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

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Fosso di Cecchignola: An unexpected Adventure in Rome's Countryside

RST's 791st post.  Use the search engine at upper left to explore Rome and environs.

Beautiful downtown Cecchignola

On a Saturday in mid-May, we took advantage of the unusual sunshine and headed out on the Honda Forza 300 for a day exploring wall art at Laurentina 38 and Corviale.  We never got to either one, but we made a day of it.  We landed in a piazza/park at Cecchignola, where we found a decent piece of wall art by Atoche, and another of Bugs Bunny, apparently by Diamond (both artists we know).

We also found a map of the area, labeled Fosso della Cecchignola (a fosso is a ravine, likely with water running through it).

We were intrigued by the open countryside around us and by an unusual water tower in the distance (and near it, a great "ship" of a building).  Off we went, on a path (the yellow one on the map, beginning lower right) through the undulating countryside, passing several women carrying small shopping bags (where, we wondered had they shopped)?

Intriguing water tower center right, building to the left 
After about 20 minutes, we found ourselves underneath the magnificent water tower, then wandered (still on paths) to the enormous monolith of a building, which turned out to be the Hibiscus Center, housing dozens of companies. It was lunchtime, so bunches of 30-somethings were chatting in small groups or walking back from lunch they had obtained somewhere.

Hibiscus Center

In the process of trying to get around the back of the building (we couldn't), we met a woman who told us we should see the church, specially decorated for a day dedicated to Mary (who else?).  Inside, the decorations seemed minimal. Speaking broken English, she could us she was Catholic in the morning and Hare Krishna in the afternoon, or something like that.  She proved hard to shake.

We backtracked around the building, back onto the rural paths, still scrambling to find a way around a local 18th century castle (occupied, as it turned out), but to no avail.  A lovely path through the woods led nowhere, though it did take us along the fosso, here with a huge stone wall built on another wall, and it led us to a good view of the castle. (The castle is open to visits about once/year, it appears, usually in May  - with reservations on its web site.  It's now owned by an architect. Obviously we have to go back.

Path in the woods

Walls in the fosso.  Some of these may be from Roman times, since the castle is
built on the foundations of a Roman military base.

Close as one can get to the castle. 

Backtracking again, we walked past a large popular complex of athletic fields, found a narrow path through the woods to a meticulously maintained pathway. People walking their dogs.

We decided NOT to backtrack to the paths we knew ("never go back" is one of our mottos), instead opting to walk a couple of highways.  To get to them, we passed through an architecturally interesting apartment complex (below).

The roads were a mistake.  Lots of cars, narrow roads, no shoulder, sticker bushes, trucks and buses.  Anxiety approaching fear.  After about 30 minutes we came across a break in the barbed wire fencing and headed off across a field of high and dense grasses in the rough direction of where we started.

Castle and water tower in the distance. We headed left.  
A fence loomed ahead--the only way out--but proved to be "moveable."  Small miracles.

 A few minutes of walking through "developments" got us to the Cecchignola piazza, where we found some Ama (garbage collection agency) workers actually collecting garbage!  I couldn't resist a photo.  The blond woman looking at the camera objected vociferously, though I have no idea why.  Illegal to photograph public employees?  Embarrassed to be caught working?

On the bike and home.  Estimated length of the expedition: 6 miles. Strenuous.

Not what we bargained for, but quite an adventure!


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

QWERTY: Square-Eyed Girl

This is RST's 790th post. 

QWERTY (the name is taken from the keyboard, upper left) is one of Rome's most intriguing street artists.  His work has great range, from the very large stick figures in the Nomentana train station to small, thoughtful paste-ups, including his "Think Poetic" series (from 2018 or earlier).

In 2019 he's been busy posting versions of what I call "qwerty girl" or "square-eyed girl."  Although they all seem the same, there are subtle differences, which become more obvious when he mounts two images in the same space, making a comparison simple--and inviting it.

Lips as Italian flag. Ostiense

Mounted on SPQR panel

Same basic image, same panel, with interventions.
It's possible the girl's floppy black hair "invited"
references to Hitler.
Another added mustache, it would appear--but an odd one. 
The next two images are of the same "box" (in Pigneto) and, as one would imagine, appear to have the same images.  But not quite.

Eyes of different colors. Photo taken 4.15.19, Pigneto

Eyes of different colors, and below, the mouth at a noticeable angle.  The top paste-up is direct and
in control, the bottom image troubled, insecure.  Photo taken 4.20.19
Latest find: square-eyed girl in Aurelia, in back of a market.  Looking quite assertive, almost defiant.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Antica Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala: "Between Scientific Knowledge and Magical Thought"

The "sales room," which has a religious feel to it, as it has been since the 1700s. (Note - we were not allowed to take photos
inside the pharmacy; so the inside pix are not ours.)
Customers in the "sales room," photo probably pre-WWII.
One of Rome's more long-lasting institutions is the Pharmacy of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere. A ground floor, operating pharmacy, looks old enough, but dates "only" from the 1950s. Upstairs, open to very limited tour groups only in the past 10 years, is the pharmacy started by the Carmelite Friars in the second half of the 15th century and operated continuously until 1954 - or 400 years - and until the present if you count the location on the ground floor.

The order - Discalced Carmelites (i frati carmeletani scalzi - or "shoeless" monks) - started the pharmacy to serve their own colleagues.  The fame of their mostly herbal remedies led to the pharmacy being called "The Popes' pharmacy." At the end of the 1600s, the pharmacy was open to all, serving poor Romans at low prices.
Fra Basilio teaching other monks his secrets. Many books, such as the one
shown in the painting, were not confiscated and are still in the Spezieria.

A principal pharmacist, as we might call him, was Fra Basilio della Concezione who, in the 1700s, developed some particular combinations of medicines, such as the "Acqua anti-pestilenziale" - or anti-plague water, that was supposed to fend off diseases for those who came in contact with infected people.

The monks also had their own herb gardens back of the monastery and the church, gardens that stretched up to the Gianicolo.

One could consider some of their treatments the equivalent of today's homeopathic medicine, much of it efficacious.

This is the monk who offered us some herbs and medicine to
smell and touch. The boxes behind him hold the herbs. The
cabinets are from the 18th century.  The doors were painted in
 the 1920s.
Today, only a small part of the monastery garden remains. The pharmacy and the land attached to it was confiscated in the 1880s, shortly after Italy became a unified state in 1870, and the monks - though treated as lay persons - were allowed to (or were told to?) keep working at their trade until, in 1911, they were given back title to the pharmacy and a small plot of land.  At least this is what I think our guide said; I found no confirming information online regarding the pharmacy in this period. Most of the monks' library also was confiscated, as were almost all church libraries post-Italian unification, and turned over to the state's Biblioteca Nazionale (about which we've written previously).


The fascination of the "antica farmacia" is that it preserves a view of medicine over 400 years. Its name is not in fact farmacia or pharmacy, but "Spezieria," or, one might say, "herbalist's." "Spezie" are spices.

The rooms of the antica farmacia include the sales room, an "office" where the herbs and records were kept, a lab where mixtures were boiled and crushed, and an undecorated back room with heavy equipment to pound ingredients. It's enlightening to visit these rooms because all the equipment, jars, herbs and medicines themselves are still in place. We were offered some to smell and touch. As our guide said, the main room is almost religious in atmosphere - no doubt that was intended.
The "office" and  storage area for herbs and records.

Besides the "anti-pestilence water" we were shown a large container marked "Sanguisuga," which I thought (using my literal Italian) had something to do with making sauce out of blood to apply to wounds (think of a steak over a black eye).  Turns out sanguisuga is the term for "leech."

Just last year, a group of 5 scientists form 4 countries analysed more than 200 of the drugs contained in the "main showcase," and reported their conclusions in an article entitled "Tradition and Renovation [Innovation"?] in the Ancient Drugs of the Spezieria of Santa Maria della Scala: Between Scientific Knowledge and Magical Thought" (in the European Journal of Science and Technology - you can read it here).

Some of the large and small jars in the "sales
The researchers used a "multi-analytical approach" (take a look at all their methodologies!) with an initial conclusion that "a lot of the identified substances had both artistic and medicinal uses." The researchers point out that this order of monks originated in Spain and at one time controlled East-West trade. They therefore had access to many more ingredients than just what was in their garden.

The authors of the journal article, calling the pharmacy a "cultural melting pot of Baroque Rome," state:

"This amalgam of knowledge amassed at the Spezieria di Santa Maria della Scala – located halfway between the ancient western Mediterranean and the Middle East (Islamic medicine) and halfway between the Far East (India) and the New World (pre-Hispanic knowledge) – as well as the work of Paracelsus – the bridge between the legacy bequeathed by Hippocrates and Galen and a new pharmaceutical practice whose alchemical base laid the foundations for modern chemistry – encouraged us to propose a first research project in this cultural melting pot of Baroque Rome."
More jars, lit like religious icons (or a modern bar).

For readers interested in the history of medicine, I recommend this readable article.  The piece also has a more detailed history of the Spezieria.

In the meantime, if you're in Rome, keep your eye out for a tour of this locale. I'm not sure I've seen one in English, but if you go with some of your own information, even without English, you'd enjoy the "visit." Our tour was provided by Turismo Culturale Italiana, whose guided tours and visits we've enjoyed in the past, as part of their Spring Trastevere series.

There is limited info in English - mostly on herb therapies - available on the church's Web site if you scroll down. Address:  Piazza della Scala. The Web site says  - in English - you can email to arrange a visit: smariadellascalla@ Phone:  065806233.

More photos below.

Sign over entrance to 'sales room': "Neither herbs nor bandages will give you health;
it's God who provides health for all." (apologies to Latinists)
The entrance to the lab, or "Liquorificio" where distillation
of liquors and perfumes took place.

Way in back; looks like a heavy-duty crushing machine to me.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

La Lega a Roma: a Story of Politics, Food, and History

This post--our 788th--isn't easy to categorize.  It's obviously about Italian politics.  But it's also about Roman food, and about food, politics, and history.

On a recent walk through the near-in suburb of Aurelia, we found two posters, both on the back of stalls in a traditional open-air market.  They were obviously part of a poster series, starting with the line "La Lega a Roma?"  La Lega is "The League," once "The Northern League," a conservative, anti-immigrant (it used to be anti-the Italian South, which includes Rome), business-oriented political party with its origins in northern Italy.  Today, especially after the European elections in May 2019, it's a national party, with the right-wing, Trump-like demagogue Matteo Salvini its popular leader.  So the posters ask us to think about what it would be like to have The League in Rome--that is, as the dominant party in Rome.

The first poster features a likeness of Julius Caesar, speaking these words:  "E' n'artra cortellata!"
A Roman friend helped us understand the words.  "'N'artra," she explained, "is Roman (as in the modern-day Roman dialect) for 'un'altra,' that is,"another," while 'cortellata' is Roman for cotellata, that is, 'stab.'"  For La Lega to be in Rome, then, is "like being stabbed one more time."  Caesar would know.

The second of the posters featured a woman who deals with the issue La Lega a Roma this way: "'E' come a carbonara co' la panna!"  Our correspondent explained:  "The woman in the picture was a very famous character in Roma: Sora Lella, sister of actor Aldo Fabrizi (you'll remember him as the priest in [Rosellini's 1946 film] Roma citta' aperta) and owner of a renowned restaurant on Isola Tiberina, considered the temple of traditional Italian cuisine in its heyday."

It was clear to me, then, that "panna" (cream) was not a good thing to put in pasta carbonara, one of Rome's classic dishes.  As food critic Mitch Orr writes on the Vice website, "Carbonara has egg yolk, Pecorino Romano, guanciale, black pepper, and pasta.  Under no circumstances can there be any other additions, and that goes double for cream."  To imagine the League in Rome is to imagine carbonara with cream. Disgusting.

The hashtag #Romanonfalastupida can be translated, "Rome, don't be stupid," or "Rome, don't be silly."  Romans took notice.  La Lega did very poorly in Rome in the 2019 elections for the European parliament (although that didn't stop Salvini from putting up posters thanking Rome).

Sora Lella (Elena Fabrizi), who was also an actress, began working in her family's restaurant in 1959.  She died in 1993.  The restaurant, known as Sora Lella, is still there.


Testaccio.  Difficult to decipher, but filling in the blanks:  "This time, I'll set myself on fire!"
Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake as a heretic in  1600.