Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Rome's Modern Churches Are Worth the Trek - starting with San Pio da Pietralcino in Malafede

Some of most spectacular architecture in Rome is found in its churches, and that includes 21st century architecture.  The Rome Diocese has commissioned dozens of new churches, most in lower- and middle-class neighborhoods on the periphery, to serve the spreading population and to deal with the departure of these classes from the historic center.

one block away
We began our exploration of these modern churches with the most famous one, Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church in the suburban neighborhood of Tor Tre Teste, which came in at #17 on RST's Top 40.  That was almost 4 years ago. RST's post on Meier’s church is still the most popular on the blog. We have visited many other churches since then, and made a push this past year to see 6 more.  Some are by famous architects, with Meier at the top of the list, and others by relative unknowns.  They are all fascinating, for their architecture as well as for the social insights they provide.

detail from San Pio statue
in the church

With this post, RST begins a series on these 21st- century landmarks.  We start with a church in a middle-class suburb of no architectural distinction; a church plunked down in the middle of large apartment blocks; a church dedicated to the controversial saint, Padre Pio, whom some consider a charlatan.  

One of the newest of the dozens of new churches, the Church of San Pio da Pietralcina, in Malafede, south of Rome on the way to Fiumicino airport, has a striking set of flowing, uneven arches that define it. Our friend and art history professor Shara Wasserman (see her Contemporary Rome Web site) describes it as like the Shroud of Turin, flowing out.  Hmm, we’re not so sure, but it’s certainly distinctive.

What the roofline does inside may be even more impressive.  The siting of the choir against the back of the main arch, is lovely, even if it is furnished so far only with plastic chairs.
One of the more daring aspects of this church is the use of only nominal separation between the main body of the church and the side chapels.  Additional rchitectural details, such as the size of the arch and windows and the lattice work forming a type of separate ceiling, separate the side chapel from the main body of the church.
Only the railing  and a vestigial ceiling separate the side chapel from a walkway,
on one side, and the main worship space, on the other
The liturgical furnishings in the interior – such as the tabernacle holding the Eucharist, the baptismal receptacle, the priest’s chair, the altar, the Stations of the Cross – are designed in roughly hewn travertine, quarried locally (near Guidonia), a modern aesthetic. We noticed the few potted plants that have been placed next to some of these modernist pieces, relieving their starkness, probably to the dismay of the artist, Italian Giovanna De Sanctis Ricciardone ( This decorating of stark modern pieces with more homey touches is something we see in most of the 21s- century churches.
altar chair
Stations of the Cross
baptismal station

looking out from the church to the neighborhood;
 note the protective fencing
  The construction of this church in a new neighborhood, with a newly created parish, is consistent with the Rome Diocese’s efforts to spread its message.  The neighborhood sprang up around 2000, and the church was consecrated in late 2010, after 3 years of construction.  On the church Web site (link below), a writer notes that the area could have been considered a desert when families bought apartments here in 2000.  Malafede (meaning “bad faith”) was basically a neglected area, known in the past for pirates and malaria.  Again, the placement of this church follows the population and also is an acknowledgement by the Church that parishioners are moving away from the city into these somewhat wasteland-like suburbs.

A heavy gate guards the church grounds, as is the case in most of the 21st-century churches.  The gates may be closed not only at night, but during that part of the day when the priest is not in the church; this is an unfriendly aspect of modern church management, though perhaps necessary to protect church property with dwindling religious personnel.

The church's namesake, Padre Pio, or Saint Pius, as he now is known, is extremely popular worldwide, and the parishioners here seem to like having a church in Rome dedicated to him.  We note the use of Pio and the church's distinctive roof design on church posters. 
This view from in back of the church also shows the parish buildings, 
again of modern and interesting design. 
 The gardeners found a good place to store their supplies.

The back of the church is as intriguing as the front.  Here one can see some of the features of the construction – the beams that hold that roof in place, as well as the gardeners trying to beat back the weeds and using space in the beams to store their equipment.

A view of the gardeners - unsuccessful in getting
 that mower running (and one wonders how it
would handle those weeds) - also shows how tightly
 the church is placed next to the apartment buildings

The architects for this unusual church structure were Anselmo e Associati.  We could find nothing about them, even though they have a Facebook page, except they are a northern firm, in the province of Lombardy, north of Milan.

We've included below some other photos, showing the requisite bell tower and some other views of the church, as well as some relevant links.

How to get there?  That’s an issue.  We went by scooter.  The church, at via Paolo Stoppa, 12, is half-way between via Cristoforo Colombo and via Ostiense/via del Mare, past the GRA, midway between the towns of Vitinia and Acilia.  One public transportation option is to take the Roma-Lido train from the station in Ostiense (the station is next to the Metro Piramide stop) past EUR to Vitinia and walk about 1.5 miles.  Some of that walk is along via del Mare; so hopefully there’s some kind of pedestrian space. This is one of those times (and we will say that for most of these churches) when a taxi may be in order.


Some links:
The church’s Web site:  It has flags for various languages, but they don’t seem to work.  Use a Google or other Web translator.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

London's Odeon: A Touch of Rome from Gilbert Bayes

Rome is everywhere, as RST found on a recent trip to London.  We were on Shaftsbury Avenue, in the heart of the city, and were admiring from across the street the Odeon Covent Garden Theatre and its dramatic 140-foot frieze.

And there, following the Greek Chorus, was Rome, represented by its Gladiators, then by its empire--the words Imperial Rome at the top of the frieze.  We later learned that the theater, opened in 1931 as the Saville Theatre (architect: Sir Thomas Bennett), had for several decades been a space for legtimate theater before becoming a movie house in the 1960s and the 4-screen Odeon complex in 2001.

Gilbert Bayes at work on a plaster cast
of the frieze, 1930

The frieze is by a well-known British sculptor, Gilbert Bayes.  Its subject is the stage, its title "Drama through
the Ages."  Bayes was working on the piece in 1930, when he was photographed at his studio.  It was completed for the opening the following year.


The Odeon, complete with garbage cans.  Bill rather liked the green building at right; Dianne thought it was hideous.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A Moral Act or Not?

The assassination of Julius Caesar, artist's rendering
 Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BCE, in what is today Rome’s Largo di Torre Argentina, a favorite tourist site and playground for cats. In the guest post that follows, philosophy professor Raymond Angelo Belliotti asks whether the assassination was a moral act, subjecting the murder to 7 moral criteria. Dr. Belliotti is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is the author, among other books, of Good Sex: Perspectives on Sexual Ethics, and Happiness Is Overrated. This essay is drawn from his Roman Philosophy and the Good Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009).
Largo di Torre Argentina
Assassination is morally justified if and only if all of the following conditions are met:
  1.  The tyrant has systematically transgressed against the common good
Caesar wielded power in a few respects reminiscent of tyranny: he appointed numerous public officials; elections were either skirted or pro forma; and he controlled political power in Rome. But he avoided the worst abuses that characterize tyrannies. Both the masses of Romans and the small middle class were somewhat better off economically under Caesar. Although the masses lost the right
to vote for most public officials, the middle class had greater opportunity to attain public office. At his death, Caesar’s generosity to citizens contrasted starkly to the avarice that most unadulterated tyrants embodied.

            Caesar had seized power unconstitutionally. To call him a tyrant in arrival is fair. To call him a tyrant in political practice is contestable. A strong case can be made that the alleged common good that pre-existed Caesar benefited the aristocrats disproportionately. Caesar’s reforms, in contrast, benefited in substance more people.

  1. The assassination will advance the common good

The conspirators, stunningly naïve, were convinced that the death of Caesar would automatically resuscitate the Roman republic. The assassins were so tone deaf to social reality that they never considered that the political liberties of the Roman aristocracy did not define liberty as such. They never entertained the possibility that middle class, poor, and disenfranchised people might have interests other than their own.

            The reason the assassins did not more carefully plan the aftermath of Caesar’s death was that they were sincerely convinced all right-thinking Romans desired precisely what they did. The conspirators harbored a good faith – but deluded – belief that once their deed was understood to be spawned from lofty aspirations, the Roman citizenry would rally to their cause. No plan to reestablish the republic was necessary, they assumed, because there would be no serious opposition.

A return to the old ways – the critical goal of the conspirators – would not have served the interests of all citizens equally. The failure of the conspirators to grasp this, even dimly, invites the accusation that they were culpable for their political insensitivity to social reality.

  1. Assassination is a last resort
           Critics can always imagine further actions that might have been explored prior to
assassinating a government leader: the opposition might have asked for a conference with Caesar, presented him a list of grievances, implored him to arrive at an accommodation with the optimates in the senate, and negotiated in the spirit of compromise. They did not. Perhaps they were right not to bother. Caesar was embarking on his Parthian campaign a few days after the Ides of March. Time was short. If the campaign proved successful, his standing would be enhanced, his political power amplified, and any motivation to negotiate gone. Postponement of the plot would increase the chances of exposure, decrease the possibilities for success, and permit Caesar’s political position to strengthen. Hence the conspirators understood they had to act prior to March 18, 44 BCE, the date of Caesar’s scheduled departure. Thus, the assassination did not violate the requirement that from a practical standpoint the murder must be a last resort.

     4.  Assassination produces the greatest balance of good over evil

          Even if one were to assume the changes sought by the assassins would unambiguously benefit everyone, these changes were not likely. The republic was not going to rise spontaneously from Caesar’s ashes; that was foreseeable in 44 BCE, at least by those not blinded by their class interests, romantic dreams of redemption, or personal vendetta.

            The death of a relatively mild autocrat often results in a worse state of affairs. The result here was 13 years of renewed civil war that devastated the Roman world, doomed the republic, and ushered in centuries of emperors.The conspirators had failed to address the most daunting obstacle blocking political change, the problem of transition: how does a revolution or assassination, if successful, then nurture the political structure its instigators prize?       

In sum, the view that the assassination produced a positive balance of good over evil is unpersuasive.

  1. The assassination flows from morally acceptable motives
The popular view of Brutus as The Noble Roman, who risked everything for principle and patriotism, has a sound basis in his sense of ancestral destiny and commitment to Platonic
philosophy. But that’s only part of the story. Brutus was neither Goody Two-Shoes nor Braveheart. He was an avaricious money-lender. He fought on the side of Pompey, the man who dishonorably murdered Brutus’ father. Upon defeat, he implored the victor, Caesar, for forgiveness. After Caesar had granted clemency and rewarded Brutus with desirable political posts, he plotted against and killed his benefactor.

            History has been less kind to Cassius. That Cassius despised Caesar is uncontested.  Moreover, Cassius was tougher, more aggressive, and prouder than Brutus. He treasured his dignitas as profoundly as did Caesar himself. Yet he too was an aristocratic patriot in the Roman tradition, inspired by the heroic sagas of his youth. He was forged from harder steel than Brutus, but the two men shared political vision.

            The requirement that assassination is morally justified only if the motives of the perpetrators are appropriate and grounded in reality must not be upgraded to a demand that the motives be pristine and uncontaminated. Viewed from the prism of their aristocratic mindset and Roman socialization, the main conspirators against Caesar do not clearly flunk this test. Their motives were mixed, but such is the case in all tyrannicides.

      6.  The asssassins employ the least wicked means

            Other things being equal, assassins should not inflict gratuitous suffering on their
political victims. Caesar’s death was bloody and terrifying: 23 knife wounds to his torso amid enormous panic and confusion. Did his murderers minimize the evil of their method of execution?

            Lacking firearms which would have rendered the deed quicker and less traumatic, the most

Stabbed 23 times.  Gratuitous suffering?
obvious alternative to a dagger attack was poison. Poison, though, was risky. Slow to act, easy to detect, and susceptible to antidotes, it was an unreliable method of killing. Poisoning an intended victim also involved wider subterfuges which might be exposed. Death by dagger was surer and swifter where access to the target was assured. Accordingly, I conclude the assassins met this “least-wicked means” requirement.

      7.  The assassins subject their actions to legal processes, if practical

          The utter chaos that followed the death of Caesar prevented efforts to submit the assassination to due process of law. An agreement in the senate brokered by Antony and Cicero – that included ratification of all of Caesar’s decrees and appointments; a public burial for Caesar; and no official retaliation against the assassins – was reasonable and necessary. Later, when Octavian assumed political control, the assassins were formally outlawed and condemned. So Caesar’s murderers never had a genuine opportunity to submit to the due processes of law.
In sum, the assassination was not justified

Judgmental Dante
             The assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar was morally unjustified. The act did not bring about worthy consequences, and this is true from the vantage points of Caesarians and republicans alike. Civil war was the actual and foreseeable result of the assassination. The assassins therefore were morally culpable for their delusional conviction that the republic would arise spontaneously from the ashes of Caesar’s body. Their mindless refusal to plan for political transition is morally blameworthy; they bear responsibility for much of the carnage that ensued. Dante Alighieri was merciless. He consigned Brutus and Cassius to the lowest rung of hell to suffer the endless torment of having their torsos nibbled on by a ravenous Satan. This is a pitiless and disproportionate punishment.

Surely the two main conspirators deserve a lesser retribution: To sizzle in hell’s fires until Caesar, with his mercy strained, grants a reprieve.

Raymond Belliotti

P.S.  RST recommends Bo Lundin's story of the one-eyed cat of Torre Argentina. 




Sunday, January 12, 2014

Rome Posters: Lines of Excess

A mobile poster, in Piazza dei Rei di Roma.
Rome is the poster child for....posters!  They're in every neighborhood, often long lines of them, often long lines of the same poster, usually framed in iron racks that line the sidewalks, holes having been driven in the asphalt.  At the height of political campaigns, huge posters are driven around the city on trucks.  Most of the posters are political in one way or another, featuring a candidate, a party, and/or a position on some crucial issue of the day, such as immigration, waste disposal, or Italy's relationship with the European Union. 

The poster at top is for a party on the right (destra); it calls for the "immediate expulsion of undocumented immigrants," as well as for the re-election of the right-wing Mayor, Gianni Alemanno (he lost). 

Poster line along a Metro construction site.

We enjoy reading the posters and gathering from them information about the city's elections, politicians, and shared concerns.  That much is good.  What isn't good is that the poster lines are too often a blight on the urban landscape.  They're tolerable when the landscape is itself a mess, so that a poster line placed on an already disruptive Metro construction site doesn't make much difference. 

But this sort of modest restraint, if one could call if that, is seldom practiced.  One line in Prati runs down the middle of what would otherwise be an elegant, treed median/parkway. 

Those that cleave to the sidewalks leave little room for pedestrians and bring clutter--and often refuse--to nice residential areas (see the poster at end). 

Messy.  And badly positioned between a park and a church.

This line borders a park in the Marconi area and is directly across the street from Santo Volto, a lovely and important new church designed by Rome architects Piero Sartogo and Nathalie Grenon

Blocking the view of Acqua Paola (visible at upper left) and
the city below

And now and then, a poster line is placed especially ineptly.  On one side of this line (in back of the photographer) is a comely park on the Gianicolo.  On the other side (if the poster line were miraculously removed, it would be right in front  of you) is one of Rome's treasures: the enormous, elaborate fountain known as Acqua Paola (no. 19 on RST's Top 40). 


Neighborhood blight, this time in San Giovanni

Monday, January 6, 2014

When Rome was French

It could be an item from Ripley's Believe It Or Not:  There was a time when Rome was French.  Not French in spirit.  Not French in culture.  Not French in tradition.  But French in the sense that Rome was French property and decisions with regard to religion, governance, social welfare, and urban planning were made by the French. 

Rome's French period began in 1798, when the French revolutionary army, taking advantage of the weak defenses of the sprawling Papal States, entered the city along via Flaminia, through the Porta del Popolo, down the via del Corso, and up the capital steps, where the "Republic" was declared.  Under what was known as the "repubblica per ridere" (The Ridiculous Republic, or, more literally, the Laughable Republic), the Pope was deported, enemies of the regime were executed in Piazza del Popolo and the Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and increases in the price of bread led to riots in the streets. 
He loved Rome--or perhaps the idea of Rome--but he would never see the city.  The painting is in the Museo Napoleonico

Villa Medici, inhabited by the French since 1803
The Republic, such as it was, lasted only as long--about two years--as the French military was there to support it.  Yet even after 1800, as Napoleon's forces took control of much of Italy (though not yet Rome), the city remained under French sway.  The Pope was restored, though dependent on Napoleon for his post; a French ambassador arrived, taking up lodgings in the Corsini Palace; the French Academy took over the Villa Medici (1803); and wealthy French flowed into the city, preening from their fancy carriages on the via del Corso, irritating the Romans, who jeered and threw things.

Castel Sant'Angelo, where French troops were
This period of (relative) accommodation ended in 1808, when the French army--the army of Napoleon, not the Revolution--entered the city and found quarters in Castel Sant'Angelo.  The Pope withdrew to the Quirinal Palace, a virtual prisoner.  Things got worse for the Romans on June 10, 1809, when Rome was officially absorbed into the French Empire as an imperial city.  Napoleon--who would never visit Rome--was thrilled by the prospect of joining the Eternal City with the French jewel, Paris.  The proclamation was read on the Capitoline Hill--"Napoleon the Great wants only the glory of giving you, after so many centuries of oblivion, a fate more worthy of your ancient destiny"--and an elaborate procession followed, with stops at Piazza Venezia, Piazza Colonna and, further along the via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo. 

The Quirinal Palace, where a captive Pope
excommunicated Napoleon, among others.
Romans failed to appreciate their new status, as did Pope Pius VI, who from the Quirinal Palace issued a general excommunication of those who cooperated with the takeover of the Papal States--an order that obviously included Napoleon.  Angry at the pontiff's intransigence--he had thought that
the Pope would be willing to compromise in exchange for protection--he had Pius kidnapped and removed from the city to Savona.  The attack on the Church continued with the removal of the stations of the cross from the Coliseum, the deportation of hundreds of clerics, and the closing down of the Papal welfare state, which had supported thousands of Romans unable (or sometimes unwilling) to work. 

The French under Napoleon were reformers, standard-bearers of the Enlightenment, and they made every effort to bring their modernizing perspective to a Rome that clung to its medieval ways with tenacity.  Like Mussolini, the French disliked and feared Rome's physical complexity.  They believed that its narrow, winding streets--perhaps especially the warrens of Trastevere--and its nameless streets and numberless houses--reinforced the insularity and hostility of the population, including the Trasteverini.  The French were not in power long enough to do much in the way of urban renewal, but they did manage to number the houses and install street signage and street lights, as well as prohibit concealed weapons in a violent city where nearly every man carried a knife. 

The ban on concealed weapons was not popular with the Romans, nor was military conscription, the forcing of able-bodied men to work on public projects, depots for the storage of vagrants, or efforts to suppress the lottery (Romans loved to gamble).  The new "scientific" guillotine was introduced in 1813, and torture was outlawed. 

Giuseppe Valadier's Casina, on the Pincio

The French were planners, too.  By 1810 there were plans for an enormous imperial palace, one that would have dwarfed the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II.  There were plans to turn the Lateran Palace into a hospice for beggars, to create open piazzas around Trajan's column, the Pantheon, and the Trevi fountain, and to cut new boulevards in the city.  Mussolini would have understood. 

Imagine the Tevere, navigable for large vessels,
all the way to Perugia.  The French did. 

There was a plan to open the Tevere to large vessels, all the way to Perugia, and another to create an enormous garden from the Pincian Hill to the Tevere. 

The Verano cemetery
Perhaps for health reasons, the French planned to build two cemeteries as part of an effort to bury the dead outside the city walls. 

Of all these plans, few came to fruition.  The Pincian/Tevere garden was in the works when the French departed, and one element in that larger plans remains to this day: the Casina by Italian architect Giuseppe Valadier.  The Verano cemetery, located adjacent to the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura, was another French achievement.   

Canova's Pauline (Napoleon's sister), in
the Borghese Museum
The French made contributions to the arts.  Their enlightenment ideology included an interest in archaeology, and some progress was made in that area, notably in the Coliseum and at the Temple of Jupiter.  In the fall of 1809, the brilliant sculptor Antonio Canova was called back to Rome from his native Possagno to head the city's arts program.  One of his most famous works, the Venus Victrix, for which Napoleon's beautiful sister Pauline was the model, is on view in the Borghese Museum.  (Pauline eventually bought a villa--now the French embassy--just inside the walls at Porta Pia.)

The unassuming Pasquino, where
Romans expressed their dislike of the French.
As we have seen, the Romans were not pleased to be governed by the French.  As historian Susan Vandiver Nicassio writes in Imperial City: Rome Under Napoleon, "Napoleon loved Rome like a bridegroom; Rome did not love Napoleon.  The affair progressed from courtship to rape and ended, as such affairs must end, in mutual destruction."  What could the Romans do?  The Pasquino--the statue near Piazza Navona on which generations of Romans had posted their views and complaints--was covered with denunciations of the emperor and his infant son, crowned King of Rome in 1810 ("the little bastard has been crowned").  Napoleon, baffled by the Pasquino tradition of dissent, announced that "Rome has become a theatre for defamation, a headquarters for libel."  Although one would imagine that the populace would have been grateful when the French authorities decided to allow "carnival" to take place as scheduled, Romans chose to express their dislike of the occupation by refusing to participate (refusing to party!). 

It would all be over soon.  French influence in the city was dramatically reduced in 1812, when Napoleon's armies ran into trouble in Russia.  In May of 1814, Pope Pius VII entered Rome in triumph over the Ponte Milvio, the same route into the city taken by the French revolutionary forces some 16 years before.  The Romans got their city back. 

The Museo Napoleonico

Lucien, Napoleon's brother, lived in Rome from 1804 to 1808, and he returned to the city after his sibling's fall.  One of Lucien's descendants founded the Museo Napoleonico.  The museum is at Piazza di Ponte Umberto I, 1, just north of Piazza Navona. 


This account is based on Susan Vandiver Nicassio's informative and entertaining history, Imperial City: Rome Under Napoleon (The University of Chicago Press, 2005).  It is available from the publisher and on (paper and Kindle).