Rome Travel Guide

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Rome's Falling Trees: Here Come the Stumps

Rome has a tree problem.  They're falling down.  It's happening at the rate of about 1 tree per day since the beginning of the year.  Many of the trees are old and weak.  Streets such as via Cristoforo Colombo, where the problem is especially severe, were planted in the 1930s and 1940s, when areas then on the city's periphery were developed. A wet, windy winter and spring has contributed.

This may sound like typical Rome media hysteria, which is common enough.  But falling trees present real dangers.  Falling trees--some of them massive--have hit automobiles and buses, sending drivers and occupants to the hospital.  Just recently, trees have fallen in viale dell Milizie (Prati), on the Aventino, in the town of Acilia, in via Volturno and via Pacinotti, and on the Rome-Lido railroad line.

The city government is doing its best (which, knowing the government, probably isn't very good) to deal with the problem.  It's monitoring some 82,000 at-risk trees and has already removed about 700 trees thought to be potentially hazardous.  Still, the trees keep falling.

Among the serious issues raised by the falling trees is what will the city look like if and when thousands of trees are taken down.  There will be promises of replanting, some of which will be kept. But one consequence is predictable: there will be stumps.  There already are thousands of stumps along Rome's streets, left there by the city department that cuts down trees.

Stump as trash receptacle

Blossoming stump
Flower shop adaptive re-use, viale Regina Margherita, Salario 
Handsome old stump in scooter park, della Vittoria

Seriously large stumps, Prati

Whatever their good intentions, these folks would appear to be unconcerned about the stumps they leave behind.  It would seem to be easy enough to leave a 6-inch stump, but most stumps are larger than that, at two and even three feet, and some are 20 feet or more.  While stump-grinding machines (essential to replanting) are common in other parts of the world, in Rome they seem not to exist.

Stump display, Villa Torlonia, where Mussolini once lived
Middle-of-sidewalk stump, Trieste
Stump trifecta, via Salaria

Despite stumps, a rare successful replanting.


And so the stumps remain, mocking most replanting efforts, multiplying as the trees go down.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Elsa Morante's Room - A glimpse into the life of one of Italy's best 20th-century writers

Elsa Morante from her terrazzo at via dell'Oca 27,
overlooking Piazza del Popolo and one of its
almost-twin churches, this one Santa Maria
dei Miracoli..
Elsa Morante was born, lived, and died in Rome. And her sprawling novel, History ("La Storia"), presents Rome during and after World War II as one its main protagonists.  The center of Rome was Morante's life-blood.  She never cooked at home; she ate in the city's restaurants. She was part of the city's most vibrant literary scenes, and the literati too met in the cafes and restaurants.  She lived in many different apartments in different parts of the city, and wrote in her city studio.  She was moody and idiosyncratic, married to and divorced from, and, in the opinion of many today, unjustly overshadowed by, the literary lion Alberto Moravia (whose apartment - which he occupied with his second wife, Dacia Maraini -  we visited and wrote about in a 2013 post).

It seemed, then, a potentially rewarding and easy task to track Morante's life in Rome, starting with Lily Tuck's 2008 biography appropriately titled "Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante."  But the Rome of today is not the Rome Morante lived in; it's not even the Rome of the 1980s when she died.
La Stanza di Elsa  - Elsa Morante's study, at via dell'Oca 17, re-created in the Biblioteca Nazionale.
What IS available is the re-creation of Morante's study inside the Biblioteca Nazionale ("National Library") in Rome.  Like many creative people, Morante had a particular way of writing, and, with few exceptions, wrote in her study.  The re-assembling of her study, with all of her furniture, books, and art, was made possible through a grant to the library by Carlo Cecchi, her literary executor and close friend.  The library also was given her archive - thousands of pieces.  These include the notebooks on which she wrote - long hand - all but her last novel.  Digital photographs of the notebooks also are available in the library.
Piazza del Popolo today.  The large apartment building to the right is where Morante lived
and where her study was located.  The picture at the top shows her on the terrazzo of
this building, with the church dome behind her.  The building's entrance, on via dell'Oca,
is on the side that is in back of Piazza del Popolo.  

For those of us who appreciate seeing how and where creative minds work, La Stanza di Elsa  (Elsa's Room) is a required stop in Rome.  And La Storia should take its place in the 20th-century canon of best literature. (I take issue with Tim Parks who says it does not have "the charm...and dazzling imaginative richness" of her other works.)
Morante with Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini.  She was very
close to Pasolini, though estranged from him after he wrote
a devastatingly critical review of La Storia.  She was overcome
by his brutal murder.

We can see that Morante was passionate
about British poet Sylvia Plath.  This
photo is of books on the bookshelves
of "Elsa's Room" in the Biblioteca
Nazionale, part of the trove of her
archives donated to the BN.

All of the materials associated with La Stanza di Elsa, including large panels and a 10-minute impressionistic video with readings, are in Italian.  Head curator Elenora Cardinale said there are plans to provide some materials in English in the future.  In the meantime, if you don't read Italian, look up some material on Morante ahead of time, or use your smart phone while you're there to gather information.

Bill Morrow's paintings in "Elsa's Room"
If you don't know Morante's bio, one piece of information explains the paintings on the walls, most by Bill Morrow, a charismatic American more than 20 years her junior.  She and Morrow planned to live together in Rome, but in 1962 he jumped to his death from a Manhattan skyscraper (presumably under the influence of LSD), before their plans materialized. His paintings hung on her studio walls until her death, more than 20 years later.

Morante's notebooks also are fascinating.  She wrote longhand on one side of the page, using a consistent type of notebook for a work, but a different type for each different work.  Once finished, apparently she would go back and on the reverse side of the page make notes, drawings, and basically develop more fully characters, plot lines, and ideas for the novel she was writing. For reasons of copyright protection, according to Cardinale, the notebooks are not available on the internet.  Some material on Morante is available online from the library (again, in Italian).

A corner of her re-constructed study and a photo of Morante writing
in the study.
Morante was childless, yet wrote often about mothers and children (the mother and son are the main characters in History), and she transferred some of that love to her cats.  You will hear them also in Elsa's Room.

The entrance to "Elsa's Room" with explanatory panels
(in Italian).
The Biblioteca Nazionale is at the Castro Pretorio Metro B stop.  The room is open to any visitor, without a reservation, currently during the hours of 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. Saturdays.  The entrance is before the turnstiles for the library itself.

Since Elsa's Room was conceived and constructed, the Biblioteca Nazionale has added more rooms that focus on about two dozen major Italian writers of the 20th century, called Spazi900 ("20th- Century Space"), which opened within the past year.  This is also a fascinating path through Italian literary history of the last century, and includes a major focus on Pier Paolo Pasolini.  More about Spazi900 in a future post.

via dell'Oca 27 - not much to see here.
And now to my attempt to follow Morante through Rome.  Her studio that is re-created in the Biblioteca Nazionale is from her apartment at via dell'Oca 27, basically in a building on Piazza del Popolo (though one enters it behind the piazza).  She and Moravia lived in the apartment for the greater part of their troubled married life, and she continued to live there after they divorced.
Dal Bolognese, the restaurant under Morante's building
at via dell'Oca 27.  This woman reflected my mood that day.

One of the restaurants she frequented was just below her apartment backing onto the piazza, but I was there on its weekly day of closure.

Building where the gallery
"La Nuova Pesa" - which
exhibited Morrow's work -  is
now located on an upper floor,
via del Corso.
I also tried to find the gallery where Bill Morrow had a major exhibition.  It still exists (or rather has been revived), but in a totally different location - actually one quite close to via dell' Oca 27 on via del Corso.

Instead of artisan shops, one now finds
high-priced boutiques on via Frattina,
but also a plaque indicating James
Joyce lived here.
I also tried to find the stationery shop where Morante bought her particular notebooks, on via Frattina near the Spanish Steps.  It no longer is there, replaced by upscale clothing boutiques.  The address in Prati to which it supposedly relocated and should still be, seems now to be a Chinese-run housewares store.

via Margutta still looks pretty, perhaps as it
did in Morante's day.

Morante spent time on the once (and sort-of-still artsy street of via Margutta (where Gregory Peck had his studio in Roman Holiday), but I saw mostly digital companies there.
but this is the type of enterprise one
sees most of these days.

She also spent a lot of time on via del Corso, which runs in a straight line from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo, but it's now mostly a tacky tourist shopping street, and I can't imagine she would find it appealing.
About as good as via del Corso can look
these days.

Morante once called Piazza Navona the most beautiful piazza in the world.  Though jammed with tourists, and those hawking wares to tourists, it still may warrant that description.

In Testaccio.
  This plaque has a poetic tribute to her (I'm
taking some liberties in the translation):
"A visionary mind.  A profound sense of pain.
A life that had the humble capacity to
transform history [la storia] into myth. 
A life told in brutal and mysterious stories."
Morante's rather lower-class family lived in various locales in Rome as she was growing up, including in Testaccio, then a working-class district.  We found a plaque on a building where she once lived as an unhappy girl.

We also serendipitously visited the site where Morante's father (in name only) worked as a probation officer - the boys' and girls' reformatories of San Michele a Ripa in Trastevere (which we covered in a recent post).
The boys' "reformatory" at San Michele a Ripa
(restored recently).

Although there are other places I could have gone to 'locate' Morante--the restaurant where she broke her leg, an accident that led eventually to her death (Da Giggetto in the ghetto, on via Portico d'Ottavia) or the nursing home where she spent her last 2 years near Villa Massimo in the Piazza Bologna area--it seemed to me the Rome of Morante was simply not psychologically and physically the Rome of today.  Better to go to La Stanza di Elsa at the Biblioteca Nazionale.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A villa you can't see, and a great view you can

A couple of weeks ago, while living in the district "della Vittoria" (just to the north of its more famous neighbor, Prati), we decided to have a look at Villa Miani, which sits on the south shoulder of Monte Mario.  We had read about it in the newspaper: the first building on the site appeared sometime before 1835, and over time the buildings, adapted and restructured, functioned as a sanitorium and as a university for the Episcopal Church.  It belonged to a Venetian nobleman for the 50 years before 1981. Claudia Cardinale once lived there.  Today it hosts weddings and large social events--dinner for 600.  We were eager to see it.

No, you can't go up there.  
The road up to Villa Miani, via Trionfale, ascends the hill from near the southern end of Piazzale Clodio.  We took both the road and a stairway that shortens the route but is ill-maintained, bushes and tall grass erupting from both sides.  It was probably last cleared and swept 5 years ago.  Having reached the side road to Villa Miani, a guard made it clear that not only was the road closed to the public except for special events, but that views of the Villa from higher ground in back also were not possible.

We moved on, seeking a view of the Villa from higher ground in back (no matter what the guard said), via the road above, via Alberto Cadlolo.  The guard was right.  The Villa was visually inaccessible.  We wondered why the newspaper had made so much out of a complex that can't be seen, let alone visited, unless you're attending a big wedding (as apparently most of our Italian friends have).

Along that same road, however, we were able to catch a view of the back of the massive Cavalieri Hilton Hotel, which, unlike Villa Miani, can also be viewed from the front, albeit from a long way away.

The Rome Hilton.  Maybe the same architect as Corviale.  

Balconies of the wealthy.  

As the street ambles southward, via Cadlolo becomes via Fedro, lined by properties and apartments of the wealthy.  We noticed that the residents do little to tidy up outside their complexes and gates.

The road then turns east and into Piazzale Socrate.  We had never been there, and it's certainly not much to look at, we thought, having been victimized by Rome's fabled tree-trimmers.  Indeed, it could be Rome's ugliest piazzale.

Rome's ugliest piazza.  
But we were in for a treat.

Just beyond the piazza to the east, the hill turns steeply downward.  A fence--designed to keep

The site seems to attract guys.
onlookers from falling off the hill--had thankfully been breached in several spots, allowing us to proceed onto a small promontory.

With an extraordinary view, of St. Peter's and more.
Dianne, at Piazzale Socrate
Incredibly, this view was featured just a few days later (May 1) in Il Messaggero, our newspaper of choice this year (cheaper than La Repubblica, but still a hefty E1.40). According to the paper, which had surveyed social media posts by Romans and tourists, Piazzale Socrate was the most-favored place for "scatti" (snapshots), selfies, and "likes," ahead of such notable sites as the Pincio and the Gianicolo.  We don't quite believe that Piazzale Socrate is more popular than the Spanish Steps or the Trevi fountain for selfies and other pics--it's too out of the way for that--but the view is undeniably spectacular, and, some might think, the best in Rome.  Just don't fall off.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Behind the Wall - the Prisons of San Michele a Ripa

San Michele a Ripa from the side away from the Tevere - a feel for its
length and barrier to whatever is inside.
The long building - perhaps the longest in Rome at a third of a mile (500 meters) - faces the Tevere with no openings, looking like an impenetrable mass that holds nothing of interest.  In fact, the complex of buildings, San Michele a Ripa ("St Michael at the river bank" if you want a tortured English translation) has been used since the 17th century for a variety of purposes, from Catholic medical facilities to prisons to military barracks to arts institutions.  On a recent tour we took of part of this Trastevere block, the focus was on the 18th-19th century use of a substantial part of the complex as a prison/reformatory for women and children.

Carlo Fontana's boys' prison.

The women and girls' prison.
The original prisons - one designated for boys and one for girls - were designed by Papal architects of some fame. Carlo Fontana, a favorite of several Popes and designer of many fountains and chapels in Rome, started the boys' facility in 1701.  He was a rather ordinary practitioner of Baroque architecture and used these techniques, admittedly with severity because of the purpose, in the prison.

Ferdinando Fuga, who designed facades for notable Rome churches such as Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria Maggiore, added the female prison later in the same century.

The prisons have recently been restored and are open to tours.  At the same time that the prisons were considered modern approaches to incarceration (3 guards could monitor all the cells - not quite a panopticon, but similar), the treatment was harsh.  Boys considered "wayward and disobedient" to their parents ended up there with punishment and moral strictures that included rations akin to starvation.  An attorney who prepared a case for the state's Appellate Court stated in 1851 that the boys who emerged after 2 years were skin and bones, full of diseases and would rather be dead.
From the outside (interior courtyard) one can
see how small and high the windows are; no
one was going to get out of here.

Women in the female section often were those in the sex trade, whom the Church wanted to reform, or perhaps just punish.

The city took over this Papal facility in 1871.  With some interruptions (use as a prison for political prisoners from 1827-1870, for example), the complex's use as a reform prison lasted until the end of the 1960s.  In her biography of the great 20th century Italian writer, Elsa Morante, Lily Tuck mentions that Elsa's legal (though not biological) father "worked as a probation a boys' reform school located at Porta Portese."  This would've been in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and clearly this was the place.

One can admire the architecture and at the same time be horrified by what transpired within these walls.

Art work being restored in the prison hall.
The large halls of the prison now are being used for restoration work on paintings.  There are some tours of these facilities to admire that work, and part of the space now can be rented for business meetings!

An excellent pamphlet on life in the prisons and on the architecture is available in Italian.

Our tour was part of the extensive Ville di Roma a Porte Aperte series sponsored by turismo culturale italiano.  April's focus was on Trastevere.
This plaque, from 1704 states that Clement IX is responsible
for this institution for lost and incorrigible adolescents,
who here are instructed in becoming more subservient (my
loose Latin translation- anyone is welcome to elaborate on it).