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

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Parking a Scooter in Rome

A designated--but full--scooter parking area, near the
Spanish Steps
It's often said that it's impossible to get a bad meal in Rome.  If you've been in Rome for more than a few days, and did your best to enjoy a gloppy fetuccini Alfredo, you know that's not true.  The same could be said of "it's easy to park a scooter in Rome."  But why?  Scooters are small; the options are many; and, if need be, you can always squeeze another one in.  That's not how it works, at least not always.

Dedicated scooter parking, adjacent to Termini
(and one on sidewalk)

Scooters (and motorcyles) blocking scooters. Rude.
Unlike American cities, where parking regulations are posted in great detail on signs (Los Angeles specializes in byzantine instructions that require careful reading and deciphering), Rome has few postings.  The main exception is "Divieto di Sosta," a phrase you'll see on garage doors everywhere.  Parking in a driveway is a bad idea. 

About a decade ago, in an effort to bring some order to Rome's parking mess, the city created scooter parking areas, visible by the whites lines that set off individual scooter spaces.  If a designated area (photo above) is full, you can take a slight risk and park adjacent to the official area--as close as you can get--in a sense recognizing that the designated parking area exists and that you're doing the best you can to obey the rules (see photo at end of post).  Sometimes frustated drivers of automobiles will take up several scooter spaces--not nice, and surely illegal.  Perhaps the worst thing you can do is to park so that other scooters can't get out, as in the photo above  right.  Our Italian friends who work in the city center tell us that those who park illegally in the Centro are risking a ticket.  There's more tolerance, and less enforcement, in outlying areas. 

A Friday night at the MAXXI gallery, with sidewalk parking
Scooters park on sidewalks, too.  But which sidewalks?  Some sidewalks are fair game for parking, and others are not.  Custom prevails.  If you see a sidewalk full of scooters, you should feel free to join them--assuming there's a reasonable space.  If the sidewalk is clear of scooters, go elsewhere.  If there's one scooter on a sidewalk, there's a reasonable chance that it's OK to  put one more up there.  (By the way, it's perfectly OK to drive your scooter on the sidewalk--albeit cautiously--to reach a parking place).  Some commercial establishments don't mind scooters parking on the sidewalk (or in the Centro, on the street) on front of their businesses, while others--especially establishments catering to an elite clientel--obviously do.  Use common sense.  In the suburban-like Flaminio neighborhood where we lived for a time, we parked on the sidewalk in front of the building--tempting because it was so broad--but only if the designated area across the street was full.  When there's a large-scale special event in the neighborhood, like an exhibit opening at a museum, scooters use the sidewalks. 

Two things are wrong here: a woman has a) parked
her car in designated scooter spaces and b) knocked
over some scooters.  A bad day.  Bill helped her right
the scooters.  See his contemporaneous post
Scooters sometimes (and apparently legally) park in the larger spaces set off for cars, designated by blue lines.  But custom  pervades this area, too.  It is considered bad form--that is, piggy--to park a scooter in the center of a space intended for cars.  On a recent trip to the beach, where parking was available on the sides of the beach road, we parked the Malaguti in a space big enough for a car.  Young people in the car behind expressed their consternation and asked us to move, which we did, and easily enough.

Especially in very crowded areas, it's appropriate for a scooter to use as little as possible of the car space, leaving most  of the space free for a small automobile.  Parking between two parked cars is fine, but only if you leave enough space for the cars to clear your bike or, if the cars are parked side-by-side, enough space for car drivers and passengers to enter and exit.

Rural parking, below Monte Cavo
In rural areas, one can park on the side of the road with impunity.  In the photo at right, we've parked the Malaguti near an intersection in the Colli Albani, in preparation for a hike up Monte Cavo (photo right).  Many country roads are more isolated than this one, but we've never had a problem leaving our scooter on the side of the road, often for 6 hours or more. 

A small percentage of scooter owners in the city use a commercial parking garage at night.  We did so for a time, once because we were warned that thieves would relish the brown leather seat on our Piaggio Hexagon, again when we purchased a new Malaguti.  We slept better, and the scooters stayed cleaner when they weren't vulnerable to birds and Rome's pioggia sporca (dirty rain). But it's not cheap (about E60 per month), and garage-parking can be inconvenient: garages usually close at midnight, and ours closed on Sunday at noon. 


Designated scooter parking--Largo S. Susanna--with some cheating on this end

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Riding a Scooter in Rome

OK.  You've succumbed to temptation and rented a scooter, despite never having ridden one.  You've got your pretty wife on the back, holding on tight, and you're pulling out from Bici Baci into Rome traffic.  What should you think about?  What do you need to know? 

1) Road Hazards

Under an overpass, waiting out the rain

     Rome's roads have been deteriorating for more than a decade.  Potholes abound, and if you hit one before you see it, you could lose control.  Although much of the Lungotevere (the broad street that runs on either side of the river) has been paved in asphalt (over brick - or the Roman sanpietrini - see our post on these), brick streets are common in the city and they pose special problems for scooters.  They're rough (especially on the passenger), and more slippery than asphalt, especially when wet.  Be exceedingly cautious when riding on any wet surface; turn slowly and gradually.  You can slip and fall, too, on any of the city's many tram tracks, with their shiny metal surfaces (again, especially dangerous when wet).  If you're going the same direction as the tram tracks, crossing them is tricky business; to do so safely, increase the angle of crossing just a bit, so that your tire doesn't ride the track.  Watch out, too, for loose gravel, anywhere, but especially at the junctures of country roads or the entrances to quarries, brickyards, and other construction facilities.  When possible, avoid turning on gravel.  When it rains, stay off the scooter.  If you're on the scooter and it starts raining, join most Romans and find an underpass (or a cafe) until the storm passes (photo above right). 

2)   The Threat of What's Behind
     Most of your attention will be properly focused on what's ahead of you, but you'll need to be conscious of vehicles behind you, too.  Here's the problem: if you were driving in the States, you'd have a lane that was yours.  That's not the case in Rome, where two-way streets will be marked only by a center line, and multiple-lane streets going one direction (say, the Lungotevere) will usually have no lane markings at all.  So it's a bit of a free-for-all out there.  Because you're new to the scooter you'll often (and reasonably) be driving a bit more slowly than the rest of the traffic, and that means that you'll be passed often, and sometimes at very high speeds.  You'll need to keep an eye on your rear-view mirrors, but you can't do that all the time, and despite your best efforts you'll often be taken by surprise by cars, big scooters, and motorcylcles--some of them crotch-rockets, coming from the rear.  Indeed, some cycle drivers enjoy coming close to a slower-moving vehicle (that is, you), then moving sharply into its path.  It looks dangerous, and it is, but it happens all the time.  Important advice: hold your line.  Unless there's a reason to move left or right--and you've checked your mirrors to make sure it's OK--don't.  Just keep going on the line you have. 

3.  Leader of the Pack.
     One of the pleasures of riding a scooter in Rome, and one of the reasons that it makes sense for so many to do so, is that scooters have the right to go between cars and find their way to the front of a group of vehicles waiting, say, at a stop light.  That's not true everywhere--you'd be ticketed in Buffalo if you did it--but it's well-established custom in Rome.  So there you are, sitting in front with 10 or 15 other scooters, waiting for the light to change.  And here's the rub: when the light changes, you have an obligation to accelerate in a timely, consistent fashion.  If you dally--if you're looking at your map, or are otherwise distracted--the people behind you won't like it.  And if (this happened to me once) you're not concentrating, the light changes, and you're not sure whether to go or not, and you start and then slow down or stop in your indecision, you'll be hit from behind. 

4.  Riding the Sidewalk
     In extreme traffic situations, where the roadway is so crowded that even scooters can't make progress, some scooters will take to the sidewalk.  This is most common on the last stretch of the Lungotevere, heading south, just before Porta Portese.  Not a good idea. 

5.  Cutting in, the Italian Version
     In Italy, it seems to be the custom that a vehicle with even a slight advantage on the vehicle next to it (say, two or three feet), may cut in front.  If you did that in LA, you'd be shot, and in most American cities it would be considered rude and wrong and provoke much honking and cursing.  Not so in Rome.  We don't advise that you engage in this behavior, only that you know it exists, so when it happens to you you'll understand. 

6.  Riding the White Line
Would you ride the white line?
     On crowded two-lane roads, especially those exiting and entering the city, it is customary for scooters to use the middle of the road--i.e., the area straddling the white line in the middle--as a third lane.  Scooters going the direction of the heaviest traffic have an informal right-of-way to the white line, so that scooters moving with less traffic are expected, sometimes and now and then, to defer.  Nonetheless, scooters going both directions will ride the white line, zipping in and out as they do so.  This can be exciting--like being part of a human video game--but it is obviously not for the faint of heart or the novice driver.  For scooters, riding the asphalt shoulder (on the right) is also permitted--indeed, encouraged and expected (Dianne here - I don't like being on the right; too many unforeseen obstacles).
     Sometimes, it's OK even to use a good portion of the left lane.  The best example is the intersection of via del Circo Massimo and via Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the latter named after the church on the corner that houses the famous tourist attraction, the Bocca della Verita'.  The bottleneck occurs as vehicles move southward over two lanes through Piazza Boca della Verita' and must negotiate a stoplight.  Dense traffic backs up through the piazza, often preventing scooters from using the usual between-the-lanes tcchnique.  Rather than wait, scooters cross the white line, use the oncoming lane (especially when there's no oncoming traffic) to bypass the jam and reach the front.  If you're in Rome for very long, you'll be doing it, too. 

7.  Speeding
    You'd have to behave like Mario Andretti to get a speeding ticket in Rome.  Although there has been some concern about excessively high speeds on the freeways outside the city, that doesn't seem to have carried over to the city streets.  There are no posted limits and, to our knowledge, no customary limit.  In most situations, the traffic determines how fast vehicles can move, and most Romans proceed at a reasonable pace for a given place and condition.  It's a great pleasure to drive without constantly checking the speedometer. 

8.  Restricted Areas
     Unlike automobiles, which can be restricted from driving in the historic center, scooters can go anywhere--or almost.  One of Rome's most important thoroughfares, via del Corso (running north and south betweeen Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo) is restricted, limited to pedestrians and special vehicles (small buses, taxis, emergency vehicles, police, big wigs, hotel guests), except in the wee hours of the morning, when you'll be asleep - or, if you have jet lag, get up and drive it; it's a great time to scooter through Rome, as we noted in an earlier post.  As a result, getting from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza Venezia, or vice-versa, involves a maze-like journey through the city's medieval core.  Fun or irritating, depending on your mood.

9.  If You've Never Driven a Scooter 

Watch for opening car doors
      A few thoughts for the real novice.  Turning a scooter is counterintuitive.  You'd think that to turn the scooter left, you would pull on the left handlelbar.  Nope.  To turn left, you push gently on the left handle.  This push intiates a slight body lean, which turns the scooter.  Find yourself a quiet place to try this a few times, alternating light left and right pushes. 
      For the passenger: avoid sudden movements at any time and, on turns, don't try to help; avoid leaning to assist the turn or leaning to counter it.  Just sit there.  And, as if it needs to be said, riding side-saddle is stupid (photo below right, but she was in Islamic dress; so maybe she had no choice).  For those who have rented a 50cc scooter: because you'll be going more slowly than much of the traffic, stay to the right, near the shoulder.  For all drivers: when driving near parked cars, watch for opening doors.  Don't get "doored."!  

10.  What to Wear
Bare arms and hands look good, but what if she falls?
Imagine your scooter going down, even at the slow speed of 25 mph.  For 20 or 30 yards, you're underneath your bike, your arms and legs pressed against asphalt or brick.  To protect yourself from serious abrasions, wear a leather jacket, jeans, gloves, and boots (yes, uncomfortable in the Roman summer).  Helmets are required by law in all of Italy (though you'll still see some helmetless young riders in small towns), and full helmets, the kind that cover the chin, are by far the most protective.  To protect your eyes, especially if your scooter lacks a windshield, keep your face shield down. 

11.  Watch Your Attitude

Riding side-saddle, and with a long skirt,
is really dumb, but if you're a woman
in Islamic dress, maybe you have no choice

        Driving a scooter can be a heady experience  Novice or expert, it's not uncommon to feel cool, confident, even cocky, especially with a woman on the back.  But you should know that when you feel that way, it's a bad sign.  It mean you're focusing on yourself rather than the road.  There's no room for that on a two-wheeled vehicle moving 40 miles an hour.  Get back to work!


Monday, January 24, 2011

A Scooter in/to Rome: Our Story

Bill on the Piaggio Hexagon, surveying the Futa, looking South 

It's been almost a decade since the idea of riding a scooter in Rome came into our heads--or, should I say, my head.  We had lived in the city for 6 months in 1993, and by 2001 we were taking shorter but regular trips.  Getting around efficiently--and stylishly--on a scooter had considerable appeal.  I thought it would be great fun.  Dianne knew the idea was insane, and she almost immediately announced what I'm sure she thought was an insurmountable barrier to my ambitions: she would consider a scooter, but only if I learned to ride one, officially--that is, only if I was certified to drive a motorcycle.  I had to have a motorcycle license. 

I had been on a scooter for two days 30 years before--the entirety of my experience--and I wondered if, at 59, I was too old to learn.  That summer,  I took a three-day motorcycle course:  on Friday, classroom instruction, focusing on safety, followed by a sleepless night, repeating in my head the complex, intimidating sequence of hand and foot actions (using both hands and the left foot) required to shift and downshift a cycle's gears; on Saturday, in a parking lot in the back of a derelict suburban shopping center, morning and afternoon sessions on a Honda 250: riding in ovals, turns, abrupt stops, "posting" while going over a piece of wood, figure 8's at agonizingly slow speed, hoping not to fall over; on Sunday, a parking lot driving exam (putting the bike down meant automatic failure) and a written exam.  I passed, and--the great benefit of this special program--earned my license.  But I had never had a motorcycle on the street.  (The following year, Dianne took the same course and earned her license - to her shock.)

Where could we find a scooter in Rome?  We could rent (see our previous post on Renting a Scooter in Rome), but that option seemed so expensive that we were unlikely to do it for more than a few days.  What happened next was pure serendipity.  I was teaching history at a state college near Buffalo and a colleague--native Italian, but a professor of Chinese history (let's call him Giovanni)--offered to "sell" us his Piaggio Hexagon, a heavy, powerful, 2-cycle machine (the kind that mixes oil with gasoline) that he was storing in Bologna, 250 miles north of Rome but also, coincidentally, a place we knew well; we had lived there for six months in 1993.

Because it's illegal for non-residents to "own" vehicles in Italy, our agreement was an unusual one: we paid $1400 and took informal ownership of the scooter; Giovanni remained the legal owner and agreed to be responsible for insuring the vehicle (at our cost).  He drafted a brief note, in Italian, granting us the right to use the machine as long as we did not do so under the influence of alcohol.  Giovanni gave me some basic advice about driving on Italian roads.

In Rome the following spring, we purchased helmets at one of the Porta Portese motorcycle shops, caught the train to Bologna, and found our way to the complex where the Piaggio was stored.  A friend of Giovanni's was waiting for us.  He started the scooter (we wouldn't have known how) and I, not wanting to put Dianne at risk until I had a little "practice," took it around the block--once.  After the three of us had a celebratory beer at a small cafe, Dianne took her place on that very soft and comfortable Piaggio back seat (the seat was comfortable; she wasn't), and off we went, pulling onto the busy multi-lane thoroughfare that circles Bologna's medieval core.  I think we were both anxious and tense, and I know I drove those first few miles in a posture of rigid determination, but we survived the first day.

With friends in Vado, ready for adventure
The following morning we ventured to a friend's house in Vado, in the mountains south of Bologna (photo at right), though how we got there--how we climbed those hills--I can't fathom.  Over the next three days we worked our way over the mountains and down the boot.  We survived the Futa (photo at top), a pass infamous for its dangerous curves, Dianne exhorting her driver to slow down and hug the shoulder.  When, even at that slow pace, this centaur crossed the center line and had to swerve to avoid an oncoming semi, the trucker blew his horn and wagged his finger.  Shame on me.

Dianne, in Vasari's loggia,
in Arezzo

We spent that night outside Firenze, totally psyched; the next  in Arezzo (an unplanned stop but necessary because of the cold rain), still psyched, celebrating our 2-wheel adventure in a romantic, wine bar below street level off Vasari's loggia (photo left).  Because of the limited storage space on our scooter, we carried our helmets everywhere (the "box" held underwear and toothbrushes and that was about it).  We stopped at Lake Trasimeno to track Hannibal's battle with the Roman legions, then turned west to the overlook at Montepulciano (yes, a glass of red wine) and the gardens of Iris Origo's La Foce before heading to a one-time luxrious hotel in hilltop Orvieto, where we got more practice in ascending and descending absurdly steep roads and parking our scooter in a real garage.  Then through medieval Viterbo and along the eastern ridges of volcanic lakes Bolsena, Vico, and Bracciano (amazing views, for Dianne only) to the outskirts of Rome, where in the late afternoon we found the frightening tangenziale (a fast-moving urban highway) and held ourselves together until we reached our exit and our destination: Piazza Bologna.  Minutes later, we asked a passer-by to take the picture below.    Bill

We felt like Hillary and Tenzing

Friday, January 21, 2011

Renting a Scooter in Rome

                                                        "Sometimes good people make mistakes." 

That's a line from a local lawyer's TV commercial, referring to drunk drivers.  It could just as well refer to tourists who rent scooters in Rome, a complex city whose traffic can be challenging even for those who know it well and have been riding its streets on two-wheelers since they were 12.

It might have made some sense in 1953, when Gregory Peck was chauffering Audrey Hepburn around on a Vespa in Roman Holiday, for the city was then by comparison a small town, only flirting with big-city status, and scooters were new and not yet ubiquitous--toys, really, rather than what they would become: necessary instruments for navigating a city choked with cars.  Of course, you'll be tempted.  That romantic, curious Roman Holiday poster, with Peck captured in an awkward and perilous lean (above right), apparently representing a turn, of the sort never seen on the road, is at every souvenier shop.  And just a glance at some of Rome's riders--the upright business executive with the briefcase between his legs, heading for work, the leggy blonde in high heels--may yield the conclusion that operating a scooter is as easy as finding a plate of spaghetti con vongole.  Others, bear-armed tatooed guys mounted on their throaty 650cc steeds, with clutching chicks behind, will doubtless be taken as evidence that real men ride. 

As if those temptations weren't sufficient, renting a scooter is easy.  There are dozens of rental outlets in the city.  There's one on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, which (roughly) connects Piazza Venezia and the Vatican; there's Bici Baci, where we rented when our old Piaggio broke down (which was frequently), on via Viminale, between Stazione Termini and Piazza Reppublica [right, and interior photo, at top]; and another just outside the front of Stazione Termini (we've rented there, too, again when our regular scooter was in the shop).

The business outside the train station is now called "Treno e Scooter Rent," and you can find out all you need to know on their website at  Here's a sampling:  For E34 (about $45) per day you can rent a 50cc Piaggio Liberty (probably too small for two).  A much larger 300cc Honda SH, powerful enough to get you up the Alban Hills--and, unfortunately, outside the area where the company will pick you up if something goes wrong--rents for E70/day, or E526 for two weeks.  In between in power and price is a 125cc Honda SH, perhaps Rome's standard machine. 

If you're satisfied with either of the two smaller models, all that's required is a regular US driver's license, though some companies will ask for evidence in the form of an international license, which you can obtain in 20 minutes at AAA in the States.  If you crave the 300, you'll need to demonstrate that you have a motorcycle rating on your license (and again, you may be asked for an international license).  Prices include helmets and insurance.  Treno e Scooter Rent offers a 20% discount in the winter.  But winter in Rome is often cold (like 45-50 degrees F, which can be numbing on a scooter), and rainy (dangerous and, unless you have genuine riding raingear, exceedingly uncomfortable). 

All rental companies put their names, addresses, and phone numbers prominently on their scooters.  This is bad and good.  It's bad because it's wimpy; you're branded as a tourist, an outsider, a beginner.  It's good because Rome drivers, convinced--and no doubt correctly--that you don't know what you're doing, will do their best to avoid you. 

We urge you not to succumb to the temptation to join the throngs of Roman scooter and motorcycle riders (or centaurs, as they are referred to in the newspapers).  The Metro is excellent, the buses are frequent, and walking is perhaps Rome's greatest pleasure. 

That said, sometimes good people make mistakes.  How we came to make ours, in the next installment.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Green Thumb Series: Gubbio Garden Shop

We're not gardeners.  Dianne does what she has to do with our 5 X 10 plot in Buffalo, though not without complaining.  Bill cuts unsightly weeds on the other side of the house, with an electric bush trimmer.  Last last year he trimmed the cord to the trimmer and then threw the trimmer away, thinking it was broken.  Two years ago he trimmed a low-to-the-ground bees' nest, was stung twice on the hand, and lost his watch (never found) while running for the house.  Together, we can identify about 5 plants, starting with broccoli. 
Nontheless, we were intrigued by an Italian garden shop that we spent some time in near Gubbio, in Umbria, while waiting for our friend Don (who was driving us to his 17th-century country estate) to purchase some tomatoes, or whatever.  We thought our readers might like to see what such a shop looks like. 

On the one hand, the place looked like any other garden shop.  It could have been K-Mart.  Small green plants are pretty much the same anywhere, he wrote.  For proof of this, see photo upper right. 

On the other hand, you know you're in Italy when you can think about putting an olive tree in your trunk (Dianne, at left). 

It was our sense, too, that this Gubbio shop had a bigger selection of rocks and wooden poles than one would find in the States.  And more earthen ware, all in that orangey color that evokes the ancients.  One section was devoted to fountains (the tall things in the photo, left), and some of the jugs were enormous.   

Dianne adds:  the "jugs" are classic amphorae from Roman times.  See our post on Monte Testaccio, built of broken amphorae.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fetish Series: Rome's Body Parts

Rome is the world's center for over-sized body parts.  We first became aware of this some years ago, on a visit to the Capitoline museums, when in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori we found the sculptural remains of what once was Constantine's body, or rather a 40-foot statue of it.  There was a hand, feet, part of arm centered by an elbow, and other parts, all of them enormous.

Then just this spring, attending an evening jazz concert in the industrial chic space of the museum at the Centrale Montemartini, a former electrical works built 1910-1912, we noticed a large arm poking out from stage right.  That's our friend J, who narrowly avoided the grasp of that monster arm on her way to the ladies' room.

It makes sense then, that today's sculptors would take part in this curious exercise in gigantism, as one has done in the absolute center of the EUR complex to the south of the Centro, directly under where a great triumphal, imperial arch was to have been constructed, by and in tribute to Mussolini's Fascist regime, to straddle the multiple lanes of via Cristoforo Colombo as it made its made its way to the sea.  That's Dianne (left) and our house-guest,
Judith (right), laboring to strike a pose appropriate to the presence of a big foot.      Bill

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rome's Worst Public Sculptures: Nominees, Group 2

Exhale.  Continue on down via delle Sette Chiese, around the curve to where it dead-ends at via Ostiense.  Move ahead into the Park L. Schuster, and right, north toward the Centro.  Here you'll find one of our sculpture nominees. It's nothing to write home about, but then that's the theme of this post. More monoliths, as if invoking Stonehenge was all that was required of an artist. Hugging both sides of a walkway, the pieces seem to suggest passage, but to what? The road beyond? A flower bed? We don't know who made this, but then, do we need to?

A short walk south, beyond the Basilica San Paolo and a few meters to the left, is the San Paolo stop on Metro B.  Take the Metro to the end of the line--Laurentina--after the line curls around EUR.  Emerging from below, you'll find yourself in a piazza of sorts.  At the far end is the sculpture--this one a sculpture/monument.  We'll mute our humor here, because the subject of the work could not be more serious.  Dating from February, 2003, it is dedicated "To the martyrs of Istria, Venezia-Giulia, Fiume, and Dalmatia, 'infoibati' and drowned for their love of liberty and of Italy (1943-1947)."  Although every aspect of the events being memorialized here is controversial, what is clear is that at least hundreds and probably several thousand (perhaps as many as 20,000) Italian soldiers and civilian citizens were massacred--summarily executed--between 1943 and 1949, in the areas mentioned--especially the massive Istrian peninsula--mainly by Yugoslav Partisans seeking to cleanse these areas of ethnic and political populations likely to oppose Communist Yugoslav rule.  In some cases, the motive was revenge for years of repression of the slavic population under Italian Fascism.  (During the interwar years, Istria was part of Italy). 

We have set off the word "infoibati" because it bears so importantly on these events.  The word derives from "foibe," a word that appears in the Bepi Nider poem, "Istria," that accompanies the sculpture (see verse at right).  Foibe refers to a particular type of deep sinkhole for which the area was known.  Some of those murdered, though by no means all, were thrown alive into the "foibe," there to end their lives in the most horrific way.  So powerful is the image that the word foibe (and infoibati, the verb) has come to have a larger, symbolic meaning: to refer to all those who were killed and disappeared in the Yugoslav-occupied territories.  So the killings are often referred to as the "Foibe killings" or "Foibe massacres."

It is remarkable that the commemorative assemblage that we see before us exists at all.  Not until 1991, when Slovenia became independent, was there an investigation of the foibe by any country or international body.  The Italian government was reluctant to bring up the subject because to do so would have meant raising issues of Italian treatment of slavic populations under Fascism.  The Italian Left was equally reluctant to acknowledge the role of Communist partisans in the foibe killings.  Early in the new century there was a change, and both Berlusconi's center-right coalition and the Left, under the leadership of Walter Veltroni,  agreed that it was time to make some effort to come to terms with the events of the 1940s.  "The time has come," said Italian President Ciampi, "for thoughtful remembrance to take the place of bitter resentment." 

Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1893
We can appreciate the monument as part of this remembering and healing process.  But the sculpture, and Nider's poem, seem less about healing than about remembering the horrors of the foibe, of a slow death in a deep cave.  That seems to be the purpose of the humanoid shapes that dominant the monument, figures of agony, screaming in disbelief at what is being done to them.  Complicating the presentation, these tortured souls seem both derivative--some version of Edvard Munch's much-publicized "Scream" series, painted between 1893 and 1910--and curiously unreal and even comical or gay, akin to shouting flowers. 

It should be said that few such commemorative efforts have the power to evoke powerfully loss and tragedy; Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the tribute to those who died in the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome, are exceptions to that rule.  The monument to the Istrian massacres and the foibe killings is not at that level, and its location in an unattractive piazza at the end of the subway line works to deprive the sculpture of any profundity it might otherwise have.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Rome's Worst Public Sculptures: Nominees, Group 1

For some time now, as we've wandered Rome's 'burbs, byways and backwaters, we've been observers of Rome's lesser-known public art objects: the sculptures in the city's mostly outlying parks and piazzas, intended to bring a little history and culture to what tourists would consider the boonies.  Many, though not all, of these sculptures were installed in the 1990s and early 20th century as part of the Cento Piazze (one hundred piazzas) program of former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, a venture we applaud even as we express reservations about some of its artistic achievements.

The Piazza Bologna area is no backwater, though tourists will likely not have found it.  It's on Metro B, the third stop northwest from Termini.  You'll find our first example just a few blocks south of the exit, which is in Piazza Bologna proper, straight south down viale delle Provincie to Piazzale dell Provincie, a bustling place, decidedly unfriendly to pedestrians.  In the center of the Piazzale is nominee #1.  If you manage to reach the sculpture, you'll find that each of the outlying posts represents an Italian city, and the posts are group by province.  Duh!  Bill appreciates the effort to give concrete (pun!) expression to Italy's provincial matrix, and he thinks the whole is more inventive than the monolith fad that inhabits some other piazzas.  Dianne thinks she could design something better in about ten minutes.  Years ago (an expression designed to put the moment in the far away past) Bill did the ugly American routine --while on an evening out with Italian friends, no less)--and climbed the structure.  You can, too.  If you can get there. 

If you're a tourist pussy and Piazza Bologna's too far off the beaten track, we recommend Pietro Consagra's "Giano nel Cuore di Rome," available for viewing at the top of the city's financial district at the end of Largo S. Susanna.  To get there, begin at Piazza della Republica and walk northwest on via Orlando, ignoring the Moses Fountain (which will no doubt be covered for repairs, anyway) on your right and proceeding on for an additional 50 meters or so, to the "Giano."  Unfortunately, even our big print dictionary provides no hint of what a "Giano" might be, though an urban dicitionary site offers this definition: "An interesting gothy type of man.  Usually bigger built, but extravagently [sic] gorgeous.  Often has a warm heart, but can be pushed toward aggression for the things he loves."  You can't make this stuff up.  We definitely sense some gothy thing going on here.  The Zanichelli dictionary offers some help: Giano is Janus, the Roman god who managed the universe by looking forward and backward.  Or, as Dianne commented, "it looks like gumby." 

After Giano anything looks good, and maybe that's why we have a soft spot for the next nominee.  You'll find it south of the Centro, in Largo Bompiani.  You can't get there, but if you could you would follow via Cristoforo Colombo to Piazza dei Navigatori, then walk about two blocks left/southeast to the small park that constitutes the largo.

We don't know who made this sculpture or what it's supposed to represent, but we like it enough to hope it doesn't get too many votes for Rome's worst public sculpture.  It's got nice weight and volume, looks different from different angles, and from more than one perspective seems to have something to say about machinery, perhaps combined with a statement about the Holy Roman artichoke (this view not pictured).  If you stay around, you'll no doubt have other thoughts and may discover who did it.

We're headed to via Ostiense and then Metro A, which is about a mile away, across via Cristoforo Colombo and down via delle Sette Chiese.  About halfway there via delle Sette Chiese emerges into a large, oblong piazza: Largo delle Sette Chiese.  At the far end, in the center of a busy traffic circle, is our next quarry.  You're now in the quartiere of Garbatella, long (and still) a hot-bed of Leftist politics, and so it's fitting that this community's entry in our sculpture contest would be dedicated to the anti-Fascist, anti-German, and predominantly leftist (and Communist) Roman resistance.  Indeed, the 40s-style lettering in the concrete explains that the structure before us was dedicated in 1974 on the "Trentennale (30th anniverary) of the Resistenza Romana."  Despite the community's interest in such matters, the work has not been well cared for; the concrete is in disrepair, and long grass has nearly taken over. 

The sculpture (above left) consists of a bunch of metal spikey things embedded in the concrete, some of them protruding into boxes.  The penetration of the boxes might be said to represent death, or perhaps the containment of hope and aspiration by the forces of evil.  Perhaps the boxes on spikey things stand for people.  It's likely the sculptor had some idea in mind.  Still, it seems to us another over-determined failure from that awkward decade, the 1970s.  Given its treatment, apparently the community thinks so, too.  

More to come in a second installment.  Hold your breath.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The hidden, hard-to-find, and worth-it churches of Rome, at least 3 of them

Recent painting of Santa Bibiana and train station tower

There’s no hard and fast count on the number of churches in Rome, and even beyond the total, there are hidden (in the sense that the guidebooks rarely get you there) churches in Rome that are real gems. Because we are Rome the Second Time, we don’t focus much on churches at all, but now and then Bill lets me be the “church lady” and point out a couple I love.

Here are 3 of my favorite “second time” churches: Santa Bibiana, Santa Sabina and San Giorgio in Velabro (note the Santa Costanza/Sant’Agnese fuori le mura complex made it into Rome the Second Time and RST's Top 40, coming in at #21 - even with Bill getting an equal vote – you can see them in our March 15, 2010 post.)

Altar with Bernini's Santa Bibiana
Santa Bibiana is the most central, yet in some ways the hardest to get to. We included it in our “10 things to do around the train station” post of August 5 of this yearSanta Bibiana is on via Giolitti – the street that runs along the south side of Stazione Termini. It sits improbably next to the station’s outer buildings (look for the adjoining tall round tower, covered in travertine with spiral staircase – a fine example of modernism, rather than “ugly” as some have said – at least in our opinion and in the opinion of a recent Rome academy painter whose painting is at the top of this post). No doubt not in Bernini’s time, but it is now dangerous to approach the church across intra-city train tracks and the entrance to the underground passageway that leads to the other side of the major tracks – these look fairly peaceful in the painting, but believe me, they’re not.  In fact the painting relocates the church past the tower from the station, which it is not (i.e., don't use this painting as a guide to getting there). 

Santa Bibiana

The photo at right is more realistic (Bernini, if you only could see your church now! - also, a counter to those who say graffiti "artists" don't touch church buildings). 

Although the first building on the site dates to the 5th century, the extant church of 1624-26 is Bernini's, his first major commission. He already was in fine form, as shown in his portico, façade and sculpture of the saint.

Glen Thompson of Wisconsin Lutheran College, a scholar of Early Church History, has an elaborate post on the church and the saint: He calls Bibiana or “Vivian”…one of the strangest saints around.”

In additional to general praise of Bernini and the church, Prof. Thompson recounts: “On the interior walls are a beautiful set of frescoes from the same century by Pietro da Cortona illustrating the life of St. Bibiana. Above the altar is a breathtaking marble statue of the saint carved by Bernini, and under the altar is an alabaster urn containing her remains (or relics), found under the altar of the previous church during its seventeenth century renovations.
"But who was St. Bibiana? The early medieval stories center on one Christian family in Rome in the mid-fourth century. Bibiana’s father Flavian, her mother Dafrosa, and her sister Demetria all suffered in various ways for refusing to deny their faith, and Bibiana was executed – all during the time of Julian the Apostate. Julian was emperor from 361-363, and he tried to turn the empire back to paganism 50 years after Constantine had made Christianity legal. However he died before he got his program off the ground, and there is no record of any overt persecution of Christians in Rome during Julian’s time, much less any martyrdoms! The legends about Bibiana were made up about a century later. To us,"  Prof. Thompson continues, "it seems strange that people would invent a saint for whom to dedicate their church, rather than merely choose the name of a well-documented one. My theory is that the land for the church was donated by someone, and that the story was created to give that particular spot meaning. According to the legend, the church occupies the spot where Bibiana’s house once stood.”

You may want to pray to the saint if you make it safely to her church and also hit the unusual opening hours: 7:30 - 10 a.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m. You can’t enter as a gawker during masses (weekdays 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. and Sundays 8:30, 10, 11:30 in the morning and 6:30 in the evening.

Interior of Santa Sabina

Another favorite second-time church of ours, also allegedly built on a saint’s home, is Santa Sabina. It's central enough that it makes it into some guidebooks; nonetheless, it's usually not on the Rome first-timer's list.  Santa Sabina is the mother church of the Dominicans in Rome, beautifully sited atop the Aventine Hill, next to a park well-used and favored by Romans for its with views of the city and Tiber. The church also dates to the 5th century and, while modified over the years (including by Bernini), as recently as the 20th century, it was taken back to its earlier style by an architect working under the Fascists, Antonio Munez. The inside of the church is cool, open and airy. The 1st millennium artifacts are impressive and stand out in this atmosphere. For more on the church and its history, see  Also, Bill photographed the smoking (literally) bride and groom in the park there, as shown in his blog of June 23 this year
Interior of San Giorgio in Velabro
And finally below the Aventine, swim through the crowds waiting to put their hand in Bocca della Verita' (the mouth of truth) at the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church; go behind that to the winding streets via Velabro and via di San Teodoro.

There are several churches there with impressive histories, but we suggest first stepping in San Giorgio di Velabro. Here again, one inhales the air of the first millennium (and earlier). Definitely worth taking in that whiff of history. Bear in mind, much of this was reconstructed not only during the Fascist era but also after an explosion in 1993; the reconstruction is superb and the ancient artifacts stand out.  See for more details.

Exterior and portico of San Giorgio in Velabro
We’ll pick up some other “hidden,” second-time churches in another post - some time in the far distant future when Bill once more unshackles church lady.