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Roman Civic Space vs. Private Places

March 20, 2016
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Rome is rich in magical places but many are inaccessible to the general public and often in a state of total abandonment. Sites which belong to the public administration are often the least public spaces, while those that are managed privately are more accessible.
The tourist looking for a clean public restroom often turns to privately run bars rather than public institutions.
The privately run Atelier Canova Tadolini on Via del Babuino is easier to visit than the public Calcografia Nazionale on Via della Stamperia (whose English website is in Italian and calendar of “What’s On” ends in 2012.)
There are many examples of well-run public sites and poorly run private ones. Is it fair to compare poorly managed heritage sites to well managed ones and conclude that only private management can work? Is it too much to ask that public administration, accountable to its citizens, work better than at present?

Is it impossible to expect that a museum itself successfully manage a cafe and bookshop as a money-making business which also provides a desired public service? One might respond that experts in cultural heritage can’t be asked to operate a food and beverage or merchandising business. So maybe it’s a question of insisting that the public administration negotiate better deals with its contractors rather than selling short its assets.  Does it make sense that only 7% of the revenue from the Cafe’ delle Arti goes to the the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderno that hosts it (discussed in a previous blog post and in the Espresso article below)? Shouldn’t a majority of the profit from merchandise sold at the Colosseum go back into the site’s maintenance, not to private investors?
I recently visited the Fogg Museum in Cambridge (newly renovated by Renzo Piano) and was impressed with the covered courtyard where the general public is welcome to enter free of charge.  Rather than acting as a barrier as big institutions often do, the museum provides a welcome public shortcut through the city during opening hours, echoing Le Corbusier’s ramp next door which penetrates the Carpenter Center without actually entering the building. Public art is on display. The café tables are available to everyone, whether or not you purchase something at the coffee shop.
Rome’s MAXXI and Auditorium work in similar ways, although I find their “ownership” of vast public spaces which are closed to the public when the venues are closed excessive compared to “real” public spaces, i.e. piazzas, which are always open. Lobbies are one thing, piazzas are another.
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Below is a list of unique cases in Rome where the public-private threshold is a foggy one, and fine that way. Some fall into the category of publicly-accessible private space while others are privately-controlled public space.
1. Palazzo Spada.  Until recently one could walk into the courtyard of this government building and admire Borromini’s perspective gallery. If desired, a paid visit to the museum upstairs also gives you access behind the scenes to enter the “back” courtyard and see how the trick works.  (Recently this has changed and I need to investigate how the simple system has been undermined, probably by heightened security)
2. Crypta Balbi. As many who lead architectural walking tours know, it is wonderful to enter the ground floor of the Crypta Balbi to see and discuss the layers unveiled by the work on the museum, without actually entering the museum itself.
3. Terrazza Capitolina.  Climbing the back stairs to the panoramic top floor terrace is a way to enter a special part of the Capitoline Museums without actually entering them. Obviously not a substitute for a proper visit to Rome’s greatest civic museum, but nevertheless a fantastic opportunity to get a coffee (or not) overlooking the rooftops of Rome.
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4. Café Greco. More of a museum than a caffè, it’s possible just to stick your head in and admire the art on the walls even if you don’t purchase an expensive coffee at the bar or pay for even more expensive service at a table. The same can be said for a number of historic cafés throughout Europe.
5. Musei in Comune free museums: a short list of city-run museums have decided that it makes more sense not to charge admission than to pay someone to handle ticketing for very few visitors. These include the wonderful Museo Barracco, the Museo Napoleonico, the Museo della Repubblica Romana and several museums in the Aurelian Walls. I guess because management is minimal there is less that can go wrong.
6. Vivi Bistrot. The bar inside Villa Doria Pamphilj and the bar in the ground floor of Palazzo Braschi overlooking Piazza Navona, both run by concession to a private company, are two cases in point of the pros and cons of private management on public property. Some love the chance to stop for a coffee in a spectacular location, while others object to the intrusion of delivery vehicles and commercial functions in what should be protected ground.
7. Finally, all of Rome’s many churches, unlike those in other Italian cultural capitals,  are free to enter even if the purpose is to admire Berninis and Caravaggios and not to worship.  True, the city of Rome foregoes millions of euros in taxes that churches are not required to pay, which in effect makes these churches an expensive venture. One in particular, the Pantheon, has recently discussed charging admission. Already barriers have been set up and no longer can you just wander into the vast portico to stay out of the sun and rain; you must enter at one spot only and exit through another, airport-style. Whatever is charged to enter this great monument would be worth it, no doubt, unless it means long lines, poor management, and frequent closure due to strikes and union meetings.  In that case, I’d prefer to let Starbucks sponsor the Pantheon and provide free wifi for its paying patrons.
This post was inspired by reading these two articles:
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