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Testing Patience

April 5, 2019

Next week a very influential travel writer will drop in on Rome for an update and I would REALLY like to be able to share with him my usual positive outlook on the world’s most resilient city.
But it is getting harder to maintain optimism.

From afar, the headlines about broken transit and abandoned public spaces could seem like “strumentalizazzione” (instrumentalizing?) and raise suspicion.

It’s easy to point blame. It’s better to give the benefit of the doubt. Bla. Bla. Bla.  Rome has endless treasures so there is no need to focus too closely on its defects.

That said, it is frustrating — and that is the word I hear most often in my circle of friends, Romans and immigrants like myself — to try to help and be ignored.

I would like to tell my travel writer friend to renew his invitation to readers to come to Rome and spend enough time to really enjoy it. His positive message translates into millions of euros of revenue for a city that needs it.

I’d like to tell him to wander the streets of the ghetto and admire the turtle fountain. (The rare photo below captures it the way it should be, but it is more often overrun with cars, trucks and segways as in the lower photo.)

I’d like to be able to remind him how great it is to walk from the Campidoglio to the Tiber Island, to experience so much of Rome’s ancient history in such a short space. But it has become so dangerous to cross the street below the Campidoglio that the pedestrian crossing that the previous administration erased is once again half-visible, people tentatively step out but jump back in the face of speeding traffic. And if they do make it across they are faced with disappointment at the gates to the archaeological passage from the Theatre of Marcellus to Portico d’Ottavia, closed indefinitely.

I’d like to take him down to the river’s edge to show him how the city has finally renewed its interest in its most valuable green infrastructure, but the steps smell like urine and, once down there, the homeless sleeping under the bridge and the graffiti on the walls give the place a menacing air not for everybody.

I’d like to tell him to write about how you can be strolling in the picturesque back streets of Trastevere one minute and then a minute later hiking through the romantic Villa Sciarra park climbing the Gianicolo hill. But the streets of Trastevere are filled with cars and garbage (don’t say it’s not true!) and the gate to Villa Sciarra has been closed for months. About the latter, my multiple letters to the mayor and her staff have gone unanswered, as if one of the greatest green spaces in the city is not of interest.

I still say come to Rome, stay longer than average (but never enough), enjoy the incredible variety, the charm, the aesthetic wealth, the great food, the dramatic Romans. But don’t ignore that much of it is broken and should be fixed.

Villa Sciarra, off limits for months now, with no sign of reopening


Returning to Rome

February 23, 2019

After a long period of silence on this blog I have been coaxed back into writing.

Honestly, there are so many problems to address that I risk releasing a stream of laments that would be depressing to any reader. My usual optimism is being tested. Rome has become ungovernable and yet it continues to be administered as if things were normal.

I get press releases from Roma Capitale announcing new buses, progress on the Metro C, new hires in the police force, and many other positive notes which to someone reading from afar may sound encouraging. But the day to day reality of living in Rome has never been so dire. (Well, it was worse, perhaps, under the Borgia or during the Sack of Rome of 1527).

Since November I have watched work proceed slowly on Piazza Cinque Scole where I teach. Bids had gone out for the repaving of the square. Repaving, not the design of urban space, to the improvement of pedestrian experience, not the construction of structured, underground parking, but simply repaving the square. Cobblestones were removed and are now being repositioned. It is wonderful to watch the skilled workers doing the job that has been done for centuries. But there is one major difference; rather than laying them in a bed of sand with permeable space between the stones, the joints are being sealed with asphalt. And this isn’t a mistake on the part of the building crew: it was actually requested in the brief. Thus a principal benefit of this traditional paving, that it allows rain water to be absorbed rather than rushing to the storm sewers, has been discarded.  Eventually when they complete the work the fencing will come down, cars and trucks and scooters will move back into the piazza with all their weight  defeating these months of work and thousands of euros of investment.

Elsewhere, a new building has appeared in the archaeological site of Circus Maximus, exactly on axis of the Via Terme di Caracalla at the point of arrival of the Appian Way in central Rome. Where one used to be greeted with the iconic view of the stadium stretching between the Palatine and the Aventine, there is now a banal brick wall. This was not built illegally, nor was it simply allowed by the authorities; it must have actually been commissioned by the cultural heritage authorities since they oversee this historic and listed site.

PH: Paolo Gelsomini

Transit is at a breaking point with several metro stations shut due to needed repairs, no sign of the electric buses which traversed the center years ago ahead of their time, and the fact that transit can be tracked by apps has done little more than give us the frustration of noting that at rush hour on a heavily frequented route there are “no buses” whatsoever.

Rome is now second only to Bogota’ for the amount of time wasted in traffic. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Codice della Strada, the traffic regulations, are now regularly ignored by many. Stopping at red lights, not to mention stop signs, has become an optional. While the Mayor talks about creating new pedestrian zones those already in existence, like Piazza Borghese or Piazza Farnese,  have become open air parking lots.

Several of the new eating places I had grown to love, such as DON in Trastevere which makes great fried pizza, have been forced by confusing local ordinances to remove tables and stools that had allowed clients to eat inside, and instead been reduced to squalid take-out joints. It’s not clear why they are not allowed to provided this useful public service in their own property when outside on Viale Trastevere the sidewalks are blocked everyday with cheap markets of imported junk where little diesel generators spew fumes to provide lighting and big diesel vans stay double-parked in the street all day.

This is the Rome I would love to see improved, the Rome it is easy to dismiss as hopeless, but what’s the use in that? This is the world’s most resilient city with the world’s most resilient citizens.

Last Days of Sketching Tiber exhibit

January 11, 2019

I’ve decided to keep the exhibit of urban sketches and sketchbooks up at my studio on Via Banchi Vecchi for another couple of weeks so if you are in the neighborhood drop by.  Opening hours are not guaranteed because my teaching schedule keeps me away some days, but if the lights are on just come on in.

Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 39 Roma

American tragedy, Roman tragedy

October 7, 2018

Today I can’t stop thinking about two men in the news yesterday, both about my age, as white and privileged as myself. 

Yesterday I read that Brett Kavanaugh had been appointed to the highest position of my country’s justice system despite having demonstrated to an audience of millions his inappropriateness for this job.  

Like many of my fellow Americans I had been glued to the hearings, moved by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account of her attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh, and shocked by his creepy, immature and dishonest defense. It seemed implausible that a democratic government could ignore the many problems that such an appointment would bring: conflict of interest, political partisanship and implicit threats to his political opponents, clear evidence of the judge lying under oath and a well-documented history as a sexual predator. He is now a Supreme Court judge, with an absurd amount of power to abuse. 

Any faith I harbored in the idea of justice has been whittled away. 

Later, descending the staircase from San Pietro in Vincoli where I teach at Sapienza University, I encountered emergency vehicles where I normally risk my life crossing at the crosswalk on Via Cavour. The body of Giorgio De Francesco, 54, lay covered by a reflective mylar blanket like the ones marathon runners are given at the finish line. He had just been killed by a motor vehicle, a tour bus speeding down Via Cavour. It could have been one of my students, or a tourist, or me, or anyone. 

Living in Rome I have become as accustomed to this scene as I might be to gun violence were I still living in the States. In Rome we all witness motorists’ reckless disregard for human life constantly: excess velocity, running red lights, cell-phone use while driving, and all manners of parking to impair visibility.  Within the hour as I walked home I saw hundreds of examples of reckless driving, including vehicles speeding through the red light at Via della Greca, beneath the windows of the municipal police. Already this week two pedestrians had been killed and four seriously injured in what the newspapers inexplicably continue to call “accidents.”  Many Romans drive with criminal negligence but are rarely treated like criminals. 

What links these two seemingly unrelated tragedies other than their echoing in my mind as signs of the injustice of our times?

Two men in their mid-fifties, like myself. One who seemed to do everything possible to disqualify him for the position for which he was being interviewed, gets the job and goes on to prosper. Another, a civil servant in the Italian national government, has his life cut short while he is exercising his civic right to cross a street with his wife.

In both cases, the facts are evident. We know there is injustice and corruption in the Trump administration. We know that illegality and reckless driving reign in Rome. We can name the people responsible for fighting these afflictions. Our taxes pay their salaries. How can it be so hard to hold them accountable? 

Rome’s Tiber “Beach”

September 2, 2018

Rivers are amazing resources for cities, but they need ideas, projects and above all maintenance and regulation. With the localized exception of Piazza Tevere with site-specific art projects such as William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments,  Rome has had none of these for years.  So I was happy to hear word of the city’s plans to make a riverfront beach resort, Tiberus, in the abandoned Marconi area.

It opened late this summer (the delays already a sign that it wasn’t the best planned project) and the reviews were less than stellar.  A recent New York Times article sums them up well, including my own take on the idea ( I had yet to visit the beach itself).

My own scouting trip in mid August confirmed my suspicions that it is better than nothing, but pretty pathetic for a European capital city, especially after seeing the riverfronts of Paris, Madrid, Berlin, etc.

It is sad because the river has such potential and there are so many smart, creative people committed to bringing it back to life. If only they would be invited to the table to come up with innovative solutions and put them into effect!

Beaches need water. Ideally (and realistically given some time and money) the river should be clean enough for swimming. It was until at least the 1960s after all (as testified by Pasolini’s Accattone and other films). But if not, a swimming pool like the one that used to be installed near Ponte Sant’Angelo would be nice. Instead, Tiberus has only ugly plastic port-a-potties converted to showers.

The river is urban, and a key part of any design should be the point of arrival from urban neighborhoods  At Tiberus the walk from residential neighborhoods is still through a no-man’s land of traffic, dangerous cross-walks, shadeless and trash-filled space. And when you finally think you have arrived there is a parking lot(!) and a confusing, poorly-marked entry.

It’s all about the river, but the river’s edge is barely visible. Visitors to Tiberus are blocked from even approaching the river’s edge, as if it were a toxic site to be avoided and not Rome’s most important natural, green infrastructure.

On a positive note, a few people were using it when I visited and seemed happy to have beach chairs and umbrellas to call their own at no cost (and Rome’s real beach, Ostia Lido, you have to pay handsomely to private companies for the privilege).

As with any discussion of Rome’s Tiber river it quickly becomes clear that big issues are at stake. The river is polluted; cleaning it should be high-priority. In 2016 engineer Antonio Tamburrino presented the Mayor with a proposal which would achieve this at no cost to the city but to date there has been no response. Let’s look at cities like London and Berlin and try to do even better.

Public spaces in the city are dominated by automobiles and inhospitable to pedestrians (as the approach to Tiberis reminds us). A real program of public space design competitions would address this.

Tiberus gets us talking about the Tiber, which is a good thing. Now that we are talking, rather than just complaining about how lame it is it would be great to actually work on fulfilling the river’s potential.

New Underground Rome

May 14, 2018

I got a chance to check out the new metro station just before it opened to the public on Saturday. Absolutely spectacular! The finds on display tell the story of Rome through stratigraphy (graphically marked with a clear indication of level below modern ground), chronology (with key dates popping up as you descend) and themes (color coding of themes dear to Sustainable Rome readers: water, reuse, etc.). The lighting is good, the signage is graphically excellent.

Sure, in the name of simplicity not much information is provided (a display case filled with marble fragments has one little placard saying essentially “old stuff”) and labels are only in Italian(well, it’s not like foreign tourists come to Rome or anything!). But the well-produced informative videos are subtitled in English and much of the display is self-explanatory.

It will be years before this station connects to anything but the outlying eastern periphery so I am curious to know how travelers will experience the station. People coming to see San Giovanni may arrive on the A line, then take a walk through the new station (which requires going out the turnstyle and then in again at Metro C but the ticket should still be valid I was told). Or perhaps this station will bring greater attention to the up and coming outer neighborhoods like Centocelle where my foodie friends keep unearthing new gastronomic treasures, including Santo Palato a short walk from the new station itself.

My principal fear is that lack of maintenance and security issues will result in a rapid decline in the station. I saw it during the press opening but had to leave before the crowds arrived. Knowing what other new stations look like –Conca D’Oro on the B line is already covered in graffiti a couple of years after its inauguration –I can only imagine what this now immaculate museum station may become if we are not all vigilant.

A version of this article is now also published (in italian) at


Very Roman scene at the turnstyle.

press conference rush hour

descending into the station


displays include interesting metalwork and jewelry

irrigation pipes from an ancient orchard

organic finds such as peach pits encased in resin.

the use of glass for finds, photos and data is very successful

glass cases with finds and supergraphic titles

stratigraphic legend

chronological graphic display

the approach to street level

a view of the “museum” upon entry





























Jane’s Walk: from Tevere to Tevere

May 3, 2018

IMG_1636Each year (starting last year!) I join in to celebrate Jane Jacob’s birthday with a walk around Rome. Last year it was an architectural walk around Piazza Bologna, this year I want to take advantage of my new studio and an old interest: collage and reuse.

The walk, on Saturday 5 May from 10-12 am, will begin at Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 39 and explore Via Giulia, Vicolo Moretta and the banks of the Tiber. We’ll pose questions (in Italian?, in English? it depends who comes) about the city and its river. Participants will be aided in creating scrapbooks during the walk, collecting images, recollections, souvenirs.

Participation is free and open to anyone. Join us from the beginning or find us along the way, on Via Giulia, Ponte Sisto, or down along the Triumphs and Laments (William Kentridge) mural as we walk toward Castel Sant’Angelo.

Bring good walking shoes, something to write or draw with, and if you like your own sketchbook (if not, simple material will be provided).

Info at