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

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Colonial Museum in a Post-Colonial World

What remains on display of the original "Colonial Museum" is half-way down these stairs on either side of the landing.

There is, buried in the complex of Italian museums that sit mostly unvisited in EUR (about 8 kilometers/5 miles from the Coliseum but easily accessible by metro) a "museum" that purports to display, and deal with, Italy's colonial past. Just finding this collection tells one something about the country's failure to confront its activities in northern Africa, colonial activities that stretched from the 1890s to the fall of Fascism in World War II. ( has excellent historical background on the Italian colonies.)

Changes in the museum's name and location over the years underscore Italy's approach to the colonies. 

Likely the entrance near the zoo,
before the museum acquired
its new name.  
The museum opened in 1924, in the early years of Fascism, as Museo Coloniale, the Colonial Museum, on the Quirinale, near the seat of government, and it was designed to create pride in Italy's quests. It was not conceived of as scientific (as were similar museums in other European countries), but very much like a trade show, under the Ministry of the Colonies. There were 20 rooms, each featuring a different city or region. (There was an earlier version, dating from 1904, featuring flora from the colonies, located near a botanical institute on via Panisperna in the Monti quarter).

In 1932, the Colonial Museum was moved next to the zoo, perhaps indicating the attraction of the "exotic other," including animals like the lion. Mussolini inaugurated it with a new name a year or so later, "Museo dell'Africa Italiana" (Museum of Italian Africa). It showcased "dangerous" African fauna and the bravery of collectors, deemed "pioneers." In addition to animal trophies, there was the blood-stained uniform of General Rodolfo Graziani, known as the "butcher of Fezzan" for his brutal methods in Libya. (There's a fascinating, unsympathetic portrayal of him [by Oliver Reed] in The Lion in the Desert, an excellent 1980 film by Moustapha Akkad [Anthony Quinn plays the heroic Bedouin leader, Omar Mukhtar]. Banned in Italy when released, it was first available there in 2009 via pay TV, and now one can purchase it on DVD - worth the price.)

The museum remained closed from 1937 (ostensibly to be redesigned; there's some dispute over this date - Wikipedia [Italian] suggests it remained open until 1943) to 1947. 

The museum reopened after World War II as "Museo Africano" ("African Museum"), but even then, the Italians described it (in a 1948 memo to the United Nations) as dealing with "previously unproductive tribes." It remained open until 1970, when it was essentially abandoned. There was also a major theft in 1977. None of this information appears in Wikipedia, which simply says its tutelage was "then entrusted to the Italian-African Institute, which from 1995 was reorganized as the Italian Institute for Africa and the East, both placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2011 that Institute was considered defunct, and the collection (in very poor condition and without proper labelling) was transferred again to the overall Ministero dei beni culturali (Ministry of cultural works) and warehoused.

So where is it, and where are the 12,000 objects - objects of "others" gathered to be observed by Europeans - and what is its name now?

From EUR's central Piazza Marconi, we trooped around to
several of the museum buildings, past many entrances closed
and others open to other activities, finally to find a
temporary entrance to "the
Pigorini" and a woman behind
the desk who finally knew what we were talking about.
We had read the museum was located in the newly-reorganized complex under the overall name "Museo della Civiltà" - which was the name of one of the several museums in EUR, and whose entrance graced the cover of our second guidebook, "Modern Rome" (that entrance now leads to the planetarium! - yes, we tried asking there about the "Museo Africano," which the visitor desk had never heard of), re-branded as "MuCiv" (!) and incorporating the several museums that were in EUR, including the original "Museo della Civiltà," which has been closed "for renovations" since 2014 (and it's unfortunate that the public cannot see its great model of ancient Rome). In 2022, MuCiv is asking the public for input on its plans for a radical refashioning of its collections. In English and Italian you can find those current plans here and here.

The entrance on our book cover
won't get you there.

Success! of a sort.  We found our way to a temporary, new entrance to another part of MuCiv, the crown jewel of the museums, Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini (known as "the Pigorini"), and after some discussion with the ticket seller, she gave us free journalists' passes, and we found what is now called the Museo Italo Africano Ilaria Alpi, or the Italian-African Museum, now named for a young Italian journalist killed in Mogadishu in 1994. 

What exists are a few objects (photos right and left and below) on either side of the landing of a stairway (albeit a monumental, large stairway, photo at top of post), accompanied by some plastic sheets indicating the questions raised by retaining and showing objects collected by colonists

The object at right is a "statuette of the Konso," "donated" by a Captain. It's hard to read the inscription (left) but it says something to the effect that "when a Konso (from SW Ethiopia) husband died, his wives were buried with him, and that this (I assume the tall statuette next to the plaque) was the tomb of a woman buried alive, according to superstition...
and that this was the first of the objects the Captain "astutely brought back - in 1927."

The plastic sheet hanging alongside these objects says, in Italian and English, "From the seventies of the last century up to 2017, the colonial collections had been locked in cases. They were moved, over several decades, between various institutions in Rome. The colonial Museum, and the history that it represents, were never challenged either on a museographic stage or in a public debate. Opening the cases through the collections, rescuing the latter with conservation interventions and making them accessible to the civil society are the first necessary steps so as to not allow the Italian colonial experience to be forgotten."

Italy is one of many countries confronting its colonial past. According to the panel discussion I observed at the Swiss Institute in Rome, "Erased Memories: Italian colonialism and its material legacies," it has done a very poor job so far in this regard. The scholars talked about "historical amnesia, cancelling, and the failure of Italian memory to accept" its colonial past. Waves of ex-colonial subjects, including Albanians as well as Africans, came into Italy in the 1990s, raising issues of responsibility and acceptance. The new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has run, like Trump, on a fiercely anti-immigrant platform. I should point out as well that while the objects were put under the auspices of the Ministry of beni culturali, the paper objects, including labels and such material as there is on provenance, were given to the National Library, according to the speakers at the Swiss Institute, which included Beatrice Falcucci who has written on  "The former Museo Coloniale in Rome and beyond: colonial collections in Italy between history and the present." The separation of objects and paper does not auger well for placing the materials in their proper context. In other words, it will be difficult for Italy, given its current custody arrangements, to make the claim that it can do a better job of preserving these materials than can their places of origin.

Admittedly, this project (the objects we saw and their measly space) is a first step and is designed to let the public participate in the "unveiling." It is in fact called "Unveiled storages" and is described as "an installation that aims to place the former Museo coloniale collections at the heart of the MuCiv's museum render objects accessible to everyone, even if only partially, that seem hidden from view and that had been hidden for several decades."

Above, the well-designed hall on the first floor of the Pigorini ethnographic museum.
This floor is mostly devoted to objects from Africa.

On the first floor (second floor, English style) of the Pigorini is a very high-quality exhibition of African objects collected before the Fascist era. But don't these raise similar questions? Where do they belong? Who "gave" them and why? The Swiss Institute speakers asked if there even could be a post-colonial museum. Should the main purpose be a cross-cultural approach, or preservation, or repatriation?

There is an informative video, in English by the Goethe Institute, on the ongoing project.

I've put more photos at the end of this post. The first one describes the Fascists' use of ancient Roman imagery, including colonialism; most of the rest are of the ethnographic exhibit.


Certainly looks like the artworks that inspired Picasso.

A beautiful stained glass window is at the end of the large staircase.

It's signed by "Giulio Rosso, dis. [designed by],
Art glass window. G.C. Giuliani, es. [the window maker]
Rome 1942 - XXI [Fascist year 21]"

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Rome's "Other" Pantheon: Julio Lafuente's Little-Known Gem Is Now Decathlon


A rather weird interpretive perspective on the Air Terminal Ostiense. The ancient ruins in the foreground certainly don't exist where they are portrayed here, and never did. The composite photo
seems a superficial effort to recuperate certain ancient forms.

Many Romans will have experienced architect Julio Lafuente's Air Terminal Ostiense building, if only because since 2012 it's been the Rome home of Eataly. Eataly may have saved the structure from demolition, but damaged it by converting its enormous, hangar-like space into several department-store like floors. Today, it resembles a post-modern mall. (See photo, right.)

Decathlon's version 

Across the street from Eataly there's a more modest, circular building (see above)--so modest, in fact, that hardly anyone seems to know that it, too, was designed by Lafuente. Indeed, both buildings were designed for the 1990 soccer World Cup. The building's reputation may have suffered from its history. For a while it was occupied by a toy store--Rocco Giocattolli ("Rocco Toy Store"). Later, it was known by the letters that graced its roof--Balocco, a variety store that was a dark, messy, and somehow gloomy place that sold a variety of items nobody would ever want (and that we wrote about in 2016, not knowing the building was by Lafuente). See photos below.

Balocco, 2016. The elevator may have been original to the building.

We're surprised that this smaller building has received so little attention, because it has a back story that puts it at the heart of Rome's history.

Born in Madrid, Spain, Lafuente emigrated as a child to France. As a young man, he studied architecture in Paris, returning to Spain in 1941, when the Germans occupied the French capital and much of the country. Soon after the war ended, Lafuente returned to Spain to continue his studies. His education complete, he intended to travel to the United States, but instead opted for the "Grand Tour" of Italy, aboard a BMW motorcycle.

When he arrived in Rome, his life changed. Just a tourist at that point, he encountered the Pantheon. He was overcome by the building: its shape, and especially the oculus, which bathed the interior in natural light. 

In 1990, he took his Pantheon experience (adding a dash of the Coliseum) and used it to design his own Pantheon. Like the Pantheon, it's round. And, like the Pantheon, it has its own version of the oculus--a glass ceiling (and partial glass walls) that bring in natural light. It's now an outlet for one of the big box stores of sporting goods chain Decathlon, which has restored much of the building's architectural presence. From Pantheon to Decathlon.

Lafuente's 1990 structure. Now (above) a Decathlon store. 

And here's the rest of the story. Much taken with the Pantheon and with the city's roster of fine modern architects, Lafuente decided to make Rome his home. In looking for work, he visited the studios of Ludovico Quaroni, Mario Ridolfi, and the prolific Luigi Moretti (whose best known building may be the Watergate complex, in Washington D.C.). His search ended at the Studio Monaco-Luccichenti, where Lafuente felt most accepted. 

Lafuente had a distinguished career as a creative modernist, designing a number of buildings in Rome and environs as well as the Middle East. Among his best-known works is the Tor Di Valle Hippodrome, designed for the 1960 Rome Olimpiad. [His studio's website is still accessible - his daughter, Clara - still maintains the architectural practice -  and has many more photos of his work.]

We were first introduced to the Spanish-Roman architect in 2006 when there was an exhibition at Istituto Cervantes on Piazza Navona, celebrating his 50 years of his work. Lafuente was there; he was very congenial; and we had a great talk with him that opened our eyes to his works in Rome.

Hippodrome, Tor di Valle, 1959 (now "ex [former] ippodromo Tor di Valle")

Lafuente's 1980 Esso building (below), in the business park Parco dei Medici, will be familiar to anyone traveling the limited-access road to the Fiumicino airport. In June, our driver pointed out the building and explained how much he liked it. We think it's spectacular--one of the most interesting and innovative structures in Rome's orbit (we tried - and failed - to get inside it).

Among Lafuente's other area buildings are the offices of SAIE, on viale della Letturature 30, in EUR; Villa Fiorito (1965), an apartment house in the Aurelia Quartiere (via di villa Betania, 31 [photo below]; the Rome Church of Scientology (off via della Maglianella 375--Google street views suggests that the church is not visible from the road and is likely not open to the public); and the Stabilimento Ferrania (1959), a storied company famous for making the celluloid which the great neorealists used, active until the early 2000s [photo below]. The Rome complex, which Lafuente designed, is at via Appia Nuova 803, now part of Autocentro Balduina (an enormous car sales and service organization, with multiple outlets).

Villa Fiorito, Quartiere Aurelia 

Stabilimento Ferrania, 1959

Julio Garcia Lafuente died in Rome in 2013, at age 92. 


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Neo-fascism comes to picturesque small-town Italy


Men outside Caffè Europa in the Roman hill town of Rocca di Papa.

We've always enjoyed watching the men (it's always men) in local bars, sitting around, playing cards, talking. It seems very communal, a good place for these apparently retired Italians. We were consequently horrified to see the small town where the photo above was taken, our favorite small town in the Alban Hills outside of Rome, identified by the New York Times this past week as a hot bed of neo-Fascism.

We had become inured to the fact that Giorgia Meloni, head of the Fratelli d'Italia party ("Brothers of Italy"), would become prime minister. For months the polls had shown her leading, even if her party received only about one-quarter of the vote. She made a pact with some other devils, including Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, on her way to the top post in Italy. Salvini was rewarded with the position of Deputy Prime Minister and - get this and don't choke - Minister of Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility (no wonder Italian Facebook went nuts over this Brave-New-World-speak).

We've also been keenly aware of the posters and graffiti around Rome that even decades ago promoted neo-Fascism. We wrote about some of these in our posts on posters and right-wing "heroes." (See here and here.)

What appalled us (and we can hear all our Roman friends going, "DUH!") was that our charming, special, sweet town voted 38% for Meloni's party, knowing they were reviving Fascism.

Are those men above likely Fascists? The New York Times featured the bar across the way, Bar Centrale. But my guess is, yes, you're looking at the right-wing there playing cards.

We had noted in a 2014 post a building we thought likely had been Fascist headquarters until after World War II. It's got the bulky look of buildings of that era, it's now a municipal building, and the date is obvious:  "A.D. 1935." One of our loyal readers, Marco, questioned that interpretation, saying: 

"I find it unlikely that the building in the photo may have been once the Party's HQ - not only the style is not Fascist in appearance, but the Fascist Era (Anno XIII E.F.) mark is nowhere to be seen on the building's façade, as are any remnants of chipped-away fasces one'd expect to find on such buildings."

He makes some good points, and perhaps we were wrong about the past (if there were some other factors we had taken into account there, I don't recall them), but there's no question about the present for Rocca di Papa.

One reason we favor the town is that it's the starting point for one of our best hikes, up Monte Cavo. In fact the photo we took, right, of Monte Cavo from the town, was taken from the now infamous (to us) Bar Centrale.

It's not hard to find men hanging out outside the bars or in the very large square that dominates the lower part of the town. (See photo below.)

From now on, we will have to listen more carefully to their conversations, though maybe we won't like what we hear.

Caffè Europa  is dear to our hearts because it's not only where we've always started (coffee) our hikes, it's also where we've ended (beer) them, and parked our scooter. The photo below was taken with our 2nd of three scooters (historically, not all at once), the foregrounded Malaguti, while the guys play cards, per usual.

That the town is picturesque is an understatement, and it's beautifully sited below Monte Cavo (see photo at end of this post). Its "shield" features the "rocca" or fortress - on the fountain that graces the top of the large square in the photo below. And the "Papa" is for a 12th century Pope who lived there (Eugenio III).

Another view below is from the cemetery, and in the distance the ruins of ancient Tusculum, a Roman town. Everything in Rocca di Papa, including the cemetery (and that 1935 building above) is on a slant, given its position on the steeply sloping hillside.

More in a later post on Mussolini and the rise of neo-Fascism.


The town of Rocca di Papa, seen from the main piazza. The first phase of the hike to Monte
Cavo is getting to the top of Rocca di Papa via picturesque city streets. The mountain itself is straight ahead but is not visible in the photo. 

Friday, October 14, 2022

Sculptor Canova's mark on Rome

Canova's kiln, with Franz Prati's painting,
inside art space Canova22

Antonio Canova, the sculpture of the famously sexy (and mostly naked) Pauline Bonaparte as Venus (in the Galleria Borghese in Rome), is having a comeback on several fronts, one of them in Rome.

Pauline, in eternal recline at the Galleria
Borghese, in the Villa Borghese park in Rome.

Canova was considered the best sculptor of the 19th century, but as a neoclassicist, his reputation ebbed during the 20th century. Born in the Veneto in 1757 and centered in Venice, he also travelled widely and had a studio in Rome, where, in the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister (who married into the prominent Borghese family) was his model.

Above, the sculptures in marble, bronze, and plaster
that surround diners at the Caffé Canova Tadolini

on via del Babuino in Rome.

Canova self-portrait 1792. 
(Credit here.)

While the sculpture is on display only by means of a ticket to the Galleria Borghese, there are quite a few other "sightings" for Canova within the Eternal City. We went to one this year, discovering that the kiln where Canova's works were fired has been made into an arts and events space of note. It's Canova22, on via Canova at #22 (around the corner from via del Corso), a 4 minute walk from the studio (now a café), on via del Babuino. 

Above, Franz Prati describes his 
painting to Dianne, inside the Canova22

Mara Van Wees's sculpture in 
the Canova22 space.

One of the "soci," or members of the art collective at Canova22, Franz Prati, showed us around the exhibition of his paintings and sculptures by his colleague, Mara Van Wees. He also explained the performance art and dance events that have been held inside what was the "fornace" or kiln. It's an evocative space, beautifully restored and converted for the arts collective.

The space/collective has a sophisticated website with information and photos, even a video of a performance taking place in the space. The website is useful for upcoming events as well. (only in Italian).

Prati also showed us a picture of the street where the kiln is located, from the era. You can compare that (left) with the street today (right, below).

And if you want to stop by the café for a drink and sit amid the sculptures, go for it!

Caffé Canova Tadolini occupies the studio where Canova and his prize pupil, Adamo Tadolini, did their work. The baboon- (sort of) faced creature, or "babuino." gracing the fountain at left, is the one for which the street is named. Reviews suggest an espresso or glass of wine; skip the food.


Friday, September 30, 2022

Extension of Rome's "C" line: Change, Disruption, and Ugliness

We lived just off Via Gallia about 5 years ago, and while there we became familiar with ongoing construction of the new "C" line of Rome's Metro system. The work currently being done will extend the C line from the existing San Giovanni Metro stop, near the basilica San Giovanni in Laterano, to the Coliseum. The new line will be beneath an area bounded on one side by the Servian wall, and on the other by via Sannio (and its street-side market) and, further down, by apartment buildings. 

It's no doubt worth doing, but as the work goes on, the impact on the immediate neighborhood is enormous. 

Progress has been made at the eastern end of the project--enough so that a nice, popular park has been carved out above the new line.  That's the Servian wall, with San Giovanni in Laterano in the distance. 

At the end of the park is one of the entrances to the soon-to-be modernized market. 

Shabby in its way, the un-modernized market is also mysterious, captivating, and souk-like.  Plans to redo the space, to make it more orderly and geometric, and less vulnerable to the elements, are posted in the market. 

The market as it is 

A rendering of the new market 

Further to the west, more or less paralleling via Amba Aradam as it works its way downhill toward Porta Metronia, the neighborhood is captive to massive red and yellow construction barriers, which were, of course, immediately covered with graffiti. Some of these barriers are within 10 or 12 feet of apartment buildings--and have been for years. 

Construction barrier at right, graffiti everywhere

Dianne, in still another place where Bill has dragged her.

The Servian wall, of ancient vintage, runs nearby, and parts of it have been braced with metal stanchions to prevent collapse, as construction shakes and rattles existing structures. 

Porta Metronia, left. At upper right, note braces to keep the Servian wall from falling down

A tennis club still exists in the path of the subway, but one imagines that will succumb as more "progress" is made. 

Tennis club. Survival in doubt.

A lovely view. Wine on the balcony?