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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

How Romans Peed - Celebrating World Toilet Day

In celebration of World Toilet Day, November 19, we offer some thoughts on Roman toilets. To be clear, we aren't being flip about World Toilet Day.  Its goal is worthy - to make sure everyone has a safe toilet by 2030.

The Romans were masters at building and plumbing, as we all know.  It seems obvious that expertise would extend to toilets, and so it did.  The amount of research on Roman toilets is enormous.  We offer only a few examples and thoughts here.

The old Roman seaport city of Ostia, now Ostia Antica, is on a Top Ten list for most Rome visitors. And one can't go there without seeing its common latrine, or sitting on it (hopefully they still let you do that!). RST guest blogger, Martha Bakerjian, featured this photo in her March 6 post this year:

Gemma Jansen, a Dutch historian who may have the distinction of being the world's expert on Roman toilets, published an exceedingly thorough catalog and description of all the toilets at Hadrian's Villa (Villa Adriana, near Tivoli, just outside of Rome).  She says the multi-seaters, which the above photo illustrates,
 "are easy to detect by the remnants of seats above a deep gutter, in front of which was a small gutter in which the toilet sponge could be rinsed. This small gutter is not sunk in the floor, but normally placed on the floor so that it doubles as a foot-rest. The gutter was generally built of bricks or roughly cut into travertine blocks; only a few toilets had sponge gutters of marble. In most cases the toilet seats were made of wood, but in some cases they are of travertine or marble."

I don't want to think too hard about it, but apparently the "sponge stick" is not a universally accepted historical artifact. The above quotation is from an article by Jansen titled "Social Distinctions and Issues of Privacy in the Toilets of Hadrian's Villa."  She also notes the multi-user toilets did not offer much privacy inside, but offered a great deal of privacy from the outside.

The private, single toilet is sometimes hard to distinguish from a nymphaeum, since they both have running water and a drain.  There are at least 19 single toilets, and several small nymphaeums in Hadrian's Villa. Jansen says, 

This is the Caracalla toilet, pilfered from the Baths of 
Caracalla around 1800. The British Museum's description
is as follows: "An ancient Bath-chair of the Pavonazzo
 marble, so called by the Italians. In the centre of the seat
is a hollow space in the form of an extended horseshoe,
 thro which the steam was received [sounds like a fancy
 Toto brand]. On each side a wheel is worked in relief,
 in imitation no doubt, of such  wheel-chairs, as were
 at that time executed in wood, resembling in some 
 degree the chairs of this day, placed on wheels for the 
 use of lame persons."
"The single toilets of the emperor and his high-ranking guests offered much more privacy. A striking discovery is the single-seat toilets for guests. From ancient sources it is clear that even high officials might use multi-seaters, and those found at the baths of Hadrian's Villa confirm this, but the provision of single-seaters specially for guests shows that, when space and money were no object, they preferred single toilets."

The toilets' size and shape, the fact that there apparently are no urinals, and the reading of some statues have raised the question of how Roman males held their penises when they peed.  Jansen is trying to determine if they simply sat when they peed, and then that they held their penises to hide them. Showing a statue (from the British Museum) of a boy peeing, she states, "the penis shows a completely different way of thinking, because the Romans and Greeks wanted their penises to be small. Because that was beautiful."

At a recent small group tour of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibition, "To Rome and Back: Individualism and Authority in Art, 1500-1800" (on until March 17), we had a lengthy discussion on penis size while viewing The Bateman Mercury (below). 

Our guide, an expert in Greek and Roman statues, talked about the research of one of her fellow graduate students into penis size in ancient Greece and Rome.  That researcher came to the same conclusion as Jansen, that a smaller penis was more desirable.  The larger penis, she said, was associated with satyrs, who could not control their libidos, and control was a virtue in the ancient world.

For more on Roman styles of peeing and Roman toilets, including those found throughout the world:

Caroline Lawrence is an indefatigable, if hippy-dippy, source. I quoted above from a sit-down interview she had with Jansen, which is reported in excruciating detail on The History Girls blogspot. Here she speculates on 10 things Romans used for toilet paper (including the pine cone - ouch! worse than my Italian grandmother's Sears catalog pages). And here she writes about the sewers of Herculaneum.  She also writes kids' Roman mystery books.

The latrines in the Baths of the Laberii at
 Uthina  (Tunisia) (from Carole's "Following
Hadrian" blog).
On her English language blog, Following HadrianFrench blogger, Carole, has an amazing collection of her own photos of Roman toilets throughout the Western - and North African - world. These include several more photos of the Ostia Antica latrines, as well as the Tunisian one at left.

There's a nice post by Stephanie Pappas on Pompeians having upstairs toilets on the Live Science blog. (Photo from her blog below.)

Barry Hobson's 2009 book is Latrinae Et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World. 

Jansen has published widely on Roman toilets. She edited a 2011 book, "Roman Toilets, Their Archaeology and Cultural History."  (Okay, at $58, no, I didn't get it.)


Friday, November 9, 2018

Milton Gendel, photographer: He came to Rome and never left

Picnic at Villa Centinale, near Siena.  Milton Gendel photo.  

Milton Gendel in his Washington Square apartment, 1940s
Milton Gendel's Rome experience began with a certain serendipity.  In 1949, at age 31, the New York City native was ready to return to China on a Fulbright scholarship.  Mao's Communist government intervened--the new regime did not welcome young scholars--and Gendel made his way to Rome instead, the beginning of a 60-year relationship with the city.  He never returned to live in the United States.

Within just a few years, Gendel had become a central figure in Rome's art scene.  In the mid-1950s, he helped found the Rome-New York Art Foundation, located on the Tiber Island beneath Gendel's apartment--the same apartment featured in the opening scenes of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960).  Through the foundation, and as the Rome correspondent for ART News, he played a central role in Rome's "la dolce vita" scene between 1958 and 1962, nurturing the careers of some of Italy's most important artists, including Alberto Burri, Toti Scialoja, Tancredi, Ettore Scola, and Mimmo Rotella.  Among those in Gendel's inner circle were Robert Motherwell, Alexander Calder, and Willem de Kooning.  An early close friend was Rome's architectural theoretician, Bruno Zevi.  Zevi's introduction to Adrian Olivetti led Gendel to employment doing international public relations for the Olivetti firm.

Perhaps best known as a fashion and celebrity photographer, Gendel photographed (among others), Queen Elizabeth II, Salvador Dali, Peggy Guggenheim, and John Paul Getty.  But he was also widely known for his evocative, even poetic (moreso, at least, than the postwar neo-realist aesthetic) photos of Rome, Rome environs, and Italy.

Evelyn Waugh, Lady Diana Cooper, and Georgina Masson.
(Masson's "The Companion Guide to Rome" is our favorite
long-form Rome guidebook.)
Piazza del Popolo, sans obelisk
Church Wedding

The Flying Ephebe, Rome, 1979
In 1972, Gendel moved his studio to an apartment in Palazzo Costaguti in Piazza Mattei.  Then, in 2011, in exchange for transferring his photographic archive to the Primoli Foundation, he gained access to a first floor apartment in Palazzo Primoli, complete with a loggia on the Tevere.  He lived there until his death on October 11, 2018.

Of Rome's many treasures, Gendel was especially fond of the Protestant Cemetery (now called the Non-Catholic Cemetery); the Pyramid of Cestius; the medical museum in the Santo Spirito hospital; and Borromini's church, San Carlo alle Quartro Fontane.

An early Gendel photo, and one of his most famous.  That's Gendel's shadow in the foreground.  
For more on Gendel, see this excellent interview in Vanity Fair from 2011.  Thanks to subscriber Marilyn Hochfield for alerting us to the VF piece.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Cemetery wanderings - a great trek through Cimitero Verano in Rome

We should've known from the size of the huge green oval on Rome maps that the main Rome cemetery, Cimitero Verano, was much, much larger than it first appears.  We had visited it many years ago and appreciated its almost Rococo excesses in funerary monuments as well as notables buried there. Like much else in Rome, it was (and is) in a state of disrepair.

Also, like much else in Rome, burials in this location--along the via Tiburtina consular road and adjacent to the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura ("San Lorenzo outside the walls")--have been going on for over 2,000 years.  

Virginio Vespignani's "Meditation," at the entrance
to Rome's Verano Cemetery. Note the skull under
her foot.  She is meditating on death. About 1880.
The current cemetery is basically attributable to Napoleon, who wanted to displace the Church. During his 1805-14 reign, he established the rule that burials must be outside Rome's walls (and not within church yards) and brought in Rome's notable architect, Giuseppe Valadier, to design Verano. Although the Popes took over again after Napoleon, the cemetery was expanded just after the establishment of the secular Italy monarchy in 1870.  As a result the basic design of the cemetery is not particularly religious.  The imposing entrance is dominated by four huge statues of  Meditation, Hope, Charity and Silence, rather than statues to saints.

The monument to Goffredo Mameli, who, on July 6, 1849 [here in Roman numerals]
 died at 22 of wounds in the campaign to free Italy from the Popes (the Risorgimento).
Mameli also wrote the lyrics for what is now the Italian national anthem "Il Canto degli Italiani,"
also known as Inno di Mameli (Mameli's Hymn). The monument has the Rome she-wolf
and the twins Romulus and Remus at the top. It has fasci on the sides, indicating
it might have been erected in the Fascist era. The quote on the back is from
Mameli's friend and Risorgimento giant, Giuseppe Mazzini.

Once through the entrance, and once through the older part of the cemetery, enormous newer areas open up, often in mid-20th-century architectural styles. One reason for the newer parts of the cemetery as well is the extensive bombing by the Allies of the church, the cemetery and the areas around it in World War II. 

The cemetery also is rightly famous for the famous people buried there, from actors to politicians. We found particularly interesting the monument to Goffredo Mameli in the older part.

Actor Alberto Sordi's mausoleum is one,
if not the only one, with an alarm system.
Apparently Sordi was known for wanting
to make sure no one took his "stuff,"
even in death.

The mausoleums of beloved comedic actor Alberto Sordi and Mussolini Mistress Clara Petacci are in the newer part. 

The cemetery also was divided into Catholic and Jewish sections, with an additional World War I section.  Today the burials are not so divided.  There is also a powerful memorial to those who died in the German concentration camps.
But Sordi couldn't prevent a bit of
fan graffiti.

More on those monuments and other parts of the cemetery in the captions of the photos below. There are also lists of notable people buried in the cemetery on both English and Italian sites.
And the "Find a Grave" site has Verano listed with many "Famous Memorials." such as philosopher George Santayana (who famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it") and author Alberto Moravia, about whom we've written.

After I wrote this post but before it was published, Cynthia Coco Camille Korzekwa posted in RST's Facebook site on work she had done and an excellent Web site (in English), with descriptions of art work in the cemetery.

One of the 20th century mausoleums and our guide,
Diego, with "lo zainetto rosso," his little red

We owe our great trek through the newer parts of the cemetery to the guide, "Lo zainetto rosso" ("the little red backpack), aka Diego Cruciani.  Diego has an unusual sensibility and is incredibly knowledgeable.  He guides in two languages at once, basically--Italian and English. You can see his latest plans on his Facebook page. And you can join his email list ( You just show up - no prior reservations. And he accepts very modest donations at the end (I think - after asking our other fellow followers - we contributed 5 Euros each after 2.5 hours of a tour with about 10 people).

The cemetery's Web site in English:  The site also lists all the trams and buses that go to the cemetery (and San Lorenzo fuori le mura), and the hours it's open.

More photos and history below.  Dianne

And for another capital city and its history through the cemetery, see Abby A. Johnson and Ronald M. Johnson's "In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation."
"In memory of the 2,728 Roman citizens eliminated in the Nazi extermination camps, 1943-1945."

Diego explains this monument to Attilio Ferraris, which calls him "Champion of the world,"
and has a bas-relief of a fallen soccer player.  Ferraris was part of Italy's 1934 World
Championship team and died at 43, in 1947,  while playing an old-timers game.
The mausoleum of  Clara Petacci, Mussolini's mistress
 who was executed with him by partisans near Lake Como in 1945.
The monument was at one time in shambles, but somebody obviously
 paid to restore it. The people in our tour group who approached
the mausoleum (several declined) are reading a recent
hand-written note to Clara.


A children's section.

An elaborate monument to architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo. He was notably active in Rome in the 1930s, including working on what was to be the Fascist Party Headquarters (now "La Farnesina," the State Department) and the
Fascist Piazza Augusto Imperatore, where Mussolini wanted to be buried (in Emperor Augustus's tomb). That didn't work out, but the piazza still carries its rationalist design and is in RST's Top 40. Interestingly Morpurgo was Jewish. One biographical note says simply "He was not much affected by the race laws." And he added his mother's name to his last name (Ballio) after World War II and managed to continue his profession, as did many architect's associated with the Fascist regime. He died in 1966.
A small part of a lovely grotto-like section, composed mainly of "in
memento mori" - memorials rather than tombs.

I can't find out anything more about this Guglielmotti
family.  We rather liked the mausoleum, and the sculpture--
which looks like it's from the 1970s.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Truck Shopping in Rome

The 'shop'  name is "Melandra...Moving Shop." The "ape" or "bee" is a
3-wheel commercial vehicle, based on the Vespa scooter and produced,
as is the Vespa ("wasp"), by Piaggio.  I once said we mainly saw them in
the countryside, but maybe not!
The joys of shopping in Rome, for us, are mainly the visuals.  We love looking at the multitude of ways in which petty capitalism operates in this city of 3 million people. A method new to us this year was the mobile clothes store.  Yes, we have pop-ups in the U.S., but the Italians as usual, take it one step further.

We had seen vendors selling batteries (see photo towards the end of this post), glasses, flowers, fruits and vegetables out of trucks.  But a mini clothing store? That was new.

The "ape" trucks  above and below were parked in and close by the large Piazza Mazzini near our apartment this Spring, and came around periodically to sell their wares - and the Italians were buying.

Quite a combination of Italian and English words here, plus a take off : "Fruit of the Loom" (right), then "Fruit on the Road" (left). We didn't check  to see if the goods were authentic or knock-offs, but we can guess.
Below, not a shopping truck per se, but likely a delivery truck for a Sicilian (mostly) take-out restaurant in Prati (near where we lived).  Unfortunately, we never got there, but the arancini look amazing! (To say "arancini" are stuffed rice balls doesn't do them justice.)
The paintings are of Orlando and Rinaldo dueling for Angelica's heart in the classic "Orlando Furioso"
tale.  The story resonates with Sicily and the Sicilian puppet tradition, emphasizing these arancini
are going to be Sicilian to their rice core. The restaurant name is MondoArancina - with an "a" at the end,
 apparently the Sicilian spelling. The truck enlivens an otherwise rather soulless piazza in della Vittoria.
And then there's the use of a Fiat 500 to sell vinegars--again, just down from our apartment.

"Wine without sulfites...Wine and apple vinegar..." etc.
And, apparently, he doubles as a clown at night.

This van houses an Orologeria, a store that sells watch-bands and watch batteries.
A piazza in San Paolo.  Eager customers, including me. 

And, left, not exactly shopping from or out of a truck, but shoe sellers who use their truck to carry all the shoes and the stands and tents they put up to sell - they do this every day of the week - up in the morning, down in the evening.
I thought the arrangement of shoe boxes could have stumped a Rubik's cube expert.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Enjoying Rome's 'hoods: The Wild Sides of via Tiburtina

Once in a while, one of us (guess which one) gets the itch to explore a new Rome neighborhood--not that easy when you spend three months each year in the city.  This time, he chose a section of via Tiburtina--the busy thoroughfare running northeast to Tivoli--just beyond the Verano cemetery, over the bridge, and you're there.  We took a right on one of the first side streets and parked the scooter.  At first blush, the neighborhood appeared alarmingly ordinary.  Desperate to find something of interest, we enjoyed a 1960ish front gate to an apartment complex.

We noted that Tiburtina, like the rest of Rome, has a garbage problem.

Turning onto via Bertarelli, we found this curious, below-ground church, San Giuseppe Artigiano.

Then things changed.  We dipped onto vialetto Tiziano Laudani (probably not on any map, including Google), a charming country lane.

It spilled out onto an large open green space, where Dianne was able to get a much-needed workout.

A back-building with neo-Nazi slogans, invoking Mussolini. One imagines it's a youth hangout in the evening.

Ahead, a newly fenced-in, mowed! dog park.

A jogger passed by.

A play area.

As we exited the space, this sign told us where we had been: Parco Galla Placidia Ottoboni.

Turning left out of the park onto via Galla Placidia, we found BricoBravo, a suburban-style outdoor store, catering to the area's middle class.

Crossing via Tiburtina, we admired the pasteups.

And just beyond, in a tiny "mall," a store with a box of buttons outside: 3 for Euro 1.

And beyond that, a still-functioning film studio.  Cool! Our discussions with the portiere (doorman) indicated the studios still were used, but now primarily for TV series.

We turned right into the neighborhood, then right again on what we think was via d. Casale, with its older buildings and country feel, just a stone's throw (literally) from the traffic of via Tiburtina.

Another charming vialetto beckoned, and we took it.  Turned right, toward via Tiburtina, once again coming upon the movie studio, its upper reaches marked with signs of the past.

Crossing via Tiburtina, we found this poster at a gas station.  It expresses the frustration of residents with a construction project, intended to provide more traffic lanes, that has been ongoing for 10 years.  "Per Fare il Colosseo," the poster says, "Ci Hanno Messo di Meno."  (It took less time to build the Coliseum).  There's more to it than that, if you read Italian.

Left, to the scooter.

Love the 'hoods!