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

Monday, October 28, 2019

Gentrification: Rome's new Problem

We're familiar with a variety of Rome social movements, but until the latest trip we had not encountered the latest variant: opposition to gentrification.  It might have been there for years, and we failed to notice--because we generally rent in middle-class neighborhoods (Monteverde, Piazza Bologna, San Giovanni) where residents appreciate the amenities of gentrification: a sleek, modern coffee place, an art gallery, a (dare we say it) wine bar.

Gentrification involves investment in shops and housing.  The irony is that the neighborhoods that most need investment--poorer neighborhoods that today feature a mix of native Italians and immigrants--are precisely those where resistance to gentrification is strongest, judging by what's written on the walls.  These neighborhoods are Quadraro, not far from the center, on both sides of via Tuscolana; Tor Pignattara (just north of Quadraro, off via Casilina), and Pigneto (not far from Porta Maggiore, and between via Prenestina and via Casilina).  Tellingly, all of these neighborhoods have a strong street art scene.  We also found anti-gentrification sentiment at Laurentina 38, a massive public housing on the city's outskirts.

We first encountered hostility to gentrification--and hostility to one of the symbols of gentrification-- on a walk from Pigneto, where we were living, to Tor Pignattara.  We had just seen for the first time Etam Cru's "Coffee Break," 2014, the tallest piece of wall art in the city, located between via del Pigneto and via Ludovico Pavoni.

Nearby, another large piece attracted our attention.

But the words below it were of more importance, for they served as our introduction to the problem: "muralismo = gentrification," followed by the sign of an anarchist/feminist group.

The word "murales" (murals), from the Spanish, is now commonly used in Rome to refer to wall art; the English word "gentrification" is the word most often used by Italians to label the phenomenon.  And the message was clear: some people believe that wall art is a sign of the arrival of gentrification, or anticipation of it.  We don't know that that's true, although the area between Tor Pignattara and Pigneto might seem an ideal setting for the young, rising middle class: some large and ordinary apartment buildings, but also many smaller houses, tucked away on quiet side streets, ready to be bought up and redone.

There are no wine bars in Tor Pignattara, though the area has been home to a premier small art gallery, Wunderkammern, for several years.  And we did find one development that deserves the term gentrification.  It's not far from the intersection of via Casilina and via Acqua Bullicante, and next door to a defunct art deco style theater.  There's a sign for "Conti Suites," a sales office for the apartments above.  And a mural designed to appeal to the more-or-less upscale folks who might want to live there:

Pigneto does have a wine bar--indeed, there are at least four of them, including the famous Necci dal 24, where Pasolini hung out 50 years ago--as well as several coffee bars designed to attract the upwardly mobile--so maybe the horse of gentrification is out of the barn.

Even so, some of the locals don't like what's going on. The poster below states "La gentrificazione [an attempt to Italianize the word] distrugge la vita del quartiere" (gentrification destroys the life of the neighborhood).  The illustration is a reference to Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (1942).  It looks like the self-satisfied life of the gentry, relaxing at the cafe, has been disrupted by a violent demonstration--perhaps against gentrification.  Other interpretations welcome!

Quadraro has a long history of anti-fascism and a shorter, though distinguished one, of street art.  For about a decade, street artists have been welcomed.  They've decorated the sides of elevated via Tuscolana, which splits the town; the ends of a tunnel that runs under the highway; and dozens of walls on side streets.  There are no art galleries that we know of in Quadraro, no wine bar, and--with an exception or two--not much redevelopment.  Below, one of our favorite pieces of Quadraro street art:

For whatever reason, there is growing opposition to gentrification in Quadraro, and particularly to the street art that has given the community its contemporary definition.  The photo at the top of the post, of the side of via Tuscolana at it runs through the community, illustrates the conflict:  On the one hand, a 2011 note celebrates the street art tradition: "art pollinates Quadraro/l'arte feconda Quadraro."  On the other hand, more recent scribbling, on top of some of the original art, has another message: "Il quartiere non e' il vostro museo" (the neighborhood is not your museum).

Not far way, around an entrance to the tunnel, insulting comments about street art ("fanculo la street art"/fuck street art), gentrification ("gentrifica sto cazzo"/gentrify my ass!), and dislike of "hipsters," whom the writer identifies as the agent of gentrification:  "Barbe strappate"/"occhia i rotti"/"ve sfondamo" (plucked beards, smashed eyeglasses, hipsters [beware] we're going to kick your ass).  Nota bene: we got some translation help from a Roman friend, who adds: "The Italian sfondare (=smash), used in Rome, refers to not very pleasant activities, such as 'sfondare di botte' (=beat you to a pulp) or worse, 'sfondare il culo' (=break your ass)."  Thanks, M!

The anti-gentrification statements above are all by one person (which to some extent vitiates their importance as evidence), and are sited just to the left of one of the elaborately decorated tunnel entrances.

And then there's Laurentina 38, the failed housing project, its architecturally significant bridges now populated by immigrant squatters--a complex, and a neighborhood, that could use new money, whether that of hipsters or anyone else.


Monday, October 21, 2019

A Tale of Two Libraries and Many Eras

The photos left and below right are from the same building - the Biblioteca Hertziana (the Hertziana Library and Max Planck Institute for Art History) - above the Spanish Steps in Rome.

They illustrate one of our great pleasures in Rome - the mixing of the old and the new, here the Renaissance and the contemporary with a bit of ancient Rome thrown in. The 'grotesque' mask-like exterior was created in the late 1600s by painter Federico Zuccari (for whom the Palazzo is now named), echoing the "Parco dei Mostri" outside of Rome in Bomarzo. 

As many times as we've been up the street - via Gregoriana - and in the piazza at the top of the Spanish Steps (Piazza della Trinita' dei Monti), we had never noticed this amazing facade.

Another library in Rome that inserts the 21st century into older buildings is the Biblioteca Universita' Lateranense (the Pontifical Library at San Giovanni in Laterano).

Above, its older entrance; left, inside the 21st-century library.

A close-up photo of a Zuccari fresco on science, illustrating
a graphic anatomy lesson.
We have spent years trying to get into the contemporary Hertziana during Open House Roma; there seemed to be no other way to see the inside (our emails and telephone calls for personal access went unanswered).  We finally landed a place in 2019's OHR, only to find first what we had not known existed - the 16th- century part of the complex that included Zuccari's frescoing inside the palazzo.
Tourists turn their backs on
Palazzo Zuccari's facade
in Piazza della Trinita' dei

A Zuccari ceiling, painted 1590.

But we were there to see the 21st-century library, designed by Navarro Baldeweg and Da Gai architects, 2003-2012. It is magnificent.

Looking up through the glass lined walls, it feels like
one is looking at a James Turrell skyspace.

And, it can't be Rome without the discovery of ancient ruins, in this case the villa of Lucio Licinio Lucullo. The architects solved the problem of excavations delaying the library for decades by creating a "bridge" over the ruins so that the excavations could continue while the library was built and continues to be used. Also discovered were a ninfeo that was in the gardens of the ancient Roman villa.
Model of the Biblioteca Hertziana

Looking down from the library through the glass wall, one
sees some ancient ruins, part of a visual backdrop for the
library's entrance (at this point, being remodeled). This
area is just above the excavations, which have none of the
heavy library directly above them, just the airy space
going towards the sky.

And what would be a Roman palazzo today without a view? Those of us on the tour were treated to the rooftop terrace.

The fellows and employees of the Max Planck Institute
can take their morning coffee up here.

The Lateranense Library had long been on our wish list after architect Nathalie Grenon told us it was one of her favorite contemporary buildings. It too imposes a 21st-century library among older buildings. Architects King & Roselli (who also did the Radisson Blu in Rome) also use stepped floors to give incredible and sometimes vertiginous vistas of light and air to heavy library stacks and work areas. The library was built 2004-2006.

Modern entrance to the Biblioteca Lateranense
with the older buildings of the Pontifical
University reflected.

And as a treat, across the parking lot from the Pontifical library is Borromini's Baptistry (below).


Monday, October 14, 2019

Villa Certosa: A Hidden Rome Neighborhood

Railroad tracks are usually the enemy of community.  They cut through and divide neighborhoods, bringing with them dirt and noise and a certain trashy, industrial ugliness, leavened, if barely, by the graffiti that often covers their sides.  Paradoxically, rail lines can also create neighborhoods and nurture community, doing so by isolating an area and, effectively, protecting it from outsiders.

Railroads explain the charm of a Rome neighborhood known as Villa Certosa.  Villa Certosa is a spit of land bordered on one side by the multi-track Ferrovia Urbana Roma Giardinetto, which runs adjacent to the busy via Casilina; and another--even more impenetrable and isolating--track to the south and west that eventually passes through the Parco degli aquedotti (Aqueduct Park).  One can access Villa Certosa at several several places along the Casilina line, but the other track is a solid barrier.  Because one can't get through Villa Certosa to go anywhere else (there is one exception to that), there's no reason to go there--unless one lives there.  Or unless you're in quest of "authentic" Rome, the "real" Rome that tourists--even clever and committed ones--never see.

Even then, those looking for a spectacular site are likely to be underwhelmed.  The houses are simple, the pace deliberate, the noise and bustle of via Tor Pignattara, while not that far away, fails to intrude - that's also Villa Certosa's charm.

Perhaps the best place to access Villa Certosa is through Largo Alessi, a stop on the Casilina/Giardinetto line.  Wander southwest on via Galeazzo Alessi, along the tracks. As it turns left, take a right at the first or second street--the second one is via Savorgnan, which runs the length of Villa Certosa. As you turn onto via Savorgnan, you'll see a restaurant that is one of our favorites, Betto e Mary, about which we posted several years ago (recognizing the very Roman food - innards and horsemeat, and the bell that rang for our large "mancia" or tip - which we gave because the bill was so small).

Quiet, unassuming streets.
Not far ahead you'll begin to see more commercial activity, including Bar Shakespeare, with benches outside.  There's beer and wine, and the wine list is surprisingly long and good; so get yourself a glass of wine and sit out front with the dog-walking locals, or in a very funky outdoor back room.

A few paces beyond, and you'll be in the "town center," Largo dei Savorgnan, also known as Piazza Ciro Principessa.  Here there's another bar--less hip and cool than Bar Shakespeare, but no less authentic.

The other bar.

--as well as the seat of local government. (below).

A large mural identifies Villa Certosa's local hero son, Ciro Principessa, in whose name there's a yearly festival, held in May.  Raised in Naples, Principessa had been living in Villa Certosa for two years (he was 17; the year was 1979).  A committed anti-Fascist, he was working in a library on nearby via Tor Pignattara when Claudio Minetti, a militant neo-Fascist, entered the library with a companion and asked to borrow a book.  Principessa asked for his library card and Minetti ran out with the book.  Principessa gave chase, and in the ensuing struggle, Minetti stabbed Principessa in the chest.  He died in the hospital.

Below, the poster reads: Fascism is not an opinion, it's a crime.

Having absorbed the minimalist delights of the piazza, continue on the main street until you hit the "T," where you can go right and under the tracks to the famed via del Mandrione in Tuscolano, or left (which we suggest), working your way downhill until you reach via Tor Pignattara, and Villa Certosa ends.   If you turn right at the T, at the end of the tunnel you'll find yourself on a particularly intimidating section of via del Mandrione, with few outlets.

Maybe a hundred yards before you get to via Tor Pignattara, there's an entrance to some older buildings on your right.  In back--you have to be a bit intrepid here--there's ANOTHER wine bar.  This one looks like a back yard, and it was closed when we came through, but apparently it exists.

The other wine bar.  

Villa Certosa has TWO WINE BARS, and all without a hint of gentrification.

We first heard about Villa Certosa from our friend Patrick.  Otherwise we might never have found it.  Thanks, Patrick!


Monday, October 7, 2019

The "F" Word in Rome: A Brief Survey

I first became interesting in tracking the use of the "F" word in Rome last spring. We were living in Pigneto, a hip and cool neighborhood with lots of recent immigrants. Not long after we settled in, we saw this sticker on the door of a business--a regular, establishment business, not some fly-by-night operation.  And right above the sign "tirare," instructing customers to pull the door.  No one could miss it.

I was shocked.  I reasoned that the sticker wouldn't be there if "Fuck White Supremacy" wasn't an entirely acceptable, even mainstream expression--presented here by a 1950s-style woman--at least for Pigneto.

One doesn't have to think quite so hard about the use of the word "fuck" in relationship to sports competitions and sports teams.  Although commonly the team you don't like is referred to with the word "merda" (shit), as in Lazio Merda or Rome Merda (expressions ubiquitous in Rome), I did find one use of "fuck."  It's from 2015, and it was posted by the Ultras (extreme) fans of the Roma team, on via Guido Reni in the Flaminio quartiere:

Interesting, the Italian equivalent of "fuck" (fanculo), a version of "fanculo te" or "fuck you," is seldom seen on Rome walls. Indeed, in two months of walking the city, I saw it only once, in Quadraro, a leftist community out via Tuscolana, and one well known for its street art.  Indeed, the reference had to do with street art--the writer didn't like it, probably because it was understood to be the cutting edge of gentrification, and with it rising rents and trendy wine bars.  "Fanculo la street art."

"Fuck" can also be used ironically, as in the stencil below (also Pigneto):

Or it can seem to be used in all earnestness, or apparent earnestness, to make a broad political statement.  This appeared in Ostiense, under one of its bridges.  The poster replaces the U and the C with an anxious woman's face.  Not sure how to read that.

Below, a "Fuck" diatribe, all in English, apparently about Beyonce, in Monteverde Vecchio:

Also in Monteverde, we found a pub using a version of the word to advertise its establishment, on the assumption that its use would bring in customers. Here "fucking" is used as an adjective, meaning "very".

Then there's the simple finger, which says "fuck you" without using the word.  Instead, one is tempted to say it to oneself--hence there's a participatory element.  Also from Pigneto.

And another