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 700 posts

Friday, January 29, 2010

Abebe Bikila: A Story from the 1960 Rome Olympics



Most of our readers won't have heard of Abebe Bikila, the marathon runner from Ethiopia (at left, in front, wearing a green top and reds shorts). But I can't resist re-telling a part of his story that has to do with Rome. It's superbly told in David Maraniss' Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World (2008).


Bikila was one of only a few Ethiopian athletes in Rome for the summer games, and for most journalists and his fellow runners, he was an afterthought--no one took his chances seriously--and an oddity. He was odd because of his footwear. He had run his shoes ragged in a month of training in the Rome environs and then purchased new ones that didn't fit well. So he showed up at staging for the 26 mile race shoeless, having decided to run barefoot. Observing Bikila's feet before the late-afternoon start of the race beneath the steps to the Campidoglio, American runner Gordon McKenzie remarked to a teammate, "Well, there's one guy we don't have to worry about."

Given Rome's remarkable typography, much of the course was curiously boring, designed, perhaps, to avoid Rome's hills rather than utilize them: south around the Coliseum to Circo Massimo, left in the piazza known as Porta Capena, along the Baths of Caracalla, a right turn onto via Cristoforo Colombo, past EUR and beyond the GRA (a superhighway that encircles the city), back to the GRA and east along it (terminal boredom here) to the via Appia Antica, northwest into the city, again along the Baths the Caracalla, a right turn at Porta Capena, the final quarter mile to the finish under the Arch of Constantine.

Note that EUR, the Olympics site of Foro Italico, and the Olympic Village from 1960 all are featured in our latest book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.   More on the book is at the end of this post.


From the gun, Bikila's race was invested with meaning, if not irony; in 1935, Ethiopia had been brutually invaded by a Fascist Italy keen to have its North African "empire." But there was more to it than that. Although the course was essentially a triangle, and doubled back on itself only briefly, the route twice took Bikila through Porta Capena. Going and coming, Bikila would run by an object with which most Ethiopians were familiar: the Axum Obelisk, brought to Rome from Ethiopia in 1937, a symbol of the Italian conquest, of Fascist arrogance, and of the Italy's imperial ambitions. (At one corner of the piazza is an enormous building in white marble. Today it houses FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; under Fascism, it was the Ministry of Italian Africa).


Enormously talented and perhaps motivated to affirm Ethiopia's status as a sovereign nation, free from colonial domination, Abebe Bikila ran brilliantly on those bare feet. We can only imagine what he was thinking as he approached the Axum Obelisk for the second time, turned hard right onto the paved cobblestones with the Coliseum illuminated in the evening darkness before him, the Arch of Constantine--once reserved for the feting of Fascist heroes--just seconds away, and an overwhelming victory, in Olympic record time, in his grasp.




Bill

As noted above, several Olympics sites are featured in our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through amazon.com and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at smashwords.com


Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.








Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Alone (almost) at the Trevi Fountain



We're always stimulated by Jessica Stewart's photos on romephotoblog.com, and recently one of them, of the crush of tourists at the Trevi Fountain (left), caught our attention. So did the caption, in which Jessica announced that the Rome place she hated most (except for the Spanish Steps), was the Trevi.

Crowds can be fun--at soccer games, political rallies, and outdoor concerts. But we agree with Jessica that they can spoil one's experience of the Travi's gaudy baroque splendor and reduce the potential for that special romantic moment.

But there is a way to be alone with Anita Ekberg's famous fountain: go there in the middle of the night, like 4 a.m. You'll find one police car in the piazza, full of cops. But otherwise you'll have the Trevi all to yourself, or selves. The downside is you'll have to take your own picture, as we did on an early morning in April, or knock on the window of the police car (we don't recommend it).

So set your alarm, Jessica!

Bill




Saturday, January 23, 2010

RST Top 40. #28: The Frescoes that Worried Mussolini



The title for this posting is a brazen ripoff of Anne Weale's June 12, 2007 blog, and we thank her for it. But we found Guido Cadorin's frescoes on our own, though by accident, one evening more than two years ago. We had learned that the Grand Hotel Palace (now called the Boscolo Palace Hotel) was having an evening of jazz, one of our passions. We shed our jeans and T-shirts for hotel-respectable garb and headed for via Veneto. We found the Lounge Bar (up the hotel's main stairs and to the left) and the price list of beverages (gulp), but succumbed to the elegance of the room and the prospect of an evening's entertainment and ordered a bottle of white wine (E50). Our table was the one at the bottom left of the photo above, and the piano was only a few feet away.

Add Image



And then we saw the frescoes. They're by Guido Cadorin (1892-1976), a Venetian painter of some repute. Guido's father was a sculptor with money, and the youngster grew up with the right influences, befriending Modigliani among others. Still, he refused an invitation to join the Futurist movement, writing in his journal: "I'm a spiritualist and an uncorrupted vegetarian" [the Futurists must have been ravenous meat-eaters]. "I feel outraged and after reading their books I just want to burn them and never reply."


Although well known for his easel paintings, Cadorin did several decorative, fresco projects in the 1920s, including a series (1924) at the home of the poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio. The frescoes in the lounge were completed for the opening of the hotel (then, apparently, called the Albergo degli Ambasciatori), designed by Marcello Piacentini, who had a major role in the building of EUR and in designing the new University of Rome (1932), with interiors by the Swiss decorator, Emilio Vogt.


According to one source, quoted by Weale, Cadorin's wall paintings drew on a famous series of frescoes by Veronese at the Villa Maser in the Veneto region. That may be true, but the great pleasure of these sublime works is their powerful evocation of the manners and social life of Rome's high society in the 1910s and 1920s. Their realism, their authenticity, owes much to Cadorin's personal observations; indeed, the people in them were real people.


And that's why Mussolini got so upset. One of those depicted was art critic Margherita Sarfatti, the daughter of a Jewish banker and, since 1911, Mussolini's mistress. As the story goes, Mussolini was concerned that the frescoes would expose the relationship, and so, within months of their unveiling, he had them covered. They remained inaccessible until after World War II.


Today you can enjoy Cadorin's work and need not indulge in the bottle of wine to do so. If only to feel more comfortable and less out of place, we do recommend giving the bermuda shorts some time off. Cadorin would concur.


Bill
PS - Make sure you get the right building; there are similarly named hotels nearby. The Palace is at via Veneto, 70, and it's on Itinerary 5: Nazis and Facists in Central Rome, in Rome the Second Time (p. 80).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Galeazzo Ciano's Remarkable Diaries



Galeazzo Ciano was Mussoini's son-in-law and Italian Foreign Minister from 1936 to 1943. He was executed in January, 1944. Ciano left us with his diaries, which he maintained from 1936 through 1943 (entries for 1938 and later are available in paperback: Simon Publications, 2001).


The diaries are a thoughtful, judicious commentary on Ciano's contacts with many of the protagonists of World War II, including Hitler, von Ribbentrop, Himmler and, of course, Mussolini, with whom he worked on a daily basis--the Duce at Palazzo Venezia, Ciano at Palazzo Chigi. The photo above, taken before the signing of the 1938 Munich Agreement, has Ciano at far right and, to his right, Mussolini and Hitler. Neville Chamberlain, the architect of what became known as "appeasement," is at left.

This isn't a "tabloid" diary--for example, Ciano's wife--Mussolini's daughter--seldom appears, and Ciano is appropriately consumed by the major developments of the day, including the war in Africa, the invasion of Greece, and developments on the Eastern front. But there are many revelations and observations of a personal nature, some of which I offer here.

March 10, 1939
"The Duce commented, 'The German people are a military people, not a warrior people. Give to the Germans a great deal of sausage, butter, beer, and a cheap car, and they will never want to have their stomachs pierced.'"

March 3, 1940
"I speak with the Duce about the eventual exportation of works of art. He is favorable, but I am not. He does not like works of art, and above all detests that period of history during which the greatest masterpieces were produced. I recall--he recalls it too--that he felt a sense of annoyance and physical fatigue unusual in him on the day he was obliged to accompany Hitler on a detailed visit of inspection to the Pitti Palace and to the Uffizi. "


May 28, 1941
"Mussolini inveighs against Roosevelt, saying that 'never in the course of history has a nation been guided by a paralytic. There have been bald kings, fat kings, handsome and even stupid kings, but never kings who, in order to go to the bathroom and the dinner table, had to be supported by other men.' I don't know whether that is historically exact...."


October 11, 1941
"The Italians, too, are pulling in their belts to the last hole: the one that the Italians call the 'foro Mussolini'--'the Mussolini hole.' [The Italian word foro means both forum and notch, or hole....]."


May 8, 1942
"Vidussoni [general secretary of the Fascist Party] wanted to close the golf courses. I questioned him, and he, who is very simple-minded and is never able to find a way out, answered candidly that he intended to do this because 'golf is an aristocractic sport'....I consider it a great mistake because nothing is gained and one does not even earn the gratitude of the masses, which are inconsistent and changeable as the sands."



August 2, 1942
"Edda [Ciano's wife] attacked me violently, accusing me of hating the Germans, saying that my hatred for the Germans is known everywhere, especially among the Germans themselves, who are saying that 'they are physically repulsive to me.'" That's Galeazzo and Edda, below.







August 7, 1942
"I spoke with Vidussoni [see above]....He said that he did not know who De Chirico was, because for two years he had been too occupied for read modern writers.'"

August 28, 1942
[After a visit to the Venice Biennale]: "....the Spanish pavilion is the best. We had two painters who are important: De Chirico and Sciltian." A Sciltian painting from the 1930s is at left.







October 16, 1942
From the Duce's entourage we learn that he may not be in a condition to receive [Reichsmarsal Hermann] Goering on Monday. In any event, he will have to receive him at home, and the Duce is somewhat embarrassed on account of the modesty of his living quarters [Villa Torlonia]."
Mussolini's home at Villa Torlonia is below right.


December 7, 1942
[Ciano speaks with the King of Italy, who recalls the advice of his grandfather, King Victor Emmanuel II]: "In speaking with people, one must say two things in order to be assured of a good reception, 'How beautiful your city is!' and 'How young you look!'"



December 19, 1942
"I believe that at heart Hitler is happy at being Hitler, since this permits him to talk all the time."

January 4, 1943
"The personal indifference of the Duce to personal possessions is moving. At home he owns only one good piece: a self-portrait by Mancini, which was a gift from the painter."

Bill

Sunday, January 17, 2010

RST Top 40. #29: Villa Pamphili Park



It's hard to know where to start with so vast a property as the park of Villa Pamphili. Perhaps it's the variety of offerings to myriad tastes that made us put it on the RST Top 40 - as in, something for everyone.

For starters, it's the largest public park in Rome at over 450 acres (it's 180+ hectares, larger than Hyde Park and about 55% the size of Central Park).



Second, it's beloved by Romans for Sunday picnics, passeggiatas (walking about... slowly), games, exercise (jogging - it was the site of the Christmas half-marathon last month - and biking are popular), dog-walking, children-minding....

Third, it's full of history (and what in Rome isn't?), especially the unsuccessful first occupation and defense of the city by the Garibaldi forces in 1849-50. A bit of that history, and of the park's, is on the Wikopedia site in English for the park. Print below shows the park when the Villa Corsini was still standing; it was destroyed in the French (on behalf of the Pope) attack on the Garibaldini in 1850.




Fourth, it has some wonderful buildings and walls left - ancient and modern, including an aqueduct that comes in from the north, crosses into and along the park, and ends in the fabulous Fontanone, the huge Acqua Paola Fountain below the park.Itinerary 2 in Rome the Second Time dips into the park off the Gianicolo.

Fifth, it's a vast nature preserve, with lots of flora (and some smaller fauna, including many varieties of birds) for the amateur botanists among us - a real green space. The park's grove of pine trees (pini, the grove, a pineto) defines one of the skylines of Rome - those gorgeous umbrella pines against the sky.

And we can also say what Villa Pamphili is not. It's not the Villa Borghese. It doesn't have a blockbuster museum, or a race track, or a zoo, or a puppet theater, or a cinema house, or a ton of tourists. Fine by us!



We've been to Villa Pamphili over and over... always with new experiences... our starter was a picnic with one of our sons where we really did try to kick the soccer ball in the pine grove. Another time we followed the aqueduct and studied the Risorgimento (the Italian drive to unification - and to unseat the Pope) of the mid-19th century. More recently, we dwelled on the graffiti particularly lush in the area of the park near via Vitellia. We recommend coming in this entrance, around the small lake to a crumbled-down water course that once formed the center of a pleasure park for the Pamphili elite and their friends. The history of the water course, and the missing statues, tells the story of the government's takeover of the park in about 1970 - yes, that's 40 years ago, not 140 - and its inability to keep the park from being raided by thieves and vandals. And yet another evening we came upon a lovely concert here, enjoying the music before rain caused us all to go our separate ways.





All of these comments just scratch the surface of the Villa Pamphili. Go for yourself and we know you'll discover something new. As one Roman blogger said recently, "Central Park and Hyde Park are parks; this is a world."




Dianne

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wallpapering Dumpsters?




Wallpapering dumpsters? That's what the artist Finley (her last name, and the only one she uses) does. She does it in New York City, where these pictures were taken by Rob Bennett for today's New York Times, whose Penelope Green got the scoop. But she also does it in Rome, where she lives--and we don't mean Rome, New York.


Ours minds are boggled. Wouldn't Finley have to move mountains of garbage just to get access to Rome's bins? Where goes she find the wallpaper, from our experience a commodity as rare in Rome as Kraft processed cheese slices (which by the way are delicious)? How will Rome's mayor--an ex-thug who detests art and has failed to get the dumpsters emptied on a timely basis (how difficult can that be?) react to Finley's guerilla tactics? Will Romans, who have rejected carpeting for their homes because of a genetic fondness for the unadorned surface, turn away from the wallpapered dumpster in disgust? Stay tuned. And if you come upon one of Finley's creations, send a photo our way.

Bill

Monday, January 11, 2010

RST Top 40. #30 Zaha Hadid's MAXXI


Only a few months ago we had Rialto Sant'Ambrogio, a hip and alternative cultural center, in this #30 spot on the Rome the Second Time Top 40. But it recently closed, perhaps a victim of Rome's ex-thug Mayor Gianni

Alemanno and his right-wing fear of creative and artistic endeavors. Whatever. Anyway, in its place we offer Zaha Hadid's new MAXXI gallery. Although spectacular inside and out, it's arguably already an anachronism: a symbol not only of the affluent 1990s, when the project was conceived, but of the liberal mayors who once governed Rome and cared about the arts. As you'll see below, our take on MAXXI is not usual one.

For more on MAXXI, ,as part of a walking itinerary of Flaminio, see our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Flaminio and, across the river, Mussolini's Foro Italico (also site of the 1960 Olympics), Modern Rome features three other walks: the 20th-century "garden" suburb of Garbatella, the Mussolini-built suburb of EUR; and a stairways walk in classic Trastevere.  More on the book is at the end of this post.


A "Conversation" with Nicolai Ouroussoff
We have great admiration for Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architectural critic of the New York Times. His views of modern architecture have always seemed to us smart and judicious, based on knowledge leavened by common sense; we thought we were on the same page. And so we were surprised on a recent Sunday (12/20/09), in a story in the Times that discussed (among other structures) Zaha Hadid's recently completed MAXXI--Rome's national museum of 21st century art--to find Mr. Ouroussoff expressing opinions with which we didn't agree. It's not Mr. Ouroussoff's opinion of the building that we don't share, but rather his understanding of the area--the Flaminio district--in which the building is located, and his view of the building's relationship to its surroundings.

"The museum's sinuous concrete forms," he writes, "which seem to draw energy from the surrounding streets, play a game of hide and seek with the neighborhood. [See photo at right, for the "hide-and-seek effect Mr. Ouroussoff describes.] Tucked mid-block between rows of nondescript buildings, it is less about the hard sell than the slow seduction." (In November he had written something similar: "Its sensual lines seem to draw the energy of the city right up into its belly, making everything about it look timid.") Later in this Sunday's piece he writes about MAXXI's "ability to infuse a drab, lifeless neighborhood," "a derelict postwar area at the far edge of Rome's historic center," "with a sense of joy." In his November comments, he said this about the neighborhood:. "The museum stands in a drowsy neighborhood of early 20th-century apartment buildings and former army barracks called Flaminio."

There's much of interest in these remarks, and we will try to simplify things. Mr. Ouroussoff thinks Ms. Hadad's MAXXI is a very powerful and sensual building, and that it is located in a miserable neighborhood--"drab," "lifeless," "derelict" (except that the neighborhood, despite its lifelessness, seems to have energy on which the building can draw, bringing the city "right up into its belly"). Is the building good for the neighborhood? Here Mr. Ouroussoff is not clear. On the one hand, MAXXI "makes everything around it look timid," which doesn't sound good. On the other hand, it infuses the neighborhood with "a sense of joy," which does sound good.

Our differences with Mr. Ouroussoff start with the neighborhood.
(See the aerial photo at right, looking south). The immediate neighborhood--the streets immediately surrounding the new museum, are not the most lively or fascinating in Rome; several schools and state installations are located nearby. But Flaminio is not Detroit or Newark or Cleveland or Dayton. We lived in Flaminio for 3 months in 2008. Only a few hundred feet west from MAXXI on via Guido Reni is a thriving indoor market, a crowded bakery, and many other shops and coffee bars. Less than three blocks south and southwest from the new museum is the active commercial and residential corridor of viale del Vignola and, just beyond, a humming via Fracassini. On the northeast side of the museum, Piazza dei Caracci is home to one of our favorite wine bars (photo at left) and a large, well-appointed coffee bar that's busy all day.





But Mr. Ouroussoff makes it seem as if MAXXI is coming to the rescue of a sleepy, even "derelict" neighborhood with little going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without or without MAXXI, the area is a hub of cultural offerings and impressive modern architecture. A quarter mile to the east, across the trolley tracks of via Flaminia, stands a playful complex of buildings known as Parco della Musica (photo below). Designed by Renzo Piano, it is to Rome as the Kennedy Center is to Washington, D.C--except more inviting and accessible. Nearby are the buildings designed for the 1960 Olympic games, including a multi-building housing complex of considerable architectural merit, and Pier Luigi Nervi's famous Palazetto dello Sport. To the east down via Guido Reni, and just across the Tevere (just off the right/west edge of the aerial photo), is one of Fascism's monumental works of architectural modernism: the Foro Italico, designated the Foro Mussolini when it was unveiled in 1927. Ms. Hadad's MAXXI joins these works; it confirms Flaminio's claim to be (along with EUR) the heart of Rome modernism.


We are left with the building's impact on the neighborhood, on the streets around it. As I understand Mr. Ouroussoff, he isn't sure whether the building provides energy to the surrounding streets (infusing them with a "sense of joy"), or sucks the life out of them ("makes everything look timid"). The second alternative gets my vote. The back of the building is just an enormous concrete wall (note that one never sees photos of it), shunning neighbors and pedestrians. The front opens on an enormous, empty, lifeless, pedestrian-only plaza of the sort we've seen before and that never work (think the Albany Mall, although it's not quite that bad). People don't eat lunch in these plazas, or walk in them (and why should they? the bars are cosier, and the city streets more entertaining). Maybe some kids will use it to kick a ball around. Like most modern, concrete plazas, the function of this one is to display the building, to make a spectacle of it--and it does that well.





But to spectacularize MAXXI, worthy as that goal may be, the neighborhood and its residents must be held at arm's length, as in the photo at right. Jane Jacobs, who understood how cities function--and how they don't--would understand.





Bill

As noted above, MAXXI  - both its front and back - are featured in the Flaminio walk in our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Modern Rome features tours of the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics; and a stairways walk in Trastevere.

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through amazon.com and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at smashwords.com


Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Mapping Rome


We love maps, and we detest GPS systems--at least when used in Rome. Maps help one understand a city, deep down; GPS gets you from point A to point B, but its micro-focus guarantees that you won't know much about how the city is laid out and functions.

We recently bought the map shown here. It's a copy, printed in Rome in 2004. The title is Rome Presente e Avvenire (Rome Present and Future). It's not a Rome-the-Second-Time map; we've lived in seven Rome neighborhoods, and only one of them--just to the east of via della Lungara--is on the map.

And that's what makes it fascinating. On the southwest side of town, the Marconi area where we spent one pleasant (except for the filthy streets) spring, doesn't yet exist. To the southeast, development pretty much ends at San Giovanni in Laterano, at least a mile from our apartment a few blocks from Piazza Re di Roma. Northeast, there isn't much development beyond viale della Regina Margherita; the Piazza Bologna area, the site of two itineraries in Rome the Second Time and one of our favorite places, doesn't yet exist. And to the northwest, there isn't much of anything beyond the walls of the Vatican. Inside the city, the map shows something called Aqua Mariana flowing from Parco della Caffarella through Circo Massimo, and today's village-like neighborhood of San Saba is mostly farmland. The black areas on the map are demolitions.

So, what's a good date for the map? We welcome your help in figuring out just what it is we bought!

Bill

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

RST Top 40. #31: Protestant Cemetery



"It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place."


It's hard to top Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's take on Rome's Non-Catholic (usually referred to as Protestant) Cemetery, and shortly after penning these words, in 1822 he drowned off the coast of Italy and was buried here.

There are myriad reasons to put the Protestant Cemetery in Rome the Second Time's Top 40, including visiting the graves of figures such as Shelley, fellow Romantic Poet John Keats, and 20th-century Italian intellectual atheist Antonio Gramsci, who died in 1937 under police guard in a Rome hospital (having spent a decade in Fasicst prisons).

Another reason to visit is simply its lushness and quiet, especially compared to the zaniness that is Rome. It's a lovely break from one of the most congested of areas, the Porta San Paolo, right outside the Cemetery walls. A third is the spectacular - and perhaps best - view of the Pyramid.

The Protestant Cemetery has been much better maintained in the past few years, with regular (!) visiting hours, a newsletter, and a very helpful website in English.

The Cemetery appears in Rome the Second Time as part of Itinerary 4 at pages 71-72, and note the correction on Shelley's heart (now that should tempt you to check it out) in our post of May 5, 2009.


Dianne

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Italy, on the Surface


Ingrid Rowland's December 17 review of The Hand of Palladio in the New York Review of Books is as much about the book's author, architect Paolo Portoghesi, as it is about Palladio. We were intrigued by the focus, having written on this blogsite about Portoghesi's Roman mosque (designed 1975; see our June 17 post) and having admired his lobby for Rome's Hotel de la Minerve (above). Rowland labels these works "dream visions," then moves on to this remarkable paragraph:

"These works have a terrible poignancy now, reminders as they are of the optimistic Italy that pulled itself from postwar destitution by sheer force of imagination--Fellini was in many ways a maker of documentaries, not fantasies--and unrelenting work. The mosque of Rome, despite its modern materials, still revels in craftsmanship, as can be seen from the specially cast prefabricated columns, the intricate mosaics, the chandeliers and fountains. That same loving care of surface shines forth in every aspect of Italian life: in Fellini, Raphael, Titian, Vivaldi; in Marcello Mastroianni's swagger, Sophia Loren's vitality, La Dolce Vita--but then it was another Italian, the Roman sage Vitruvius, who declared that perfection can be achieved only by following through on every detail of ornament. Decoration in Italy is always more than superficial embellishment; it is the essence of true civility."

Reading this passage, we were reminded of the Italian insistence on la bella figura and, more concretely, of the pristine white tops favored by many Italian women, in seeming defiance of gurgling babies and life's inevitable spills; of the care with which Italians wrap anything and everything, from a piece of fish to a bottle of wine; of those lovely notebooks, with their silver corners and Florentine covers; of the glittering surfaces of any coffee bar, toweled clean and shined at the barrista's every opportunity; and even of Berlusconi, the politican as spectacle and surface, uninterested in the hard work and compromise that genuine political leadership requires.

We were reminded of Italian postwar leadership in fashion and modern design, fields that are all about wrapping people and things in cloth and plastic and metal, all about surface. The examples are many, but they surely include Marcello Nizzoli's 1950 Lettera 22 typewriter and Corradino D'Ascanio's 1955 Vespa. The Piergiorgio Branzi 1960 photo at left
is all about surface: not only the shell of the Vespa, but the self-consciously casual pose of the man in the foreground, observing even more surface: the filming of a story about ancient Rome, made on the steps of one of Rome's modern art museums.

Rowland made us think, too, of the playful creations of Ettore Sottsass, in whose hands household objects were transformed from useful things into games and sculptures. At right, Sottsass' Carlton Bookcase (1981). Consistent with Rowland's overview and chronology, the utopian Radical Design movement with which Sottsass was affiliated was launched in the 1960s and was in decline by 1980, as the ebulient optimism that sustained it was gradually undermined.


But we remain less than fully convinced of the truth of Rowland's compelling claim. To illustrate our lingering doubts, we offer these comments on La Dolce Vita, Fellini's 1960 masterpiece.
It is undeniably about the superficiality of postwar Italian bourgeoisie culture. But our observer of that culture, Mastroianni's Marcello, while attracted to the surfaces he finds, is also disturbed, alienated, and bored. Surfaces beguile, but they are not enough--and are hardly, in Vetruvius' words, "the essence of true civility."


Bill