Rome Travel Guide

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Behind the Ministry of Transport: Spectacular Villas from a Century Ago


Not long ago (Covid time--in real time, it was May, 2018), Dianne and I took a tour of the magnificent ville and villini in the neighborhood behind the Ministry of the Railroads (and, these days, also the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport). That's the big, white building on Piazza Croce Rosso/viale del Policlinico, just east of via Nomentana (and Porta Pia), the one with the iconic Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane sign on top (still serving that purpose). It's worth going across the street to get a good look at the sign, which for a time served as the front page for this Rome the Second Time blog. 

The steps of the building are a cat hangout, complete with cat ladies (gattare) who dutifully feed the felines.  Birds get in on the action too.

The tour took us north and west, to viale Regina Margarita, and beyond to the outskirts of Villa Torlonia, where Mussolini lived when he ruled Italy.  

Exceptional iron work

I no longer remember much of anything of the details of the buildings we saw. Most were constructed between 1900 and 1920--that is, before modernism became a force in Rome and elsewhere--and are usually described as being in the "Liberty" style (a term not used in the United States, where "late Art Nouveau [transitioning into Art Deco] would suffice). I thought they were extraordinary when we toured, and nothing since  has changed my mind.

The tour was sponsored by a group we've joined several times: Turismo Culturale Italiano, as part of their "Conosci Roma" ("Know Rome" series). They call these magnificent residential structures "I villini Eclettici e Liberty" (The Eclectic and Liberty small villas--one might question the "small" here). The villas give testimony, per the organization, "to an era capable of producing splendid works."

The above two close-ups of Villino Ximenes illustrate its
categorization as "the first flowering of Art Nouveau" in Rome.

Enjoy the photos (I've included only a sample--didn't want to spoil "reality"). Should you get to Rome and want a sense of how the city's wealthy lived a century ago, find the Ministry of Transport, and enjoy the walk. Walk the small streets that include via dei Villini (street of the small villas), via di Villa Patrizi (the rococo villa that morphed into the Ministry above), and the crossing streets. Then go onto viale Regina Margherita itself.

These were not all the aristocratic wealthy, but more the new class that arose from Italy's new 1870 (in Rome) statehood and all the government buildings and jobs that were suddenly proliferating in Rome. Those high-end bureaucrats needed places to live, and populated this area just outside the Walls of Rome and yet very near the state buildings (including that for the Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, which is just outside the Walls). Some families with royal titles built in the area as well, ensuring they were close to the sources of  power in the country's new capital. This surfeit of moneyed people built dozens of these buildings "of great richness and decorative and architectural fantasy." Even the names of the villas and their patrons are exotic: Franknoi, Hout, Nast-Kolb, and Ximenes, for example.

The two photos above are of Villino Ximenes (1902), facing viale Regina Margherita itself (the only building in floral Liberty Style of the early 1900s, according to some scholars). Villa Berlingieri, also on viale Regina Margherita, was designed by Pio Piacentino, helped by his young son Marcello, both of whose work we've admired elsewhere in Rome, and who would later design in the Modernist style.

In front of one of the villas, we found this woman, walking her cat on a leash. Years ago we tried that. It didn't work. We did discover that it IS possible to drag your cat on a leash. 


Saturday, October 2, 2021

Reading Rome: online map projects bring the 18th century to the 21st

"Giambattista Nolli's magnificent 1748 map of Rome, a milestone in the art and science of cartography and arguably one of the most accurate, beautiful and celebrated maps of Rome ever created." 

This ode to "La Grande Pianta di Roma 1748," above, is from James Tice of the University of Oregon. More importantly, for all of us missing Rome and anyone who misses 18th-century Rome, it's the introduction to the web site

In collaboration with Dartmouth, Stanford, and Studium Urbis, Tice and his colleagues have created a superb interactive map of both Nolli's Rome and modern Rome. By clicking on the "Layers" at the left of the website, you can add modern buildings or street labels, or even fountains and rioni to your map view. All landmarks (even small ones) have detailed information on the edifice's (if it is one) history and, if missing, what happened to it. 

The website also imports information and views from Giuseppe Vasi, who, in 1763 (he was Nolli's contemporary) published a guidebook for tourists. Dear to the heart of us walkers, Vasi's tourist tome (it complements his "magnum opus" on Rome of the day) breaks the city down into 8 walking itineraries. The website "" gives an outline for those itineraries, along with Vasi's plates and details on the buildings - whether extant or destroyed. You can leaf through Vasi's magnum opus on another site ( or follow the itinerary through's separate Vasi layers, as below.

Above in light green is Vasi's itinerary on Day 3, from Piazza di Spagna to Chiesa e Monastero di S. Lorenzo in Panisperna (in Monti). Part of the explanation of Vasi's plate for the last reads:  [the street angle] "argues for its [the church's] having been there before Via Panisperna was cut through. This is indeed the case: S. Lorenzo was an early Christian church, many times restored and largely redone in the 1570s. The 1551 Bufalini map shows that originally the church was approached by a street coming in from the left and parallel to the church façade. By Nolli's time that street had disappeared."

Vasi's plate at left (and on the website); a tourist photo below of the church and convent today.
Clearly a lot of armchair traveling - of the best kind - is available through this amazing map project.
Once you are 'inside' Nolli's maps, it's hard to stop looking, reading, and layering.

PS - We first learned about this mapping project in a Zoom lecture series sponsored by the American Academy of Rome - during Covid lockdowns.