Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, January 25, 2019

From Dull to Playful: the Ciaramaglia Renovation near Piazza Mazzini

It doesn't look like any other building in Rome. You might not notice it in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Miami, but it stands out in Delle Vittorie (sometimes referred to as Della Vittoria), a district of the city just north of Prati, and one characterized by the homogeneity of its buildings, most of them constructed between 1900 and 1930.

The building is only a short walk from the elegance (and traffic) of Piazza Mazzini.  Occupying a triangle of land, the official address is via Pietro Borsieri 2/A.  It's surrounded by via Borsieri, via Carlo Poma, and via Angelo Broffierio.

The site was for many years occupied by a 1925 villino built by reknowned architect Enrico del Debbio, who supervised and designed the monumental sports complex once known as Foro Mussolini and now called Foro Italico (further north in Delle Vittorie).

The Del Debbio building, 1925
And in disrepair, decades later.
Del Debbio's villino was torn down in the early 1970s, an era best known in architectural circles for "brutalist" structures built in concrete.  This 1973 building is the building--more or less--than exists today, though it's been throughly renovated, its appearance changed considerably.

Professor of architecture Mose' Ricci described the original building as "one of the few [buildings] in the city expressing a rugged modernity, and perhaps a bit dull.  A brutalist architecture in reinforced concrete and brise soleil [sun baffles], so courageous and yet so out of place for [the area], where the homogeneity of the urban context reigns."

The 1973 building, brise soleil intact.  They would be removed in the renovation.
According to one account, the architecture students of the day "loved it very much for the idea of modernity and internationalism it expressed."

The architect of the 1973 structure was a Roman, Alvaro Ciaramaglia, whose other contributions to the city include a residential building on via Cipro and others at via Crescenzio, 86 and via Cola di Rienzo, at the junction with via Alessandro Farnese.  He's considered unusual among architects because he combined diverse roles, including commissioner, designer and builder.  According to his son, he was also known for an almost "manic care for any kind of detail."

The Borsieri building expressed Ciaramaglia's interest in the architectural avant-garde, including  the English neo-brutalists and international architects Paul Rudolph, Louis Khan, and Kenzo Tange.  More concretely (excuse the pun), the building was actually two separate buildings, connected by two elevated walkways.  Ciaramaglia's building is sometimes compared to the Tree House (Casa Albero) by Giuseppe Perugini, in nearby Fregene.

The Tree House, by Perugini
Originally intended as a shopping mall, Ciaramaglia's complex was never used for that purpose.  For years it was occupied by government agencies, then, probably in the 1990s, fell into disrepair and was mostly empty and abandoned.  After the turn of the century, the building was purchased by the Ghella company, a major international construction firm specializing in tunneling, with the intention of renovating the building and making it the firm's international headquarters.

In 2007, the redesign project was given to the design firm studio Spaini:AA.  The interior was gutted and modernized, but the exterior--a cold, concrete facade, softened somewhat by its rounded corners--was the most serious challenge.  The brise soleil (baffles designed to reduce heat by deflecting sunlight) were removed.  Hi-tech windows were installed to produce an energy-efficient structure.  The first renovations were limited to one of the two buildings.  As of 2018, work was still being done on the 2nd building.

Most important for the current "look" of the building, colored balustrades were used at junctures in the facade, in part to cover places where disparate construction elements came together awkwardly, but also, according to RomaTre professor of architecture Albert Raimond, to "pull away from the
gloomy image [of the building] formed during the years."  Today, the colored balustrades are the building's most distinctive feature, and one unique in Rome.  It remains a symbol of modernism and internationalism--but it's no longer "dull."


Thursday, January 17, 2019


What one sees--in Rome or anywhere else--depends on where one looks. Over the years, we've probably done more down-looking than most travelers. RST regulars may remember the post on manhole covers, or the one on curbs, or the offering on Rome's undulating and ugly asphalt sidewalks, or the one on love poems chalked onto those sidewalks.

But we also look ahead and up; that's where much of the architecture is, and we're fans of buildings of all kinds (even the much-maligned and misunderstood brutalism of the 1970s).  We've written about door handles, spiky things that prevent people from sitting down, the scallop shell motif that appears on so many 19th-century buildings, broken pediments, and the open loggia that's ubiquitous in Rome.

What we haven't written about--hadn't really "seen"--are the "mensole" that are a prominent feature of many buildings.  "Mensole" is the Italian term, and the English word, as we just learned from a reader, is "corbels," with an emphasis on the first syllable. We're talking about the mensole that support--or appear to support--Rome's balconies, roofs, and windows.

Below, a few, of thousands; the last two photos are of Noto, a Sicilian town known for its mensole:

Near the intersection of via Nomentana and viale Regina Margherita
Romanesque Basic 

Late-19th century elegance
Via Paisiello, in Salario.  Not sure what's supporting what here.  
The once-Poligrafico dello Stato (State Printing Office), Piazza Verdi
Coppede'. Focus on gate, unfortunately.
Nice lion. Otherwise leaning into modernism. 
And the Sicilian town of Noto:



Friday, January 11, 2019

Join the Italian sing-along at Fonclea in Prati

Singer Luca Vicari covers Lucio Battisti songs at Fonclea.
It's not an easy task to find music in Rome that's neither contemporary rock (including rap, new age, electronic) nor classical. We've searched for every jazz club in town, and many, if not most, have disappeared over the years (as in Casa del Jazz, La Palma, 28 Divino; although we just discovered Alexanderplatz (in RST's Top 40) which had been closed for over a year and we feared forever, has reopened).

One mainstay of nostalgic rock is Fonclea, a club in Prati, not far from the Vatican. Fonclea started in 1977 as - per their Web site - a "cantina alternativa," an alternative cantina, where young musicians would have a chance to play in public.  Those young musicians have aged and now Fonclea is a 7-days-a-week music spot mainly for cover bands, which seem to be an even bigger phenomenon in Italy than in the U.S. That said, Fonclea is a great place to see and hear those bands.

Choose beer over wine.
The atmosphere is British pub.  As a result, the beer selection is much better than the wine selection.  There is a good-sized menu, and the Italians like to eat there, with their music.  We'd rate the food as fair.

They all knew all the words.
A sampling of Fonclea's schedule, from their Web site.
One night this spring, everyone in the room was singing along to the songs of pop singer Lucio Battisti, who, as Wikipedia says, "is widely recognized for songs that defined the late 1960s and 1970s era of Italian songwriting."  Something of a loner, he died at age 55 in 1998. Some of the songs sounded familiar to us, but we didn't know them well enough to sing along. Even so, it was great fun to be there and hear the music.  

One night another person joined us at our table.  A German tourist, she had wandered into Fonclea from a nearby hotel.  She wanted to know what was going on with the singing audience.  After listening for awhile she declared it was her birthday and the best way she could have spent it, confirming our sense that a night at Fonclea is terrific even if one doesn't know the language.

The cover band for Lucio Battisti's music that we heard makes frequent appearances at Fonclea.  They were founded in 1994 as "Anime Latine" ("Latin souls") by the singer Luca Vicari and drummer Francesco De Chicchis, dedicating themselves only to the music of Battisti.

Info at (if it doesn't work, try it another time). Via Crescenzio 82a. +39 06 689 6302.


We hadn't realized until we looked in our photo files that we had seen the same cover band - from the other side
of the room - in 2015.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Buon Pastore: Armando Brasini's complex Convent

The elegant, complex structure below opened in 1933 as a convent, to house the local congregation of the Suore di Nostra Signora della Carita' del Buon Pastore di Augiere; it is known familiarly as "Buon Pastore."  It still exists, but not quite as it appears in the photo.  The "guglie" (spires, of stone) that graced the building in its first four decades were torn down in the 1970s. There was decay, and safety was surely an issue, because the building was still in use.  But there's more to it than that.

The decade of the 1970s is perhaps best remembered architecturally for its fascination with concrete, and the "brutalist" structures--some of them fluid and remarkable, others stolid and grim--that came with its use. More than that, the architect of Buon Pastore, who died in 1965, was not then much remembered nor much respected, and his reputation, or lack of it, surely had something to do with the decision to demolish, rather than repair, the spires.

Armando Brasini
Today it would be different.  Armando Brasini has an admiring following these days, and those who care about Rome's architectural heritage are increasingly aware of his contribution to the city, which include the entrance to the Rome zoo (1909-1910), Villa Flaminia (his own residence, 1920-1925), Ponte Flaminio (begun 1933), a significant church at Piazza Euclide, and the magnificent Palazzo INAIL (1926-1933), on which he collaborated with Bruno Zevi. (He also designed a church in Buffalo which had to be torn down because of deterioration; some say he didn't understand Buffalo winters.)
Ponte Flaminio, photo from 1960s
Decades after his death, he has been justly compared to the more famous Gino Coppede', who like Brasini experimented with an eclecticism that anticipates postmodernism: the delicious combining of historical styles from the Renaissance, the baroque period, and the medieval era.  Coppede' deserves the lavish praise bestowed on the neighborhood/community in Salario that bears his name.  But no single building of his approaches the breathtaking monumentality of Brasini's Buon Pastore.

The complex, monumental, front entrance. What style is it?
Work began on Buon Pastore in 1929, and the building was opened in 1933, but construction was not completed until 1943, in the midst of the war.  In its early years the building functioned simply as a convent with chapel.  The world war brought change.  Although the nuns remained, the building also served as a military hospital--1500 beds--through the war years, first for the Italian wounded, then for the occupying Germans, then, briefly in 1944, for the American forces.

Interior courtyard, Sant'Ivo-like cupola
Courtyard detail
Courtyard, from above, looking toward front
Dome closeup
Walkway detail

In August 1945 Buon Pastore became a home for the "re-education" of adolescent girls, including 20 from Laurentina, an area destroyed during the war, and 10 from a building on via della Lungara (now the Casa Internazionale delle Donne).  The left side of the building remained a hospital (it closed in 1964), and the right side was given over to rooms for the nuns and the girls.  By 1953 there were 60 girls receiving assistance and treatment at the facility.  In 1955, Buon Pastore housed a scuola media (middle school) for girls in the quartiere, known as "Roma Gianicolense."  Since 1969 it has housed a variety of scholastic institutes.

While shockingly diverse stylistically, what appears to be a rambling, oddly shaped building is also perfectly symmetrical.  The "arms" of the building house separate (and, of course, symmetrical) cortili (courtyards), intended to bring in air and light.  The central courtyard is especially impressive.  According to one authority, the cupola replicates the cupola of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Borromini's 17th-century baroque masterpiece.  On special occasions, it is still possible to climb out and around on the roofs of the building.

Our tour at dome level.  Great place for a cocktail party.
Brasini's powerful and yet myterious building has attracted the film industry; at least a dozen films have been shot there, including Una Vita Violenta (1962), based on the novel by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Il Cartaio (2004), directed by the Italian master of horror, Dario Argenta; and Il Papa' di Giovanna (2008), a Pupi Avati production.

Buon Pastore is at via Bravetta 383, about 3 miles SSW of the Vatican.  The interior is accessible only on special occasions, such as the spring program Open House Roma, in which we participated.  The exterior, worthy in its own right, can be circled any time.  The photos below are from a 2016 visit.


Inevitable selfie, from highest accessible point, above the entrance