Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, February 25, 2019

"Children of Rome": From Trajan's Column to Robert E. Lee

RST is pleased to welcome guest blogger Dr. Daniel D. Reiff.  Dr. Reiff is SUNY Fredonia Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus (and for many years a colleague of RST's William Graebner), where he taught architectural history.  With co-author Janina K. Darling (a classicist), he recently published a 5-volume compilation and history of column monuments: Column Monuments: Commemorative and Memorial Column Monuments from Ancient Times to the 21st Century:A History and Guide (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2018).  The text includes 286 major monuments in 36 countries, including 98 sites in the United States.  As Dr. Reiff's post reveals, all the later columns owe a debt to the columns of ancient Rome; hence the title "Children of Rome."  

Trajan's Column, Rome, c. 113, commemorating the
military campaign against Dacia (now Romania)
The commemorative columns of ancient Rome--notably those of Trajan (c. 113) [above] and Marcus Aurelius (c. 193) [below]--had a profound impact on later memorials. Trajan's column contains a helical, or spiral, staircase of 185 steps, illuminated by 40 small windows.  By the 12th century the column had become a powerful symbol of the city of Rome.  So great was its importance that in 1162 the Senate passed a law that condemned to death any person who would damage the column, declaring that it must stand intact as the talisman of Rome "as long as the Earth endures."

The Marcus Aurelius column, Rome,
in Piazza Colonna, c. 193.
Pompey's Pillar, Alexandria, 302.

Other examples from the Roman world, that confirm the importance of this sort of monument, also survived the centuries: Constantine's column in Istanbul (330), and "Pompey's Pillar: in Alexandria (302) [right] were always well known.

The Venetian columns, 1100s.

Simple, clear, and of urban importance, such monuments (after a Medieval hiatus when they were considered icons of paganism) reappear in the early middle ages, now sanctified by images of saints--not pagan emperors--at their summits.  Those in Venice [left], one bearing the lion symbol of St. Mark (1126), and the other an image of St. Theodore (1172), are among the most famous.

Elaborate columns supporting images of the Holy Trinity (17th-18th centuries) or the Virgin Mary (17th-19th centuries)--usually offering thanks for their intercession in stopping plagues--were ubiquitous in Europe; a splendid one in Olomouc (Czech Republic) [below], with a column in High Baroque style, was completed in 1723.

In the Baroque style, Czech Republic, 1723.
But the first column monument with a mortal at its summit finally appeared less than a century before: it was erected in Warsaw in 1644, to honor Emperor Sigismund III [below].  From that date onward, mortals, and symbolic figures, found their way to the apex of hundreds of such columns, throughout Europe, and beyond.

Warsaw, 1644.  The first column to have a person on top.  
In America, such memorial columns begin with Charles Bulfinch's Bunker Hill Monument of 1790.  Thereafter, such monuments, large and small, became a popular way to commemorate important events or persons.  Some had statues of the dedicatee, as that to George Washington in Baltimore (1829)--one of the tallest at 193 feet [below].

George Washington on top of this large column in
Baltimore, MD, 1829.  

Phoenixville, PA, (c. 1890) with spiral bands
perhaps derived from Trajan's column

In the post-Civil War era the columns often displayed a figure of "Liberty," "Columbia," an American eagle, or most often, a statue of the "common soldier."  Such soldier figures provided the viewer, often grieving for a lost husband, brother, or son, greater empathy.  Such monuments can be found all across America, both North and South, for the half-century following the war.

Several representative ones can be illustrated.  The elegant version from Ogdensburg, NY (1905) follows the model of the "basis type" closely.  An elaborate version of this model, beautifully carved in white marble, is in Phoenixville, PA: it even emulates the spiral band motif of the Column of Trajan! [Right]

A post-Civil War column, Buffalo,
Lafayette Square, 1878.

Somewhat more elaborate versions included statues of soldiers
representing the branches of the military, as seen in Boston (1877) and Buffalo (1878) [left] around the base.

Separate pedestals, Lancaster, PA, 1874.

Some examples, such as that in Lancaster, PA (1874) [left], place these figures on separate pedestals, for ease of viewing.  This monument uses a pillar--a "square column"--as its support.

But having an actual historic person on the summit was very rare: that in New Orleans (1884), capped by Robert E. Lee, is an example [below].  (The bronze figure has recently been removed.)

Commemorating Robert E. Lee, New Orleans, 1884.
The Lee figure was removed to an unknown location in 2017.
The column stands in Lee Circle.
The "basis type" continued in use for World War I monuments too.  One of the most beautiful is in Washington, D.C. (1924); another, in Lockport, NY, from 1930 [below], uses a pillar of somewhat "moderne" style to support a figure of "militant Liberty," based on Roman sculptures of seated Jupiter!
Lockport, NY column, in the "moderne" style.
But column monuments also celebrate a host of other people, and events, in America--a brief sampling:

Henry Clay, Pottsville, PA (1852)
Christopher Columbus, NYC (1892)

                                                John C. Calhoun, Charleston, SC (1896) [below]

John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery politician, atop a Charleston, S.C. column, 1894. The column
was dedicated in the midst of the Jim Crow era--one of the reasons a later generation
would call for the removal of the figures (see Robert E. Lee column above).
Elijah Paris Lovejoy (19th c. martyred publisher), Alton, IL (1897)
James Rumsey (18th-century inventor of a steamboat), Shepherdstown, WV (1915)
Henry Hudson, Bronx, NY (1938)
Doctors Column (historic doctors, ancient times to 20th century), Philadelphia, PA (1976)

End of Revolutionary War, Yorktown, VA (1884)
Commodore Dewey, San Francisco, CA (1903)
Revolutionary War "Prison Ship Martyrs," Brooklyn, NY (1909)
Revolutionary War Generals, Columbia, SC (1913)
1812 Battle of Lake Erie, South Bass Island, OH (1914)

                                             Columbia River Column, Astoria, OR (1926) [below]

                                            Cancer Survivors Column, Cleveland, OH (1989) [below]

The ultimate source for all these varied designs is, essentially, the column monuments of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  In these "children of Rome," the richness and variety of architectural designs, and sculptures by many leading (and some un-sung) artists and architects, make this a history of "hidden masterpieces"--little studied, until now.

Dr. Daniel D. Reiff

Monday, February 18, 2019

Monte Mario Alto: the Suburb that's Nowhere near Monte Mario

In our latest effort to escape the powerful gravitational pull of central Rome, RST got on the scooter and headed out the heavily trafficked and not-too-safe via Trionfale to an area known as Monte Mario Alto, which we had never heard of and on our map had some curvy streets that we thought might yield this or that pleasure.

The first thing you need to know is that Monte Mario Alto is nowhere near Monte Mario, the 500-foot hill near the Olympic Stadium.  The second is that you don't have to drive (let alone risk your life on a scooter) to get there; there's a train station in the center of "town," and it's clearly labeled Monte Mario (not Monte Mario Alto). More information on using the train to get to Monte Mario Alto is at the end of this post.

Anyway, we parked the scooter and headed slightly uphill on via Vicenzo Troya, arriving a few minutes later in what appeared to be the town square: Piazza Nostra Signora di Guadalupe.  There are a couple of businesses in the square, including a comfortable coffee bar, run (and owned) for many years by a Filipino woman, with whom we had a nice chat about, among other topics, being a decades-long immigrant and how long it had been since she'd seen her adult children in the Philippines. We were the only ones at the bar, but there were the usual several men at tables outside, smoking and chatting in the wide piazza.

Across the way there's a newspaper stand amply graffitied, and a sign in the red and yellow of the Roma soccer team: La Curva Sud non si Divide!  PGU Roma.  Curva Sud  (literally "south curve") refers to the section of the Olympic Stadium (in US football, it would be the end zone) where the Roma fans sit, and the sign appears to suggest that the curva (the fans there) are united.  We have no idea what PGU stands for.

At one end of the piazza is the church for which the piazza is named: Parrochia Nostra Signora di Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe parish), built in the late 1920s and early 1930s, originally to serve Mexican nuns.  The parish priest was outside talking with his flock.  We admired the heavy metal doors of the church (below).

Gorgeous doors that feature the agricultural themes and stylized Art Deco design,
popular under Fascism. We couldn't figure out the artist, but the work
resembles that of Duilio Cambellotti (described in a future post). These types of
decorated doors are on many churches in Rome and hearken back to
 Ghiberti's doors on the Baptistry in Florence.
Turning a bit north and then left (vague, yes, but this isn't an itinerary, really), we came upon Monte Mario Alto's public marketplace, on Piazza Pietro Thouar.  We were a bit late to observe it at its mid-morning best, but even so, it seemed clear that the market had seen better days--perhaps the victim of several supermarkets in the area.

But the side of the market had some interesting "graffiti"--what Bill calls "found art."

You'll find this piece on Bill's website:

Back to via Trionfale, we noticed this building, a once-handsome structure from the late 1950s, now housing a technical training facility.

The sign reads "60 years of quality technical instruction." The degraded state of the building and the weeds don't exactly
underscore the slogan.
We crossed via Trionfale and made our way around the back of the station.  We passed this industrial building.  Note the new-ish bike path.  This is no podunk.

We soon came to the rear of another church, Parrocchia S. Luigi Maria di Monfort, built in the 1960s, a nice contrast to the 1930s church and an indication of the expansion of Rome's population into the suburbs. The graffiti on the walls between the church and the bike path reflect the left- and right-wing sloganeering around Rome.

"Attention: No racism."

Not everyone in Monte Mario Alto is on board with liberal progressivism.  This graffiti translates: "With the Syria of Assad, forward to Victory."  
And the following poster, with its slogan, "Tomorrow Belongs to Us," is put up by a right-wing organization. Chillingly prescient of the Salvini government.
"Tomorrow Belongs to Us!"
Around the front of the church, the courtyard was open--but the church closed.  However, our interest in the structure was noticed by a cleric who let us in and walked away, telling us to close the door behind us!  (Life in a small town?)  We enjoyed the interior with its 1960s art reflected in the liturgical furnishings and stained glass window behind the altar.

Always interesting to us is the addition of "homey" touches to modernist features in contemporary churches.
Satiated with church stuff, we followed via di Torrevecchia westward, into the more upscale side of Monte Mario Alto.  We imagine that middle-class people live here and commute to Rome.

We found a café with a sidewalk tent, and had a forgettable but surely tasty lunch, complete with our regular Coca Lite.  There are several other cafés and restaurants on this more modern side of town, the 'sides' being fairly clearly demarcated by via Trionfale..

Back to the scooter, and home to Salario--and we're still alive!


Re: arriving/departing by train. Regular trains leave from the Roma Ostiense station and the trip takes less than 30 minutes. Here's a map showing the station in the community:

Monday, February 11, 2019

A (Rare) Children's Museum in Rome

The front of the Explora children's museum, which is built in a former tram barn
on via Flaminia in the Flaminio district of Rome, just beyond Piazza del Popolo
(Flaminio Metro stop). Inside are interesting historical photos of the trams and tram barn.
Rome is notoriously difficult for families with young children.  Look in any book that purports to suggest what to do with kids, and you will find very little for children under 6.

This photo was taken in a rare moment when no trams or
cars were zipping within inches of the baby.
It's also just plain difficult to get around Rome with young children. As the photos (left and below) show, the spot to wait for a tram has no protection from the cars and trams whizzing by. And the #19 tram that goes to the sole children's museum wasn't large enough to get a stroller in it without 2 strong people lifting the stroller over some bars in the doorway.
The tram, full of metal bars.

Any park, the zoo, a swing set - yes, those are all reasonable options.
But if you feel you've exhausted those, there is one children's hands-on 'museum' of sorts, "Explora" - which calls itself "The Museum of Children of Rome."

Delight in the cloths that came out of the wind
For our young grandchildren - ages 1-1/2 and 4 - it was an ideal activity for a few hours.

We were lucky, because our arrival at the museum was timed well with the very rigid time frame imposed by this private museum (more on that later).

Steering the 'train.'

The advantage of the museum is that the 'exhibits' are designed for child interaction. One of our granddaughters spent lots of time "guiding" the train that runs along the top of the museum walls. The younger one loved the "fruits and vegetables" that could be planted, picked, and shopped for. The rigid time frames allow the museum workers to clean up and set up the exhibits after each group goes through, and they also keep control over the numbers of children trying to use the hands-on exhibits.

Playing with the 'carrots.'

Coffee bar and entrance.
The museum has a perfectly adequate coffee bar in the front waiting area, and a nice dining area that is mostly outside (one reviewer complained about the plastic sheeting - what is that about? fairly standard where one gets both inside and outside environments together). The prices aren't cheap, but they also aren't exorbitant, and the food is classically Italian good.
Restaurant - and the plastic sheets are a problem??

                                                                      With the picnic area, you can bring your own lunch.  The outside area also has a zip line, that is free for anyone to use. In the U.S. this probably would be viewed as too dangerous to leave to anyone walking up to it.  Here, it was fun. Every child entering the museum must be accompanied by an adult; so the theory must be that the adults will supervise their children.
Unsupervised zip line.

Nicely landscaped gardens behind the museum.
Now to the rigidity. You can enter the museum only at 4 times during the day (3 in August): 10, 12, 3 and 5.  And your time in the museum is limited to an hour and 45 minutes.  You cannot leave and come back in. Every child must be accompanied by an adult, and vice versa (It doesn't have to be literally 1:1; there were 3 of us adults and 2 children). And everyone, except children under 12 months, has to pay: as of 2019, 8 Euros for adults and children 3 and over; 5 Euros for children 12-36 months. The museum oddly is private. Decent Website, and you can purchase tickets here:

Via Flaminia, 80/86 - 00196  Roma  info@mdbr.itTel. +39 06 3613776 

Dianne (aka Grandma)
This stock photo shows the museum can have too many children and lines.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Cy Twombly in Rome

Cy Twombly, Ferragosto IV, 1961.
The canvases of Cy Twombly now sell in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, but that doesn't make them easy to understand, appreciate, enjoy, or like.  The content of these canvases can seem like scribbling, or markings, or doodles, or tracings, lacking in any obvious meaning.  Twombly himself hasn't been of much help in deciphering or explaining his work; he gave few interviews and was a deeply private person, committed to his art but not to helping the art world--or ordinary folks--understand it.

Why should we care about Twombly at Rome the Second Time?  Because, as we learned from Joshua Rivkin's important new book, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (2018), Twombly spent significant periods of time living and working in Italy--in Gaeta, Bassano, Grottaferrata, Sperlonga and, especially, Rome, which he once described as "home." (We first wrote about Twombly and Rome in 2009 in a post appropriately titled, "Twombly and us in Rome.")

Twombly was about as far from Italian as one can get.  He was born in Lexington, Virginia, deep in the Shenandoah Valley, on April 25, 1928.  He valued the area, including the nearby Civil War battlefields, and he maintained a studio in Lexington.  He studied painting as a teenager, learned more at the Art Students League in New York City and at avant-garde Black Mountain College, where he and Robert Rauschenberg were fellow students, friends, and lovers.

Cy, photographed by Rauschenberg, 1952
"When I grow up I'll go to Rome," Twombly is said to have remarked, and in September, 1952 he made it there, with Rauschenberg, who photographed him beside the enormous hand of Constantine in the Capitoline museum and on the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

They stayed for 6 weeks, living in a pensione,  Twombly wrote, "overlooking the Piazza di Spagna a block from via Margutta where most of the important contemporary painters and sculptors have studios." Rome was attractive for many reasons, not least, as novelist John Cheever wrote, because "no one cares" about two men living together.

For two days he walked the city, then bought materials and set to work, while continuing to experience Rome's pleasures.  Consistent with his canvases, Twombly became something of a scavenger (or a collector if you will), haunting Rome's flea markets, including one "in a little Piazza del something or other" (Rauschenberg's words), purchasing marble busts and Etruscan relics brought in from the countryside.  "He just went crazy," an irritated Rauschenberg added.

Sosos, "Unswept Room"  
At the Vatican museum, Twombly discovered the Sosos mosaic (above) known as the "unswept room," which included a pea pod on the floor.  In 1957, Twombly wrote, "One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is," like the pea pod, "contaminated."   "The discarded," Rivkin adds, "is picked up and turned into art in the mosaic, as in Twombly's work....Twombly gathers debris into his work: the debris of history, the debris of quoted poems, the debris of the body, the debris of the mind."

The art world did not at first respond positively.  Twombly returned to the US in the spring of 1953, working in New York toward a 1953 show that would include his Rome production and other paintings done in and about Morocco.  One critic wrote that the paintings "resemble graffiti, or the drawings of pre-kindergarten children."  Another wrote, "to read an intelligible or communicable meaning into them is impossible.  The best thing to be said is that they apparently render the artists's sensations convincingly."

Cy in 1959

In February 1957 Twombly returned to Rome and environs, this time at the urging of Italian painter Toti Scialoja.  For two months he lived and painted in the Colli Albani town of Grottaferrata, staying with a woman friend who facilitated introductions to Rome's art world, then moving into the city proper.

There, in a studio across from the Coliseum, he painted Blue Room, Sunset, Olympia and Arcadia--"tender open canvases," as he described them.  He met Willem de Kooning and the Italian artist Afro in Rome, but found the gallery scene "nil" and added, "there is little chance of my selling here."

Twombly, "Olympia"
So it was back to New York City, but only briefly.  In early 1959 he married Luisa Tatiana Franchetti in a ceremony in New York, then returned to Rome for a 2nd ceremony.  He would remain there for most of the next decade.  Not yet a real success, he had a show at Galleria La Tartaruga--a meeting place for artists in Rome.

His wife Tatiana came from money, and she used it to purchase a 17th-century Rome palazzo, where the couple lived and Twombly did some of his work (he also rented a studio on Piazza del Biscione). 

Cy at the via di Monserrato palazzo, 1966
The palazzo was near Piazza Farnese on via Monserrato.  Seeking privacy and as much silence as the location would afford (there was a restaurant below), he covered the windows with upholstery.  Working in the heat of August at the Biscione studio, he did a series of 5 Ferragosto paintings ("Ferragosto" is Italy's mid-August holiday), "cartoonish and serious," Rivkin writes, "anxious and wild, layered and dirty, a sequence that mirrors his state of mind and his home of Rome."

From the "Ferragosto" sequence
Returning from a brief sojourn in New York, Twombly returned to Rome in 1966, accomplishing what Rivkin describes as "the best paintings of his life"--the blackboard paintings--characterized by the "illusion of legibility," derived, perhaps, from hour-long walks in the city.  The paintings, write Rivkin, "offer an unending trace that speaks in an illegible tongue," the "after life of [Jackson] Pollock, the tradition which Twombly be in conversation with."

Right, from the "Blackboard" sequence, here at MOMA
Twombly was in and out of Rome for the next 40 years, spending time in Bolsena and Gaeta as well.
He disliked what Rome had become.  "It's wall to wall," he wrote of the Rome of 2000.  "If I went to Rome now, I wouldn't spend two days.  But when I went I was in paradise."  Still, anticipating death he returned to Rome, visiting the graves of Shelley and Keats in the Protestant cemetery.  He died in a Rome hospital on July 5, 2011.

Rivkin's passionate book is, among other attributes, a remarkable effort to penetrate Twombly's consciousness (or unconsciousness), including his relationship to Rome.  In search of Twombly, Rivkin interviewed everyone he could find that knew the artist.  More than that, he spent months walking Rome's streets, trying to see what Twombly had seen, to feel what he had felt.
"So many Romes," writes Rivkin.  "And yet, there is really just one.  The Rome that exists in the mind, neither city nor site nor space, but something wild and uncontainable."  In Rome, Rivkin continues, "material is everywhere.  In the display cases of museums, on the graffiti-marked walls of apartment buildings, in the hurry of train stations where the cars arrive off-schedule, in lovers arguing at intersections....High and low.  Past and present."

A typical messy Rome wall--this one, actually, in nearby Frascati in the Colli Albani.
Photo ©  by William Graebner.
That's the second reference in this post linking Twombly's work to graffiti--and there's more.  "Twombly," writes Rivkin, "erases away the surface by building it up, a process of accretion and layering and crossing out, pencil or paint, not unlike how a city wall accumulates--like graffiti over posters over brick, over and over, or for that matter, a life."

Could be Twombly, but it's just a messy Rome wall, layered with graffiti (2018).
Photo ©  by William Graebner.
Growing up, Twombly had scribbled graffiti-like messages on the basement walls of his home, and Rivkin, walking the streets of contemporary Rome, speculates that Twombly must have been inspired by what he found on the surfaces of the city.  "The endless graffiti," Rivkin writes, "cocks, love notes, political slogans--on the sidewalks and walls, on bridges and iron grates shuttering the cafes at night, as ever-present now as when he first walked those streets."

Layering, Rome 2018. Photo ©  by William Graebner.
We are skeptical that the Rome walls of today closely resemble those of the early and mid-1960s, when Twombly was working there; as an important, dominant form of urban conversation, graffiti emerges only in the 1970s, and a look at photo books of Rome in the 1950s and 1960s does not reveal much graffiti.  Nonetheless, Rome has never been lacking in the sort of visual and historical complexities and layerings that intrigued Twombly.  Graffiti aside, Rivkin's analysis cannot be far from the truth.

There is a plaque to Twombly, mounted on a marble pillar near the entrance to Chiesa Nuova, where his funeral was held.  Another Rome site of note is the Gagosian Gallery.  Twombly's "III Notes from Salalah" inaugurated the gallery in 2007.

The 2007 Gagosian exhibition of Twombly paintings.  

More "found art" photos by William Graebner at