Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, October 17, 2016

The Egyptian Academy: A Breath of Modernism in Valle Giulia

High modernist buildings are rare in Rome, and when we saw that the Egyptian Academy of Fine Arts was on the lists of sites for the annual OpenHouseRoma event, we couldn't resist.  We had been there once before, for an evening film screening, but had not seen much except for an interior stairway and the auditorium.  This would be different.

And it was, and wasn't.

The Academy, as it looked in the mid-1960s
The Egyptian Academy was founded in 1929, and for most of the following 30 years was located in one of the Emperor Nero's palaces on the Oppian Hill (Colle Oppio), across from the Coliseum.  In 1966 the Academy moved to its current location, at via Omero 4, in Valle Giulia, onto what one might call "academy row."  At the time it was the only Arab-African Academy in Europe.

Berlusconi (left) and Mubarak at opening of the remodeled
Academy, 2010

Little information is available about that building, except that it was subject to an extensive
remodeling under Egyptian architect Hatem Said early in the new century, reopening in 2010 to guests that included Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi.

We had parked our scooter down the hill and walked up, negotiating still another Rome stairway filled with trash.

The Academy facade, after an $8 million renovation.
Worth every cent.

The tour was scheduled to begin more than a half hour later, so we busied ourselves looking at a display of Egyptian modern art on the first floor.

The courtyard, from the interior

The remainder of our wait was spent in the superb, simple, square courtyard at the back of the building: grass, sculptures, places to sit, the frame of  rectilinear modernism recalling the Kennedy Center (1971) architecture of an earlier era.

As it turned out, the "tour" was of the Egyptian art we had already seen, as well as a subterranean museum of ancient Egyptian artifacts--not our fancy--not, at least, on this day.  We bailed out, headed for another venue.  And pleased to have experienced the pleasures of the Academy courtyard.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Balocco: Big-Top Architecture in Rome

Weird inside and out.  It's Balocco, also known as Rocco Balocco, and it's usually described as a toy store, but also as a seller of baby gear and furniture.  You could buy clothes there, too.

If you've been to Eataly in Ostiense, you've seen the funky building, because it's only a few meters from Eataly's main entrance, across the street.

Last spring we sucked it up and went inside (knowing we weren't thinking about buying anything) and took a few photos.  Other-worldly one might say.  Circus architecture (as if that were a thing). 1980s??  Zany postmodernism?

Gloomy interior.  Odd, given the abundance of natural light. 
A Roman friend said this Balocco is one of several in a small chain of stores, and that the chain had been for sale for years and is now on its last legs.  One internet site claims it's closed, another suggests it's open.

Run, don't walk--to Balocco!


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Pope and Mussolini: What - and Who - did the Church Sacrifice for Fascism?

A commemorative card of the Lateran Accords, with the ineffectual King Vittorio Emanuele III at left (his Savoy house symbol above), Mussolini center, note, with his fasce symbol above, and Pope Pius XI right, with the papal symbol - papal hat and crossed keys, above right.
Where was the Catholic Church during Mussolini's rise to power?  Did it play a role in the increasing totalitarianism of the regime, the persecution of the Jews in Italy, or the invasions of other countries that marked the Fascist regime?  Those are difficult questions, and they fit with the near total confusion most of us have about Italy's role in World War II.  The Pope and Mussolini, David Kertzer's latest book, goes a long way towards providing some answers.

Kertzer is one of the best historians of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the secular side of Italy.  Along with his knowledge of the 19th and 20th centuries in Italy, he brings to this book knowledge of the vast Church archives that were opened only within the past 10 years, as well as the detailed records of the Fascist police, who had spies in the Vatican recording every move. Thus Kertzer, as his subtitle asserts, can tell us "The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe."

Most of this story takes place in Rome, the seat of both the Pope's and Mussolini's power.  It starts with the Pope locked in the Vatican, where the Popes had been in self-imposed exile since the secular forces took over the city, and formed the state, in 1870.  As Kertzer describes it, "Although the Church no longer ran the city, Rome still seemed to have a church on every block."
The Papal rooms in the Vatican where Mussolini's
negotiators met with Pope Pius XI's representatives.

The two men - Pope Pius XI and Mussolini - came to power in 1922, the year Pius XI was elected Pope and Mussolini orchestrated the Fascist March on Rome.  They shared important values, according to Kertzer. "Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy.  Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association.  Both saw Communism as a grave threat.  Both thought Italy was mired in crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation." (One might think of Donald Trump in a similar vein.)

The Chigi Palace, seat of Mussolini's government.  One of
Mussolini's "gifts" to the Pope, to try to make him more
manageable, was the Chigi library.  The Pope started life
as a librarian.
Mussolini was not instantly easy to appreciate, and his movement was violent.  To gain approval, Kertzer argues, the Fascists needed the Vatican to play a major role in legitimizing the new regime.  Mussolini had at one time been a "mangiaprete" or priest-eater, and his wife, Rachele (as distinguished from his various mistresses, including the Jewish intellectual Margherita Sarfatti), remained staunchly anti-clerical.

Kertzer discovered from his work in the archives not how the Pope and Mussolini were different, but all they had in common  Besides their common values, listed above:  "Both had explosive tempers.  Each bristled at the charge of being the patsy of the other.  Both demanded unquestioned obedience from their subordinates...Each came to be disillusioned by the other, yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end."

Piazza della Pigna in central Rome, where Mussolini met with
Cardinal Pietro Gaspari as part of the negotiations that led to the
Lateran Accords.   Mussolini entered the home of  Count
Carlo Santucci from this piazza.  The Cardinal entered from the
other side.  The home had the advantage of entrances on two
different piazzas - so the meeting could be kept secret.
The mutually supportive relationship between the two men led to the Lateran Accords of 1929, signed on February 9.  The Accords gave the Vatican specific territories in Rome (but not the Pamphili gardens it also wanted); Catholicism as the state religion - allowing crucifixes back in school classrooms; recognition of religious marriages for the first time since 1870; and a lot of money.
In return, the Pope supported Fascism.  One must recall at this time, many in the US did as well.  Cardinal Spellman wrote, "These are wonderful days to be alive and still more wonderful to be alive in Rome," adding that the Pope and Mussolini would find their places in history.  And President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially was positively inclined towards Mussolini.

As the Accords were being negotiated, the Pope saw Mussolini as the "man sent by providence," one who basically was releasing the Church from its exclusion from Italian life.

From February 9, 1929 onward the Pope and Mussolini continued an awkward dance, as the Pope continually tried to have the Lateran Accords firmly enforced - especially with respect to maintaining the Catholic Action social groups - and Mussolini tried to move away from them.  My conclusion, after reading Kertzer's book, is that Mussolini outfoxed the Pope.  By threatening to take away aspects of Catholicism's power in the state institutions, the Duce led the Pope to prop him up after opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti was killed by Fascist thugs (1924) [and Mussolini thought, because of the reaction to that murder, that his regime was doomed]; successfully kept the Pope silent when Italy invaded Ethiopia (1935); and managed to convince the Pope to keep his mouth shut when the racial laws (1938) went into effect.

The lodgings for the Jesuits, next to the Church of the Gesu' in
 central Rome.  The head of the Jesuits, the Polish Wlodimir
 Ledochowski, was among the most fanatical anti-Semites
 advising Pope Pius XI.  Ledochowski, according to Kertzer, 
thwarted some of Pius XI's attempts to counter the Fascist 
racial laws.
It's clear, according to Kertzer, that this Pope was uncomfortable with all of these actions by Italy and Mussolini.  At the same time, he could not imagine the Church having as great a role in the Italian state as it had with Mussolini in power.  Pius XI even allowed the Catholic political party, the Popular Party, to be disbanded; its founder, the Sicilian priest Don Luigi Sturzo, was sent into exile in London for more than 20 years.

Pius XI was especially troubled with the racial laws, in part because he did not believe in biologically separate races, but perhaps most because he wanted Jews who had converted to Catholicism not to be treated as Jews.  Yet the Pope was surrounded by others in the Vatican who were more conservative than he, and some of whom were virulently anti-Semitic (see the reference to the Jesuit leader in the photo caption at right).  Pius XI came to despise Hitler.  He closed the Vatican museums and left Rome when Hitler made his famous 1938 visit to Rome.

"The Vatican," Kertzer demonstrates, "made a secret deal with Mussolini to refrain from any criticism of Italy's infamous anti-Semitic 'racial laws' in exchange for better treatment of Catholic organizations.  This fact is largely unknown in Italy, and despite all the evidence presented in this book, I have no doubt many will deny it."

After more than 15 years of the pas de deux with Mussolini, the Pope was ready to be somewhat more outspoken, going so far as to prepare a speech that was seen at the time as highly critical of Fascism.

But Mussolini not only outfoxed the Pope, he also outlived him.  Pius XI died February 10, 1939, and the very pro-German Eugenio Pacelli, taking the name Pius XII, succeeded him.  That speech Pius XI haf prepared was never given, and even its full text  - hardly the heavy criticism some thought at the time - was repressed until recently.

Photos were not permitted, but this painting illustrates the visit.  Mussolini went to the Vatican only once, and hated going there.  His pact with Pius XI was purely practical.  He appeared to remain a "mangiaprete," or "priest-eater."

Two very good reviews of Kertzer's book when it first appeared in 2014 are by Alexander Stile in The New York Review of Books (interestingly titled, "The Pope Who Tried"), and Steve Donoghue in The National.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Gaetano Rapisardi and the funeral of Vittorio Casamonica

"You conquered Rome, now you'll conquer paradise"  
Rome was abuzz late last summer over the elaborate, August 20, 2015 funeral given in an important Catholic church for a reputed Mafia gangster of Eastern European (Sinti) origins.

The body of Vittorio Casamonica arrived at the San Giovanni Bosco church in the Tuscolano district (not far from Cinecittà and the Parco degli Acquedotti) in a gothic-style carriage, drawn by 6 horses.  Banners and
posters proclaimed Casamonica. "King of Rome" and granted the man who'd reportedly been involved in prostitution, drug trafficking, and racketeering the status of eternal life:  "You conquered Rome, now you'll conquer paradise."  An orchestra played the theme from The Godfather.  A helicopter dropped rose petals.

Not quite sure what's happening here.  
That's all quite seedy, and Romans were justifiably upset at the spectacular celebration of someone with possible connections to organized crime, and perhaps, too, at the role of the Catholic Church in facilitating the excess and giving over a premier religious building to a ceremony involving a person whose life had hardly been exemplary.

What intrigued us here at RST was the church and, as we pursued our interests, the architect, Gaetano Rapisardi.

Unfinished tomb for
Galeazzo Ciano
Rapisardi (b. 1893) served in the Italian armed forces during World War I, studied architecture at the University of Florence and, as luck would have it, married a fellow architectural student who was the daughter of one of Rome's best-known architects, Gino Coppedè, whose Rome studio he joined not long thereafter.  He did some Rome residences, and then, with another well-known Rome architect, Marcello Piacentini, collaborated on a design for at least one building for the new University of Rome campus--likely the building that houses Letters and Philosophy, Jurisprudence and Political Science.

With his brother Ernest, Gaetano designed Casa Bonanni (1933) on the Lungotevere Marzio; the building, with its exquisite arch leading from the Lungotevere to Piazza Nicosia, now houses the Bulgari jewelers' headquarters.
Casa Bonanni, now Bulgari HQ.  Piazza Nicosia is through the arch. Nice work
connecting the Lungotevere with streets in back.
Rapisardi also designed the Stabilimento Aerostatica Avorio in Rome, a building located at via della Vasca Navale 84, near Vicolo Savini, the small street we covered in another post--just across the river from the Marconi district.  The building now houses the Department of Physics of Roma Tre University.  Since
Note Rapisardi's stone work
remodeled inside, its most interesting features are the front entrance and a front façade that uses a variety of brick and stone treatments to invoke the heritage of ancient Rome. 

Although internet sources do not reveal Rapisardi's relationship to Mussolini's Fascist regime, the fact that he designed the unfinished tomb for Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and an important figure in the regime (later executed on Mussolini's orders), suggests that Rapisardi was within the fold.

Whatever one might think of Casamonica, he chose a spectacular setting for his funeral.  The Basilica di San Giovanni Bosco is in the Tuscolano quarter, not far north of Cinecitta and just a few blocks off via Tuscolana, at viale dei Salesiani 9. Construction began in 1952; the church was consecrated in 1958 and completed in 1964.  Despite its postwar origins, it has the weight and grandeur of structures common to the late Fascist era.

At left, a view toward the piazza.  The sculpture inside the arch evokes EUR's "square coliseum," a Fascist icon.

Architecture of the piazza
And its placement, at one end of an enormous arcaded piazza, evokes--like no other place in the city- -Mussolini's Fascist masterwork: EUR.

The central dome--the largest in Rome after the Pantheon and St. Peter's--when we visited was mostly obscured by scaffolding, but one could appreciate its size nonetheless, and with the smaller dome next it, serves to highlight the geometry--not only the circle but the square--that is on display here.

Two rear bell towers--only one equipped with bells--are also in the modernist mode. All this modernism: quite in contrast to the vehicle that transported Casamonica's body.

Stained glass detail

The organ and, at far right, the baroque ironwork.

Splendid stained glass mosaics, some in the subdued tones of the postwar period, others--around the large dome--in bold primary colors, soften the geometry.  The organ is enormous. The congregation is large enough that confessional booths are marked for different priests.

Don Bosco, dreaming

A stylistically restrained piece of altar furniture, 1960
Side chapels feature paintings of the period, some of them worthy of attention, all nicely described in small panels (in Italian). Curiously, the altar is centered by a swirling piece of ironwork in the baroque style, while nearby, restrained early 1960s decoration predominates. The overall impression is that an enormous amount of money was spent on the structure and its decoration.

In May of 2015, the saga of the Casamonica funeral story took another turn, when it was revealed that the Roman comedian Dado (Gabriele Pellegrini) had been threatened on social media because of a song and dance parody of the funeral that he'd posted on the social media.  "I don't want the moon," he sang, "I only want a funeral with Rolls Royces, horses, a cortege, and police who direct traffic only for me." "'I want a flaming casket,' he sang on, and outside the church giant photos of my face.  And a band that plays the tune of The Godfather, King of Rome."  The video of Dado's performance went viral, and it wasn't long before threats began to appear on the entertainer's Facebook page, some quite direct:  "Yes, it could be that tomorrow you die, and I'll give you a beautiful piece of shit."  The person who left this comment, and 9 others who made similar ones, are currently being investigated by the authorities for threats and defamation.


Monday, September 19, 2016

Eurosky: Tall Buildings come to Rome!

Rome and Los Angeles aren't usually understood to be similar.  But in one respect they are: they're both essentially low-rise cities, made up mostly of buildings of less than 5 stories.  Decades ago, Los Angeles made a decision to concentrate the much larger buildings that were needed by hotels, banks, law firms, and some condo folks in a few areas, including downtown (now the site of the tallest building west of the Mississippi), Westwood, Century City and, more recently, parts of Hollywood.

Rome came later to the idea of concentrating its tall buildings.  Its first effort is in the south end of EUR, the mainly Fascist-era suburb to the south of the center.  The second is not far away, near Pier Luigi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport that essentially marks the southern end of EUR..  This 63 hectare (157 acre) complex is known as Eurosky or, on the company's website, as Business Park Europarco (sounds a bit like a rue de road) or Europarco Business Park.

The rather uninspired sales offices of Eurosky.
Maybe that's why the place feels empty.  

From via Cristoforo Colombo, going south, turn right (east) on viale dell' Oceano Pacifico, then left on viale Avignone.

The first building you'll see, on the right, is occupied by Microsoft.  It's not clear whether it's part of Eurosky, or just adjacent.

And beyond this building, to house those visiting Microsoft execs and others of "i big" ilk, a handsome Novotel in a white skin with some weird angles. Up ahead, there's plenty of space to park.  Let's have a look around.

Microsoft building at right, Novotel at left, soccer field awaiting players in foreground.  
The complex has some of the feel of Parco Leonardo, the newish suburb/shopping center still further out.  Empty and sterile.  Great expanses of what might be called "piazza," but few popoli.  Perhaps the buildings haven't filled up yet.
Those are people down there.  
To the southwest, a big hole in the ground, primed for yet another Eurosky skyscraper, and beyond it, the Euroma2 shopping center, where you'll find an Apple store.
Euroma2 - from the back.
Looking east, a modest effort notable for the cutout, upper left.

Upper left detail
The centerpiece of the development is the Eurosky Tower (Torre Eurosky)--the one with the big angled slabs on top. Probably solar panels. The building is basically a huge apartment complex. Except for few touches--the angled staircase, a vertical cut-out in the center--it's a rather soulless structure.  But it is the tallest building in Rome and one of the largest residential buildings in Italy.
Eurosky Tower, from the parking lot.  Business traveler at left.
Angled stairs, Eurosky Tower
That big square glass structure down the way?  Surprise!  That's the Italian Ministero della Salute (Ministry of  Health).  Its angled doorway aside, it's ordinary, too, though arguably handsome.  In an era when the Italian government needs every cent it can get, we wondered why the ministry needed to be housed in new, and presumably expensive, quarters.
Ministry of Health

And its angled doorway.

Perhaps the most interesting element in all of Eurosky is just steps from the entrance to the Ministero della Salute: a small sculpted monument, commemorating the global elimination of Rinderpest in 2011 under a joint Ministry of Health/FAO program.  (Rinderpest is a German word meaning "cattle plague." The virus likely dates to the 7th century.)  It's a lovely, organic piece of work, lost here amid all the uninspired modernism.  

More tall buildings and empty piazzas to come! Don't miss our Eurosky updates!


Bill's ingenious selfie in the reflection of the Rinderpest plaque.  How clever!