Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Caffè Perù: Time for an Aperitivo

Caffè Perù is one of our favorite spots (Bill's especially) for an early evening aperitivo, and not least because of its location near one of Rome's busiest tourist attractions: the complex that includes Campo de Fiori and Palazzo Farnese.  In that area, it can be hard to find a place that feels Roman.

Don't be put off by the signs in English, Spanish, French, and Chinese on the front of the building; Italians eat and drink here. It's a real bar. The aperitivo--food with a drink--is reasonably priced, and the white wine selection is very good (though some premium wines add a euro or two onto the cost of the aperitivo).

There are two rooms--the main room on the left, with the bar, food, and the cassa, where you order and pay, in advance.

And another, to the right as you go in, quieter and more homey and comfortable, though more divorced from the action. Depending on the weather, both rooms are open to the light, air, and activity of the small piazza.  Much of the drinking--and talking--takes place outside.

Don't miss the bathroom, which is one of the city's funkiest.

Caffè Perù is easy to find.  Facing the Palazzo Farnese, exit the piazza up and to the right.  The café is a half block up the street, on your right.

PS from Dianne, the accent inserter.  This is an accent-challenging post; hope we got them in correctly.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Vatican Walls: Where Fascism Meets Catholicism, or Letting Out the Popes

On one of our great Wall Walks (we know there are those of you who have wondered what happened to our plan to walk the perimeter of the 7th-century Aurelian Wall... yes, those posts are to come), we encountered a physical reminder of the 1929 "Conciliation" between the Italian State and the Catholic Church.  The grand double arches you see in this post are impressive evidence of the Romans' ability to use architecture and symbols to constantly remind us of their history.

In 1929, Benito Mussolini signed for the State, and Pietro Gasparri, Cardinal Secretary, for Pope Pius XII, the Lateran Pacts that resolved the question of the role of the Catholic Church within the secular Italian State - basically, the territories the Church would retain, financial reimbursement for property seized in the revolution, the Church as the State church.  That question had been pending since the "Risorgimento," or the overtaking of most of Italy by the non-Papal forces, in 1870.  And, since that time the Popes had not come out of the Vatican, a self-imposed incarceration.

The Conciliation - commemorated by Via della Conciliazione, which leads from the Tevere to St. Peter's - is also known as the Lateran Pacts, because the agreement was signed in the Lateran church: San Giovanni in Laterano.  (We had always thought they were signed in Piazza della Pigna, where there is a plaque to that effect. Perhaps Il Duce and Gasparri negotiated aspects of the Pacts in that quiet piazza, in which sits a restaurant we have frequented.)

Perhaps more interesting.
So to the Wall.  The photo above, of a double archway, shows one of the first "signs" of the Conciliation that we found on our walk.  In this case we are "inside" the Wall, inside the Vatican, that is, looking out.  On the top of the arch on the left is the coats of arms of Rome, the SPQR, and on the right, the symbol of the Pope, the Pope's hat (mitre) and St. Peter's crossed keys to the Church,  (Why the balls on the coat of arms?  See below.)  So we have the Wall, we have the exit from the Vatican, now usable by the Popes, and a symbol on each gateway representing the two sides in the power struggle.

The archway in the photo above, another exit/entrance from/to the Vatican is perhaps more interesting because it has three layers of secular and Papal symbols.  On the lower level, if one looks closely (see photo left), the State symbol has 1) the King's crown 2) the fasci, representing the Mussolini government, and 3) SPQR, the ancient Rome's government acronym, adopted by Mussolini to tie his Fascist regime to ancient Rome.

The coats of arms at the top likely are older ones that were placed here. The Papal one on the left is of the Barberini Pope (see the bees), Urban VIII (1623-44), and the State one on the right is for the King of Savoy.

Finally we leave you with the grand double archway below, looking from the outside into the Bernini colonnade.  Here the multi-layered blocks and symbols appear to have both Papal and Fascist dating. There is a reference to Pius IV (IIII), a Medici (note the balls in the coat of arms in the photo at the top of the post), who in the early 1500s built the now destroyed Porta Angelica, to welcome pilgrims from the north.  It was at Porta Angelica in 1849 that Garibaldi and his troops made their first forays into Rome to take over the city from the Popes.

So perhaps the Vatican is extracting a sense of justice.  We have a gate (think exit) built after the 1929 Conciliation to acknowledge the Vatican territory and let out the Popes for the first time in almost 60 years.  But on that gate, the Vatican has placed highly symbolic parts of the 1500s Porta Angelica, the gate where at one time (1849) anti-Papal forces forcefully challenged the rule of the Popes; and the Popes won that battle.  Garibaldi's forces won about 20 years later: 1870.  While I disagree with him, David Kertzer, in his book Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes, the Kings, and Garibaldi's Rebels in the Struggle to Rule Modern Italytakes the position that even though Garibaldi won the battle for Rome in 1870, eventually the Popes won the war, in the sense that the Catholic Church has religious (albeit not state) dominion over more than 1 billion people.  In any event, in these grand arches and gateways, the Popes are making their point: we're still here.


Monday, July 13, 2015

The Butterfly Roof: from Marconi to Palm Springs, California

This forlorn building, partly boarded up and for rent, is located just south of via Grimaldi, in the Marconi district.  It was once a theater.  We took the photo because we're interested in Rome's modern architectural forms, and the roof line--an element of what is known in the states as "googie" architecture--is an unusual one for the city.

We were reminded of the photo a few days ago, when we read in the New York Times of the death of architect Donald Wexler at the age of 89.  Wexler lived and worked most of his life in Palm Springs, California, a hotbed of mid-century modernism (now all the rage among the millenial generation).

He is best known for the Palm Springs International Airport, for a set of 7 prefabricated "steel" houses, and for El Rancho Vista Estates, 75 homes built in 1960.  One of Wexler's signature architectural features, found on many of the houses he designed, is the folded or "butterfly" roof--see below--very much like the one on the Marconi district theater.

Wexler didn't design the theater, or the butterfly roof at its front, but his story offers a window into mid-century modernism, and it helps to fix the date of the Rome building.  It was very likely constructed in the 1960s, probably early in the decade.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Rome's New Metro Line: Walking the Walk.

The pristine travertine stairs and escalators at the Lodi station, on its pre-opening day tour
On June 29 Rome's transit system accomplished what many thought it might never do - it opened new Metro line C with 6 stations.  In theory line C had been opened earlier, further out of Rome, but that was just a refurbishing of an above-ground train line already in existence.  The 6 stations and 5.4 kilometers of track opened recently are the true accomplishment, because they actually put line C IN Rome, rather than way outside of it.

Men in Black
We took advantage of a rather unusual offer in late April. The 6 newest stations were open a few hours on April 29 for self-guided tours, even though there were no trains running.  To see them all, one had to drive or walk between them.  So we made it our goal to do a 6-station trek, and back.  We figured, oh, 5+ km x 2 - we had to get back to our moto without the metro, of course - that's only 7 miles and we're used to that.  Oh, how wrong we were... but for now to the features of that day - the stations.

The line is billed as from "Mirti" to "Lodi" because the outer part of the line, the old train line, is already operating.  But Lodi is the most central of the Rome portion of the line - to date. The line still doesn't hook up with either of the other 2 operating lines - A and B, but it will when the San Giovanni station is added in, supposedly, 2016.
A visitor checks out the line - it's the part in red we're visiting.

So we showed up at the "Lodi" station - named for its proximity to Piazza Lodi - at noon, when the stations were to open.  Well, we were 5 minutes early.  So you can see the guys in black blocking the entrance until the appointed hour. And it turns out, guys in black were at every station, being very one-might-say fascist-like in ordering the few people coming to see the stations which way to go in and out, protecting fenced areas, and the like.  Part of the ambiance of the day.

Lodi is undistinguished from the outside.  It has only surface level entrances.  Below it has some of the grand travertine staircases and it looks wonderfully shiny new, of course.  So we dutifully walked down all the levels, and up, and marched on to the next station.

Pigneto station skylight, outside

Pigneto comes next, and this is a long-awaited station in a rapidly gentrifying, even hipster neighborhood of Rome.  Pigneto's station is more interesting, with an enormous skylight.  And here we learned about the "TBM", "Tunnel Boring Machine" (yep, that's Italian) used to create the metro openings below ground without opening up the ground from the surface and then

skylight, inside
recovering it, as Rome has done for prior lines.
Display photo of Pigneto station under construction.
This process minimizes the problems of archeological finds.  As former Mayor Rutelli put it to us once, one can dig at 35 meters, but not between 15 and 35 meters.  Of course, since it's Pigneto, we were treated to lots of street art as we came back up and started our walk to our third station, Malatesta.
Leftist graffiti in Pigneto

Dianne interviewed by radio reporter at Malatesta station
Malatesta is one of the more elaborate stations. That's the reason, we assume, it was selected for Mayor Marino's visit.  So it was full of people. Enough so that a radio reporter interviewed me, in Italian, on my reactions to the new stations. And our timing was good enough that Bill got a photo of the mayor.

Photo op for mayor (red tie) and cohorts.
Unlike the other stations, this one had a train car open to visit.  Helps to have the Mayor around.  It was here we learned from the instructive panels that this line is "driverless" (again, Italian).  Whoa, that's a bit scary.
Inside the cars

"Data (I Numeri) of the "Driverless trains"":
80 km/hr maximum; 35 km/hour normal; 1200 passengers
per trip; + or - 30 centimeters - leeway in terms of where
they stop at the stations.

Open stairs lead down into the Malatesta station

Walking out of the Malatesta station to the next one, Teano, we were reminded that, yes, old Rome still exists.
We passed some old medieval-like buildings, towers, agricultural land, and then a pretty strange building for Rome.

Opera sets were stored here.
We read later it was built in the 1950s and stored opera sets and costumes!  It's been repurposed partly as a school and community center.  And, across from it is perhaps the most interestingly-designed station. The ATAC Web site tells us that the "atrium" is meant to be used for commercial activity and cultural events.
Teano station

Atrium for commerce and cultural events, Teano

The prosaic Gardenie station.

1930s public housing in the far-flung suburbs.
The 5th station, Gardenie, again is ordinary. Outside it we were reminded that the Fascists built public housing out this far in the 1930s, sending workers far away from where the jobs might be, and sending any potential challengers to the regime out of communication with the city.

We ended up at Mirti in Centocelle, a once disparaged suburb of Rome that is reviving a bit, and certainly the metro line will help that.
That's a victory sign at Mirti, as well as storm clouds brewing.
 Besides having time to give the victory sign, we found a tour group in this station and we learned more about the entire project (including the use of the TBMs).
Tour group at the Mirti station.

At this point, we figured we probably had walked close to 10 miles - the 5.4 km is the way the Metro or crow flies.  Walking between stations is much more circuitous.  Plus we went up and down the stairs at each station (the escalators weren't operating). And it was starting to rain.

Dianne checks the various transit options.
Walking another 4 or 5 miles back to our moto was ruled out.  While celebrating our 6-station triumph with a glass of wine in Centocelle at a familiar bar there, we discovered the "trenino," or urban train, was not far away.  So we walked over to it, through the familiar non-glitzy underpass of existing Rome transit, to catch the train back reasonably close to "Lodi" and our moto.

What the 'normal' transit underground looks like.

The Italians are good at design, and these stations are striking in their pristine state.  We don't want to think what they might look like if the graffiti artists get busy on them.  This project connects some of these far flung suburbs and we hope makes Romans living in them feel more in touch with the city itself.
Video in the station teaching kids to hang on.

We'll do a check in 2016 to see how the system is progressing.


Study in black and white

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pittura Metafisica: an Exploration of Metaphysical Painting

Albert Savinio, "Objects Abandoned in the Forest," 1928.  Timelessness achieved through a blending of the primeval forest with metallic-looking objects, many of modern design.   Savinio was de Chirico's brother.  

de Chirico, "Malinconia," ("Melancholy")
For the past six weeks we've been wrestling, on and off, with the idea of "Metaphysical Painting," spurred by the comprehensive Giorgio Morandi retrospective here in Rome. The term was originally Italian--Pittura Metafisica--having been invented by Giorgio de Chirico and long associated with de Chirico and the Futurist painter Carlo Carrà whom de Chirico met in Ferrara in 1917.  (De Chirico was born in Greece in 1886, lived in Italy beginning in 1909 and specifically in Rome from 1944 until his death in 1978.) The standard take on Metaphysical Painting, then, is that it was a short-lived "movement"--coinciding with the 2nd decade of the 20th century--and dominated by de Chirico and Carrà.

Some authorities include the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, but only those done between 1918 and 1922, when the artist was doing self-consciously metaphysical work, including "Metaphysical Still Life" (1918, left).

Less often, some others are admitted to the metaphysical pantheon, including Felici Casorati, Massimo Campigli, George Grosz and Filippo de Pisis. The first metaphysical painting was de Chirico's "l'enigma di un pomeriggio d'autunno" ("The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon"), accomplished in Florence in 1910 after the artist experienced an epiphany at Santa Croce.

Carrà, "The Metaphysical Muse," 1917
Universal mannequin, dressed as
tennis player

A general sense of Metaphysical Painting can be gleaned from the words and phrases used to describe and characterize the paintings: "dreamlike imagery," "impossible linear perspectives," an "almost architectural sense of stillness" (said to derive from Renaissance art), "eerie mood," "strange artificiality," "haunted streets one might encounter in dreams," "featureless mannequins."  There is general agreement that there is something disquieting about the work, that it speaks of "sorrow, disorientation, [and] nostalgia," that it offers "a world estranged from man."  Art historian Mariana Aguirre adds that metaphysical painting involved a change in what we understand an artist to be.  The standard idea is that the artist is a craftsman, learned in the styles, techniques and history that go with the trade.  The metaphysical artist is, instead, a "thinker and privileged seer," a self-conscious intellectual.

That all rings true to us, and these descriptive, and sometimes analytical, phrases may be all we need, or want, to understand the phenomenon.  But in the interest of clarifying--or one might say, murkifying--Metaphysical Painting, we found ourselves wanting to know about metaphysics.  Just what is metaphysics, anyway?

Franz Marc, "The Shepherds," 1912.  The horse is every horse,
the shepherds stripped to their naked essence, outside of time.
Well, it's not physics.  Although both physics and metaphysics seek to examine and explain things, physics (and science generally) wants empirical answers--proof--while metaphysics looks for "underlying principles that give rise to the unified natural world."  Put another way, metaphysics looks beyond or beneath science to observe something more fundamental.  On the other hand, it seems obvious that there are similarities between the breadth and timing of the painterly inquiries of de Chirico and others, and the scientific efforts of Einstein to explain the nature of matter.  

The word "unified" in "unified natural world" is important, because metaphysicians believe that there are "hidden connections between things," connections our senses tell us must and do exist, but which we do not and cannot see.  (There is something new-agey in that, something close to or bound up with religion, but we'll have to abandon that line of inquiry and go on.) 

Massimo Campigli, "The Gypsies," 1928.
Gypsies, acqueducts, a game of cards.
What's happened to time?
How can "things" be connected?  The answer to that question has to do with "space" and "time" and the relationship between space and time.  Normally we privilege--that is, favor, and emphasize--the present, and so do our painters, usually, painting (for example) a picture of people on a boat having a good time [Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party"]--at a particular moment in the present, or the past.  Metaphysics takes a different approach.

Perhaps, it hypothesizes, space and time don't depend on people at all.  Maybe space and time are substances that exist "independently" of their inhabitants.  If so, one can imagine--indeed, one can have--things from one "time" in the same frame, the same picture, the same space, as things from another time.  Of course, something like that happens in an antique shop, but for metaphysics there isn't really "another" time.  Indeed, time may not "pass"; past and present are one.  Stasis--or a sense of stasis--reigns.  

Mario Sironi, "Malinconia," 1927.   Modern man/woman,
trapped between the present and the aqueduct past.

Although Carrà was a Futurist and had much to do with metaphysical painting, it seems to us that the Futurists' sense of time was different.  Futurism wanted to show people engaged in a particular act at a particular time: a soccer player kicking a ball, a bicyclist riding, a plane in flight.  In contrast, metaphysical painters a) removed man b) deleted the privileged present, suggesting a unity of past and present, and c) eliminated movement, emphasizing a stasis designed to evoke the eternal, the mysterious, the ultimately unknowable core of the universe.   Stasis is central to de Chirico's work, as is the fusion of time(s), signified by his placement of Greek or Roman forms in the modern space of a 20th-century city.  

Poster for the German expressionist film,
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," 1921

Why the 1910s?  For one thing, plumbing the depths for the "real" truth was part of the spirit of the age--for Einstein in physics, for Freud in psychoanalysis, for de Chirico in painting.  In addition, the heyday of metaphysical painting covers, and doubtless exists as a comment on, the decade of the Great War.  That said, much work in a metaphysical vein was done after 1920, and not only by painters such as Grosz and Alberto Savinio. The "impossible linear perspectives" of de Chirico appear in German expressionist cinema throughout the 1920s.

The use of metaphysical ideas in a contemporary painting.

It is common to run across recent works of art with metaphysical content.  Indeed, the apartment we inhabited recently had two of them: one a de Chiricoesque treatment that features a variety of forms, most of them geometric, isolated and yet somehow unified, suspended against a somewhat mysterious blue/green background.  In the other (right), two children sleep in a room whose shape has been distorted, perhaps to emphasize children's fear of the dark or being in bed. In this sense--the sense that metaphysical features can be and still are being used to achieve a goal, the metaphysical is still with us.

Similarly, today's graphic artist might employ the design sensibilities of the 1960s to attract buyers to a new line of bell-bottom jeans or mini-skirts.  Or, more germane, an advertising agency could employ a certain degree of metaphysical distortion of space to create a poster for a film noir production.  But to use metaphysical artistic practices is different from engaging metaphysical concepts and questions in the way that the founders or early practitioners did.  So it could be said that metaphysical art was significant conceptually only in its early years--certainly the decade of the 1910s, with declining intensity and curiosity in the 1920s and 1930s.  Indeed, metaphysical painting in Italy was under attack as early as 1917, when the term "metafisico" began to be used negatively. In an era of strong nationalist sentiment, the movement was vulnerable because its Italian roots were suspect.  Others saw it as overly intellectual (and perhaps not masculine enough for the Fascists), and one influential critic described it as "illustration" rather than painting.  

de Chirico, "Red Tower," 1913