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 750 posts

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. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Best Hike in the Colli Albani: Monte Cavo, twice, with gourmet lunch

We included an itinerary for climbing Monte Cavo in our book, Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries that Don't Go to the Coliseum.  Now, years later, we've got a new one that requires more hiking and offers an excellent pasta pranzo (lunch) at a trattoria known only to locals. 

Here are the basics: you start at a main (lower) piazza in Rocca di Papa; ascend Monte Cavo.  Descend Monte Cavo--on the other side, where you have lunch; ascend Monte Cavo and return to Rocca di Papa.  About 4 1/2 hours, including lunch.  Total elevation, about 2000 feet with some steep (but nothing dangerous--you could bring the kids) sections, so don't do this hike if you're not in decent condition.  Hiking poles recommended.

I called this an "itinerary," but the directions that follow are less than fully precise, because we didn't keep close track.  Still, it's hard to go wrong or very wrong, and it's fun to find your way without being told where to go every fifty feet.

If you drive, you'll emerge from a curving road into the town's main piazza, which at 11:30 a.m. or so will be full of older men talking.  Park in the piazza and have a second coffee (we assume you had your first one in Rome) at Bar Europa.

Late morning in the piazza.  I counted 30 older men (not all in the photo).  

Begin your trek by going uphill on the town's main drag: the road to the left as you look up toward the mountain.  This could be the steepest section of the walk.  You'll pass by a church in the classical style and head up to the right on a street with "permanent" poster art every 100 feet or so.

You should go by this wall coming and going (here, on the descent)
  Above, gorgeous views and some old signs that say "Monte Cavo" with an arrow.  Follow them.

Sign for Monte Cavo (and woman hanging her washing)

You'll eventually arrive at a piazza at the top of the town, where you'll see signs for Monte Cavo heading up the mountain.  Soon you'll reach an intersection, unsigned, where one road goes right and the other left.  Take the left fork.  This road will turn into the Monte Cavo trail, which becomes via Sacra, the sacred road up to the top of the mountain, which once had a temple to Diana. This is as good as Roman roads get, and you don't have to fight tourists or face barriers to walk on it.

When you arrive at the blue sanctuary to Santa Rita (and Mary), go up left on the stones of the via Sacra.

The sanctuary, ahead
the via Sacra - 2,000+ years old
Ahead, there's a splendid lookout over lakes Albano and Nemi (here, left).

Trail through the woods to the "top" (here,
on the descent)

Then the trail goes left, toward and around a green gate.  Parts of the top are closed for military purposes, but you can get as far as you can go by taking a dirt use trail (as in, not official, but clearly people have made a trail by walking up this way)--close to the green gate--up right and through the woods and around the corner to an old hotel "under construction" (it's been under construction for the decades we've been hiking up here) and, when we were there, a barking, unleashed dog. The top of Monte Cavo unfortunately is chock-full of cell towers now, with no trace of Diana's temple. (You also can take the asphalt road that's close to the gate up and around to the top instead of the dirt trail).

Descend the way you came, until you again reach the blue sanctuary.  If you're exhausted (you've done about half the total elevation) return to town on the trail--straight ahead, past gorilla rock (photo above with Dianne leaning on the rock). (You really don't want to do this if you're hiking for your lunch.)  If you're still up for lunch, curve left around the sanctuary and descend on the 2,000-year old via Sacra, which will cross an asphalt road ahead. Apparently there was an effort around 2006 to clear the via Sacra and put in benches and picnic tables and signs.  A few of each of those, in dilapidated condition, remain.

Below, there's a problem.  The stones of the via Sacra will suddenly end, on the edge of a large open space that was being logged when we were there (May 2019).  At that time, one could choose to go left around the logged area or right.  We chose left, where there were some trail markings.  WRONG.  We ended up walking at least half a mile on a very dangerous, no-shoulder road.  Go right, on the logging road, several hundred yards to a trail that goes off to the right.

When you see this abomination, go right along the logging road until you see a trail off right..
You'll be on this for a few minutes.  Look for a trail that descends left at a right angle, and take it.  In about 5 minutes you should come out on the road, close to the Trattoria La Baita (just to your right).  Have the fettucine or the roast maiale or whatever else you like; the cook knows how to cook.  There is a nice outside space but also an inside dining room, if the weather is chilly.  You'll be welcome even in your hiking garb.

Only locals, clearly, in La Baita. There were 2 choices for each stage of lunch, listed
on a blackboard outside.  Pick any of them!  This is a half-portion of tagliatelle with funghi
porcini and crispy guanciale.  Amazing!
Return the way you came: up through the woods, right at the first "T," left when you hit the logging clearing, left again a few hundred yards up the logging road, onto the via Sacra), up the via Sacra to the blue sanctuary (no need to go back up to the top of Monte Cavo), then straight down the trail (abandoning the via Sacra) into town.

Rusty house and view of Colatrava's unused swimming pool, on the descent into town
You'll go by this basketball hoop both ways.
One of the all-time best hikes in the Colli Albani.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Quinto Sulpicio Massimo: the Child Poet who Studied Himself to Death

We've always enjoyed the eclectic frenzy of Piazza Fiume, at the juncture of Corso d'Italia and via Salaria, one of ancient Rome's consular roads. But there's a part of that eclectic mix that we've never understood: the jumble of "ruins" of various kinds on the north side of the piazza. Thanks to a morning newspaper, Il Messaggero, we now have a better understanding of what happened there, and when.

Looking through the fence (or over it) at the ruins, there's a statue of a small boy in a niche (above), with some writing to the sides and below, and below that, some large grey blocks of stone. You're looking at the tomb of Quinto Sulpicio Massimo (note the street sign with that name nearby to the right). Quinto was a prodigy, a boy genius, when at age eleven, in 94 d.c., he entered the third "Certamen Capitolinum," a contest featuring extemporaneous Greek poetry "readings." Rome's most famous poets competed--more than 50 of them were entered--but none performed so ably as young Quinto, who improvised 40 verses, no doubt astonishing those in attendance. Whether he won is not known.

Sadly, Quinto's career in oratory was cut tragically short. As the text around the niche explains, Quinto died a few days after the competition, weakened by "too much studying and his excessive love for the 'muse.'"

Quinto's tomb, and another beside it, remained intact for 2 centuries, protected from the barbarian invasion of 276 by the hastily constructed wall built under Emperor Marcus Aurelias' watch. According to Il Messaggero, his tomb was encased in one of the two towers of Porta Salaria.

Vespignani's Porta Salaria

You'll notice that there is no Porta Salaria. It didn't survive the cannons of the invading Goths under King Vitige in 537. Then (skipping ahead some 13 centuries), under the new Italian state, the Porta was rebuilt by Virginio Vespignani, only to be torn down in 1921 to open up the piazza. It was then that Quinto's story came to light: as Vespignani's work was being disassembled, workers uncovered the niche and statue--the "cippo"--that one sees today (although the statue is a copy; the original is in Centrale Montemartini, on via Ostiense).

The structures behind the tomb for many years housed the studio of sculpture Ettore Ferrari, who died in 1929. Among other large works, Ferrari created the statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de' Fiori.

Somewhere back there was Ferrari's studio.  

And one more "treat." If you walk around the corner to your left (facing the tomb), and look up at the wall, you can't miss the latrine--a toilet--hanging off the side of the wall (on its outside, of course). At one time there were 260 latrines on the Aurelian wall, serving the soldiers who worked in the
Convenient bathroom