Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Piazza Vescovio: the Anni di Piombo and the Murder of Francesco Cecchin

Posters honoring the memory of Francesco Cecchin, on via Tembien in the Trieste quarter.
The words above, "Raido e' Militanza" (Raido is Militance), refer to the militant group
Raido, founded in 1995. 
Italy's "Anni di Piombo" (Years of Lead) were marked by acts of terrorism carried out by extremists on the political right and left; some 2,000 persons were killed between 1969 and 1981, including the centrist Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro, who was murdered by the left Red Brigades in 1978. 

There are several places in Rome where one can feel something of the intensity of the era, and all, curiously, are sites involving killings carried out by the left.  One is in the Jewish ghetto, on via Caetani, where an official plaque marks the spot where, on May 9, 1978, Moro's dead body was found in the trunk of an automobile; the former prime minister had been kidnapped and held prisoner for 55 days.  Another, perhaps more evocative, is on via Acca Laurenzia, a small street in the quartiere of Tuscolano.  There, on January 7, 1978, a man on a motorcycle shot and killed two members of the neofascist Fronte del Gioventu'.  This site is maintained by an organization of the far right.  (See Paul Baxa's guest post.)

Francesco Cecchin
The third site, in and around Piazza Vescovio on the northern edge of the Centro, in the quartiere of Trieste, is arguably the most significant, and not only because it contains a particularly rich collection of right-wing graffiti.  Like the site on via Acca Laurenzia, this one remembers a young neofascist:  Francesco Cecchin, also a member of the Fronte del Gioventu', thrown to his death from the apartment building at the west end of the piazza on the night of 28/29 May, 1979; he lay in a coma for 17 days before he died on June 16.  But the commemoration at Piazza Vescovio is exceedingly controversial because it is in part an official and political one, presided over by the city's right-wing mayor, Gianno Alemanno.

Mayor Gianni Alemanno (right) attends a
ceremony at the site he created, June 2012
In June 2009, while leaving a wreath of flowers to mark the anniversary of Cecchin's death, Alemanno proposed naming a street after the neofascist icon and building a monument to him.  The idea evolved.  The street became a small park in the center of the piazza and, at the suggestion of the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napoletano (a former Communist and still a leftist), Cecchin was to be identified as a victim of terrorism.  Even so, construction of the park in 2011 took residents and others by surprise. 

A wreath decorates the sign/marker for the park.  The
marker reads: Giardino Francesco Cecchin/
Vittima della Violenza Politica (1961-1979)
Opponents--politicians, intellectuals, trade union leaders, Partisan associations--joined in an open letter, asking that the area be dedicated to "all the victims of political violence."  The monument became a small plaque.  The garden was opened in June, 2011. 

Francesco Cecchin was a rather ordinary 17-year-old: not much of a student, a fan of Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath.  He had found a political home with the Fronte della Gioventu', and in the days before his death he had been putting up posters for the organization.  In the 1970s, postering was a competitive and territorial activity, and it brought Cecchin into conflict with the via Montebuono section of the CPI (the Communist Party). 

The building
On the evening of May 28, Cecchin, on foot, was followed by 2 men in a Fiat 850.  When they emerged from the car, he ran, taking refuge in a building--the one at the end of the piazza--where a friend lived. 

A closeup of one of the Cecchin posters,
depicting his murder. 
Depending on the account, he was found unconscious either in the courtyard of the condominium or on a small terrace, clutching a pack of cigarettes in one hand and keys in the other.  Authorities concluded that he had been beaten and, in all likelihood. thrown from a higher floor.  Stefan Marozza was arrested for the crime on July 1 but was released for insufficient evidence.  In retaliation for Cecchin's death, 2 hand grenades were thrown into a section of the PCI, wounding 24 persons.   A website dedicated to Cecchin concludes with these words: "Camerata Francesco Cecchin, Presente!" (The word "camerata" can be translated "comrade" or "chum"; "Presente," a military term, invokes the heroism of Italian soldiers in World War I, as well as Mussolini's Fascism).

When we visited the site in June, 2012 (soon after the anniversary of Cecchin's death), the quartiere was heavily postered with images of Cecchin, and area buildings were covered with graffiti messages. 

Indepence, Unity of the People, Tradition!
Below, a schematic fascii. 
Some of these messages are about Cecchin.  One reads "Pizza Vescovio" with a schematic fascii, symbol of Mussolini's Fascist regime (left).  The letters "NTS" likely refer to Nucleo Trieste Salario.  On the poster above,
the letters "T" and "S" refer to the quarters of Trieste and Salario.

Another has Cecchin's dates of birth and death, the words "Francesco Vive!" and a Celtic cross with the letters T and S. And another reads "Lui Vive/Lui Combatte/Cecchin Presente!" (He Lives/He Fights/Cecchin Present!). 

The drawing is of Gabriele Sandri, not Cecchin
Interestingly, most of the messages on the building where Cecchin was beaten and thrown to his death do not refer to him.  The face in the elaborate drawing belongs not to Cecchin but to Gabriele Sandri, a hard-core fan--one of the many "Ultras"--of the Lazio soccer team who in 2007 was shot and killed on the autostrada by a police officer while on the way to an away game in Milan.  

Other writings also refer to Lazio fans.  "Band Noantri" is a particular Lazio fan group, founded about 2000.  "Toffolo, Diabolik, Yuri, Paolo Liberi!" refers to Fabrizio Tofolo, Yuri Alviti, Pablo Arcivierid, and Fabrizio Piscitelli, key members of another particular Lazio fan group, the "Irriducibili" (the uncompromising ones), founded in 1987.  In 2006 they were charged with making threatening calls and jailed for various periods.  In 2007, Tofolo was shot 3 times in the legs at the entrance to his home in Rome.   

For insight into the Anni di Piombo and how that era continues to shape the politics of today's Rome, we recommend a visit to Piazza Vescovio.  It's a safe, middle-class neighborhood--with a unique history.


"Honor to a Revolutionary"

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

John Cheever: Encounter with Rome

In October 1956, the writer John Cheever (the "Chekhov of the [NYC] suburbs") and his pregnant wife Mary left the Westchester, CT suburbs for a year in Rome.  He had just put the finishing touches on The Wapshot Chronicle, his first novel (it would prove a big success).  A friend found them a place to live: a grand but drafty apartment on the fourth floor of the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, across Piazza Venezia from where Mussolini had governed. 

The comfy palazzo where the Cheevers lived.
Their landlady was the Principessa Doria herself, but she couldn't or didn't fix the kitchen gas leak or clean the clogged drains.  Thanksgiving soon arrived, but no one in the family knew much Italian and the shopping for the holiday went badly, and instead of roast turkey the Cheevers dined on salami, cheese and bread.  "I still cook breakfast in my underwear," Cheever wrote, "in this Palace of Justice or Haunted Public Library."

No, Rome wasn't an American suburb, and perhaps that's why Cheever had trouble writing during his stay in the city.  He managed one short story--one even he didn't much like--but that was it.  As usual, he socialized, often with a cocktail in hand.  While Mary and the Italian maids took care of their baby (born at Salvador Mundi Hospital, on the Gianicolo), John explored the "Academy" (the American Academy, on the Gianicolo) and what he called the "nonAcademy."  According to his biographer, Blake Bailey, he found a good number of "duds" in each group, which in some cases may have meant they didn't drink as much as he did.  He had a long, pleasant walk with Robert Penn Warren along the Via Aurelia, but despaired at Warren's quoting of Dante and the writer's other intellectual pretensions.  Similarly, he found another Academy Fellow, Ralph Ellison, friendly enough but given to "talking about negroes" and philosophizing about "mass motivation."  Cheever had read Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man, and found it--not unlike Warren and Ellison--"longwinded."

Cheever was not the first person to be
uninspired by the Tomb of Augustus
One imagines that Cheever and Ellison, despite their differences, found common ground in their shared inability to appreciate the charms of the Eternal City.  For Cheever, that disaffection owed something to his failure to learn enough Italian to feel comfortable, but it was more than that.  On his first day in the city, an exasperated Cheever, coming upon the less-than-august Tomb of Augustus, lamented, "Is this all, is this all there is?"  No, it wasn't all there is, but it seems Rome's great monuments of antiquity never quite captured Cheever's fancy. 

That said, America's greatest short-story writer (or so some think) may have found in Rome a place in which to revel in his romantic (and bisexual) thoughts and fantasies.  The city's "mystery," as Bailey puts it, appealed to Cheever; he "liked the strangeness of Rome."   "At nightfall," Cheever wrote, "the combination of dim-lamps and Roman gin make me feel very peculiar....The city seems mercurial and while it is lovely in the sun with the fountains sparkling, it looks, in the rain, like the old movie-shot: European capital on the Eve of War....the atmosphere of anxiety and gloom is dense."

Roman gin?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

intimissimi: Too Much Intimacy

What are these Italian guys doing?  They're doing what I'm doing: hanging out in front of intimissimi while their wives shop for bras, panties, slips and other intimate apparel.    Bill

Monday, September 17, 2012

Love Poems: on the Streets and Sidewalks of Rome

Rome's walls--the walls of buildings, the sides of trains and Metro cars--are full of graffiti, some of it reaching the level of art, some of it powerfully political, much of it juvenile scribbling. 

Much less common than wall writing, street and sidewalk graffiti appear here and there, most often on the city's ordinary and ugly asphalt sidewalks, but sometimes on the cobblestoned streets.  This form of writing is seldom political, and never artistic--at least not in the bold letters/colorful sense that one normally associates with the best graffiti.  The streets and sidewalks are a space for personal statements: congratulations and best wishes, vows of commitment, and poems of love. 

Among the simpler statements is "Buon Compleanno Princepessa" (Happy Birthday Princess) and "Claudia Ti Amo" (top) which hardly needs translating. 

From a street in Monteverde Vecchio
And "Auguri Dottoressa"--with the date, September 29, 2011.  Auguri means something like "best wishes," and while "Dottoressa" could mean a woman doctor, here it probably means a woman graduate of any program. 

The love poems proved surprisingly difficult to translate, and we sought help from our friend Massimo, a professional translator.

Here's one:
  15.09.11                         September 15, 2011
  Guardami negli occhi     Look me in the eye
  Dimmise non                 Tell me [dialect=dime se non] if you don't                           
  Vedi che io                     See that I
  Sono sempre                   Am always
  Qui X te                          Here for you

Massimo notes that X means "per"--that is, "for"--a custom that derives from the way Italians learn their multiplication tables: 2 X 2 is recited "due per due." 

Another poem:
A Garbatella manifesto
ora che                             now that
ora che 6 con me             now that you're with me
io vivo questo attimo       I live this moment
io vivo fino in fondo        I live fully [to the end of time?]
con te                               with you

Here "6" means "you are" because, in Italian, "6" and "you are" are both spelled and
pronounced "sei." 

And our final example:

Accettami cosi...Ti          Accept me as I am
Prego..non guarda           Please do not look [see below]
..Nella mia testa              Into my most personal thoughts
Ce un mondo da             
Ignorare!                         There is a world to ignore
28.10.11 Ti Amo             October 28, 2011  I love you

Massimo suggests that this poem might have been penned by a non-native Italian: in the second line, "non guarda" should be "non guardare."  Or perhaps the letters "re" are on the white curb and not visible--or the author ran out of space. 

When we found this last poem, it had been on the sidewalk for about 8 months--obviously written with indelible paint.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Best in Italian technology: the Sky Drain

A standard sky drain.
We wouldn't recommend most Italian home technology.  The washing machines are small and take hours to do their work; bathroom showers are served by a variety of weird contraptions; plugs come in a bewildering variety of configurations and are often loose and unreliable. 

Even skydrains are vulnerable to breakdowns.  This
one needed to be propped open with a pasta roller

We are, however, fond of one particular piece of kitchen equipment.  It's not electric, and the mechanics are simple.  This little low-tech gem sits above the sink.  When the cover is down, it looks like any cupboard.  But water goes straight down into the (hopefully) sink.  It's essentially a drain, a descendant, we like to think, of the first and greatest Roman drains: the cloaca maxima (#40 in RST's  Top 40). 

This drain just drains dishes.  Because of its position, we call it the "sky drain."  Sky drains are important because Roman kitchens are small and dishwashers few.  Simple. Convenient.  Efficient.  Nice.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Building Wars: MAXXI vs MACRO - Rome's Contemporary Art Blockbusters

MAXXI looking good - summer night art work lights up the courtyard,
 and the jutting out window is always captivating
Is Rome's MAXXI – the State’s 21st century (get the “XXI” in the name?) contemporary art museum all it’s cracked up to be?  Did Starchitect Zaha Hadid do her best work here?
(We thought enough of it to highlight it in one of the ours in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler; see below for more information.)
Can MACRO – the City’s contemporary art museum with its dramatic new addition by Odile Decq compete?
What makes a good modern art museum in the 21st century? 

RST has pondered these questions for some time, esp. since – when we lived in the neighborhood in 2009 and saw it being built - we were initially turned off by Hadid’s monumental concrete bunker.   With a heavy dose of humility (we are not professionals in the art world), we’ve come up with a list of criteria to apply to these two critical museums that opened/reopened in 2010.  After evaluating those criteria and performing a totally unrepresentative sampling of friends and neighbors, [drum roll] the Conclusion: – we still prefer MACRO to MAXXI, but it’s a closer call than we first thought.
Odile Decq's MACRO addition shows off best with this colorful artwork replacing
 a dysfunctional fountain on the roof and shining through to the main floor
Here are our criteria for a new – or newly refashioned with a new addition – modern public art gallery:

Is the building an architectural statement in itself?
     Does it work in its environment – physically is it a good fit? And does it invite the local public?
       Does it provide good and sufficient, logical and exciting space for the art, or is it just about itself?
Is the collection good enough to support the building?
        Are the temporary shows interesting and provocative?
Is the programming embracing?


MAXXI at its worst - concrete bunker and no entrance from the side
 where most people live
MAXXI looking to the back, a year later, opened up and looking better
The building.  No question Hadid’s MAXXI in the Flaminio neighborhood just north of Piazza del Popolo is a blockbuster building with an international draw.  But it’s no Bilbao or Disney Hall (Los Angeles).  We think the internationalistas will not find it interesting for long. It’s just too much concrete; too uninviting – even tho’ it made RST’s Top 40.  And it does not at all fit the neighborhood, in RST’s opinion.  It sits like a colossus without any feeling of the lines of the neighborhood (and no, this wasn’t just a wasteland pre-Hadid).   And it has blocked out the neighbors from access to it much of the time (it’s possible that has changed/is changing).  It IS fun to prance up and down its stairs and ramps and look out the big projecting window.  But it’s also confusing to find any particular gallery or exhibit.  Even many of the employees have no idea where shows are or how to get from point A to point B.  In fact, many times you cannot get from point A to point B without going to ground and starting over (witness the architectural archive area).
It seems to provide good art space, if by that one means big rooms that one can refashion any way one wants, the current trend in art museums, it appears.
Stairways and ramps are seductive, but don't enhance the art much at MAXXI
The collection.  The collection is extraordinary weak; clearly the money ran out.  The temporary shows CAN be good – last year’s focus on art from India (“Indian Highway”), or just ordinary – this year’s homage, from MAXXI’s thin collection, to Marisa Merz (apologies to all feminists), which runs through May 2013.  The architectural shows can be more promising – an initial one on one of our favorites, Luigi Moretti, and last year’s “Verso est [Towards the East]. Chinese Architectural Landscape.”  Or just paltry – a show of the models of the competing plans for the museum itself (on into February 2013); although here one can get a sense of how the board came to pick Hadid’s design – it looks a lot better from a bird’s eye view, smaller, and not in concrete plus you can see the complex would have been another 50% larger (hmmm, would that have been better?).  Another show this summer was of 4 finalists for a competition – how to put on a show for nothing, it appears (closed this past June).  This may be in part because the president of the MAXXI foundation was forced to resign and it has only an acting president at this time.  So nothing new in 2012, it appears.  You can see for yourself on the MAXXI website (there’s an English button too); current and past (archive) shows are described.  MAXXI, btw, stands for Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (“National Museum of 21st Century Arts”), i.e., more contemporary than “modern” and run by the State.

One can't argue with success.  Crowds line up for an evening program at MAXXI
The programming.  Programming gets a higher grade even now – perhaps this was all scheduled before the president departed, but it clearly shows potential.  The pamphlets in each room are excellent.  There are many talks, films, videos, and, of course, parties (you can compare the toilets to MACRO's).  Using the outdoor space in the summer, with some connection to MOMA’s PS 1, has brought in some of the neighborhood.  And, it seems the back side of the museum may actually be open some of the time (and that’s where people live; the front side fronts on a military installation).

Via Guido Reni 4. Open 11-7 Tuesday-Sunday, later (to 10 p.m.) Saturday; Euro 11; buy tickets up to 1 hour before closing; closed May 1, Dec. 25.

MACRO's unabashedly postmodern interior
The walkway at MACRO gives great sight lines onto the exhibition below
The building.  We’ve always had a soft spot for MACRO (Museo d’Arte Contemporaneo di Roma, i.e., the City’s (not the State’s) contemporary art museum) because it is a) not too big, b) in a repurposed Peroni beer factory, c) nestled in a real neighborhood, d) adventurous in programming, e) used to be friendly and cheap – 2 Euros (then about $3).  The new addition by Odile Decq definitely entranced us.  Perhaps that’s because we had a hard hat tour, complete with free Campari soda, when it was under construction. But we think it’s more than that.  The addition has an in-your-face postmodern interior.  The suspended walkway in the new main gallery gives onto wonderful views of the artwork in that space (this year, the Neon, on through November 4), much more art-friendly than any of MAXXI’s ramps and stairways.  The addition is playful, it encourages art in interesting spaces (lit up on the high walls, streaming in from the skylight, on top of the auditorium “roof” and on top of its own roof (including a Sten/Lex peel-away graffiti mural), and adds a distinctly modern flavor to the somewhat staid Peroni buildings.  And, did we say the rooftop cafe and bar are great, and well used by the young professionals of Rome?  The view from the bar down the city street is captivating.  MACRO’s location near Porta Pia and Piazza Fiume facilitates its integration with real people and a real neighborhood.  But, one opinion we solicited called Decq’s addition a failure, adding – she said - almost no gallery space for all the money and design.

Exhibit A, the toilet wars: MAXXI's toilet
And, can we add (if we needed a tie-breaker), the restrooms beat MAXXI’s – and we’ve posted on both!
Exhibit B, the toilet wars: MACRO's sinks

The collection.  The shows this summer featured excellent retrospectives of lesser known Rome artists (easier work to come by) Claudio Cintoli (closed Sept. 2) and Vettor Pisani (on through Sept. 23), Open Studios (thank you Dana Prescott for starting this at the American Academy in Rome) with the current slate of artists on through May 2013, and an okay, but not particularly blockbuster show on neon art (again, more retrospective).  So MACRO too suffers from a limited collection. Again, the directorship has been something of a revolving door, esp. with the party of the Mayor changing from left- to right-wing.  (Thanks to Temple professor and Rome art curator (one of the best - go to anything she curates) Shara Wasserman for filling us in on some of these political details.)  We also almost had a fight with a ticket seller here a year ago when he sold us our tickets and THEN told us the new wing, which had been billed as having had its grand opening, was not in fact open and wouldn’t refund our money.  And, this year, the tickets are up to Euro 11 (about $14+), and the ticket sellers are just as unfriendly and unhelpful.   The web site is not too user friendly.  You have to hit the “Menu” button at the bottom to get any categories, and it’s not clear how to get the site in English.)  On a website tiebreaker, MAXXI would win.

Sten/Lex on MACRO's roofop (the face was revealed as the outer layer
 wore off, or was picked off by visitors (including me)
The programming.  Appears weaker than in prior years.  Not much in the way of talks, special showings, events.
Via Nizza 138, open 11-7 Tuesday-Sunday, and until 10 on Saturday (again, get there an hour before closing); closed Jan. 1, May 1, Dec. 25.

AND THE WINNER IS?  For us, MACRO, but we know we’re in the minority and welcome other opinions!
One of MACRO's Open Studios, and one of our favorites
We should point out that, in addition to the revolving directorships, these government-run institutions are suffering like all others in Italy from extreme budget cutbacks.  MACRO may have a better group of wealthy patrons behind it.  In any event, we hope better times are coming.  Perhaps we should just be grateful there is this much contemporary art in publicly-run galleries in Rome.


P.S.  2.5 more.   Rome also hosts the State’s “modern” art gallery, GNAM (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna – “National Gallery of Modern Art”).  Modern is used as older than contemporary, in European parlance.  GNAM has the best collection of any of the 3, esp. of 20th century Italian art.  Its building, constructed in 1911 to host Italy’s first state modern art gallery, is serviceable, but not something to write home about.  It’s situated in “Academy Gulch” – Valle Giulia, behind the Villa Borghese.  Definitely worth a visit. Don’t skip too quickly through the atrium space right behind the ticket counter; it often has the best exhibit.  A fourth public modern art gallery is the City’s modern (as opposed to contemporary – i.e. MACRO) gallery not too far from the Spanish Steps and the Gagosian: Galleria d’Arte Moderna.   Recently reopened after an extensive multi-year remodeling, the current show (through September) is a great showcase of (mainly) 20th Century Italian art.  And one last note – MACRO also hosts MACRO Testaccio in the quarter of that name, in the ex-slaughterhouse, about which we’ve posted several times; though now relegated to special shows (i.e., not open all the time) and events – what there are, however, are excellent, if pricier than in the past.

And for more on MAXXI and the 21st art and cultural quarter of Flaminio, see our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Flaminia, that includes Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer OlympicsModern Rome features three other walks: the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; and a stairways walk in classic 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.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dianne Gets a Grattachecca

Unidentified English woman ordering a grattachecca
We had just come out of the Napoleon museum, having spent a glorious 20 minutes looking at a huge map of Napoleon's exploits in Italy--before it was Italy, of course.  It was another hot day in a hot Roman summer, and Dianne decided she had to have a grattachecca.  I had no idea what that was, but there was a grattachecca stand across the street on the sidewalk that lines the Tevere, under some London plane trees that are common here. 

Ice cake
A grattachecca is cousin to the American snow cone, but with shaved rather than ground ice, and served in a cup rather than a cone, with a spoon and straw.  That doesn't explain the word, "grattachecca," because, although "gratta" plausibly means "grated," "checca" does not mean ice--at least not in regular Italian.  According to Wikipedia, one story of the delicacy's origins is that it was first enjoyed in ancient Rome, when emperor Quintus Fabius Maximus brought snow from Mount Terminillo, in the Appenines. 

Shaving the ice.  That's the Napoleon museum
at right, across the Lungotevere

Two guys run the stand.  One is responsible for the ice that goes into the cup: he removes the cover from the block of ice, shaves enough for one cone, and replaces the cover.  Though he's not a waiter, he also looks after the several small tables and chairs.  The other guy does everything else: assembles the grattachecca (adds flavoring: Dianne got green apple), takes your money, and sells the other things--water, soft drinks, panini, beer, and fresh coconut--that are part of the business.  It works.

When Dianne gets these ideas, she always asks if I want one, too.  I always say no, and I always eat part of hers.  This also works.

This was the best grattachecca I've ever had, and also the only one.  Our Italian friends, of course, couldn't wait to tell us which are their favorite grattachecca stands, and this one ranked fairly high on the list.  It's about 200 yards north of Piazza Navona.


In the shade of the Sycamores
The same stand, at night... the stands are particularly evocative
late into Roman evenings, as one tools around on a scooter, especially