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

Monday, February 24, 2014

In Rome, and Free: the Barberini Palace

Being a tourist in Rome can be expensive. Hotels and restaurants exact their toll, and the cost of admission for two at state museums can run about 30 Euro ($40).  So it's always nice to find places you can go--places both interesting and significant--without paying a dime.  One of those places is Palazzo Barberini.  It's conveniently located, just steps from the foot of via Veneto (and from Piazza Barberini), and important parts of it are accessible without paying for the museum (and numismatic society) it houses.

Up these stairs to the Secret Garden
The sloping site, which once housed a smaller palace, was acquired in 1625 by Maffeo Barberini, who became Pope Urban VIII in 1625.  In the years that followed, three great Roman architects worked on the design and construction of the new palace:  Carlo Maderno; Maderno's nephew, Francesco Borromini; and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  Usually rivals, Borromini and Bernini actually worked together on the palace for a short period.
Be on the lookout for "bees"--the symbol of the Barberini family

Bernini's staircase

After taking in the facade, you can enter the building at its center.  To the left you'll see Bernini's lovely staircase and, to the right, one of Borromini's greatest achievements, an oval (helicoidal, actually--you'll have to look that up) staircase.

Borromini's staircase

In our view, it is Rome's most extraordinary staircase, rivaled only by the Luigi Moretti's modernist spiral masterpiece, hidden away at the back of the ex-GIL (youth center) in Trastevere--and also free.

Il Giardino Segreto

Climbing the gentle center stairs offers access to what is known as a "gardino segreto"--a secret garden, hidden from public view.  Like the staircases, the garden is accessible at no charge.

Weird stuff in the garden

Poke around.  There's some weird stuff in there.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Jewish pizza ("pizza ebraica"): Not your (Italian) grandmother's pizza

Joining the line, including two Giro d'Italia bicycle race competitors, for Jewish pizza on a Sunday morning (before the race started).
Once in a while RST takes a break from heavy-duty philosophy, modern architecture, history, and churches for food, yes, food... especially sweets, say I.

One of our favorite stops is for "Jewish pizza" (pizza ebraica)  in Rome's historic Jewish ghetto.  The photo above shows you nearly the entire retail space of the bakery at via Portico di Ottavia, No. 1.  If you blink, you won't even notice it.  The name, I'm told, thanks to Katie Parla, is Pasticceria “Boccione” Limentani.  I've never seen a sign with the name on it,  but you don't need to know the name to pop in the corner door.

That's the Jewish pizza they're weighing there; sold by the gram/kilogram.  It's like a heavy, warm (eat it right when you get it) fruitcake.   Looks pretty burned and perhaps not edible.  Do not be deterred; it tastes great.

As you can see, the bakery sells other goodies as well.  Katie waxes eloquent about the biscottini on her blog.

The hours are not ideal for most tourists, since it's a kosher bakery.  So not open Saturdays or Friday nights, or Jewish high holidays.  Generally closed as well the last 3 weeks of August and 2-4 p.m. in summer.

They also run out of goods.

Our recommendation:  don't make it a destination; just stop in if you're in the neighborhood and get - and eat - something.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Assholes: the Italian Connection

RST has been reading Aaron James's 2012 book, Assholes: A Theory (Boston: Nicholas Brealey).   Although the title has the sound of pulp fiction, James is to be taken seriously: Harvard Ph.D., teaches philosophy at U. Cal. Irvine, recipient of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, time at Stanford's Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and so on.
If you wonder whether James is really a philosopher, try the discussion in Chapter 4 on whether it's appropriate to blame an asshole.

An avid surfer, James got the idea for the book from observing "asshole" surfers who violate the long-
established surfing custom of deferring to another surfer who is in perfect position on a critical portion of a good wave.  The asshole is the guy (and assholes are mostly guys, though for James the term encompasses Ann Coulter) who "has decided that he should have almost any wave he wants"--and, when challenged for his violation of surfer etiquette, just gets angry and self-righteous. 

The surfer example illustrates James's more theoretical description of an asshole.  The asshole, he writes,

"1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically
  2. does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3. is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people." 

More concretely, the asshole cuts in line, interrupts conversations often, drives as if he owns the road (and you don't), and regularly brings up the flaws of others.

OK, so you've thinking you've got the concept.  You wouldn't be an asshole to be wondering just what this has to do with Rome, or Italy.

Worse than an asshole
For one thing, James makes clear that Mussolini (or Hitler, or Stalin), though they might fit the definition, are not the people he's writing about.  "There are not enough harsh names for these figures, and it s fine to add 'asshole' to the list.  But it would be deeply offensive to only call Hitler or Stalin [or Mussolini] an asshole; there are much more important ways to describe them morally." 

For another, assholes are not evenly distributed across nations and culture.  According to James, some societies produce more assholes than others:  Brazil, Israel, the United States--and Italy.  Although James appears to offer little evidence for including Italy in the ranks of the cultures most likely to produce assholes, he argues that Italy has produced what he calls "asshole capitalism"--essentially a condition in which systems that would normally keep assholes in check have broken down.  (One could add that an American driver, in an automobile on Rome's streets for the first time, might conclude--erroneously--that all Italian drivers, and hence most Italians, are assholes.)

James may be on firmer ground in locating in Italy one of the turn-of-the-century's biggest assholes: Silvio Berlusconi, the "paradigmatic asshole of public life." 

Berlusconi: the "paradigmatic asshole of
public life," celebrating with another
Here is James's argument:  "We for years heard lurid tales of parties and underage prostitutes; of embezzlement, fraud, and judges bribed; of laws passed to protect him from prosecution and promote his business ventures, usually followed by a Berlusconi charm offensive.  Berlusconi was not ashamed and clearly felt entitled to all of this, despite the fact that many Italian reviled him and felt deeply ashamed of the spectacle.  It is not that rationalizations are offered but they are flimsy ones; no attempt at rationalization is made.  That seems to be Berlusconi's point:  he pillages Italian public life for private gain, out in the open, not because it is right but because he can."

Although Berlusconi might claim that he is simply following in the grand tradition of "rule Italian style"--from Machiavelli to Mussolini--and hence only serves as Italy's latest "king," James disputes that reasoning.  "The trouble with the argument is that Italy is now a democracy, which itself makes Berlusconi not royalty but corrupt.  His royalty is at most the royalty enjoyed by assholes of a special royal kind."

In short, he's an asshole.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Roman Women: Working in the Streets

There are feminists in Italy, and in Rome, but it would be too much to say that the country, and the city, have embraced women's rights.  Some of this reluctance has to do with the Italian family, an entity held in high regard (to say the least) for generations, if not centuries, and the normative role of women in that family. This was especially true under Fascism, when Mussolini demanded more children per family (at least 8, up to 20) and the state subsidized maternity homes with a tax on spinsters and bachelors, among others.  Naturally, most women stayed home to raise the kids.  Women didn't get the vote until 1946, but adultery by a woman was still a public offense.  Not until 1975 did the Italian parliament abolish the right of a husband to control his wife's existence. 

Caught taking her picture

By 2000, the average family size was 2.6 persons, and only about 2% of families had 4 or more children.  Moreover, women of all ages could be seen scootering around Rome, a form of physical liberation, at least.

Even so, as of the turn of this century less than 1% of Italian managers were women, only 10% of parliamentarians were women (and 33% of Italian women said they wouldn't trust a woman prime minister), only 44% of women were employed--the lowest figure in the European Union--and women were dramatically underrepresented in every basic job category--state employees, factory workers, business owners, self-employed--except office workers, where there was rough parity. 

What's surprising then, is that one sees women cleaning the streets and picking up trash.  Yes, cleaning the streets and picking up trash--jobs usually associated with men and, in Buffalo, where RST sometimes resides, an occupation apparently (from our observation) all male. 

Who would have guessed?


As part of her job, this woman postal worker gets to ride a scooter--on the sidewalk even. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Balls of Rome

We were introduced to the balls of Rome by architecture professor Pia Schneider, who had graciously agreed to show us Garbatella through her practiced eye.  Behind the old public baths off Piazza Brin, in the courtyard of a public housing complex constructed in the late 1920s, she pointed out a ramp decorated with balls.  "Very Fascist," she said. (Garbatella, and these balls, is one of the itneraries in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler; see below for more information.)

She's right, of course, about the link between Fascist-era architecture and balls.  The next year--now we're scouting for balls--we found an ample supply in the Fascist-era village of Pomezia.  Indeed, in the city's charming public square, in front of the building that in the Mussolini era housed the police department.  Here, the balls alternate with square blocks of marble.  The rationalist architects of the era loved geometry. 

Closer by, in Pigneto/Prenestino, there's a 1930s school with ball decoration.   

Balls to sit on

You'll find another example in Ostiense, across from the pyramid, adorning the station for the Rome-Ostia-Lido train line.  Built in 1924, the station was designed by Marcello Piacentini.  Although clearly a work of Fascism--the station itself was intended to emphasize and promote Rome's reach to the sea and the larger imperial impulse that reach represented, and the poetry of Fascist poet Gabriele D'Annunzio is on its walls--the building as a whole has a 19th-century feel.  Still, the balls are there.

Even so, Rome has plenty of balls that have nothing to do with Fascism (at least not the Mussolini variety).  In the city center, lines of balls are designed to restrict vehicular traffic.  Local artists benefit, too.

And there's a delightful, "arty" ball in front of the headquarters of the Province of Rome, just off Piazza Venezia.

Regrettably, balls are also commonly used as an anti-loitering device, to prevent people--perhaps not only vagrants--from sitting down in front of stores or on public objects, such as planters.  Or perhaps, in the case of the planters below, they're just decoration.

If you spot some Rome balls, let us know!

And for more on Fascist architecture in Rome, see our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Garbatella (that includes the balls above), Modern Rome features three other walks: the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; 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.