Rome Travel Guide

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Night at the University: Mario Sironi's monumental Aula Magna Mural

We were attracted.
We're always eager to get official access to Rome buildings we haven't been in, and so in mid-May we headed off eagerly to the university--La Sapienza, as this one is known--to explore an evening open house.  Not much was open, actually, but the dinosaurs in front of one of the science buildings caught our attention, and we headed over.  That building is standard Fascist-era issue (most of the buildings here are of mid-1930s vintage), nothing about it of significant interest, really, even for RST, a fan of most of the era's architecture (including Gio Ponti's mathematics building on this campus).

Lots of people enjoy looking at rocks.
Still, we enjoyed puttering around in an old-fashioned museum of mineralogy, about which we know nothing.










Nude miners, mining

We were surprised to learn that Sicily was a center of sulfur mining, and that the mining was done by nude men.  Why nudity was required is not clear, though the poster's fine print might have offered an explanation.








Aula exterior



Having had enough of even very beautiful rocks, we took a chance and headed to the Aula Magna--the big hall on the campus that hosts concerts and other events (the official name is Aula Magna del Rettorato della Sapienza).  We had seen the exterior before, but had never been inside the building or its main hall, which features an important mural by Mario Sironi, a significant artist of the era (and the subject of a large retrospective a year or so ago). The outside of the Aula was suggestively lit for the evening, and--lo and behold--the doors to the auditorium were open.



Students with photos of themselves portraying very different
types of people (bride, hipster, etc.)
Inside, art students presented their work, a quartet offered music, and free wine was being served. We had talked to the students at the table (see left), and they were watching us.










And inside the hall, an orchestra was playing. And there was the Sironi mural.  We sat down, listened, and looked.


The mural is enormous--90 square meters--but even so, it can be difficult, as I'm sure readers will understand, to absorb the contents of such a work when there are distractions--an illuminated
The hall from our seats
audience, the music, the contours of an 80-year old modernist space, the thrill of being there. Here's what we later learned:

The mural is titled "L'Italia fra le Arti e le Scienze"--Italy between [probably better translated and] the Arts and Sciences.  As the story goes, the lead architect for the new university, Marcello Piacentini, approached the Duce with Sironi's name.  In 1933, Mussolini received the artist and acknowledged the great difficulty of presenting Fascism on the grand wall of the grand hall of the grand new university.

Sironi took the commission (we wonder if he had any choice) and, in two months, produced his mural.  It includes representations of astronomy, mineralogy, botany, geography, architecture, literature, painting, and history--the latter symbolized by the woman, at front/right, back turned, a book in her hands.  When it was unveiled, along with the rest of the university, in 1935 or 1936, it included a triumphal arch--the symbol of Roman conquests--a Fascist eagle, the Fascist date XIV (14th year of Fascism, or 1936), and a figure, presumably Mussolini, on horseback.  He liked to ride.
The mural was severely damaged a few years later, during World War II, and the early 1950s restoration by Carlo Siviero was freighted with guilt and embarrassment over Mussolini's regime and Fascism.  As a result, the restoration eliminated the man and the horse, re-sized the arch and the eagle (although we can't see the eagle), eliminated the Fascist-era date, and changed the "looks" of some of the figures.  Much was painted over.

Another, quite limited restoration took place in 1982.  The current restoration, which promises to restore the mural to something like its original state, began on July 1, 2015, just 6 weeks after our visit.  A reason to return.

Bill
Exiting the university through a Fascist-era arcade, its lines softened by the contemporary banners.




Sunday, January 31, 2016

RST's Favorite 2015 Rome Restaurants - i.e., Trattorie

The bustling front dining room at Betto e Mary; not sure about the stuffed animal cow and her scarf.  Perhaps someone
will come forth with an explanation.  And the server?  She's the talking menu.
With the usual caveat that we are not foodies, we are taking a break from all that architecture to provide notes on places in Rome where we enjoyed eating this past year.  RST likes to graze, we must admit.  We like small plates; we don't like to be fussed over.  So if you are into high-tone culinary experiences, you probably should not read on (as you also can deduce from the photo above).  But if you like a casual meal, with no or few tourists around, and excellent classic Roman dishes, check out the 3 trattorie below - in a variety of neighborhoods: Monteverde Vecchio, Flaminio, and Tor Pignattara.  We'll take on 4 even more casual places in a subsequent post.

In a covered outside dining area at Betto e Mary - where you
are likely to sit without a reservation (and it's very pleasant).
We've previously mentioned Betto e Mary in the Tor Pignattara neighborhood.  We've enjoyed it partly because it's close to one of our favorite galleries, Wunderkammern.  And the area is known for high-quality wall art. The walk from Wunderkammern to the restaurant will give you a great sampling of that art (check out the StreetArtRoma app - the app is much better than the Web site - for excellent directions).

For those in search of a non-tourist experience, you can't do better than Betto e Mary.  I can't recall how we came to know about it, because you won't find it easily.  It does have many (high) ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor (the latter spells the name incorrectly) which I checked after we'd been there a couple times.  And I only found out from reading an article in Men's Journal that it's considered a "communist" restaurant (that means apparently only that it's for locals, not businessmen).
Our 26 Euro bill at Betto e Mary was so low,
 we took a photo of it.  And when we paid it,
someone rang a bell and shouted
 "Mancia! mancia!" (tip! tip!)

You probably need a bit of Italian to get by, or be willing to take your chances on, e.g., horsemeat, innards.  The available dishes are described to you by your server; that's it. You can take a look at the (Italian) Facebook page for photos of some of the offerings.  To get to the restaurant, take the #1 tram from the side of Termini or from Porta Maggiore to either the Filarete or Tor Pignattara stop and follow a map or gps from there - it's only a couple blocks.  DON'T follow the Men's Journal advice to take the Metro to Villa Medici and ask! And, although not far from Pigneto, Betto e Mary is not really in Pigneto.  Address: Via dei Savorgnan, 99, 00176 Rome; tel. 0664771096.  I also don't think the open and closing hours are accurate in Men's Journal.
Early in the evening at Lo Sgobbone, before it filled up.



The outside tables are popular at Lo Sgobbone.
Second up, Lo Sgobbone, in our Flaminio neighborhood last year. As I said in my review on TripAdviser, I had to be talked into going in the first place, because the outside awning was so dirty, I didn't trust it. But Bill prevailed, and he was right. Terrific (clean inside) local trattoria, and few tourists. This restaurant isn't too far from MAXXI or from Foro Italico, if you are doing either of those sites. Lo Sgobbone features the usual Italian dishes - we had an excellent spaghetti (billed as tagliolini but it was spaghetti) with fresh artichokes...gotta keep eating them as long as they are in season, and a very good roast veal - large portions. I also ordered the fresh asparagus "a piacere" - prepared as I wished, and I wished with butter and parmesan.  A delicious large plateful was $10 and worth it.  The house white is from Pitigliano in SE Tuscany - an area we love - and perfectly serviceable.  You are given a 1 liter bottle and you pay for "a consumiano" - what you consume.

The awning, Dianne's objection, looks better at night.
We were too full to try the desserts, but they looked terrific, and the Italians around us were not holding back.  For us, this is so much better than Anthony Bourdain's Cacio e Pepe in Prati, or Katie Parla's favorite Cesare al Casaletto (sorry, Katie, usually we think you are spot on and we recommend you every time, but we can't agree on this one).  Bill is loathe to check any other reviews before we go to a restaurant, and he's often proven right - they lead one astray.  I checked Lo Sgobbone only after we went, assuming no one had discovered it, and it shows up with excellent ratings on both Yelp and TripAdviser.  Lo Sgobbone, btw, appears to mean a hard worker, but with a negative connotation (leave it to the Italians!). Via dei Podesti, 10 (between the Lungotevere Flaminio and viale Pinturicchio; near Ponte della Musica), tel: 06 3232994.  And nice photos on the Italian Facebook page.

Third, Tutto Qua!, in the Monteverde Vecchio neighborhood.  This is tinier than the two trattorie above, and more upscale in cuisine and price, but still reasonable.  It's not your classic Italian trattoria, in other words, but it usually has several classics on the menu.  I love the atmosphere, the creative menu, and the presentation.  The wine list is also good, especially for such a small spot.  You can see more photos on Tutto Qua!'s (Italian) Web site and  Facebook.  It's much praised on TripAdvisor (Yelp hasn't discovered it yet).  One drawback: you usually need a reservation.  Our phone number was taken down incorrectly and when the owner couldn't reach us the day before, he cancelled our reservation. So be careful when you reserve a table.  A few outside tables in season, as well (also subject to reservations).  Via Barrilli 66 (via Barrilli turns into via Carini), not far from Il Vascello Theater. tel: 06 580 3649.
Outside, looking in, at Tutto Qua! in Monteverde Vecchio.
We didn't include RST's favorite restaurant in Rome, Mithos, La taverna dell'allegria, because we've written about it many times.  Check out the Facebook site  to see if you can stay away.

And now it's time for some Buffalo wings (when in Buffalo we live 3 blocks from where they were first concocted - Frank and Teresa's Anchor Bar).

Dianne

Monday, January 25, 2016

The postwar American Academy in Rome: Incubator for Modern Architecture


Writing in the latest issue of American Academy in Rome Magazine, 2015 Fellow Denise R. Constanzo examines how the Academy, located in a city better known for its ancient monuments and baroque churches than sleek, modern buildings, survived the rise of postwar architectural modernism.


 "Rome and the classical legacy promoted by its academies," she writes, "were antithetical to modernism's emphasis on industrial materials, abstract forms, and progressive politics.  Constanzo continues:  "Many of Rome's own modernist developments were ideologically problematic, because they enjoyed considerable Fascist support.  After World War II, when modernism gained widespread official sanction, the Rome Prize appeared irrelevant, perhaps even perilous, to an architect's career."



"How, exactly," asks Costanzo, did the Academy survive?  The answer, she argues, is that the American Academy, unlike its French and British counterparts, left its Fellows free to explore Rome's diversity, "eliminating all work requirements in favor of independent projects with minimal oversight."

Venturi: Sainbury wing of the National Gallery, London (1991).
A meeting of modernism and classicism--i.e., postmodernism.


There's a good deal of truth in that explanation, but it's not the whole story.  It would seem to be relevant to Robert Venturi's 1957 experience as an Academy Fellow.  As the title of his brilliant and influential 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, would suggest, Venturi reveled in Rome's urban and architectural ambiguities, its tensions and paradoxes, its "messy vitality."


Quaroni poster for E42






I would add, nonetheless, that Rome's architecture was not as far out of the mainstream as Constanzo might claim. Eero Saarinen was not in the least reluctant to fashion his entry in a 1948 competition (what would become the St. Louis Arch) along the lines of a similar arch drawn by Ludovico Quaroni for E42, an enormous exposition designed to commemorate the 1922 March on Rome.  At the very least, Saarinen was likely familiar with the imperial meaning of Italian arches, dating to antiquity and running through Fascism, and that knowledge fazed him not at all as he prepared his contest submission.

Just as important, elements of Rome's diverse architectural heritage contained the seeds of two strands of American postwar architecture: postmodernism and brutalism. With its weighty mass and its affection for unforgiving, uniform facades of reinforced concrete, the brutalist movement that
Fascist-era office building, viale Castro Pretorio, Rome.  A precursor of brutalism--and perhaps postmodernism, too.  
began in the late 1960s owed much to the ponderous office buildings of the Fascist-era, though the latter used marble and stone.

Michael Graves, Steigenberger Hotel, Egypt 


Postmodernism, with is pastiche of forms, its penchant for mixing and matching architectural styles and elements, was eclectic Rome itself, full of juxapositions and the "complexities" that Venturi so admired.  It was the sort of place where Michael Graves--also a Rome Prize recipient (1962)--could begin to imagine his Portland Building, the Steigenberger Hotel in El Gouna, Egypt, the Humana Building in Lousiville, or any of a number of his other "postmodern" buildings.

Bill

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Aurelian Wall Walk VI: From the University to Piazza Fiume, or Glad No One Was With Us





If you look hard, you'll see a piece of the wall in back.  It's a lovely courtyard, but gives no hint of how one can start
walking the wall.
Some of you dear readers may recall we last left you on a wall walk with Annie, which ended at the Aeronautical Ministry Building on viale Castro Pretorio.  [Links to posts describing the wall walks to date are at the end of this post.]  The wall did take a break for that 1930s building, and so did we - for a stop in the University and for lunch.  You may recall Bill and Dianne of RST attempted to walk - in stretches, sometimes with unsuspecting visitors along -  the entire 12 mile circumference of the 3rd century Aurelian Wall, of which about half remains intact.  

For this particular tract, the 2 of us decided it would be easy enough to pick up the wall where we left off, where viale dell'Università meets viale Castro Pretorio, but we were sadly mistaken.  Part of the problem is that the land that once held the enormous ancient Roman military base, Castro Pretorio, now is both military property and the national library with its immense grounds, not all open to the public.  The military base would have been incorporated into, and used to make part of the wall in the 3rd century; this is another example of the Romans incorporating existing buildings into the wall - one reason the Aurelian Wall went up so quickly.  But not so easy to figure out in the 21st century. In any event, here's our route in photos, and we're sparing you the many times we walked back and forth half a mile or so at a time, adding several miles to what should have been the route, all to try to find the  "f***ing wall" (as our co-walker on one stretch, Brian, dubbed it).  

And one of our loyal readers suggested we provide a map of our wall walks.  We are taking that under consideration and hope to provide some map guidance at the end of our trek, but no one would have wanted to follow the route we took this day.  UPDATE:  Map at this Google link.
After walking from the Aeronautical Building, past the garden above, then the military 
compound, we thought we were really getting to the wall when we approached the national library.

We scouted around behind the library, where
it seemed like the wall should be, and this is
what we found.  Yup, that's the wall behind
the fence and bushes.  Not so easy to follow,
unless you are a bird, or a drone.












After walking and back and forth the equivalent of a mile or so,
on viale Castro Pretorio, we gave up and walked to its busy
 intersection with viale del Policinico.  If you can't start where
you want, start at the other end, we figured.  And we knew the
wall would be at the end of this stretch, as this photo shows.




This broken start to the wall was a sight for sore eyes. And the beginning
of our trek backwards along this stretch.


A well-maintained shrine to commemorate World War II
civilians who died was built into the wall here.


The outside of the wall along viale del Policinico
has some particularly nice, tall stretches.








Some even under repair.



But here we lose the wall as it heads into private property.












That's it, back there, not too far away from the military base and the
library, but this was as close as we could get.  Now we have to walk BACK
to the intersection of viale del Policlinico and viale Castro Pretorio.

















Once at the intersection, it was easy walking along the busy Corso d'Italia
 (above,  not in the tunnels). Though these "temporary" supports don't 
encourage one to walk too near the wall.


The one-legged World War I Bersagliere hero, Enrico Toti
(we'll see him again in Wall Walk VII) - a monument inside
Porta Pia.

A view of Porta Pia.  Typical of the wall, the Porta forms part of it,
or it forms part of the porta.  This famous (now rebuilt) porta was
where the secular forces breached the wall to force the end of
 the Papal State in the Risorgimento, September 20, 1870




Looking back towards Porta Pia  - nice stretches of the wall, intact.




Not to be deterred, we tried walking INSIDE
 the wall here. No go.  Private property again.


The usual markers for a Pope who restored the wall at
 some point.  In this case, Pius IV, Pope from 1559-1565
 (you can see his coat of arms on Piazza del Popolo as well).
We discovered, before Piazza Fiume, this monument to
September 20, 1870.  The hundreds of times we had driven
down Corso d'Italia (admittedly, mostly in the tunnels),
 we had  always seen Porta Pia, but never this monument.
Shows you what walking will do.








Creative use of a hole in the wall.  That's Piazza Fiume ahead,
with the large La Rinascente department store.


The wall is particularly heavily used as one approaches Piazza Fiume,
with lots of building within  the wall itself, as well as onto it.


Our just desserts, a glass of wine at Caffè Piave, not far from
 Piazza Fiume, and near a bus stop.
Okay, so we hadn't covered a lot of wall ground by now, but we'd been out for hours and so called it quits, or we convinced ourselves it was cocktail hour somewhere.

Dianne

Wall Walk I: Porta Metronia to Porta Maggiore.
Wall Walk II: Porta Metronia to Porta San Paolo.
Wall Walk III: The Tame and the Wild Sides (Porta San Paolo to the Tevere).
Wall Walk IV: Porta Portese to the Gianicolo, or Brian's Lament.
Wall Walk V: Porta Maggiore to Castro Pretorio, or Annie's Reward.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Rome: Italy's Capital...of Evictions

Pigneto mural.  The flag says "STOP Sfratti"
"Rome is Italy's capital of evictions," announces professor of Urban Studies Pierpaolo Mudu in a recent essay on housing.  According to Mudu, about 6700 eviction orders were issued in 2011, and since 1983 actual evictions have average 2850 every year.  About 60% of evictions occur because tenants can't or wouldn't pay the rent, most of the rest because a rental contract had expired.

The Italian word for evictions is "sfratti."

Ar bottom: "Together we block evictions."  

The odd thing about evictions is one seldom sees them happening.  No heap of furniture outside, no
tearful tenants being dragged from their doorways. That's because today, most evictions take place on Rome's periphery, where the city's working class and poor reside, rather than in the tourist-heavy Centro.













That wasn't always the case.  In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of ordinary Romans were evicted from their center-city homes and apartments to make way for the broad avenues and vehicles favored by the Fascist regime.  They were moved to borgate (villages, hamlets), including Acilia, built from scratch in 1923, about 15 km outside the city.  Later, those evicted--both from legal and illegal housing (borgetti) were moved to Magliana (built at the end of the 1960s), and to public housing built at Laurentino 38, Tor Bella Monaca, and Corviale.

Typical post-war public housing.  Centocelle area.  
For much of the early twentieth century, Rome governments, whether Fascist or democratic, built  a lot of public housing.  Some of it, as in close-in Garbatella, was well-designed and produced workable communities. And some of it--Corviale is a famous example--was poorly designed, alienating from the start.

Beginning in about 1980 (coinciding with Reagan's election in the United States), city governments showed little interest in public housing, even as housing absorbed a larger and larger percentage of household income, and evictions continued apace.


Squatters in EUR, c. 1940
Thousands of  people found accommodations as squatters, living in unoccupied quarters in housing projects, or in shanty towns without public services.  In the 1970s there were forced relocations from Valle Aurelia, Mandrione, Prenestino and Casilino to "dormitories" in Corviale, Laurentino 38, and Spinaceto.







Idroscalo, once again threatened with demolition.
Today there is apparently only one borgetto (an illegally constructed neighborhood) left in Rome: Idroscalo, on the coast. About 100 of the homes in Idroscalo were bulldozed in 2011, and it seems clear that the authorities would like to level the remaining buildings to make way for a large marina, a resort hotel, and other amenities they think will attract tourists with money.






Vicolo Savini, after evictions of Rom (Roma) in 2011
It's tempting to blame the evictions on insensitive right-wing mayors, like Gianni Alemanno, and indeed he was responsible for the 2011 evictions from 4 unauthorized encampments, in Tiburtina and vicolo Savini (across the river from the Marconi neighborhood), most of whose residents were Roma (sometimes called "Rom," sometimes "gypsies").  But the center-left hasn't been much better.  In 2005, Walter Veltroni (who wrote an introduction to our first book, Rome the Second Time) authorized the eviction of hundreds of Senegalese and Italians from Residence Roma, a building near Forte Bravetta on Rome's north end.

Communist Party poster opposing
evictions.  Posted by a Quadraro committee,
but this one was in Torpignattara.  
Resistance to evictions, and more generally to inadequate housing, was in the post-war years led by the Communist Party, which sought to help residents of the borgate by working to legalize illegal housing.  Although not the force it was years ago, the party remains active in opposing evictions.

Graffiti in San Basilio, commemorating the 30th anniversary
 of the 1974 deadly clash with police over evictions
 (reading "San Basilio: Same Dignity, Same Anger, 1974-2014")
















After 1970, the main form of resistance was squatting--that is, the illegal occupation of empty apartments and buildings, including public housing projects--along with demands for lower rents.  At one protest in San Basilio in September 1974, a young left-wing activist was killed in a clash with police.

Today, some of San Basilio's "projects" are decorated with handsome multi-story murals, including a group of 6 by Hitnes.  Even so, if the posters and graffiti in San Basilio and similar neighborhoods are any indication, evictions continue, and with them, new efforts at resistance.

Bill

"Rent is Robbery. Occupy"     Pigneto.