Culture in Rome

Again, this isn’t a guide-book – just places I particularly liked.

Campidoglio, Capitoline Museums, and the Aracoeli: obvious, but it’s worth going into the museums to see the area as it looked in the early days, when much of the Forum was a marsh. The Capitoline Hill starts out as a temple to an archaic Latin goddess Mater Matuta, the dawn, and then as the Temple of Juno Moneta (our word mint). Spare a thought for the statue of the consul Cola da Rienzo, he of Wagner’s opera, and in the mornings, a madman sometimes shouts down from the porch of S. Maria di Aracoeli. Incidentally, the Campidoglio is a fine shortcut (using the stairs of the Conservators’ Palace) from V. dei Fori Imperiali and the river (V. del Teatro di Marcello)

Who hasn't taken this shot...dusk, Leica MP, 50mm Summicron, Ilford 400 (I think)
Who hasn’t taken this shot…dusk, Leica MP, 50mm Summicron, Ilford 400 (I think)

Trajan’s Market – this has been restored with a well-done iron-clad museum, that last time, had contemporary art in it. Quite cool museum space in an old building (incidentally, jazzing up ancient spaces for modern viewers is something the Italians seem to do very well), and an unusual view over the imperial fora.

Palazzo Farnese – tours are available, by booking with the French Embassy (whose building it is). Afterwards, have a drink at Bar Camponeschi.

San Luigi degli Francesi – inter alia the Caravaggios. Have a coffee before or after at Cafe San Eustachio nearby, or the one across the square that is less popular but perfectly good (especially if you don’t care for sugar in your espresso).

Catacombs – definitely worth a visit, if only for the walk from the bus stop, through green fields and a lane of bougainvillea, not far from the Via Appia Antica. Particularly welcome in the stifling city heat. The catacombs themselves are impressive, if rather less spooky than Palermo’s crypts.

Basilica San Clemente – must go, there are two basilicas (4th and 11th century) built on top of a mithraeum, with a super relief of a bull sacrifice.

San Pietro in Vincoli – go to see Michelangelo’s great tomb for Julius II. Suffer silently the photographing gaggle of fools.

On the Ponte Sisto (maybe?)
On the Ponte Sisto (maybe?)

Santa Maria degli Angeli & the Diocletian Baths – if I recall correctly, the primary interest here is the size and rawness of the space. There is possibly a group ticket that covers 2-3 other museums (which fall within the National Roman Museum of archaeology), including the Palazzo Altemps.

San Ignazio – Andrea Pozzo’s overdose of tromp l’oeil in the ceilings, but most notably, in a fake dome that is designed to only be seen from the entry to the church (not only is it painted on, it is painted with a skewed perspective)

Palazzo Altemps – must go, wonderful art in a wonderful, not super crowded, space. Palazzo Massimo and the Balbi Crypt are part of this ticket also.


Arca Sacra del Largo Argentina – a field of ruins, still under archaeological intervention, that is home to a large family of cats and bums. Very atmospheric.

Ara Pacis Augustae – the ex-mausoleum, in the form of an Etruscan (?) tumulus, of Augustus, very grand, very ruined. Not sure one can go inside, but there is also a modern museum next door with an exhibit about a relief that recounts the achievements of the Emperor. The pizzeria, restaurant, enoteca in the Piazza di Augusto Imperatore (Gusto), is meant to be very good, and is hyper-trendy.

Chiostro del Bramante – a wonderfully un-crowded space, with a fine little cafe, and excellent shows – we saw the great Catalan Joan Miro, as well as Karl Lagerfeld there.

Santi Quattro Coronati – it is venerable, from end of 6th century. Not really sure what else distinguished it other than it’s great antiquity.

Palazzo Doria Pamphili – quite possibly, my favourite museum, if only for the Velazquez Innocent X that became Bacon’s model for his “screaming pope” paintings

MAXXI & MACRO – the two modern/contemporary art museums. Both are worth a visit, MAXXI for its Zaha Hadid design, and MACRO for its location in an old Peroni brewery (and the art)

An opening at MACRO I just walked into. Very cool.
An opening at MACRO I just walked into. Very cool.

GNAM – near the Villa Borghese, this is perhaps somewhat overlooked in a city of brilliant old art, but has a strong collection of 20th century Italian art; we saw some great Fontanas, Burris, etc.

Santa Sabina & the Cavalieri di Malta – both on the Aventine hill, through a key-hole one may see all the way to the Vatican

Fahrenheit 451 – my favourite bookstore, in Campo dei Fiori. Definite art and left-wing stance, with lots of postcards that I think might date to the Red Brigades years. There are a few other art bookstores nearby.

Vatican – besides the usual stuff at the Vatican museums, bankers might care to seek out IOR – the Institute for the Works of Relgion, aka the Vatican Bank. A perpetual centre of scandal, most famously in relation to the Roberto Calvi affair (the head of the bankrupt Banco Ambrosiano, found hung at Blackfriars Bridge, supposedly for losing Vatican, and Mafia, money).

The bee of the Barberinis, Pope Urban VIII
The bee of the Barberinis, Pope Urban VIII
Shamless plug for your correspondent. I did this when researching the Calvi affair; note P2 certificate of one Silvio Berlusconi.
Shameless plug for your correspondent. I did this when researching the Calvi affair; note P2 certificate of one Silvio Berlusconi.

Via Michelangelo Caetani – a plaque marks the spot where the kidnapped PM Aldo Moro’s body was found in the boot of a red FIAT, precisely half-way between the Communist Party and Christian Democrat headquarters. Have a drink to Moro at a Communist wine bar, possibly at 35 V del Monte della Farina.

V Michelangelo Caetani, where Aldo Moro's body was found
V Michelangelo Caetani, where Aldo Moro’s body was found

Commercial contemporary art galleries:

Lorcan O’Neill – near Vaticano

Marie-Laure Fleisch – near Pza Navona

CO2 Contemporary Art – near MACRO

Frutta – near Pza Navona

Gagosian – near Spagna

Monitor – near Pza Navona

Pastificio – a former pasta factory, now with galleries and artist studios

Valentina Bonomo – near Ghetto

Pio Monti – near Ghetto

Art in Ferrara, Mantova, Genova

From San Lorenzo crypt – formerly thought to be Holy Grail

Palazzo Te

As each town’s architecture is distinct, so is the art. Ferrara and Mantova were duchies for many years, under the Este and Gonzaga families, respectively, and even though they were eventually absorbed into the Papal State, their aesthetic seem no less independent than their politics.

Our timing, at New Year, limited what we could see of Ferrara, but a few things stood out: the magnificent city walls, of course, the stunning cathedral with its unusual mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, and its two coolest native sons: the Dominican friar Savonarola and the über-director Michelangelo Antonioni (Deserto Rosso, Blow Up and Zabriskie Point). Savonarola’s story is not irrelevant today: the Medicis and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI both needed their bankers, usurers that they were, to finance the costs of war and court, yet the firebrand’s sermons and “bonfires of the vanities”, railing against conspicuous consumption, money, and decadent art, struck a chord with the common people. He did well for a time, until the powers-that-be could suffer him no longer, and he too was excommunicated, arrested, tortured, and consigned to the pyre. We stood outside the Palazzo Ducale, which was laced with explosives for New Years, burn crimson, lime and white, just under Savonarola’s statue. Incidentally, we could better reflect on his sermons after a draught of Sangiovese from Emilia-Romagna at an enoteca next to Ai Brindisi on Via Adelardi, great music, loud, tiny, and young crowd. Ai Brindisi itself left us with mixed feelings – food was acceptable, it’s obviously quite touristy, and the service lacked warmth but was perfectly civilised – in fact it felt a little like a Covent Garden restaurant. For aperitivi, a bar called Tiffany was our favourite, it seemed to have all the local bohemians and winos, very welcoming they were, and made great Negronis and very nice stuzzichini. We went there 2-3 times a day. Lastly, we very much enjoyed were two convents, one of which, San Antonio in Polesine, is notable for its great frescos but also an unusual Christ, ascending his cross on a ladder. It takes a certain bravery to knock on the convent doors, but the nuns were very nice (especially at the convent with the graves of the Este family).

Mantova is quite different, set, somewhat improbably, upon a tripartite man-made lake, with the River Mincio nearby. It is hugely atmospheric, fog-bound, and confusing to walk around, whereas Ferrara’s centro storico is laid out essentially as a grid. Sadly, the recent earthquakes basically meant that the Mantegnas, including his tomb at Sant’Andrea, were shut, hence the art viewing was a little lop-sided – we greatly enjoyed the curvy and sensuous Mannerism of Giulio Romano’s interior decoration, and exquisitely lean architectural vistas, at the pleasure villa Palazzo Te. But this had no counterpoint – what would have come from seeing the august, stone-like, block-faced, figure of Mantegna’s Ludovico Gonzaga. There was none of the almost mathematical spatiality of Mantegna’s cities, in which the rectangular keep of Mantova’s Ducal Palace is easily discernable, nor the Renaissance legs of courtiers, clad in lively two-tone silk. We have resolved to get to Hampton Court to see the works bought by Charles I of England, and fortunately, most of the ruined and fragmentary frescos were visible in the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani in Padova (very close to the Arena Chapel). Andrea’s house, organised with a circular courtyard, however is well-preserved as a community arts centre, and had a tight little show of the 20th century architect Antonio Monestiroli. As written elsewhere on eatthehipster, the food in Mantova is excellent, ranking somewhere between Ferrara and Padova in quality.

Incidentally, the careful observer in Mantova, and its surrounding area, sees played out much of the political history of Italy in the turbulent, yet golden, 150 years after 1100 AD. Mantova was a fief of Matilda of Canossa, La Gran Contessa, who played a leading role in the running battle between Papacy and Holy Roman Empire known as the Investiture Controversy. It was at her castle of Canossa that Emperor Henry IV begged, on his knees in the snow, the Pope’s pardon in 1077, a story touched upon in Luigi Pirandello’s great play and Marco Bellochio’s film. A hundred years later, the foremost of the medieval emperors, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, known in Italy as stupor mundi (“wonder of the world”), fought his most important battles against Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV, on these same Lombard plains. Much later, we see the Gonzagas, descendents of the famous Paleologi of Constantinople, become extinct, leading to the War of the Mantovan Succession (a similar story happens in Ferrara, where the glorious city of the Este is claimed as a vacant fief by the Papacy, when the prince leaves no male heir).

We’ve written about Genova elsewhere on this blog, but briefly, she forms a most interesting contrast with Venezia. Both were great maritime, mercantile, and military states, yet somehow, they feel very different, well beyond the obvious geographical points. Genova is a city of wealthy burghers, merchant princes, and is intrinsically linked to the life of the port. There is very little of the bejewelled glitter of her Adriatic rival, relatively little of her oligarchic splendour, virtually none of the slightly camp stylishness. If Venezia is like Manhattan, La Serenissima, an elegant, improbable, impractical, self-absorbed island that only takes outsiders on its own terms, Genova is more like London, La Superba, slightly dowdy, money-grubbing, pikey, yet outward-looking, and willing to accept foreigners freely.

The reasons for the differences are diverse and this isn’t the place for them, but the art in Genova is similarly less glittering than that of Venezia. This is not a criticism; rather, because of Genova’s relative unpopularity (seems many tourists come off the ghastly cruise ships, quickly rush over to the acquarium, and/or head down to the Cinque Terre/Portofino), the museums are relatively empty, and the guards are absolutely charming, particularly if one has any Italian at all. They will happily answer questions, sometimes with great volubility, and have the traditional Italian soft spot for London (“Babylon” in the words of one guard, and seen in the suits of Milanese businessmen – La Stile Inglese). More generally, we found Genovans to be quite friendly, not least when one is lost near the disturbing back-streets of the port: they repeatedly approached us to ask if they could help.

Our favourite art: Palazzo Spinola, and the 3 museums on Via Garibaldi, the Palazzi Rosso, Bianco, and Doria Tursi. There is a great deal of Ligurian art, such as Luca Cambiaso; as well as Van Dyck who was based in Genova for some years. Guido Reni, Veronese, Giorgio De Ferrari, Titan, Rubens, Bernardo Strozzi, and Mattia Preti are well represented. However, our favourites would be the Palazzo Spinola’s Ecce Homo by the great Sicilian master Antonello da Messina, as well as the Diocesian museum/cloisters of the San Lorenzo cathedral, which contains a magnificent room of paintings on denim fabric (Genova pioneered a hard-wearing fabric that eventually would be called “jean”, which was then picked up in Nimes, and became fabric “de Nimes”). The paintings, of the life of Christ, were made in the 1500s for a Ligurian abbey, and seem to be in white paint on blue denim. The cathedral treasury is also very interesting for the lovely green chalice once thought to be the Holy Grail, as well as the richly worked charger, thought to have borne the head of John the Baptist. The cathedral is faced with the grey and off-white courses of stone that mark a number of major buildings in Genova, and has a fine little St Lawrence being roasted on a grid-iron above the main portal. On the inside, there are some hard-to-see Byzantine-style frescos near the main entrance, as well as an unexploded 381mm armour-piercing shell from the HMS Malaya, which landed in 1941.

Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna
Antonello da Messina's Ecce Homo
Antonello da Messina’s Ecce Homo
Savonarola statue in Ferrara
Savonarola statue in Ferrara