Rome Travel Guide

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Not Quite a Christmas Story: A Bar and a Church

In the early years of the last century, a Roman family bought a nice piece of land in Monteverde Vecchio, then sparsely developed.  They hoped--indeed, expected--that the parcel's location, just a 10-minute walk from the Trastevere train station, and on what they knew would be the main road up the hill, would position the family to serve and profit from the expected traffic.  Location, location, location. 

Bar Vitali, modestly promoted
(the sign says only "BAR")
And it happened that way--or sort of.  The Vitali family started a business there that evolved into a bar, on Via Lorenzo Valla, and it's still there, and very successful, more than 75 years later.  Today it's owned by Mario Vitali, a grandson of the original owners, and it's become a bar/restaurant (lunch only), and one of more than local reputation, if only because Italian movie director Nanni Moretti lives nearby and eats there from time to time.  On the MAP below, Mario's bar lies at the intersection of Via Lorenzo Valla and Via Pindemonte, the dog-leg street coming in from above.

Monteverde Vecchio in 1935.  The photo hangs
in a back room of Mario's place. 
The flow of automobiles and scooters by the bar is substantial, too, certainly all that one could expect in an area of one-way streets.  But it is not what the Vitali family had in mind when they purchased the property.  They believed then, and it seemed a very good bet, that traffic flowing uphill into Monteverde Vecchio would move straight out of the small piazza fronting the train station (and off two major thoroughfares, the Gianicolense and Viale Trastevere, which come together there) and directly northwest, onto Via Lorenzo Valla: a straight shot to the bar.  Visions of coining money. 

But it didn't happen that way.  If you look at a map, or stroll the area, you'll see that there is no street running straight uphill from the train station.  Instead, there's a church (on the map, the blue rectangle at lower right, with a cross).
The church was built in 1942 (Mario knows the date, all too well), in the last years of Fascism, and it's situated right where the anticipated road would have been.   It's an undistinguished, late-Fascist-era building, just the sort of place that Bill enjoys and to which Dianne must be dragged.  I don't think you'll ever get Mario Vitali inside.  And now you know why.


PS from Dianne - Mario is something of a local historian and has written (in Italian only and now out of print) an intriguing family history.  His grandmother, widowed young with 4 very young children, simply started cooking for local construction workers, then selling anything she could buy and break up into smaller lots.  Her home turned into a luncheonette, then a store, then the bar and tobacco shop owned by Mario's father.  Mario's grandmother, who had built her business from scratch, was the one most upset by the church's closing off of via Lorenzo Valla, Mario told me when I asked.  But she did attend the church and her burial procession, down via Lorenzo Valla, ended there - a touch of irony in the whole story.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Deciphering Rome's Walls: Neo-Fascist Iconography

If you've been in Rome 15 minutes, you've already seen, and lamented, the vast amount of graffiti that adorns the city.  Much of it--notably the ubiquitous "tags" (initials, signatures) of graffiti "artists" (we're not talking about the colorful, design-based lettering that lines the train and Metro tracks)--is close to worthless, lacking in the "redeeming social value" that was the US legal standard applied to pornography in the 1960s.  That said, the stuff is there, and one can either a) try to ignore it or b) take an interest in aspects of it--separate the wheat from the chaff--using the walls of Rome as a window on contemporary culture. 

Note the highly stylized fasci,
below right. 
Some of this reading of contemporary Italian culture requires a knowledge of Italian and a Roman friend or two, and RST can't supply either on the blog.  But there's one area--the iconography of neo-Fascism--where a little help goes a long way. 

Mussolini's Fascist movement (roughly 1919-1945, with Fascism officially in power from 1922 to 1943) made use of Roman symbols.  One of the most signifcant was the Fascio Littorio (the bundled sheaves of wheat, with protruding axe, symbolizing power over life and death), first used as a Fascist symbol in 1919.  The poster above left, using a drawing to advertise the Monday after Easter, features three small, highly stylized fasci.

The Latin/Roman influence,
apparent in the typography of a
Fascist building
Fascism also often used a "V" - the Roman way of writing (in ancient times in stone) a "U" - on its buildings and posters, and the "V" was employed by the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy, and Japan) during World War II.  On the facade of a Fascist-era building in EUR known as the "square coliseum," an inscription begins, "VN (UN) POPOLO...."  ("a people...."). 

During the Fascist years, the "M" (for Mussolini, and hence for Fascism) was everywhere; indeed, in the 1930s a Fascist administration building in the new town of Latina (in the reclaimed marsh land southeast of Rome) was constructed in the shape of an "M."  The building still stands today.

A prominent flattened "S" on
a 1939 poster ("Squadristi"). 
A contemporary flattened "S,"
referencing the Fascist era.
Certain other letters or modes of lettering--the squared off C is one example--may also represent a neo-Fascist hand at work.   Another letter that was widely used and was highly symbolic of Fascism is the flattened, modernist-looking "S" (above, right and left). 

A Celtic cross
The postwar (and especially post-1970) neo-Fascist movement used, and uses, all these symbols, sometimes in modified form, and you'll see them all on the walls of Rome.  You'll also see one symbol that was NOT used by Mussolini's Fascists.  The Celtic Cross was first used by a French Fascist party in the 1930s, then adopted by Italian neo-Fascists in Italy and elsewhere in the 1970s.  The iron cross at left is flanked by two letters of significance for Fascism: the "M" and the "V."

A Fascist "M" and a
highly stylized Fascio Littorio
In several places we've encountered the word "Militia," followed by a figure we at first could not decipher (right).

A Fascist-era poster, 1936
The Militia "M" is adapted from a typeface used by Mussolini's regime (left).  And the curious end figure, we concluded, was a highly stylized version of the Fascio Littorio (compare with those above and below). 

Mayor Alemanno, attacked as a Zionist
We learned more about that "M" with the arrests a few days ago (December 13) of the leader of the "Militia," Maurizio Boccacci, and four others identified with the group.  They were charged with spreading racial hatred, inciting violence, and engaging in acts against the Jewish community and against Rome's Mayor, Gianni Alemanno (right). 

A "pietra d'inciampo," a
memorial paving block
Another 11 persons are under investigation for similar offenses, including supporting fascism.   Specifically, the Militia members were accused of having defaced the walls of the capital with Nazi writings and with having defaced "pietre d'inciampo"-- engraved memorial paving stones in brass (resembling special sanpietrini)--that were designed by a German artist and installed beginning in 2010 in front of the homes of Jews deported from Rome to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. 

The Militia denies the Holocaust
On one wall, signed with the Militia "M," the group attacked the upcoming (January 27) anniversary of the Day of Remembrance for Victims of Nazism, known here as "il Giorno della Memoria"--essentially a day for recalling the horrors of the Holocaust and remembering its victims.  "27/1 non c'é memoria!" translates "January 27: there is nothing to remember!", probably a denial that the Holocaust ever took place. 

On another wall, the words "Pacifici continui a meritare il fosforo bianco" refers to Riccardo Pacifici, the president of the Jewish community in Rome; Pacifici "continues to deserve the white phosphorus," a reference to the lethal compound widely used in warfare since World War I.  Several Militia writings appeared in Monti, a tourist area near the Coliseum.  One of them said "Israele non esiste" ("Israel doesn't exist").  And on Via Tasso, the street that housed the SS prison from which political prisoners were removed to be executed in 1944 (and now houses a museum to honor those prisoners), someone had written, "via Tasso uguale bugia" ("Via Tasso is a lie").  Elsewhere, the anti-semitic Militia attacked Alemanno as a "Sionista" (a Zionist) [above right]. 

Boccacci, 54, is known to authorities for his extreme right-wing views and for a long history of participation in rightist militant groups, dating to the 1970s.  He defines himself as a "soldato fascista senza compromessi" ("a fascist soldier without compromise") and has said, "I admire what Hitler did.  The Jews were enemies that opposed his plans."  Of the Militia members thus far identified, two were 54 years old, two 26, and one 43.  Two, including Boccacci, were residents of Albano Laziale (a town in the Alban Hills close to Rome), two of Rome, and one of Ascoli Piceno (about 150 miles northeast of Rome).  Until recently, the group was headquartered in a gymnasium in the north Rome suburban quartiere of Vigne Nuove, just beyond Monte Sacro. 

With thanks to MV for assistance with this post,

Buon deciphering!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Metro Hazards!

We assume it's necessary to warn riders on Rome's Metro, the subway system, of the possible dangers of the activity.  But the ad agency hired for the task may have overdone things a bit; in any event, on this day we were amused.

From upper left, clockwise: Don't try to prevent the door from closing; Don't lean against the door; Watch for the space between the train and the platform.  And--our favorite--Don't get on or off when the door is closing, because, well....



Sunday, December 11, 2011

Garibaldi Rides Again: A New Museum in Rome

The dashing young Giuseppe Garibaldi
Rome opened a small, but intense, new museum this year on top of the Gianicolo, to our great delight. The Museo della Repubblica Romana e della memoria garibaldina (Museum of the Roman Republic and memory of Garibaldi and his followers – possibly titled by committee) – opens up to Italian and English speakers the intense 19th- century history that unfolded on the hill. The imposing gate to the city itself (see photos at end) houses the museum - it's literally IN Porta San Pancrazio.

In June 1849 some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign to end Papal rule over Italy – and Rome in particular – took place here. Damage to buildings is still visible on the road leading to Villa Pamphilli, where the Garibaldini (the Garibaldi forces) waged their last battle of that year. The top of the Gianicolo is, in a phrase coined by one of our friends, a Garibaldi theme park. And, down the hill from the majestic Fountain of Aqua Paolo is an "ossuary” – a bone repository of the many who lost their lives in those battles.  The ossuary is on the Trastevere itinerary of our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  More on the book at the end of this post.

All of this is clearer now thanks to sophisticated dioramas, maps, flyers in English, and other computer-assisted tools artfully placed in the Porta. We enjoyed the actor playing the part of the martyred Ciceruacchio (“Chubby” - to whom there is a statue on the Gianicolo we had never noticed before – but it too was moved for the anniversary – to a spot in the “theme park”). In a 5 or so minute wall-size video (that one can view in English) he explains why he went from being supportive of the Pope to being violently anti-Pope, which surprised us, and he chides Italians today for perhaps not being as unified as those who fought for state-hood might like them to be. Ciceruacchio, whose real name was Angelo Brunetti, has a Wikipedia entry (you can use a Google translator to get the main points in English).
An original "Red Shirt" - the Garibaldi wore, and were known
by them - and other Garibaldini memorabilia

Six of the 8 adult sons of Ricciotti Garibaldi, one of Giuseppe and
Anita's sons (i.e, their grandsons), in World War I in France.
Fighters/liberators all, along with their 2 other brothers; 2 died
in the Argonne, one in Ceylon
The battles of 1849 resulted in the defeat of the Garibaldini, a defeat which took them 21 years to overturn when in 1870 they breached the gates of Rome on the opposite side of the city - Porta Pia – and Italy’s statehood finally extended to Rome.

"We loved life, but for the health of generations to come, we chose death.  D.'Garibaldi' "- The Balkans 1943-45, and WWI in northern Italy 1915-1918.
The museum goes beyond 1849 to illustrate the subsequent activities of the Garibaldini and specifically of Garibaldi’s sons and grandsons. It’s an amazing tribute to the man and his progeny – both blood-line progeny and war colleagues.

Porta San Pancrazio has been completely refurbished.  Traffic
is no longer allowed to cross in front of it.  The large planters
are designed to deter those who might try.  And, so, one no longer needs to keep one's toes in while snacking at Bar Gianicolo (as we advised in Rome the Second Time).   

In Rome the Second Time, this outline of the 1849 battle forms a large part of Itinerary 2 – War and Water on the Gianicolo. It’s almost as if someone in the city read the book and said, hey, there’s an itinerary here! Of course they didn’t, but it’s nice to think so. And now, anyone can go into the museum and get the lay of the land before - or after – trekking around it oneself.  We've added the museum information to RST Updates - available online.

But of course the newly designed area in front of the
Porta gives many the opportunity to find new ways to park
The museum was not well attended on the free day we went this Fall (it just opened March 17 – in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, but our friends say it was so crowded on opening day that people were turned away. Perhaps this is an effort to rehabilitate Garibaldi (I recall his picture on a wall in my Grandmother’s house) who, along with his ideas of a secular state, some – like historian David Kerzer in a recent book – suggest today has been close to forgotten by the Italian people.

The museum has a website that gives details.  Open Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and Saturday, Sunday and holidays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Adult tickets Euro 5.50. It’s worth it.


The ossuary (and more on the Gianicolo) is featured on the Trastevere stairways walk 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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Annette Funicello, Rediscovered--in Rome

We found this photo, from 1958, in an exhibit on Italian families at the Vittoriano.
It reminded us of Annette Funicello, also of Italian heritage, who emerged on television's Mickey Mouse Club and later starred in a series of "beach party" movies, wearing ever more revealing swimsuits.  She was born in Utica, New York in 1942, and Funicello was her real name.    Bill

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gabbo: The Death and Life of Gabriele Sandri

"GABBO SEMPRE CON NOI!"   Written on a wall in the Centro.  But who was Gabbo? 

A few days later, in our Tuscolano neighborhood:

i nostri colori                 our colors
ci              divide us...
mentalita ci                    mentality
unisce, "GOBBO"         unites us, "GOBBO" 

Was Gobbo "Gabbo"?  And who was Gabbo?

We learned that Gabbo was short for Gabriele, and Gabriele was linked to another name.  This in Tivoli:  "Gabriele Vive...Spaccarotella Muori!"  Gabriele lives...Spaccarotella dies!"  And on a wall in Monteverde Vecchio: "Spaccarotella infame!"   Spaccarotella infamous!

In a small piazza near Piazza Bologna, stickers had been placed on road signs:

Spaccarotella      Spaccarotella
Pisceremo           We piss on        
Tua Tomba         Your grave

Gabriele "Gabbo" Sandri and Luigi Spaccarotella were protagonists in a deadly drama played out on L'Autostrada del Sole (the Highway of the Sun), otherwise known as the A1.  It was the morning of November 11, 2007, a Sunday, and all over Italy soccer fans were traveling to root for their favorite teams. 

Gabriele Sandri
Gabriele, 26, was a professional DJ and a Lazio "Ultra"--a hard-core Lazio fan--and he was traveling with buddies to Milan for a game with the Inter team.  The young men had pulled off the highway into the Badio al Pino service area near Arezzo, and a scuffle or fight had broken out with a group of supporters of Juventus, a Turin squad.  From the service area on the other side of the highway--divided by a chain-link fence--a highway patrol policeman, Spaccarotella, had observed the quarrel across the way.  Pulling his gun, he ran to the fence and fired a warning shot into the air.  The young men scattered, and Gabriele and his friends jumped into their car and headed for the entrance to the highway.  According to a video [below] (apparently shown later in the courtroom), Spaccarotella ran along the fence, then stopped, aimed, and fired his gun twice, hitting Gabriele--sitting in the middle of the front seat--in the neck, and killing him.  The "action" in the video begins after about 15 seconds. 

As the case worked its way through an inquiry and the court system, the tragic death of Gabriele Sandri--"Gabbo"--came to represent not just police violence but the inadequacies of the Italian judicial system.  Spaccarotella had claimed that his gun had gone off by accident, while he was running, and so the original inquiry was based on a manslaughter charge.  The prosecutor was unconvinced, and so was Gabriele's father, Giorgio Sandri, who appeared at the March, 2008 hearing, angry at Spaccarotella's absence and convinced that he had aimed and fired his gun with intent.  "He doesn't have the courage to look us in the eyes," Sandri said, adding, "he knows well that what he did he didn't do because he was inciampato (stumbling).  In us the emotion is strong, and the anger stronger still." 
The court eventually found Spaccarotella guilty of "culpable homicide" and sentenced him to 6 years in prison; the prosecution had asked for 14 years, partly on the grounds that Spaccarotella had made a fraudulent claim.  Reached soon after by telephone, Spaccarotella said "I cried with joy.  I have done well to believe in justice."

Many Italians didn't see it that way.  No sooner was the verdict and sentence announced than outcries filled the courtroom and the hallways outside.  Giorgio Sandri was once again outraged, and his wife, Daniela, bitterly remarked, "Now they've killed me a second time.  A shame for all of Italy."  Lazio Ultras considered the verdict "against all of them" and attacked two police facilities, including one at Ponte Milvio in Rome.  Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno--a former bad boy and probably a Lazio fan--expressed his dissatisfaction with the sentence, noting that the crime had affected the entire city.  He hoped the sentence would be reconsidered on appeal "so as not to leave the Roman sporting world with a deep sense of injustice." 

Spaccarotella had vowed to appeal the verdict and sentence, and it seems he did so; RST could find no evidence that he was actually serving his term. 

The sentence was reconsidered.  Based on a finding of "intentionality," in December, 2010 a Florence appeals court increased the sentence to 9 years 4 months.  The court argued that even if Spaccarotella's goal had been to stop the vehicle and its occupants from fleeing, he took an excessive risk in shooting at the car.  Hence the result--the death of Sandri--could not be understood as the product of "pure chance."

Gabbo's memory lived on, as the graffiti reveal. 
He was remembered in 2009, at the final of the Champions League game between Manchester United and Lazio.  Fans displayed a huge poster at one end of the field--the Lazio curva/curve, where the team's fans congregated.  Lazio players wore "Gabbo" t-shirts under their game jerseys.  Although Gabriele was a Lazio Ultra--on principle, reviled by fans of the Roma team--on this occasion even Roma supporters, who always sit on the curva sud, the south curve, when their team plays at Rome's Olympic Stadium, lent their support.  One banner read, "Gabbo: Uno di Noi!  Curva Sud."  Gabbo: One of Us! Curva Sud." 

A video, "Ciao Gabbo," tells the story of that day's tribute, which included a most extraordinary act of inter-team solidarity.  Before the game, Lazio's captain accompanied Roma's captain, Francesco Totti, as Totti placed flowers below the poster of Gabriele:  the famed leader of AS Roma, the symbol and idol of the Curva Sud, honoring a SS Lazio Ultra--at the Curva Nord.