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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Luigi Meneghello: Deliver Us

The cover of the English edition,
featuring a street in Malo.
It is difficult to be too concise in an introduction to an introduction.  Here are the basics.  With the permission of Northwestern University Press, and Frederika Randall, we are pleased to present excerpts from Deliver Us (2011), Luigi Meneghello's charming and wise 1963 memoir of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in Malo, a village in northern Italy, as well as selections from translator Randall's elegant introduction. 

The book is special, but so, too is Ms. Randall's first-and-only English translation.  When Meneghello's second book, The Outlaws (available online), an account of the author's experience with the partisans in World War II, appeared in English in 1967,  the inside jacket noted the existence of the earlier book--"highly praised by Italian critics," but despaired that it would ever appear in English because it was "virtually untranslatable."  It's been done.  Below, Ms. Randall introduces the book and describes some of the challenges she encountered.

From the jacket:

Luigi Meneghello (1922-2007) was among Italy's most acclaimed twentieth-century writers.  After taking part in the resistance during the war, he founded a highly influential Italian Studies department at the University of Reading in England, which he led until his retirement in 1980.  Meneghello's book about the resistance (The Outlaws, 1967), can be found online. 

Frederika Randall's translations include Sergio Luzzatto's Padre Pio (2010) and The Body of Il Duce (2005) and Ottavio Cappellani's Sicilian Tragedee (2008).  A journalist in Rome, she has written for the New York Times, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.  [For the RST blog, she has written on the complex effect of current Italian politics on the anti-Fascist Resistance song, Bella Ciao, and on Rome's beloved 19th century writer, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, whom Pasolini called "the greatest Italian poet."]
From the "Translator's Introduction: The Dispatriate" (by Frederika Randall):

The area around Malo.  Padua
is at lower right. For a
clearer map, click here.
There is no good way to reproduce the sparking sense/nonsense of Libera nos a malo, the title of Luigi Meneghello's first and best-loved book.  "Deliver us from evil": the well-known phrase, in Latin, comes from the Paternoster, of course, but it also evokes pure childish fun, for Malo is the name of the country town near Vicenza in northeast Italy where Meneghello was born and raised.  That malo pronounced during the mass set off a chain of associations for a native, not only because it bizarrely summoned up a real place on the local map, but because the vernacular male means not just evil but also pain, suffering, illness, and harm, practically the sum total of everything terrible....

By turns sharp, amused, ironic, light-handed, and sometimes vigorously rude, Meneghello's memoir is a recollection of childhood in a time and place--rural Italy of the 1920s and 1930s--that was already disappearing when it was published in 1963.  Although the events in his story take place less than a century ago, Meneghello describes a world in some ways closer to the peasant Italy of the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first-century urban sprawl that characterizes the region today....

It was a territory ruled by hard work, the Church, and Il Duce.  Here, as in many other parts of Italy, the Catholic Church exerted a powerful hold on morals and on the popular imagination.  The newest element in this universe was Fascism....Questioning authority, whether that of the Church, the state, or the family, was not encouraged by anyone.  And yet the people of Malo constituted their own part-archaic, part-modern society, through which the laws and language of the priest and the prefect trickled down only partially and imperfectly.  In some ways the town was fiercely controlled from on high; in other ways, it was strangely free.... 

[Deliver Us is] a work of memory that implicitly acknowledges the pitfalls of memory--lapses, anachronisms, exaggerations, mistakes--but it is told with the utmost respect for the truth....

Closest of all to his heart were reflections on language and the experience of using multiple languages: one spoken, one written, one only vaguely apprehended in church during the mass....

Libera nos a malo is not an easy book to translate, particularly into a language like English, which has no real counterpart to the Vicentino dialect that is such an important element in Meneghello's portrait of his native place....

The problem for a translator is not so much to render the meaning of dialect expressions, which are usually made clear by the author, as to convey the experience of having two different kinds of languages at one's disposal: an exclusively oral, richly expressive local idiom, and a more learned, less flexible, standard national language....

He had become, as he termed himself in a 1993 book, a "dispatriate."  Not an expatriate, nor an exile longing for his native ways and language.  Not an emigrant driven by economic forces, or a refugee fleeing political chaos.  But someone who had taken a good, hard look at his mother culture even as he was adopting a second one....Dispatriation: it was an experience that is probably even more pertinent and more eloquent today that it was when Meneghello first used the term, in this era when so many of us are now crossing and recrossing the borders of our globe.

Frederika Randall

From Deliver Us, by Luigi Meneghello:

    On the Vernacular
     We'd laugh with the servant girls:
     Bianco rosso e verde
     color delle tre merde
     color dei panezèi
     la caca dei putèi.

     White, red and green
      the color of the tree turds
      diaper-color, like
      baby shit.
Meneghello, in a cornfield in
Veneto, where polenta originated.
     This wasn't meant as a criticism of the tricolored national flag, not at all.  The flag was run up on Aunt Lena's balcony, it was described in "Thoughts" at school.  The three turds were lined up in the garden under the Count's wall, as shiny as paint, big flies buzzing around them, and Colomba came and tossed a wet diaper over them and mixed the colors together into a yellowish mess.
     White, red, and green was just a phrase in Italian; all the rest was its counterpart in dialect.  But there was a polemical side to all of this: we sensed that dialect gave immediate, almost automatic access to a sphere of reality that for some reason adults wanted to contain and control.  We sensed, too, that adults were playing games about this, and we admired that young, anonymous man of the people--inimitable, alas--who protested so radically as to attack the very fundamentals of our society, Family and Religion....

     A man's personality is made of two strata: on top, lie the superficial wounds in Italian, French, Latin, or whatever; down below, the older wounds that, healing, made scars of the words in dialect.  Touch one and it sets off a chain reaction, very difficult to explain to someone who has no dialect.  There's an indestructible core of material that has been apprehended, picked up with the prehensile shoots of the senses.  The dialect word is eternally pegged to reality because the word is the thing itself, perceived even before we begin to reason, and its power doesn't diminish with time, given that we've been taught to reason in another language.  This is true above all for the names of things.  

     On soccer
     We would accept and reject applicants [for the team] with great hauteur,  I holding in hand the symbol of power, the ball, and Piareto with the scowl of a senior executive.  An aspiring left wing, however, surprised us with an unexpected move: he put his hand in his pocket and asked how much the position cost.  Right then and there we hatched the idea we might be able to get twenty cents, maybe thirty; Piareto thought we should aim high, forty cents or nothing.  But the candidate, the son of a barkeeper, cut us off and pulled out a franc.  That colossal bad made us lose our heads, and the coaching staff began to jump up and down with joy and hug the prosperous left wing.

     In the Piazza
Piazza Marconi, Malo
MIDDAY, SUNSHINE, WHEN the summer still feels endless, at the bar in the piazzetta with a glass of white wine.  My father and I not saying much, waiting for friends, observing people we know.

      Utter, supreme joy, out of time, in the very heart of town, as if beyond the reach of death.  I shiver under the sun. 

Monte di Malo rises above the town.
The Town
The town of the past had its qualities: it shaped a human community that was modest but organic.  We all knew everone, relations between the young and the old were more natural, relations between human beings and things were stable, ordered, lasting.  Houses, public works, furniture, the objects of daily life: all lasted a long time.  Everything was encrusted with experiences and memories thickly laid one over the other.  Domestic utensils had a sharper personality, you could sense the hand of the craftsman who had made them and the very parsimony of life lent them importance.  Even children's toys were more consequential: fewer plastic toys, less foolishness.  Everything cost and was worth more; even the marbles we played with, the toy soldiers, were treasures.

     In the abstract, schoolmates were neither to be loved or abhorred; the injunction to love made no sense in dialect (and for that matter, it is a strange injunction even in Italian, and not even my teachers in Vicenza and Padua were able to teach me what it actually meant).  Schoolmates were like everyone else; you got along with some of them, with others you didn't, and it varied day to day.

     The principle virtues pertained to the circle of the family, and were connected with
the necessities of life, or with work.  The word "duty" in the moral sense is unknown in dialect; we have instead the word "need," in the sense in that there's no escaping something, as in one "must needs die."  One must needs work, also, for one's dòna, one's woman, for el me òmo, "my man," for the children and for the elderly who can no longer work.  You must needs work not eight hours, or seven hours or ten hours a day, but practically always, perhaps with pauses, interruptions, or slowdowns but continuously and without looking at the clock, more or less from when the sun rises well into the night....Here again, I refer not to deeds but to ideals, for not everyone worked this hard: there were the do-nothings, the slackers, the perfectionists....For most, life was extremely hard: it was hard in the fields, in the foundries, in the craftsman's shop, in the spinning mills, and it was very hard indeed for the women at home and in the family.  And even the jobs considered least demanding--the shopkeepers, the tavern keepers, the merchants, the traders--were very hard by today's standards. 

     Someone who was unusually correct in business dealings would be called "honest," a quality considered both admirable and a bit unwise, a luxury and a refinement on the part of an eccentric, usually a gentleman, that is, someone who could afford not to worry about the consequences.  The opposite of "honest" was not "dishonest" but "someone who looks after his own interests."  The town equivalent of "dishonest" would be un poco de bòn, a no-good, meaning someone who cheats in those spheres where it's not permitted, or cheats without any real necessity.  The chicken thief is neither honest or dishonest, he's a thief....
    The canonical sins--envy, pride, wrath, greed, etc.--were thought of as psychological traits, not moral concepts.  As children we were taught to accuse ourselves of them during confession, and we did so scrupulously, but growing up they seemed irrelevant, like searching our consciences about being "disobedient." 
Luigi Meneghello with his wife, Katia, a close

Christian marriage is a sort of mission in partibus infidelium, to the land of the unbelievers.  Males are naturally pagan, and it is the job of the Christian bride, not so much to covert her husband as to save his soul.  The savage male drinks, gambles, swears, molests women, gets into fights.  The missionary wife does not try to counter these habits, she just takes care of the essential, that minimum of masses, sacraments, and worship necessary to remain on good terms with heaven--so that his soul can be picked up directly on his deathbed. 

   The Sermon
    Don Antonio, who was then still known as the Capellanello, the junior chaplain, also preached with great economy.
     "The Virgin Mother," he said one time as he settled into the pulpit, and then fell silent, bowing his head.  He was silent for half a minute, utterly mute.  Then he said, "the Most Holy Virgin," and fell silent again, his head down.  Whole minutes went by, the hypnotic hush grew into an enormous silence, and Mino's grandmother was terribly embarrassed.  Then Don Antonio slowly raised his face and said, "Let Jesus Christ be praised," and stepped down.  To me, it was a moving sermon.

     Finally, the important thing was not to understand, but to know.  Doubts were discouraged, and if necessary, prohibited.  Doubts were supposed to become less childish and foolish as we grew, like Jesus, in wisdom and age--but age, rather than assist in resolving doubt, seemed to make it more difficult.  With tme, you ended up falling back on the position taken by nearly all adult males: now that you were no longer a child, these things were best left to children and devout women.  To children who recited the Sins That Cried Out to Heaven, to women who muttered prayers in incomprehensible jargon.  Such things must mean something, but what they meant was no business of ours, it was church business.  There was no connection between these abstruse lists of Vices and Virtues and everyday real life. 

     Spoken Art, and Il Duce
     This modest spoken art is dying rapidly, and in recent years, more rapidly than ever.  All that one can do is testify that it once existed, and say that a good night at Felice's tavern was at the level of an evening at the Establishment Club in London. 
     When Felice would "do" Il Duce, it was as if for the brief duration of his performance, Il Duce was really among us.  The show was mute and without hand gestures.  Employing minute, imperious contractions of his face muscles, the Founder of the Empire arrived in Malo, came into the bar wearing a sweater, sat down at the table next to ours, and painlessly electrocuted us with his predatory eyes. 

Luigi Meneghello, Deliver Us (1963)


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Streets of Rome: Made for Walking and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic
On the sidewalks of New York

Some 115 years after they were written, these lines from "Sidewalks of New York" are still with us, still capable, somehow, of representing the thrill of being part of America's largest city. 

On Via Cavalcanti
The song could never have been written about Rome, and not because the city doesn't have sidewalks.  There are sidewalks on Via Nazionale, sidewalks on Piazza Venezia, sidewalks on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, sidewalks on the Tiber. 

But Rome is not New York.  Via del Corso, the mile-long street connecting Piazza Venezia with Piazza del Popolo, has sidewalks, but they are perilously narrow, and pedestrians are inevitably tempted into the street.  Many streets laid out in the city's medieval period and into the Renaissance have no sidewalks, though here and there--meaning seldom--those on foot are shielded from traffic by a line of metal poles.  In the tourist mecca of Trastevere, sidewalks are hit and miss.  The near-in "suburbs," built with cars in mind, all have sidewalks, and many are welcome and well-used.  But--and that but brings me, finally, to the point of this piece: Romans like to walk in the street.  One cannot say the same of New Yorkers.

On the balcony at Via Cavalcanti
We came to this conclusion--hardly a man-bites-dog story, but interesting enough--during a recent stay in Monteverde Vecchio, an upscale neighborhood of villas and apartment buildings on the Trastevere side, where we sampled the local whites from a small 4th floor balcony.  The balcony was located above Via G. Cavalcanti, half a short block south of busy Via Lorenzo Valla. 

Late one afternoon, while enjoying a Sicilian Grillo and observing the regular flow of walkers below us, we couldn't help but notice how many preferred the street to the sidewalks on either side. 

Some were alone, some with children in tow or in strollers, some old, some young, men and women, couples, an occasional threesome.  For about 40 minutes we took the photos you see here--and many others. 

There is traffic on Via Cavalcanti
But why  are these folks walking in the street?  One reason, we thought, was peculiar to Via Cavalcanti, a one-way street (uphill, north, to the left in the photos), which carries high traffic volume only after it intersects with Via Lorenzo Valla, a half block north of our observation.  True enough, but Cavalcanti is hardly free of cars and scooters (photo at right), and pedestrians sometimes prefer the street even at its busier points. 

The street may also seem attractive in comparison with Cavalcanti's sidewalks (similar to those in many outlying areas), ugly strips of cheap poured asphalt, bulging here and there from exposure to the Roman sun and erupting tree roots, seldom swept or cleaned--just plain dirty one could say--not all that wide (though wide enough for two) and used by the neighborhood's dogs, escorted by owners who seldom clean up after them.  So there's that. 

Still there's something else at work here, something that has to do with Rome's history, with the narrow, tangled streets of Trastevere, the Jewish ghetto, and Parione (the area to the west of Piazza Navona).  Having walked these streets for hundreds of years, Romans have their own idea of what streets are and should be: though vehicles may use them, they are meant for walking. 

And so it is that Romans use their streets, and not just the medieval ones, for purposes that modern traffic engineers did not intend.  On the streets, they stride and stroll, walk and talk, move their groceries and their children (and their employer's children), walk their dogs, ride their bicycles.  What they do not do is "trip the light fantastic"--not in the street, and surely not on the sidewalks.  But then, it's not New York.  It's Rome. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Church Lady revisits the neglected

We've written a couple posts (including things to do around the train station) that have featured within them the long neglected - but still a gem - church of Santa Bibiana.  A young Bernini designed the portico, facade and sculpture of the saint on the bones of an early 5th century church.

We've bemoaned the total isolation of this church as it is now surrounded by roads, railway tracks and railway buildings - not to mention the graffiti which supposedly never is done on church property (oh, yeah).

From one of the blog's loyal followers, BT, comes this lovely engraving of Santa Bibiana as it once looked.  The print is from Rome's Palazzo Braschi collection. 

Now compare that to today's Santa Bibiana (taken from the right side, as you look at the engraving). 

This photo is too good, and we couldn't find any to include here that really show the church now hemmed in by train tracks, station buildings, and streets.  Check this link for a better (or worse, depending on one's perspective) view of Santa Bibiana's current woes.

The posts linked in the first lines above relay some comments on Santa Bibiana by church historian Glen Thompson, and a vivid description of the unusual life of this saint.
A recent painting by Anita Viola Nielsen of Denmark shows the church
 crunched in next to the modernist tower and station buildings; see
Dianne (aka Church Lady)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ponte Ostiense: Under Construction

Through a hole in the fence.
In October, we pulled the scooter off Via Ostiense for a quick look at another of Rome's new bridges.  We couldn't get all that close, but we did manage to get a good pic looking through a hole in the fence (right); another with the camera held over the fence (below); and a third of a big on-site posting listing everyone who was working on the project and a rendering of what it was supposed to look like when completed. 

Lots of lanes.
The new bridge, over the Metro tracks and the Roma-Lido railway, will connect the heavily-trafficked Circonvallazione Ostiense (with Garbatella to the south and Ostiense to the north) with Via Ostiense, a major north-south thoroughfare that runs right into the Pyramid.  That's fine, but the real purpose of the bridge is apparently to connect Via Cristoforo Colombo (an enormous highway heading to the ocean) on the east with Viale Marconi, on the west.  And to do that adequately will mean another bridge, this one to span the Tevere below the old, out-dated, over-used, but loved Ponte di Ferro ("Iron bridge", officially Ponte dell'Industria).

The Spine
On its west side, the bridge will touch down right next to the now-abandoned Magazzini Generali (General Storage Area--a now-abandoned massive market/wholesale distribution center), to be redesigned by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.  There is also a larger, visionary project involved, the brainchild of former mayor Walter Veltroni, something called the Citta' di Giovani (City of Youth), which imagines revitalizing Ostiense, an older industrial but already trendy area with bars, clubs, and restaurants catering to young people.  (Of course, the young folks already have started up their bars and clubs here, as we've reported - more than once.)  Apparently Koolhaas is in charge of the larger project. 

Elegant Curves
We would like to credit Koolhaas as the architect of the bridge, but no one is saying that, and the designer of the structure remains a mystery,  Nor does the bridge have a name, although it is sometimes referred to as the Ponte Ostiense.  Rome's commissioner of public works proudly announced that a bridge of this type--arches supported by steel wires was his description--would be a first for the city, and he may be right.  The structure is 240 meters from end to end, with 125 meters fully suspended.  Three vehicle lanes each direction (two of the six for public vehicles), and ample sidewalks for pedestrians. 

Ponte della Musica
We claim no expertise in bridge design, but we like the look of this one.  We would have liked it more had we not seen the new pedestrian (so far) Ponte della Musica (right), over the Tevere to the north, with its wavy curves fashioned from white tubing, not unlike the emerging Ponte Ostiense.  (See our earlier post on that bridge.) After all, we're in the era of the designer bridge--like the 1950s was the era of the glass skyscraper--and some of the designs, despite their obvious differences, have a similar look and style.  Not bad, just not "wow we haven't seen that before." 


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fascism and the Reconstruction of Rome

What was the Via dell'Impero, from
Piazza Venezia, looking toward the Coliseum.
Vehicles were prohibited that day.
Via dell'Impero
Here at RST, we knew, or thought we knew, why Mussolini's Fascist regime of the 1920s and 1930s tore down thriving neighborhoods and moved thousands of families from the central city to its outskirts.  The Fascists did it, so the story goes, because they wanted to reveal and display the glorious monuments and remains of Roman antiquity, and to link that Roman heritage--a formidable lineage of empire and dominance--to Fascism.  Via dell' Impero ("Empire Street"; today, Via dei Fori Imperiali - "Street of the Imperial Forums") was carved from surrounding neighborhoods not only to reveal the Roman forums along its course, but to establish a powerful visual link between the Coliseum, at one end, and Mussolini's headquarters, at Piazza Venezia, at the other.  On the other side of the massive Vittoriano (the "typewriter" monument to the King Vittorio Emanuele II - photo below), Via del Mare ("Street of the Sea," today, Via del Teatro Marcello) proclaimed Rome's ties to the sea and reaffirmed Fascism's imperial vision and designs. 

That's all true.  But it's not enough, and it doesn't go to the heart of the matter.  Not according to historian Paul Baxa, whose exceptional new book, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (University of Toronto Press, 2010), offers a complementary--and, in our view, wholly new, and somewhat controversial--interpretation of Fascism's interventions and urban planning.   

And, for more on Fascism and the construction of Rome, see our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler. More on the book is at the end of this post.

Trenches on the Carso
According to Baxa, the key to understanding Fascism's reconstruction of Rome lies in the Italian experience in the Great War, in which the Italian army faced the forces of Austria-Hungary, first in a grisly, violent and brutal trench-warfare standoff on the Carso, a massive plateau near Trieste; then, in a high-speed, helter-skelter Italian retreat across the plain of Friuli, north of Venice.  (Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms is set in this warfare and retreat.)

Fascism's "new man," at what
was the Foro Mussolini
Embedded in the contrasting landscapes of the Carso and the Friuli plain, the trial of war was profoundly psychological.  Using a variety of sources, including postwar memoirs, poetry, and Fascist-oriented journals, Baxa argues that the Carso meant stasis, lack of movement, confinement, restriction and claustrophia, and it created Fascism's "new man," "savage" and "primordial" (in Fascist mythology, Mussolini's Blackshirts were Italian warriors--represented in the statues that line the Foro Mussolini--who had fought on the Carso).  Though encountered in retreat, the Friuli plain meant release, liberation, endless open space, the high speed movement of vehicles away from the trauma of the Carso.

The beginning of the Via Del Mare, 1930s.
Teatro di Marcello in the distance; the beginning of Michelangelo's stairs to the Campidoglio (the Capitoline Hill)  in the foreground. 
The Fascist reconstruction of Rome, accomplished under the Master Plan of 1931, was nothing less than the experiences on the Carso and the Friuli plain, inscribed on the map of Rome.  Reacting to the confinement and stasis of the Carso, Fascism detested urban elements that restricted movement, especially small piazzas, narrow streets and dense neighborhoods.  Hence the construction of the Via del Mare necessarily and deliberately involved the destruction of two piazzas: Michelangelo's Piazza Aracoeli at the foot of the Campidoglio, and Piazza Montanara, close by the Theatre of Marcellus.  Similarly, part of the dense neighborhood of San Lorenzo was razed to make way for the new, modernist University of Rome. 

The Vittoriano--detested by the Fascists (and
some others)
The flight across the Friuli plain was reflected in the Fascist mania for broad avenues capable of carrying vehicles at high speed; the Via dell' Impero and the Via del Mare were about speed and modernity and danger, values captured, according to Baxa, in Mussolini's motorcycle rides to his summer home in Ostia, on the sea.  When Hitler visited Rome in 1938, Baxa notes, his itinerary included only one church (the Pantheon), and he "spent most of his time in the car."

Although Rome's legendary traffic has commonly been understood as a city planning failure, Baxa argues that it was "the crowning achievement of fascist culture."  Indeed, at the south end of Piazza Venezia, Fascist street planning was designed to corrupt and degrade the Vittoriano, a monument that for Fascism was a symbol of a failed and decadent bourgeois liberalism.  The more cars, and the less attention to the monument glorifying Vittorio Emanuele and the liberal state, the better. 

For Baxa, the "new man" who had come down from the Corso was primordial, a throwback to imperial pagan Rome.  For Fascism and its archaeologists, this meant that pagan Rome and the present were everything that was good and valued, and whatever was in between--the apostles, the rise of Christian Rome, the hundreds of churches of medieval Rome and Renaissance Rome--was of little consequence.  For Mussolini, writes Baxa, "the grandeur of Rome was independent of Christianity."  As a result, the Fascist regime clashed with Catholic Church at every turn: over what should be revealed, what should be preserved, what should be valued. 

Similarly, Fascism's embrace of pagan Rome and the Fascist present involved a distaste for everything else, especially the 19th-century, the heyday of liberalism and the bourgeoisie; and areas that represented, or symbolized, the 19th-century received scant attention.  Case in point: Via Nazionale, with the Vittoriano at one end, the 19th-century Piazza Esedra at the other, and fancy shops serving the haut-bourgeoisie lining the avenue.  In 1932, when the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, at the heart of Via Nazionale, was selected to house a major exhibition on Fascism, the neo-classical facade of building was temporarily covered with a rationalist veneer. 

Much of Baxa's view of Fascism and its urban interventions depends on the battle on the Carso and the retreat across the Friuli plain, and what those events meant not only for participants, but for all Italians.  Baxa makes the case that the peculiar character of World War I in northeast Italy yielded a set of ideas and values--violence, brutality, speed, the need for space and openness, a fascination with the automobile--that would shape Fascism and with it, the face of Rome.  Yes, and bravo to Baxa for making the connection.  But it might make almost as much sense to argue that the horrific trench warfare on the Carso produced a deep pacifism, or that the retreat across Friuli left in its wake a consciousness of Italian weakness, including even the desire to retreat from future wars.  That said, this is a strikingly original book, and one likely to force a rethinking of how and why Mussolini's Fascist regime changed the look and feel of modern Rome.


For more on Fascist architecture, see the EUR and the Foro Italico itineraries 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.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

New York City, or Rome? A Response to Michael Kimmelman

A portion of New York City's "grid"
We thoroughly enjoyed Michael Kimmelman's celebration of New York City's "grid" design in the January 3, 2012 New York Times.  He's one of our favorites.  Mr. (following NYT practice) Kimmelman, in reviewing a current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, describes the grid as "in many ways the defining feature of the city," a "boon to private development" and, "almost despite itself, a creative template."  For Mr. Kimmelman, the city's grid suggests the sort of "aggressive and socially responsible leadership" that we so badly need in today's difficult times.  (Be patient, dear reader, we'll get to Rome).

While acknowledging that the grid was in a way "heartless" and even "monotonous," he remains convinced that it was a positive development: it proved responsive to the city's changing compass orientation; profitable for property owners; ecologically beneficial; conducive to sociability and building variety; "oddly beautiful"; and--a virtue that Mr. Kimmelman gives special weight and attention--made the city instantly comfortable and knowable, even for strangers. 

A model of the Roman Forum
Inevitably, perhaps, the world's other great cities, notably Paris and Rome, must enter the argument.  Rome does so twice.  Mr. Kimmelman argues that "grid plans went back to ancient Greece and Rome."  We can't speak for Greece, but the little we've seen on ancient Rome suggests that the early city, built in part on hills that flaunted the sort of strict, unrelenting grid on which New York City was based, could have served as the basis for Gotham's design.  Although the Roman Forum is constructed within a rectangle, the buildings on the Palatine Hill are set at an angle to it.

A portion of a c. 1910 Rome map.  At lower left,
on the right side of the river, a grid-based
Testaccio, waiting to be developed, and above it,
the Aventine, in a similar state
Beyond the Centro Storico, outlying sections of Rome, including Prati, Testaccio, and a part of the Aventine, used the grid, but these were not laid out until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Mr. Kimmelman's reference to "Rome" is likely to the grid system widely used to build towns outside the capital but within the burgeoning Roman empire. 

Rome appears in a second context, in an interesting and revealing comparison to New York.  "In the same way," Mr. Kimmelman writes, "that tourists who come to New York can easily grasp the layout and, as such, feel they immediately possess the city, outsiders who move here become New Yorkers simply by saying so.  By contrast, an American can live for half a century in Rome or Hamburg or Copenhagen or Tokyo but never become Italian or German or Danish or Japanese.  Anybody can become a New Yorker.  The city, like its grid, exists to be adopted and made one's own." 

There's some hyperbole here--"half a century"?--and the argument that a feeling of belonging can be traced to the grid, rather than to the city's (and the nation's) function as a cultural melting pot seems forced, to say the least.  We could make the case, too, that New York City's most creative folks have preferred the old city, below the grid, and especially Greenwich Village: Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jackson Pollock  Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Eugene O'Neill, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jane Jacobs, and [fill in the blank].

In one sense, though, we couldn't agree more.  Rome is a much more complex city than New York and much more difficult to learn.  It's full of curves and unusual angles, of piazzas, square and round and oval, that surge with energy, of parts that fit oddly and subtly into a whole that remains an intricate puzzle, replete with mystery.  It has hills (more than 7, actually) and a river, one that runs through the center of the city and whose twists and turns and bridges contribute to a sense of organic complexity.  Rome's cityscape--its imprint, its pattern--could never be described as "heartless" or "monotonous" or damned by the faint praise of "oddly beautiful."  That's why we can visit year after year and each time feel a kind of rebirth, as if we were seeing, and knowing, the city anew.  That's why being on a scooter is Rome is a pleasure and a thrill, no matter how often we do it.  And that's why  we wrote--why we felt compelled to write--Rome the Second Time.  You're interesting enough, New York City, but you're no Rome.
from Dianne: for another of Bill's "exchanges" with Kimmelman, see his post on MAXXI, Italy's 21st century art gallery - designed by Zaha Hadid -  in Rome.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Caught! A Small Drama in Piazza San Silvestro

It was early evening when we passed through Piazza San Silvestro.  Not long ago it would have been full of buses and people waiting for them, but the piazza has been reinvented, its function as a bus depot eliminated, and what we found was a huge empty space, filled with rubble and machinery, surrounded by a plastic and chain-link fence.  To serve businesses on the piazza--including the restaurant at far right, above--the sidewalks remained accessible. 

As we were walking by, a young woman mounted her scooter and, cautiously, but on the sidewalk, and with a shopping bag over one arm, headed north on the east side of the piazza.  Scooters using the sidewalk for a few yards, to find a place to park, are commonplace in Rome, but this woman's sidewalk journey was a longer one than usual: a whole block of sidewalk to cover before she reached a usable street. 

She didn't make it.  As luck would have it, as she neared the end of the block and was passing in front of the restaurant (with outside tables, also on the sidewalk), a police officer approached and--from what we could observe from afar--ordered her to turn around and walk the scooter back to where she had begun her sidewalk ride.  No ticket, but embarrassing.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Buona Giornata

First, a primer: buon giorno is "good day" or "good morning"; buona giornata is "have a good day," or "have a good one," or "have a nice day."  I can remember, or think I can, when clerks in the US started saying "have a nice day."  I thought then it was cloying and artificial and excessive, and though I've grown used to the phrase, it still grates on me.  I can't speak for Dianne, but I do know that she doesn't use "have a good day" in the States but has recently taken to using "buona giornata" in Rome, and merchants seem to respond well to it. 

The coffee cup combo in the photo, provided the bar by a major Rome milk distributor, takes "buona giornata" to a new level--indeed, takes possession of the phrase and offers it back:  "Sponsor Ufficiale della BUONA GIORNATA: Official sponsor of 'have a nice day.'" All, I hope, with a sense of irony--but even then I don't like it.