Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, April 29, 2016

William Kentridge's "Triumphs and Laments": A Spell-Binding, Ephemeral Work on Rome's Tevere River

One of the two processions along the Tevere in front of Kentridge's wall drawings, with enormous projections of iconic Rome figures of history - and of triumph and lamentation - against those drawings.  The "puppeteers" were colorfully dressed and highlighted as well, giving a sense of the making of the performance (see close-up below).
A must stop on anyone's visit to Rome from now (April 2016) until about 4 years from now must be William Kentridge's artwork on the right bank (Trastevere side) of the Tevere between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini.  What can we say besides just don't miss it?  Head down to the river level at one of the stairways and walk the 500 meters slowly, drinking in the great work South African artist Kentridge created on these massive river bank walls.

If there is a repeat of the performance that opened the artwork on Rome's 2,769th birthday, April 21, 2016, don't miss that either.  The music and "projections" were spell-binding.

The theme of "triumphs" and "laments" is presented by Kentridge in his main mode:  the drawing of people and animals in black and white.  We were fortunate to see a few of Kentridge's videos, in this same style, in the path-breaking 2015 video exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo). Here in Rome, the marrying of Kentridge's style with the subject matter of 2700 year-old Rome and the blackened 57-foot high walls of the Tevere (Tiber River) are quite frankly a thing of beauty.

Rome's lupa or she-wolf... here, instead of the infant twins Romulus
and Remus, Kentridge presents amphorae, or water jugs.
Kentridge draws on themes familiar to Romans - from the lupa (she-wolf) who suckled Rome's founders, Remus and Romulus - to the deaths of Rome martyrs such as Giordano Bruno (the "heretic" monk, burned at the stake by the Church in 1600), Aldo Moro (moderate politician murdered in 1978 by radical leftists) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (filmmaker and artist killed mysteriously in 1975 in the Rome seaside town of Ostia). He also uses iconic Italian objects like the Vespa, the moka coffee pot, the Necchi sewing machine, and the bicycle (from DeSica's neorealist film, The Bicycle Thief).  He also brings the successes and tragedies to the present, with references to the migrants landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Persecution and migration is a strong theme in this set of drawings.
Kentridge's interpretation of La Dolce Vita.
Marcello Mastroanni and Anita Ekberg
are in a bathtub, under a shower, in place of the
Trevi Fountain.  Kentridge also makes heavy use
of carts and wheels (as here), perhaps signifying
travel through time.

 A 10-Euro booklet provides a guide to the 1/3-mile wall of art, as well as explains the techniques for making these enormous figures.  If that isn't available, hopefully some of this explanation will be online. Even without it, the work is tremendously powerful.

The iconic Vespa is at the center of this procession.
As we watched one of the opening performances on the left bank, looking across at Kentridge's drawings, we were captivated by the music of triumph and lamentation and the enormous puppetry or projections. The large shadows moving across the great walls, with the colorfully dressed puppet masters (if we can call them that) also visible, was mesmerizing.
Giordano Bruno, represented by Kentridge
through his statue in Campo de' Fiori

The music for these opening performances, composed by Philip Miller, used a variety of music types, from liturgical songs of the late Renaissance to West African slave songs, to ancient Southern Italian songs.  Frankly, the 4 of us (we and 2 of our good Roman friends) could not truly "understand" the music, and I'm not sure we were supposed to, but we did pick out the religious music, the African music, and the Italian folk music - we knew there was a confluence of musical types.  The sounds of triumph and lamentation were superimposed on each other.  It's an experience one was immersed in, rather than must or should have comprehended in its entirety at the time.

Hopefully the music too will be available in some form in the future.  Meanwhile, we will leave you with a link to our video of 30 seconds of the April 22 performance.

The making of the wall art, if we can use such simple words to describe it, is fascinating as well. We were in Rome in 2005 when Kristin Jones first presented her "lupa" - actually several "lupe" on the walls of the Tevere in this spot. She created them by erasing the background to produce the white, leaving the dirty walls to provide the figures themselves.  This same technique was used by Kentridge, who was inspired by, coached by, and encouraged by Jones, who is billed as the Artistic Director of the project.  We also need to give a shout-out to "Tevereterno", the non-profit organization that presented this as well as Jones's work in 2005, and has been working hard and long to reclaim the Tevere, under the direction of architect Tom Rankin.

Because the work depends on the erasure of dirt from the walls, the walls will in time become dirty again, and the black figures will appear to fade into the darkening walls.  That's the reason we suggest you might have only about 4 years from now to see this magnificent, ephemeral, work.

Joggers using the Tevere's bike and walking path, with Kentridge's
art as a backdrop.
Will "Trimphs and Laments" be received as great art?  We have yet to hear from establishment art critics in that regard. We do know the crowd on April 22 was wildly enthusiastic, cheering, whistling, and clapping for the performers and the art.


Some of the hundreds of observers of the April 22, 2016 performance, from the left bank of the Tevere.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Renato Papagni and the Centro Olimpico Fijlkam (what?)

"Art" photo, with building framed by yellow fence in foreground. 
RST enjoys an occasional annual pilgrimage to the sea, even if neither of us goes swimming.  This past year we explored and survived the funky, off-the-books seaside hamlet of Idroscalo and ventured onto the "public" part of Ostia's "private" beaches using one of the new "varchi" (entrances).  Ostia is full of modern architectural treasures, many from the Fascist era, and though we've seen most of them, we made it a point to have another look at the Art Deco post office, a real gem.

View from the west, across the parking lot.
And then, scootering along the beach frontage road, we noticed this curious structure, all molded and floggy, if that's a word, looking something like a tilted green doughnut with white icing.  We parked the scooter and--standard operating procedure--began walking around the periphery, gated and locked, hoping for an open door--or something. That something arrived a few minutes later, in the form of a gatehouse and guard.  No, we couldn't go inside.  But yes, the guard was amicable and agreeable to explaining what he knew about the building.

Working entrance (looks fairly normal from this view).
We had found the Centro Olimpico Fijlkam, a training center for Italian athletes in specific sports. Fijlkam is an acronym (a curious one for Italians, we think).  The letters stand for La Federazione Judo Lotta Karate e Art Marziale (that is, Federation for Judo (duh!), Wrestling, Karate, and Martial Arts).  Not all of these, we're quite sure, are Olympic sports, but so be it.  The Federation is an old one, founded in 1902 in Milan; it now has some 3,000 affiliated societies.

Renato Papagni
The donut building is the handiwork of Renato Papagni (b. 1946).  An engineer, not an architect--he earned his degree in structural engineering at the University of Rome--Papagni apparently designed the building, probably his sole commission, and he also seems to have served as project manager for its construction.  All this began in 1986 and the "palazzetto" was opened in 1992.  We think it's a very interesting building in the "plastic" mode popularized by Frank Gehry, though on the clunkier side.  At least it's different.

Papagni (left) with former mayor Gianni Alemanno, with
one of Papagni's pools
Papagni moved on to swimming and pools, and was involved with the pools intended for the 2009 international swimming competition held in Rome (there was a lot of controversy about pools that
weren't built and others than weren't necessary).  These days he is President of the Assobalneari, Roma, an association of beach club owners. In that job, he had a hand in developing the varchi--the passageways--that in the summer of 2014 made possible public access to a portion (near the water) of Ostia's private beaches.

Centro Olimpico Fijlkam is at via dei Sandolini 79, Ostia.  You can take the train from Rome and get off at the white building, below, lower right.
From the air, it could be a sombrero.  Quite a complex.  It's a long way around.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Finocchio and the Collina della Pace: Anti-Mafia Street Art

Finocchio, a suburb of Rome 18km out the historic via Casilina on the city's east side, has an illustrious ancient history and now, a present worth visiting.  Settlement here dates to pre-Roman times--though we're not aware that anything can be seen above ground from that era--and Finocchio is not far from what remains of the pre-Roman community of Gabii.  Otherwise, it's much like dozens of other similar towns: apartments, a few shops, a bar where one can buy a drink or a lottery ticket.
Today, what makes the community just a bit unusual is a small park along the main road.  Inaugurated in 2007 by then Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, it's called Collina della Pace (Hill of Peace), a name that refers, with much irony, to its previous owner, mafia boss Enrico Nicoletti, treasurer of the notorious Banda della Magliana gang that brought chaos to Rome in the late 1970s.

As a large wall dedication explains, the park commemorates Giuseppe "Peppino" Impostato, who comes to our story with his own curious history.  Peppino himself was born into a mafia family in 1948, yet he took a different course.

Peppino Impostato (right) with Danilo
Dolci, 1967
Rather than a life of crime and corruption, Peppino distinguised himself as a poet, a giornalist, and a
peace activist--he participated in a 1967 peace protest organized by social reformer Danilo Dolci (whom we met in Sicily in 1962). In May 1978--during the violent political conflicts of the time known as the anni di piombo (years of lead), while a candidate in municipal elections, Peppino was assassinated.

Diavù at work

Although sometimes described as the only green space in Finocchio, the park is in most ways unexceptional; indeed, one's impression of the park is that it's not even all that green. However, it gains a certain presence from its origins: the land was confiscated from its mafia owner in 2001. Then, in 2014, its main wall was graced by a significant piece of anti-mafia street art, a mural by the well-known artist David Vecchiato (known in the art world as Diavù).  

The project was coordinated by M.U.Ro. (Museo di Urban Art di Roma), represented at the end of the mural by the boxed letters M,U,R, and O. We're not sure to what "da Sud" refers.

Finocchio residents, likely gathered for the mural dedication in 2014
While the main themes of the mural--opposition to the mafia, the celebration of peace, and the grasp of capitalism--seem clear enough, elements of it are less so.

Why the reference to "slot-machine"?  And what is the meaning of the words "L'antimafia non ha bisogna di eroi" (The anti-mafia has no need of heroes)?  Do they refer to the martyrdom of Peppino Impostato?  Or to something else?   Who is "il biondo di Kosovo" (the blond from Kosovo)?

"Ecomostro: Pollution as monster, tightening its grip around (a factory chimney?).  What's with the white hand--in a skirt, with Minnie Mouse high heels?  
Walking hands (male figures, apparently), carrying a love Rome sign?  Hashtag MAMMAMAFIA?  
Men and women, holding up signs extolling the good things in life: welfare (in English!), home, rights, income, about to be hooked and consumed by the slot machine.

The park is located on the north side of via Casilina, at via Bolognetta.  And the mural can be located on, and is explained at, the Street Art Roma app, which we recommend (the app is better than the Web site).

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Pleasures of Tor Pignattara: A Gallery, an Acqueduct, Wall Art, Social Commentary

Tor Pignattara is one of our favorite off-the-beaten-path places.  Among its many pleasures, it's the site of Wunderkammern, among Rome's best small galleries.  One evening in mid-April, having enjoyed an opening at the gallery, we headed east, across Via Tor Pignattara, to an area of the community that we hadn't been before.

We were attracted by a powerful expanse of the Acquedotto Alessandrina, which runs more or less east and west here, and is the northern boundary of a modest park--Parco Alessandrino--which on this warm Friday was full of families watching their children play.

Turning south, and just beyond the park proper, we came upon what seemed to be a community center with a paved courtyard, populated by kids kicking soccer balls and carousing.

The courtyard was handsomely decorated with murals.  One was dedicated to Tor Pignattara, another to Quadraro, a neighborhood to the south--apparently an effort to given equal time to the two major user groups.  A third mural offered portraits of young men of some stature locally.

A bit of graffiti--of the scrawled, ugly sort we wish there were less of--nonetheless had an interesting message: "Pensare e' Gratis": Thinking is Free.

At the end of the paved playground was another piece of non-sanctioned work, a three-line effort at social commentary:

il prete non ti tocca                      the priest doesn't touch you
la guardia non uccide                   the police don't kill
io non sto scrivendo                     I'm not writing


Other RST posts on Tor Pignattara (besides the 2 linked above):
a restaurant:
a book:
and 3 street artists:

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Zaha Hadid, Rome "Starchitect" and Designer of MAXXI, dies at 65

The Iraq-born "starchitect" Zaha Hadid died Thursday, March 31.  Her architecture has been widely praised for its ground-breaking, geometrical forms, constructions that owe more than a little to her background in mathematics and study in London with Rem Koolhaas.  She designed only one building in Rome--the state's contemporary art gallery known as MAXXI, which opened in 2010.  In our opinion, it's not her best, but we're glad Rome has this example of her work, described in the New York Times as "voluptuous and muscular, muscular...with ramps that flowed like streams and floors tilted like hills, many walls swerving and swooning."  That's the best description we've read of the building's atrium, though we remain ambivalent about MAXXI, in part because of the way it interacts with the surrounding Flaminio neighborhood.  We expressed that concern in a 2010 post, reprinted below.  An indication of her enormous influence, even with one building in Rome, Hadid shows up in more than a dozen RST posts.  We've provided links to the most significant ones just above the 2010 re-post.  Today, we, too, mourn the loss of a superb and influential architect. 
Significant past RST posts on Hadid and MAXXI:
As #30 on RST's Top 40:
Hadid as one of Rome's "Starchitects":
One evening at MAXXI:
A comparison of MAXXI to the City's contemporary art gallery, MACRO:
A walk-through of a major exhibit at the collection-deprived MAXXI:
And the October 7, 2010 re-post:
We opened the Monday morning New York Times to discover that Zaha Hadid had won the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Stirling Prize for MAXXI, Rome's new modern art gallery.  The prize is given to the architect of the building that has "made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year."  It made us wonder about the state of British architecture.  Our doubts were confirmed when we checked a website that handicapped (like the horse races) the finalists in the competition, recently listing MAXXI as the odds-on favorite at 4:6, with another exciting and glamorous entry, Clapham Manor Primary School, at 8:1. 

Regular readers of this blog will know that the massive MAXXI, the Titanic of Museums, is not our favorite building; we're already on record suggesting that it doesn't really fit into the Flaminio neighborhood (or any neighborhood, for that matter).  And it may seem unfair that we should take another potshot at it.  But the RIBA announcement offered new inspiration.

And we were inspired enough to include MAXXI on the Flaminio walk of our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  See more on the book at the end of this post. 

In awarding the RIBA prize, the judges described MAXXI as the "quintessence of Zaha's [what's with the first name stuff?] constant attempt to create a landscape as a series of cavernous spaces drawn with a free, roving line."  Cavernous, yes, and the caverns are not all that badly connected inside, if that's what's meant by a "free, roving line."  So maybe the award's for the interior.  [We added the two interior photos below to the original post]

MAXXI lobby, 2010

Cavenous gallery
Outside, things are different.  We discovered the problem on a very hot day in June, escorting New York City friends to MAXXI for their first visit.  After a miserable bus ride (the tram lines were under construction), we found ourselves on the block north of the only entry point, looking forlornly at the entrance--only 50 yards away, but inacessible--and faced with a MAXXI-walk around the block with an unsettled companion who was both irritated and near prostrate with the heat by the time we were able to enter the museum's air-conditioned interior.

Maybe we should have known better where we were going, but the experience made clear to us that MAXXI's mass--its dominance of nearly an entire block--and lack of accessibility were real and related problems. 

And so we returned one evening to document the source of our irritation--and maybe have some fun.  On this occasion, the museum's offer of free admission and music had brought young people out in droves and long lines--so many that we immediately gave up any thought of gaining access to the courtyard, let alone those roving caverns inside.

Instead, we scootered around back and took some photos (above and left) of MAXXI's intimidating,  inaccessible, and ugly back side, dominated by windowless concrete massifs, colorful barriers, and fencing.

Watch for icebergs! 


The large space outside the gallery entrance works well with "big" art [photo added to original post]

(Dianne points out MAXXI is #30 on our Rome the Second Time  Top 40.) And, as noted above, it is on our Flaminio tour - both its front and its back.  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; 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 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.