Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Bunker of Monte Soratte: Used for Fascists, Nazis, the Italian Army, Nuclear Shelters, and now Tours

We recently found ourselves on a third Mussolini bunker tour.  We headed about 25 miles north of Rome to Monte Soratte, a singular mountain over 2,000 feet high that stands alone on the Lazio plain--even Goethe remarked on it. [The two prior bunkers we visited were under the Casino Nobile of Villa Torlonia and under the King's then villa in Villa Ada, both in Rome.]

That's a schematic of the bunker, its galleries and depth, the mountain above,
behind our guide - we are in the bunker here.
One of the many large entrances to the bunker.
 The mountain is sometimes called the "balcony of Rome," and deserves that name for its 360-degree views. [photos below] We knew there were "bunker" tours on Monte Soratte, but didn't quite know what we were getting into. More than 2 hours underground later, we knew.

Built between 1937-43 to house the Fascist government, should Rome come under siege, the bunker as exists occupies almost 500,000 cubic yards.  Mussolini's plans called for virtually an underground city that would have been at least 4 times that size, but July 25, 1943 intervened.  That's when he was deposed and Italy broke its pact with Germany and Japan.  A few days later, the Germans started occupying Italy.

A photo of the Germans using the bunker.

The bunker became Field Marshal Albert Kesserling's headquarters after those he had in Frascati were bombed on September 8, 1943.  As a result, the bunker is now known as the "German bunkers," though, as our guide was quick to point out - entirely Italian-built.  Italians have always been expert miners (since the country is basically a mountain range) and put their skills to work here in constructing the many kilometers of high-vaulted rooms and passageways.
Even vestiges of toilets remain.  The "footprint"
toilets appear to have been in use even then.

On May 12, 1944, over 100 B-17s (if we understood our guide's Italian correctly) attempted to bomb the German headquarters.  So impenetrable were they, only 100 German soldiers died of the 1,000 inhabiting the bunkers.  The Allied troops entered the bunkers on June 4, 1944, the day the Allies came into Rome.  The Germans set the bunkers on fire, destroying the interior.
The association and volunteers have added manekins and equipment of the
period to give visitors a feel for the use of the galleries of the bunker.

The nuclear retrofitting included concrete floors, walls and
ceilings that are not attached to each other (lit in this photo).
There is also a Doomsday Clock and other markers of nuclear
disaster in this part of the bunker.  We assume mainly to educate
school kids.
Other uses of the bunker took place after the war.  It was a munitions depot for the Italian Army (until 1967), and a the fallout shelter (never completed) for the Italian Government in the case of a nuclear attack on Rome.

This wall of data came from a now-destroyed bunker under
Monte Cavo in the Colli Albani.  It is from the 1970s, when Italy
as part of NATO was assigned an area (mainly Hungary) from which
to defend Western Europe from Eastern Europe.

The gallery dug out by use of this "trenino" in an attempt
to find the hidden gold.

And then there's the story of over $1.5 billion in gold ingots being buried by the Germans - who supposedly stole it from Italian banks - in the bunker.  At some point, the government started digging out another part of the bunker - with a little train ("trenino") in hopes of finding the gold.  The story involves all the Germans who were engaged in hiding the gold being killed, except one who fled, and then he was found decades later by Interpol in his apartment with his head severed.

Our indefatigable guide, showing us an incomplete tunnel,
with its steel rebar, and a newer part of the tunnel,
from the period when
the nuclear fallout shelter was being constructed.
About 10 years ago, a group of volunteers started restoring the bunkers, established a not-for-profit association, built a museum, and now give daily tours, a remarkable achievement.  You can find out more on the association's Web site, though there's nothing in English.  All tours so far are in Italian (and 2 hours worth is a lot of Italian!), though I noticed on TripAdvisor that some people have arranged private tours in English. 

As if that weren't enough for a day, we took advantage of the Monte Soratte Riserva to take a 3-hour hike.  We had been on Monte Soratte perhaps 10-15 years ago, before there was any information about a bunker.  We remembered the 'hike' as relatively easy. 

The 6th century church of San Silvestro, at the peak of Monte Soratte;
built on the ruins of a temple to Apollo.  From this peak, one can see Lazio
in all directions.

This time, with more marked paths, we managed to go up an extraordinarily steep slope and to see ruins of several hermitages, a medieval church, and an active monastery.  

Dianne (more photos below)
One of the lovely trails through a forest of, we think, beech trees.
A mock-up of a charcoal kiln on a "didactic" side trail we took,
explaining the "carbonari" - the charcoal workers.

Steeper than we recalled!

The one town on the mountain - Sant'Oreste - seen from the beginning of
the paths up the mountain.

And, yes, we got there with a car-share car.  That's Dianne
trying to figure out how to end the rental, and having to deduce
the Italian words for "ignition" and "car door" in the process.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rome's E-Prix and the Ghosts of Fascism

We are pleased to welcome back guest-blogger Paul Baxa, writing here on an all-electric (Formula E) car race to be held in EUR, a Fascist/modernist suburb to the south of Rome, on April 14.  Car racing is all about speed and roads, and Baxa, author of Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (University of Toronto Press, 2010), knows more about Fascism's enchantment with both than anyone else, as well as being an expert on Fascist architecture.  He teaches history at Ave Maria University, Florida. [A walk through EUR is one of the itineraries in our more recent book:  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.]

Looks like a test run for the race.  The cars are on Viale
Cristoforo Colombo.  The Marconi Obelisk, the starting line for the race,
 is at right.  
On April 14, 2018, Rome will host a round of the all-electric racing car series, Formula E.  Created in 2014, the series is designed to promote the automobile’s supposed electric future.  In order to do this effectively, the series’ creators have sought venues in the world’s capitals and major cities.  The inaugural race was held in Beijing, and since then electric races have been run in London, Berlin, Paris, Mexico City, and Moscow, among others.  It was only logical that Rome would be the next desired site for an E-Prix and this came about in October 2017 when the Eternal City’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, announced that Rome would host an event in 2018.  Although the photo-ops of the announcement showed some of Rome’s familiar landmarks like the Coliseum and the Campidoglio, the race will be run in Rome’s “modernist” suburb, EUR [the letters stand for Esposizione Universale di Roma--more on that below], southwest of the city on the road to Ostia.

E42 (EUR) as it was imagined in the late 1930s.  It looks very much like
this, today.  The arch was never built.  
            That EUR was chosen as the site of the temporary, 21-turn, 1.77-mile street course came as no surprise.  When the possibility of a Roman Formula 1 race was floated back in 2009, EUR was tapped as the desired location for the event.  La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading national newspapers, declared the choice as a natural given the wide streets, the “rationalist architecture,” and futurist atmosphere of the place.[1 - footnotes at end of post]  Since the 1950s, EUR has been Rome’s most concentrated area of steel and glass architecture, providing a home for some of Italy’s largest multinationals like ENI, and several government ministries.  Its public spaces and patrimony are managed by a corporation called EUR S.p.A which, since 2000, has attempted to make EUR a center of innovation as well as environmental stewardship.  One of its initiatives, Smart City Lab Eur, aims to implement European Union goals of sustainability in energy, which happens to fit in neatly with the aims of the Formula Electric series.  

           The chairman of EUR S.p.A, Roberto Diacetti, recently lauded the Rome E-Prix as part of the district’s goal to become Rome’s capital for conferences, leisure, and tourism exemplified by the long-awaited opening of Massimiliano Fuksas’ new conference center, La Nuvola ("The Cloud"), in 2016.[2]  All of this comes in the year that EUR celebrates its 80th anniversary, as demonstrated by a slick video presentation on the corporation’s website.

            It is precisely this anniversary that raises questions about EUR’s past—specifically its Fascist origins.  In the midst of all this innovation and future-oriented work, EUR remains one of Italy’s most emblematic centers of Fascist-era architecture.  The “rationalist architecture” celebrated by the Repubblica article is, to be more precise, the Stile Littorio, a combination of modernist, classicist, and monumentalist architecture associated with Marcello Piacentini, Mussolini’s favorite architect and the
Under construction.  Top, the Square Coliseum.  Top right, Palazzo
Ufficci (see text below)
man in charge of overseeing what was, at the time, called the E42.  

          What is now EUR was the brainchild of Giuseppe Bottai, Fascist of the First Hour and Governor of Rome who, in 1935, suggested to Mussolini that Rome host the 1942 World’s Fair.[3]  The architecture and the overall design of the complex was informed by a desire to exalt the achievements of the Fascist regime and of Italian civilization.  First among these “achievements” was the recent acquisition of Ethiopia and the extension of Italy’s Empire in Africa.  As Richard Etlin has pointed out, this celebration of empire became the leitmotif of the project.[4]  Fascist ideology and pomposity informed every street and building in the original plan of the E42.  By the time World War II interrupted the work, several buildings were left in various stages of completion. 
Pier Lugi Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport 
          When the new Italian Republic again began working on the project, the Fascist buildings were joined by modernist skyscrapers, residential apartments, parks, a picturesque lake, and sports complexes to host the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.  

Originally conceived as a Fascist showcase, the newly-named EUR became, instead, a site to celebrate the Italy of the Economic Miracle in the 1950s.  Some famous celebrities and cultural figures like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giuseppe Ungaretti took up residence there.  Muore recently it has been the home of one of Rome’s most celebrated football icons, Francesco Totti.  EUR has also served as the setting of classic Italian films directed by Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni among others.  [Clips from their films are in the video on the EUR S.p.A. site linked above.]
EUR as seen from the roof of the Square Coliseum.  The white building with the rounded top (center left) is Libera's
Palazzo dei Congressi--the pit stop area for the race.  The street in front of it, leading back toward the Square
Coliseum, is part of the race course.  The Marconi Obelisk is at center right.  

          The Stile Littorio buildings have become “heritage sites” blended into the landscape of EUR’s modernism.  Only days before the E-Prix announcement last October, a leading expert on Italian Fascism, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat of NYU, published an article in New Yorker Magazine asking why Fascist landmarks remain standing.  On the article’s front page was a photograph of EUR’s “Square Coliseum”, the Palazzo della Civiltà, probably Fascism’s most distinctive architectural landmark.[5]  After standing vacant for many years, the building is now the headquarters of one of Italy’s leading fashion houses, Fendi.  The flood of condemnation for Ben-Ghiat’s article in Italy reflects the unwillingness or inability of some Italians to think critically about the Fascist heritage that surrounds them.[6]  Whereas Americans are tearing down Confederate-era statues—the context of Ben-Ghiat’s article—Italy seems content to keep its Fascist landmarks up and even use them as contemporary symbols of the new Italy.  

The Square Coliseum, c. 1950

Dianne and Bill at the race starting line (the obelisk is behind
the camera.  The foot was part of a temporary public sculpture.
Looking north, toward the city center.  2010.  
The design for the Rome E-Prix’s course seems to confirm this desire to use the Fascist buildings in such a manner. Despite Diacetti’s desire to promote EUR’s future-oriented vision, the course is almost entirely located in the “Pentagon” section of the district, which is where the highest concentration of Fascist architecture is located.  The course’s starting line is on the Viale Cristoforo Colombo (formerly the Via Imperiale) under the shadow of Arturo Dazzi’s Marconi Obelisk, dedicated to the pioneer of modern communications.  Although the obelisk was inaugurated on the occasion of the 1960 Olympic Games, it was conceived in 1939 to honor the celebrated inventor and Fascist fellow traveler who died in 1937.  

Fuksas' Cloud, nearing completion, 2016
The course then goes past Fuksas’ La  Nuvola and snakes its way past the museums built by the Fascist regime to celebrate Italy’s heritage. Here, the drivers slow down to negotiate a chicane (a sharp double-bend) directly in front of the prominent colonnaded portico that links the museums.  

1957.  These famous folks (sorry, Bill and Dianne can't recall
their names; perhaps some of you recognize some of them) appear
to be crossing Viale Cristoforo Colombo, walking away from the
 Square Coliseum and toward the Palazzo dei Congressi.  

The pit stop area, meanwhile, goes around Adalberto Libera’s celebrated Palazzo dei Congressi, a good example of a structure that attempts to harmonize classicism and modernism in the Stile Littorio.  In recent years, the building has become a prime night spot with a rooftop theater.  

The paving of the beveled stones (sanpietrini) outside the building to accommodate the E-Prix pit lane, has sparked outrage from those concerned with the site’s heritage.[7]  Libera’s building was central to the Fascist vision of the E42.  It was placed at one end of an axis opposite the “Square Coliseum” with two esedra (semi-circular)-like structures on the Viale Cristofero Colombo in the center of the axis.  In what is now the Piazza United Nations the two main axial roads of the E42 project intersect in a manner that echoes Ancient Roman urban planning.  Fans of the E-Prix, sitting in the grandstands or atop Libera’s Palazzo in the hospitality area of the race will thus have an unobstructed view of the E42’s original plan.  The circuit, meanwhile, on its return leg to the start/finish line will use the opposite side of the axial road showcasing the “Square Coliseum”. 

The Fascist salute, it seems, on display at the Palazzo
Uffici.  The mosaic is at right.  
But it doesn’t end there.  As the cars snake through the back end of the course through turns 8 and 9, they will pass in front of Minicucci’s Palazzo Uffici, designed to house the administrative offices of the Ente E42, the forerunner of today’s EUR S.p.A.  This building, whose main hall is today rented out for luxury banquets, includes a large, stone mosaic dedicated to Eternal Rome which boasts a prominent image of Mussolini on horseback giving the Fascist salute.  Near this mosaic is a bronze statue of a young athlete giving a similar salute.[8]  

Thus, the course seems to be designed to exalt the “heritage” section of the EUR, and this means the Fascist-era sites.  Mussolini’s E42 lives on in the design of the Rome E-Prix, which is fitting considering the Fascist regime’s strong support of motorsport in the 1930s.  The ghosts of Fascism are everywhere, including the promo video of the race which shows the series’ leading drivers walking down the Via dei Fori Imperiali ("Way of the Imperial Forums") in the center of Rome.  This road, once called the Via dell’Impero ("Empire Way"), was inaugurated by the Fascist regime in 1932 on the occasion of the its 10th anniversary.  After their short walk, the drivers then get into their cars and make their way to EU,  past the ruins of the Roman Forum.[9]  Unbeknownst to them, they have taken the Fascist itinerary to the New Rome. 
Paul Baxa

P.S.  Dianne has an upcoming post that features both the Palazzo della Civiltà and the Palazzo degli Uffici, which we toured last year.  We will cross-link these posts when the second one is published.

[1] Marco Mensurati and Eduardo Lubrano, “Formula 1 Roma. Ecco il circuito,” La Repubblica, 5 febbraio 2009:
[2] Askanews, “Formula E: Diacetti (Eur Spa), accende i riflettori sull’Eur,” 23 marzo 2018:
[3] Luigi Di Majo and Italo Insolera, L’Eur e Roma dagli anni Trenta al Duemila (Laterza, 1986), 11.
[4] Richard A. Etlin, Modernism in Italian Architecture, 1890-1940 (MIT Press, 1991), 483-85.
[5] Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Why are so many Fascist Monuments in Italy still standing in Italy?” The New Yorker, October 5, 2017:
[6] “Perchè l’Italia ha ancora così tanti monumenti fascisti? Il New Yorker provoca, la rete lo stronca,” Il Sole 24 Ore, 8 ottobre 2017:
[8] Borden Painter, Jr., Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 130, 160.
[9] The promo video can be viewed on the Rome E-Prix’s homepage: and on YouTube.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Quest for the Cupola: Exploring San Paolo

There it was, on the horizon: an enormous cupola (dome), but belonging to what?  RST had rented a 9th-floor apartment in Ostiense, complete with terrace, where we spent many pleasant hours with our bicchieri of white wine, taking in the view--including that cupola.  In the photo below, the cupola is under the crane, at right.

One day in May we set out on foot to locate the building housing the cupola.  Our journey took us through Garbatella (which we've written about extensively), then into the neighborhoods of the next jurisdiction--San Paolo.

San Paolo is large and diverse, home to the dramatic, reconstructed basilica, San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Saint Paul outside the walls), and to new buildings of the Universita' degli Studi Roma Tre, which provides commercial energy to a few blocks.  But on this occasion, our focus was singular: we just wanted to find that cupola.

On the way, we came across one interesting, older building: the Azienda Tramvie Autobus del Governatorato, on via Alessandro Severo.

The name on the building refers to an agency, created in 1927 under Mussolini's fascist regime.  The agency was intended to develop and change Rome's system of trams and buses, and it did that, closing trams lines in the center and opening new ones on the periphery, including some in San Paolo.  The building was basically a tram and bus barn.  It opened in 1930 and was in use until 2003.  It housed Rome's first electric tram cars.

The building was designed to be in the Liberty (art nouveau) style, and there are hints of that.  But some of the Liberty elements proved too complex and expensive to produce, and the design was scaled back and simplified.

Something in the agency's name identified it with Fascism, and when the regime fell in 1944, the name was changed.

The facade includes two nice renderings of Rome's founding myth and symbol-- Romulus, Remus, and the She-wolf--here, embedded within an elaborate sculpture.  .

A distraction from our quest: one of Rome's nasoni, painted in blues and reds.

 And another distraction: an anti-theft device at the entrance to a private residence, rendered in modernist style:

Despite its prominence from a distance, the dome proved remarkably difficult to find and approach, perhaps because it's located on a hill with somewhat limited access. The photo below was taken from behind the structure.

Still, we persevered, and there it was: the Basilica di Santa Maria Regina degli Apostoli alla Montagnolo: Basilica of St. Mary Queen of the Apostles at Montagnolo (Montagnolo, likely named after the hill on which the basilica sits, is also the name of the Rome suburb--apparently a sub-division of San Paolo--in which it is located).  The address is via Antonio Pio, 75.

Construction was to begin in 1943, but the war--especially the bombing of Rome--intervened, and no work was done until 1945.  The church (designated a minor basilica in 1983) was completed in 1954.  The architect was a native Roman, Leone Favini, who took his inspiration from the style of Roman baroque, but with a modern feel.  Favini was one of several architects who worked on the Quartiere Ina-Casa Tuscolano I (a major public housing project) in the early 1950s.

In square feet of floor space, the structure isn't all that big.  But because the dome is almost as tall as the church is wide, the volume of interior space is among the largest of Rome's churches.  The dome is nothing short of spectacular.

 The frescoes on the cupola, by A.G. Santagata, feature Mary seated among the apostles, as the Spirito Santo (the Holy Ghost) descends among them. 

To get to the Basilica, take bus 715 from Teatro Marcello, or the Metro B to the San Paolo station, and walk.

For more on the structure--in English--try the website


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Soviet-style architecture--in Rome!

We found this covered structure--the entrance to a driveway--in Parioli, not far from Piazza Euclide and the church Dianne doesn't like [Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria, architect Armando Brasini, erected 1923-51; he also designed a failed church in Buffalo].  The structure is a curious bit of architecture, unlike anything else we've seen in Rome--even, perhaps, unique to Rome.  It belongs to architecture's difficult, and now and then, awkward, stage, one that begins in about 1955 and runs through, say, 1980.

But it's not the awkwardness that attracted us.  We were immediately reminded of the Soviet bus stops featured in Christopher Herwig's delightful book, Soviet Bus Stops (Fuel, 2015), and those taken by our friend Corbin Smith on a recent sojourn in Central Asia. The "K" could stand for Kremlin.

The bus stops--in Kazakhstan, Moldova, Lithuania, Armenia, and 10 other provinces--were built from the late 1960s to the 1980s--what one scholar has called "a time of monotony in architecture."  Even so, there was some room for creativity, for a playfulness that allowed for new angles and approaches --and, inevitably, for occasional awkwardness.  Note the optimistic turn upward in all of the structures, including the one in Rome.

Maybe one of those Soviet architects--one with plenty of rubles--found a way to Parioli.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Scallop Shell Motif

Once you become aware of something, you see it everywhere.  Just that happened to RST recently, when a scholar/friend, specializing in Renaissance painting, mentioned that he had become interested in the recurring motif of the scallop SHELL.  For example, the scallop shell appears in Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation (1478)--it's featured on the small altar to the right of Mary.  In this work, the angel Gabriel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to become the mother of God.  Here (above), the scallop shell functions as a fertility symbol.

Fertility is also the theme in what may be the best known pre-modern reference to the scallop shell: Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1452).  In that work, the scallop shell is associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus; Venus is symbolically born out of a shell (an egg).

The Birth of Venus has also spawned a delightful, playful take-off from the original.  It stars Piggy, of Sesame Street fame.

Piero della Francesca, Montefeltro Altarpiece (also known as The Brera Madonna).  1472-1474
Other historical figures who employed the shell motif include Piero della Francesca, in his Montefeltro altarpiece (above); Benvenuto Cellini, in his Jewel Chalice; Michelangelo, with his rendition of St. Paul; Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose Triton Fountain (1644) graces Piazza Barberini.

Michelangelo's St. Paul.  

Bernini's Triton Fountain

Also Bernini.  But where?
In the modern period, the shell continues to be associated with fertility--and female sensuousness.  A good example is the July 1, 1937 cover of Vogue magazine, by the artist Covarrubias.

Perhaps the most famous use of the scallop shell in modern times is the Shell Oil Company logo.  The logo dates to 1904, when the company's business largely consisted of bringing antiques, curios, and Asian shells to consumers in western nations.  The Shell logo has been modernized over the years.  Less obvious is that the design of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York City was based on a shell--the Japanese miracle shell.

Wright's Guggenheim
In architecture, the scallop shell is most frequently found over doorways and/or in arches.  The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael (Moscow, 1505) has a number of large, splendid scallop shell decorations.  The scallop shell often referenced the Christian pilgrimage and, more generally, signified spirituality.
Cathedral of the Archangel Michael
According to some sources, Da Vinci based the first spiral staircase on the swirling features of the shell.

In our walks around Rome (and London) we often encountered scallop shells--now that we were looking for them.  Some were over doorways, a usage that reflects the idea of the shell as a representation of contentment, of a comfortable home--and of the shell as a shield, a protection.

Modest building, modest shell above doorway.  Trastevere.  
More modest yet.  Could be a shell motif on the door, or
a sunrise, or something else.
We would have thought that the Mussolini regime, with its strong interest in linking Rome with the sea and, symbolically, with the naval competence that established Rome as a Mediterranean power, would have favored sea motifs, among them the shell.  Perhaps it did, in ways that have escaped us.  What does seem clear is that the regime's interest in various forms of modernism, especially high rationalism, precluded the use of the shell in most buildings constructed under Fascism. Instead, one finds the scallop shell on older structures--those built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and decorated in the prevailing "Liberty" style.

Splendid use of the shell motif, beneath balconies, on
a c. 1900 building in the Re di Roma area.  

A scallop shell behind the boy's head.  Main square, Rocca di Papa, Colli Albani.