Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, November 17, 2014

John Fante: an American writer in Rome, in the 1950s

Italian-American writer John Fante [1909, near Chieti - 1983] was in Rome in the summer of 1957, and again in 1960, on the latter occasion for a stint as a screenwriter with Italian film mogul Dino de Laurentiis.

Although his work was never broadly popular in the United States, at the time of his Rome trip he had written several novels that had been greeted with some measure of critical approval, including Wait Until Spring, Bandini [1938] and Ask the Dust [1938], as well as a well-received book of short stories, Dago Red [1940].  H.L. Mencken, the mercurial editor of the influential journal American Mercury, was a mentor, friend, and life-long correspondent, as was Carey McWilliams, author of Factories in the Field and Ill Fares the Land,
whose elegant, poetic prose and commitment to America's rural underclass was a feature of his widely admired books,

Fante lived most of his life in or around Los Angeles, and Hollywood was an ever-present temptation, especially for a writer whose novels didn't sell very well.  Yet he had always considered the screenplay inferior to the novel--and the short story--and despite dabbling for brief periods in screenwriting over the years, he had for the most part resisted the allure of the silver screen.  His reluctance diminished somewhat as he aged, and in the 1950s and 1960s he authored a number of screenplays, including Walk on the Wild Side [1962], from the Nelson Algren novel.  That one was actually made into a film.  His favorite novelists were Steinbeck, Hemingway, James T. Farrell and, among Italian writers, Ignazio Silone. 

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1957, the film Full of Life made Fante a valued Hollywood commodity, and its success was influential in getting him film work abroad, first in Naples and Rome in 1957, then in Paris, and finally in Rome in 1960.  His 1957 project was a script for a Columbia Pictures comedy, The Roses, set in Naples and to star Jack Lemmon.  On that trip, he reached Rome on July 27 and made his way to via Veneto's Hotel Excelsior, once the headquarters of the German occupation during the war.  That evening he wrote to his wife, Joyce: "I don't know what to say about Rome that might give a strong impression.  I have already seen it too much in films. I do like its free-bouncing atmosphere, the fact that now, at 2 in the morning the streets are filled with people walking slowly God knows where, and little Fiats whizzing along crazily at frightening speeds,  No headlights are allowed at night, just those dim little parking lights--no horns either, and I even doubt that there are special traffic laws.  You just do the best you can, in a car or walking." 
At home in Los Angeles

Via Veneto, he continued, "is jammed with tables and chairs, people sitting, talking, drinking.  There is a heavy inroad of tourists that somehow spoils the original vitality."  Fante had recently visited Copenhagen, and he comments in this letter about that city's cleanliness.  "I think if a loose piece of paper fell  into the street the mayor would lose his job....The Romans are not so clean, but they seem considerably more sophisticated.  Nobody really cares about anything in Rome--I gathered this right away." 

In August 1957, in another letter to Joyce, this one from Naples, he wrote that he had been informed that "I have quite a literary reputation in Italy, especially in Rome, that Wait Until Spring  has gone into a new edition there, and that people like Ask the Dust best of my books."  He had been interviewed by one of the Rome dailies.  These Rome contacts paid off.  Within a few years later he was at work in Rome on a De Laurentiis project: a script about Navarra, King of Naples. 

Fante, left, with Charles Bukowski, an admirer
He was staying on the Residence Palace Hotel, at via Archimede 69.  "Honey," he wrote to Joyce,   "everything is madness.  I hate this hotel and will be out soon.  I am rested now, but trip was beastly.  Imagine traveling in one plane with 130 Italians.  They scared hell out of me from the moment of departure in New York.  My God, how they wailed, wept, flung arms around friends and relatives down to see them off.  I got the awful feeling we were all doomed." 

Fante had dinner with the film's director, a man named Coletti.  "He is a pleasant, not profound man," wrote Fante.  "He drives one of the biggest cars in Rome--a white 1956 Olds 88 convertible.  Lots of streets are too small for it.  We went to the Coliseum at midnight in the moonlight and looked down upon it, and Coletti muttered a lot of clichés about all that blood, and the poor martyrs, etc.  It is a frightful hole."

"This is a lousy hotel," he went on.  "Nice, clean, etc, but full of fat Catholic broads all fired up about touring the Vatican.  Strictly American, but, naturally the management won't serve American coffee, though 95 percent of the guests are from the states."

"Maybe I'm not wildly enthusiastic about Rome but I do like it.  There is something here--people call it 'the color of Rome'--a gold-on-red tint implanted in buildings that gives it an almost suffocatingly beautiful aspect.  This, coupled with the constant presence of green in trees, shrubs, vines evokes some lovely sights, specially in a background of Roman ruins.  Certainly it is more beautiful than Paris--and now that I've said it, I'll say no more." 

By the middle of August he had settled into a room at via Rusticucci 14, only meters from the Vatican.  "Life in Rome so far has been a journey through the stomach," he wrote.  God, how we eat.  No denying I've gained weight...."  He and his son Nick, who had joined him, were enjoying the city's eateries.  "In this area of the Vatican there are dozens and dozens of small trattoria, or little cafes where the food is exquisite.  We plan to try them all out."
About a month later, he was critical of the fare:  "It is very hard to eat correctly here.  They will sneak oil into your food, and they can't understand how anyone can do without it and try to prove you wrong."  And "you have no idea of how often I find my coffee sweetened to the waiter's taste.  They just do it their way.  You have to stand guard over your soup like a cop, lest a waiter charge you and submerge the soup in cheese."

Fante found it hard to sleep.  "The place is terribly noisy everywhere and one must get used to it.  As for all that I have seen, I have not quite reacted to anything.  I get the odd feeling of walking through post-cards--a one dimensional contact with the past.  None of it moves me with any force.  But the sky is always exquisite, dazzling white clouds rolling past.  The nights are warm and eerily unreal, almost too perfect.  I would say this is a more beautiful city than Paris, but somehow it is not charged with the electricity of Paris.  It is useless to try and see everything.  I am told it is the job of the lifetime and I believe it." 

He was unimpressed by the Vatican.  "The ridiculous thing about the experience is that one walks away not particularly astonished.  It has been over-sold.  Whole armies of priests and nuns find it enormously delightful, but just plain culpable Christians failed to respond in kind."

Fante was never at a loss for words, and his letters home contain still more about Rome and Italy.  Here's a final excerpt:  "Incidentally, if you never hear more from me on this subject, blame the Italians.  They are simply not reliable.  They make dates, promises, avowals, and you never hear from them again.  It has happened to me often in my short stay here." 


[These excerpts are from John Fante, Selected Letters, 1931-1981, ed. Seamus Cooney [Harper Collins, 1991.]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The "Doctors" of San Giovanni in Laterano: a Neighborhood Treat

This year we lived in the area generally known as San Giovanni, after the basilica at its northern end, San Giovanni in Laterano.  Our apartment was on via Olbia, and the commercial center of our particular neighborhood--and in Rome all neighborhoods are "particular"--was via Gallia.

The neighborhood has many virtues, including quick access to some of Rome's biggest attractions--the Coliseum is just a mile away. And one of them involves the basilica, though we seldom go inside.

The building is rightly famous for the 12 statues of the doctors of the church--teachers, intellectuals, popes and saints--those involved in religious and moral instruction--that, along with Christ and the two Saint Johns, grace the top of the facade.

Because the building is so large--with the statues adding additional height--and because the basilica is located on a bluff overlooking the community to its south, the "doctors" become one of the neighborhood's now-and-then pleasures, poking up here and there, sometimes surprisingly, sometimes comfortingly, reminders of the area's storied past.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Wall Walk IV: Porta Portese to the Gianicolo, or Brian's Lament

Our friend Brian was in town, and we somehow convinced him to accompany us as we pursued our
Porta Portese.  A good place to get run over.  
goal of walking the length of the Aurelian wall--in this case, a segment that begins at Porta Portese and ends on the Gianicolo at Piazza Garibaldi  In retrospect, it's not the most inviting portion of the wall - at least the first part; there seemed to be more trash and ugliness around than usual, though the former is endemic to Rome.

We gathered at Porta Portese, on the inside of the wall, and walked through.  On your left, on any day but Sunday, when the market takes over, is the beginning of a quarter mile of shack-like shops, all dedicated to 2-wheeled vehicles: bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles.

A Barberini Pope.  Below, the date--looks
like 1644; Pope Urban VIII's (a Barberini)
papacy was from 1623-44

You can explore these if you like, but the wall goes right--we're on the outside now--bumping along viale delle Mura Portuensi, past a substantial pile of detritus and a handsome, if worn, papal symbol--nicely dated, too--to Piazza Bernardino da Feltre.

Looking back from across viale di Trastevere
There, looking right, one can observe the inside of the wall.  Here the wall disappears as it crosses the busy viale di Trastevere, but it's easy to find on the other side next to an unassuming structure of ca. 1970 vintage.  The photo here was shot on the other side of the viale, looking back.

Your climb begins here, along viale Aurelia Saffi, the outside of the wall on your right, hugging Villa Sciarra.  If you've tried the stairways walk in our latest guidebook, Modern Rome, you're in familiar territory. There are some ragged sections of the wall here, but some handsome and powerful ones, too.  Having gone around the corner of the Villa, enter the park at the first entrance on your right--narrow but suggestive.  The Villa is large and fascinating, with lovely paths and intriguing structures.  Much of the best stuff is to your right, near the portion of the wall you've already seen from the outside.

Detritus in Villa Sciarra.  Someone had a party.

But, in pursuit of new wall, we're going left, into a scruffier section.  If you poke around, you'll find a short staircase down inside the wall--and your familiar pile of Roman trash.

"Are these people crazy?"

Following the wall takes one into what appears to be a maintenance area--cars and vans, overgrown bushes, and so on.  Brian is wondering what he's doing here.  Further on, there's a reward: a handsome fountain, vintage and author unknown - though there are rumors of a Bernini satyr fountain in the villa, perhaps this is it.

Reward for hard work

Porta San Pancrazio, from Bar Gianicolo
Exit the park at your first opportunity and follow the outside of the wall as it enters an open space known as Largo Minutilli, with its complement of handsome pines--and an SPQR plaque from 1649. Ahead, the wall bends right--via Carini is on your left, and the automobile traffic from it can be intimidating--with Porta San Pancrazio just ahead, and, just before you get there, one of our favorite places to snack and drink: Bar Gianicolo.  The porta is a handsome one, featuring the shield of Pope Pius XI, who rebuilt it after it was damaged in the 1849 battles between Garibaldi and his followers, who were holding out inside the wall, and the French armies, defending the papacy, attacking from the outside.  The French won, delaying the creation of a unified Italy.

Views, finally; these from in front of Acqua Paola,
looking across the Spanish Academy to much of Rome

The combat up here was intense and bloody--we've written about it in a chapter of Rome the Second Time--and the battle can be followed in considerable detail in a fine new museum inside the porta.  Instead, we took our companion Brian down via Masina--to the right of the porta--past the McKim, Mead and White building housing the American Academy [1913], then sharply left to the Acqua Paola Fountain, which hovers dramatically above the city (and came in at #19 in our RST Top 40).

Evidence of water tank

Brian asked to be carried the rest of the way, but we refused.  Returning to the porta we took a hard left through the opening--picking up the wall again, now inside,  On the left, a building, possibly designed by Michelango, that once housed - and may still - a "serbatoio"--a water tank.  The inscription is of interest: Gianicolo Storage Tank, 1941--and, nearly erased, XIX E.F. [year 19 of the Fascist Era]. Further on, on the right, a curious statue to Ciceruacchio ("Chubby"), a working-class martyr to the Garibaldini cause.  The statue is curious in part because it is out of place here.  It was recently moved to this spot.   A hundred meters of London plane trees track the Aurelian wall here (you're on top, and inside).

Bruno, kissed

Then the statue to Giuseppe Garibaldi (bear in mind we are now in what can only be called a Garibaldi Theme Park) and, just beyond, a humbler piece of work honoring Bruno Garibaldi, rather charmingly decorated on this day with a kiss.  We are crossing perhaps our favorite spot in Rome, the top of the Gianicolo.  We are not alone in this preference, of course.

Our destination, the end of our wall walk for today,  is just ahead, down the hill towards Prati. Fittingly, it's another Garibaldi, and this one is a woman: hard-riding, gun-toting Anita Garibaldi, wife and companion to Giuseppe. The Annie Oakley of the Risorgimento.  We're not making this up.    Bill


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Maltzan's One Sante Fe: the Rome roots of an LA project

One Sante Fe, Los Angeles.  The cut-out is at center left, one of the parking ramps just beyond.  Note the angled, protuding windows on the upper level.  
He must have been there.  To Rome, that is.  RST ventured to the fringe of Los Angeles' downtown, due passi from the arts district, to see the nearly completed building known as One Sante Fe, after its street address.  We were attracted to the structure by architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne's lengthy and complex review in the LA Times.  While Hawthorne notes that some have seen the enormous building--435 apartments, office space for the staff of LA Metro, a quarter mile [.4 km] end-to-end--as a "kind of gentrification ocean liner, slowly drifting toward dock," his own take is more positive.  "What gives the...project its unusual symbolic power is that it takes the generic stuff of a typical L.A. apartment building--a wood frame slathered in white stucco and lifted above a concrete parking deck--and expands it dramatically to urban scale."
The cut-out, from inside

We loved the sheer size of the thing, the front cut-out/opening [right] that allows access to an interior space created by two wings, the fan-like protrusions for each of the windows, and the two delicious circular parking ramps, one at the end and one in the middle--destined to be painted Calder red, if the model in the sales office is accurate.

The parking ramp.  We hope it gets painted red.  

The architect is 55 year-old Michael Maltzan, once of Frank Gehry's office, and he's the guy we think may have been to Rome.  It's not just that Rome and Los Angeles are both low-rise cities, built close to the ground [LA's has skyscrapers, but they're located in defined districts], or that LA's latest

Architect Michael Maltzan
apartment buildings share the "mixed use" formula--commerce on the ground floor--that has shaped Rome's street ambience for centuries.

Beyond that, Rome has two structures that we couldn't help but think of as we walked the length of One Sante Fe and poked around in its courtyards.  .


One is known as Corviale, a massive, horizontal housing complex located southwest of Rome's center, near via Portuense. Completed in the 1980s, the complex has a reputation as a failed experiment in dense public housing--1202 apartments, stretched out over a kilometer.  To be sure, it lacks the complexity of One Sante Fe--the two wings at its southern end, one straight, one bent, the charming urban space in between--and it suffers from a deadly uniformity of color--it's all grey concrete--and design [no cutout, no circular parking ramps]. One would never call it playful.

Even so, Corviale's linear monumentality, unique as far as we know, lends it credibility as a predecessor of One Sante Fe.

Morandi's Metronio Market, rear 

The other Rome building is Riccardo Morandi's Metronio Market, completed in 1957.  It has two features that link forward to Maltzan's structure. One is the angled windows on the long facade, not unlike the much more subtle protusions of the LA building.

Ramp's the key 

The other, more obvious, is its stunning circular parking garage: shades of Luigi Moretti's ex-GIL staircase in Rome--check it out on the blog--and of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim.  And now of Maltzan's One Sante Fe.

We can't confirm, yet, whether Maltzan has ever been to Rome, or even Italy.  Among his influences are Alvar Alto and Le Corbusier, neither Italian.  Yet Maltzan's firm has designed for a Milan project, and his work has appeared at the Venice Biennale.  More germane, he acknowledges deep familiarity with Palladio's 16th-century Italian villas and an especially strong affinity for the forms and spaces of Francesco Borromini's Baroque Roman church, San Carlo delle Quattro Fontane.  Of course, he may have just seen it in a book.   Bill

The One Santa Fe Fantasy

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pasolini Remembered: The Ostia Murder Site

The legendary Pier Paolo Pasolini--poet, novelist, filmmaker, sociologist, intellectual--moved to Rome with his mother at age 28, in 1950.  His residences there include two in Monteverde Vecchio, where plaques commemorate one of the city's most admired, and most controversial, figures.

We never fail to enjoy these reminders of Pasolini's presence, but we hadn't yet visited the site in Ostia, not far from the beach, where Pasolini was murdered--run over several times by his own automobile--on November 2, 1975. Apparently he had gone there to recover several stolen reels for his latest feature film.  The murder purportedly was solved, but large questions remain (the "murdered" retracted his confession, e.g.).

The site can be reached by car or scooter (directions at end of this post) --or by bus it would seem; there's a bus stop, Idroscalo, right across the road.  Although the beach is just down the road, the area has several small businesses.  We parked our scooter across the street, and approached the park.

Although there's a sign suggesting that the park has official sanction, we found it hemmed in by impregnable fencing on all sides, a chain and lock securing the front gate, the only entrance.

We sighed, took some pictures through the fence, resigned ourselves to a less than fully successful effort, and returned to our scooter.  The owner of Oriflex, a manufacturer of mattresses, was taking a smoke break in the front of his complex. We approached and struck up a conversation, lamenting the fact that the Pasolini park was closed and locked.

One of these links is a caribiner that
can be opened easily.
He paused, as if wondering if he should continue, then explained that the lock and chain was a kind of ruse, a fake ("finta"), that one of the links could be opened, and with it, the gate.  And we could walk in.

And so, following his instructions, we did.  It's a somewhat scruffy place, haphazardly maintained, lacking elegance and grandeur.  A large white, modernist monument to Pasolini, in the back of the park, seems not to do justice to the man and his life; indeed, it appears awkwardly out of place.

That said, Pasolino's poetry--all in Italian--is nicely represented here, affixed to rocks along the park's narrow paths, and several of his major works are remembered in surface tablets.

We spent a few minutes remembering Pasolini's many contributions, lamenting his early death.  We "locked" the gate behind us, and headed home.


Directions:  From the Pyramid, take via Ostiense [via del Mare] south.  It briefly becomes viale dei Romagnoli, then again becomes via del Mare/via Ostiense.  After passing a Cineland Multiplex on the right, turn right at via di Aqua Rossa, which curves left and becomes via delle Azzorre.  Via delle Azzorre intersects and angles right onto via dell'Idroscalo.  Look for the park on the left, or the Oriflex sign on the right.  The trip takes 35 to 45 minutes by car or scooter.