Rome Travel Guide

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Idroscalo: An unauthorized, self-built Rome community

It's not often we're "scooped" by La Repubblica, but that was the feeling I had this morning (May 24, 2015) when I opened the paper to find an entire page devoted to Idroscalo, a community of some 500 homes and 2,000 people located north of the seaside town of Ostia, about 20 miles from Rome, on a spit of land between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the mouth of the Tiber River (the part known to residents as the Fiumara Grande).  The occasion for La Repubblica's interest is a May 26 technical "tavolo"--a bunch of experts getting together--"finalmente," as the newspaper put it, to deal with the case of Idroscalo.  Don't hold your breath.

RST was in Idroscalo about 10 days ago.  This was our second, and more informed visit.  The first time we were seeking the place where Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975.  We came upon Idroscalo and felt we had hit a dead end.  This time, we had read Ferruccio Trabalzi's superb essay on the community in the collection Global Rome--we'll draw on it extensively here--and couldn't resist seeing the place with our own eyes.  Still, we had concerns.  Idroscalo is an unauthorized, illegal, and self-built community --according to Trabalzi, the "last surviving self-built small borghetto (illegally constructed neighborhood)" in all of Rome.  Its residents are poor and rightfully suspicious of strangers, especially those taking photographs, for those strangers are more likely than not to be the advance
In early 2011, there were 100 houses on this part of Idroscalo.  The
masts of the 2000 ships in the upscale marina are in the distance.
guard of yet another effort at eviction and demolition.

The last such event took place on March 8, 2011, when residents awoke to the presence of some 200 riot police and 4 bulldozers, which then proceeded to demolish about 100 homes along the seashore.  The area is subject to frequent flooding from the sea and, especially, the Tevere, and it's likely that the action was "justified" by the authorities as a measure necessary to the safety of the inhabitants. Protests by Idroscalo residents halted the demolitions.

Trabalzi describes Idroscalo as a
The main "square".  The town's coffee bar, complete with
umbrellas.  Bus service at right.  
 "social and cultural desert", save for a small chapel:  "no shops, no community center, no library, no piazza, no gardens or city offices, let alone any pharmacies or doctors."  That's mostly true.  But the entrance to the town has the feel of a piazza (there is turnaround bus service there - the head - or end - of the line), albeit one without amenities such as a fountain, benches, or trees.

Functioning restaurant, behind the bar
There's a restaurant just off the piazza--of the
sort middle-class Romans frequent on Sunday afternoons--and one of the town's two bars is on the piazza.  On the occasion of our mid-morning visit, the bar was functioning, as Rome bars do, as an informal social center, men sitting at tables and teen-age girls and boys in bathing suits circling on bicycles.

Our first act was to have a coffee at that bar. Rather than walking through the piazza, we wanted to announce ourselves, in something of an act of reassurance - for them, but also for us. We hoped they'd get the message: that we were Americans, that we weren't from the government, that whatever photos we took weren't going to hurt them, that we were self-confidently engaged in our own activity.  Still, we were never entirely comfortable while in the town.  The coffee was served in glass cups.

For most of an hour we walked the town, up one "street" and down another, along the area near the sea where the bulldozers of 2011 had left the land barren.  One man looked suspiciously at us as we walked by his home, yet said nothing.

Dogs, visible, center left, lying down, would make
us turn back a few yards later.

In the very center of the community--not a person in sight--we were forced to retreat by 3 barking dogs that ran at us--and then stopped as we turned. To avoid being too obvious, many of the photographs were taken at waist level or from long distance.

Squalor, one could say, with satellite TV
La Repubblica's story for the most part depicts the residents of Idroscalo as victims.  In the words of the headline:  "Favelas Idroscalo/vita da miserabili/nelle case di calce/senz'acqua né luce" (Idroscalo ghetto/living miserable lives in houses of lime, without water or electric light).  As even the newspaper recognizes, that's a bit overstated.  Yes, the roads are of packed earth, there is no "proper" sewage system (Trabalzi), most of the houses would reasonably be described as substandard, and--on the grounds that the community is illegal--there is no garbage collection within the town, though bins are not far away on the road leading to Ostia, whose middle class and upscale apartment buildings are only a few kilometers away.  As for water, over the years residents have developed an informal system that collects water from three
drinking fountains, deposits it in tanks, and uses pumps driven by electricity to move the water to rooftops and distribute it from there to residents.  And, obviously, there is electricity.  Most residents are on the regular ACEA (the water and power company) city grid.  Before 1977, hookups with ACEA were the norm, but laws passed then eliminated the arrangement, and homes built after 1977 are off the grid. According to La Repubblica, Idroscalo collectively owes ACEA 71,000 Euro. Cooking is by gas cylinders (we noticed some large ones).  Each year households are fined 2000 Euro for illegally occupying the public domain.

More middle class.
If life is so bad in Idroscalo, why doesn't everyone leave?  That's Trabalzi's question, and it's a good one.  One answer is that over the years--and some have lived there decades--residents have invested most of what they have in their homes, such as they are.  Another is that they rightly fear that the government's promises of relocation to better housing isn't a dependable one, raising the specter of homelessness and, if it were, that they'd find themselves in some version of the infamous Corviale, a kilometer-long concrete block 1970s-era disaster.  In addition, it seems clear that many Idroscalians enjoy living there.  "All the residents," Trabalzi claims, "agree on one point...that they live in a beautiful place" of gorgeous sunsets, with populations of dolphins and white herons, swans and swallows--and the smell of the sea.

Not so affluent.  
The Idroscalo that exists today had its origins in the early 1960s, when fishermen from Rome neighborhoods built small, and of course illegal, huts to use in the summer and the occasional weekend.  When it became clear that the authorities tolerated the huts, they were expanded and made more permanent. Idroscalo became a year-round community in the 1970s, largely out of necessity, when a city-wide crisis of affordable, legal housing led thousands of poor Romans to take up illegal, self-made residence along via  Casilina, via Boccea, via Prenestina, Mandrione--and Idroscalo. According to Trabalzi, authorities have here and there pursued a policy of "benign neglect" in places like Idroscalo, in part because the elimination of illegal communities would require the construction of low-income housing.

But that policy--a combination of fines, raids, threats, neglect and tolerance of self-made, illegal communities--may be coming to an end.  Residents of similar communities in Valle Aurelia, Casilino, Mandrione and elsewhere have experienced relocation to high-rise housing in places like Laurentino 38.  In 2000, private investors received permission to build a 300-boat marina within a
Behind the red timbers is a second bar, serving sandwiches, gelato, and more.  The marina is back right.  
hundred meters of Idroscalo's "piazza," promising employment to Idroscalo residents (it didn't happen); the marina was expanded in 2008.  But for the protests, all of Idroscalo might have been bulldozed in 2011.  According to Trabalzi, there is talk of turning the area into a "nature park" and, more threatening still, Idroscalo has attracted interest from corporations and politicians as a possible new center of tourism, complete with elaborate hotels and other amenities to complement the marina.
That may be what Tuesday's "tavolo" is all about.  


This photo closely resembles La Repubblica's  "lead" picture, pink chairs and all.  Several efforts at comfort here:
the umbrella, a bench, chairs, flowers, a rock garden--and a madonella.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Giò Ponti's Rome Apartment Building

Building entryway.  Fluorescent lights at left, opened for replacement.  Note striated ceiling in contrasting whites.  You can
drive cars in here, unload, turn left down the ramp into the garage.  

Ponti's School of Mathematics, U. Rome, side view
To our knowledge, the talented and prolific Italian architect and designer Giò Ponti created only three Rome buildings.  One of them, the building that houses the School of Mathematics (1933-1935) at the University of Rome/La Sapienza, is well known, a luscious example of 1930s modernism and, fortunately, open to the public, in the sense that most university buildings are.  Another is in Prati, near RAI's headquarters.

The other, an apartment building on via Duse (corner of Piazzale delle Muse) in the upscale Parioli neighborhood in the north of the city, is both little known--we can confess now that we didn't know it existed--and, unfortunately, usually inaccessible.  People live and work there, and the building has a portiere.  We were pleased, then, when we saw Ponti's Palazzina Salvatelli (1940) listed for Open House Roma, an annual 2-day event run by the city that encourages the supervised opening of facilities normally closed to the public.

Our genial tour guide was architect Claudio Greco, who twenty years ago had taken on the task--enviable or not--of converting one of the apartments from a residence to a professional office.   Our group of about 15 saw the office he remodeled--tastefully, and with due consideration of the features of Ponti's original design.  More on that, in a moment.

Note 1940-era supports for balcony railing.  

As Greco explained, the exterior of the building was originally covered with off-white mosaic tiles. When they began to fall off in the late 1980s, endangering passers-by, they were removed, leaving the rather ordinary, traditional white facade one sees today.

Portiere's office, at left of entrance
We began our interior journey with the building's entrance--the same today as it was 75 years ago--which consists of two doors: one large sliding door (Ponti was into sliding doors) and, within that large door, a smaller door for individuals.

Ramp to garage
Although the entrance has a human dimension, it was intended for automobile access; the building's tenants could drive their vehicles inside, discharge passengers under cover, and--beyond another sliding door to the left of the fluorescent lights--with a sharp left turn onto an elegant striped ramp, proceed to a parking space below.

Flourescents, lit

The portiere's substantial office--the current portiere proudly made it known he had been in the position 27 years--is on the left as one enters (see above).  A bank of vertical fluorescent lights, which turn out for easy replacement, illuminate the area and reveal the white-on-white pattern of the ceiling, a Ponti feature. A stone bench offers a place for waiting and, to its left, a round--or is it oval?--stairway, serving two apartments per floor, beckons.

Front door, from inside.  All original.
Note kickboard. 
Greco's alterations to the apartment were significant.  The kitchen, for example, became an office working area with a pass-through feature, and the front hallway became a waiting room for clients--nicely accomplished in Ponti style.  A new wall, one end of which intersects rather awkwardly with a Ponti arch, was constructed so that employees could pass from one office to another without intersecting with those in the waiting room.

Remodeled hallway

A hallway, while significantly redone in the changeover, retains the look and feel of Ponti's work.

Nice door handle

The interventions were tastefully accomplished, and many of Ponti's signature details remain: the wooden doors frames--set about half an inch from the adjacent walls--the elegant brass handles, the partial kick-plates at floor level, simple, dignified, glass paneled doors, the parquet floors (30 x 30 cm), a sliding door with horizontal stripes in wood and white paint.  The ceiling in what was once the living room is notable too, with a center inset of white stripes of different depths.

Office painting combines de Chirico with Picasso's "Guernica."
Note sliding, striped door at right.  Our guide--the guy who
remodeled the apartment in 1995--is at center.  
The current occupants have taken to decorating their offices with paintings that resemble and take off from those of Roman artist Giorgio de Chirico, certainly the most famous exponent of metaphysical painting (a style that most art history sources describe as existing for about a decade after 1910).  We wish they hadn't. The reference lacks the sublety of Ponti's vision, and it competes--and not well--with Ponti's design.

But it may have been irresistible.  An early photograph of Palazzina Salvatelli, below, presents the building as mysterious, even haunting, possessing a significance somehow beyond its parts, even beyond its whole. The building as essence. In a word, metaphysical.



Monday, May 18, 2015

Aleksandr Deineka: 3 weeks in Rome, 1935

Metaphysical Rome, shades of de Chirico.  Superb colors.
He was only in Rome for 3 weeks, 80 years ago (and the chances are good you've never heard of him), but out of that moment came some extraordinary images of the city.  His work reminds us of three of our favorite 20th century Italian painters: Pio Pullini, Renato Guttuso, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969), painter, sculptor, illustrator, theorist, would come to be recognized by his homeland, the Soviet Union, as one of the nation's most distinguished artists, receiving the Lenin Prize in 1964 as a hero of Soviet socialism.

Foro Italico or, when Deineka was there, Foro Mussolini.
He was 36 when he arrived in Rome on April 12, 1935, and it took him by storm.  "My God what a city," he wrote.  "Beyond even Paris!  And I'm not referring to Michelangelo and the other greats of the, one looks ahead!"

Deineka walked the streets tirelessly, enjoying the surprises the city offered, savoring the contrasts between old and new.  "There is an 'interessantissima architettura moderna,' severe and traditional; the [Foro Mussolini] is extraordinarily impressive for its
scale and layout."

Italian workers on bicycles
Walking about in the evening, he remarked that the Romans were "still in the street," not like New York, where there was activity only on Broadway.

It seems likely, though it can't be said for sure, that while in Rome Deineka found his way to the 2nd Quadriennale di Roma at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, where he would have come into contact with some of the best Italian modern art, and with the dominant aesthetic of the Fascist state and era.  

With thanks to the 2011 exhibit catalog,
Aleksandr Deineka: Il maestro sovietico della modernità (Skira, 2011).

A bit of distortion captures the enormity, and emptiness, of the Piazza del Quirinale.  The building is the Scuderie (the stables of Palazzo Quirinale).  

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

24 Hours in Rome

We--that is, RST, Bill and Dianne--are often asked what we "do" in Rome, given that we've been here so often and spend so much time in the city.  There's no simple way to answer the question. We're planners--we read La Repubblica almost every morning, looking for things to do, whether it's jazz in the evening, an art exhibit, or a demonstration to attend.  We read trovaroma, La Repubblica's Thursday supplement.  We get suggestions from friends.  We're on lots of email lists--for music, art, conferences, films series, hiking.  Because we enjoy walking and have a scooter, we're mobile - within about 25 miles of Rome.

On most days, our "sources" yield a couple of things to do.  But once in a while we get lucky, as we did last weekend.  Here's our "24 Hours in Rome," from Saturday night through Sunday night:

One of these is carved from Carrara marble and is now in a niche at St.
Peter's.  The other consists of a shell of chicken wire,
covered with clay and plaster of Paris--and came first.  
9 p.m.   A mile+ walk from our Monteverde Vecchio digs to Macro Testaccio (in the former slaughterhouse) for an exhibit by sculptor Giuseppe Ducrot (b. Roma 1966). Highlight is a superb video showing Ducrot at work with his colleagues on a massive statue of Saint Annibale Maria di Francia that eventually is lifted and fitted into a niche at St. Peter's.

Swing dancing at La Moderna
10 p.m.  Swing dancing at La Moderna, a restaurant within a stone's throw of Macro Testaccio, in the new Testaccio market. They've cleared the tables for a dance floor. Two women give swing lessons to recorded music, then the live band takes over.  We love to dance, and we do, surrounded by Italian couples, a few of whom know what they're doing.  Beer and wine.

11 p.m.  Up the hill and "home."

50s-era building housing coffee bar, needs TLC
9:15  a.m.  Scooter out via Tiburtina to San Basilio, a far-flung suburb to the city's northeast, tight up against the GRA (Rome's outer 'beltway').  Not the sort of place anyone would normally visit, but we've heard there's a tour of area housing, and we are housing addicts.  (From Dianne: Bill has read an article on this suburb, that includes a description of evictions here and the killing of a young protester by a policeman in 1974; hence we're more than merely interested in the housing.)

Guide at left, friend at right
Coffee with Italian friends at a 1950s-era bar in Piazza Urbania, a "talk" to just the 4 of us by the tour guide, a professor (it turns out the 4 of us are the only people there who aren't part of the community and the event).

Courtyard of 1950s housing project
Then a stroll around the town: lovely garden apartments, a walk through one of them, a substantial public garden, a larger public housing project built in the 1950s.

One of half a dozen animal-themed
murals by the artist Hitnes, in
San Basilio

When the tour ends we nose around, looking at San Basilio's impressive wall art.  The tour is part of Open House Roma 2015 - an event with almost 200 locales - ancient to contemporary - open over the weekend.

Dianne relaxing in Mezzo Litro, Monte Sacro
12:30 p.m. Now starving, thirsty and tired, on the way home we park the scooter in the main square of Monte Sacro (Piazza Sempione), reminded once again of how evocative its faux-medieval buildings are.  Find our oasis - lunch nearby at "Mezzo Litro," where we had a bit less than that along with two plates of lasagna; too hungry to share.  A straight shot on the scooter down via Nomentana to Monteverde Vecchio (i.e., home).

4:30 p.m.   Our respite at home doesn't last long. Shortly after Dianne discovers a library we want to see is open without reservations as part of Open House Roma, we are back on the scooter to Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano.  The Biblioteca
Roselli and King's library
Pontificia--the Pontifical Library--has been restructured in 2005/06 by architects Riccardo Roselli and Jeremy King, and the work had been recommended to us by a well-known Rome architect.  A delightful space, cleverly designed in a way that our guide likens to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Just Borromini
5:45 p.m. We can't resist a few minutes inside Borromini's octagonal, domed baptistery (one might say the Guggenheim was inspired by Borromini), which is right there. The metal grates in the floor are alone worth the stop (D: for Bill).

Hip mom and son, treats still wrapped

6:30 p.m.  Scooter over to Testaccio, where, according to La Repubblica, a rehabilitated Porta di Roma (Port of Rome) is being opened.  Will the mayor be there?  As it happens, no one's there--no one's where we expect them to be--but on a chance we walk a few blocks to some of the old Roman storage areas we know about.  And there's the crowd.  We're too early for the festivities and the food, so we head for one of our favorite Testaccio bars.

No cat fell on our awning this time

7:00 p.m.  Aperitivo.  Pretty much all the food you'd want and a glass of wine for 6 Euro per person. This cafe is the place where years ago a cat fell from an upper story and landed (unhurt but screeching in terror) on a large awning right above us as we were having a coffee outside. This time we're safely inside, though right next to an open door and in the evening breeze.

Feeding frenzy

7:30 p.m.  Back to the Porta Roma (Porticus Aemelia) opening. The ruins are spectacular: the remains of a 2nd century B.C. storage and trans-shipment facility that would have rivaled the Port of Los Angeles in drama and size.  Now part of a public park space. Yes, you can touch the arches.  Music by a community band of limited ability, a scramble among the Italians (we're full) for the free food.  We manage a couple of glasses of complimentary prosecco.  Some well-done outdoor, permanent watercolors, part of a public art campaign in Rome, have been unveiled.  A ceremony, but no mayor.

People watching at Studio Spazzi Multipli

8:00 p.m.  Walking to our scooter, which we've left at Porta Portese, we come upon another event that's part of Open House Roma. An open architectural studio, Studio Spazzi Multipli; contemporary design in the basement of an early 1900s Testaccio public housing building.  A glass of bubbly on the house, watching the 20-somethings.

And home.  A nightcap on the balcony, celebrating our "24 Hours in Rome" and thinking, ala Buffalo Bills ex-coach Marv Levy, "There's no place we'd rather be, than right here, right now."


Thursday, May 7, 2015

TEX in Rome: an American Western Icon Still Sells

The comic character Tex has been part of our Rome experience since 1993.  It's remarkable to us that Tex is still around.  He showed up on the side of our local newsstand (edicola), along with the reminder that here you can get more money on your prepaid phone (RICARICHE on the side here).

Clearly Tex is still a publishing hit, because a poster for a new collection of Tex comics showed up a few days later on a nearby electrical pole, the one the newsstand regularly uses to draw in customers from nearby via Gallia.

We tried to figure out the source of this current interest in American Westerns.  Tex goes back to 1948, when the character was created by Gianluigi Bonelli.  The Bonelli publishing house is now big business, part of it built on Tex's back.  They have characters of more modern currency, such as Dylan Dog and Dr. No (the latter a kind of anti-hero, and not Ian Fleming's Dr. No).  But Tex takes the prize as the longest running comic character in Italy.  What was being advertised at our newsstand is one of several new compilations, this one "Tex Gold."

The May 2015 Tex, a reprint of 1985.
The front and back covers are in color, but
the panels are black and white - still.
Gianluigi Bonelli's family continued Tex. The kingmaker of the publishing house, Gianluigi's son, Sergio, took over the writing of Tex, and the May 2015 (really 1985) issue I just bought was written by yet another Bonelli, Mauro. But Gianluigi clearly formed the character in the late 1940s and 1950s.  The backstory is that Tex was a Texas Ranger, but quit that and "now" operates for them on some special assignments--often working outside the law to hunt down the really bad guys, who are sometimes themselves "lawmen."

The story in my hands is "Il Pueblo Sacro" - The Sacred Pueblo.  Like most Tex stories, it is set in the American Southwest.  Tex ("Night Eagle" is his Indian name) is accompanied, as he often is, by Kit Carson ("Silver Hair"), his "pard" (the same word in Italian and English).

Tex can be seen as a reflection of many different values.  First is the love of all things American in post-WWII Italy; what could be more American than cowboys and Indians?  Our Roman friends tell us they played "cowboys and Indians" - as did we.  Though by the 1960s, one told us, she would play only an Indian, not a cowboy.  In our day, the cowboys were the good guys and the Indians the bad guys.  Bonelli was ahead of most people here too.

The wise old Zuni:  "But if young Juanito [the young Zuni]
has brought you here...
It isn't for a meager supper of  millet bread and pemmican..."
Starting in the late 1940s, Bonelli reinterpreted the traditional "cowboys and Indians" narrative by having the Indians (we would now say Native Americans) be wise men - although Tex looks like the wisest of them all, since - through marriage to an Indian princess - he is "now" chief of the Navajo tribe.

The bad guys:  Ricky, the Mexican, and the Sheriff
Il Pueblo Sacro has all of these characteristics.  Tex, with grumpy and skeptical Kit, asks his young Indian companion - the "young Zuni" - to take him to the tribe's "sciamano" ("shaman" - or we would say "medicine man") to interpret a valuable diadem.

In the meantime, an upstanding rancher's (Thomas Harrison) not-so-upstanding son (Ricky) and the sheriff ("lo sceriffo") of the town - Rio Lobo - team up with a Mexican (Mexicans don't come off too well in Tex) to try to get a trove of gold that can be found via the secret of the diadem.

The medicine man knows how to interpret the diadem, but the gold is corn, the secret space beneath the pueblo is full of poisonous spiders, and the bad guys end up dead.

The poisonous spiders

In the last line of the episode, Tex says: "Even though we weren't elected, Kit and I keep order at Rio Lobo."

Some have suggested that Italians continue to love Tex because he represents the fight against corruption, and corruption often is IN the system itself.   No doubt this characterization is part of Tex's appeal, but it still doesn't explain to me Tex's almost 70-year endurance.  Yes, Tex doesn't sell as it once did (from 700,000 copies per month at its peak to 220,000 in 2010), but then what print publications do?

One of our Roman friends, who knows a lot about Italian culture and sociology, suggested that it's not young people who buy Tex.  Rather it's their parents, engaging in nostalgia, especially when one considers the many reprint series.

Bonelli's comics also tell us something about censorship in Italy.  He had to lower skirts, cover up cleavage (not that there are many women in these stories) and change Tex's name right before publication from Tex Killer to Tex Willer.


The last panel, where Tex says:
"Even though we weren't elected, Kit and I keep order at Rio Lobo."

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jef Aerosol: Pioneer Street Artist

One of the artist's signature works--a lovely example of "The Sitting Kid."  This one is on the back patio of  Wunderkammern  gallery, Torpignattara.  

Jef Aerosol is the pen (one should say "aerosol") name of Jean-Francois Perry, one of our favorite urban street artists, now with a significant body of Rome work.  Sometimes referred to as the "French Banksy," Aerosol often paints celebrities--Presley, Ghandi, Dylan, and others--but we were attracted to another side of his work, the presentations of ordinary people--kids, beggars, older folks--and the way he invests these people with attitudes and emotions.

Born in 1957 in Nantes, France, Aerosol came to street art in the early 1980s, and is self-taught.  He recalls having been influenced by the "scene" in 1960s London, where he spent a month each year vacationing: Twiggy, the British musical scene, the fashions of Carnaby Street.  Also influential were 1970s underground rock bands.  He has always been much taken with eyes; "a death," he has said, "is a body whose gaze has been turned off."

"The Sitting Kid," Hollywood Blvd.
Aerosol's cutting and spraying work can be found on walls in many major cities, including Los Angeles (Hollywood is the site of  what is apparently the earliest version of his signature work, "The Sitting Kid"), Tokyo, Dublin, Chicago, Palermo and, since 2014, Rome, where his work was first presented at Torpignattara's Wunderkammern gallery--a favorite art space of ours--in May of that year.

A red arrow appears on most of his creations. 

Another "The Sitting Kid," Torpignattara.  Red butterflies, but no red arrow, apparently.