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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Saving Rome's Buildings, with Capitalism

Rome is being repaired--building by building, monument by monument. Signs of this effort are ubiquitous: one structure after another covered in canvas, and behind it, scaffolding.  The Trevi fountain, emptied of its water for months while reconstruction crews do their thing.  Restoration work on both of Rome's coliseums: the ancient, famous one in the city center, and the Colosseo Quadrato (square coliseum), an elegant Fascist-era building in EUR. 

This is mostly good news; at least some of Rome's historic structures are finally getting the care they need.  The bad news is that these reconstruction efforts come with strings attached.  The core of the problem is that much of the restoration work--just how much cannot be gleaned from newspaper reports--is funded by corporations.  The corporations want something for their money, hence the strings.  One string (a minor one, to be sure) is that whatever company is funding the project gets to put its name, or its product, or both on the cloth that shrouds the buildings and the scaffolding.  While undergoing repairs, the building becomes an advertisement, a billboard.  Americans are used to billboards and other very large advertisements, and may even regard them as essential to a vibrant urban scene.  This is surely true in Los Angeles, where notice of the latest blockbuster film may occupy the entire side of a very tall building.  Romans, however, have no billboard history that I know of, no experience until recently, as wall art has achieved a certain popularity, with visual clutter akin to advertising gigantism.

Yet there it is.  An ad for Jaguar looming over Largo di Santa Susanna.  More than one pitch for a company known as Mediolanum, which apparently has something to do with banking.

A huge picture of the latest Samsung Galaxy phone (probably the one that catches fire and is no longer being produced), positioned between Piazza Venezia and Hadrian's column. 

Ads for the New Tiguan--that's an automobile--dominating the Tiber end of via della Conciliazione.

An enormous ad for the second season of the TV series "Gomorra" on the historic Palazzo della Cancelleria (see the top of this post).  So that's one "string" attached: visual pollution.  It's advertising, not art.

The other string is more interesting, and arguably more disturbing.  The corporations that do this work not only want to advertise while they're doing it.  They also want--and get--a degree of control over the property whose restoration they're funding.  That brings us to Fendi, a company with Roman roots, and one known for many years for its fashionable furs.  Beginning a few years ago, the company embarked on a plan to restore several of the city's best-known fountains, beginning with the Trevi, where the company invested about $2.9 million.  The restoration was completed in the fall of 2015, just in time, as it happens, for Fendi's 90th anniversary.  To mark that occasion, in July 2016 the company drained the fountain, installed a 66-yard-long glass catwalk, filled the Trevi again--and, in a sunset display of haute couture, brought out 37 models, who seemed to walk on water.

That spectacle, which allowed the company to identify its brand with one of the world's great attractions, continues to benefit Fendi.  On the following November 15, the company featured the July event in a two-page spread in the New York Times

One could reasonably argue that's a good deal for Rome, Romans, and tourists: a landmark spruced up, used for an evening by its benefactor, powerful images of the Trevi circulating in the media. 

More problematic is what's happened recently in EUR, where Fendi is also involved, this time with the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana--the iconic "square coliseum."  Apparently as a reward for financial assistance with repairs to the building (we're assuming that), Fendi was able to rent the building for 15 years for 240,000 Euro per month.  Under the agreement with EUR Spa, a public entity, Fendi also became the exclusive licensee of commercial images of the square coliseum for that same 15-year period. 

All this came to light, at least for us, when a gay pride organization, Roma Pride, used the building  as a backdrop for its publicity--3 guys in bikinis on the stairs, framed by the building's many arches. Fendi didn't like it. The cultural minister sided with Fendi: it was OK to sell the rights to commercial images, and not OK for Roma Pride to use the image of the Square Coliseum for commercial purposes.  And there the issue stands: symbolic, if nothing else, of corporate encroachment on Rome's historical heritage, for better or for worse, or both.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

L'Aquila: A lesson in Italy's failure to rebuild after the 2009 earthquake.

Post-earthquake reconstruction?  Six years later, this is L'Aquila.
The most recent devastating earthquake in Italy hit in the Marche province on October 26, followed by aftershocks. An August 24 quake not far away killed almost 300 people. 
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is promising complete restoration.  We are - sadly - skeptical.  As a poignant piece of evidence, we give you L'Aquila, where a 2009 earthquake in this large, historic center in the Abruzzo region that neighbors Marche, resulted in 309 deaths.

We had been in L'Aquila many years ago.  This classic medieval city, capital of the Abruzzo province, is less than 75 miles from Rome, but 75 miles that can seem like centuries, and that took several days to cover in Margaret Fuller's time.  The city sits at the foot of the Gran Sasso mountains we intended to (and did) climb; they reach over 10,000 feet, the highest Italian mountains south of the Alps.

Last year, 6 years after the quake, we decided to see what had been accomplished after the earthquake.  We had heard of the slowness of the rebuilding, mafia involvement, scandals, and the like.  But nothing prepared us for the ghost town L'Aquila still was - 6 years later.  The photo above of one street is, unfortunately, typical of most of the streets of L'Aquila. Buildings shored up, at best, but unreconstructed and uninhabitable.

A closer view of the cracking produced by the 2009 earthquake.

Here one can see efforts to protect the older, classic building windows and doors.
Again, this is the best the 'reconstruction' seems to offer.

Businesses stopped in their tracks.  And not re-opened, of course.  This was a
unisex hair salon.
We'll get back to the destruction.  But we must take a couple sentences to describe the highly unusual setting in which - without planning on our part - we found L'Aquila in May 2015: it was the annual national 3-day "raduno" or "adunata" - a gathering of the Italian Army's Alpini units - gatherings that attract several hundred thousand men and a few women.  And this year, in an attempt to bring life and attention to the devastated city, they were meeting in L'Aquila, even though there were only a handful of rooms available to them in the city itself.  Many took 1-2 hour long train rides into L'Aquila daily; others set up tents and slept in vans. 

The Alpini were formed as a northern mountain unit of the Italian army.  One finds Alpini almost everywhere in Italy these days.  They still are a significant branch of the army.  And, since my family is from the north (15 km south of the Swiss border), all the men belonged to the Alpini (see a photo of my great-grandfather below).  The Alpini would recognize L'Aquila, and its location in the Gran Sasso, as part of the mountain regions that Alpini love.
Our first shot of the Alpini, recognizable by a black feather in their caps
(officers get a white feather) was of them being tourists.  Here they are at L'Aquila's
famed 13th century "Fountain of the 99 Spouts" (Fontana delle 99 Cannelle)
The poster for the 2015 Adunata.  Note the emphasis on the mountains and the black feathers.
Here's how the Alpini managed their gathering in L'Aquila - they brought in their own pop-up restaurants and beer tents;
this one set up right next to the scaffolded building.

The Alpini gathered in St. Peter's Square at their 1929 adunata.
One of the empty L'Aquila buildings had a small exhibit of prior Alpini "adunate,"
which is where we found this, among many other photos and artifacts.
The Alpini here were singing a traditional song.  To the left is the hotel in
 which we stayed many years ago.  This is in a newer part of the city, 
where there was less devastation because of better building practices.
  The Gran Sasso can be seen in back.
Back to the destruction.  

The sign scrawled on this wall says "L'Aquila  will be arise (be reborn) from the Mafia."
It's not clear these buildings will be rebuilt.
The blocked-off streets are in the "red zone," where one cannot even walk.
This banner in the main square says:
"One finds a red zone everywhere and the issue is a national one."
Outside an obviously newer but poorly built "Students' House," photos
of some of the more than 100 "angels" who died there in the earthquake.
 Arrests followed the collapse of the building.
Housing built for displaced residents - but not near any work.  From the train,
we saw these on the outskirts of Paganica, about 15 km from L'Aquila.  
A view of L'Aquila from a distance.  The cranes are there, but where are the workers and the work?  Snow-capped (in May)
Gran Sasso in the distance.

Elizabeth Povoledo wrote about L'Aquila in the New York Times a few weeks ago. Remarkably, her photos don't look any different from ours of 2015.

There were a few signs of hope.

A bar on the central square, run by the Fratelli Nuria, was open. It was
 not simply an Alpini pop-up. Signs announced it as the first business
 to reopen after the quake. The family also made its own, excellent torrone  
(which we bought and ate). You can see a couple Alpini among the patrons.

This surprising restored house, with a woman watering her plants, was the lone
exception we saw.

Our hotel receptionist rode with us on the train from L'Aquila to Paganica where many people were housed (photo above).  She told us that 6 years later her house was not habitable but that she had to continue paying her mortgage, and continue living in Paganica, about 15 km away.   We wrote last December about a church, built into rock, in Paganica.

And below is Giovanni Mambretti, my Italian grandmother's father, standing at left, with his Alpini.

We hope to visit L'Aquila again, and that we will see significant progress the next time.  Should you wish to visit L'Aquila, our hotel was ideal.  It was in a newer building, below the city (you do have to walk up and down hills a lot in L'Aquila), and in 2015 it was fully open, including the excellent restaurant serving Abruzzi specialties.  It's the Hotel "99 Cannelle", because it's across the street from that famous fountain.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Looking for Brutalism: Balsamo Crivelli, Serenissima, and the 544

Some time ago one of our readers--we'll call him Mr. X (if, indeed, he is a man), responded to a piece we had written on Brutalist architecture.  What set off Mr. X was our statement that "There isn't much brutalism in Rome and environs."

"WTH?" began Mr. X.  "The entire 544 ATAC bus line is nothing but Roman Brutalism.  I invite you to visit here and ride it with me.  Get off, take a look at Balsamo Crivelli and tell me the entire facility isn't classic Brutalist architecture.  La Questura headquarters at Serenissima station as well. All of post-Fascist Rome is as Brutalist as it comes. How can you have missed it?  Dear God, come see it! Rome is almost entirely Brutalist.  Look at her government architecture.  I live here!"

The 544
RST didn't ride the 544 with Mr. X, but we did, indeed, take the 544 bus from Balsamo Crivelli to Serenissima station.  Despite asking a dozen people where the Questura might be found, we never found the headquarters to which Mr. X refers, and an internet search revealed no Questura within a mile and a half.

What we did find is the subject of this post. But first a little background on Brutalism.  As used by scholars, the term Brutalism refers to an architectural movement of the mid-1950s through the 1970s. The word Brutalism derives from the French term beton brut (raw concrete), the material identified with Brutalism.  Buildings made with raw, unfinished, and uncovered concrete often have a fortress-like feel and appearance.  Then there are the "brick brutalists," who combine detailed brickwork with concrete.

So, whether you're talking about Brutalism or Brick Brutalism, you've gotta have concrete, and it has to be "raw"--that is, unfinished.  It doesn't count as Brutalist if it's covered with marble, or even if it's covered with a concrete finish, such as stucco.  There are thousands of stucco buildings in Rome, but none of them are Brutalist by the standard architectural definition.

Some of the post-1960 apartment buildings that line Viale della Serenissima.  "Brutal" perhaps--that's a matter of
taste--but not Brutalist.  
Brutalism is most often identified with government buildings, universities, shopping centers, and housing projects.  Architects have generally avoided using the term.  And, importantly for the Mr. X argument--the term has more recently become part of the popular discourse, referring (says Wikipedia) to "buildings of the late-twentieth century that are large or unpopular--as a synonym for "brutal."

To our knowledge, the only Brutalist
structure in Serenissima.
Here's the bottom line: neither Serenissima nor Balsamo Crivelli has many buildings that qualify as Brutalism by their use of raw concrete.  We found only one such building in Serenissima: curiously, a church bell tower.

And Balsamo Crivelli has one, maybe two.  Nor did we find much raw concrete on the ride between the two suburbs.

The Autostrade HQ, ahead center right.
The headquarters of the Autostrade, which lies just outside the center of Balsamo Crivelli, is
standard, government-issue late modernism, but it isn't Brutalism.

All concrete all the time.  Brutalist.  The Soviet look.
Just to the south of the Autostrade building is an apartment complex that seems to us to qualify as Brutalism.  We first saw it from the 544, again on our walk back.   

Both places have plenty of large apartment buildings, many of them without distinction, some of them downright ugly.  Most are not Brutalist, but the one on the left, above, is.
Corviale-esque in its length and sameness.  But unlike Corviale, it's not concrete.
And Serenissima has a large apartment complex made up of identical, stucco-covered buildings, one after the other, receding into the distance (below).  Not enticing, but not Brutalism.
Looks like "projects."  You might not want to live there, but it's not Brutalism.
In short, Balsamo Crivelli and Serenissima have many buildings that are "large" and "unpopular" (for Mr. X, a at least)--that is, "brutalist" with a small "b," buildings that look "brutal" (again, to Mr. X, at least). Aside: Serenissima is a generally unappealing place, but it does have a new, chic, modern bar/wine bar.
Amidst all those big apartment buildings and "projects," this
elegant coffee/wine bar.  Estro, Viale della Serenissima 67
Balsamo Crivelli is centered on a park that could be elegant, or at least attractive, were it not so overgrown.  Across the street from the park we found a building that, while perhaps not Brutalist in the classic sense, was shockingly so by the cultural definition--and has a Brutalist feature.

One of the ends of the "U"
The ends of the U-shaped building, facing the street, seem to be mostly raw concrete.  The interior of the U is leavened by the balcony railings.  But the centerpiece of the building--the mass of concrete that apparently feeds underground garages--took us by storm.

Ground level shops, now mostly abandoned, swallowed
by the concrete pit.

It's both Brutalist and brutal--one of the ugliest interior courtyards ever designed.  The architect expected that the space just above the parking area--the ground floor of the apartments--would be lined with shops.  But they're mostly gone, victims of that concrete pit below.

According to one source, Brutalist structures often express in the most obvious way "the main functions and people flows of the buildings."  That's what is happening here. From the street one can see where people live, where they are expected to shop, and--especially in this case--where they'll park.

RST would like to thank "Mr. X" for his comment; for helping us work out some of the issues; for getting us into two interesting and seldom-visited neighborhoods, both remarkably close to central Rome; and for leading us to that new wine bar.  Now if only we can find the Questura.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

R.B. Kitaj and "The Rise of Fascism"

The painting below, by American-born London artist R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), is part of the "London Calling" exhibit--featuring 6 London artists--at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.  It was loaned for this exhibition from London's Tate.  This excellent exhibition's last day is Sunday (November 13).

A work of the late 1970s, Kitaj's painting is titled "The Rise of Fascism."
According to the curator of the show, Kitaj explained the painting in a 1980 letter: the central bather is the Fascist, the bather on the left is the beautiful victim, and the bather on the right is the ordinary European, "watching it all happen."

The fuselage of a bomber enters the frame upper left.
Patricia Zohn of The Huffington Post says "'London Calling' is just about perfection and should not be missed."



Friday, November 4, 2016

Quadraro: Street Art Center of Rome's Southeast

In the piece above, street artist Mauro Maupal depicts an unhappy she-wolf, biting her tail over the departure of her adopted children, Romulus and Remus--the mythic founders of Rome--each with a roller-bag, headed for what they imagine to be cities of greater opportunity, or perhaps more cultural depth: Berlin, Dublin, London, and Paris.  (The title "esodati" suggests the artist's own, somewhat different interpretation; it refers to workers penalized by the 2011 Italian pension reform, here seeking cheaper European destinations).

Buff baby with Mickey, by Ron English
We wouldn't begrudge anyone an artistic residency in Berlin, especially, but Rome has recently become a world center of wall-size street art, and Quadraro, incredibly, is one of its key nodes.  The Romulus and Remus piece is just one of many (at least 15, as many as 30) street art productions in this near-in suburb just southeast  of the city, with a small-town feel, that spans both sides of the busy Via Tuscolana,  Most, though not all, of Quadraro's open-air art collection is located on the east side of that major thoroughfare, and a substantial portion is concentrated within a few blocks.  You'll see a lot in half an hour and feel more than satisfied after just an hour of strolling.

We would begin with the short tunnel that goes under Via Tuscolana between Via Decio Mure (on the west) and Via Lentuli (on the east).  The west end features a big mouth, teeth and all, sucking in street signs, plants, umbrellas, dishes, whatever--into what used to be blackness (the interior of the tunnel is now white, perhaps to encourage pedestrians, who might otherwise be intimidated by the darkness).  The artist is Mr. Thoms.  The other side of the tunnel isn't quite so powerful.
Tunnel attracts locals
Now on the east side of the highway, the supporting wall for Via Tuscolana offers an array of worthy art.  Dilko's girl--the one with mini-mouse ears--attracted our attention.  Colors go in one ear, black and white (and hardware of various kinds) out the other.  She 's got something in her hand that she seems to be cranking, but what it is we don't know.  We also liked one of the minor pieces, a rough-cut look at a mouse and the hole he lives in--just to the Dilko girl's right.  .

Channeling Modigliani 
The neighborhood in back is full of surprises, all within a few blocks, including Jim Avignon's sensuous, and mostly undressed, woman done in 1930 style (on Via Dei Pisoni); a bulked-up, ripped, green baby surrounded by popular culture icons, including Mickey in a gas mask; and some frogs gorging themselves on what appear to be glass beads but may have some link to computer programming, given the ones and zeros on the banner above; a lovely new-age design, anchored by a tree; and "The Departure of Romulus and Remus," with which we opened this post.  .

Somewhere on our trek (wish we could remember where!) we came across a large map--once apparently distributed--with locations and artists of some of the works.  For what it's worth, here it is. The Xs mark the location of art works.  You can also locate the works using the app: streetartroma (also listed in the app store as Streetart Rome).   The app is much better than the web site, and you can use the app is quite understandable as a map - and it's in English.

Street artist Alessandro Sardella decorated the facade of an automobile repair shop.