Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Another Bad Idea: a Tunnel at the Ara Pacis

The photo above is of a section of the Lungotevere, the multi-lane street along the Tiber (here, the east bank, going upstream).  The street looks nearly empty here, but that's only because we waited until the traffic had cleared to dash into the street to take the photo.  Just behind us, to the right, a hundred cars and scootes are waiting for the light to change.   The building on the right is Richard Meier's "box" for the Ara Pacis, an ancient treasure.  The box is not popular with many Romans, for understandable, if not universally shared, reasons.  (See Dianne's caveat at the end of this post.)  It cost $25 million, a lot of money for a storage container.  It diminishes the nearby churches.  It clashes with the Mussolini-era buildings that line two sides of the Piazza Augusto Imperatore (see an earlier post where we listed that much-maligned piazza as #9 on our RST Top 40 list - see list at right).  And it sits too close to the Lungotevere.

That last complaint is about to be addressed--by another controversial project.  As we understand it, the authorities are proposing to create a piazza on the Tiber side of the building, right where the traffic now flows--just beyond the people standing in the left of the photo.  This will allow tourists and other visitors to the box to step out into the piazza and enjoy a view of the river below.  Not a bad idea.  But what's to be done with the cars, trucks, and scooters? 

Yes, you guessed it.  They'll be put in a new tunnel.  Tunnels are common on the other side of the Tevere, but not on this side, where there is just one - about where this one would end.  As we conceive it, the tunnel will begin just beyond the intersection from which the photo was taken, descend under the newly contructed piazza, and emerge down the road a piece (actually just off, to the east, of the Lungotevere).  At left, a map of the area, to help keep things straight.  The Ara Pacis is in lavender, near the bottom.

The Passeggiata di Ripetta, view
from the north end of the Ara Pacis

Even now, most of the traffic exits the Lungotevere right after the Ara Pacis, passing down a busy, two-lane brick road that eventually bypasses Piazza del Popolo.  As the traffic descends on this brick road, it streams cheek-by-jowl along the Passeggiata di Ripetta, which carries traffic the other direction (south) and emerges at the Ara Pacis.  On the photo at right, you can see the Passeggiata di Ripetta, as it skirts the Ara Pacis, which is behind the photographer in this view. 

Looking north on the Passeggiata di Ripetta
And left, a long shot down the Passeggiata.  Despite its proximity to a major arterial carrying traffic from the Lungotevere, it remains an attractive street, lined with sycamores.

Protests from apartment dwellers on the Passeggiata
di Ripetta
OK, that's a bit complex.  The key point is that the people who now live on the Passeggiata di Ripetta are upset at the prospect of the new tunnel, and all the construction that will go with it.  They imagine--and they can't be wrong here--all the noise, and all the concrete ugliness that's virtually guaranteed to come with the new structure.  In protest, they put up signs:  NO SOTTO PASSO (No Underpass).  The signs are at the top of the building in the photo at right. 

We're with the neighborhood on this one.  The new piazza would be nice.  But the Tevere's not much to look at, and the project promises to be more than a little disruptive.  The traffic flows fine as it is.  Our advice: save some money, and forget it.  No Sotto Passo. 


PS from Dianne - I think more positively of Meier's "box" than does Bill.  I was there for its grand opening.  Bill and I have climbed up and around and in it (with the managing architect).  It's a very popular building site in Rome, and houses a museum.  It's among the top 3 visited sites now in Rome, as I recall.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Parco dei mostri: If Walt Disney had lived 600 years ago

“Parco dei mostri” or “Monster Park” is a wondrous 16th century Disneyland about 40 miles from Rome.  We found its fantastical sculptures, well, fantastic.  I don’t know if today’s kids, brought up with CGI and 3D, would appreciate it, but these kids sure do.

Funded and founded by the great Orsini family, one can marvel that it remains intact today, almost 600 years later.
The park managers have gotten savier, and now charge Eur10 for admission (Eur8 for children 4-8).  When we were last there, the snack bar reminded us of those from our 1950s car vacations through the Southwest.  Now they even have a fairly decent website, in Italian and English.

Parco dei mostri is about 12 miles outside Viterbo, a town worth visiting in itself.  (Even closer  than Parco dei mostri to Viterbo is the small town of Bagnaia, famous for Villa Lante, which Dianne will visit in a future post.) There's a frequent train from Rome to Viterbo.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Good Buy Roma, and Samsung's Smiling Woman

It's sad to leave Rome, and sadder still when the Fiumicino airport tries to suck up your last Euro with its tacky "Good Buy Roma" campaign, hoping you'll pick up one of those cute Vespa bags in a last frenzy of "Roman Holiday" sentiment. 

Although we have been known to succumb to mawkish sentiment at some point in the sequence of departure, we are not into cute Vespa bags.  But we were entertained, this time, by a wall-sized, waiting-room ad featuring a smiling, sudsed-up woman, freed by her amazing Samsung washing machine to engage in  bubble-bath flirtation with her boyfriend.  It is true that Italian washing machines take so long to do their work that a young couple could do almost anything--attend a play or picnic in the Alban Hills--before the laundry was ready to hang.  "Your Freedom: Our Best Innovation," reads the text, a mildly feminist theme hearkening back to the 1970s and the Virginia Slims campaign. 

The over-smiling woman has been a feature of advertising for decades, leaving analysts of ad fare to explore the shadowy world between pleasure (the smile) and pain (the over-smile, reaching into the space of horror).  All those teeth and gums. 

Then this Asian gentleman showed up and did his tai-chi routine right there, with that smile as backdrop.  You never know.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Massacre in Tuscolano: Rome's Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead)

RST welcomes Paul Baxa as guest blogger.  Baxa is Assistant Professor of History at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and the author of Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (University of Toronto Press, 2010), a wonderfully creative and perceptive book on the cultural forces that created 20th-century Rome.  A review/treatment of that book is at   Here, Baxa explores an event - and its legacy - that took place years ago in one of Rome's many "ordinary" neighborhoods, and one with which he's very familiar: his relatives live there and he visits often. 

Entrance to the former MSI youth office.
Acca Larenzia is a rather anonymous street in the vast periphery of Rome.  On January 7, 1978 this otherwise quiet street was rocked by violence as an assailant on a motorbike opened fire on a gang of young men, members of the Fronte del Gioventù, the youth wing of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI).  Two were killed on the spot while a third died later during the unrest that followed.  The gunmen were members of a Marxist revolutionary cell and their action was the latest round of tit-for-tat violence between extremist political groups that had plagued Italy and Rome in particular for several years during the so-called Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead).  With the “strage” (massacre) of Acca Larenzia, as neofascist youths would call it, the suburban streets of Rome were turned into a battleground for the next several weeks. 

     The Quartiere Tuscolano, where the via Acca Larenzia is located, is like any other quarter of Rome, a massive conglomeration of low and medium rise buildings mostly constructed since the Second World War.  These high density neighborhoods served as a breeding ground for the extremist politics of the period.  Teenage girls and boys in the local licei (high schools) spent their weekends and evenings listening to political speeches, and pledging war on their rivals.  Often, these groups clashed and gunfire erupted leaving some of them dead.  Today, one can see in these quartieri popolari (working-class neighborhoods) plaques and memorials commemorating those who died in the cause of extremism.   The ubiquitous graffiti on the walls of the apartment buildings recalls their names for a new generation of militants.

      The events at Acca Larenzia, however, have had an impact on Italian politics today.  Many current politicians like Gianfranco Fini (Deputy Premier under Silvio Berlusconi), Ignazio La Russa, and the current mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno were present at Acca Larenzia in the days following the attacks.  Today, the Acca Larenzia commemorations held every year on the anniversary of the shootings attract important names like Giorgia Meloni, the former Minister of Youth in the most recent Berlusconi government.  Alemanno, meanwhile, has recently named a public garden in Rome after another young neofascist killed during those Years of Lead.  Alemanno justified this by pointing out that his predecessor, Walter Veltroni, had named a piazza in honour of Walter Rossi, a member of Lotta Continua (ongoing struggle) who had been murdered by neofascists in that same year of 1977.

A column decorated with Fascist symbols,
including a schematic fasces and an ax,
the latter reflecting the the Celtic/Germanic/Nordic
mythology of the Italian far right.
I visited the site at Acca Larenzia one evening in June 2007.  It was near 10pm and the neighborhood was eerily quiet despite being a stone’s throw from the always busy Via Tuscolano.  The spot where the shootings occurred was dimly lit.  It was a rather odd place made up of a small cortile (courtyard) separated from the street by low columns.  On the far side was a staircase which led up to a terrace looking over a parking lot.  At the foot of the staircase was the entrance to the former MSI youth office.  It is here that every January a ceremony commemorating the shootings is held by neofascists. 
Below the names of the those killed, the plaque reads:
Fallen for Liberty
Today as yesterday, in our hearts
for a better Italy
Over the door, next to the staircase is a plaque which lists the names of the three men killed that day with the phrase “Caduti per la libertà” (fallen for liberty).  (NB: there is a new plaque there today which has an accusatory statement below the names which reads “Assassinato dell’odio comunista e dei servi del stato” (assassinated by communist hatred and its servants in the state).  Around the plaque and on the columns are spray painted lictors, celtic crosses and Roman standards.  At night, the effect of the place was unnerving.  I took a few photos and gazed at the posters and artwork on the walls.  It was here that I felt for the first time the sinister vibes of fascism’s legacy, a feeling that I never experienced at the more famous fascist sites in Rome like the EUR or the Foro Italico despite their pervasive fascist symbols.  Rather it was here, in this dark, quiet suburban street in the Tuscolano—which strictly speaking had nothing to do with the fascist regime of the Ventennio—that the violent legacy of Mussolini’s regime continued to live.  I was glad to leave.
Paul Baxa

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Coffee in the traffic circle

Rome's traffic can get to the best of us, and Piazza delle Rovere is no exception.  It's a broad crossing of busy, even by Rome standards, streets, including a multi-lane one leading into and out of a formidable car tunnel - where the drivers act like they're on a private raceway.  For a pedestrian negotiating the so-called piazza (it hardly looks like one), it feels like taking one's life into one's hands.  And, the piazza, since it's is on the way from Trastevere to the Vatican, is often crossed. 
And so we found ourselves one day at the piazza and in need of a "pausa" - a rest.  We plopped ourselves down at the outdoor kiosk/cafe' there, and soon found ourselves not just watching the cars zooming by, but watching the world go by.  The service was friendly and generous and lovely.  We watched a waiter attempt conversation - with much grace and effort on his part - with an Asian tourist.  The Asian tourist watching the military men smartly walk by.  The ubiquitous businessman on cellphone.  Teenagers taking a break from their - well, whatever they take breaks from, perhaps life - as they had a gabfest at a small table near us. 

Somehow, this "rest" spot in the midst of what until now had seemed like one of Rome's ugliest piazzas brought us succor.   We now go by this piazza with fondness and stop there on a whim.  But, nestled against a Michelangelo Vatican wall with views up to the Gianicolo hill, how ugly can it be? And, somehow the shot above doesn't do the traffic danger justice  - maybe that's why the cafe' is such a relief.

At the end of this post is a map to give you some idea of this un-pedestrian space (the blue marker is the cafe').

The lesson we took from this?  Take that break any time, any where, any place... don't wear yourself out (Bill would say to Dianne) looking for the perfect cafe'.  The best one might be under your nose, or in the midst of a traffic circle.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Enter, Monumentally: Fascist-Era Doors and Entryways

Rome has some really big doors and entranceways; you'll see them all over the city.  Some are so big that they seem almost silly, architectural caricatures of a sort, structural affectations.  Some front public structures, others residential buildings--especially apartment houses.  Most of them were designed and built during the Fascist regime's later years--after about 1935, when the regime expanded its imperial presence in North Africa with the invasion of Ethiopia, and when architects working with Fascist support turned from sleek, horizontal structures with a rationalist aesthetic to monumental forms that sought to capture the grandeur and the sheer enormity of ancient Rome. 

Giò Ponti's entrance to the University
of Rome's Math Department

You'll find a nice collection of big doors at the University of Rome (La Sapienza), built by the Fascists in the late 1930s after a portion of the troubling, leftist quartiere of San Lorenzo was levelled to make way.  Giò Ponti, an architect and designer who did everything from buildings to dessert plates (we own a set), created the enormous entrance to the Mathematics Building at the University.  (If you're intrigued, see our complete post on this building, with contemporary photos.)

Entrance to EUR's Museo della Civiltà Romana

At EUR, the quintessential example of Fascist monumentality, you'll find the portone (big door) at right, welcoming teenagers on a field trip to the Museo della Civiltà Romana.  This door also graced the cover of our newest book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler (see at left, above).  For more information on the new book, see end of post.

The non-state examples are just as cool.  We found one in the upper reaches of Trastevere, just beyond the hordes, on what we remember as Via Goffredo Mammeli (left). 

We came upon the one we like best (below right) in our current neighborhood, just west off Via Tuscolana, a couple of blocks from the railroad station. 

What's going on with the big doors and doorways?  What's the message?  One is that material--concrete, steel, glass, whatever--is plentiful; that we're in the midst of a society rich with resources.  Another, along similar lines, is that something special has been done for and presented to those who work or visit or live in these buildings--something beyond the ordinary. 

A third has to do with humility--the humility of those who pass through these gates of momentality, feeling grateful but also just "small," and hence intimidated, not quite victims, yet rendered passive by those who created the building and built the entrance.  Think of the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Tin Woodman, cowering in the cavernous space where the Wizard did his magic in the The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939.  The ordinary people of Rome, experiencing Fascism. 


For more on EUR and Fascist architecture, see 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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ralph Ellison in Rome

The American Academy, Rome. This McKim, Mead & White
building is on Itinerary 1 of Rome the Second Time -
pp.37-37 of the print version.
Not everyone likes Rome.  Not even if the experience includes a long stay at the American Academy, that neo-classical citadel of culture high on the Gianicolo, where American scholars, writers, musicians, artists and architects gather to ruminate and create, or to simply bask in leisure, paid for by the Academy.

Ralph Ellison, probably 1952
High on the list of those who have resisted the allure of the city and the charms of the Academy is Ralph Ellison, the brilliant, mercurial black writer whose first novel, The Invisible Man, was critically acclaimed on publication in 1952 and earned for the author the National Book Award (and with it, world fame)--and, sponsored by writers John Hersey and Robert Penn Warren, an invitation to the American Academy in Rome.  He arrived with his wife, Fanny, in October, 1955. 

Ralph, outside his study at
the Academy
It did not take long for Ralph to find fault with the Academy's way of life.  He complained that his quarters in the main building were too small, and he was given a working studio outside the building, in the back of the main garden, up against the Aurelian Wall.   Although not a shy man, he was irritated by the Academy custom that fellows socialize at meals, and especially by classicists among the fellows, who kept him at arm's length, even as he sought their companionship to nurture a growing interest in the Italian Renaissance.  Writing to his friend Saul Bellow, he complained  about "learning to live with prying paranoids, to avoid the burbling of old maids and the academic bitching at breakfast." 

Ralph at the Academy
Nor was the food to his liking.  Ralph's problematic stomach balked at the garlic and rejected Italian coffee as too bitter.  "I got no way to get any corn bread," Ralph lamented, "and these Romans think a Chitterling is something to stuff sausage into....a biscuit is unheard of--they think it means a cookie in this town...."  He longed for the food of his Oklahoman youth and of Harlem, which he had for some time called home.  Of another writer at the Academy, Southerner Caroline Gordon, Ralph mused that "sure as hell she's going to come up one day wishing for some turnip greens cooked with a ham bone."  Whether Fanny was able to produce that meal is unknown, but what is clear is that Ralph early on withdrew from the communal dining room and charged his wife--who had a part-time job in Rome--with fixing his meals on a hot plate and in an electric oven, found at a flea market. 

Rome was no solace.  Indeed, Ralph for the most part avoided the city, venturing down the hill mainly to enjoy the Porta Portese market, where he purchased (what he thought were, and may have been) genuine Etruscan objects.  During a second year (yes, he disliked the place so much that he applied for an extension of his fellowship) he seems to have enjoyed driving a Volkswagen, loaned him by a publisher, in Rome's then-tolerable traffic, though Fanny described Roman drivers as "wild and crazy," adding that Ralph "loses his temper very quickly."  For the most part, however, Ralph simply ignored Rome.  He knew no Italian and took no lessons.  Although he had been told of a small black district in the city, he made no effort to find it.  And rather than visit an Italian barber, he cut his own hair.  "Ralph walks a narrow path," wrote Fanny, "from our living quarters to his study and back."  (For a very different reaction to spending time at the Academy, and to Rome, see our post on Michael Graves in Rome.)

Fanny was more receptive to the world outside the Academy.  In words that reflected how different from Ralph's was her perception of the city, she wrote, "We, I, love this wonderful city; its wonders are endless."  Writing to a black friend eager to come to Rome but concerned about how she might be received as a person of color, Fanny counseled:  "I believe you would like the Italians; they're very much like Negroes...informal, voluble, warm."  

Ralph longed for life in Harlem.  "I'm homesick," he wrote, "for moses [blacks] for one thing."  He was homesick, too, for the cultural environment of New York City.  "This place," he wrote of Rome, "has little of the creative tension so typical of New York.  You can see more art, hear more and better rendered music, and heaven help us, find more interesting writing, there in a day than you can in months here."  In one letter, he described Rome as "a rather provincial town."   While there is some truth in Ralph's judgment, it is also apparent that he failed to explore what the city had to offer.  Rome's most important post-war writer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was living just a mile from the Academy, on one of the spurs of the Gianicolo.  He had moved there, onto Via Fonteiana, in 1954, and in April 1955--just months before Ralph arrived--published his first novel, I Ragazzi di Vita. 

Ralph made only minimal progress on his second novel during his 26 months in Rome, but the Academy--and the city--did provide friendships and some of the intellectual stimulation he required, especially in his second year.  He saw a lot of fellow novelist (and New Yorker short story writer) John Cheever, who was living in Rome, and he formed deep friendships with John Ciardi and Robert Penn Warren, both at the Academy in 1956/57.   Others who were Academy fellows or visitors during Ralph's tenure included Allen Tate, Robert Venturi, Alexander Calder, Ben Shahn, Helen Frankenthaler, Archibald MacLeish, and Ignazio Silone.   On one of his excursions outside the academy walls, he had unexpectedly encountered historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., on the Spanish Steps.  "Aren't you Arthur Schlesinger?" Ralph asked?  "Aren't you Ralph Ellison?" Schlesinger replied. 

There was a pleasure of another sort.  Ralph had an affair in Rome.  She was young, white, attractive, married, part of the city's American community, a regular visitor to the Academy.  They made love in Ralph's study and for several months imagined a life together.  Fanny knew, and she knew that others knew, and she understandably withdrew from the Academy round of life, then returned to the States, alone.  Ralph followed in November 1957, and eventually they put their marriage back together. 
This account is adapted from Arnold Rampersad's excellent treatment, Ralph Ellison: a Biography (Vintage, 2008), available in print and electronic versions at  Highly recommended.