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 800 posts

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Roman roads pave the way to prosperity in the 21st century

The old via Prenestina, a Roman road we "ran across" in the Roman countryside,
this near Gallicano nel Lazio, during our mostly-successful search for aqueducts.

At RST we're fascinated by the new in Rome, and how it often ties into the old. We've also spent a fair amount of time in and outside of Rome, "discovering" ancient Roman roads, including one in the woods that we couldn't believe dated back two centuries (see photo at right).

Via Sacra ("Holy road") on Monte Cavo
on the way to what once was probably
a temple to the goddess Diana.

At its peak (second century CE), the Roman road system covered Europe and parts of the Middle East and Africa. The tie between the old Roman roads and contemporary life is the thesis of a recent study by Danish economists that links today's European centers of healthy economic activity with infrastructure created 2,000 years ago - the Roman road system.

Looking at the Roman roads in 117 CE, the four economists conclude "greater Roman road density goes along with (a) greater modern road density, (b) greater settlement formation in 500 CE, and (c) greater economic activity in 2010." Underscoring this conclusion is their finding that this tie is weakened to the point of insignificance "where the use of wheeled vehicles was abandoned from the first millennium CE until the late modern period" - that is, in the Middle East and North Africa.  They also found market towns flourishing from the medieval period to modern times along those Roman roads.

Ancient Roman roads (light yellow) superimposed on 2010 satellite imagery of nighttime lighting in Europe. (Washington Post illustration using data from NOAA Earth Observatory, Natural Earth and Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization)

How did the economists figure this out?  Among other tools, they used contemporary population and road density and night-time satellite imagery of light. (See photo above.) The Danes piggybacked on Harvard University's research and mapping project - its Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations - which we plan to feature in a future post.

This article from the Washington Post, here, summarizes nicely the Danish research and has some illustrative maps.

The original paper is here:

Talk about the need for infrastructure?  Could the US take a lesson here?


Sunday, July 19, 2020

You-Can't-See-it-Anyway Series: I Gemelli Romani, via Guattani

Our latest effort to deal with the fallout from covid-19 takes the form of the "you-can't-see-it-anyway" series, where we present accounts and descriptions of Rome "attractions" that one couldn't get into even if there were no covid-19. Many of these were and are visitable and accessible only through the once-a-year Open House Roma event (except, of course, this year, thanks to covid-19).

Today's effort along these lines is stretching the concept just a bit, because it's possible--even likely--that an aggressive tourist could get into the first floor of the building--but the first floor only.

The building has an unusual name: I Gemelli Romani ("the Roman twins"), which we'll explain in a moment. It sits at via Guattani 9, a street lined with large villas and ordinary apartment houses, running perpendicular to via Nomentana on Rome's near-north end. The folks who designed it were pleased that it didn't fit in with its neighbors, pointing out some pride that the "impetuous" structure resisted alignment with nearby villas.

Since its construction in 1954, the building has housed the Lega Nazionale delle Cooperative--the "national association of cooperatives." The Lega/LNC was founded in Milan in 1886, at a time when cooperative associations were more common than they are today. The LNC was disbanded by the Fascists (along with all other cooperatives) and reconstituted after the war under article 45 of the Italian Constitution, which recognized the social role of cooperatives. The League includes many cooperative associations, including ones for consumers, housing, and retail. The building on via Guattani is its principal seat.

The building not only houses a national organization of cooperatives. It was designed by a cooperative association of architects and engineers: CAIREPRO (Cooperativa architetti e ingegneri progettazione). CAIREPRO was founded by 9 young men in 1947 in Reggio Emilia (where the HQ remains) and 2 more were added in 1961.

Seven of the founders of CAIREPRO
The building has several distinctive features.  The upper floors are supported by massive exterior columns of reinforced concrete--a material coming into common usage at the time (in the Palazzetto dello Sport, among other buildings) --which allow the first floor interior to be column-less. The brickwork--here and there quite complex--is understood to be special too, contributing to the design.

Most unusual, the plan consists of two trapezoidal areas--the "gemelli Romani," or the Roman twins--one at each end of the building, connected by an inset central section that houses the stairway and elevators.

The "gemelli"--one on each end.
The near end of the building consists of a meet-and-greet area, lobby, and social center. My recollection is that the shiny blue ceiling was a later addition.  Much "busier" than the original.

The author of this post, taking a mirror selfie. 
As built, it also included a lovely spiral staircase, but this has been, unfortunately, removed.

Removed!  How could they?!
The far end of the building is an auditorium with a brutalist look (before the word brutalism was coined).

The auditorium, as it looked in 2019: the concrete painted (bad!),
much of the ceiling covered (probably by projection equipment), windows
at the end covered (a shame). 
Exterior view of the auditorium. 

The staircase leading to the upper floors (which are more ordinary in layout) is not without elegance.  A nice banister in wood.

And on the top floor, below, flying buttresses over walkways--and views of the neighborhood, a neighborhood that includes Luigi Pirandello's former home and a villa occupied (we were told) by Galeazzo Ciano - bottom photo.


Thursday, July 9, 2020

Ex Snia lake: industrial detritus meets nature

Wandering around our "new" neighborhood of Pigneto on one of our past stays in Rome, we came across a strange self-managed lake. Yes, lake. The largest lake in the city, surpassing even the one in Villa Borghese, and much less visited. One sign said the site was the Hadrian's Villa of industrial archeology--quite a title to live up to.

At the bottom: "La Villa Adriana dell'archeologia industriale"

We talked to a man who was tending the gardens, part of the extensive landscape surrounding the lake, and he explained the self-management to us. We read later that the Senegalese community maintains the regular opening and closing of the entire park-like area.

A view of the long-gone industrial factory; that's our Pigneto neighborhood, morphing into Prenestina,
 in back.

The lake derives from a construction error. The property was once a manufacturing facility for viscose, a type of rayon fiber made from natural sources.  When it opened in 1922, it was one of the largest plants in Italy, employing more than 2,000 workers at its peak. The facility was bombed in World War II (the fiber was used in military uniforms) and, after its employment dropped from over 1600 in 1949 to just over 100 in 1953, it closed. (No lake yet.)  The site then became one of speculation for developers, who began construction in 1992. They unexpectedly hit an underground stream, the Marranella, and the property filled up. The developers were unable to contain the underground aquifer and their construction permits--apparently with irregularities--were revoked.

Entrance, complete with mural and opening times (not the current ones).

SNIA was the name of the chemical company that owned the plant. Oddly, the initials stand for Societa' di Navigazione Italo Americana, because the company originally was involved in US-Italy maritime trade. Thus, the lake and the area are known as "ex Snia" - the former SNIA.

In the past decade, especially, the community has taken over the property, establishing playgrounds, camps for kids, and other recreational and didactic activities. They've worked diligently to keep the property out of the hands of developers. They call the site Monumento Naturale Parco delle Energie - Lago Bullicante ("The Natural Monument of the Energy Park of Bullicante Lake"). "Bullicante" comes from Acqua Bullicante, the name of the street that runs along one side of the area and perhaps another name for the Marranella stream or a village that once was in the locale. Whether the community will be successful in keeping developers' hands off this property is yet to be seen.

Rules and regulations at right. And some assertions: "This is a place liberated from profit and from building speculation, thanks to the participation and the struggle of everyone. It is a place that lives from self-management, self-financing, and solidarity."  Among the prohibitions: swimming or boating on the lake.  Among the "Not prohibited" activities: playing ball, shouting with joy.

In these strange times, the lake is open again, regularly. The FaceBook site says they are missing only the signature of the president of the province of Lazio to make their "natural monument" a legal reality.

We found the area surprisingly lovely, partly because we are enamored of industrial detritus. And Bill can find some raw material for his "found art." The interplay of the abandoned and derelict buildings with natural beauty is lovely. We returned several times, and plan to do so again--assuming the developers are held at bay.

Here's their Web site, and slogan: "A lake for everyone; cement for no one."


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Rome's first Drive-in Theater: Casal Palocco

When we first saw this photograph, from the New York bureau of United Press International, we thought it might be of early construction on the Palazetto dello Sport, designed by Annibale Vitellozzi and engineered by Pier Luigi Nervi. It isn't, but it's likely not a coincidence--given the angled, concrete supports--that the Palazzetto and the structure in the photograph were completed in the same year: 1957. [Thanks to Dianne's cousin, Jim Bennett--an Italophile, for sending us this original UPI photo.] 

The concrete in the photo is there to support a 540 square meter screen for Italy's first drive-in movie theater, then--and perhaps still--the largest ever in Europe, with 60,000 square meters of parking for 700 cars.

Another view of the construction

The completed screen. 

The drive-in was built near Axa in Casal Palocco, a then-new Rome suburb (completed in 1961) on the north side of via Cristoforo Colombo, well beyond the GRA and not far from the coastal town of Ostia. 

The theater was very successful through the 1960s, then fell on hard times until, sometime in the 1980s, it closed. 

In the 1960s

It was briefly reopened in the late 1990s and again, briefly, in 2015, by the committee behind the Trastevere group, Cinema America Occupato (an "illegal" sit-in or squatter type arrangement). 

How it looks today--assuming it's still there. 

Designed to resemble the American suburbs of the 1950s, Casal Palocco was a planned community with design links to Adalberto Libera, whose vision produced Foro Mussolini (now Foro Italico) under the Fascist regime, and to Raffaele de Vico, Rome's most famous and prolific landscape designer. 

The plan for Casal Palocco

Because of its many parks and gardens and athletic fields, Casal Palocco--actually a part of Rome--was known was known as the "Quartiere Verde" ("Green Quarter"). Many of the homes were large and sumptuous. A central shopping plaza had, and has, a rationalist flair. 

Late '50s rationalism

Today, about 32,000 people live in the community. 

Not sure of the date of this photo, but the cars are vintage, and that's Charlton Heston on the screen in the 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments." On the horizon, back left, the Alban Hills.  

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Finding another (too well) hidden gem - Diulio Cambellotti's Santa Barbara Chapel

We feel comfortable bringing this post to our readers, even in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, because even were the virus to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn't be possible to visit the remarkable chapel of Santa Barbara.  The Institute in which it is housed is closed for repairs, with no opening date in sight.  So enjoy RST's virtual tour!

We are fans of, and followers of, the 20th-century craftsman and artist, Duilio Cambellotti, who is featured in works in Villa Torlonia (especially the Casina delle Civette) and elsewhere in Rome as well as other places in Italy. Last Spring we gathered in a post several places in Rome to see his work - indoors and out. But we had missed a large and lovely one, the windows that frame the altar in the small chapel within the Istituto Storico e di Cultura dell'Arma del Genio - an odd complex of buildings Bill wrote about in 2014, near Foro Italico.

Sketch by Cambellotti of Santa Barbara
for the chapel in the Istituto...
Imagine our surprise to find a large and complex Cambellotti work later last year IN that Istituto Storico - the chapel of Santa Barbara, patron saint of, appropriately, artillerymen and miners.
(Capella Santa Barbara)

Immediately below is Cambellotti's "signature" in the windows, explaining it was his idea and design, and that Giulio Cesare Giuiliani was the craftsman (I think), created in XVIII E.F. (18th year of the Fascists, or likely 1940). One reason the enormous windows look so good is that they were restored in 2000.

In the photo of the chapel below, one can see the military men digging out a bunker at left, underground at right and in the middle, bottom and above the bottom middle panel, as radio transmitters (2nd photo below). 


 We were fortunate to have an extensive tour of the museum and the chapel as part of 2019's OpenHouseRoma. 

And now, I must add a postscript - unfortunately the Institute and Museum are now closed for restoration. And, as those things go, who knows for how long. It's possible one could talk one's way into the chapel. The library and archives remain open by appointment.

Below are external views of the Istituto.


This very Fascist design is outside, but inside the external walls of the complex; in a courtyard.