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

Friday, July 21, 2023

Barbie Has No Knees (and Superman has no genitals): Reflecting on the historical significance of the iconic doll through an exhibit at the Vittoriano

With Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" scheduled to open tonight in theaters, well, everywhere, we are re-posting Bill's 2016 post below, which is chock-full of historical cultural analysis as well as photos of some of the many Barbies we saw at the exhibit. Yeah, go to Rome and see Barbies! We loved it. (Review here:

Sign for the Barbie exhibit in the Vittoriano - which features a permanent exhibit of The Risorgimento -
Italy's battle for statehood.  Interesting contrast of Barbie and Garibaldi.

60s Barbie, Barnaby Street look

It was 1959 when the first Barbie appeared.  A bit late, it would seem, to catch the wave of conservatism, conformity and consensus that hung over the American nation through much of the postwar era.  When Barbie went on sale, the civil rights movement was well under way, with lunch-counter sit-ins to begin in 1960.  Just two years later, Tom Hayden launched the student protest movement with the Port Huron Statement and Betty Friedan rang the opening bell for the latest version of feminism with her book, The Feminine Mystique.  By 1965 U.S. bombers were pounding North Vietnam.  Barbie should never have survived "the '60s."  But she did. The "Barbie" exhibit at Rome's Complesso del Vittoriano provides some explanations for Barbie's longevity.  One is that Barbie was a well-made and beautifully dressed creature, her every incarnation
a fine-tuned fashion statement.  Having never had a Barbie (I was 16 when she made her debut, and a boy), and having decided that the exhibit was one I hardly cared to see, I was impressed--astounded even--at the "look" of the hundreds of Barbies on display: style, color, elegance, precision, all in abundance.

Right, Barbie as bullfighter.  Left,
hipster exec
Clearly, too, Barbie was flexible, especially in relationship to the burgeoning feminist movement. Barbie could be teen model, a housewife and homemaker, or a stewardess, but over the years she tracked American women as they took on a wider variety of occupations and pursuits--some 180 occupations in all.  Barbie became a pilot, a no-nonsense professional, an astronaut, an eco-friendly architect, a race car driver, a hard rock musician, even a bullfighter, albeit a stylish one.

Barbie's facial expression changed, too, perhaps most famously in the 1970s, when Barbie came to look a bit like Farrah Fawcett, the star of the popular TV series, Charlie's Angels.
Barbie as Hitchcock's Tippi, attacked
by birds
Other Barbies were modeled after celebrities. among them Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn, Madonna, Tippi Hedren (in Hitchcock's The Birds), Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, and Elvis, Barbie could be the Statue of Liberty, too.

And after 1980, Barbie's look had much to do with multiculturalism and globalization. (See the African Barbie at the end of this post). Even so, the curators of the exhibit go too far in claiming that Barbie was on the cutting edge of political and social change. The first black Barbie appeared in 1980, 12 years after the March on Washington, 16 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels, and 26 years after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional.  In the racial arena, at least, Barbie was a follower, not a leader.

Nonetheless, as a cultural historian, I enjoyed the curators' efforts to link the evolving Barbie with historical movements and trends, from feminism to globalization to the emergence of a culture of celebrity. However, I must admit that my first reaction to Barbie had to do with her physique, and not just her thin-ness.  Indeed, my first thought--and first words in the exhibit--was "Barbie has no knees."  It occurred to me, then, that Barbie was knee-less because the knee is the least attractive part of the leg; knees have bumps and lumps and stick out here and there.
interrupting the attractive flow of the woman's leg from thigh to calf to ankle (admittedly, also somewhat knobby--as it turns out, Barbie doesn't have ankles, either).

No genitals.  Could be model for
Superman Barbie

I'm writing this today because this morning's New York Times carried an obituary for Noel Neill, the actress who played Lois Lane on the Adventures of Superman TV series.  In the accompanying photo, Superman (Steve Reeves) demonstrates his strength by holding Miss Lane off the ground with one arm.  Then I noticed that Superman has no genitals.  


The exhibit closes October 10.  It's not cheap: Euro 12 or, if you qualify for a reduction, Euro 10.  Most of the hundreds of Barbies in the exhibition come from 2 major Italian collections.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Quarticciolo: A Visit to Rome's Working-Class Periphery

We knew almost nothing about the quartiere of Quarticciolo when we spent a couple of hours there this Spring, except that it was a working-class enclave with a leftist reputation. It's located on Rome's periphery, a third or fourth-tier suburb east of the city center, not far from the GRA that encircles the city, and bounded on the west by a quasi-highway, viale Palmiro Togliatti. Coming from the center on via Prenestina, we turned right on the first street after viale Togliatti and parked the scooter, just a few feet from what appeared to be an abandoned "ape" (a small, three-wheeled truck) and amid the first of many low-rise apartment buildings. 

Across the street was a church (completed in 1954) and down the way, built into one of the apartment buildings, a substantial altar to the Virgin Mary, constructed in 1950. 

Quarticciolo has been described as the last of the "borgate" (towns or "working-class suburbs") constructed by the Fascist regime. The first buildings--all of Quarticciolo was, and probably still is, "public" housing--were erected between 1941 and 1943, during the war. The units were intended for very large families. The first 300 apartments were designed for families with at least 7 children, and the next 100 were for those with 4 or 5 kids--depending on need, part of the Fascist encouragement of large families.

The north end of the community, where we began our trek, is now the site of a large chain grocery store (and other stores); the basic apartment buildings were not designed for "mixed use." It also has a recently built community sports center ("From the Borgata, for the Borgata," reads the lettering at the top of the building below, an interesting pride in the term "borgata").

Moving along via Alessandrina into the center of Quarticciolo, we came upon what appeared to be a multi-story city hall (although not marked as such)/community center, covered with graffiti and other materials that revealed much about the quartiere. Along one wall, large graffiti letters "Essere un comitato e' prendersi cura della borgata" (to be a committee--the common council, one presumes--means taking care of the town).  

A plaque (far left in the above photo), placed on the building in 2010, honors the anti-Fascist partisans of Quarticciolo who resisted the German occupation of 1943-1944. Quarticciolo was one of several communities, moving east from the center, that were prominent in the resistance to Nazi occupation; they included Quadraro, Torpignattara, and Centocelle (all of which we've written about many times; one post is linked here to each community). 

In the rear of the building, a line drawing appears to show a rapacious capitalist with little regard for needs of the ordinary people. 

The rear façade is decorated with two multi-story figures. Not sure what they are supposed to represent.

And a sign proclaims "Insieme Tutto E' Possibile" (together, everything is possible), more evidence of a desire for community solidarity (it's signed "Quarticciolo Ribelle" [Quarticciolo Rebel]. 

Both sides of the building feature a rich variety of graffiti, old and new. 

Across the street from the community center (maybe the municipal hall) we were surprised to see a theater and library. Although the building has some 1960-era features, it was constructed quite recently, apparently in 2007, on the site of a public market (probably the victim of the supermarket).

The town is long and thin, and in a few minutes we had reached the other, southern, end. Time for a 2nd coffee of the day--served in glass cups, quite unusual for most of Rome--in a nice bar with many patrons, inside and outside.

On our return to the scooter we found lots of evidence of Quarticciolo's liberal (and radical) politics. On the liberal side, we came across a center for volunteers and, next to it, a free book exchange (there aren't many in Rome) housed in an old cooler. 

Housing is a major issue, as it was 80 years ago. A larger banner proclaimed "Stop Sgomberi" (stop evictions), and a sign made a point of the comitato's recent efforts to move the community in an ecological direction: "How can one make an ecological transition when it's raining on your head inside your house?" 

"Stop Evictions. We all have a right to a house!"

"The ecological transition doesn't make much sense when it's 
raining of your head--inside your house!"

Low-income communities such as Quarticciolo are likely to be anti-prison (anti-carcere), and signs confirmed that perspective. We also found standard Communist stuff--Viva Stalin (really?) and a hammer and sickle with the date, 1917, of the Russian Revolution.

And an enormous and striking portrait of (to us) a person unknown.   

One last photo, this one not so political--and yet it is. The wall sign reads, "Quarantine in 20 square meters: You can't do it." 

Thanks, Quarticciolo, for having us!