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, March 27, 2018

Soviet-style architecture--in Rome!

We found this covered structure--the entrance to a driveway--in Parioli, not far from Piazza Euclide and the church Dianne doesn't like [Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria, architect Armando Brasini, erected 1923-51; he also designed a failed church in Buffalo].  The structure is a curious bit of architecture, unlike anything else we've seen in Rome--even, perhaps, unique to Rome.  It belongs to architecture's difficult, and now and then, awkward, stage, one that begins in about 1955 and runs through, say, 1980.

But it's not the awkwardness that attracted us.  We were immediately reminded of the Soviet bus stops featured in Christopher Herwig's delightful book, Soviet Bus Stops (Fuel, 2015), and those taken by our friend Corbin Smith on a recent sojourn in Central Asia. The "K" could stand for Kremlin.

The bus stops--in Kazakhstan, Moldova, Lithuania, Armenia, and 10 other provinces--were built from the late 1960s to the 1980s--what one scholar has called "a time of monotony in architecture."  Even so, there was some room for creativity, for a playfulness that allowed for new angles and approaches --and, inevitably, for occasional awkwardness.  Note the optimistic turn upward in all of the structures, including the one in Rome.

Maybe one of those Soviet architects--one with plenty of rubles--found a way to Parioli.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Scallop Shell Motif

Once you become aware of something, you see it everywhere.  Just that happened to RST recently, when a scholar/friend, specializing in Renaissance painting, mentioned that he had become interested in the recurring motif of the scallop SHELL.  For example, the scallop shell appears in Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation (1478)--it's featured on the small altar to the right of Mary.  In this work, the angel Gabriel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to become the mother of God.  Here (above), the scallop shell functions as a fertility symbol.

Fertility is also the theme in what may be the best known pre-modern reference to the scallop shell: Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1452).  In that work, the scallop shell is associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus; Venus is symbolically born out of a shell (an egg).

The Birth of Venus has also spawned a delightful, playful take-off from the original.  It stars Piggy, of Sesame Street fame.

Piero della Francesca, Montefeltro Altarpiece (also known as The Brera Madonna).  1472-1474
Other historical figures who employed the shell motif include Piero della Francesca, in his Montefeltro altarpiece (above); Benvenuto Cellini, in his Jewel Chalice; Michelangelo, with his rendition of St. Paul; Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose Triton Fountain (1644) graces Piazza Barberini.

Michelangelo's St. Paul.  

Bernini's Triton Fountain

Also Bernini.  But where?
In the modern period, the shell continues to be associated with fertility--and female sensuousness.  A good example is the July 1, 1937 cover of Vogue magazine, by the artist Covarrubias.

Perhaps the most famous use of the scallop shell in modern times is the Shell Oil Company logo.  The logo dates to 1904, when the company's business largely consisted of bringing antiques, curios, and Asian shells to consumers in western nations.  The Shell logo has been modernized over the years.  Less obvious is that the design of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York City was based on a shell--the Japanese miracle shell.

Wright's Guggenheim
In architecture, the scallop shell is most frequently found over doorways and/or in arches.  The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael (Moscow, 1505) has a number of large, splendid scallop shell decorations.  The scallop shell often referenced the Christian pilgrimage and, more generally, signified spirituality.
Cathedral of the Archangel Michael
According to some sources, Da Vinci based the first spiral staircase on the swirling features of the shell.

In our walks around Rome (and London) we often encountered scallop shells--now that we were looking for them.  Some were over doorways, a usage that reflects the idea of the shell as a representation of contentment, of a comfortable home--and of the shell as a shield, a protection.

Modest building, modest shell above doorway.  Trastevere.  
More modest yet.  Could be a shell motif on the door, or
a sunrise, or something else.
We would have thought that the Mussolini regime, with its strong interest in linking Rome with the sea and, symbolically, with the naval competence that established Rome as a Mediterranean power, would have favored sea motifs, among them the shell.  Perhaps it did, in ways that have escaped us.  What does seem clear is that the regime's interest in various forms of modernism, especially high rationalism, precluded the use of the shell in most buildings constructed under Fascism. Instead, one finds the scallop shell on older structures--those built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and decorated in the prevailing "Liberty" style.

Splendid use of the shell motif, beneath balconies, on
a c. 1900 building in the Re di Roma area.  

A scallop shell behind the boy's head.  Main square, Rocca di Papa, Colli Albani.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Car-share Roman style - for the adventurous traveler

Driving a car in Rome is one of the more adventurous things a tourist--or for that matter, a Roman--can do.  If you're game, it's easier these days with car-share options. [Update:  We did it ourselves - see end of post.]

Rome has long been a frustrating city to get around in.  For a city of its size, public transportation is poor.  Rental car pick-up spots are few, with long lines and often an absence of cars, even when you've reserved one (we write from experience).  Taxis, along with rental cars, are notoriously expensive and some taxi drivers are simply scammers (and mostly right-wingers). They also will not take more than 4 passengers.  So if there are 5 of you (yes, we've experienced this too), you need two taxis or you are out of luck.  Nor can you flag down a taxi as you would, say, in New York City.  To avoid all this hassle, many tourists resort to private car pick-ups to and from the airport--and often apartment hosts arrange them.  If you're thinking scooters, you can rent them, but at your peril (see Bill's post from 2011).  Bicycles?  You can rent them as well, but bike-shares went the way of thieves and vandals in Rome and are no more.  We've done all of these, and experienced all of them, except the bicycle-sharing, which didn't last long.  Nota bene: Uber and other ride-sharing services are illegal.
A Car2Go Smart car (parked the regular way)

The introduction of car-sharing solves some of these problems. And introduces adventure.  There are two major car-sharing services in Rome: Car2Go and Enjoy.  Car2Go uses only Smart cars that seat 2 (we did have friends who rented one in Florida and managed to squeeze 4 people in!).  Enjoy uses Fiat 500s and 500Ls, which barely seat 3 and 4, respectively, and will not accommodate much luggage if you are going to/from the airport.  But they are certainly larger than a Smart car, although you can't park them sideways.  A third service is Share'ngo, which uses electric cars (it does appear that their Web site has an English version).
The electric car-share service, Share'Ngo

The following is a 'how-to' for one car-sharing service, "Enjoy," sponsored by the electrical conglomerate, ENI.  We tried the cars and app indirectly, through our daughter-in-law, who arrived in Rome last year all ready--much to our amazement--to jump in a car-share car.  I had queried Car2Go a few years ago as to whether they'd accept a US driver's license and they indicated they would, but I didn't quite trust their answer (the Web site now indicates they probably will, with an International license as well).  What I DO know is that you can sign-up with Enjoy with a US driver's license.  You will also need an International Driver's License - which you can get at AAA for $30 or so (including onsite photos).  We had stopped getting these because we had been told (by police, by scooter and car rental agencies) that they were worthless.  Even so, clearly you need them for Enjoy, along with your passport, a third photo, and a credit card of course.  You must be over 18 and have had your license for at least one year (if you have issues enrolling because of the date of your international license, just change the date online to that on your state license).  You can register on a PC or via the app.  Uploading all this info and the documents is a bit of a pain, but worth it in the end.  Our daughter-in-law said she waited 3-4 weeks to get approved; so you might want to register well in advance.  Our approval took about 3 minutes.  The registration fee is Euro 10 (roughly $12), and the cost is about 25 centesimi (about 30 cents)/minute; Euro 50/day.  You pay an additional 25 centesimi/km
A small area of Rome--Monteverde--with
8 cars available, one that could
gain the renter Euro 5 if he or she
filled up (the yellow gas pump
when you go over 50 kilometers.  You don't pay for gas.

Enjoy has over 500 vehicles in Milan and Rome, almost 200 in Turin, and 70+ in Florence and Catania (Sicily).

The app will show you the cars near you.  You book one, and then you have 15 minutes to get to it.  Our son made a couple sprints to try to get to a car before the 15 minutes ran out.  After the fact, he and his wife discovered you don't have to get there in 15 minutes, but you start paying after the 15 minutes, even if you haven't arrived.  The app (left) also shows those cars with low fuel levels.  If you fill up (you don't pay for the gas), you get a Euro 5 credit.  Our family also took a car for the day to a water park north of the city. They simply paid for the day.  Remember you avoid having to return the car to the train station, pay for transport from your apartment to and from the location, etc.  The convenience factor is worth a lot.  The cars have special parking spaces and can enter areas of the city reserved to those with special passes (known as ZTLs), in most cases.  In Rome you can drive and park at no extra cost in all ZTL areas, except for ZTL A1 Tridente, between Piazza del Popolo, Passeggiata di Ripetta and Via del Babuino.  No smoking, no pets, and you are supposed to have only 3 people in a Fiat 500 and 4 in a Fiat 500L. You can take the car anywhere in Italy, but you have to return it and park it in a designated car-share area, which is very large and plainly marked on the app. For example, you could take a car to the Colli Albani but you can't leave it there.  You can bring it back to Rome, where the designated car-share area encompasses most of the city (including as far out as Cinecitta', for example).

A couple other caveats.  All the cars are standard (i.e., stick shift), not automatic.  And driving in Rome can be daunting for some.  Our daughter-in-law, a Los Angeles driver in the Mario Andretti mold, found it fun.  She liked the chaos.  "Rome is meant for my kind of driving.  Everyone is aggressive and everyone is trying to get ahead," she said with fondness.  The only aspect of Rome driving new for her was the scooters riding the white line (between traffic in both directions) and going to the head of the line at lights.  One advantage she saw was when there was a transit strike:  "Who cares if there's a strike, Enjoy was available."

Trying to end the rental on our first car-share.  Dianne had to intuit the
Italian words for "ignition" (not "ignizione") and car door (not "porta").

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ostia Antica: Really Old, Really Close

RST is pleased to have as guest blogger Martha Bakerjian. Martha is one of our favorite writers on travelling in Italy.  She's knowledgeable and always has good ideas for places to visit and tips for the savvy traveler.  In this post she guides us to Ostia Antica, a magnificent under-visited archaeological site less than an hour by train from Rome. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter!  Martha has her own blog, Martha's Italy:, and she posts itineraries on Bindu.

An ancient greeting.
While most people know about Pompeii, far fewer visit the ancient Roman port of Ostia Antica, even though it's much easier to get to from Rome. At Ostia Antica you are treated to the evocative remains of a Roman working-class town, abandoned around the 5th century. You'll have the added bonus of walking through a medieval hamlet with a small castle, and, if you're there on a Thursday or Sunday morning, you can go inside the castle on a tour.
Tours of the castle--built in 1483 by the man who would become Pope Julius II--on Thursday and Sunday mornings

If you're in Ostia Antica around lunch time, try one of the local trattorias in the hamlet. After your visit to Ostia Antica, you can even go to the beach, just one stop farther along the train line at Ostia Lido. (The trattorias are much better than the snack bar, and more likely to be open; or buy food for picnicking like a Roman on the ancient grounds.)

To get to Ostia Antica, take Metro Line B to the Piramide stop. To use your same Metro ticket, stay inside the station heading left towards the "Roma Porta San Paolo" station, for the Roma-Lido train line.  (If you have more time and don't mind blowing another Metro ticket, or on your way back, go outside for a look at this well-restored 1924 "Roma-Ostia-Lido" train station.) Take the train towards the Lido (the only direction it goes from there), getting off at Ostia Antica. The trains run about every 15 minutes; less often on the weekends and holidays.  (Note all of these directions and info are at the time of this writing.) From the train station, it's a short walk to the hamlet of Ostia and then just a little farther to the archaeological site.

Ornate sarcophagus

Buy a map of the site at the Ostia Antica ticket office to give you a better idea of what you're seeing. Once inside there are restrooms, a book and souvenir shop, picnic area, and a bar selling sandwiches, drinks, and snacks. Also near the entrance is an archaeological museum with statues, busts of Roman emperors and sarcophagi. Off to one side is a small necropolis.

Toilets.  Not much privacy.
Ostia Antica is more compact than Pompeii but still quite large (Dianne: we once lost the son of friends there for about an hour). You’ll see houses, shops, ovens, a bakery, wells, fountains, and even toilets, as well as the town’s forum, temples, a theater, and baths. 

The ancient city, in use from the 4th century BC through the 5th century AD, had about 50,000 residents at its peak. It was Rome's seaport and, as such, of great importance.

Ostia was laid out along one main street, Decumanus Maximus, and more than one mile of the road has been excavated. Along this street you’ll see stores and markets, workshops, public buildings, warehouses, and a theater, built between 19 and 12 BC. Residential areas are along the side streets.
Ostia's splendid theater/arena
Some house remains have mosaic floors or frescoes on the walls. These mosaic designs have been replicated since Roman times to decorate buildings around the world, including the Fascists' extensive use of them, such as in the flooring outside the railroad train station at Ostiense. Farther along is the forum, the center of life in Roman towns. Around the forum are the large public baths, a marketplace, a temple, and a Christian basilica.
Homes and shops
Plan to spend 2 to 3 hours wandering through the ruins. The site is closed on Mondays. Check current hours and admission price (orari + tariffe) on this web site: Hours change with the time of year and day; the site generally opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes anywhere from 4:30 - 7 p.m. Ticket prices change as well, based on many factors; the current regular price is Euro 10. (Use your "translate" button in Google, for example, if the Italian doesn't make sense to you.)

More about Ostia Antica:

Another view of the theater.