The Parking Thief

The affecting Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette) is an example of how highly Italians value personal mobility. When the main character’s bicycle is stolen his entire world is shattered and he desperately searches for the thief, for without it he cannot work. His anxiety increases throughout the film culminating in a desperate attempt by him to steal a bicycle himself in front of his son in a scene full of empathy and heartbreak. The protagonist comes full circle in the effort to recover his mobility and provide for his family.

In modern Rome, one can draw certain parallels between the protagonist’s need of a bicycle (the job he has just secured will only keep him if he has a bicycle) and the perceived need of a vehicle in today’s culture. Romans love their cars and regularly try to fit them down barely adequate streets, squeeze into spaces an American would never consider a parking spot, and angrily wave pedestrians out of the way. Although compared to many US cities Rome has an adequate public transit system the desire for the freedom of personal mobility seems to win out. Also visible today is the lengths to which people will go to secure their vehicle against theft, car alarms are a common sound and steering wheel lock bar a common sight. The lure of the open road is a strong pull for Romans although never an open road will be found in Rome.  Transport was reaching a critical mass even in the postwar period of the film, one scene shows an overcrowded trolley with men hanging off the sides, and in present day Rome during rush hour or the tourist season a comfortable bus or tram ride will not be found.  Yet, in a lecture by Tom Rankin he stated that there are 85 cars for every 100 people in Rome1 so how is it that the public transit system seems to be at a breaking point? We now have a city where most of the people own cars that do not appear to improve their day-to-day lives.

In many ways, comparing the sad, almost hopeful struggle of the family in Ladri di Biciclette to secure work for the husband by trading their only other possession of value (bedding given to them for their wedding) for the bicycle at the pawn shop, to the modern day Romans desire to move about with absolute personal freedom is ridiculous. Yet Italy and Rome have come so far in the last sixty years that the problems of modern day Romans have been reduced to sadness over a missed possible parking space on a sidewalk where they can avoid paying the parc-o-meter. The desperation for survival of 1940’s Rome has morphed into the desperation to keep up with the Joneses of present day; lest your neighbor upstage you by moving from a two wheeled motor vehicle to a four wheeled one before you can.

1 Rankin, Tom. “7 Themes for a Sustainable Rome.” Lecture, University of Oklahoma, Palazzo Cenci, Rome, IT.

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis and Temporal Consideration

The origins of Piazzale Augusto Imperatore in a Fascist master plan, and its being carved out of a thick and dense part of the city, raises an interesting design question for Museo dell’Ara Pacis: since not only the location of the altar and the precedent of having a building to house it were Mussolini’s decisions but also even the fact that a piazza is there to house it in the first place, when does the contextual argument stop being spatial and start being temporal? One of the main criticisms for Richard Meier’s museum (while deliberately ignoring larger political issues that may be at play) is that, stylistically, it is an extracontextual construction; the palette is too cold, the decoration too spare, et cetera. But is it not perhaps also the case that, stylistically and functionally, it is being considered entirely within the wrong context?

Victor Morpurgo’s design for the Ara Pacis enclosure

Invoking some willful reductionism: there really isn’t that much of a difference between the original, designed by Vittorio Morpurgo, and the current: both are, essentially, glass boxes that serve to enclose the altar and protect it from the elements. Of course, the program is simple, but the spaces don’t have to be. The problem may lay in the choice of architect: Italian Fascist architecture is noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles (there are some brilliant examples bordering Piazzale Augusto Imperatore). Richard Meier’s architecture is similarly noted for its lack of adornment, ostentatiousness, and rational principles.

The real contextual problem isn’t the colors, or the fact that it is Spartan in adornment, or that it lacks pomp and grandiosity – it is that, although Meier was commissioned by then-Mayor of Rome and liberal Francesco Rutelli, he proceeded to build another Fascist building in the center of Rome. There is nothing inherently “wrong” with fascist architecture; many fascist works are in fact well-receivedi, e.g. the buildings of Giuseppe Terragni famously championed by Peter Eisenman. However, maybe the temporal association isn’t the greatest for a major Roman monument?

Richard Meier’s design for the Ara Pacis enclosure

On the other hand, it may be the perfect association – after all, the altar is only there because Mussolini moved it. He aligned himself with Augustus, another man of power who had considerable influence on the Roman fabbrica della cittàii, who had the altar created in the first place specifically to celebrate the peace that war brought. Similarly, Italy’s engagement in World War II was in part influenced by imperial ambitions of the fascist regime, which sought to restore a “Roman Empire” in the Mediterranean region. Presumably, this would also bring peace, or at least respite from what is remembered as the most dramatic war in modern history. Whether Italian military ambitions were justified or not, it would be remiss to not address this important period of Italian history.

It is a little absurd to suggest that Meier had in mind the idea to generate controversy with a major landmark design as a sort of performance art masquerading as architecture in order to frame the entire debacle as commentary on Italians’ relationship with their past, but it is an interesting thing to consider. After all, there is room enough in the world for argument.

iAlthough always with an amusing rush to explain that “While this reviewer disagrees with fascist policy…”

iiAugustus is famously the emperor that “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”

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.

Past vs. Present: Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is quite possibly the most famous “modern” monument in Rome. It’s been featured several times on the big screen in such films as Three Coins in the Fountain, La Dolce Vita, and Roman Holiday. As the legend goes, tossing a coin into the fountain ensures your return to the eternal city. This story has clearly caught on because an estimated 3,000 Euros per day are collected from the fountain and donated to feed the needy of Rome. Certain enterprising individuals have even been known to attempt to raid the Trevi fountain of its plunder, one known as the “d’Artagnan” did so for 34 years before being finally apprehended by police in 2002.

Though many modern stories and myths have risen up around it, its story goes back farther than just the 20th century and even farther back than even the current fountain, which was finished in 1762. It traces its origins back to Roman times when a group of Roman engineers were out scouting for a new source of water to help bring an end to a water shortage the city was having. After days of fruitless searching, they were led to a natural spring in the mountains by a virgin. In this lady’s honor, the aqueduct was named the Aqua Virgo, a story which is depicted on the right hand side of the current fountain.

In the Middle Ages, there was a fountain in the Piazza di Trevi, so named because it lay at the intersection of three roads (tre vie). This fountain was far less theatrical and was really more of a large wash basin that was used for local commerce. The citizens in the area raised sheep and when it was time to harvest the wool, the sheep were herded into the piazza and sheared. The wool was then washed and sold in a large open market. It was eventually replaced at some point with a relatively small ornamental fountain that stood until 1730, when Pope Clement XII held a competition to design a new fountain. A Florentine man named Alessandro Galilei originally won the competition, but in typical Italian fashion, there was such an uproar caused by a straniero (foreigner) winning a Roman competition that the commission went to the next best Roman, Nicola Salvi. It is his design that stands currently and features Marcus Agrippa, the man whose eponymous baths the Aqua Virgo originally fed, on the left, Oceanus, the god of all water, in the large central niche, and Trivia, the virgin who found the water source that is supposed to feed the fountain its legendary supply of water.

Its story, like the stories of so many other Roman monuments, begins and ends in myths, legends, and mysteries. Regardless of whether or not they’re true, these stories give even more flavor to an already colorful and storied city. The Trevi Fountain continues to be one of Rome’s largest and most famous attractions and its seamlessly blends the wildly improbable (Oceanus) with the seemingly plausible (Trivia) with the definitely historic (Marcus Agrippa). It’s a symbol of how flexible and varied the urban fabric of the eternal city is and shows how time (and some under-the-table politics) can so dramatically change a single place.

Past vs. Present: The Pantheon


                The Pantheon is possibly the best known and preserved monument of Roman antiquity. The original Pantheon was built in 27 BC, by a powerful consul named Marcus Agrippa. This burned down and was rebuilt by Emperor Domitian in 80 AD, and Domitian’s Pantheon burned down in 110 AD. The Pantheon as we know it today was built in 126 AD by the emperor Hadrian and is a true marvel of Roman engineering. Hadrian was an innovator in many things: he was the first emperor to grow a beard in the style of Greek philosophers and humanists, a gifted administrator,  and had such an interest in architecture and engineering that some say he might have actually designed the Pantheon himself. The dome and drum combined are as tall as they are wide with a radius and combined height of 142 feet. The dome itself is made of about 5,000 tons of concrete that is 21 feet thick at the base and narrows to 6 feet thick around the oculus, which has a diameter of about 30 feet. It was the largest dome in the world until St. Peter’s Cathedral was completed in 1626. What’s strange about the Pantheon is that even though the Pantheon is one of the most documented monuments of antiquity, its original use largely remains a mystery. It is known that it was a monument to all the gods, but how exactly worship happened or what kinds of events were held inside the building is unknown.

What is known is that in 609 AD, it was given to Pope Boniface IV by the Byzantine Emperor Phocas. In typical papal fashion, Boniface converted the former site of pagan worship to a Christian cathedral, giving it the name Santa Maria ad Martyres. This is most likely what saved it from sharing the fate of the Baths of Agrippa and other surrounding Roman buildings which were either pillaged for building materials, abandoned and left to ruin, or otherwise destroyed, though almost all of the external marble and ornament was still removed over the centuries. Further pillaging was done by Pope Urban VII, of the Barberini family, when he tore down the bronze ceilings that once covered the portico and had them melted down and re-forged as, oddly enough, cannons for the Castel Sant’Angelo. He then decided to put twin Baroque bell towers on top of the portico, possibly thinking that these “Ass’s Ears”, as they became colloquially known, would make up for the loss of the ceiling. This caused the coining of the saying: “What damage the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.” The bell towers were removed in the nineteenth century and since then, much restoration has been done to the structure and facade of the building.

For being so large and well known, the Pantheon is surprisingly easy to stumble upon in modern times. The piazza it sits in is only approachable by a series of small alleys, most of which can accommodate no more than a single car at a time. Though its use and appearance have changed much over its almost 2,000 year life span, the Pantheon is still a sight to behold. It remains a church to this day and still marvels tourists, travelers, and native Romans alike with its grand size, impressive engineering, beautifully decorated interior, and facade that manages to amaze even in its state of pillaged semi-ruin. If you’re ever in Rome on a Sunday, stop in the Pantheon for mass or stop by any day of the week at any time to view this ancient marvel that still sees active use in modern times.

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!

Past vs. Present: Ara Pacis Museum and the Mausoleum of Augustus

Past vs. Present: The Ara Pacis and Mausoleum of Augustsus

Rome has a history spanning well over 2,000 years. Kings, emperors, popes, prime ministers, and dictators alike have all laid claim to the  Eternal City and the Campo Marzio, the “Field of Mars” in English, is the epitome of this varied timeline. Campo Marzio comprises the northern-most part of central Rome and includes monuments such as the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. Campo Marzio is the oldest continuously inhabited part of Rome. As such, Campo Marzio has a very representative cross-section of the city’s history within its borders: obelisks that were built by Egyptian pharaohs and brought to Rome by conquering emperors, Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance churches, ancient Roman ruins, towering fascist building developments, and even a museum built by American architect Richard Meier.

The area that’s the focus of this post is the area surrounding the Mausoleum of Augustus, which is near the southernmost border of Campo Marzio. The Mausoleum itself was built in 28 B.C. by Emporer Augustus as a reaction to Marc Antony’s recent decision to be buried in Egypt when he died. The people of Rome took this as an insult and, to prove himself a more loyal Roman than Antony, Augustus had his mausoleum built when he became Emperor to show his intentions. In truth, it functioned as a propaganda tool much like the buildings that surround it in modernity functioned during the reign of Benito Mussolini. The buildings and piazza that surround the Mausoleum were designed by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo in the 1930s along with a museum that housed another ancient Roman propaganda tool, the Ara Pacis Augustae.

The Ara Pacis was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 9 B.C. to commemorate the beginning of the Pax Romana, which was a period of peace brought about by the preemptive wars of Emperor Augusts. The monument itself was lost when the Roman Empire collapsed and maintenance on Roman monuments was abandoned. Over successive years of flooding, the Ara Pacis was slowly covered in silt and left to ruin. Pieces of the Ara Pacis began to be discovered as early as the 16th century, but the monument was not restored in its entirety until Mussolini mounted a dig to recover the majority of the fragments. Utilizing a technique that involved using liquid nitrogen in hollow steel pipes to freeze the soil and thus allow digging underneath a building that would have otherwise been unstable, Mussolini was able to resurrect the monument in time for the 2000th birthday of Augustus in 1937. After its reconstruction, Mussolini had Mopurgo design a museum to house the Ara Pacis. This museum was constructed in just under four months using the cheapest materials and quickest methods possible in order for it to open in time and, as such, after only a few decades, was in a terrible state of disrepair. The then-mayor of Rome hired Richard Meier to design a new cover building and museum for the Ara Pacis, which opened in 2006 to much controversy.

The site itself is an interesting one that spans over two millennia of history. The current museum is a redesign of a seventy-year-old piece of fascist propaganda that contains a piece of Imperial Roman propaganda that was used by the fascists to pretend to the power of Imperial Rome. The museum itself is surrounded by buildings that are bedecked in fascist propaganda, saying things along the lines of “It is always springtime for the strong people of Italy.” and all of these face the Mausoleum of Augustus, which is a propagandistic appeasement ploy even older than the Ara Pacis itself. It’s amazing to see how although the historical figures that shaped this area may have spoken different languages, worn different clothes, and were called by various different titles and styles, their purposes and goals were the same: to be in power. Areas like this are frequent throughout the city of Rome and serve as a reminder of what people will do to realize their will and how they often use the built environment to help them do so. Future blog posts will detail more of these sites and show the ways in which modernity and antiquity collide and intermingle in the Eternal City.