Rome Travel Guide

Rome Architecture, History, Art, Museums, Galleries, Fashion, Music, Photos, Walking and Hiking Itineraries, Neighborhoods, News and Social Commentary, Politics, Things to Do in Rome and Environs. Over 900 posts

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saldi, Saldi, Saldi....Selling in Summery Rome

She was interested.  He was ready to go. 

50% off in Vicenza.  Note orange items at left. 
Fearful that we might melt, we generally avoid Rome in July.  But this year was different, and so we were there when the "SALDI" signs began filling store windows not just in the Eternal City, but elsewhere in Italy.

"Fino a" means "up to"
It was obvious that "saldi" meant sale, but we couldn't resist looking the word up in our Cassell's Italian Dictionary, which we are embarrassed to say was printed in 1959.  The word is there, both as a noun and an adjective, but in 1959 it did not mean "sale."  As a adjective, it meant "firm, steady, steadfast," and "massive, solid, strong."  As a noun, it meant "balance of account, settlement," as in "pagare a saldo," to pay in full.  Today it means "big sale."

Big means discounts of from 20 to 70% off the original price, and merchants are required by law to list not only the sale price, but the original price. 

A store window in Trieste

One retailer took a postmodern approach, using the word "saldi" not just to announce the sale, but as part of the product, part of what was being sold.  How ironic!  Great gifts for lit-crit friends!

This year, with the Italian economy in the doldrums, there was hope that the summer "saldi" would loosen consumer pursestrings and bring some relief to distressed shopkeepers, perhaps even jumpstart the economy.  Early reports were disappointing.  Not exactly man bites dog. 


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Riccardo Morandi's Metronio Market

Over the past century, Rome has produced two generations of great architects.  One, serving Mussolini’s Fascist regime, or simply practicing in that era, applied the techniques and vision of rationalism or, somewhat later, monumentalism, to the public and private buildings of the period.  Among the rationalists one would have to include Luigi Moretti, author of the 1933 Casa del gioventú, in Trastevere, and Adalberto Libera and Mario De Renzi,collaborators on the Aventino post office (1933) on via Marmorata.  The monumentalists had their heyday at EUR, the massive development south of the city, where the chief architect was Marcello Piacentini. 

The second generation of great architects is the current one, composed of “starchitects” from Italy and elsewhere, who build one big project and then go on to do the same in some other city.  They include Richard Meier, out of the rationalist tradition, and his controversial housing for the Ara Pacis; Renzo Piano, who combined fantasy and functionalism in his Parco della Musica; Zaha Hadid, something of a monumental rationalist in herMAXXI art museum in the quartiere of Flaminio; and Massimiliano Fuksas and Santiago Calatrava, though neither has finished his Rome masterwork, and Calatrava’s swimming pool languishes in the weeds of Tor Vergata. (For more links to RST posts on these architects, see links at the end of this post.)

In between these generations there isn’t much, at least not much that stands out.  Although many buildings were constructed in Rome in the postwar “boom,” most of them were apartment buildings on the city’s outskirts, many of them handsome and some outstanding in a simple, functional way, but too much a part of the suburban fabric to stand out, or for their architects to be recognized for outstanding achievement. (And, Dianne chimes in, some of them not handsome or outstanding.)

There are exceptions, and we were reminded of one of them, a curious-looking market with an attached parking garage, when we read of plans—controversial plans, in turns out—to tear the complex down.  The structure is on via Magna Grecia on the northeast edge of the San Giovanni neighborhood, due passi from San Giovanni in Laterano, which is on the other side of the wall.  We stopped to have a look. 

The building is roughly triangular in shape, with the two longest sides adorned by protruding, fan-like windows. 

The stunning part, though, is the parking garage, or rather the access to it, up a prominent circular ramp—not so different, really, from what Frank Lloyd Wright accomplished on the interior of his Guggenheim gallery in New York City.  The Guggenheim opened in 1959, the Rome market in 1957. 

Inside, light from the window baffles suffuses the interior but is insufficient to overcome the forlorn atmosphere of the place.  A good portion at one end is unoccupied, and the vendors that do exist—selling meats, fish, vegetables, and housewares—have few customers. 
Faced with the possibility of demolition, the 25 remaining vendors have organized with a group called the “Urban experience” (the name is in English) to propose that the Metronio market, as it’s called, be adapted to some new uses, including shops that feature organic products and working artisans.   Among those trying to save the market, there is a sense that the building, and particularly the parking ramp, is of architectural significance.  There is disagreement, however, on whether saving it would require significant and expensive structural work to bring the edifice up to safety and hygienic standards, or only “conservative” restoration.
The man behind the Metronio market was Riccardo Morandi (1902-1989), a civil engineer (rather than architect) with a deep scholarly and practical knowledge of reinforced concrete (cement armato), an inexpensive building material with important structural qualities widely used in the post-1945 Italian reconstruction.  Morandi’s best known work is the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge (above), an 8 km structure with 70 cable-stayed spans crossing Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. He also participated in the postwar reconstruction of Florence, where he built a bridge over the Arno in the mid-1950s. 
Morandi's Cinema Maestoso, dear to our
 hearts becauser we saw the Whitney Houston/
Kevin Costner film "Guardia del Corpo" ("The
Bodyguard") in Italian, with our 2 sons, here
in 1993.  Who needed to understand the plot?
Houston's singing was the heart of the film.
Aside from the Metronio market, Morandi’s Rome projects include a Tevere bridge (known as “Il Grillo”)[1949/50]; a small palazzo on via Martelli (1950); the Cinema Maestoso (and the building above it) on via Appia Nuova (1954-57; a viaduct over a bend in the Tevere in Magliana ((1963-1967); a portion of the Fiumicino airport (perhaps the Alitalia terminal); and the Hotel Ergife (with B.M. Cesarano), on the via Aurelia (1975-1978).   Morandi also taught bridge design at the University of Florence and the University of Rome. 

Additional links to RST's posts on the architects mentioned in this post:

On Rome's new "bridge to nowhere":

On Hadid winning the Sterling Prize:
On EUR buildings:
On Foro Italico, nee' Foro Mussolini:
Generally on 21st century architecture in Rome:

Piano's work is mentioned in the "Starchitects" post, as well as the one on the "bridge to nowhere."

For Meier's work, see also the post on the tunnel under the Ara Pacis and his magnificent Tor Tre Teste church in the suburbs of Rome.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fashion Extra! Color of the Moment is...ORANGE

We would never claim that the arbiters of fashion in Milan, Paris, and New York look to provincial, bureaucratic Rome for hints of what's to come.  Indeed, we assume that Rome is a follower in the fashion world.  Whatever its role, and for what it's worth, we offer this insight, based on many hours of walking the city's streets, in neighborhoods as different as Garbatella and Trieste: this year's color is ORANGE. 
It's everywhere, and on everything.
That yellow shirt is the exception that proves the
rule; you may also recognize it from the post
on misspellings on shirts
We have no good explanation for this phenomenon.  The color is hardly universally flattering.   We also associate it with fall, and the weather here is the hottest it's been in (so we read) 231 years.  That's not a typo. 
Another association, pulled from some random braincell, is with the late 1950s--orange and Scandinavian furniture.  So go figure. 
Window display in a town in Italy's northeast

Oh, Dianne, you are so out of fashion!
And buy something orange. 


Friday, July 13, 2012

Of revolution, idols, communists, and books: the opening of Feltrinellii's RED

The very crowded cafe' at RED - lots of folks
show up for free food and drink!

The recent opening of a new “concept” store for Italy’s largest book retailer, La Feltrinelli, overwhelmed us in several ways.  One was simply the enormous crowd that showed up promptly at 6 p.m. – for a bookstore!  Of course, Feltrinelli’s is trying to sell this as more than a bookstore, since retail book stores are an endangered species these days.  “RED” is designated by the book seller as “Read, Eat, Dream” (yes, in English) and includes a café serving full meals, a bar, and a garden patio – all off the very busy via del Corso, close to Piazza del Popolo; quite large by Italian standards but with a small store-front street presence.  Feltrinelli’s has many shops throughout Rome, in fact 2 more within half a mile of this one, and several of them have performance spaces where we have heard authors such as Erica Jong and musicians such as Roberto Gatto (Italy’s premier jazz drummer).  Clearly La Feltrinelli is trying to enhance the bookshop experience to get readers in the store (think Barnes & Noble/Starbucks combination – with more hype).  I, for one, hope they succeed.
Saviano in blue shirt, right, greeting his public. Carlo
 Feltrinelli in jacket and lighter blue shirt, smiling at the
 successful RED opening ("Do you like it?" he asked ME!)

Back to RED… it also overwhelmed us because CEO Carlo Feltrinelli was there himself (and promptly at 6) and was escorting perhaps Italy’s most famous current writer, Roberto Saviano, through the store.  Saviano wrote Gomorrah, a semi-(only)fictional indictment of the mafia (known there as the Camorra) south of Naples.  Gomorrah has been a best seller, a movie, and the making of an icon – Saviano himself, who has continued to be a dominant voice about Italy’s problems. (We ran into an American friend at the store opening – she said she just wanted to sit at a table near “my idol.”)  Saviano's fame might be understood as similar to that of Woodward and Bernstein in the heady days of the first publication of their Washington Post articles on the Watergate scandal. 
We contrast RED's opening day with a much quieter one, several years ago, when we went to a Richard Ford signing.  Carlo was there also, and we met him.  And Ford, because we were the only ones there for the signing.  
Ah, yes, chicken wings!

And then there’s the overwhelming concept of RED.  Okay, red has long been the color used in all of Feltrinelli’s logos and ads.  And so the store is named RED, with the flimsy “Read, Eat, Dream” tagline.  But, and here’s where it gets interesting, also handed out at the opening was a 30 page large-format pamphlet titled “At 40 years – in remembrance of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli” – Giangiacomo, the father of Carlo, indeed founded the bookstore enterprise.  And, no doubt, he was a giant in the publishing industry, starting his own house and being the first in the world to publish, for example, Pasternak, and specifically Doctor Zhivago.  The pamphlet includes a letter from Pasternak to Giangiacomo. 
Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Giangiacomo’s story borders on the mythic.  He was born the son of a super-rich industrialist family and ended as a leftist militant, apparently killed while trying to blow up a high-voltage tower near Milan (but his death remains suspicious and many don’t buy this explanation).  His son, Carlo, has written a riveting book on his father that we recommend to RST readers:  Feltrinelli:  A Story of Riches, Revolution, and Violent Death.   So, indeed Giangiacomo was a “Red,” as in a Communist.  The first page of the pamphlet is Giangiacomo’s “autobiography” that he was required to write to gain admission to the Italian Communist party.  Giangiacomo’s image is displayed throughout the new RED store – pitching various items.  It is inconceivable to Americans that a market-dominant business would promote itself using Communist themes.  But this is Italy.  And RED. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nonsense, or Authenticity? Rome's T-shirts

For years we’ve noticed the gibberish written on shirts sold in Rome, both in the markets and regular shops.  Most of it made no sense at all.  Until recently we thought it had to do with the Asian/Chinese origin of these items; we had assumed that the content was written in small shops in obscure Szechuan towns by uneducated(or at least not English-fluent) Asians who thought they were writing correct English.  And that, indeed, may have been true years ago. 

Dianne, from the State of Washington herself,
thinks this shirt may be a "second", in part
because it was being sold in an outdoor market stall.
But today that market, we surmise, is probably as rational and structured as any other, meaning it wouldn’t be at all difficult for buyers to insist on, and receive, shirts with correct spelling and perfect English.  Also, two decades into the China boom, it is impossible to believe that there are hundreds of Chinese out there butchering the world’s dominant language--unable to spell Washington--because they don’t know any better. 
So what’s going on here?  What appear to be mistakes and errors, we think, are in fact efforts to produce a new form of authenticity.  In a world of increasing homogeneity, the random, or nearly random, juxtaposition of words, ideas, and images--even the intentional introduction of errors—results in products with a claim to the unique, even if mass-produced.  In another "sign" of authenticity, many of these garments carry a date.  Whether all this amounts to genuine progress toward the authentic we aren’t sure.  But we do note the similarity to the postmodern, particularly the collage work of Robert Rauschenberg (right) and his ilk.
More photos below.       

This jacket for a small child is one of our favorites: "DEATH FROM" is such a nice touch!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Santiago Calatrava's Unfinished Swimming Pool at Tor Vergata

Walking to the pool
Late in our last visit to Rome, we ventured east of the city on public transportation to have a look at Rome's newest university, Tor Vergata, and to finally see a building we had heard much about: Santiago Calatrava's Palanuoto (swimming pool), located, we knew, somewhere near the university.   Our tour of the university was satisfying (more on that in an earlier post), but the pool evaded our grasp. 

Dianne in the olive trees
A long, hot walk over a barren plain (right above), and through an abandoned tract of olive trees (being harvested by squatters), brought us no closer than a half mile, we estimated.  That's Dianne in the grove, with our goal in the distance. 

We surrendered and returned two days later, this time on the scooter.  Even that proved problematic, as we carved turn after turn on new roads leading nowhere, mostly frequented by bicyclists in tandem, enjoying the emptiness. 

Abandoned road
We parked on a traffic circle, climbed over a railing and through an opening in a perimeter fence and up a road abandoned to geckos and weeds.

Calatrava's swimming pool, through the weeds
Moving along a second fence, we found no opening and gave up on our plan of getting within touching distance of the structure.  We took several photos; they all resemble the one on the left, shot from a low angle to emphasize the tumbleweed look.    

Calatrava's idea of how the Sports City would look
We assumed then that the pool was under construction.  No no.  Here's the story:  What we charmingly referred to as Calatrava's "pool" was, in fact, one of two fan-shaped pavilions that together were to comprise a "Sports City," intended for general sports use but especially designed for the 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome.  Calatrava's conception, taken from his web site, is at right.

The tower, designed to house the Rector of the new
university.  Appropriately grandiose. 
Looks like a new EUR. 
The Sports City was to be located at one end of a massive promenade, modeled after the ancient Circus Maximus, with the university's Rectorate (meaning the building housing the rector, the university's president) at the other end.  The new university's buildings were to be distributed along this promenade. 

Ground was broken for the Tor Vergata campus (named after the alternating red and grey bricks of a "striped tower" sold in 1361 as part of the Annibaldi estate) in March, 2007.  But rising costs for Sports City led the right-wing Mayor, Gianni Alemanno, to halt the pool project.  The 2009 swimming competition was moved to the Foro Italico complex (on the Tevere, across from the Flaminio district) and to other hastily constructed pools, some of them carved out of tennis courts. 

Calatrava's Sports City was also linked to Rome's bid for the 2020 summer Olympic games.  Most of the other venues already existed.  But the world financial crisis intervened, and in late 2011 or 2012 the new premier, economic technician Mario Monti, ended Rome's Olympic bid by refusing it state support, despite an offer of 380 million Euros (of about 500 million needed) from a private Swiss group for Sports City, in exchange for 25 years of ownership of the structure. 

In July 2011, a report in La Repubblica remarked on the surrounding "moonscape" and characterized the site as one "dove non si vede l'ombra di un operaio" (where one doesn't see even the shadow of a worker).  By mid-February of the following year, the same newspaper referred to what there was of Calatrava's Sports City as "a cathedral in the desert," an "emblem of defeat," a "vero e proprio capolavoro senza futuro" (a veritable masterpiece without a future). 

When the Olympic bid was abandoned, Mayor Alemanno, who had earlier blocked the Calatrava project, was now upset.  He argued that the games would have helped expand the region's tourist potential by developing areas around Ostia, on the sea.  La Repubblica's Robert Mania, perhaps thinking of Mussolini's ambitious plans to extend the city to the Mediterranean--and beyond--wrote, "Ma questa idea di Roma che si estende verso il mare non avevamo gia sentita?"  (This idea of Rome extending itself toward the sea--haven't we already heard of this?).  Another overreach, another failed Italian--and perhaps imperial--dream.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Art Nouveau for free in central Rome, thanks to capitalism

An outstanding exhibition of “Liberty”, Italy’s particular reading of Art Nouveau, is on display in the center of Rome at the offices of an Italian real estate conglomerate, or rather, their art acquisition arm, Fondazione Sorgente Group. 

Capitalists have replaced Popes in gobbling up precious art, and in this case we give some credit to the Fondazione Sorgente Group for revitalizing a 1910 building on Rome’s busy via Tritone, and providing spectacular exhibition space, at this time for “A corner of Art Nouveau in Rome” (“Un angolo di Art Nouveau a Roma”).  The exhibition has wonderful pieces – furniture, statuary, jewelry.  You can see them all at your leisure, as long as you don’t mind someone following you around at every step (and bring a photo i.d.).  We’d like to provide you with photos, but taking them is prohibited.  We include one (photo at the top) of the statues from the ads for the exhibition. 
Art Nouveau-ish even on the outside;
Doubt the "Sorgente Group" was there in 1910

The exhibition space, called Spazio Espositivo Tritone, was inaugurated in early June, and the building, called Palazzo Tritone, refurbished only last year.  We expect more exhibitions there in the future. The photos here of the building give you some feel for its distinctive early 20th-century design.

We felt sorry for the tourists being rushed by
 in their bus, not knowing what was around them
Hours are not easy to figure out, but they seem to be Tuesday through Friday, 10.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. through July 27.  Ala Rome, when we arrived, a colossal, 2-story door for a grand entrance to the exhibition was malfunctioning, and they asked us to come back in a bit (“un’oretta”).  We managed to entertain ourselves with our umpteenth look at the nearby Trevi Fountain, then (not yet, still some “orette” …) took advantage of a 2-for-1 offer after 3 p.m. at a bar up the street almost at Piazza Barberini, with Bernini’s famous Triton fountain in the middle, and then went back, when they were finally finished repairing the door, to the treat of the exhibition itself.
Happy comment on the "jazz" figure

Ah, and did we mention free?  – always a plus for RST.

The Sorgente Group (that’s its name in Italian, btw), is headed by Valter Mainetti (again, sic) and has over 20 managed and promoted real estate funds.  They own a piece of New York City’s Flatiron Building, in 2004-2008 bought and sold a controlling interest in the Chrysler Building, and this month bought the Fine Arts Building in downtown Los Angeles (one of our several "hometowns”) for $25 million.  Active folks, these. I tried to find out more about them, but their page was cancelled last year and I can’t figure out why.  Mainetti maintains his own url and blog ( will get it to you in English).  In the OMG category, they also own central Rome’s Galleria Sordi, nee’ Galleria Colonna, a lavishly decked-out shopping galleria, redone in recent years to its early 20th-century beauty (all those US malls that call themselves “galleries”, well forget it). Fondazione Sorgente Group is the non-profit arm of the conglomerate.
So, great art, up close, free, via del Tritone 132, Tuesday – Friday, 10:30 a.m. -6:30 p.m., and until July 27.