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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Giulio Magni's Palazzo Marina: a Tour of Italy's Naval Ministry

Big anchor that has something to do with
World War I.  The facade also
pays homage to Italy's great naval cities:
Genova, Venice, and Rome.  Rome?

It occupies most of a large city block.  It's on the Tevere.  And it's only a ten minute walk, north, from Piazza del Popolo.  Yet except for two enormous anchors in front of its beaux-arts facade, most passers-by wouldn't give it a second thought.

It's the Ministero della Marina Militare, the Naval Ministry (or, in Americanese, the Department of the Navy.  The building is also referred to as the Palazzo Marina).  Although the ministry's website claims there are regular guided tours (see below), we doubt it.  Our access was through Open House Roma--yes, that's what the Romans call it--that wonderful program that opens dozens of sites, including some state buildings, for tours. In Italian.  We toured the Air Force building last year.  And this year, the Navy.

Door handle--nice touch

Built between 1912, when Italy was still a democracy, and 1928, when Mussolini had made sure it wasn't, the building is a luscious mix of styles: Rome Liberty (Victorian), barochetto (little baroque), what the website calls "Michelangeloesque eclecticism" and, here and there, accents of Fascist modernism.   Excess is everywhere.  

Magni's Santa Maria Regina Pacis, Ostia

The Ministero della Marina Militare was designed by Giulio Magni (1859-1930), grandson of the more famous Giuseppe Valadier, who created Piazza del Popolo for Napoleon.  Magni came to Rome as a young man, working on a variety of projects, including the ICP (public) housing plan for Testaccio and the Vittoriano.

After 10 active years in Romania (1895-1904), Magni designed the church of Santa Maria Regina Pacis in Ostia (1928), public housing in Testaccio, and several villas for the Roman elite. Among the latter was Villa Marignoli (1907), now a classy hotel--the Residenza Villa Marignoli--on via Po not far from Villa Borghese.

Just inside the Naval Ministry is a splendid long hall with high ceilings and, off the left/north side, a lovely courtyard.

A spectacular marble staircase, dressed with naval motifs, centers the building.  The rounded elements on the side resemble waves.

The Sala dei Marmi--the Marble Room--offers as its centerpiece a massive table, made of 13 different marbles from Italy and Africa. Underneath, fasces.

The library's book retrieval box is above the fire extinguisher.  Anchor-motif
detailing for the railings.  

Parents, where are you?

The library, in neo-Renaissance style, houses a variety of treasures and details, including a valuable globe dating to the 17th century (when we were there a small child was clinging to it; I imagined it going over), a spiral staircase leading to a narrow second-floor balcony, and an inventive book retrieval mechanism fashioned of iron.

A VI, the 6th year of Fascism, 1928

Standing out among the Fascist touches was a gorgeous ceiling, complete with fasces.

A long hallway presents memorabilia of Italian naval history. (A song from my youth, "I'm in the Swiss Navy," kept going through my head).

Stairway cheesecake

One of the high- (or low-) lights of the tour was the performance of a 30ish-couple, who seemed to think the building was designed for their photo-shoot.

At left, a good example of the mixing of styles and epochs: a wall lamp in the Liberty style, very 19th century, but a fasces--very 20th--in the center. Additional photos of the building and a video tour of sorts, in Italian, on the ministry website:


Assuming the ministry runs the tours it claims it does, reservations are required: 0636805251 or 0636803268.  Reservations and tours in Italian, of course.
Neo-classicism and Security

Friday, November 20, 2015

Aurelian Wall Walk V; from Porta Maggiore to Castro Pretorio, or Annie's Reward

Beautiful Porta Maggiore, where the AD 52 "gate" supporting 2 aqueducts of the same vintage, was built into Emperor Aurelius's 3rd Century AD wall.  Trams a newer addition, of course.

Many of our RST readers have asked us: What happened to the Wall Walks?  And for those few of you who don't recall, in Spring 2014 we set out to walk the 12 miles (19 km) of the 3rd century Aurelian Wall that once completely encircled Rome.  And, for those of you paying attention, we last left our readers with only about a half of the Wall Walk completed.  Perhaps it was the discouragement of Brian, whom we encouraged to accompany us on a section of the Wall Walk.  We titled that one Wall Walk IV: Brian's Lament.  Nope, we were undeterred and we took another out-of-town guest, Annie, on the subsequent walk.  We wouldn't exactly call it Annie's Lament, but she did indeed deserve a reward, and got one. [To recap, in addition to Walks I and IV, here are the links to Wall Walk II and Wall Walk III and, NEW - here's a Google map that includes the itinerary!]

We started this Wall Walk V in a wonderful, if busy, place, Porta Maggiore.  The layers of Rome history here are unbeatable, but so are the weeds and traffic.  We arrived on foot, surviving the pedestrian "walk" button dysfunction; Annie, being smarter, arrived by taxi.

The rest of Wall Walk V--Annie's Reward-- is told in the photo captions.

Buon walking, and Wall Walks VI and VII, the latter, The End, are coming soon!  Dianne

Remains of the distinctive "Tomb of the Baker," from 1st century BC; part of
Porta Maggiore

We braved the traffic and smells to go under the aqueducts and train tracks
to get a view of the wall as it spread out ahead of us.
This is the wall from the "outside" - as it looks in San Lorenzo

Evidence of Papal rebuilding - Clement XI in 1718

Annie gets a shopping  break in an "antique" shop (yes, it had the requisite Toto' and
Padre Pio pictures) in San Lorenzo, opposite the wall.

Monument to war dead (from "all the wars") on the Wall,
a common way of honoring war dead in Rome.

One of the prettier parts of the Wall in San Lorenzo, even though the foliage
is no doubt damaging the brick work; note the crenelated tower.

We admire a new - for us - gate in the Wall here.  Porta Tiburtina - via Tiburtina once passed
under it.  Not today.  Lots of history to this gate (not that it makes the gate unusual in Rome!).
We hadn't seen this gate from scooter level.  Because it's now below the street,
it's not used for traffic. No doubt a good thing.  Some nice notations on this gate at this Web site.

An auto repair shop IN the wall.

The wall disappeared onto private property;
but that didn't deter Annie.

The wall remains shrink in front of the Air Ministry, built in
the 1931.  And we decided to call it a day here.

Annie's reward - freshly filleted fish at Mamma Angela's--
at via Palestro 53, not too far away from where Wall Walk V ended
 between the Air Ministry and Castro Pretorio.

Friday, November 13, 2015

With Pasolini, it's all about the Body

The setting.  Dianne says the Institute's logo is adapted from
Italian Futurism.  That claim lacks confirmation.

Pier Paolo Pasolini is justly celebrated  in Rome and elsewhere as a poet, novelist, and filmmaker-- the cultural trifecta, if you will.  Yet as we learned in a brilliant exchange between LA-based artist Nicola Verlato and USC professor Gian Maria Annovi at the Italian Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, the collective memory of this cultural icon is of his body--indeed, his dead body--found in a field not far from the beach at Ostia and just steps from the village of Idroscalo. Murdered.

William Kentridge, Pasolini's body

This focus on Pasolini's body is unusual, even unique, Annovi argued, drawing a contrast between the frequent artistic representations of Pasolini's corpse--Milan-based artist Adrian Paci paints a near-photographic representation of his body, face down, at Ostia, and South African artist William Kentridge draws that same, face-down body--and the Italian conceptualization of Italian literary giants Gabriele D'Annunzio
Mike Kelley's casting call for a Pasolini, 1990.  
and Italo Calvino.  Though equally famous in their realms, the bodies of D'Annunzio and Calvino are not only not depicted, but are essentially irrelevant to how they are imagined. American artist Mike Kelley had his own way of suggesting Pasolini's body (left).

Verlato's Hostia.  The title encompasses the place where Pasolini died
and the sacramental bread of the Christian liturgy.  

Verlato, whose work treats iconic characters such as Michael Jackson ("all the elements of a tragic death"), was at the Institute to talk about his Hostia, a multi-story painting in the near-in Rome suburb of Tor Pignattara, home to the prominent gallery Wunderkammern and to one of the city's largest and most eclectic collections of high-quality street art.  He described his mannerist painting as an allegory, with Pasolini's dead body falling away from his enemies, including the Carabinieri and Pino Pelosi, his presumed (and convicted) killer, through a Dante-esque scene-scape.

Below, the boy Pasolini learns poetry from his mother as Petrarch--and, rather bizarrely, Ezra Pound--underline the accomplished adult poet that Pasolini (according to Verlato) so desperately wanted to be.  Later, Verlato noted the painting had been done under the auspices of Muro, an arts organization, and he felt reassured that its location, in the gated courtyard of a condominium, would help protect it from vandals.

When Annovi raised the issue of the centrality of Pasolini's body, Verlato could only agree.  Like St. Francis, Verlato said, in the collective imagination "he's a body."  Among the recent depictions of Pasolini, added Verlato, was a large paste-up of Pasolini carrying his own body.  Modeled on Michelangelo's Pietà

Ernest Pignon-Ernest: Pasolini carrying his own, Christlike, body (2015)
Verlato went on to explore Pasolini's tragic loss of faith in his true love, poetry, and to suggest that Pasolini and Pound, despite their political differences (Communist and Fascist, respectively), were in striking ways similar: both men struggled against the mainstream and both had "extreme ambition;" they wanted to be central figures in their cultures and times.

In addition, Verlato described his plan for a multi-media mausoleum, a temple of sorts, to honor Pasolini.  The neo-classical mausoleum, in the style of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Bramante's Tempietto, would be located in Ostia, on the ground where Pasolini died.  Annovi called the idea "insane."  We're inclined to agree, although the existing memorial is inadequate.  But crazy or not, it's all about the body.   Bill
Verlato, left, with one of his designs for a Pasolini mausoleum.  Annovi may be saying "that's insane."  

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Gennaro De Matteis's Great, Unknown Work of Architectural Rationalism (1940)

View from the terrace.  
That's the view--one of them--from our terrace in Flaminio last spring. The domed building on the right is, of course, St. Peter's, and we're more than pleased that we can see it while enjoying a glass of Falanghina.

But it's the other building, the white tower, that interested me.  I had seen the tower, and the massive edifice that housed it, from above, looking down from Monte Mario.  But I had no idea what it was.
From Monte Mario.  Obviously there's more to the building than a tower. Vertical windows throughout. 

Curious monument.

And so, on this, my second day of spousal abandonment, I set out to find out.  I crossed on the Ponte della Musica and headed south on the Lungotevere, stopping for a time at the Piazzale Maresciallo Giardino for a close look at an odd monument--that turned out to be part of the "scene."

The building that contains that white tower was just a few meters further on.  Aspects of it--the formidable front "entrance" that rejects rather than invites--seem almost medieval in conception, despite the rationalist modernism of the overall design.  The facade revealed that I was standing before the Istituto Storico e di Cultura Dell' Arma Del Genio, which translates as Historical and Cultural Institute of Armaments and the Corps of Engineers.

Medieval look to front entrance.  Lacks only a moat.  

Inside, I later learned, are the Historical Institute, the Institute of Military Architecture, a museum of military weaponry, and an archive that includes some 30,000 photos about military engineering.  And probably other entities of which even the Italian government is unaware.

According to some websites, the museum areas are closed for restoration, and have been since 2005. Others claim parts of the building are open to the public on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, but I would bet the farm that's not true.  It was Saturday morning, and the place was shut tight.  I promise not to waste part of a Tuesday morning not touring the building.

The rounded interior courtyard, photographed off the website.

If you can't go in, you can take an unexpectedly luscious virtual tour, via the website:  Complete with martial music. You can go from one section of the building to another and from exhibit to exhibit by clicking on the blue dots, upper right, or turn around, or stop the tour and enlarge something you want to read or see more clearly.  Really, it's amazing.

From the back.  Rationalist perfection, especially
against a background of clouds.  
There's surprisingly little information about the building as a building, or about its architect.  I think that's because the apparent architect, Gennaro De Matteis, was a military engineer who did only this building.  And because the structure is isolated from the two great collections of Fascist architecture in Rome: Foro Italico and EUR.

Construction began in 1937.  The building was occupied in 1939.  Construction was completed in 1940--the date on the facade.  Address: Lungotevere della Vittoria, 31.  But you know where it is.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

William Demby: An African-American Writer in Rome

Carl Van Vechten portrait of William Demby
William Demby could be seen as just another--and perhaps lesser--writer caught under the spell of Rome, like Ralph Ellison and John Cheever.  I think he's much more than that, and that his reputation deserves to be resuscitated.

In brief, he was an African-American, raised--importantly--in his early years in Clarksburg, West Virginia, who, after serving in World War II, returned to Italy.  He married an Italian and lived in Rome until the mid-1960s.  Demby returned to the US for the 1963 March on Washington and then brought his wife and their son to live in the US.  By 1967 they were all back in Rome, but from then on he divided his time between the US and Italy.
Demby (left), soldier, World War II

In 1950, Demby published a very non-Italian novel, Beetlecreek, described accurately as "the powerful and impassioned novel of coming of age in a southern [US] town."  More about that later, since it has nothing to do with Rome, or the author's Italian residence at the time.

Demby followed up Beetlecreek 15 years later with The Catacombs, usually described as an experimental novel, and, yes, set in Rome, and a novel (as the bookjacket announces), even though its main character is William Demby as himself.

Most of the time Demby was in Rome he was assisting on screenplays, translating scripts, and otherwise participating in the Cinecittà filmmaking scene.  He worked for all the prominent directors of the time: Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni.
Demby acting in an Italian movie.

In The Catacombs his character notes there are very few (as in fewer than a 5) mixed-race couples then living in Rome.  The alter-ego character of the novel is a young African-American actress, Doris, who in the novel is the daughter (I don't know if there is a real daughter) of a very real first serious girlfriend and then second wife of Demby's, Barbara Morris (an NAACP lawyer).  Doris spends most of the novel in conflict over her blackness.  Her first job in Rome is as handmaiden to Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra in the 1963 blockbuster film of that name.

From the perspective of 50 years later, The Catacombs doesn't seem so experimental.  Yes, it incorporates the author as himself; it blurs the line between autobiography and fiction; it uses newspaper headlines freely.  In fact, the character's use of those headlines to show the world falling apart seems even truer today.  But the book also has a straightforward narrative and characters who are in many ways traditional.  In other words, it's a very readable book.

And The Catacombs ranges over Rome.  So if you love Rome and everything that touches it, you'll appreciate The Catacombs for that alone.  The novel opens in a "country trattoria" across from catacombs on via Appia Antica--then a rather rustic area.  I rather like Doris's opening shot to her soon-to-be paramour, the married Count: "What I mean is--if you really had to take me sightseeing--and the good Lord knows I have enough sightseeing to my credit to have earned at least five Mortician degrees--why bring me to the Catacombs?  Isn't there anything else to see in Rome besides churches and tombs?"  She picks up  the same theme later, "This is one hell of a country!  If it's not catacombs, it's Etruscan tombs--"  And the novel ends with the catacombs.

Among The Catacombs' other locations: Rosati's café on Piazza del Popolo, where Demby (the character) waits "for P. the director"; Piazza San Silvestro; Circolo degli' Artisti; Portico d'Ottavia; the Protestant Cemetery (for a burial); Café Canova; Hotel Russie; via della Conciliazione; St. Peter's; Santa Maria della Pace; Campo de' Fiori (and specifically the Giordano Bruno statue); the Verano Cemetery; Piazza Mazzini; via Margutta; Piazza di Spagna; via San Teodoro; via Babuino; via Bissolati; Palazzo delle Esposizioni; and "my Piemonte-Mazzini-bureaucraticsaur quarter of Rome [sounds like Prati to me]."  About via Giulia, our main character says: "I have never liked this street, though architecturally it is one of the most stately in Rome.  Somehow it evokes in my mind all that was cruel and futilely pompous in papal Rome....Via Giulia is Rome at its cynical worst." And, the chapters that are set on the beach are in nearby Ladispoli.

Demby's son, James Gabriele Demby,
reading from The Catacombs.
Demby says in The Catacombs that he began his narration on March 5, 1962, and he has almost completed it on March 5, 1964.  Events of the period are crucial to the novel, including the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963.  Demby is in line to view the Pope's body in St. Peter's and describes it in part as follows:  "slowly, like boarders in some enormous pensione shuffling through a drafty corridor in bathrobe and slippers, we move with uneasy unaccustomed reverence through the deceptive time-space dimensions of this Chiesa which is Rome."

We of RST have a particular connection to the span of Demby's novel since we were in Italy for 6 months of that time, and in Rome in late January 1963, with snow underfoot in the Forum.  As Demby the character says:  "It hasn't been this cold in Italy for over a century....Like a whispered blessing, snow for the first time in years falls on Rome.  This is the last day of January, January 31."
Stanford-in-Italy students in the Roman
Forum, January 1963.

There are, of course, many other observations of Rome and Romans in The Catacombs.  But the novel is above all a black man's coming to terms with his expatriation, and what follows is his repatriation (but it isn't ever complete, in fact).

It's a fasinating novel, of its time and worth reading.

June 11, 2015 AAR Roundtable on William Demby.
Left, James Gabriele Demby. Center, art historian and critic
 Christian Caliandro. Right, Silvia Lucchesi, Co-Founder and Director,
“Lo Schermo dell’Arte Film Festival” in Florence, 
ho conducted
the 2004 interview 
with Demby shown at the roundtable.

We were first made aware of Demby and his writing only through a roundtable last June at the American Academy in Rome, which included the showing of a revealing video interview of him. Also at the roundtable was his son, James Gabriele Demby, who is a musician and teacher in Italy.  The roundtable, part of AAR's "Nero su Bianco" ("Black on White") exhibit in 2014, was one of the best we've experienced there.  An obituary (Demby died at 90 on May 23, 2013 in Sag Harbor, NY, one of his homes), excellent article, and another video are available online.

I particularly like this cover of
And a postscript on Beetlecreek.  I found the novel gripping and fascinating.  In a 1967 paperback reprint, the Afterward by Herbert Hill damns it with faint praise:  "His [Demby's] limitation is that his ideas are not fully confronted.  In Beetlecreek he just misses making the leap into that place where great writing lies....[Demby] has written a unique tale with courage and honesty...[the]work of a neophyte writer...."  I think Beetlecreek is better than that.