Rome Travel Guide

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Crowd-sourcing Pope John Paul II's statue in Rome

2011 statue

2011.  "It looks like a phone booth from this
angle," says Bill.  "Maybe a direct line
to the Pope."
This is the John Paul II statue in front of Stazione Termini (the main Rome train station) as it was unveiled, and as we saw it, in 2011.  Looked okay to us.  Yes, modernized; yes, stylized.  But decent modern sculpture, imho.  We certainly wouldn't consider it for our Worst Public Sculpture series.

But the critics - likened to ubiquitous soccer team critics in a NYT article - came out in force.  The NYT reported some called the statue a urinal.   Others a "bomb"and a "sin." (Imagine if it had gotten attacked on Facebook!)

close up of the Pope's head on the statue:
before the remake
Most of the criticisms focused on the head: not smiling enough, no neck, some said. Not representative of the beloved Pope, who is to be canonized Sunday, April 27 (2014).  We were in the crowds in 2005 in the days after he died - those crowds that shouted "Santo Subito!" "Saint Now!"

Crowds in Circo Massimo for John Paul II funeral services in 2005

2012, modifications in progress
We scootered by the statue in 2012 - now there's a real urinal, or port-a-potty, nearby, and the statue was so covered we couldn't even peak inside.  The powers that be, or the sculptor, weren't going to let the crowd come in on this one.
2013 - not much different, in our opinion


smiley face - 2013

He is viewed now as smiling more, and with a bit more of a neck. His arm is straightened, they say, the greenish hue evened out, and the statue has its own pedestal.

The sculptor, Oliviero Rainaldi, said he has simply "corrected some mistakes." That the statue now more closely resembles his original vision.  Yeah, that and a bunch of soccer critics formed into a committee by the then right-wing mayor no doubt made him see these "mistakes" more clearly.

The critics seem appeased, but we don't see much difference.  (Bill: much improved cape, gently parting rather than squared off.)  And, the idea of crowd-sourcing a sculpture somehow rubs us the wrong way.

In any event, you can stop by and see for yourself, when your train comes in.

PS - for more on preserving Popes, saints and their bodies, see Theresa Potenza's marvelous piece in the New York Post (and titled, per that paper's style), "Vatican's secret, and deadly, project to mummify saints."


Monday, April 21, 2014

Walking the (Aurelian) Wall: Porta Metronia to Porta Maggiore

The Aurelian Wall, section east of Porta San Giovanni.  Garbage, mud, feral cats, broken fountains,
 dog walks, but still powerful.  Days after we were there, Il Messaggero reported that citizens of the
 neighborhood just to the left of this photo were upset over abusive (illegal)vendors selling stolen (and
 thrown away) goods on the sidewalk next to the park.  (Dianne:they should be upset about more than that.)

The American President Teddy Roosevelt is best known for charging up San Juan Hill with his Roughriders, but his taste for adventure could take other forms.  One of the things he liked to do with similarly inclined buddies was to set a compass direction from the White House and follow it as closely as possible, through back yards and alleys, industrial sites and cemeteries, wherever it led.  By leaving the well-traveled streets and sidewalks behind, Roosevelt hoped to experience the nation's capitol in a fresh way.

Only Presidents can do that sort of thing without being shot, and even a man as resourceful and determined as Teddy would have trouble applying the idea in Rome, where enormous apartment blocks--not to mention uncooperative portieri (doormen)--would present insuperable obstacles.

Yet in the spirit of Roosevelt (and his successors, the Guy Debord-led Situationists of the postwar era, with their concept of the dérive), we took a stab at rearranging the city--at seeing it in a new way--by setting a goal of walking the entire Aurelian Wall, starting with a reasonable portion, of course.

The Aurelian Wall was built in 271-75 AD, replacing the earlier, smaller Servian Wall, of which just a few pieces remain.  The Aurelian Wall, in contrast, remains intact in large stretches, perhaps covering as much as half of its original 19 km (12 mile) length.  It was built quickly in response to a 270 AD barbarian invasion, in part by incorporating existing structures, like the Pyramid.  Some scholars estimate as much as 1/6 of the wall was existing structures (spoiler alert - we found some on this walk!).  Popes and others rebuilt and refashioned the wall over the years.  But it remains an impressive artifact of ancient and Renaissance history, and a constant part of one's life in today's Rome. [Update: a Google map includes this itinerary.]

Porta Metronia
Just as the wall cuts through Rome in some curious ways--you can't follow the wall in an automobile or a scooter (though Nanni Moretti tried for a bit in his film, Caro Diario), or even, now and then, on foot--so did we find ourselves moving through the Eternal City in new and unexpected ways, through parks we had never been in before, on streets we had never traveled, amid Romans ruins we didn't know existed.  Here's a brief account of our first adventure in "walking the wall."

We began our journey at Porta Metronia (in our neighborhood), walking counterclockwise inside the wall.  Here one can see how this portion of the fortification was constructed--its stairways and passageways--as well as how it's used today, by birds that nest comfortably in holes once meant for drainage and observation of the enemy.  There's a piece of graffiti here, too--a reddish piece featuring an animal resembling Fritz the Cat--but it's on a piece of the wall coated with an unusual flat surface; the wall itself, we noticed on our trek, is essentially untouched by the city's street artists. 

Birds in the wall
Construction of Metro Line C obscures the wall for a few hundreds meters, though one can see it through small holes in the construction fences and, here and there, as a truck or bulldozer exits or enters the construction site.  As the wall approaches the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, it appears to be only a few feet high, and, indeed, from the inside (only) it is, because the church--and the wall--are located high on a hill.  We discovered many portions of the wall were constructed so that the wall was high from the outside, but supported by hills and earth on the inside, appearing much shorter from that perspective.
The wall--low here on top of a hill--appears between
the orange fence and the truck
wedding photo

On the grounds of the basilica, we observed a couple being photographed after their wedding.  We entered the basilica from the side and back and walked out the front. 

A gathering.  Roma? 

Beyond the basilica, the wall took us by the site of what appeared to be large gathering of Roma (and to our left, the tacky vendor tents in front of Borromini's church), then along the impressive and complex grounds of Porta San Giovanni, now, unfortunately, closed to the public.

Dry fountain

Crossing via Appia Nuova, we found ourselves in a long and narrow park, with 2 dog walks, feral black cats, mounds of garbage, and dry (20th-century) fountains in which water once flowed down toward the wall.  Once upon a time there was vision here, but no more.

Kounellis art-gate

Ahead, the wall seemed to curve rather oddly to the right and end at the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  There, in the piazza that fronts the church, was an unexpected treat: an enormous art nouveau-style decorative (yet functional) gate, created by Rome-based artist Jannis Kounellis in 2007 and featuring dozens of  suspended ball-like objects of colored glass.

Ruins of the Circo Variano, then the wall

But where's the wall?  To the left of the church we headed inward, past a gate (there is public access here, though the entrance is somewhat intimidating), and ahead an historical marker, in Italian.  Looking past the marker, and past some archaeological digs (more on them in a moment) is the wall and, behind it (across a street, as it turns out), offices of the Italian daily newspaper, Il Messaggero.

The guys who set us straight

We turned left at the marker, then right under the arcade of the Museum of Musical Instruments, speculating as we went that the wall-like structure across the field to our left was an aqueduct.  Ahead, at the juncture of the "L" made by two long buildings, we were again considering what it was we were observing when we encountered two men, one carrying schematic drawings of the area.

Wall turns sharply left.  Filled-in arches suggest it was (also) an
aqueduct, another use of existing structures to create the wall.

Responding to our questions, he pulled out a clean sheet of paper, hastily drew his own general diagram of the area, and explained that the wall we had thought was an aqueduct was, indeed, the Aurelian wall (from the end of the 2nd building, just past what he called the "baretta" [cute little bar], one can see it make a sharp left turn, though one cannot get closer here).  And, he continued, the new arcaded buildings, much of the grounds of which we could see, and the terra on which we were standing were all part of the Circo Variano, a huge entertainment complex built by Severian emperors in the first few decades of the 3rd century AD and as yet barely touched by archaeologists. As the man told us, they can't get at the ruins because they now lie under many city buildings.

The relevant spaces are in the left third of this aerial view.
At lower left, the dotted-line oval is the anfiteatro (Amphitheater
 Castrense), with the Aurelian wall going off to the right and up.
  Above the open field at left/center is the Aurelian wall, having
 turned left. The long white markings demark the Circo Variano.

Porta Maggiore: two aqueducts--Aqua Claudia, on top of
 Annio Novus--on high.  Later became part of the Aurelian Wall

Back in the church "piazza," we turned right to locate the wall as it emerged from the complex of buildings.  We walked past a museum honoring the Sardinian military (closed for renovations), past a monumental turn-of-the-20th century building that now houses administrative offices for Acea, the electrical utility.  And there was the wall, jutting into Piazza Maggiore and meeting there an enormous aqueduct, two water chambers on its top.

Here we turned back, now on the outside of the wall, underneath the Tangenziale (elevated highway) and made an immediate right down the left side of viale Castrense.  Across the street was the wall, curved here to incorporate and accommodate the Anfiteatro (amphiteater) Castrense, its Corinthian columns now embedded in the wall.  We had been by here dozens of times and never noticed the curve of the wall or the columns, nor considered that they might be the ruins of an ancient structure.  The amphitheater is one of the "existing" structures that was incorporated into the Aurelian Wall to hasten its construction.

The surprise of the day; Rome's second coliseum:  Anfiteatro Castrense; the arches
 were filled in about 50 years after it was built,when the wall was constructed.
Those 3rd century AD columns are still there.

Now following the outside of the wall, we crossed the street at the arches and hugged the sidewalk to the left.  Ahead, back at Porta San Giovanni, we headed up via Appia Nuova, toward home.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fu-turing at Cerveteri: Discovering the Etruscans through Digital Technology

RST is pleased to welcome guest blogger Theresa Potenza.  Based in Rome, Potenza is an art historian and freelance writer.  To learn more about her private tours of Rome and read her travel and feature stories about Italy check out:

Experience the past by leaping into the future.  At Banditaccia necropolis at Cerveteri, digital technology engages raw archaeology.  The long dead come to life—well, almost. 

The city of Cerveteri, located 28 miles (50km) north of Rome, was one of the largest cities of the Mediterranean before the Roman civilization.  Its burial site offers a taste of the complicated Etruscan religion and preoccupation with death and foregrounds the Etruscans’ skillful and creative construction techniques.

A new technology program at the site, called Fu-touring, enhances an already powerful in-person experience of a city of the dead.  Inside the technology center you can watch a 20-minute 3-D video providing just enough background on the people, burial practices, and art of Cerveteri to put the 25-acre (10-hectare) site into context.  Three of the tombs are enhanced inside with a 2-minute video that recreates where objects were placed along the walls, how the architectural space was carved, who was buried there, how their funerals took place in that space, and even reconstructs earthquakes and natural disasters to show how precious terra-cotta vases and other personal items were damaged over the centuries.  

Hundreds more tombs are available to visit in order to expand your imagination, including 9th century BC small hut tombs and dice tombs, resembling shop windows, set along a main road.

The most famous tombs are those of the 5th century BC, grande tumuli (mounded) tombs indicating an elite aristocratic class and built to imitate domestic architecture of the period.

Palazzo delle Esposizioni
April 15-July 20
These technological enhancements to one of most unique burial sites in the world, connected to a leading ancient city on a par with Athens and Rome, comes at a time when the Etruscan city of Cerveteri is in the spotlight in Rome.  An exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni--on from April 15th through July 20th --assembles some of the best collections of previous archaeological discoveries from inside these tombs from significant galleries around the world, including the Vatican Museums, Paris’ Louvre, and the British Museum in London. The exhibition incorporates some of the most remarkable and well-known finds from Cerveteri, as well as material recently discovered and never before revealed, providing new insight into this mysterious metropolis and the remarkably advanced pre-Roman civilization of the Etruscans.

Theresa Potenza

Friday, April 11, 2014

Italy, Rome, and the Deportation of the Jews: Some Thoughts

The little girls at right, Fiorella and Luciana Anticoli,
 were among those sent to Auschwitz from Rome
 in October 1943
In our first Rome book, Rome the Second Time, we told the tragic story of Rome’s Jews, thousands of whom were rounded up and more than a thousand deported to German concentration camps in October 1943, never to return.  

When we wrote about the event in 2009, there was a plaque on a wall at the Tiburtina Station, remembering the day when Jews were loaded on the trains; it was on one of RST's itineraries. With the recent remodeling of the station, the plaque has disappeared, and with it one more piece of evidence that Italian--and Roman--Jews were among the victims of the Holocaust. 
The plaque - now gone - at Tiburtina Station in Rome

We were reminded of the absence of that plaque a few weeks ago, at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust--a bunker-like building on the western edge of Pan Pacific Park—where we had gone to hear Guri Schwarz, a professor at the University of Pisa and visiting professor at UCLA, talk about “The ‘Myth of the Good Italian’: Origins and Evolution.”  Schwartz described the larger myth as a series of denials, including the specific denial that Italians had some responsibility for the Holocaust.  

His talk focused on how and why that specific myth developed and spread.  One cause was the German/Italian dichotomy: the "bad" German and the "good" Italian.  Between 1943 (when Italy left the war) and 1947 (when the Paris peace treaty was ratified), Italy used this dichotomy to make the country look better, and hence to protect Italian national interests--essentially, to convince the Allied powers that Italy, even as a defeated country, deserved decent treatment under the peace accords.  In 1945, for example, Italian foreign minster Carlo Forza claimed the Germans were "bad" because they had come to Christianity 1000 years later than the Italians.  Upholders of the myth also claimed that Italy was "good" because, unlike Germany, which had a large Protestant population, it was a solidly Catholic country.
Prof. Guri Schwartz, speaking recently at the Los Angeles
Museum of the Holocaust

In addition, the “myth of the good Italian" helped Italians cope with their  disturbing history of Fascism--in essence, by denying it--and it was comforting in a more general way, as evidence that “Western Civilization” (closely identified with Italy's history) had not entirely succumbed under the pressure of totalitarianism. 

With respect to the Holocaust, the myth of the good Italian incorporated several ideas, all of them, according to Schwarz, essentially false: that anti-semitism had no roots in Italy; that the Italian racial laws of 1938 were rejected by the general population, and not implemented; that such anti-semitism as existed in Italy during the war was imitative of German anti-semitism; that in areas of Italian occupation (the Balkans, Greece, Southern France), the Jews were protected; and that deportation of Italian Jews was resisted by Italians. 

Surprisingly, even Italian Jews came to the support of the myth of the good Italian in the postwar years.  They did so, according to Schwarz, because the Jews that remained wanted and needed to re-integrate into Italian society, and re-integration required building bridges to neighbors, even if they had once been Fascists.  Moreover, as the war ended, tens of thousands of displaced Jews flowed through Italy on their way to Palestine, and Italy’s Jews wanted Italian authorities to support the movement of those persons. 

Stazione Tiburtina, where Rome's Jews boarded trains
 for Auschwitz
Schwarz did not say much about what actually happened to Italy’s Jews, though he did comment on that in the discussion that followed his talk.  He argued that after 1943, when Germany occupied the northern 2/3 of the Italian peninsula, Italian authorities assisted the Germans in rounding up and deporting Jews.  About 6,000 of Italy’s estimated 25,000 Jews were arrested, deported, and killed.  

Of those 6,000, Schwarz cited evidence evidence that one half were deported as a result of the efforts of Italians, or of Italians and Germans working together.  Schwarz also emphasized that Italy’s 1938 racial laws, aimed at Jews, were widely and thoroughly enforced, which indicates that Italians were not the reluctant anti-semites that the myth of the good Italian would suggest.  

These are very complex issues that have vexed historians for generations.  It is often pointed out that Italy’s history in dealing with Jews in this period is one of Europe’s best; the percentage of Italian Jews deported to the killing camps was one of the lowest in Europe--at 16% much better than France, for example—even though Italy was German-occupied for almost as long as the southern zone of France.  Writing in the March 6, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books  (“Jews: How Vichy Made it Worse”), Robert Paxton argues, in contrast to Schwarz, that Italian police cooperation in deportation was “desultory.”  “To be sure,” he continues, “some Italian Fascist militiamen helped the Nazis hunt down Jews; it was they who arrested Primo Levi, for example, on December 13, 1943.  But the public largely refused to help them, and much of the administration dragged its feet.”  Paxton notes, too, that French views on the Jews were influenced to a considerable degree by anxiety over a great wave of foreign Jews that entered the country during the war—something that did not occur in Italy. 

There’s more to be said, of course.  Having become in thrall to another recent Los Angeles speaker, Alain De Botton, who believes deeply in the importance of humanism to civilized values, we would add only that Italy’s experience with art, music, and culture are deeper than any other nation’s, and this link held strong even under Fascism, when the Mussolini regime celebrated the arts—while the Nazis did

In 2010 and 2011, Rome embedded over 100 gold, 10cm square stones ("pietri d'inciampo," or "stumbling blocks) in Rome's streets, in remembrance of Jews, Roma, and others who died in the Holocaust.  The artist is German.  
their best to bury them.  It seems likely to us that some Italian Jews—possibly very many—survived because large numbers of Italians, even under Fascism, and even while supporting Mussolini's regime, remained decent and humane.  Guri Schwarz has made us aware that the "good Italian(s)" were not as good as we imagined, or hoped. But perhaps they were "better" than most.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Street Art: Sign Modifications

One of the most recent developments in the street art world, appalling to some, amusing to others, is the adaptation (some would say abuse) of street signs.  These adaptations run the gamut from simple tagging and stickering to clever reuse, and the best of them--we are sticking our necks out here, into a universe we know to harbor understandable concerns--have a Warholian feel in the way they manipulate the most common of symbols to produce new meaning.  We've been recording the results for several years.  

Rome, at night.  Our first sighting of the genre, and a
design that's been copied. Two dimensions become
three.  Right hand a nice touch. 
Upper left, the same design as the first sign.  Lower right, the
standard sticker job--no cigar. 
A mess

On the Gianicolo.  That appears to be the
Mona Lisa. 
Anti-apartheid.  Sign politics.  Nothing
clever here, or artistic.   

From a distance, looks like another mess.
Close up, it's serious and nicely designed.
Unfortunate tagging. 

Florence.  Good work with 3 dimensions.
Florence.  Looks normal from a distance. 
Nice color work, paint job. 

We've since learned that the Florence pieces are by a French artist, Clet Abraham.  Clet's work is not appreciated by the Florence authorities; he's been fined, and fined again.  He has also left his mark in Brussels, where he goes about the city on a bicycle, modifying signs.  You can see him at work in this video--and following it, about two dozen examples of his work.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fascist Design--in Miami Beach

RST is pleased to once again have Paul Baxa, an outstanding scholar and interpreter of the Fascist experience, as a guest blogger.  Here, Baxa takes us through the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, currently (through May 18) hosting 3 exhibits on the Fascist era.  A smaller, fourth exhibit on Italo Balbo's air exploits, closes April 29.  Baxa is Associate Professor of History at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida and the author of  (University of Toronto Press, Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (20l0).  

Mural study, Antonio Santagata
Ferruccio Ferrazzi's Il Mito di Roma, 1940
For those interested in the intersection of Modernist design and twentieth-century politics, a visit to current exhibitions at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach cannot be missed.  This museum, run by Florida International University, was established by Mitchell Wolfson Jr. who collected documents and artifacts of modernism and was especially interested in materials that connected modernist design with totalitarian regimes.  As a result, there is a wealth of material from Fascist Italy.  I’ve had the good fortune of spending many hours in the Wolfsonian reading room this past fall and also to visit their three special exhibits pertaining to Italy:  The Birth of Rome; Rendering War: The Murals of A.G. Santagata; and Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design.  All opened in the fall of 2013 and will close May 18, 2014. 

The Birth of Rome exhibit displays materials related to Mussolini’s attempts to revive ancient Rome in a Fascist mode.  On display are renderings of the E42 (EUR) as it might have been—including sketches of the never-to-be-built arch.*  Next to these are posters, sketches, and photographs of the Foro Mussolini and its sports complex.  Included are maquettes of statues from the Foro Mussolini designed by Eugenio Baroni.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is a massive detail for Ferruccio Ferrazzi’s tempera on paper drawing, Il Mito di Roma, designed in 1940. Spanning two floors of the Wolfsonian's atrium, the detail is an allegory of the Tiber River holding the twins with the she-wolf at its feet.  To be sure, Baroni and Ferrazzi were not star names of the interwar generation of artists but they figured prominently in the attempts to make a Fascist aesthetic.

Antonio Santagata.  Fascism looks back at the
Great War 

Off to the right of the Birth of Rome exhibit are several rooms filled with large-scale mural studies by Antonio G. Santagata.  These superb studies were designed for the walls of Marcello Piacentini’s Casa dei Mutilati in Rome (on the Tevere, sandwiched between the Palace of Justice and Hadrian's Castle).  The subjects of the murals all deal with the First World War and provide a glimpse of the myth of the Grande Guerra under Fascism. 

Up a floor, one finds the Echoes and Origins exhibit.  This is a perfect complement to the propaganda of the previous exhibits as it demonstrates another side of Fascist Italy—that of consumerism and style.  Here one finds vases and furniture by Giò Ponti, as well as exquisite cupboards by Gustavo Pulitzer Finali.  There is some wonderful kitsch here as well including a 
Fascist-inspired wall lamp
wall lamp designed as lictors rods.
  A magnificent La Cimbali espresso machine is one corner next to artifacts from the famous ocean liner Rex.  Posters advertising FIAT, chocolates and cruises are plastered on the wall.  This was another face of Fascist Italy—no less propagandistic than the Imperial Roman bluster but revealing a desire to create a modern, consumerist culture. 

The magic of the Wolfsonian exhibit is found not just in the materials on display but also in the mounting of the exhibits.  The curators create spaces that enhance the impact of the displays.  For example, the Birth of Rome exhibit is displayed in an all-white, minimalist space which emphasizes the Novecento (20th-century) style of the drawings.  In the Echoes and Origins space the visitor is greeted by a massive, amber-glass bowl and pedestal from the Fontana Arte group next to a pillar containing the famous, Futurist-style bust of Mussolini by Renato Bertelli. 

The effect of the exhibits is to immerse the visitor into the visions of the Fascist regime as interpreted by less famous artists and sculptors.  None of these artists had the fame of the likes of Piacentini, Terragni, Sironi et al, but they all in their own way contributed to the Fascist program of reviving Rome in a way that harmonized modernism with classicism.

Paul Baxa 

*  The arch for E42 was intended to span the multiple lanes of the via Cristoforo Colombo, a task that proved beyond the skills of Italian engineers at the time.  Many designs were offered, among them a poster rendering by architect Ludovico Quaroni (left), which closely resembled Eero Saarinen's winning entry in a 1948 competition to honor Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase--the design that in 1966 became the St. Louis Arch.  The site of the E42 arch is on Walk 2, "EUR: Mid-Century Spectacle," in RST's new guidebook, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler  (2014).  On the Quaroni/Saarinen controversy, see William Graebner, "Gateway to Empire: An Interpretation of Eero Saarinen's 1948 Design for the St. Louis Arch," Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, vol, 18 (1993).  Ed.