Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Giò Ponti: Revived in Rome

Ponti in his famous armchair - at home, living "ala Ponti"
Italian design can be art at its best, and found in unlikely places.  RST’s recent foray to the western suburbia of Rome’s via Aurelia brought us to a fascinating and stylish, if small, show of Italian architect Giò Ponti’s interior design.  The setting is the interior design retail shop of Frattali, which is selling modern versions of Ponti’s furnishings.  Frattali’s store – an unlikely modern building in an otherwise undistinguished, even unattractive stretch of via Aurelia (one of the ancient consular roads, one must remind oneself).  
Frattali store on via Aureli

Frattali also currently has on display placards in Italian and English explaining some of the highlights of Ponti’s architectural career – which spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s (he died in 1979).  We recommend a visit before the “show” is scheduled to close on June 9 (info on how to get there at the end of this post). 

armchair - you can buy it too (Montecatini desk
chairs in background)
Titled  “vivere alla Ponti” – or “living alla Ponti”-- the exhibit also is subtitled “Houses inhabited by Giò Ponti.  Experiments in domestic life and architectures for working and living.”  Ponti started including interiors in his buildings early on.  But it was only 2 years ago that remakes of his furniture designs went on the market, with the imprimatur of his heirs:  a stylish, large armchair/poltronia [1953 (that doesn’t look all that useful) from his family home, a metal chair [1935] from one of his most famous buildings, the Montecatini headquarters in Milan, bookcases, dressers, rugs, and coffee tables (see photos here). 
coffee table, rug, cabinet - all ala Ponti
The placards suggest that Ponti was pathbreaking in applying his design skills to the whole building – inside and out.  We note Frank Lloyd Wright was firm in that concept before Ponti.  We also see striking similarities between Ponti’s style and the Los Angeles interiors currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Pacific Design exhibit (1930-1965), part of the large, current, all-LA “Pacific Standard Time” 60+ location exhibition) that, interestingly, overlaps almost all of Ponti's era.

The re-make of the desk chair comes from the
 Montecatini office building designed in the late
We expressed some surprise in a chat with one of the store workers about Ponti’s lack of recognition in the U.S.  She pointed out that he was one of the first Italian designers to produce for export.  If so, we say, keep it up!  As regular readers of RST know, we are fans of Ponti, having already done a post on his Fascist-era, rationalist (we would say) 1934 Mathematics Building at La Sapienza (the main university) in Rome.

Ponti was Milanese, and the greatest concentration of his buildings is in Milan.  He designed buildings internationally, from Caracas to Denver (the Denver Art Museum).  There is one more building in Rome, the Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi, nestled at the top of Villa Borghese.  That is on our to-do list.  We have read its interiors have been redesigned in what we would call faux Mediterranean, or as the hotel's website trumpets it, "a facelift inspired by the sumptuous and elaborate style of the patrician villas of Rome’s late-17th-century nobility" - all the rage, as we know from Los Angeles tear-downs as well.  As a result, many of Ponti’s original interior furnishings are on sale on the Web.  No accounting for taste. 
 A lavishly designed catalog for Frattali’s current show begins with a short essay “To re-make or not to re-make, that is the question.”  We’ll let RST readers ponder that one.  We know where we come out.


Directions:  Frattali is at via Aurelia, 678.  If you drive, they have their own parking garage – just get onto the feeder road a few blocks before.  For public transport, note via Aurelia, 678 is a little over one mile (1.4 km) from Piazza Cornelia.  If you get yourself to the piazza (it’s a Metro A stop, or various buses go there), you can walk, or take the 246 bus, that runs about every 15 - 30 minutes (not on Sundays) 4 stops.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Garibaldi in Rome

Today the name "Garibaldi" is known primarily among Italians, some Uruguayans (he was active there, too) and to those accustomed to filling in "19th-century Italian patriot" on the Monday crossword puzzle.  If it is hard to imagine, or remember, what Garibaldi was some 150 years ago, consider this line, the first one actually, from Christopher Hibbert's compelling 1965 biography:  "A hundred years ago Garibaldi was, perhaps, the best-known name in the world."  Better known, that is, than Louis Napoleon, or Charles Darwin, or Karl Marx, or Abraham Lincoln, or Giuseppe Verdi, all contemporaries. 

Garibaldi postcard
In our own half century, when heroism has been in such short supply, and the craving for it so strong and ubiquitous that every police officer, firefighter, soldier or advocate for the underprivileged is proclaimed a "hero," it is unfortunate that Garbaldi is not better known.  For he was a hero.  Not just a "Hero of Italian Unification," the subtitle of Hibbert's book, but a figure of glorious proportions, of unprecedented and largely deserved fame.  "There were streets and squares named after him," Hibbert continues, "in a hundred different towns from Naples to Montevideo; statuettes of him, busts, medallions, china figurines were almost as common in Manchester as in Milan, in Boston as in Bologna; postcards garishly depicting his messianic features were sold in their millions; you could drink a Garibaldi wine, wear a Garibaldi blouse, see a Garibaldi musical, eat a Garbaldi biscuit."  [You can also see more of Garibaldi on the Trastevere itinerary in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler;  see below for more information.]

Madonna, in the age of celebrity
None of that seems extraordinary in the postmodern age of celebrity, when Bowie, Madonna (left), and Lady Gaga have reinvented themselves for an album, concert, or public appearance, marketing the new self to consumers of pop culture, worldwide.
But Garibaldi was not born into an age of celebrity and, except for occasionally donating a lock of hair to an admirer, he did not reinvent or sell himself.  The image of Garibaldi that circulated across the globe in the mid-19th century--courageous, relentless, flamboyant, earnest, a charismatic leader of men, a brilliant tactician of guerilla warfare, indefatigable, the billowing red shirt that some believed had miraculously kept him from harm--had been earned, time and again, on the battlefields of what would become, in substantial measure due to his unfailing commitment, "Italy." 

"There are some men," wrote the novelist Alexander Dumas, who knew him well, "who can achieve anything, and Garbaldi is one of them.  If he were to say to me: 'I am setting out tomorrow on an expedition to capture the moon,' I should doubtless reply, 'All right, go on.  Just write and tell me as soon as you have taken it...."  And the poet Tennyson, on meeting Garibaldi for the first time, wrote:  "I had expected to see a hero, and I was not disappointed....He is more majestic than meek, and his manners have a certain divine simplicity in them such as I have never witnessed in a native of these islands, among men at least."

Our focus here will be on Garibaldi in Rome, but before we get to his adventures there, it is worth saying that his reputation as hero owed more to his liberation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) from the Bourbon monarchy in 1860--a genuine success, and accomplished with a rag-tag army, vastly outnumbered--than from anything that happened in Rome.  The cult of Garibaldi was apparent midway through that campaign, when his Legion managed the perilous crossing from Sicily to Calabria, where the local peasants believed him "Il nostro secondo Gesu Cristo"--our second Jesus Christ.   

Rome, more than a decade earlier, contributed to his reputation, too, but it was also, in the final analysis, a military and political defeat, with French troops helping to crush the short-lived Republic and to restore Pio Nono to dominion over the Papal States.  

Giuseppe Garbaldi's first sight of Rome was as a youth of 17, accompanying his father up the Tiber in a small boat carrying wine, pulled upstream by oxen.  Father and son would likely have done business in the port of Rome, within a few hundreds yards, upriver or down, of the Ponte Sublicio on Testaccio's edge.  He would not see Rome again until April of 1849, when the Legion, some veterans of campaigns in Uruguay and northern towns including Novara and Brescia, and led by a red-shirted Garibaldi on a white horse, entered the city from the north, through the gate at Piazza del Popolo, then down Via del Corso toward the Piazza Colonna, today the offices of the Italian prime minister. 
Piazza of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, site of the Rossi murder

Garibaldi was late to the party.  Amidst the liberal, revolutionary (and, in Italy, nationalist) fervor that spread through Europe in 1848, the Pope, Pio Nono, had rejected the Risorgimento (the movement for unification).  Then, in November, an anti-democratic appointee of Pio Nono, Count Pellegrino Rossi, was stabbed and killed in the piazza in front of the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the Renaissance building at one end of Campo de' Fiori, just off Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.  Fearing for his life and threatened by a popular uprising, the Pope left the city for refuge in Gaeta (then part of the Kingdom of Naples), and in early February 1849, the Republic was declared, with Mazzini in charge.  In April a French army landed at the port of Civitavecchia, intending to restore Papal rule--and setting the stage for Garibaldi and his Legion.
Villa Corsini's entrance, where so many
Italian patriots died.

Rome was a complex battlefield.  Although the ancient walls on the city's east side were in some ways most vulnerable to attack, those in charge of the Republic's defense correctly assumed that the French would launch their attack at the more modern walls that surrounded the city's west side (Trastevere), running from Castel Sant' Angelo in the North, over the Gianicolo, and down to Porta Portese (at Ponte Sublicio).  Indeed, the most vulnerable part of the front, the part assigned to Garibaldi, was that around Porta San Pancrazio.  Here, the terrain posed a special problem: the ground outside the walls was higher than that within, allowing the enemy's cannon to look and shoot down on the defending armies.  There appeared to be only one solution: occupy the high ground by fortifying Villa Corsini, several hundred yards outside the walls.  Garibaldi made the villa his first headquarters. 

And so it was that the first contact between Garibaldi, his Legion (and other troops defending the city) and the French forces took place on the grounds of the Pamphili gardens, just below Villa Corsini, with Garibaldi, on horseback, personally rallying his troops in a counter-charge, shouting from his horse, "Come on, boys, put the French to flight like a mass of carrion!  Onward with the bayonet [a weapon in which Garibaldi had great confidence], bersaglieri!"  It was a great victory, to be sure, but its impact was limited; a cautious Mazzini rejected Garibaldi's request to follow up.  The momentum was lost. 

While the French licked their wounds, the Garibaldini left Rome for the foothills to the city's northwest and west, where their mission was to meet a threat from the armies of King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies.  The Legion encamped briefly on the grounds of Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli, then turned south to Palestrina to challenge the right flank of the Neapolitan army, ensconsed in the Alban Hills.  Although vastly outnumbered, the Garibaldini were again successful, first in a series of daring guerilla raids of the sort at which Garibaldi excelled, then in a full assault down the steep slopes of Palestrina. 
A few days later, and with a much larger force (not officially under his command), Garibaldi steeled his retreating calvalry into an assault on the Neapolitans at Velletri.  "So that night," writes Hibbert, "Garibaldi went to sleep in a bed that had been occupied the night before by King Ferdinand himself."  In the following days, the Garibaldini pursued the enemy down the Liri Valley.

Back in Rome in early June, Garibaldi was recuperating in his personal quarters in Via delle Carozze (near Piazza di Spagna) from wounds suffered in the Pamphili gardens and Velletri, where he was trampled by horses.   He was not at the moment in charge of anything, having resigned his command while insisting that he was "an ordinary soldier of the Italian legion."  That status changed when the French stormed and took the Villa Corsini and the nearby Vascello Villa (retaken soon after).  Garibaldi got out of bed and made his way across the river to the Porta Cavalleggeri (just south of the Basilica of Saint Peter) to check fortifications there, then up what is now Via Garbaldi to Porta San Pancrazio.  From there he coordinated and participated in a series of frontal assaults on the Villa Corsini, each futile and costly; hundreds of Garibaldini and bersaglieri were killed.  Late in this bloodbath, he had the temerity to order the commander of the bersaglieri to attack once again:  "Go," he ordered Emilio Dandolo, "with twenty of your bravest men, and take Villa Corsini at the point of the bayonet."  That attack also failed.  And so, for once, had Garibaldi. 

Villa Savorelli (now Villa Aurelia)
It was all over but the shouting, although the good guys held out for another 26 days, until the end of June.  Even that was not easy.  Garibaldi and his staff moved into Villa Savorelli, just inside the wall at Porta San Pancrazio.

 Built in 1650, the villa had a commanding view of the area, but that view also made it fodder for the French cannon, which struck it methodically, killing several of Garibaldi's dinner guests and nearly destroying the structure.  Despite the shelling, Garibaldi's morning routine included a visit to the watch-tower on the roof of the building, where he would taunt the French sharpshooters by casually lighting a cigar as the balls whizzed by.  Restored in 1856 and renamed Villa Aurelia in 1895, it now belongs to the American Academy in Rome and is used for some of its functions.

Villa Spada, restored
As the siege wore on, Garibaldi moved his headquarters once more, to the 17th-century Villa Spada, behind the Aurelian wall, consigning that structure, too, to withering fire and destruction.  It, too, was restored, and now serves as the Irish Embassy to the Holy See. 

Garibaldi had left his pregnant wife, Anita, in Rieti on the way down to Rome.  He wrote to her on June 21:  "We are fighting on the Janiculum and these people are worthy of their past greatness.  Here they live, die and suffer amputation, all to the cry of 'Viva la Repubblica!'  One hour of our life in Rome is worth a century of ordinary existence."  (Anita must have felt the same, for as Giuseppe was writing, she was already on her way to join him in Rome; she would arrive on June 26).

These were inspiring sentiments, but the reality was more depressing, and as the month wore on, Garibaldi decided--contrary to the sentiments of the political and military leaders above him--that Rome could no longer be held, and that the cause would be best served by a strategic retreat into the countryside, where he could once again exercise his skills in guerilla warfare.  "Ovunque noi saremo,"  he would say, "sara Roma":  Wherever we will be, there will be Rome.  Fierce fighting continued on the Gianicolo, but Garibaldi had made up his mind.  He gathered volunteers in the Piazza of St. Peter's and at San Giovanni in Laterano, adjacent to Porta San Giovanni.  With Anita and about 4,000 volunteers, he left Rome on July 2, from the San Giovanni gate. 

Pursued by the French, Garibaldi feinted in the direction of Palestrina, then cut north to Tivoli, then northwest through Mentana (site of a good Garibaldi museum), where he turned north again, pushing through Terni, Todi, Orvieto, Arezzo, Macerata and points further north and east, now with the Austrians in pursuit.  In late July, his forces dwindling from defections, he officially released his remaining followers.  "Remember," he wrote in his final order, "that although the Roman war for the independence of Italy has ended, Italy remains in shameful slavery."  He would not again see Rome.

Anita Garibaldi, remembered on the Gianicolo
Both Garibaldis are represented by statues on the Giancolo.  Giuseppe's is the more prominent, located in the large piazza (Piazzale Garibaldi) that overlooks the city.  Anita's is about 150 meters to the north, on the west side of the road leading up.

Our thanks to Christopher Hibbert for use of materials from his remarkable book, Garibaldi, the basis for the above account.  It's available at Amazon. 

And for more on Garibaldi in Rome, see our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Trastevere, Modern Rome features three other walks: 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.

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, May 19, 2012

Sculpture at EUR: but leave the kids at home!

RST discovered this curious piece of public sculpture while on our way to the Fungo, a space-needle-like tower in EUR.  We don't pretend to have figured it out.  The woman in the center is lacking an arm--or, more precisely, she has two arms but the left one is wedged under the right one, the work of the sculptor (if so, more than odd) or vandals. 

At her feet, on its back, is something out of Rosemary's Baby:  it appears to have little devil ears and the lower half of its body trails off, placenta-like.  Maybe the one-armed maid had just given birth to this little monster.

But maybe not.  The man is front of her is all blustery violence, ax-like weapon in hand. He might have just killed the child--and cut off its mother's arm--making her scene one of personal trauma and maternal tragedy. 

At the other end (left), images of horrific confinement for both genders; everyone's boxed up or dominated.  Looks like a woman, with a fetus in her womb, is being ridden by George Washington. 

There's no plaque to identify the work, and the sculptor's name doesn't appear on it, that we could find.  It was probably made and installed around the time when the nearby Fungo was built: the late 1950s.  (See an earlier post on the Fungo itself - worth a glance.)

Zealots of artistic interpretation can find this piece across from Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport in EUR (right, the Palazzo in the background).  It's on the west fork of Via Cristoforo Colombo, about halfway betweeen the lake and il Fungo. 

Let us know your morbid thoughts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The University at Tor Vergata: A Brief Tour

The latest addition to the club of Rome universities is Tor Vergata, named after the alternating red and grey bricks of a striped 14th-century tower.  It is a long way from the Centro, out there to the east with all those other "Tors": Tor Sapienza, Tor Bella Monaca, Torre Maura, Tor Borgata.  I would add Tor Pignattara, except that this community, long considered to be inhumanely removed (in more ways than one) from central Rome, seems in comparison to Tor Vergata very close in, indeed. 

Our first thought on considering how to out there was to take the Via Casilina trolley/train.  This was a mistake--the university is located three stops beyond the GRA--though in retrospect, in the absence of a scooter or car we would consider the Metro and a bus transfer--that, in reverse, is how we got home.  The trolley stopped frequently, and the ride, through an uglier part of outlying Rome, took well over an hour.  Even then, we weren't "there."  From the local natives we determined that the school was to the west, which it was; about a mile, in the mid-day sun.

At last we found the entrance to the campus--somewhat understated, we thought--down a dirt hill and through a parking lot. 

Things improved after that.  We found the academic core: a set of reasonably attractive  buildings in the style of contemporary modernism.  A trifle sterile, perhaps.  Alfredo Lambertucci and Tommaso Valle, architects. 

In one of the buildings, students studied at tables in a hallway.  Tor Vergata offers 113 courses of study through six "faculties": economics, law, engineering, letters, medicine, and science.  In the 2010/11 school year, the school claimed 43,000 students and 1,538 faculty. 

We came across a new, and on this day, almost empty, classroom.  Students were scarce elsewhere.  Perhaps the school year was not yet in full swing; it was early October. 

Outside, a small group was celebrating a graduation or some other achievement; the object of that celebration (center) was wearing a laurel wreath (appropriately, the Italian word for graduated is laureata). 

The Economics Department was preparing to host a leadership event, using English and a Warhol-style soup can, with Campus standing in for Campbell's

Away from the core, where, in the U.S., one might have expected green fields with athletes perfecting their skills, was a vast plain of dust and scrub, bisected here and there by streets too broad for the few vehicles using them.  A sign for "Scavi"--excavations--suggested that efforts to build on this ground had been halted when ruins or artifacts were discovered.  We wondered if Sergio Leone had thought about filming his spaghetti westerns out here. 

To the far west--at least a mile from the core, and hidden from it, the husk of Calatrava's unfinished--and unlike to remain unfinished--swimming pool.  It was to be a key venue for the World Swimming Championships (held in 2009). 

And to the south, framing the Alban Hills in the distance, a curious double arch, reminiscent of what Mussolini's planners had in mind for E42--the 1942 exposition intended to commemorate the founding event of Fascism, the 1922 March on Rome.  Italian Fascism never dies; it just reappears in weird places.  And, to the arch's left, visible two photos above, a huge cross. 

Nearby, in the midst of the desolation, we found a lovely church, recently constructed (2002, Vittorio De Feo) but with a judicious and appealing postmodern look.  According to one architectural guide, the building combines the geometric qualities of Russian constructivism, Bernini's facility with light, and the atemporalism of 1930s modernism.

It was open, and we had a look around. 

To be honest, we doubt we've done justice to the campus at Tor Vergata.  Yes, parts of it reminded us of Zabriski Point.  But Tor Vergata is reputed to have thousands of students, and we observed only dozens.  It would look different packed with young bodies. 

But maybe not different enough. 
On the celebrity modern architect working in Rome see an earlier post on 5 of Rome's "Starchitects".

Friday, May 11, 2012

Another out-of-the-way church in Rome: San Sebastiano

Saint Sebastian
Church lady decided it was time for a break from all that Fascist architecture, graffiti and social analysis.  Instead she offers Christ’s footprints, a Bernini pupil’s sculpture, catacombs, a check-off list if you’re doing your seven-church pilgrimage in Rome, to  name a few.

1612 facade
These are all found at the Basilica of San Sebastiano, at the cross-roads of via Appia Antica (the ancient Appian Way) and via delle Sette Chiese – “7 Churches Road.”  Built in the 3rd or 4th century, this quiet, lovely church was redone in the early 17th century.  Among its treasures is the statue of an unusually recumbent Saint Sebastian, complete with gold-tipped arrows (photo at top).  The statue is so Berniniesque that some think its sculptor, Bernini’s pupil Antonio Giorgetti, did it from a Bernini sketch. 

in case you wanted a close-up
If that’s not enough, there are Christ’s footprints, the pole on which Sebastian met his arrows, and other relics.  The San Sebastiano catacombs, next to and under the church, were the first to be called catacombs (a word meaning underground cemetery, apparently derived from the Greek for "hollow"--Bill). 

If you want more on the iconography of this popular saint, Catholic Online has a good bio, tho' needless to say it doesn't talk about him being a gay icon.

Renaissance-worthy interior
It’s hard to say anything on the via Appia is off the beaten track; that’s really a non sequitur.  But, approaching San Sebastiano from via delle Sette Chiese as we did, one feels almost as a pilgrim might have.  And, unless a busload of tourists has just arrived to descend into the catacombs, you’ll pretty much have San Sebastiano to yourself, a treat in Rome. 


Monday, May 7, 2012

Worst Public Sculptures in Rome: Some Competition in Piazza Lodi

We've been through Piazza Lodi many times, but until recently we had never stopped to admire the small plaza at its center, nor noticed the public sculpture that decorates the space.  Not long ago, on a walk through the area, we came upon the piazza--located at the eastern end of Via La Spezia--eager to savor its pleasures.  Among them are the two benches that grace the plaza, nicely placed for a good view of the splendid aqueduct that runs just behind it in the direction of Porta Maggiore, close by. 

Getting to those benches is another matter.  The plaza is isolated by a circle of traffic.  There are no lights or stop signs to slow the relentless string of vehicles, no crosswalks to suggest safe(r) passage.  It took us 5 minutes to find a gap through which we could sprint. 

Another attraction is the sculpture.  It's in the well known and, in Rome, overused form of the monolith.  It was probably installed in the Cento Piazze (Hundred Piazzas) program (see an earlier post on this - and on other candidates for WPS - worst public sculptures) begun about twenty years ago by then-mayor Francesco Rutelli, to bring art and culture to the masses.  Any attempt by the masses to get to this one would result in fewer masses.  

Regardless, it's probably not worth the effort.  The outstanding feature of the monolith are the slots on two sides, filled with cast metal that's designed to resemble (we're guessing here) primordial ooze.  Perhaps one is expected to feel humbled in the presence of humanity's origins.   Instead, we were thrilled just to make it back across the street.  

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Apartment Gardening, in Rome

Rome is overwhelmingly a city of apartments, rather than houses, but that doesn't stop the gardeners, who benefit from a long growing season.  Even so, this building, on Via della Marrana at Via Nocera Umbra in the Tuscolano area, is in a class by itself.  The gardening committee must run the place.  Bill