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

Monday, February 11, 2019

A (Rare) Children's Museum in Rome

The front of the Explora children's museum, which is built in a former tram barn
on via Flaminia in the Flaminio district of Rome, just beyond Piazza del Popolo
(Flaminio Metro stop). Inside are interesting historical photos of the trams and tram barn.
Rome is notoriously difficult for families with young children.  Look in any book that purports to suggest what to do with kids, and you will find very little for children under 6.

This photo was taken in a rare moment when no trams or
cars were zipping within inches of the baby.
It's also just plain difficult to get around Rome with young children. As the photos (left and below) show, the spot to wait for a tram has no protection from the cars and trams whizzing by. And the #19 tram that goes to the sole children's museum wasn't large enough to get a stroller in it without 2 strong people lifting the stroller over some bars in the doorway.
The tram, full of metal bars.

Any park, the zoo, a swing set - yes, those are all reasonable options.
But if you feel you've exhausted those, there is one children's hands-on 'museum' of sorts, "Explora" - which calls itself "The Museum of Children of Rome."

Delight in the cloths that came out of the wind
For our young grandchildren - ages 1-1/2 and 4 - it was an ideal activity for a few hours.

We were lucky, because our arrival at the museum was timed well with the very rigid time frame imposed by this private museum (more on that later).

Steering the 'train.'

The advantage of the museum is that the 'exhibits' are designed for child interaction. One of our granddaughters spent lots of time "guiding" the train that runs along the top of the museum walls. The younger one loved the "fruits and vegetables" that could be planted, picked, and shopped for. The rigid time frames allow the museum workers to clean up and set up the exhibits after each group goes through, and they also keep control over the numbers of children trying to use the hands-on exhibits.

Playing with the 'carrots.'

Coffee bar and entrance.
The museum has a perfectly adequate coffee bar in the front waiting area, and a nice dining area that is mostly outside (one reviewer complained about the plastic sheeting - what is that about? fairly standard where one gets both inside and outside environments together). The prices aren't cheap, but they also aren't exorbitant, and the food is classically Italian good.
Restaurant - and the plastic sheets are a problem??

                                                                      With the picnic area, you can bring your own lunch.  The outside area also has a zip line, that is free for anyone to use. In the U.S. this probably would be viewed as too dangerous to leave to anyone walking up to it.  Here, it was fun. Every child entering the museum must be accompanied by an adult; so the theory must be that the adults will supervise their children.
Unsupervised zip line.

Nicely landscaped gardens behind the museum.
Now to the rigidity. You can enter the museum only at 4 times during the day (3 in August): 10, 12, 3 and 5.  And your time in the museum is limited to an hour and 45 minutes.  You cannot leave and come back in. Every child must be accompanied by an adult, and vice versa (It doesn't have to be literally 1:1; there were 3 of us adults and 2 children). And everyone, except children under 12 months, has to pay: as of 2019, 8 Euros for adults and children 3 and over; 5 Euros for children 12-36 months. The museum oddly is private. Decent Website, and you can purchase tickets here:

Via Flaminia, 80/86 - 00196  Roma  info@mdbr.itTel. +39 06 3613776 

Dianne (aka Grandma)
This stock photo shows the museum can have too many children and lines.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Cy Twombly in Rome

Cy Twombly, Ferragosto IV, 1961.
The canvases of Cy Twombly now sell in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, but that doesn't make them easy to understand, appreciate, enjoy, or like.  The content of these canvases can seem like scribbling, or markings, or doodles, or tracings, lacking in any obvious meaning.  Twombly himself hasn't been of much help in deciphering or explaining his work; he gave few interviews and was a deeply private person, committed to his art but not to helping the art world--or ordinary folks--understand it.

Why should we care about Twombly at Rome the Second Time?  Because, as we learned from Joshua Rivkin's important new book, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (2018), Twombly spent significant periods of time living and working in Italy--in Gaeta, Bassano, Grottaferrata, Sperlonga and, especially, Rome, which he once described as "home." (We first wrote about Twombly and Rome in 2009 in a post appropriately titled, "Twombly and us in Rome.")

Twombly was about as far from Italian as one can get.  He was born in Lexington, Virginia, deep in the Shenandoah Valley, on April 25, 1928.  He valued the area, including the nearby Civil War battlefields, and he maintained a studio in Lexington.  He studied painting as a teenager, learned more at the Art Students League in New York City and at avant-garde Black Mountain College, where he and Robert Rauschenberg were fellow students, friends, and lovers.

Cy, photographed by Rauschenberg, 1952
"When I grow up I'll go to Rome," Twombly is said to have remarked, and in September, 1952 he made it there, with Rauschenberg, who photographed him beside the enormous hand of Constantine in the Capitoline museum and on the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

They stayed for 6 weeks, living in a pensione,  Twombly wrote, "overlooking the Piazza di Spagna a block from via Margutta where most of the important contemporary painters and sculptors have studios." Rome was attractive for many reasons, not least, as novelist John Cheever wrote, because "no one cares" about two men living together.

For two days he walked the city, then bought materials and set to work, while continuing to experience Rome's pleasures.  Consistent with his canvases, Twombly became something of a scavenger (or a collector if you will), haunting Rome's flea markets, including one "in a little Piazza del something or other" (Rauschenberg's words), purchasing marble busts and Etruscan relics brought in from the countryside.  "He just went crazy," an irritated Rauschenberg added.

Sosos, "Unswept Room"  
At the Vatican museum, Twombly discovered the Sosos mosaic (above) known as the "unswept room," which included a pea pod on the floor.  In 1957, Twombly wrote, "One must desire the ultimate essence even if it is," like the pea pod, "contaminated."   "The discarded," Rivkin adds, "is picked up and turned into art in the mosaic, as in Twombly's work....Twombly gathers debris into his work: the debris of history, the debris of quoted poems, the debris of the body, the debris of the mind."

The art world did not at first respond positively.  Twombly returned to the US in the spring of 1953, working in New York toward a 1953 show that would include his Rome production and other paintings done in and about Morocco.  One critic wrote that the paintings "resemble graffiti, or the drawings of pre-kindergarten children."  Another wrote, "to read an intelligible or communicable meaning into them is impossible.  The best thing to be said is that they apparently render the artists's sensations convincingly."

Cy in 1959

In February 1957 Twombly returned to Rome and environs, this time at the urging of Italian painter Toti Scialoja.  For two months he lived and painted in the Colli Albani town of Grottaferrata, staying with a woman friend who facilitated introductions to Rome's art world, then moving into the city proper.

There, in a studio across from the Coliseum, he painted Blue Room, Sunset, Olympia and Arcadia--"tender open canvases," as he described them.  He met Willem de Kooning and the Italian artist Afro in Rome, but found the gallery scene "nil" and added, "there is little chance of my selling here."

Twombly, "Olympia"
So it was back to New York City, but only briefly.  In early 1959 he married Luisa Tatiana Franchetti in a ceremony in New York, then returned to Rome for a 2nd ceremony.  He would remain there for most of the next decade.  Not yet a real success, he had a show at Galleria La Tartaruga--a meeting place for artists in Rome.

His wife Tatiana came from money, and she used it to purchase a 17th-century Rome palazzo, where the couple lived and Twombly did some of his work (he also rented a studio on Piazza del Biscione). 

Cy at the via di Monserrato palazzo, 1966
The palazzo was near Piazza Farnese on via Monserrato.  Seeking privacy and as much silence as the location would afford (there was a restaurant below), he covered the windows with upholstery.  Working in the heat of August at the Biscione studio, he did a series of 5 Ferragosto paintings ("Ferragosto" is Italy's mid-August holiday), "cartoonish and serious," Rivkin writes, "anxious and wild, layered and dirty, a sequence that mirrors his state of mind and his home of Rome."

From the "Ferragosto" sequence
Returning from a brief sojourn in New York, Twombly returned to Rome in 1966, accomplishing what Rivkin describes as "the best paintings of his life"--the blackboard paintings--characterized by the "illusion of legibility," derived, perhaps, from hour-long walks in the city.  The paintings, write Rivkin, "offer an unending trace that speaks in an illegible tongue," the "after life of [Jackson] Pollock, the tradition which Twombly be in conversation with."

Right, from the "Blackboard" sequence, here at MOMA
Twombly was in and out of Rome for the next 40 years, spending time in Bolsena and Gaeta as well.
He disliked what Rome had become.  "It's wall to wall," he wrote of the Rome of 2000.  "If I went to Rome now, I wouldn't spend two days.  But when I went I was in paradise."  Still, anticipating death he returned to Rome, visiting the graves of Shelley and Keats in the Protestant cemetery.  He died in a Rome hospital on July 5, 2011.

Rivkin's passionate book is, among other attributes, a remarkable effort to penetrate Twombly's consciousness (or unconsciousness), including his relationship to Rome.  In search of Twombly, Rivkin interviewed everyone he could find that knew the artist.  More than that, he spent months walking Rome's streets, trying to see what Twombly had seen, to feel what he had felt.
"So many Romes," writes Rivkin.  "And yet, there is really just one.  The Rome that exists in the mind, neither city nor site nor space, but something wild and uncontainable."  In Rome, Rivkin continues, "material is everywhere.  In the display cases of museums, on the graffiti-marked walls of apartment buildings, in the hurry of train stations where the cars arrive off-schedule, in lovers arguing at intersections....High and low.  Past and present."

A typical messy Rome wall--this one, actually, in nearby Frascati in the Colli Albani.
Photo ©  by William Graebner.
That's the second reference in this post linking Twombly's work to graffiti--and there's more.  "Twombly," writes Rivkin, "erases away the surface by building it up, a process of accretion and layering and crossing out, pencil or paint, not unlike how a city wall accumulates--like graffiti over posters over brick, over and over, or for that matter, a life."

Could be Twombly, but it's just a messy Rome wall, layered with graffiti (2018).
Photo ©  by William Graebner.
Growing up, Twombly had scribbled graffiti-like messages on the basement walls of his home, and Rivkin, walking the streets of contemporary Rome, speculates that Twombly must have been inspired by what he found on the surfaces of the city.  "The endless graffiti," Rivkin writes, "cocks, love notes, political slogans--on the sidewalks and walls, on bridges and iron grates shuttering the cafes at night, as ever-present now as when he first walked those streets."

Layering, Rome 2018. Photo ©  by William Graebner.
We are skeptical that the Rome walls of today closely resemble those of the early and mid-1960s, when Twombly was working there; as an important, dominant form of urban conversation, graffiti emerges only in the 1970s, and a look at photo books of Rome in the 1950s and 1960s does not reveal much graffiti.  Nonetheless, Rome has never been lacking in the sort of visual and historical complexities and layerings that intrigued Twombly.  Graffiti aside, Rivkin's analysis cannot be far from the truth.

There is a plaque to Twombly, mounted on a marble pillar near the entrance to Chiesa Nuova, where his funeral was held.  Another Rome site of note is the Gagosian Gallery.  Twombly's "III Notes from Salalah" inaugurated the gallery in 2007.

The 2007 Gagosian exhibition of Twombly paintings.  

More "found art" photos by William Graebner at

Friday, January 25, 2019

From Dull to Playful: the Ciaramaglia Renovation near Piazza Mazzini

It doesn't look like any other building in Rome. You might not notice it in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Miami, but it stands out in Delle Vittorie (sometimes referred to as Della Vittoria), a district of the city just north of Prati, and one characterized by the homogeneity of its buildings, most of them constructed between 1900 and 1930.

The building is only a short walk from the elegance (and traffic) of Piazza Mazzini.  Occupying a triangle of land, the official address is via Pietro Borsieri 2/A.  It's surrounded by via Borsieri, via Carlo Poma, and via Angelo Broffierio.

The site was for many years occupied by a 1925 villino built by reknowned architect Enrico del Debbio, who supervised and designed the monumental sports complex once known as Foro Mussolini and now called Foro Italico (further north in Delle Vittorie).

The Del Debbio building, 1925
And in disrepair, decades later.
Del Debbio's villino was torn down in the early 1970s, an era best known in architectural circles for "brutalist" structures built in concrete.  This 1973 building is the building--more or less--than exists today, though it's been throughly renovated, its appearance changed considerably.

Professor of architecture Mose' Ricci described the original building as "one of the few [buildings] in the city expressing a rugged modernity, and perhaps a bit dull.  A brutalist architecture in reinforced concrete and brise soleil [sun baffles], so courageous and yet so out of place for [the area], where the homogeneity of the urban context reigns."

The 1973 building, brise soleil intact.  They would be removed in the renovation.
According to one account, the architecture students of the day "loved it very much for the idea of modernity and internationalism it expressed."

The architect of the 1973 structure was a Roman, Alvaro Ciaramaglia, whose other contributions to the city include a residential building on via Cipro and others at via Crescenzio, 86 and via Cola di Rienzo, at the junction with via Alessandro Farnese.  He's considered unusual among architects because he combined diverse roles, including commissioner, designer and builder.  According to his son, he was also known for an almost "manic care for any kind of detail."

The Borsieri building expressed Ciaramaglia's interest in the architectural avant-garde, including  the English neo-brutalists and international architects Paul Rudolph, Louis Khan, and Kenzo Tange.  More concretely (excuse the pun), the building was actually two separate buildings, connected by two elevated walkways.  Ciaramaglia's building is sometimes compared to the Tree House (Casa Albero) by Giuseppe Perugini, in nearby Fregene.

The Tree House, by Perugini
Originally intended as a shopping mall, Ciaramaglia's complex was never used for that purpose.  For years it was occupied by government agencies, then, probably in the 1990s, fell into disrepair and was mostly empty and abandoned.  After the turn of the century, the building was purchased by the Ghella company, a major international construction firm specializing in tunneling, with the intention of renovating the building and making it the firm's international headquarters.

In 2007, the redesign project was given to the design firm studio Spaini:AA.  The interior was gutted and modernized, but the exterior--a cold, concrete facade, softened somewhat by its rounded corners--was the most serious challenge.  The brise soleil (baffles designed to reduce heat by deflecting sunlight) were removed.  Hi-tech windows were installed to produce an energy-efficient structure.  The first renovations were limited to one of the two buildings.  As of 2018, work was still being done on the 2nd building.

Most important for the current "look" of the building, colored balustrades were used at junctures in the facade, in part to cover places where disparate construction elements came together awkwardly, but also, according to RomaTre professor of architecture Albert Raimond, to "pull away from the
gloomy image [of the building] formed during the years."  Today, the colored balustrades are the building's most distinctive feature, and one unique in Rome.  It remains a symbol of modernism and internationalism--but it's no longer "dull."


Thursday, January 17, 2019


What one sees--in Rome or anywhere else--depends on where one looks. Over the years, we've probably done more down-looking than most travelers. RST regulars may remember the post on manhole covers, or the one on curbs, or the offering on Rome's undulating and ugly asphalt sidewalks, or the one on love poems chalked onto those sidewalks.

But we also look ahead and up; that's where much of the architecture is, and we're fans of buildings of all kinds (even the much-maligned and misunderstood brutalism of the 1970s).  We've written about door handles, spiky things that prevent people from sitting down, the scallop shell motif that appears on so many 19th-century buildings, broken pediments, and the open loggia that's ubiquitous in Rome.

What we haven't written about--hadn't really "seen"--are the "mensole" that are a prominent feature of many buildings.  "Mensole" is the Italian term, and the English word, as we just learned from a reader, is "corbels," with an emphasis on the first syllable. We're talking about the mensole that support--or appear to support--Rome's balconies, roofs, and windows.

Below, a few, of thousands; the last two photos are of Noto, a Sicilian town known for its mensole:

Near the intersection of via Nomentana and viale Regina Margherita
Romanesque Basic 

Late-19th century elegance
Via Paisiello, in Salario.  Not sure what's supporting what here.  
The once-Poligrafico dello Stato (State Printing Office), Piazza Verdi
Coppede'. Focus on gate, unfortunately.
Nice lion. Otherwise leaning into modernism. 
And the Sicilian town of Noto:



Friday, January 11, 2019

Join the Italian sing-along at Fonclea in Prati

Singer Luca Vicari covers Lucio Battisti songs at Fonclea.
It's not an easy task to find music in Rome that's neither contemporary rock (including rap, new age, electronic) nor classical. We've searched for every jazz club in town, and many, if not most, have disappeared over the years (as in Casa del Jazz, La Palma, 28 Divino; although we just discovered Alexanderplatz (in RST's Top 40) which had been closed for over a year and we feared forever, has reopened).

One mainstay of nostalgic rock is Fonclea, a club in Prati, not far from the Vatican. Fonclea started in 1977 as - per their Web site - a "cantina alternativa," an alternative cantina, where young musicians would have a chance to play in public.  Those young musicians have aged and now Fonclea is a 7-days-a-week music spot mainly for cover bands, which seem to be an even bigger phenomenon in Italy than in the U.S. That said, Fonclea is a great place to see and hear those bands.

Choose beer over wine.
The atmosphere is British pub.  As a result, the beer selection is much better than the wine selection.  There is a good-sized menu, and the Italians like to eat there, with their music.  We'd rate the food as fair.

They all knew all the words.
A sampling of Fonclea's schedule, from their Web site.
One night this spring, everyone in the room was singing along to the songs of pop singer Lucio Battisti, who, as Wikipedia says, "is widely recognized for songs that defined the late 1960s and 1970s era of Italian songwriting."  Something of a loner, he died at age 55 in 1998. Some of the songs sounded familiar to us, but we didn't know them well enough to sing along. Even so, it was great fun to be there and hear the music.  

One night another person joined us at our table.  A German tourist, she had wandered into Fonclea from a nearby hotel.  She wanted to know what was going on with the singing audience.  After listening for awhile she declared it was her birthday and the best way she could have spent it, confirming our sense that a night at Fonclea is terrific even if one doesn't know the language.

The cover band for Lucio Battisti's music that we heard makes frequent appearances at Fonclea.  They were founded in 1994 as "Anime Latine" ("Latin souls") by the singer Luca Vicari and drummer Francesco De Chicchis, dedicating themselves only to the music of Battisti.

Info at (if it doesn't work, try it another time). Via Crescenzio 82a. +39 06 689 6302.


We hadn't realized until we looked in our photo files that we had seen the same cover band - from the other side
of the room - in 2015.