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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rome's Itinerant Knife-Sharpener: Last of a Dying Trade

Dianne with Il Messaggero. Piazza Cavour in the background, right. 
We were fresh from a thorough examination of Piazza Cavour, the one behind the Palace of Justice on the Tevere.  Relaxing in a nearby café.  Dianne was pretending (just kidding!) to read the local paper.  Then the knife-
sharpening guy showed up and began sharpening knives.  And I took this photo, of a one-handed knife sharpener (arrontino) doing business from his truck.

Thanks to Elizabeth Povoledo and The New York Times, we later learned that the knife sharpener, Carmine Mainella, then 74, is either the last itinerant knife-sharpener in Rome, or one of the last.  As Mainella explained, there isn't much business to be had.  Many of the delicatessens and small butcher shops that once gave him their business have been replaced by supermarkets that make their own sharpening arrangements, and most restaurants use knife rental services that replace dulling knives with newly sharpened ones on a regular basis. 

Mr. Mainella has only 5 "shop" customers, down from 10 before the economic crisis.  He has also been hit hard by increases in the cost of living as well as low-cost competitors.  Some years ago, he says, "you could survive by sharpening 50 knives.  Now, because you can't increase the price, you have to sharpen 500."  Even so, Mr.Mainella enjoys his profession.  "I am sorry that one day I will have to leave it," he notes.  "But like everyone, sooner or later we all have to leave everything."  True, but a bummer. 

This photo, by Alessandro Penso for the International Herald Tribune, was obviously taken from inside the truck.
Why didn't I think of that!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How Did They End Up Writing Rome Guidebooks?

That's us in June on Monte Velino, photo taken by one of the Italians in the
Italian hiking group.  This large mountain of several peaks is less than two
hours from Rome - to the bottom of the mountain, not the top.
For those of you who are still wondering how a U.S. History Professor, whose most recent book was about Patty Hearst, and a tax lawyer ended up writing guidebooks to Rome, you can check out an interview Lillie Marshall did with us recently.

Lillie, whose blogs, Web sites, and Facebook sites champion international teaching and travelling, asks some good questions, we found.  Like who paid for all that travel!

Check out the interview here:

That's us, finally in Rome, looking a bit the worse for wear,
 just after those 250 miles. That's our workhorse scooter,
 a Hexagon (made by Piaggio - the same folks who make
the Vespa - but it's considerably  larger).  It finally broke down
on us  a couple years ago and had to be replaced.
And here's one of the Qs and As:

TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly funny.

D & B: After the Fulbright, Bill wanted to go to different places and Dianne wanted to keep going back to Rome (as Dianne recalls). We compromised: We would go to Rome, but he would get a scooter and we would live in different neighborhoods (always outside the historic center) each time. We bought a scooter from one of Bill’s historian colleagues in the U.S. The scooter was in Bologna – 250 miles from Rome. We picked it up in Bologna; Bill drove it around the block; I got on back, and we took off over one of the curviest and scariest roads in Italy – La Futa – between Bologna and Florence. It took us four days, my shoulders were sore from being tense; Bill was exhausted from all the driving, but we made it to Rome. And we’ve been traveling via scooter ever since.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Grass comes to Rome

Captive grass in Piazza Venezia

There is no grass in Rome.  Not until recently, anyway.  For years what passed for grass in Rome consisted mostly of weeds, trimmed now and then (mostly then).  The "grassy" spaces in public parks and piazzas consisted of dirt, stones--and trampled weeds.

Piazza Cavour
Things have changed.  Grass has arrived!  Here and there, the keen observer will see signs of the emergence of a new grass aesthetic.  Piazza Venezia now has two grass-as-spectacle areas, both featuring grass so perfect, and so perfectly maintained, as to provoke envy in any American suburban homeowner.  The Scotts Turf Builder look, the grass protected from the public by short, decorative fences.  Casa del Jazz offers a grass lawn, populated by signs telling you not to walk on it.  There's plenty of grass in EUR (after all, it was built as a suburb), but also plenty of weeds.  And elegant Piazza Cavour, behind the grandiose Palace of Justice, has some very nice grass. 

Real grass in Piazza dei Rei di Roma.  Not for dogs or humans,
according to the sign.

Piazza dei Re di Roma has some natural grass that actually looks like grass, though there, and elsewhere, the "grass aesthetic" also includes artificial grass--some sort of astroturf (love that spaceage term), immune to dogs. 

Rotary project, Trieste

In upscale Trieste, the Rotary Club maintains a small plot of genuine grass, perhaps so that children can grow up knowing what it is. 

They painted the grass green

In Piazza Sant' Emerenziana, in the neighborhood  known familiarly as the "Quartiere Africano," city authorities spruced up a huge subway ventilation unit by covering it with grass and then, as the grass lost its color in the heat, spray-painting it green.   

Keep off the grass couch!

Even the Rome art world has come to appreciate grass.  A fellow of the American Academy showed the way several years ago with a work of grass so tempting that Dianne assumed, incorrectly, that it was designed to be walked on.  More recently, the Casa dell'Architettura (also known as the Aquario,
because it's a former aquarium), showed off a grass-covered sofa, chair, end table, and lamp.  For those who have everything!


Artificial turf in Piazza dei Re di Roma.  Twenty years ago, the piazza was a dump.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Window Shopping in Rome: RST at Minerva Auctions

by Sonia Delaunay
Being fans of 20th-century Italian art, we were intrigued by an "asta", or auction, in the Centro.  Not having been to many (any?) art auctions, we were a bit intimidated by the thought of dropping in on an auction house.  But the quality of the works drove us to try it.

And so we found ourselves sitting on hard back chairs in rows of 8 or so, along with 2 dozen others, including some people bidding for those not present, who were seated at a table on the side, whispering away on their cell phones. It was somewhat surreal to watch the bidding on 20th-century artists in the gorgeous Palazzo Odescaldhi in Piazza SS. Apostoli, just up from Piazza Venezia.

A peak through the doorway
 at Minerva's auction in action
The auction house, Minerva Auctions, has a regular schedule of auctions, regular hours for viewing the works ahead of time, and a low-key approach to walk-ins.   We decided to get a number, which required only submitting an i.d.  And we didn't bid, but we thought hard about it, or at least I did.

We post Minerva Auctions at this time, because they have an auction at 4 p.m. on November 14 featuring 20th-century art. You can view the show ahead of time Saturday-Wednesday 10 a.m - 6 p.m., and the day of the auction 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.  The catalog is online.  The works are not solely Italian and come in all price ranges.  There's a small Sonia Delaunay, estimated at Euro 150-200; and a de Chirico lithograph at Euro 600-800.  We might be drawn to a Renato Guttuso lithograph at Euro 100-150. (See Frederika Randall's review of a Guttuso show earlier this year:

by Renato Guttuso
Of course, some of you may want to spring for a Picasso linocut estimated at  Euro 5,000-7,000.  Read the hand-out carefully for all the additional charges.

Scuola italiana, 19th century
Just being on Minerva's email list is fun and intriguing.  The show that follows this one, while not up our alley, will be up someone's - Art of the 19th Century, including furniture.  That catalog is online as well.


Friday, November 8, 2013

For More About Italy, check out The American/in Italia

RST recently wrote an interview piece for an online magazine about Italy:  The American/in Italia.

The interview was with Rome architect Nathalie Grenon, who works and designs with her husband, Piero Sartogo, through their Rome architectural studio -  Sartogo Architetti Associati.  You can read The American/in Italia and the interview - titled "Sacred and Profane" - through this link:
Grenon with the cross she designed
-  the only contemporary cross
sold in the Vatican Bookstore.

We must admit to be homeys a bit here.  Several of our friends write for The American/in Italia.  So of course we also recommend U.S. lawyer and Rome resident Don Carroll's monthly column on the law in Italy (compared, often, to the U.S.), "Closing Argument,"  and international economist (and also Rome resident) Vittorio Jucker's column on economic issues.  Here's one of Don's, with the intriguing title, The Lamborghini, II.  And one of Vittorio's on the Costs of War.

And, we add, all in English.

Happy Reading - or, as the Italians would say, "buon leggere!"


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bruno Zevi: Rome's Architectural Theorist

Bruno Zevi is widely regarded as one of great architectural theorists of the 20th century.  Writing in The Guardian on the occasion of Zevi's death in 2000, Thomas Muirhead opined that Zevi's two early books on architectural theory, Vero l'architettura organica/Towards Organic Architecture (1935) and
Sapere Vedere la Citta/How to Understand the City (1948) "alone place Zevi among the greatest historians and theoreticians."

Bruno Zevi
Born to an elite Jewish family in Rome in 1918, Zevi studied architecture at the University of Rome,  served in the Italian military, and engaged in clandestine anti-Fascist activities.  Forced to leave the country in 1939 by the new racial laws, he made his way to England and then the United States, earning a graduate degree at Harvard's School of Design, then led by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus.  He returned to Italy in 1944, quickly emerging as a prominent figure in Italy's architectural circles while teaching architecture at the University of Venice, and later, after 1963, at the University of Rome. 

Zevi's major contribution to architectural theory was what he called "organic architecture," a term apparently coined by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. "Organic architecture" has more definitions than the Eskimos have words for snow (yes, we know, a myth), but it's safe to say that for Zevi it meant a democratic, humanistic architecture centered around people and linked to nature and its surroundings.  Zevi was deeply opposed to both the cold, ahuman modernism of Gropius and the abstract principles of order, proportion and symmetry that governed classical forms.  "When Gropius, Mies [van der Rohe] and [Alvar] Aalto produced [symmetrical buildings]," he wrote, "it was an act of surrender.  Lacking a modern code, they weakened and regressed to the familiar womb of classicism."  Identifying classical symmetry with power and dominance--and with the Mussolini Fascism that he detested--Zevi advocated an organic architecture grounded in asymmetry, rupture, dissonance and fragmentation.

That's clear enough (or it isn't), but it can be difficult to visualize Zevi's philosophy.  He didn't design much of anything, in Rome or elsewhere.  So how can the Rome tourist, or for that matter anyone, get a visual handle on Zevi's ideas? 

EUR/architecture of symmetry and power

We can begin with what he detested: the pompous, symmetrical, monumental buildings of Marcello Piacentini, the chief architect of EUR.  No rupture, no dissonance, no fragmention.  This architecture was all about power--power over Italy's colonies, Fascism's power over its subjects.  For similar (tho distinct) reasons--again, the issue of power was in play for him--he was critical of Bernini's St. Peter's Square. 

Studio Passarelli

And then there are the Rome buildings, and their Rome architects, that Zevi admired.  One such building, completed in 1964, just as Zevi was taking up his position at the University of Rome, was the Studio Passarelli, on via Campania.  Designed by Lucio Passarelli, it's a curious combination of modernist box and building-blocks top, just the sort of rupture that Zevi encouraged and applauded. 
Studio Passarelli, upper floors

Zevi was particularly fond of another building, this one in the suburban Piazza Bologna neighborhood, and of its architect, Piero Sartogo.  The two men met for the first time in 1971 when the building, the headquarters of the Rome Medical Association, was under construction, "a few yards" from where Zevi lived.  Zevi demanded that Sartogo appear at the site, immediately, and when he did, "I found the great critic stopping passersby, grabbing them by the arm, pointing up to the building, and asking them, 'Isn't it beautiful?'" recalled Sartogo.  A tour of the building followed and, shortly thereafter,
Piero Sartogo's Medical Office Building
a Zevi column in L'Espresso in which the building was compared to a "tree with exposed roots" and its architect praised for an unconventional structure that stood against cold rationalism and confused postmodernism.

In  1973, Zevi described the Medical Office Building in the Chronache di Architettura, emphasizing how the structure's distinctive exterior elements reflected the various activities to be accomplished inside.  "The principle of contamination [of these activities] "is organically achieved.  This is not an anonymous container with a regular structural framework into which rooms fit like drawers in a
Medical Office Building
chest.  The pilasters are coupled, and when required, they slide into a horizontal position expanding into beam-walls to envelope the auditorium, the cantilevered seminar rooms, the double-height foyers, and the periodical library.  The result is an organism structurally engaged in modulating the interlocking continuity of the spaces and displaying their spatial volumes both inside and outside." 

Zevi explained, too, that the building had been controversial, not the least for those who were to occupy it.  In 1966, Italian physicians gasped at the design, comparing it to London's elegant Royal College of Physicians.  "Why," they asked, "can't we have a minimum of charm, elegance and refinement like our British colleagues?"  Sartogo and his collaborators had their answer:  "For the simple reason [as Zevi reports] that your Medical Association is not an ancient institution like the Royal College.  It neither possesses a previous art gallery or a series of extremely rare medical treatises.  We lack a cultural tradition in the professions, and those seemingly odd but prestigious rituals that establish status do not exist.  Furthermore, you have chosen a suburban location for your headquarters in a neighborhood full of apartment buildings: Do you want to erect a monument or a bogus Guild Hall?"  The Medical Office Building, Zevi concluded, was "one of the most interesting and provocative buildings in the city of Rome."

We discovered the building while plotting one of two Piazza Bologna itineraries for Rome the Second Time.  The Medical Office Building that Bruno Zevi found so distinctive and important appears in Itinerary 8, "In the Parks, on the Streets, and in the Homes of the Famous, If Not Rich."  It is on via
Giovanni Battista de Rossi.  When we met architect Piero Sartogo in 2008, he told us the structure had been placed on the historic structures registry and was in line for a facelift. 

On our first sighting of the building,  we recognized its distinctiveness but were not so fond of the exposed concrete, which we identified with a brutalist aesthetic that we disliked.  Today, we bow to modern Rome's outstanding architectural theorist, Bruno Zevi.