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

Monday, May 28, 2018

Cows first, then Sheep: Rome trims up its Parks

Rome is going backwards, back to the Rome of a century ago, when oxen were used to plow the earth around the Altare della Patria in Piazza Venezia (above).

In a world of tractors, power lawn mowers, and weed-whackers, the city's populist mayor, Virginia Raggi, has asked the city's environment chief, Pinuccia Montanari, to tackle the weed problem in Rome parks by employing--you won't believe this--sheep and cows.  It's well known that both species east copious amounts of "grass," and it shouldn't take long to turn fields of 2-3 foot weeds into neatly trimmed soccer fields and play areas.

Casa del Cinema bar and restaurant, Villa Borghese.
After the city's wettest spring in years, the weeds are of serious concern.  The region's premier park, Villa Borghese, looks reasonable, especially compared to the others.  But it, too, is mostly weeds, trimmed here and there--though never meticulously--so picnickers can picnic without fearing that their children will disappear in the green expanses beyond the blanket.

The photo at right is Villa Borghese.   But the nice grass which the children are enjoying (our granddaughters are upper and lower left) is artificial, put in by the restaurant/bar at Casa del Cinema.  They know what people (those who can afford it) want.

Weeds could be 2 feet high

Villa Adda, an enormous mile-long half-mile wide expanse on the city's northern edge, has always been rather primitively maintained, and we're glad that some elements of it, elevated stretches to the west, in particular, retain a mystery; there's a pleasure in feeling one could get lost, or just feel a bit lost.

Not bad, but not the best, for picnicking 

That said, the most utilized portions of the park, including a small lake at the north end and a lovely wooded glen just to the east of the lake, are not maintained with the attention they deserve.  Narrow paths around the lake are in the process of being swallowed by weeds.

The glen.  8-10" weeds.  

The wooded glen is an idyllic setting for summer social activities, if only it were mowed and trimmed.

The large stone paths running north and south in the park remain open, but fallen trees to the side have not been removed; instead, they're marked off with yellow "crime" tape.  One hillside expanse, obviously mowed when the weeds were long, resembles a farmers' hay field, ready for the foliage to be picked up.

Soccer in the weeds, with garbage cans for goals.  Anything
shorter wouldn't show up.
In Villa Adda as elsewhere, many Romans have given up soccer for informal volleyball, which can be played above the weeds.  On the Sunday we visited, we did find one soccer game, played in tall but not intimidating grass, between goals made up of trash cans.

Half a bike path available.  

Weeds present problems for bike paths too--in this area and elsewhere in the city.

But let's get back to our sheep and cows.  Montanari, who's in charge of the effort, says the animals will be used only in parks on the "periphery," and she notes that sheep are already doing the job on an experimental basis in Parco della Caffarella, to the south of the center.  We can testify that there have been sheep in the Cafferella for years, but we would take exception to the implication that their purpose there is to cut the grass; they're part of a working farm in that park.

One agricultural expert has weighed in on the Mayor's sheep and cows idea, first proposed on her Facebook page.  The problem, he says, is that sheep eat with their heads low to the ground; they're bottom feeders.  But in most parks the grass is already so high that the sheep won't be able to find their food.  Hence the need for cows, which are top feeders.  Looks like a tandem deal: the cows go in first, followed by the sheep.

As other have noted, sheep and cows bring with them an enormous amount of excrement.  Watch where you put your blanket!

We imagine another problem.  Sheep and cows require herding and restraint.  Restraining cows often means barbed wire--probably not a good idea in the parks (though there is already plenty of it).  Sheep can be herded, by dogs (trained to treat humans as threats to the sheep--as we know from experience) and by human sheep herders.  These days, most of the herding in Italy is done by eastern Europeans from Bulgaria and Romania, just the sort of immigrants most Italians are hoping to keep out.  We think Italians, even if unemployed, will not likely take to herding sheep in the parks.

Some have found humor in the situation.  In the 4th Municipio (Colli Aniene-Tiburtino), a group known as "Merlino" (named for the sorcerer Merlin) has cut-outs of lions, zebras, and giraffes in the tall weeds of the area's parks (Baden Powell), green spaces (via Grotta di Gregna), and boulevards (Palmiro Togliatti).  It's a jungle out there!

Lion in the weeds


Newspaper photos: Il Messaggero

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Rome Mini Market: Suddenly Controversial

It's after midnight in your corner of Rome, and you need a bottle of wine, cookies, milk for your morning cereal, some cheese and fruit.  There is no 24-hour supermarket.  One small chain grocery closed at 10, another at 8.  Where do you go?  To the MINI MARKET, of course.

There are lots of mini markets in Rome, and the numbers are up.  In 2016 there were 1432 mini markets.  In 2017, 1622. 

The prices are higher than at the grocery stores--you can expect to pay E9./10 for your Ribolla Gialla (white wine), rather than E7.  But at 12:25 a.m., convenience is everything.  The mini market it is.

Mini Market, Salario
We're not sure why mini markets are flourishing.  We know that Rome has become a late-night (or later-night) city.  A decade ago, one could wander the Centro at 10 p.m. and not find a place to get a plate of pasta ("abbiamo buttato l'acqua per pasta" - "we've thrown out the pasta water," we heard at 10 p.m.).

No more.  The Movida--that late-night gathering of young drinkers/partiers, once concentrated in Campo de' Fiori, Ponte Milvio, and Trastevere, has spread to Ostiense, middle-class Piazza Bologna, and other locales.  Grocery store hours failed to meet the growing demand for late-night drinks and food.  Mini markets filled the void.  Similar growth has occurred in frutterie--small stores selling fruits and vegetables, and sometimes wine.

The rapid rise of the mini market has not been universally accepted. Indeed, the department of Rome's city government that regulates this sort of commerce recently passed a regulation freezing for 3 years the number of mini markets, frutterie, and other small shops, including self-service laundries, places that roast chickens, gold-buying centers, and massage parlors. 

Mini market app for Rome
What's going on?  One theory is that the authorities dislike the late-night drinking that these small businesses encourage, or abet.  That's certainly a factor. It's well known that young folks, especially, buy their late-night alcohol at mini markets. Best evidence for this interpretation: there's actually an app for Rome's late night mini markets, one apparently designed to help thirsty youth find the closest one.  Appropriately, the app takes its name from the Bangladeshi, the largest mini-market ownership group after native Italians. At right a screenshot of the app, "Bangladino" [just type "bangladino" in the App Store search blank].  It shows you the mini markets around your location, when they close, and the price of a beer (in this case E1.5) for comparison shopping.

But you can't get a beer while selling your gold, or at a massage parlor, at a laundry, or at some of the frutterie we've frequented.

The real story has to do with who owns the mini markets and other small shops. Of Rome's active mini markets in 2018, the majority are owned by Italians (1,473); Bangladeshi own 664; Egyptians own 48; and Romanians 40.  It makes sense that new immigrant groups would be active in mini markets and related businesses; these small stores require minimal capital, allow new owners to profit from extended hours (involving the whole family) that long-established, Italian-owned businesses are unwilling to sustain; and they would seem to be an obvious place to begin the process of achieving middle-class status.

in della Vittoria

Even so, it seems clear that the inroads made by new immigrant groups in these businesses are disturbing to Italians, some of whom see themselves as wrongly displaced, victims of globalization and immigration.

Anxieties about immigrants and the Italians they presumably displace: that's the reason for the 3-year moratorium on mini markets, et. al.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Piano Day at Villa Borghese - June 3

They call it "Piano Day" (using English only) and it takes place on a Sunday, usually in early June, in Villa Borghese, the enormous park on the city's north end, above Piazza del Popolo. This year it's on Sunday, June 3.

The basic idea is simple: grand pianos are placed at several locations in the park, and more than a dozen talented pianists are brought in to play them.  People gather around and listen, sitting on the ground (some folks bring cushions) or benches or fountains.  The music varies from classical (Bach, Chopin, Liszt, etc.) to Gershwin and Fats Waller.  Good people watching, too.

Luca Filastro, playing Fats Waller tunes. Little kids danced.  
Last year when we were in the park, there were six performance spaces: the Pincio, the Orologia ad Acqua (near Piazza Bucharest), the Laghetto, Museo Bilotti, Casa del Cinema, and Fontana Oscura (not far from the Borghese Museum).  The music began at 10:30 a.m. and ended about 9 p.m. This year's program features 5 spaces (minus Museo Bilotti) and runs from 11 a.m. until 8:30 or 9 p.m. - the last concert begins at 7.30 p.m..

At the Fontana Oscura.  The pianist is probably Stefano Andreatta.
There's a helpful brochure that lists time and locations; it's available at the park and on the website, (all in Italian, but it's not hard to figure out the program). 

Aside from the music, we found some amazing roller skaters doing their thing in the park. Not an official event; that is, it doesn't appear in the brochure.

It's all free.  If you're going to be in Rome around the time of Piano Day, don't miss it!

The photos above and below are from Piano Day June 4, 2017.

At the Orologia ad Aqua, not far from Casina Valadier


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A modernist gem in Vittoria: the Chiesa di Cristo Re

The area of Rome we're living in is called "della Vittoria," and it begins about a mile north of the Vatican.  It was all developed after 1900.  On the whole, it lacks exceptional buildings, although there are plenty of attractive ones built in the 1920s--large apartment buildings with enticing interior courtyards.

On viale Mazzini

The bronze above the door is by one of the
more famous 20th century Italian sculptors,
Arturo Martini

We've walked the area before, and never paid much attention to the Chiesa di Cristo Re (Church of Christ the King), with its modernist facade of brick.  The other day, having read in our architectural guide that the church was designed by Marcello Piacentini, surely the most famous architect of the Fascist era (and sometimes called "Mussolini's architect"), we made our way to nearby viale Mazzini, where the church stands.  The exterior is in rows of Roman hand-made brick.

And there, on the side of one of the front doors, proof of Piancentini's role, though why the spelling is Marcelli remains a mystery (perhaps an attempt to Latin-ize his name- to go with "Opus" = "work" in Latin).

Inside, the chiesa is rigorously symmetrical, with powerful streamlined features--the narrow, curved balcony in the photo below, and other curved features-- that strike us as unusual, even for the early 1930s, when the building was constructed.

Unfortunately, the modernist features of the structure were not replicated in the mosaic windows that line the sides of the church.  They're colorful, yes, but too busy and complex.

An exception is a fine piece on the left side, near the front door.

The dome is at once powerful and elegant.  Other concrete elements (some of which, on close inspection, need work) anticipate the brutalist era that began in the 1950s.

Christ on his throne, and the angels to either side, are by Achille Funi (another artist favored by the Fascists, and influenced by Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical style).


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

2,000 years in one day - Rome through "Open House Roma"

James Turrell couldn't do beter than this great view from the courtyard of Palazzo INAIL

We basically subscribe to the adage that to see Rome, even a lifetime isn't enough.  But sometimes we challenge that.

An angel?  What part of "Neopythagoreanism" was this?
In the subterranean Basilica of Porta Maggiore
On one May day last year, we managed to go from 1st century AD to 21st century, with a few stops in between.  We did this sweep through history with tours of buildings that day, thanks to the Open House Roma (that's it in Italian) program that has been in place annually for the past few years.Of the hundreds of offerings over 2 days, we picked on a Sunday:

1) The underground (probably always was) Basilica of Porta Maggiore, dating to the 1st to 2nd century.

2) The Palazzo INAIL, a 1926-33 building in the city center.

3) The reputed home of Cola di Rienzo, dating from the 11th-12th centuries.

4) Two EUR buildings - the Palazzo Uffici, and
the Square Coliseum, just restored thanks to the fashion house Fendi (1938-43, restored 2017).

None of these is normally open to the public, and so we were anxious to get advance tickets.  
So, what and why.

Interesting set table - stuccoed 2,000 years ago, again
on the walls of the subterranean Basilica of Porta Maggiore

The basilica is still in the midst of its recuperation.

The underground basilica was a real treat, as we thought it might be, since it's rarely been open and can host only a few people at a time. We had no idea it was even there; its entrance is tucked in among the tumult of Piazza di Porta Maggiore.  We didn't even see it when we did our "Wall Walk."  

The basilica was discovered only in 1917, by accident, and has been the subject of archaeological restoration and analysis since. It's now 40 feet underground and has elaborate decorations in stucco.  It was excavated from tufo rock.  Apparently it was a sacred spot for devotees of a little-known cult called Neopythagoreanism. Originating in the first century BC, this was a school of mystical Hellenistic philosophy that preached asceticism and was based on the writings of Pythagoras and Plato. We felt privileged to be able to get that close to these 2000 year-old markings of an ancient civilization.

We had to focus our attention 20 centuries later when we showed up at Palazzo INAIL, which sits at the head of via 4 Novembre, right off Piazza Venezia.  The large photo at the top was taken inside the palazzo.

Roman architects of any era love their
spiral staircases.
We'd been by the building hundreds of times and basically hadn't noticed it.  It was constructed in the Mussolini era for the bureaucracy that dealt with those considered "unfortunate," or without support.  
The view from Palazzo INAIL down via 4 Novembre into Piazza Venezia.
Palazzo INAIL is amazingly sited on the hill above villa Colonna and has superb views of the city, rarely available to the public.  The architecture is some of the best of that period, in our opinion.
Even here, Roman ruins were found, and preserved.
One of many great views from Palazzo INAIL.
Again, a Turrell-like framing.
Part of Mussolini's demolition projects, Casa dei Crescenzi stands alone
at the end of the block - at right.
Crowds lining up to get into Cola di Rienzo's home.
Then we ran to get to what we thought was another prize, Casa dei Crescenzi or Cola di Rienzo's home. 
This is a fascinating building, partly because Mussolini tore down everything else in the area, leaving only this building--at the pleading of one of his architects.  It has some of the best 'spolia' in the city - being made up of parts of ancient Rome.  The building has had quite a troubled history, including being a stable at one point. 

A great example of use of 'spolia.'
The disappointment was that the organization occupying the building wanted to proselytize about their work, rather than let us see and understand the building.  We pitied the people waiting in long lines to get in - only to be sat down and lectured to.
But you had to sit through 2 lectures to see much inside.
And there was much to see!

Mussolini featured in the bas relief on Palazzo dei Uffici
(along with fellow visitors)
We then headed out to EUR, one of our favorite places, and managed to squeeze in for a tour of the building known as "Palazzo Uffici," - "Offices building," from the 1942 world exhibition that never occurred.  We know this building well, and had been in its bomb shelter previously, but the tour of the upstairs and offices, including a head of Mussolini ignominiously sitting on the floor, was a delight.

That's Mussolini's head on the right (in back, some great frescoes of the period).
And he thought he'd be on a big statue!
This building too has its version of the spiral staircase.

The furnishings, some by Gio' Ponti, as we recall, were lovely, but
of questionable comfort.

Palazzo Uffici is at right, the Square Coliseum in back.  There's a lively outdoor
market here on Sundays.
Then we capped off our day with a place we desperately wanted to see - the Palazzo della Civilta' Romana, also known as the Square Coliseum. 
View from the rooftop of Palazzo della Civilta' Romana, looking out to the hills and Calatrava's desolate, abandoned swim complex.
It was closed for years, surrounded by cyclone fencing, and in disrepair.  As is the case for many Rome monuments, it was restored thanks to private funding - and advertising.  In this case, Fendi, which was sponsoring the tour of the newly-restored building.  Unfortunately, they announced when we arrived that we could see only the art gallery on the first floor (always open to the public) and the rooftop terrace.  The rest of the floors were closed - to keep their fashion designs secret (bait and switch!).  The rooftop views were spectacular, but we missed the opportunity to see how the building itself was constructed and has been restored.

The Square Coliseum with a Penone sculpture.

Quite a day - and that was just Sunday.  Next up, our itinerary for Saturday, which was equally informative and exciting.

For information on Open House Roma 2018, which will be May 12-13, see their web site.