Italy: Script vs. Reality

Italy! The name alone sparks fantasies of drinking wine in green vineyards while enjoying beautiful gardens, and architecture. It has been mentioned by a countless number of authors, and shown on the big screen in a more than a number of feature films. The influence of these mediums has reached far and wide, to the point that Italy has become romanticized in the minds of most the population. People flock to Rome, Venice, Florence, or even the Tuscan countryside in search of Italy’s enticing beauty, and many find it when they come to visit. These people are not wrong in doing so either, Italy is a truly beautiful country, only the reality of life in Italy is far different than what is shown through the lenses of cameras and paintings.

When I first arrived in Rome, I was quite surprised to find that most of the walls, doors, and even a few windows were covered in graffiti. Trash and other unpleasant objects littered the ground, and I quickly learned to pay careful attention to where I was stepping. Tourist were crammed into the most widely known corners of the city; my romanticized expectations of Rome were instantly shattered. I didn’t begin to piece together a new picture of Italy until I began exploring places that one wouldn’t find on any tourist map.

I took a visit to the neighborhood of Tiburtino, located just outside of central Rome. The neighborhood was built during the housing crisis that follow the Second World War, and it was here that I began to understand exactly what it is that makes Italy beautiful. Tiburtino wasn’t the grandiose and elaborate Italian neighborhood I had originally anticipated, it was instead quite humble. The designers of the neighborhood were seeking to create an architectural vocabulary that acknowledged Italy’s long history, all while avoiding the country’s more recent connections to the fascist party. While the neighborhood itself may not appear to be much on the surface, closer inspection reveals a methodically planned out system that integrates architecture from a portion of Rome’s past commonly overlooked: the medieval era.

Each block of Tiburtino had been planned to emulate the organic building style that was formed from human necessity during the medieval era, while simultaneously integrating the comforts of modern living. It was a functional housing block that managed to go beyond the copy and paste architecture so commonly seen in America. I was also shocked to find a place that appeared completely humble on the surface, yet had been carefully and meticulously planned and detailed. But it was the effort the designers had made to connect to a particular portion of their history that impressed me the most.

Throughout my time in Rome I have visited a handful of other neighborhoods, each with their own architectural vernacular that tied them to a specific region or place in time. I realized that it wasn’t the romanticized version of Italy that is so commonly seen that makes it great. Despite the trash, graffiti, and occasional shady environments, it is the continuing desire of the Italian people to connect their buildings to a particular place or time that make Italy truly beautiful.

Garbatella as Example of Regionalism

I have always been bothered by the copy/paste architecture so commonly found in many American suburban developments. Why must so many affordable housing projects ignore the very environment and region they inhabit? After all a large part of architecture deals with the way a building responds and communicates with its surroundings. Although the idea of regionalism is not a new one by any means somehow many designers have forgotten it and completely ignore the context of the very buildings they are creating.

There are however architects who recognize the importance of creating in a way that integrates local culture, community, and regional vernacular into their projects. These projects not only successful responses to their environments, but actually help to enrich the lives of those who inhabit them. The Garbatella neighborhood located just outside of central Rome, give us an excellent example of how affordable housing can be created in a way that responds to a specific regional identity. Originally started as a response to Rome’s housing crisis during the early 20th century, Garbatella offered individuals the comforts and aesthetics unique to a specific way of Roman life.

One of the primary elements that led to Garbatella’s success was the way in which details were placed at the forefront of the project. This attention to detail can be described at a Barocchetto stye that utilized local craftsmen and artisans to create various building elements out of local tufa stone. You see here an example of not only utilization of local materials, but a strong involvement from the local community. It is perhaps this involvement that allows for the Garbatella to foster a strong sense of unity amongst those who inhabit it, and help to connect the project to a particular place. If the details of the Garbatella had simply been drawn up and ordered from a random location, the palazzina and villino designs would not have maintained the “local” identity that is present today. Any project that can create jobs within a local area is also a plus.

Another element that helped foster the Garbatella neighborhoods success at maintaining a regional identity was the creation of superblocks. These super blocks contain local services to the residents of the neighborhood. Places such as barbers, beauticians, baths, and stores provide nearby and convenient services for the entire neighborhood, thus fostering a greater sense of local community. This form of mixed use urban planning has existed for a while, yet it hasn’t been until recently that American designers have begun to rediscover it. The Garbatella neighborhood was planned to also allow abundant access to green spaces and natural light. This is particularly critical when dealing with ideas of personal comfort within dense urban spaces. These types of mixed use facilities finally help to promote class integration which is highly important when dealing with creating a sense of community.

Theater

While designers are slowly beginning to create more mixed use facilities today, we can all learn an important lesson on regionalism from the Garbatella neighborhood. Creating places where people can have access to light, green spaces, services, and finally a form of architecture that ties them to a particular place can create stronger communities and more enjoyable living environments for individuals.

Tiburtino and Historical Identity

One of the great challenges that many architects face is how to reconcile past historical tradition with the constantly changing events of the present. In the wake of World War II Roman architects and designers looked to solve the problems of creating affordable housing in a manner that could go beyond the recent history of Fascism while still connecting them to their proud Roman architectural tradition. A large portion of Mussolini’s propaganda campaign sought to tie the Fascist party to Roman antiquity, thus creating a unique situation for post-World War II designers to overcome.

With much of the ancient Roman and Fascist architecture focusing strongly on pure geometries and relationships, it was nearly impossible for architects to create a new form of architecture that could reference historical Rome while simultaneously denying the unwelcome Fascist aesthetic. The Tiburtino development in Rome is one of me more interesting sites to visit, as its designers utilize unique and unexpected historical traditions from medieval Rome to resolve the issue of retaining a connection to Roman architectural tradition. The government run organization INA-Casa was charged with developing the Tiburtino district with architects Mario Ridolfi and Ludovico Quaroni leading the project. With the pure geometries of ancient Rome no longer a desirable option, they instead chose to lean towards a period of Rome that had since been mostly ignored; the medieval period. In doing so the Tiburtino neighborhood developed into a new form of neorealist Italian architecture.

The architects of the Tiburtino neighborhood focused on recreating the conditions and aesthetics that were seen in medieval Rome, while still placing a primary focus on the overall unity of the design. As a result the Tiburtino neighborhood consists of what appear to be clusters of buildings pressed against one another in a seemingly organic matter. One could imagine that each building was created out of pure human necessity throughout the course of hundreds of years. Tiburtino’s angled rooftops begin and end at various heights, and its earth toned stucco walls meet together at what appear to be random angles to create a sense of organic growth. Although the design solution may seem to be unconventional, it maintains a successful dialogue with a portion of Rome’s history that could remain disassociated with the Fascist party.  

While the chosen design may have successfully tied itself to Rome’s medieval history, one can’t help but detect an overwhelming sense of contradiction when visiting Tiburtino. The design and layout of the area seem to only halfway convey the sense of medieval Rome the designers used as inspiration. There is a great sense of irony also in trying to create a location that appears to be completely organic yet is based on a consistent set of guidelines. These contradicting elements can leave an individual with mixed feelings regarding the design intent of the Tiburtino neighborhood. The amount of effort taken by designers to create an “organic” environment based on such a rational system defeats the purpose of something being organic, much like the original medieval structure were. The downside to this is that it creates a sense of artificiality and leaves the entire project feeling somewhat disingenuous. While striving to reconnect Roman architecture to another part of its history, one can’t help but feel as though other more genuine avenues could have been explored.

Past Vs. Present: La Via Appia Antica

If you ever make your way to the western borders of Rome along the Aurelian wall you may stumble across Porta San Sebastiano. While the port is a spectacle to behold, it’s what sits at the ports entrance that is truly amazing. San Sebastiano marks the beginning of one of ancient Rome’s southern roads, la Via Appia Antica. Today the road can still be viewed and traveled the way it would have been when it was first constructed around 312 B.C. It is because of this that Appia Antica is one of the best places in Rome to visit if you wish to gain a clear understanding of the scale and engineering put into creating these incredible roads.

During ancient times roads were absolutely critical to an empire’s survival. Having well-made roads meant that not only items could be traded, but soldiers could be easily moved from place to place if the need for battle arose. Luckily for the Romans they were masters of road construction, so much so that even modern vehicles still travel on the very stones laid thousands of years ago. With the numerous farms, forts, castles, and temples dot the landscape along this beautiful path, taking a trip down Appia Antica is like traveling backwards in time. Today ancient Roman mile markers can still be seen marking the distance of a thousand paces from the center of Rome, and many catacombs used as places of early Christian worship can be accessed from the Appia Antica.

La Via Appia Antica

If you travel to the west of the quiet Appia Antica, you will find yourself on the noisy edge of Appia Nuova. While these two roads may share the same name, the differences between them could not be more obvious. Unlike Appia Antica the modern Appia Nuova is constantly filled with vehicles traveling into and out of Rome, and very few pedestrians travel along its edge. One can’t help but wonder if there is a way to combine the efficiency of Appia Nuova and the beauty of Appia Antica to create a road that meets the needs of modern transportation while still being enjoyable to experience.

Buon Appetito – Restaurant Hunting in Rome

When living in a big city such as Rome, the opportunities to experience new things are nearly endless. Fascinating works of architecture greet you around every corner, and getting to spend time experiencing another culture is incredible. For me, however, it’s the food in Rome that is at the top of my list. Unfortunately with so many great restaurants, it can be nearly impossible to know exactly where to eat when visiting Rome. Here are a few tips that can help you narrow down the list, and guide you towards some of the better places to eat in Rome.

Il Gabriello

Avoid central tourist locations: It goes without saying that Rome has many incredible places for sightseeing. Unfortunately dining at a hot-spots such as Piazza Navona, Campo di Fiori, or Piazza del Popolo means that you will be paying twice the price (sometimes more) per meal. Many of these restaurants are also geared towards tourism, not food quality. I would highly recommend searching for restaurants that are just off of prime locations, smaller side streets and piazzas often have restaurants that are not geared for tourism. This also allows you to stay close to busy locations without having to deal with long waits or crowds.

If they have to ask: Many establishments will employ individuals to stand outside and lure unsuspecting people to come and dine there. If you find yourself in this situation while looking for a place to eat, just say no and keep going. More times than not these places are pricey and will not offer you as enjoyable of a dining experience. If they have to ask you to come inside to eat there, it’s probably not worth it.

You pay for patios: I love eating outside as much as the next person, and Rome patios are some of the most scenic places to eat. Just be aware that places with patios will often have higher prices per dish, and the price increase often times doesn’t mean better food. Always check the menu before deciding to eat somewhere to see if the price increase is going to be worth sitting outside.

Look for stickers: If you are unsure about whether or not you want to eat at a particular restaurant, check the front door for stickers. Many restaurants will place stickers for awards or reviews they have received over the years. You can make a better decision based off of the number of stickers a place has received. If you have access to Wi-Fi, you can oftentimes look up and read about a restaurant before deciding to eat there. Trip advisor stickers are usually a pretty safe bet when looking for places to eat.

Finally, here are a few restaurants that I would recommend to anybody looking to enjoy a great meal while in Rome!

Al Duello’s modest interior

Il Gabriello: Located on Via Vitorria 51 this restaurant is only a few streets from the Spanish steps. Il Gabriello’s carefully designed basement dining area creates the perfect atmosphere for a romantic dining experience. This is not the most inexpensive restaurant, but the quality of food and atmosphere more than surpass the cost per dish.

Filet from Casa Coppella

Casa Coppelle: Located not far from the Pantheon, Casa Coppelle is certain to make for the perfect Roman dining experience. Between their wild berry risotto or their savory fillets, you will be certain to leave with a very full stomach. Casa Coppelle has won numerous awards and recommendations throughout the years, and is a must for anyone wanting to try some of the best Rome has to offer. The staff is friendly and will work to seat you even without a reservation, but making a reservation in advance is recommended. Casa Coppelle’s prices are higher than most, but they are equal to the quality and portion size of the meals they serve. Located in Piazza delle Coppelle, 49.

Al Duello’s Tiramisu

Al Duello: This is the best of the best! Located in a humble alleyway northwest of Piazza Navona Al Duello is a truly a hidden treasure within Rome. Don’t expect to run into many English speaking individuals here, this place is all Italian. Be sure to try their Roman style artichokes and eggplant starter dishes, you won’t be disappointed! The staff here is incredibly friendly and will not leave you feeling unwelcome. The chef here is passionate about his cooking, and it shows through with every dish. With Al Duello’s reasonable prices you should try and order a full course meal if you think you’re able, just be sure to save room for their one of a kind Tiramisu. Located on Vicolo della Vaccarella, 11.

Enjoy!

Past Vs. Present: Porta Maggiore

Porta Maggiore with view of aqueduct channels (top) and Bakers Tomb (between archway).

If you find yourself exploring the historic neighborhood of Monti, be sure to swing by the southeastern gate of Porta Maggiore for an authentic Roman cultural experience that blends both ancient and modern life. Porta Maggiore is the site of a massive double arched white travertine gateway constructed in 52 AD on the command of Emperor Claudius. This is by far one of the best places in central Rome to gain an understanding of the scale and functionality of ancient Roman aqueducts, as it used to house channels for the Aqua Claudius and the Aqua Novus. Sections through these channels can be clearly viewed from either side of the gateway, and illustrate exactly how massive many of the Roman public projects were. The inscriptions etched into the stone give praise to emperors Claudius and Tidus for their works on many of Rome’s larger aqueduct, and even give details about the origins and lengths of various aqueducts. The gateway was originally known as Porta Praenestina in reference to one of the two roads that passed through the archways, but was changed to Porta Maggiore due to its axial relationship to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to the northwest.

Porta Maggiore was originally built as a freestanding structure, until 271 AD when Emperor Aurelian ordered the construction of the massive Aurelian wall which encloses most of central Rome. The wall was constructed on both sides of the gateway out of mud colored stone that greatly contrasts with the clean crisp travertine of the Porta Maggiore. The addition of the Aurelian wall helped to solidify Porta Maggiore as a definite threshold into the central Rome, and is a fine example of architectural recycling over time. If you move around the gate you will get a chance to see the atypical Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker (Baker’s Tomb). Eurysaces was a slave who after buying his freedom opened an extremely successful bakery. The tomb is constructed to emulate elements commonly found in an ancient bakery, the recesses in the tomb are said to represent ovens used to cook bread.

During ancient times this gateway would have acted as the entry to Rome for individuals traveling along the eastern road of Via Praenestina and the southeastern road of Via Labicana. Today the Porta Maggiore is still used largely as a place of entry into Rome. While you will not find any traders and travelers on horse drawn carts, you can be sure to run into some of the busiest streets in the entire city. All forms of public transportation converge in this location, making the entire area alive with motion any time of the day. Unfortunately the high amount of traffic constantly passing through makes the Porta Maggiore a less than ideal location to relax. When you are finally done dodging traffic, and sprinting across tram tracks to gain a better view, you’re immediately greeted by a sea of trash and abandoned alcohol bottles littering the ground. The site surrounding the Porta Maggiore is poorly maintained, and a large number of vagrants seem to frequent this particular location. The substandard quality of the area is particularly noticeable when contrasted with the beautiful gateway in the background. The area’s shadiness seems to have a relationship to its proximity with Rome’s primary train station Termini, and its unsightly tracks that cut their way through the city.

Overall the condition of the site does little to ruin ones experience of this magnificent ancient gateway. I would highly recommend taking a trip to see Porta Maggiore and the Baker’s Tome if you are ever in Rome, just be ready to dodge some traffic if you do!