Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A villa you can't see, and a great view you can

A couple of weeks ago, while living in the district "della Vittoria" (just to the north of its more famous neighbor, Prati), we decided to have a look at Villa Miani, which sits on the south shoulder of Monte Mario.  We had read about it in the newspaper: the first building on the site appeared sometime before 1835, and over time the buildings, adapted and restructured, functioned as a sanitorium and as a university for the Episcopal Church.  It belonged to a Venetian nobleman for the 50 years before 1981. Claudia Cardinale once lived there.  Today it hosts weddings and large social events--dinner for 600.  We were eager to see it.

No, you can't go up there.  
The road up to Villa Miani, via Trionfale, ascends the hill from near the southern end of Piazzale Clodio.  We took both the road and a stairway that shortens the route but is ill-maintained, bushes and tall grass erupting from both sides.  It was probably last cleared and swept 5 years ago.  Having reached the side road to Villa Miani, a guard made it clear that not only was the road closed to the public except for special events, but that views of the Villa from higher ground in back also were not possible.

We moved on, seeking a view of the Villa from higher ground in back (no matter what the guard said), via the road above, via Alberto Cadlolo.  The guard was right.  The Villa was visually inaccessible.  We wondered why the newspaper had made so much out of a complex that can't be seen, let alone visited, unless you're attending a big wedding (as apparently most of our Italian friends have).

Along that same road, however, we were able to catch a view of the back of the massive Cavalieri Hilton Hotel, which, unlike Villa Miani, can also be viewed from the front, albeit from a long way away.

The Rome Hilton.  Maybe the same architect as Corviale.  

Balconies of the wealthy.  

As the street ambles southward, via Cadlolo becomes via Fedro, lined by properties and apartments of the wealthy.  We noticed that the residents do little to tidy up outside their complexes and gates.

The road then turns east and into Piazzale Socrate.  We had never been there, and it's certainly not much to look at, we thought, having been victimized by Rome's fabled tree-trimmers.  Indeed, it could be Rome's ugliest piazzale.

Rome's ugliest piazza.  
But we were in for a treat.

Just beyond the piazza to the east, the hill turns steeply downward.  A fence--designed to keep

The site seems to attract guys.
onlookers from falling off the hill--had thankfully been breached in several spots, allowing us to proceed onto a small promontory.

With an extraordinary view, of St. Peter's and more.
Dianne, at Piazzale Socrate
Incredibly, this view was featured just a few days later (May 1) in Il Messaggero, our newspaper of choice this year (cheaper than La Repubblica, but still a hefty E1.40). According to the paper, which had surveyed social media posts by Romans and tourists, Piazzale Socrate was the most-favored place for "scatti" (snapshots), selfies, and "likes," ahead of such notable sites as the Pincio and the Gianicolo.  We don't quite believe that Piazzale Socrate is more popular than the Spanish Steps or the Trevi fountain for selfies and other pics--it's too out of the way for that--but the view is undeniably spectacular, and, some might think, the best in Rome.  Just don't fall off.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Behind the Wall - the Prisons of San Michele a Ripa

San Michele a Ripa from the side away from the Tevere - a feel for its
length and barrier to whatever is inside.
The long building - perhaps the longest in Rome at a third of a mile (500 meters) - faces the Tevere with no openings, looking like an impenetrable mass that holds nothing of interest.  In fact, the complex of buildings, San Michele a Ripa ("St Michael at the river bank" if you want a tortured English translation) has been used since the 17th century for a variety of purposes, from Catholic medical facilities to prisons to military barracks to arts institutions.  On a recent tour we took of part of this Trastevere block, the focus was on the 18th-19th century use of a substantial part of the complex as a prison/reformatory for women and children.

Carlo Fontana's boys' prison.

The women and girls' prison.
The original prisons - one designated for boys and one for girls - were designed by Papal architects of some fame. Carlo Fontana, a favorite of several Popes and designer of many fountains and chapels in Rome, started the boys' facility in 1701.  He was a rather ordinary practitioner of Baroque architecture and used these techniques, admittedly with severity because of the purpose, in the prison.

Ferdinando Fuga, who designed facades for notable Rome churches such as Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Maria Maggiore, added the female prison later in the same century.

The prisons have recently been restored and are open to tours.  At the same time that the prisons were considered modern approaches to incarceration (3 guards could monitor all the cells - not quite a panopticon, but similar), the treatment was harsh.  Boys considered "wayward and disobedient" to their parents ended up there with punishment and moral strictures that included rations akin to starvation.  An attorney who prepared a case for the state's Appellate Court stated in 1851 that the boys who emerged after 2 years were skin and bones, full of diseases and would rather be dead.
From the outside (interior courtyard) one can
see how small and high the windows are; no
one was going to get out of here.

Women in the female section often were those in the sex trade, whom the Church wanted to reform, or perhaps just punish.

The city took over this Papal facility in 1871.  With some interruptions (use as a prison for political prisoners from 1827-1870, for example), the complex's use as a reform prison lasted until the end of the 1960s.  In her biography of the great 20th century Italian writer, Elsa Morante, Lily Tuck mentions that Elsa's legal (though not biological) father "worked as a probation a boys' reform school located at Porta Portese."  This would've been in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and clearly this was the place.

One can admire the architecture and at the same time be horrified by what transpired within these walls.

Art work being restored in the prison hall.
The large halls of the prison now are being used for restoration work on paintings.  There are some tours of these facilities to admire that work, and part of the space now can be rented for business meetings!

An excellent pamphlet on life in the prisons and on the architecture is available in Italian.

Our tour was part of the extensive Ville di Roma a Porte Aperte series sponsored by turismo culturale italiano.  April's focus was on Trastevere.
This plaque, from 1704 states that Clement IX is responsible
for this institution for lost and incorrigible adolescents,
who here are instructed in becoming more subservient (my
loose Latin translation- anyone is welcome to elaborate on it).