known project is the Getty Center in the hills of Los Angeles, a monumental if somewhat sterile complex that recalls the grandeur and splendor of ancient Rome as well as the Italian villas and gardens of the 16th century.  Other admired buildings include the tourist center in New Harmony, Indiana, the Hartford Seminary of Theology (late 1970s) and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (early 1980s).   He's known for not caring much for architectural fashion and for sticking with the tried and true ideas of mid-century European and American modernism.  A purist, most of his buildings are rectilinear, box-like forms--not a bad description of his Rome container for the Ars Pacis, a building whose modernist ordinariness has infuriated the city's right wing politicians and even some of its residents, who can't believe it cost 25 million Euro.  He's a Rome starchitect NOT for his Ara Pacis box, but for his sublime Jubilee church (2000), a gem built out in the suburb of Tor Tre Teste--a building so unusual for Meier that it must have come from a dream state, from the architect's subconscious (see Dianne's post on the church, which is #17 in our Rome the Second Time Top 40).  Even so, his Ara Pacis effort produced a strong backlash--against modernism, the particular building and its relationship to the site, and the arts.  In a statement that may have relevance for Meier's experience with an irate Roman public over his Ars Pacis building (photo above right), fellow Starchitect Massimiliano Fuksas (see below) notes: "When people are prepared to damage your building, you have failed." 

Renzo Piano's Parco della Musica
Renzo Piano, 73, was born in 1937 in Genoa.  Piano acknowledges several architects that have influenced him, including Louis Kahn and Pier Luigi Nervi, a Rome Starchitect of an earlier era, and one of whose masterworks, the Palazetto dello Sport, is across the street from Piano's own contribution.  Piano made his name as a co-designer of  the Pompidou Centre in  Paris--intended, Piano says, "to be a joyful urban machine, a creature that might have come from a Jules Verne book."  Other well known buildings of his include the 1982 museum for the De Menil Collection in Houston, and a much-ballyhooed addition, recently opened, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA - where we've spent a lot of time).  The addition is highly functional but, like Meier's Ara Pacis container, essentially a nice box (and the same applies to Piano's Morgan addition in NYC).  Fortunately, Rome got the best out of Piano; his Parco della Musica complex in the quartiere of Flaminio is both functional (except for some maze-like approaches to upper-level seating) and, in the Pompidou Centre mode, playful, combining traditional modernism with shapely organic motifs.

Aerial View, MAXXI gallery (lower left)

Hadid's MAXXI, from the rear

Zaha Hadid, 60, was born in 1950 in Baghdad.  She practiced with Rem Koolhaas before opening her own shop.  As a child, she was influenced by a tour of ancient Sumerian cities in southern Iraq.  "The beauty of the landscape," she explains, "where sand, water, birds, buildings, and people all somehow flowed together--has never left me.  I'm trying to discover--invent, I suppose--an architecture, and forms of urban planning, that do something of the same kind in a contemporary way."  Hadid's first major success was the Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (c. 2000).  Another was a museum adjoining Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a commission she was awarded because she is sometimes understood as Wright-like in her enthusiasm for futuristic designs and, according to one writer, her "visionary rethinking of the relationship between humans and buildings."  Her recently opened MAXXI gallery--a 10-minute walk from Piano's Parco della Musica--has made her a Rome Starchitect.  It's typical of Hadid's work in that it looks wonderfully inventive from the air (photo above left, lower left), a perspective available mostly to pigeons.  However, as our readers have heard more than once, we aren't fond of the way the building relates to its surroundings or to human beings seeking access to it.  From certain angles it looks sensational; from others it's a forbidding hunk of windowless cement.  Some nice spaces inside.  (BTW, one can do a nice architectural tour of Nervi, Piano and Hadid within a couple blocks of each other.)
Architectect's rendering of Fuksas' "Cloud" building,
 under construction in EUR

Proposed Italian Space Agency
 Massimiliano Fuksas, 66, was born in Rome in 1944, while the city was occupied by the German army, and he earned his degree in architecture from La Sapienza (Rome's historied university) in 1969.  Fuksas is the loner/rebel type.  "All my life," he has said, "I have fought against form, shape and style," and he denies any "evolution" to his work: "I use a different language each time."  He admits to being an admirer of Francesco Borromini.  Fuksas is well known for the Zenith Music Hall in Strasbourg, France (2008), a bold structure in orange, and  for the Milan Trade Fair complex (2005); we also like his modernistic renovcation of the former stables in Frascati, neaer Rome.  Fuksas is scheduled for Rome Starchitectdom when his EUR "Cloud" building--apparently a meeting and convention center--opens; it's currently under construction and, somewhat surprisingly, his first major building in Rome.  (See Bill's post on our exploration of the "Cloud".) Fuksas is also designing a new unhomelike home (above right)  for the Italian Space Agency (we didn't know the Italians had a Space Agency), to be built near the 1960 Olympic Village and Hadid's MAXXI.   

Paolo Portoghesi, 79, was born in 1931 in Rome, where he earned a degree in architecture at La Sapienza in 1957.  For much of his career he has been in private practice while teaching architectural theory at the University.  His inclusion among Rome's Starchitects is appropriately suspect; his deep interest in the history of architecture--in Borromini, the baroque, and Michelangelo, especially--has given his work strong links to tradition and history, as in his Casa Baldi (1957-62), a house built an hour from Rome in the village of Olevano Romano.  Nonetheless, he's earned the designation of Starchitect for his striking mosque, built 1974/75  in the north end of the city, near Acqua Acetosa, at the behest of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia (and it comes in at #24 on Rome the Second Time's Top 40).  It is said that the building strikes a balance between modernism, Roman forms, and the traditions of mosque architecture, which surely functioned here as a restraint on the architect's creativity and innovation.  Dianne believes the building rises to the Starchitect threshold and "captures the imagination,"  and the interior photo at left would seem to confirm her view.

Hadid's MAXXI and Piano's Parco della Musica are on the Flaminio itinerary; and Fuksas's Cloud is on the EUR itinerary 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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Found Art Series: The Bench

             We found this on a concrete bench in EUR.  Is it art?  Or just scribbling? 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Spiral Stairways of Rome

We've assembled five of our favorite spiral stairways.  Four are in Rome.  On the upper left, Bill is rather awkwardly examining an exhibit mounted in the helicoidal (apparently that's a word) ramp at the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, located just steps from the Trevi Fountain.  The palazzo dates to the 16th century, and in the 17th, Francesco Borromini worked his magic and constructed this ramp, which circles inside the building for several stories.  Its purpose remains obscure; we don't know if it was intended for foot traffic, or horses.  On the upper right, a cool, modernist stairway designed by Luigi Moretti.  It's housed in the back of the Casa del GIL (a Fascist youth center), located within about 200 meters of Porta Portese in Trastevere (just follow the streetcar tracks), which was built between 1933 and 1936.  The staircase is accessible from the side of the building, off the parking lot. 

Below left, that smiling woman is Dianne, standing beneath a lovely staircase in one of the new towns--we're pretty sure it's Latina, but it could be Pontinia--built by the Mussolini government in the 1930s on the reclaimed Pontine marshes.  Below right, courtesy of photographer Jessica Stewart (see her site,, is one of two water towers constructed during the modernization of the Termini Station.  This one is located at the back of the station, on the right side (as one faces the station).  The architect was Angiolo Mazzoni, who also designed the towering side aisles of Termini.

Finally, a tantalizing staircase from the Villa Medici.  Looking up.    Bill

Monday, November 15, 2010

Shopping for Watch Bands in Rome, part 2

We know the kiosk is now a feature of US life - airports, malls, you name it.  And the truck is also a shopping feature in many cities, especially the food truck in Los Angeles. 

But this seems a variation on the theme to us - a truck that sells watchbands and batteries--"Orologeria" means, well, "watch store."  The truck is parked not far from our apartment in the San Paolo neighborhood of Rome; so we watched it regularly with curiosity.  For example, when it is closed, the signs are covered up. When it is open, they are displayed, the back opened up (as in the photo), and you are warned not to lean on the case.  

It's also just half a block from the street Katie Parla featured in her Atlantic food column recently; you can get a new watch battery and some great food at the same time. 

I never bought anything there (as some of you know from an earlier post (Sept. 6); I like getting my watchband near the Spanish Steps). But some friends found it a helpful spot to pick up a battery.

And, oh, btw, now that my watch isn't working (but my band of course is new), I wish I were going by there in the morning... so I could get it fixed easily.

Here's to the ingenuity of the watch band & battery truck. 


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tutti Al Mare, or Why Don't Italians Love their Mountains More?

"I am a Med man," he wrote. 
 Tutti al mare!  Everyone to the sea!  It's a commonplace that Italians--Romans, anyway--love their beaches; a long weekend, a day off here or there, and you'll find them headed for the "Med," as a Facebook correspondent (left) labeled the waters that surround the peninsula ("I am a Med man," he wrote, celebrating an early October day at the seashore, to which Antonella responded, "I am a Med woman, too! Always at the sea."   And why not?  Why not, indeed.  Why not the mountains: the splendid Lepini, only an hour's drive to the southeast, the sublime Lucretili, even closer to the northeast, or the dramatic Abruzzi range, up to 10,000 feet in height, less than two hours to the east? 

A sweaty Bill surveys the landscape from Monte Semprevisa,
the highest peak in the Lepini range
To be sure, a handful of Romans--many of them partipants in one of several hiking organizations--have found these and other ranges and enjoy them.  But by-and-large the trails and peaks are empty, or virtually so.  With the exception of Monte Gennaro, a lovely, varied, and exceedingly accessible climb with a view of Rome's basin fom its peak, the city's nearby mountains don't draw much foot traffic.  We scaled Monte Marsicano, a spectacular peak in the Abruzzo, without seeing another hiker.  And most of our climbs are similarly solitary, with our only company the occasional herd of frightened sheep and, less often, their Albanian herder.

So what's up?  Why don't Italians--again, our focus is Romans--love their mountains more?  In response, we offer a few of what we call 50 cent hypotheses:  untested possibilities that might have some validity--and might have none at all.  An especially compelling hypothesis might be worth 75 cents, a mundane one 25 cents.   

Beginning the descent of Monte Nuria (Dianne at right)
 1) Hiking is hard work--harder than lying on a towel at the beach, let's say--and foreign to the dominant Mediterranean perspective, which favors short work weeks, lots of holidays, and early retirement (witness the latest crisis in Greece).  Too harsh?  Maybe, maybe not.  Hey, it's only a 50-cent hypothesis. 

2) Getting to the top doesn't matter.  This 50-cent hypothesis brings to mind our experience hiking with one of the local clubs. After several hours of (granted) quite physical climbing, we were approaching the top of Monte Nuria, when our leader called a halt to the effort and everyone hauled out their lunch kits. The peak was only a few hundred, easy yards away, and visible, yet only one of about 20 hikers agreed to join us for the brief trek to the summit. [For more on hiking with Italian groups, see our post from last February.  This group, Altrimonti (a take-off on "other mountains" and "otherwise") is the most serious of the groups we've joined.]

Of 40 hikers on the long ridge of the Cima di Vallevona,
only 5--the four above and Dianne, who took the photo,
reached the highest point,
That was true on  other peaks we climbed with groups of Romans.  They're not "baggers"; they don't care about conquering the peak.  We think this attitude may account for the small numbers of Italians who hike; if the pleasure of getting to the top isn't a pleasure, then one of hiking's stimuli doesn't exist.  We would suggest that this stop-short-of-the-top mentality is one aspect of  Italians' rather limited desire to conquer anything, at least since the fall of the Roman empire.  Italy came late even to the nation state (state-building requires the conquering mentality) and its imperial adventures, mostly under Mussolini, were feeble by European standards. 

3)  It's a Catholic country; not enough Protestant ethic to get Italians up those mountains (see Nuria story above).  "No pain no gain" is not in the Italian language.  The Italian fondness for bicycling on mountain roads (burning thighs unavoidable) would seem to belie this hypothesis, but we're keeping it anyway.  3a) Perhaps all the "no-pain- no-gain" Italians are on bicycles.  Put another way, with Catholic confession  available to deal with guilt, who needs the cleansing effect of a hard mountain climb?  This is a 75-cent hypothesis. 

4)  Italians hike to eat.  Of course, if that's your goal, you don't have to hike very far.  They do eat well--elaborate lunches, fresh dishes passed around, home-baked cookies.  And we're sitting there with our trail mix, a piece of cheese, and an apple; we eat to hike. 

The Apre-Hike Meal
5)  Italians hike to socialize.  That's fine, but if your goal is sociability a) you don't have to get to the top and b) the beach is a better option.  On a recent occasion, we joined a small group in the La Duchessa area for what turned out to be a rain-soaked and foggy expedition, conditions that forced a halt to the journey.  But that hardly prevented the bunch from repairing to a favorite local trattoria for an elaborate, delicious, and highly sociable mid-day meal.  That's guaranteed. 

Hikers with Umbrellas!
6)  Italians hike to be fashionable.  We offer this hypothesis for free, because we don't really believe it.  But we were surprised (see the story just above) when the rains came and our Roman companions responded not with ponchos, but (photo right) with--umbrellas!

7)  Italians have a long history of living in the hills and mountains; think of all those hilltop towns.  As a result, they have a utilitarian view of the surrounding mountains; they're places to pasture the horses, hillsides that require exhausting terracing, obstacles between towns.  Given that history, when Italians imagine a respite, a change, a "vacation," the preferred site is down not up--the beach they otherwise seldom see.  This is a high-level, 99-cent hypothesis. 

Monte Cassino, May 18, 1944
8)  Since the agony of World War II, when for more than 18 months Italy's mountains were a place of suffering and death for hundreds of thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers and the inhabitants of hundreds of mountain towns and villages, Italians have identified this landscape not with pleasure and release, but with trauma and loss.    


Monday, November 8, 2010

RST Top 40: #14, Villa Medici

From the Villa Medici gardens, St. Peter's dome at right in distance

The Villa Medici sits just to the north of the top of the Spanish Steps (which probably should be called the French Steps.) It is so close to the heart of tourism in Rome and yet for many people, so far. They just don’t get here, and they should – that’s why we’ve put the Villa #14 on our Rome the Second Time’s must-see list.


In trying to figure out how to succinctly capture this extraordinary property, with its layers of Roman history, archeology, art, water-works, etc., I found I couldn’t do better than what we say in Chapter Six of Rome the Second Time when we guide people to the French Academy the villa houses – so here it is in one paragraph:

Exhibit on the ancient aqueducts IN the Villa Medici's cistern

“This magnificent 16th century palazzo, with interventions by Michelangelo and extensive gardens, is near the top of the Spanish Steps, on the Pincio. The art exhibits are high quality and sometimes occupy unusual spaces, including the villa’s 6th-century cistern, constructed to store rainwater should the barbarians cut the aqueducts [which they did]. Musical performances range from jazz to classical. To get there, walk up the Spanish Steps, then left about 300 feet, via Trinita’ dei Monti, 1.”

Everything about the Villa Medici used to be free – you could walk in the villa, the gardens, the art exhibits, the music. Now everything seems to have a cost, e.g. from Euro 8 for a show to Euro 11 for show + guided tour of the gardens.

the "snail shell" stairs in the Villa Medici

Through December 16 there are special Thursday evening visits to the current art exhibit with some special features like tours with the artists. For me, it’s another run, don’t walk; definitely worth trying. The website, with lots of good information, is only in French and Italian. Here’s the Italian link, and you can try translating it with Google or another program:

We highly recommend going to an exhibit or music offering and walking through the villa (see., e.g., "snail shell" stairs in right photo) and garden on your own. The art spaces in the outbuildings are modern and interesting. The Roman statuary all around is stunning. The expansive view all the way to St. Peter’s dome from IN the garden is magical (photo at top).   And, for a pausa (literally a “pause,” but we would say a break), there’s a small café inside as well. Being in the Villa Medici makes you feel like you are on the Spanish Steps without being mobbed by tourists, hustlers and buskers (or people who are all 3).


Friday, November 5, 2010

Most Photographed Building in Rome: Palazzo di Fantozzi

We have no doubt that the most photographed building in Rome is the Coliseum.  But the building most often presented in the city's newspapers isn't the Coliseum--or the Vatican, or the huge memorial to the triumph of Italian statehood known as the Vittoriano.  It is, and by far, the headquarters of the government of the Lazio region.  The regional government was once housed in the "square coliseum" in EUR, but since sometime in the early 1970s has been located in a distinctive structure on viale Cristoforo Colombo, on the edge of the quartiere of Garbatella.  From above (below right), the building takes the form of a an "H," with each of the four standards curving gently outwards; pod-like buildings occupy the openings in the "H."  We've heard the building was originally constructed for the Michelin Tire Company, and that what we've described as an "H" was actually an "X," once a Michelin symbol. 

Despite a lengthy internet search, we couldn't find much about the origins of the structure or its architect.  Our guess is that it's a very good building from 1960s or the 1970s--that is, after modernism had run out of ideas--decades that produced much that was awkward but also a few buildings of merit, like this one.  Although the internet contains the merest suggestion that the building opened in 1984, it is well known  (or at least widely claimed) that the building was the setting for some of the scenes in the Fantozzi film series; it featured a hapless Italian clerk/accountant (Fantozzi), and the first film opened in 1975.  So strong is the identification that the building is sometimes referred to as the Palazzo di Fantozzi.  Also fond of the building is the administrator of a group called "Nostalgici degli anni '70 & '80 (Nostalgics of the 1970s and 1980s).    Bill

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Architecture is Back

A fascinating June show on Rome's architectural heritage at the Tempio di Adriano, due passi from the Pantheon, with contributions by faculty and students from the city's leading American colleges and universities.  Bill was  photographing one of the exceptional panel displays when this young lady stepped in front of the camera.