Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Olivetti: Masters of Italian Design (RIP)

We owned two of these beauties - the Praxis 48, Olivetti's first electric typewriter
 We did not know when we bought them (it came out in 1964) that it was designed
by Ettore Sottsass.
The Olivetti typewriter was one of the best examples of Italians' love of, and attention to design.  That's why it was easy for us to put aside our disdain for company-sponsored exhibits and enjoy last year's free show of Olivetti designs at the Galleria Nazionale del'Arte Moderna ("Gnam," or "Belle Arti," as we like to refer to it), the state's modern (not contemporary) art gallery in Rome. If we can't keep ourselves out of a Barbie show, we can't be above an Olivetti one, it would appear. But for my rant on sponsored shows, see the end of this post.

The exhibit highlighted design over company and family history.  As its introduction stated: "The exhibition Looking forward does not cover the epic of an enlightened family of Italian industry, but those moments of creative flash of a company that will forever mark the history of design, graphics, technological innovation, communication."  "Looking forward" is somewhat ironic in that Olivetti barely continues to exist, down from 50,000 workers to about 3,000 and no longer a separate company, but part of Telecom Italia. An excellent article in Reuters on what happened to Olivetti - and the Italian economy generally - is here (and see our review of Edoardo Nesi's "Story of My People"). Of course, when these designs were created, they were looking forward, much more so than the designs of other companies. 

The genius of Olivetti was hiring the world's best artistic designers, such as Ettore Sottsass, as well as superb heads of Art Design, probably a managerial position most office machine companies didn't have.

They also hired Henri Cartier-Bresson to document their factories and the factory workers.

 From the factory in Pozzuoli near Naples in 1961, by Cartier-Bresson.
This factory, built in the 1950s with a view of the sea, was architecturally worthy.
The photo looks like it could come out of a De Sica film.
Most impressive in the exhibit were the typewriters and the publicity for them, best expressed in the photos below.

Bright red, and appropriately named "Valentine," this was Olivetti's portable
typewriter, first on the market in 1969, designed by Sottsass with Perry King.
A 1970 advertising poster for the Valentine,
by Milton Glaser. Maybe someone can explain
 the dog and the Roman sandals (see below!)

Another Valentine ad, this one dated 1969 (note the Pop Art
colors), by Adrianus Van der Elst.

Sottsass even designed an office chair as part of a "landscape" of desk and accouterments for the typist, Sistema 45. For an interesting description of the philosophy behind Sistema 45, see here.

So what do I have against sponsored exhibits?  I think they take the curatorial process and turn it over to capitalistic input.  Shows are often sponsored when the sponsors - or donors - want to increase the value of their holdings, be they dresses, jewelry, art work or, in Sottsass's case - in an exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Art - his furniture designs. That exhibit was sponsored by Max Palevsky, who I believe owned many of the objects. (He also supposedly promised his collection of 250 art works to LACMA but then apparently sold it.)  So generally, I think public art museums, not capitalism, should call the shots. My philosophy here is of a piece with my qualms about private art galleries, about which I've ranted in the past.

The exhibit included the following 1959 statement from Adriano Olivetti, acknowledged as the family member who made the company into a great enterprise: 

"Our Community must be concrete, visible, tangible, a community that is neither too big, nor too small, territorially defined, endowed with vast powers, that gives to all the activities that indispensable coordination, that efficiency, that respect for the human personality, culture and art that man's civilization has achieved in its best places."  

Okay, fine, but in a show sponsored by the Olivetti company and the Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti (no doubt some tax breaks there), one is only going to get this level of b.s., no context, no push-back, not even some designs that didn't work, or, better yet, some machines that looked beautiful but didn't work.

Still, it was a good show, and I'm not about to ignore it.We learned something. We looked at wonderful designs. We got to see our beloved Praxis 48 (it's at MOMA too as I recall).


postscript: Our friend Bo Lundin informs us that the Olivetti dog is from "A Satyr mourning a Nymph," by Piero di Cosimo, 1496, National Gallery, London. Here it is:

Thanks, Bo!

Then Bo sent us this parody of the di Cosimo painting:

Thanks again, Bo!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Few Adventures in Renting an Apartment in Rome

No, the authors of Rome the Second Time don't own a place in Rome.  Rome apartments are expensive--on the order of New York City--so we rent.  Indeed, our book and this blog owe a lot to our experiences renting more than 20 apartments in different areas and neighborhoods of the city. 

Until a few years ago we rented on Craigslist, and for the most part that worked out fine.  But not always.  Perhaps a decade ago we landed in Rome on the Friday before Easter, took a taxi with our 8 pieces of luggage to an apartment we had rented behind the Vatican, and within an hour had been thrown out of the apartment, basically for asking for a receipt for the E1500 we had just handed to the 80-year-old owner (we weren't "cultured," she said).  That's a story worth telling in detail, some other time. 

Who is that woman?
Another rental, in San Paolo, worked out great in most respects.  It was 5 minutes from Metro B; 2-minutes from a vibrant shopping era, yet off the beaten path; came with a gated and covered communal garage for our scooter; and had a sweet living room/dining/kitchen space--that "open floor plan" that's so "desirable" these days--in a "modernist" mode (see pic at left).  Because parts of it were semi-"interrato" (below ground level--the building was on a hillside), our internet connection wasn't the best, and we had to hang out the window to use the phone.  

Sky drain

The apartment had one other characteristic that's common in Roman rentals: not everything functioned perfectly.  It's a cliche, but here it is: Italians love design but don't seem to value engineering as much.  So things look good but sometimes don't work.

Our San Paolo apartment had two dysfunctional systems.  The door to the sky drain, which allows the person washing dishes to place rinsed dishes directly above the sink for natural draining--actually Swedish technology, by Ikea--was sprung and useless.  We solved this problem by holding the door open with a pasta roller (photo, right). 

Another pole to the rescue

The second problem was the small washing machine in the bathroom, whose "on" button would not stay depressed by itself.  Here, too, a pole came to the rescue, this one wedged between the "on" button and the nearby sink, spanning the bidet. 

So be prepared to be creative.  And pack two poles. 


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Duilio Cambellotti - an Arts & Crafts Master in Rome

From the Latina series, mythologizing the "heroic" peasant.
Duilio Cambellotti is an Italian artist who worked in, and excelled in, many mediums. He sculpted in bronze and wood, made bowls and furniture, worked in leaded glass, painted buildings, designed stamps and stage sets, painted frescoes, designed tiles for a high school auditorium. It's more a question of what he didn't do. He's both everywhere around Rome and yet little recognized.

Born in 1876, Cambellotti lived to be 83--through two World Wars and Fascism. His art was born in the crucible of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, what in Italy is called "Stile Liberty," and in some ways his art - while spanning many media and showing great creativity among them, in my opinion did not change much. The English Wikipedia entry on him is surprisingly thorough, though short on any explanation of his work under Mussolini.

In 1937, Cambellotti created an ad for a Fiat car named "La Nuova Balilla." The ad says it's the "Balilla of the Empire."  "Balilla" is the name of the youth groups that engendered Fascism in Italy's youth (Bill reviewed a book about them).

A stamp Cambellotti designed
for the Mussolini government,
with Art Deco ("Stile Liberty")
style fasce.

Cambellotti sculpture of peasant with
plow. The plow was another icon he used
in different media.

We first encountered Cambellotti's work in the town of Latina, in the Agro Pontino southwest of Rome, the marshes Mussolini's government reclaimed and in which it built new cities, of which Latina is one. There Cambellotti painted frescoes in public buildings, depicting a nostalgic view of agriculture and the land (see top photo above), reflecting his ties to the British William Morris and the widespread Arts & Crafts movement. There is a small museum of his work in Latina.
The plow used on a bowl.
Poster for 1911 "Show of the Agro Romano" in Rome,
featuring the plow.

Cambellotti's iconic (for him) kneeling bull, again demonstrating his mythologizing
of agricultural life, which was basically a horrific existence in the Agro Pontino,
especially with the malarial swamps there. The kneeling bull appears in several
 of his sculptures, bowls and paintings.
We've also seen Cambellotti's sculptures in a villa, a museum and a high school in Rome, ran across one of his painted buildings in Prati, and enjoyed an expansive exhibit of his works last year at Villa Torlonia: "Duilio Cambellotti: Myth, dream and reality."

Cambellotti is perhaps most often seen in Rome in the Casina delle Civette (Casina of the Owls) in Villa Torlonia, where the Torlonia family commissioned several Stile Liberty artists in the second decade of the 20th century to design the faux-Swiss cottage and adorn it with stained glass.  Cambellotti did the owls.

Villino Vitale, 1909
In the Prati area of Rome one can simply look up and see Cambellotti's birds on the 1909 Villino Vitale, via dei Gracchi, 291. The doves are frescoed and the swallows on the tower are in maiolica (tiles).
The doves frescoed on Villino Vitale

The swallows in maiolica on Villino Vitale

The "aula magna" of Liceo Galileo Galilei decorated with Cambellotti's tiles.
Unfortunately, the projection screen covers some of the work.
One of the more astounding of Cambellotti's works is the tile decoration on the walls of the auditorium in a Rome technical institute and science high school, Liceo Galileo Galilei, a building designed in 1920-22 by Marcello Piacentini, one of Fascism's famous architects about whom we've written previously. (Via Conte Verde 52, near the Manzoni Metro stop and not too far from Palazzo Merulana.) The building went through several transformations, and therefore I'm not sure of the date of Cambellotti's work, but certainly after 1920. We will write about the school's interesting history in another post. One can get inside only on special occasions, in our case for an Open House Roma tour. In the tile work, one can see the themes of mythology, industry, and, in this case, sea-faring, again a valorization of the
Poster for a 1948 production of "Agamemnon"
at the Greek Theater in Syracuse.

Finally (for this post), here are a few examples of Cambellotti's work for the theater.  We hadn't known, until we saw the Villa Torlonia show last year, that Cambellotti designed sets, costumes, and posters for the theater. Many of these were for the Greek Theater in Syracuse (Siracusa), Sicily.

Stage set for a 1933 production of a Sophocles play.
Program insert.

Prolific though he was, we find Cambellotti's name almost unknown in Rome today. The temporary exhibitions that crop up now and then, and the placement of his work in 20th-century art galleries and museums, such as the too-little visited Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale and Palazzo Merulano, hopefully will change that.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Touring RAI Headquarters. Or, at least we saw the horse.

The semi-artsy photo above was taken from the parkway between the two halves of viale Mazzini (at #14), across from the headquarters of RAI, Italy's largest television station, in the della Vittoria area of Rome (adjacent to Prati).  We had made hard-to-get reservations for a tour of the building through Open House Roma, the two-day, May event that promises access to buildings that are normally off limits to those without badges and the like.  We imagined observing busy newsrooms, reporters at their desks, local celebrities preparing for the news hour--or something like that. The tour is beginning to form.

Sometimes you get what you want, and sometimes you don't.

Being part of the tour did get us inside the gate and the fence, and in close proximity to the "Cavallo Morente" (the dying horse). The horse is visible from the sidewalk and can be photographed through the fence, but we appreciated the closer view of what has become the symbol of the company--an odd one, we think, given that the horse is dying.

With our tour group in front of the building.
It's a well known sculpture, designed by Francesco Messina (1900-1995), who was an active sculptor during the Fascist era and managed to survive that experience without undue damage to his reputation.

In 1941--two years before the fall of Fascism--Messina was at work on four horses, of about the same size as the Cavallo Morente, that were to be installed atop the Palazzo dei Congressi, in EUR.  The war intervened, and the horses were never completed and, of course, never installed.

Thirty years later a wealthy man in the town of Formello (a town we've enjoyed hiking from not far out of Rome) acquired the molds for the 4 horses, had them cast in bronze and placed in Villa Leoni, where they are not--to my knowledge--visible to the public.  Indeed, the photo I found of the horses on the internet was not copyable by ordinary means.  I took the photo below with a camera, from a  computer screen.  (By the way, we didn't learn any of the above from the tour.)

These could be seen at Villa Leoni in Formello--if you knew the owner. 
The RAI horse motif also appears in a "Flying Horse" designed by Mario Ceroli, which we saw on our visit to the suburb of Saxa Rubra, where RAI has more operations.

A couple of shots of the building's exterior:

Angled steel columns, typical of the period.
An elegant corner staircase (we assume). Italian staircases are invariably well done.
Our group was allowed to proceed through the glass doors and into an interior courtyard decorated with a garden and fountain in, as I recall, vaguely Asian style.  I say "I recall" because we were not allowed to photograph the courtyard.  With two exceptions.  We were permitted to photograph a model of the building in a plastic case, which at least offered some sense of the structure's configuration, which is in the shape of an "R" for RAI (or even "R+A+I," depending on how you look at it):

And we were allowed to photograph a composite photograph of the building under construction.

It goes without saying that we never got beyond the courtyard.  No newsrooms.  No celebs.  No upstairs.  As restricted as we were, there were prohibitions: no caschi (motorcycle helmets), no bagagli (baggage, suitcases).

RAI is a state-owned enterprise, part of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.  It was founded in 1924, and until 1954 was known as Radio Audizione Italiane, whose initials form RAI.  Since 2000 it has been known simply as RAI (pronounced like "rye").  Designed by Francesco Berarducci (we have written about his buildings before, including a nifty apartment house in the Brutalist mode) and Alessandro Fioroni and completed in 1965, it was the first building in Rome constructed entirely of steel.  It's considered a fine example of 1960s architecture, or so we were told.  We didn't see enough to be sure.  At least we saw the horse.


"Tour" over