Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, April 26, 2013

An artists' colony thrives in a Rome industrial suburb

Contemporary art in Rome seems to get better and better.  One marker is a group of artists who have studios in an old warehouse in a decidedly unfancy Rome suburb - Portonaccio.

Pinzari with her horse sculpture made of her own hair.
We spent a great afternoon talking with about 6 of the artists, and visiting their studios.  The art ranged widely, including "sculptures" with her own hair by Francesca Romana Pinzari.

We also were fascinated with Seboo Migone  who does large oils and also small sculptures.  He posed for us with both (above).

di Silvestre easily talked about his work with Dianne
The subjects, as well as the painting, by Maura di Silvestre (above) might have been our favorite.

And, perhaps most interesting are the blue beds by the felicitously named Veronica Botticelli.

And there's more.

 The artists have been "found" by the powers that be.  The first to recognize them as a group and give them publicity was Shara Wasserman, who is a professor of art history at Temple University in Rome and also an independent (and, we say, the best) curator (see Shara's new Web site at  More recognition came when perhaps the most famous of Rome art critics, Achille Bonito Oliva, curated a show for them  (and got the publicity and produced the catalog).  That show, complete with a glossy program that is lovely in itself, brought more recognition (and visitors, like us).

The artists
The area is definitely of the run-down, but not dangerous or macabre, variety.  One contemporary describes it as "a bridge over a railroad, a quarter of poor people."  It's not hard to get to with public transportation, and interesting in itself for truly local shops and people.  Take the 409 bus from the Tiburtina bus station.  Portonaccio, and particularly the area where the artists work, has been surrounded and in some ways very compromised, by transportation - rails, thruway exits, wide fast with fast-moving traffic, etc.  It was an industrial area pre- WWII, but it also sparked an artistic group after the war - "the group of Portonaccio" - in a way, harbingers of the current artists.
the "condominio" - ordinary from the outside

You might be able to find some artists at work, as we did - but it was special, almost open-studio, weekend.  The building is at via Giuseppe Arimondi 3.  You can also try emailing

The artists refer to themselves as "in condominio" - in other words, working together and renting together in a common space.  Recent articles in the Rome newspapers indicate they are still making waves, and are represented in efforts to enhance - or perhaps just support - Rome's contemporary art community.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Francesco Rutelli: on Building atop Rome's Ancient Heritage

Former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli was explaining why it was so difficult to build the Metro "C" line, which at one point was designed to run from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, under via del Corso.  All the ground beneath that route, he said, to a depth of about 25 meters, was covered with
Oops!  Excavations for "C" line at Piazza Venezia reveal
extensive ancient ruins.  Better cover them up!
ancient ruins.  To avoid destroying the city's heritage, one had to go deeper--below 30 meters.  That could be done, he added, but one problem remained: "you could not get out"--that is, you couldn't get people out of that deeply buried Metro line, or for that matter into it, without doing untold damage. 

Rutelli, Mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001, one-time cultural minister and now Senator, told several personal stories to underline his thesis at a recent talk at John Cabot University in Rome on "Contemporary Transformations in the Most Complex City in the World."  The interplay of
archaeology with contemporary building seems obvious, but it took on  new meaning for us with Rutelli's detailed and personal knowledge of Rome's archaeological layers. (Rutelli studied architecture at the University of Rome/La Sapienza.) 

Protesters at the opening of Meier's "box" for the Ara Pacis,
April 2006
Piazza Augusto Imperatore, which shows up on Rome the Second Time's Top 40 list at #9, sparked discussion from the audience after Rutelli presented slides of Richard Meier's "box" for the Ara Pacis and the discovery below of an ancient Roman harbor - that prevented putting the Lungotevere road underground  - at least for now.  We hadn't known that Rutelli alone made the decision to engage U.S. architect Richard Meier.  Why not a competition?  Or at least an Italian?  "If I had chosen an Italian," he said,
"the resulting squabbles would have been like those of a Sardinian village, lasting centuries."  As a result of his choice, however, Italian architects (left out of consideration) are irate; one said Meier's building belonged on the outskirts of Los Angeles; another likened it to McDonald's.   The right wing also detests the building.  We were there for the opening and their protests in April, 2006. 

And now a professor of architectural history asks Rutelli - why no interplay with the fascist architecture of the piazza?  With all the fascist writing on the buildings around Augustus' tomb?
Rutelli pointed out one reason he selected Meier was for his "rationalist" style, which naturally harmonized with the monumentalist Fascist architecture of the piazza. 

Parco della Musica, also known as the Auditorium, is Renzo Piano's very successful (in our opinion) set of music halls in the Flaminio quarter.  We also have seen the pre-Roman village partially unearthed during the building of the Parco della Musica structures.  What we didn't know, and Rutelli
Piano's Parco della Musica.  Handsome, but too many
stairs, not enough elevators, some think. 
relayed, was that his administration was absolutely certain there were no ruins in the area - that was one reason the location was selected.  And yet, there they were, the remains of a 2700 year-old rural village that no one had ever mentioned or knew about, according to the former Mayor.  Hence, Piano had to redesign his complex.  A cinema and hotel were left out to accommodate the display of the ruins.  And, added an audience member - is that the reason there are too many steps and not enough elevators?  Ah, said Rutelli, Piano loved his structure and there was considerable negotiation with him over elevators.  In other words, be glad you have the few you do.  He also relayed the story of a building in Pienza, a perfect design by an architect who left out kitchens and bathrooms - so that the architecture would be absolutely perfect. Parco della Musica is on one of the 4 tours in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler. See below for more information.

Palazetto Zuccari
Rutelli's practical side showed itself in two other projects.  One began with a 1994 competition to gut
and totally reconstruct the Bibliotheca Hertziana--that is, the interior of the 17th-century Mannerist Palazetto Zuccari (on via Gregoriana, near the Spanish steps).

The new library sits atop this matrix of steel beams.

In 2001, construction revealed the remains of the Horti Luculliani, gardens from the Republican era.  Architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg and engineers found a solution: above the ruins, they suspended
huge steel girders--essentially a floating, artificial basement.  On top of that, they put the new library. 

The new library.  The 17th century?  Gone. 

Rutelli had more to do with the 2nd project: an elevator for the Altare della Patria, also known as the
Rutelli's much-reviled elevator.  Great
views from the top!
Vittoriano.  Indeed, it was his idea.  Frankly acknowledging the criticism he's received for this intervention, Rutelli defended it, emphasizing that the elevator was close to the (back of) the structure, but not part of it, not attached to it.  "It could be removed in a day," he said.

After the talk, at a reception hosted by John Cabot, we gave Rutelli a copy of our book, Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries that Don't Go to the Coliseum."   A few minutes later, as we left the building a few steps behind the mayor, he turned, smiled, and said, "non vado al Coliseo" (I'm not going to the Coliseum!).

Dianne and Bill
 Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  In addition to the tour of  the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio (including Parco della Musica), along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics, Modern Rome features three other walks: the "garden city" suburb of Garbatella, the 20th-century suburb of EUR, 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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Dopolavoro Ferroviario di Roma, and other Railroad Adventures

Piazza Salerno.  It looks peaceful and isn't.  At left,
1929 housing for railroad employees. 
Our "railroad" day began near Piazza Bologna.  Rome the Second Time includes two itineraries that begin at that piazza, but neither includes a complex of interesting buildings off via Catania west of Piazzale delle Province.  We parked at Piazza Salerno, a smallish roundabout, where in the late 1920s Mussolini's Ministry of Transport constructed a large building to house ministry employees.  It has 8 staircases and 3 entrances. 

A remnant of Fascism
High above the entrance on via Salerno one can see the remains of the Fascist imprint: part of the numbering system (probably VII, Fascism's 7th year - 1929) and the fasci, long ago chiseled off the façade by critics of the regime.  The leaded glass windows, on a side street, are also of interest. 

You could be in Vienna
More elegant and ostentatious is the Dopolavoro Ferroviario (railroad after-work center), built between 1925 and 1930 in what one scholar refers to a the "Viennese" style.  At one time the complex contained a theater, a hotel, a restaurant, a gym, a library, and offices--all to serve those lucky railroad workers, the beneficiaries of a powerful trade union.

Unlikely the sign is as old as the building, but
it's cool anyway.

The statues above the impressive curved façade represent the arts. Today, two theaters and what appears to be a defunct bar, Binario Uno (Track One) occupy the space.

Just around the corner to the west, on via Como, a set of lovely elevated statues depict the four social virtues and bridge the art nouveau and art deco styles.  Beneath them, an entrance decorated
One of the four social virtues: a good body
in fanciful theater motifs.

At the corner of via Catania and via Como, a sign makes clear that a section of the larger structure is being converted to condominiums: Residenza Como.  Buyers will have a pool, a gym, a beauty center, and the "possibility" of a parking place. 

Beyond the architectural pleasures of the area, there are social and political lessons to be gleaned: that railroad workers had considerable power, as they did elsewhere at this time (e.g., in the United States, where in 1934 they were rewarded with the Railroad Retirement Act); that the Mussolini regime sought to provide reasonable housing for the industrial working class; that Fascism, for all its faults, valued good architecture and, more remarkably, supported the arts.  Oh, yes: privatization is everywhere. 

The railroads, if not railroad workers, remain important to Italians, as we discovered on our next stop, Piazza del Popolo, where a chunk of one of the most Europe's most elegant squares had been
Another good use for Piazza del Popolo
given over to Trenitalia, the state-owned train company, which was promoting its Frecciarossa 1000, a super-high-speed train not yet in operation.  The sleek snout of the 1000 protruded from a large white box, which we assumed led to a mock-up of the interior. 

Not so.  After a few minutes waiting in line, we were handed 3-D glasses and ushered into a small (and stuffy) theater, where we watched a short film of a very fast train ripping silently through the Italian
countryside.  In a delightful bit of unexpected realism, the film included weeds growing out of concrete retaining walls.  As we learned just days later, you can make the trains run fast, but not necessarily on time.  Where are those Fascists when we need them!

On the way out, Dianne was the recipient of a Frecciarossa 1000 bracelet, seen here on her wrist at our local wine bar.  A keepsake. 

Our third railroad event of the day was a bit of serendipity.  Having been turned away from a neighborhood restaurant on via Taranto ("all sold out"), and famished from another hard day of tourism, this wandering couple happened upon La Veranda, a pizzeria at via Appia and, most
Entrance to the pizzeria - not exactly the club car.
appropriately, Rome's busiest railroad line, running just beneath.  The pizza was fine, the steak a bit tough, but the atmosphere--every few minutes, the sound of a train below--was perfect. 


RST acknowledges Eva Masini, Piazza Bologna: Alle Origini di un Quartiere 'Borghese' (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2009). 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Paolo Desideri joins Rome's Starchitects: Stazione Tiburtina

Mayor Alemanno (left), President
Napolitano at microphone.
We're embarrassed.  Not because we're a bit late in presenting the Tiburtina High Speed Railway Station (familiarly known as the new Stazione Tiburtina) to our readers.  The station was dedicated on November 28, 2011, with considerable fanfare: Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, lent his gravitas to the occasion, and Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno attended, as usual sporting a colorful sash.  No, we're embarrassed because we have not only failed to appreciate the extraordinary qualities of the building--at one point deriding it as "Battlestar Galactica," based on the view from the tracks--but failed to recognize the emergence of its architect, Paolo Desideri, as a major figure in Rome's 21st-century built environment.  Today, we welcome him to the elite roster of Rome "starchitects."

Beam me up, Scotty!
Our original critique of the new Tiburtina Station was not entirely bone-headed.  The "Battlestar" insult reflected our belief that the building was simply too large for its purpose, even considering the addition of high-speed rail to the services it provided, and our increasing familiarity with it has not changed our minds.  But we were also, perhaps, guilty of nostalgia for the scruffy but simple structure that was razed.  It had served our needs for many years; we knew where to buy tickets and the tracks were close.  More important, the demolition of the old station erased the memory of the deportation of Rome's Jews to the Nazi concentration camps from that station in 1944.  The plaque that recorded that tragic event, and to which we directed the readers of Rome the Second Time, is gone.

The Sant'Angese-Annibaliano Station on the B-1 line
Based on a recent walk-through of the station, particularly its main gallery, we are prepared to embrace the building.  We haven't entirely shed our "Battlestar" perspective, but we are ready for the voyage.  More on that later.  Just as significant, we were shocked to learn that Desideri and his firm, ABDR Architetti Associati, were responsible for five other new and compelling Rome buildings: four stations on the new B-1 Metro line, which runs northeast out of Piazza Bologna: Libia, Conca d'Oro, Sant'Angese-Annibaliano, and Gondar; and a recent addition to the Palazzo delle Esposizione.

The restaurant/wine bar Open Colonna, at the
Palazzo delle Esposizioni 
The modernist grace of the Sant'Agnese-Annibaliano Station had taken us by surprise (we did not yet know its architect), and we were ready to take our usual surfeit of photos when a guard waved us off with a wag of the finger.  We have enjoyed a break for wine in the striking all-glass addition to the Palazzo, again unaware of the identity of the architect.  Desideri's structure occupies the space once held by a conservatory designed by famed architect Pio Piacentini in the 1880s and demolished in 1931 when the Mussolini regime redid the building for a 1932 exhibition celebrating Fascism's first decade.

Desideri's Florence auditorium
Desideri's other projects include an auditorium in Florence (right) and the restoration of the National Museum in Calabria.

Annalaura Spalla's Cavour installation

Where the old station was about division--the plaque rekindling memories of the German occupation and the transporting of Rome's Jews--the new one is about unity, in two ways.  Because the station straddles the tracks, it unites two neighborhoods historically separated: Nomentana (which includes Piazza Bologna) and Pietralata, across the railroad yard to the northeast.  Dedicated to Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, a leading figure in the movement for Italian unification, the station celebrates (and with its high-speed trains, enhances) 150 years of Italian unity.  The station's Nomentano atrium (left) features a 20-meter high installation, designed by architect Annalaura Spalla, cut with the words of Cavour's discourse on "Roma Capitale," given to the Italian Chamber of Deputies on March 25, 1861.

The station has two architectural features of note.  One is the green block (right), housing the atrium (if we remember correctly) and set at an angle to the main concourse.  We always liked this element, if only because it seemed to wink playfully at the imposing structure looming behind it.

The other, above the tracks, is the main concourse, the grand gallery.  It has some notable "green" features: it's equipped to handle photovoltaic units (in the future); and rather than air-conditioned, it is oriented to take advantage of the movement of the sun.

June, 2012, 6 months after the opening ceremonies
The Pompidou Center, Metz, France.  More pods,
but Ban's, not Desideri's.  
But it's the "pods" ("volumi," or volumes, in Italian) that make the building.  They're huge, and they're suspended from the ceiling, apparently in an effort to eliminate vibration from the movement of trains, below.  Laminated in Brazil and first deployed in the Tiburtina Station, they are technically complex: a base of aluminum, covered with a shell of the plastic Alicrite.  When we toured the gallery in the summer of 2012, the sci-fi quality of the pods--curiously retro, as in "back to the futuristic"--was enhanced by the virtual absence of people.  We're told they'll eventually house restaurants, private offices, and internet services.  When we climbed the stairs to have a good look inside, a young woman shooed us away.  The jury's out on whether they'll prove useful or just wonderfully suggestive.  We don't know what inspired the pods, but they bear some similarity to the exterior projections featured in Zaha Hadid's Rome MAXXI gallery and Shigeru Ban's Pompidou Center in Metz, France (above right).

Paolo Desideri
And who is the fellow responsible for these architectural theatrics?  Like actor Alberti Sordi and soccer icon Francesco Totti, but unlike all but one (Paolo Portoghesi) of the other stars of modern Rome architecture, he's Roman through and through.  Paolo Desideri was born in Rome in 1953 and graduated from the School of Architecture of the University of Rome (La Sapienza) in 1980.  With three other architects, he co-founded Studio ABDR in 1982.  The firm specializes in large infrastructure projects and won a concorso (competition) for the Tiburtina Station in 2001.  Since 2007 he has been Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at Roma3.  

Welcome to the pantheon, Paolo.


A high-speed train, about to leave the Tiburtina Station.  In the center background, a "pod" protruding
from the grand gallery.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

Workers and Capitalists Unite in The Fourth Estate

File:Quarto Stato.jpg

We first saw this painting, The Fourth Estate, by Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo, at an impressive 2008 exhibit - "The 1800s: From Canova to the Fourth Estate" at the Scuderie in Rome, site of many large and important painter shows on the Quirinale hill just opposite the President's Palazzo (in fact, the Scuderie was the stables for the palace, once the palace of the Popes).

It's hard to see in reproductions, and even high on the wall where it was prominently displayed in the exhibit, but the painting is early pointillism.  It was first displayed in 1901, and is now (and usually) on display in Milan's "Museo del Novecento" (Museum of the 20th Century).   The painting is enormous - about 10' x 17' (293 x 545 cm), and captured the imagination of revolutionaries and politicos.  It depicts a strike, a familiar theme in the period, but in a way that shows the resolve of the workers, rather than violent protest, or the violent suppression of protest.  The Communist Party adopted it, and it still appears on the Web site:

The Fourth Estate here refers not to the media but to the proletariat, the social grouping that joins the three traditional orders of the Old Regime (clergy, nobility, and the third formed by the bourgeoisie and peasants) in the social structure back to the French Revolution.

What fascinated us recently was seeing a take-off of the painting (now in the public domain, at least in the U.S., since it is over 100 years old) - see above - used for a business conference appeal at the Centro Congressi (e.g. Conference Center) in EUR.  It's hard to think of Americans, who appropriate almost anything, appropriating a proletariat revolutionary symbol for corporate interests.   That strikes us as a difference between Italy and the U.S.  But we're open to other opinions.