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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Alberto Moravia: Critic of the New Rome

For all its virtues, Rome has spawned only a few novelists of the first rank:  Carlo Emilio Gadda, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alberto Moravia.  Gadda and Pasolini brought the city into their books; Rome's streets and neighborhoods, the city's fabric, are more than settings--they are protagonists.

Moravia's work is of a different sort.  Although his novels are set in Rome, the city is by and large only a backdrop for the personal, psychological issues with which he was most absorbed.  "Particularly in his 1950s literature," writes Victoria G. Tillson in the Annali d'Italianistica (2010), "the Italian capital functions as a leit-motif, serving as a solid point of reference from which the author could explore modern humankind's battles with alienation and malaise.  Moravia's Rome, in its blandness and sameness, reflects the accompanying feelings of indifference and boredom often suffered by his protagonists." 

Moravia lived on the top floor.  It's likely he
didn't appreciate the building.

It strikes RST as perverse that the words "blandness" and "sameness" could be used to describe Rome, even a writer's perception of Rome.  To be sure, Moravia lived his last decades in one of  Rome's less dynamic neighborhoods--Prati--but that hardly explains his virtual dismissal of a city that others (Federico Fellini, to name only one) found so compelling, so full of life.

Corviale.  Shades of Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green. But
unusual for Rome.   

The truth is that Moravia was fond of Rome--but mostly the old Rome, the Centro, and to a lesser extent, the mostly failed efforts at Garbatella and Monte Sacro to create "garden cities."  For the "new" Rome--the sub-urban Rome begun by the Fascist regime and pursued by the postwar Christian Democrats--Moravia had little but contempt (to use the title of his 1963 novel).  Unlike his close friend Pasolini, he wasn't attracted by Rome's many public housing projects, or by their residents.  One can only imagine what he must have thought of Corviale, the gigantic monolith, home to thousands, built in the south of Rome in the 1970s. 

But it wasn's just the "projects."  He seems to have disliked all, or most, big and modern apartment complexes, of the sort that in the postwar years populated large areas of the Piazza Bologna
A massive housing complex in the Trieste zone.  Overbearing,
but it feeds the commercial life of the area, and the
curving façade and Fascist-inspired entrance
are not without interest. 
neighborhood, Tuscolano, Flaminio (the buildings constructed for the 1960 Olympics), Trieste, Marconi, Centocelle and, yes, his own Prati.  In a 1989 interview, he reasoned that despite the harm done by the Fascists, the real culprits were  the "Christian Democratic city councils.  The horror began with those city councils and with the building speculation."  In the process, the look and feel of the city was, Moravia believed, irreparably damaged. 

That's all quite understandable, and especially so in the two decades after 1955, when architectural modernism had run out of ideas and postmodernism had yet to make its mark.  In the world of design, it was an especially awkward period, yielding much that was ungainly and "brutal"-ist, little that was elegant or inventive.  Too many ordinary buildings. 

In essence, Moravia was profoundly nostalgic for the old Rome, and sharply critical of the new one.  As Tillson notes, he "seems to have hoped that Rome, by the mid-1970s, would have relented in its modernizing processes and accepted its distinctiveness among world cities, as one that ironically lives better in its past than in its present."  Most tourists, we think, would share those sentiments, having little interest in Rome's suburbs, its outlying neighborhoods, its periphery.

As our readers may know, we don't share Moravia's concerns.  We're fascinated--too fascinated, some may feel--by the very neighborhoods and structures that Moravia lamented.  He was, we think, a creature of his time: rooted in Rome's past, unable to see its future.  Unable to appreciate the magic that sheer density, responsibly generated, with an eye to community, can produce.  At Piazza Bologna, Trionfale, Trieste, Tuscolano, Boccea and a dozen other places, the new Rome is on display.  

See for yourself.  Bill

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