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, 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.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Danish Academy: Modernist Treasure, or Cold and Sterile?

"I hear you knockin' but you can't come in."  We're opening with a lyric from Little Richard (RIP) because we love Little Richard and find the line descriptive of life under Covid-19. You can knock on the door of the Danish Academy [Accademia di Danimarca] (or of any other academy in Rome), but you can't come in--and may not be able to for quite a while. So what better time to explore an academy, virtually of course, through a few photos taken (some of them surreptitiously, if I recall) at Open House Roma, just a year ago.

(Open House Roma, an annual weekend jam-packed with tours of buildings and sites usually closed to visitors, [and of which we always take full advantage; see one of our many posts on our OHR discoveries here] would have been May 15-16. This year. of course, it was cancelled.)

The entrance to this academy is forbidding: up a long stairway to an immense, low, metal, black door. We were forced to wait outside until the last minute when a select few with reservations (that included us--we've learned our OHR lessons well) were invited in and asked to supply IDs.

First 'vista' when one walks in. 

Inside, a rectangular entry with a low ceiling opened up onto what could be described as an open-air sculpture garden, if it were a garden and had more than one sculpture in it.  The block of granite was carved in the early 1970s by Soren Georg Jensen (1917-1982).

Like many of the academies that dot the Rome landscape, Denmark's Academy was founded in the post-World War II Era--in 1956--to develop and nurture cultural and scientific ties, in this case between Denmark (Danimarca) and Italy. Its first incarnation was located in Palazzo Primoli, near Piazza Navona and then, in 1967, transferred to a new building of modernist design on via Omero, off Piazza Thorwaldsen, where several other academies are located (we refer to it as "Academy Gulch" in our first Rome guidebook).

The new building (funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, whose brewery founder died in Rome in 1876) was designed by Kay Fisker (1893-1965), known both for monumental forms and modernist inclinations, and was inspired by the Scandinavian architectural tradition. It is considered Fisker's "last masterpiece" (he died before it was completed), and an archetype of Danish functionalist form, in contrast to baroque Rome. Structurally, the design consists of three cubes--one for the Director and administrative offices; a second to house the "borsisti" (scholars, fellowship holders); a third containing the library--set on three sides of a grand terrace, overlooking a garden, and with a view to the West. It was restored most recently in 2014-15 under the direction of Danish architect Bente Lange.

The terrace, looking toward the gardens.  Inviting, in its way, but with the tables set far apart, hardly organic, though perhaps appropriate post-Covid-19. 
View from the terrace of the housing for visiting scholars. 

Housing for the fellowship holders, overlooking the terrazzo. 
The Academy's building is notable for the high quality of its furnishings. The classic Scandinavian furniture was designed by Ole Wanscher (1903-1985), a professor of interior design in Copenhagen.

A lounge.  Note the furnishings. 
Food service facilities.  Wood everywhere.
The multi-story library: modernist, but classical in layout. 
Conference room, artist of work on wall unknown
Curtains, rugs, and other textiles were designed by Vibeke Klint, Ruth Malinowski, and Lene Helmer Nielsen. Paintings, drawings, and etchings--most of which I did not feel comfortable photographing--are abundant. At least one, an untitled piece by Seppo Mattien--is by a Rome artist.

"Posthumous Letters to Clara Jensen," Richard Mortenson, 1970. 
As we walked around and through the complex, the two of us disagreed on our evaluation of the aesthetics. She found the buildings cold, dark, somewhat sterile, and ultimately uninteresting--not clearly worthy of reporting. He liked the combination of modernism and comfort (on the inside) and the monumentality of the complex (on the outside).

Anyway, you can keep knockin', but you can't come in. (Don't miss the interesting photo at the end of the post).


A much earlier photo--perhaps 1967--with modernist tree trimming and before vines were allowed to cover much of the brickwork.
Compare with the 2019 photo just above. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Rome's Urban Countryside: a Walk from Pigneto to Centocelle

Rome's more open today than it was just a few weeks ago, so it may be possible to actually walk the walk that we took about a year ago.  If not, maybe in the fall. [This post was first published in April, but we took it down after a few days as events compelled us to write about "Liberation Day" and then the loss of Frederika Randall. We bring it back for the rest of its 10-day or so 'run.']

Rome isn't a mega-city (pop. about 2,800,000), and it sprawls.  One result is that there are surprising swaths of countryside remarkably close to the urban core--and even within it.  One minute you're on an urban thoroughfare, busy with commerce and residences; turn the corner and you're walking on what feels--and is, in some respects--a country road. Then, further on, more urban Rome, in the shape of a phalanx of modern apartment buildings.

We found an example of "country Rome" on a walk from Pigneto, a dense, hip, immigrant neighborhood on the northeast of the urban core, to Centocelle, a suburb further to the east.  We'll pick up our walk on via Acqua Bullicante, a north/south street packed with shops. Imagine you're walking straight south, about halfway between via Prenestina (to the north) and via Casilina (to the south).

On the left side of the street, facing an Esso gas station, note the mural by Atoche (above), a prominent area street artist, whose studio is in Pigneto.  Then, not far ahead, the Supermercato Il Castoro, with a country remnant--an Olive tree--in the front courtyard.

Immediately beyond the supermarket, turn left on via Forma--our "country road."  For the next mile or so, you'll have to be careful as you walk. There's a good deal of traffic, and--typical of the countryside--NO SIDEWALKS.

 Right away, some interesting buildings, including one with some neo-medieval touches.

It seems likely that via Forma once traversed small farms and orchards. A few still survive, now joined by small industrial/commercial sites.

After about a half mile on via Forma, turn right at the "T"--onto via Cori. A few hundred yards ahead, in Piazza Sessa Aurunea, note the Carpe Diem Bar (on your right) and a functioning crossroads nasone, if you haven't brought water.

Turn left (east) just before the fountain, onto via Labico.  More country road. Again, no sidewalks for about a half mile. Lots of traffic. Note an abandoned sculpture park in the weeds on the right.

On the left, a ways down, an old factory with a rusted green gate.

Bill took one of his "found art" photos here (which he later printed at 17 X 22 inches--looks great!)

Continue on until the road forks and there's a huge apartment complex ahead.

The "country" part of the walk is over.  We like exploring the architecture of such apartment complexes, and we went into this one through a nearby gate, coming out the other side on a road.

Make your way to the NEXT street, to the east, via Francesco Ferraironi, and turn right (south).  Follow this street until it curves right onto via Oberdan Petrini. You've got one more block to viale della Primavera.  From that street, head straight east, working your way through the 'hood, to the main drag of Centocelle (which in 2010, Bill called Rome's New Rochelle): via dei Castani (below).

 Then just a bit south to the large piazza that houses the church of San Felice da Cantalice.

On that same piazza, across the street from the church, there's a bar/cafe with outdoor space.  If you're inclined--and the place is open--have a coffee or a glass of wine and contemplate your journey through the Roman countryside.

Just a couple of blocks to the west and a bit south, you'll find the via Casilina tram. If you don't mind being on public transport, it should be operating, as of this writing, at 50% capacity and you must wear a mask. The tram will take you back to Pigneto.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

In Memoriam: Frederika Randall's review of Mario Sironi exhibit at the Vittoriano

Frederika Randall, an exceptional person, writer, and friend, died Tuesday, May 12 at her home in Rome, where she lived with her husband and loving and intellectual companion, Vittorio Jucker. Born in Western Pennsylvania, Frederika lived the last 35 years of her life in Italy. Her keen eye and judgment made her a valued public intellectual (a term she asked us not to use - you can't complain now, Frederika), publishing trenchant cultural and political commentary in The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and elsewhere. Her bio of herself here explains her life journey and also her lifetime of significant accomplishments and awards. She was a translator of the nearly-untranslatable, bringing to life authors as diverse as the 19th-century Ippolito Nievo ("Confessions of an Italian") and 21st- century Giacomo Sartori ("I am God").

In Frederika's memory, we are re-posting several of the posts--which remain popular--she wrote for RST. We re-posted  "Liberation Day: The Politics of  'Bella Ciao'" just 3 weeks ago (not knowing how precarious her life was at that point) for Italy's locked-down Liberation Day. Ten days ago we re-posted her review of a Renato Guttuso exhibit. Here we re-post her 2014 review of a show at the Complesso Vittoriano featuring the 20th-century Italian artist Mario Sironi. The review illustrates everything we've just said about Frederika - her keen eye, her trenchant criticism, her lyrical writing. She will live on in our--and all her friends' and family's--memories, and in the eclectic body of work she left to the world.


Sironi, Self Portrait
You have a great artist in your midst, perhaps the greatest of these times, and you don’t know it. Picasso, addressing feckless 20th-century Italians, was talking about Mario Sironi. It was a peculiar tribute, coming from a man who belonged to the Communist party until the day he died. While Sironi, on the other hand, was a believing Fascist even before 1921, when he began working as graphic artist for Mussolini’s paper, Il Popolo d'Italia and the review Gerarchia. He even adhered to the Republic of Salò, the German-backed Italian puppet state of 1943-45, and that was much more of a minority camp than Fascism ever was.

For a taste of this political outlier—and yes, great painter—I recommend Sironi 1885-1961 show at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome until February 8, 2015. There are ninety paintings, graphic works and sketches for murals neatly organized to follow the artist’s life path: born in 1885, studies in
engineering, a nervous breakdown, art school, meeting Boccioni and Balla, Futurism, the Novecento, bleak urban landscapes, a brief Metaphysical phase, Fascist illustration, publicity for automaker Fiat, an Expressionist turn, followed by the huge murals commissioned by Mussolini for new Fascist public buildings in Milan and Rome.

Things looked bad for Sironi when the Liberation came on April 25, 1945. He took the road out of Milan toward Como and Switzerland, like many Fascists who feared partisan reprisals, and not wrongly. On foot, his dog on a leash by his side, Sironi was stopped at a partisan checkpoint, and only when the poet and children’s writer (and partisan) Gianni Rodari stepped in, was he saved from being shot. After the war, Sironi continued painting, and the vein of melancholy that colors everything he produced seems to have deepened into something like despair. There was no place for a man like him in a postwar Italy where all the artists and intellectuals were anti-Fascists.
This exhibit, the first in Italy dedicated to Sironi in twenty years, was curated by art historian Elena Pontiggia, who provides a very useful biographical framework to hang the artwork on, both in a short film and the good wall quotes.

This doesn’t quite compensate for the fact that not many of Sironi’s greatest paintings are on
display, or that this show is much smaller than that of 1994, which had 400
artworks. But Pontiggia does bring out a crucial fact: that Sironi was a life-long depressive, a man of melancholy who it would seem should have been quite unsuited to the Fascist regime’s celebration of might and right.

Even as a young man Sironi would close himself up in his rooms, seeing no-one, drawing obsessively. “He’ll copy a Greek head 20 or 25 times!!!” reported  Boccioni (exclamation marks his). The Futurists disapproved of antiquated art.
Urban Landscape, 1922
Yet Sironi’s most powerful works are those that don’t celebrate Fascism, modernity, or industry. His urban landscapes, some of them painted in the early 1920s, others after World War II, are haunting, and haunted. When in 1922 he produced one of several paintings titled Urban Landscape, Sironi was staying alone in a cheap hotel in Milan, too poor to bring his new wife there to live with him. Dusty white and brick-colored industrial buildings, a great black swath of train track, a tiny tram and a tiny truck. The only thing that looks animate in the composition is the lowering green and grey sky.

The Yellow Truck, 1918
In another cityscape shown here, an ashy black truck stands immobile where two utterly empty streets of factories and warehouses intersect. There is no life or movement in the painting, just beautiful volumes. Once again, only the sky is alive, with big brushstrokes of smoke and cloud.
The Yellow Truck, 1918, is another work from this period. Big rough brushstrokes, in part painted on newsprint, it suggests a Futurist enthusiasm for the vehicle itself that is utterly absent in urban scenes done even a few years later.

Urban Landscape, 1920

In another urban landscape painted in 1920, a hard brown wall hides what seems to be a construction site. Again, the night sky is roiling overhead. Sironi is no longer celebrating the dynamism of the machine that was Futurism’s trademark. The only thing that’s dynamic is the air. When it comes to the work he did in the 1930s, Fascism’s heyday, the show tries to persuade us that although he worked for the cause, his murals and wall decorations (here, sketches for his mosaic Justice Between Law and Force in the Milan Court of Assizes) were never propaganda for Fascism. But like so many efforts to rescue Sironi from his politics, this doesn’t really ring true. Fascism was not just Blackshirts and castor oil; it was a political creed based on just the kind of myths that Sironi produced in his large allegorical murals. They embody a kind of immobilism, an image of the best of all possible worlds that need never change. Sironi was happy to accept those mural commissions because he wanted to make art for the people, not for bourgeois sitting rooms. But that, too, was a thread of Fascism.

Urban Landscape, 1922

My Funeral, 1960
After the war, Sironi continued to paint, and there are several more gloomy cityscapes here, often painted in a thick impasto of brown, blue and white, that are very striking. He died in 1961, not before producing a small tempera work, My Funeral, in which a tiny hearse in one corner of the picture is followed by a tiny handful of mourners. “Let us hope that after so many storms, so many gales, so much bestial suffering,” he wrote, “that there will nevertheless be a port for this miserable heart to find peace and quiet."  

Fifty years later, his reputation as an artist has been largely detached from his role as a Fascist, but you couldn’t exactly say he rests in peace.

Frederika Randall, Rome