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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

Tevere Pulito 2018

April 23, 2018

Yesterday a small but energetic and dedicated group of volunteers transformed the Tiber riverfront in Piazza Tevere from a dump to a park. And they had a lot of fun, making new friends, while doing it. For those invited who didn’t participate, there are plenty of events like this you can join, or organize your own.


Roma Anno Nuovo: A New Year in Rome

January 1, 2018

I am out for a walk around Rome on the first day of the new year, and I am truly impressed.

Sure there is plenty to complain about and tomorrow I’ll be ready to do so, as constructively as possible.  But right now, I am in awe of the beauty of this city, thanks in part to the New Year’s festivities, La Festa di Roma, I have been enjoying around the Tiber and the Aventine.

Ponte Sublicio. Spotlights strike laser lines upstream through the misty winter sky, playing off the full moon and Tiber reflections. The Lungotevere is car-free from Piazza dell’Emporio all the way to Via Arenula–really car free, not limited traffic with the occasional police car or politico careening through. Bands playing here and there, with small groups of spectators. Walking along the riverside, music wafts toward me, lights illuminate spectacular vistas, but it doesn’t feel like a disco and it doesn’t distract from the spirit of place.

I climb the new path up the slopes of the Aventine for the first time since it was opened, again wondering why this new addition to Rome’s cityscape doesn’t get more attention. It’s usually hard to reach because it is impossible to cross the Lungotevere at this point without being run over, but tonight the route up to the Giardino degli Aranci was accessible to all (that is all who could climb the stairs). Above, overlooking Rome, other bands were playing under the pines and orange trees.

Finally I descended to Circus Maximus, admired the new lighting of the Palatine, and walked on to Bocca della Verità.  Here I ran into Rome’s cultural commissioner and vice-mayor, Luca Bergamo, and congratulated him on the great event (mostly his initiative I hear.)

Suspended above the piazza was “Day Hole” a video installation with a disk of daylight sky, playing nicely off the same-sized moon. The taranta pizzicata band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino rocked, while nearby Opera Camion waxed lyric. Finally, returning to the Tiber, projections onto the Tiber Island, along with devastatingly beautiful illumination of Ponte Sisto, convinced me that this event is the best thing to come to Rome since Triumphs and Laments.

I realize this is only an “event”, and can’t be repeated frequently. But like any event, it can serve to shift citizens’ preconceptions about the city.  Don’t Rome’s urban treasures lend themselves to contemporary practices? Isn’t a distributed strategy for cultural, in different sites, scheduled across a span of time, aimed at diverse audiences, better than mass tourism? Isn’t public space better without cars?  Congratulations Rome. If you could pull this off, I’m hopeful you can pull off the daily challenges of making the city civil again in 2018.


Rome’s Water Crisis Clarified

September 4, 2017

Cal Poly FA09 - 08This morning they shut off the drinking fountain outside where I teach in the Ghetto.

Some say the extended drought is making such sacrifices necessary. Sensational photos of Lake Bracciano, at historic low, are tied with claims that the city’s famous water supply is running out.

As I pointed out in an interview a few weeks ago on PBS News Hour, this is a great wake-up call, calling attention to the global water crisis.

Not that there is any less water on the planet than there has ever been; it is just poorly distributed and increasingly polluted.  Billions face shortages of clean water while others see their property washed away and their land eroded by floods.

Those who know about Rome’s water network will point out that the springs which feed the eternal city, high in the Apennines, are practically as abundant as usual. That water will find its way to the Mediterranean Sea one way or another. Turning off the fountains in Rome will have no effect on the water supply.

As for Lake Bracciano, less than 10% of the city’s water comes from there and could be replaced by water from other sources. Two years ago, Lake Bracciano was overflowing and the excess water, rather than being stored for times of drought, was dumped into the sea.

The real culprit is the poorly maintained infrastructure; between 30% and 50% of Rome’s water leaks from pipes. While fountains are dry, water is bubbling up from pavement throughout the city.

I hope that the administration doesn’t really think they are saving water by turning off the fountains. The “water crisis” today serves the political objective of addressing a perceived emergency.

The problem is that this solution is not just pointless. It is actually harmful. Without the constant flow to flush out the hydraulic system the pipes risk bacteriological contamination which will be very difficult to combat when the water is turned back on. Has anyone thought of this?

Rome’s Mixed Metaphors

July 9, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-07-09 at 06.50.02

A couple of months ago New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called me to ask about Rome. On a recent trip he had been struck by the paradox of newly cleaned monuments surrounded by developing world squalor, and he wanted to know my take.

His report was published in this article.

I told Frank that for decades Rome had survived through compromise, making little deals to get things done. “We’ll turn a blind eye to this if you see that the trash gets picked up.” Not since the beginning of Francesco Rutelli’s tenure in the early ’90s have there been big ideas;  rather a series of small arrangements have allowed the once eternal city to hobble along in gradual decline. Many Romans, concerned solely with their personal/ family interests and not the greater civic realm,  have been satisfied with this arrangement.

I tried to say that things were changing, and wanted to believe it. That Mayor Marino had begun to attack this system of favors and corruption in 2013, and paid the consequence by being ousted from office in the back rooms by his own political party, and that current Mayor Virginia Raggi could still continue to fight these interests.

A tireless optimist, I really didn’t want to add to the perception that the current administration is incompetent and there is no hope. The world’s most resilient city cannot just fail because of incompetence.

Instead, wouldn’t it be great to communicate to the world a series of Roman success stories?

Here’s an example of the news we’d love to report on. Warning: the list below is at present only WISHFUL THINKING disguised as FAKE NEWS

Rome announces (FAKE NEWS):

  • the successful re-structuring ATAC and Roma Mobilità so as to ensure respect for existing transit schedules, vehicle maintenance and clear communications with riders (in Italian and English at least).
  • the protection, through physical barriers and police presence on foot, of pedestrian spaces from motor vehicles and in general the application of the traffic laws to provide serious disincentives to those who today frequently ignore speed limits, red lights, and parking restrictions.
  • the elimination of free parking within the center, and an increase in parking fees
  • a contract to install new durable and high-visibility horizontal signage, increasing the number of raised pedestrian crosswalks and speed tables.
  • reprogramming of traffic lights to give priority to pedestrians over drivers, reducing the pedestrian wait from the current 1.3 minutes to maximum 30 seconds and programming pedestrian-activated push buttons to actually shorten the wait time.
  • the elimination of sub-standard vendors and food trucks in public places in support of quality commerce
  • the inauguration of the first of a thousand kilometers of new bike lanes
  • the inauguration of a world-class bike sharing program
  • the reopening of the successful Farmer’s Market on Via San Teodoro

We will have to wait a while for the above, since the REAL NEWS has been less inspiring. I’ve heard complaints recently from friends in academics who have been told they can’t seat their students on public steps, for example at the Trevi fountain, to give an art-history lesson or drawing workshop which they have done for years.

And yet, they rightfully observe that these monuments, where we have always taken our students, are now surrounded by vendors, food trucks, illegally parked vehicles, and trash. Just like the photos that accompany the New York Times article above.

Instead…Rome announces (REAL NEWS):

  • the closure of Rome’s drinking fountains
  • rampant toxic brush and tash fires on the outskirts of town
  • a ban against pedestrians sitting on steps or balustrades (even those designed as seating) around Rome’s monumental fountains such as the Trevi
  • the announcement (complete with the presence of motor vehicles in the Campidoglio pedestrian zone designed by Michelangelo)  that Rome will host a high-speed car race through its streets!
  • a request for annulment of fines levied for illegal use of bus lanes by private vehicles because there wasn’t enough communication of their existence

I don’t want to use Rome’s filth as a metaphor as Frank Bruni does; far better to use it as a medium for creative expression as William Kentridge did, selectively cleaning the Tiber walls as seen behind the Mayor in the photo below. The metaphors are definitely mixed and it is up to all of us to work to warrant more positive ones.


Mayor Raggi takes part (“alla sua insaputa”, or unbeknownst to her) in the civic cleanup event #teverepulito last April after the administration had been invited repeatedly to participate.

Wet Feet, Monumental Fountains

June 10, 2017


I’m stepping out on a limb here with a short post that lacks both research and images. I am told it is illegal to wet your feet or wade in monumental fountains in Italy and as the temperatures in Rome soar these days more and more people are cooling off by doing just that. And the blogosphere and social media channels are overflowing with outraged Italians, many of them my friends, for whom this seems a great sin. I honestly don’t get it.

If I make a list of things I see everyday in Rome, and put them in order of negative impact, wading in fountains is way off the charts (by which I mean, its importance is negligible compared to serious violations).  I see huge dangerous motor vehicles speeding through red lights, double-parked on busy streets, parked in pedestrian zones. I see people throw trash out their windows onto public streets, drop cigarette butts on sidewalks where children are walking. I see invasive and crass advertising everywhere damaging the image of Rome, I see ugly mass-tourist commerce occupying spaces where previously there were artisans.  It’s become difficult to cycle through the city because of all the huge tour buses and their huge tour groups that move as compact packs even when on foot. I see exterior air-conditioning units churning out hot air on protected buildings, such as the cultural superindendents’ offices.   I am outraged by all of this.

I also see some restaurants moving their tables out onto the piazza beyond the legal boundary, I see some residents hosting travelers “informally” in their homes to make some extra money, I see hot urban dwellers or visitors dangling their feet in the cool water of public fountains. I get it that there are regulations which should be respected, taxation and hygiene policies to enforce, and that’s fine. But I’m honestly not nearly so outraged by this latter behavior as I am about the list above. I’d rather see public cafe tables in the street than big private toxic fuel-consuming metal boxes (i.e. cars). I’d rather see people cooling their feet in fountains rather than burning fossil fuels to run eyesore air-conditioning units. Am I missing something?

I like to respect local customs. I take off my hat when I go into a church, although I am not religious. If wetting one’s feet in a public fountain is really offensive to Italian culture, I’ll explain that to my students and suggest they take a cold shower.

It’s just really hard to stand in front of a bunch of hot, well-educated students, after a day of detouring around cars on sidewalks and near misses as taxis speed through pedestrian crossings, past piles of trash, graffiti, beggars, pickpockets, scam artists and illegal sale of everything imaginable,  and explain that they can’t put their feet in a fountain because it’s disrespectful.

I’ll cross post to FB in hopes of getting some input from friends.  Addendum: lots of buzz, including this article by Jason Horowitz in today’s NYT.


Once in a While, Orvieto

April 16, 2017

Rome is great, especially in the spring, but once in a while I find an excuse to escape to Orvieto, in southern Umbria, one of the closest cities to Rome that has managed to free its historic center from automobiles.

Once was on our honeymoon; although we were directed to Firenze we got a late start and Orvieto seemed a nice town along the way. The last time, a few years ago, was to join a group of study-abroad students for drawing sessions, attracted by great perspectival streets for urban vignettes, and few cars to intimidate the sketcher.

The other day it was for an international conference on Green Infrastructure where I had been invited to present a paper. Since my topic was on cycling initiatives I thought it appropriate to use my folding bike to reach Termini Station and then bike around town in my spare time while there. Knowing Orvieto to be a hill-town, and relatively small, I didn’t expect this to be especially practical. It was more so than I had thought. In this post I will first describe my transit experience, and then a few notes about the town itself.

At Termini I brought the bike into the hip, new, high-quality food court, Mercato Centrale, where I leaned it on a crate of artichokes while I got an excellent café at the bar next to Bonci’s bakery. When they announced the track, the cursed 1B (about 500 meters from the head of the other tracks) I was glad I had my bike. I was there in seconds, folding my bike and storing it safely while I found a window seat.

Upon arriving at Orvieto station, I had no intention to bike up the hill — and no need to — since the town is blessed with a smart people-mover, a funicular.  It was a bit awkward to cram my bike into the crowded car but since I was the last one in and my bike pressed against the door no one else was inconvenienced.

At the top of the hill I unfolded my bike and headed up the main pedestrian street and within a minute was joining friends for a coffee in the heart of medieval Orvieto. In between conference events I zipped around town, careful not to go down hill to far knowing I’d have to come back up. At the end of the day, the coast down to the funicular was so easy that I was tempted to continue all the way down to the rail station, but the light rain and my prepaid funicular ticket convinced me to descend the way I had come up. I made it home with a few changes of transit and no need to open the bike again until I was at the station just down the street from my home.

If I think about the other options: driving my own car and dealing with traffic, tolls, parking would be unthinkable unless I were carrying something heavy, or stopping in remote places on the way. Transit alone without the bike would have been fine—just a bit slower with a lot more walking.

As for Orvieto, I always find it charming and this time gave a little more attention to one of its artistic highlights, Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement (especiallyThe Damned Cast into Hell). I hadn’t previously noticed the grotesque border paintings, or paid much attention to the portraits of Ovid, Dante and other writers between Signorelli’s dramatic scenes of Heaven and Hell. No one else was in the chapel, and the afternoon light was perfect.

The menacing subject matter continues on the 14th century stone bas reliefs of the facade, where I stopped to consider another version of the Last Judgement, now sadly protected by glass so not so visible.

I booked a ticket on the Underground Orvieto tour that I had heard good things about, and got some advice from the ticket office about where to go to appreciate the walls and the views to the countryside — a short bike ride or a long walk away.

The underground tour was only available in English when I wanted to go and the guide’s English was fairly basic, but the caves were captivating and well-presented. The selection of subterranean spaces we visited in 45 minutes presented a variety of functions, from Etruscan wells to medieval tufo quarries, 18th century pigeon farms and 20th century bomb shelters.

With some time to kill before my train, I stopped near the Duomo for a glass of wine and some local delicacies: pecorino, salami and crusty white bread. When an elderly woman came in to buy bread I applied the “yield-to-locals” policy I always try to instill in my students and guests, letting her make her purchase while I waited. But like most of what I saw in Orvieto, this place was tailored for foreign visitors. A former alimentari turned tourist-outlet, ironically named Bottega Vera, it was well-designed, comfortable, and reasonably priced and the food and wine were great. Like most of Orvieto it seemed to work quite well.  I suspect that after a few days I would yearn for the authentic grit of Rome and its devil-may-care attitude toward its guests. (Except that much of Rome has become even worse in its pandering to mass tourism, without even bothering to provide quality or design.)

Is it too much to ask for a city, big or small, which relies on tourism for its livelihood, to maintain its character and preserve its traditions, while constantly improving so as to better satisfy its long-term customer base? I don’t mean making travel easy or cheap, I don’t mean pandering to mass tourism (in fact I’m fine with shopkeepers ignoring the crass tourists who haven’t made an effort to learn enough to say “buongiorno.”)  I mean keeping a focus on the quality of your core product but always making the experience a little better. I mean sweeping the streets outside the shop, experimenting with ways to reduce waste, using social media to share local knowledge. Resist the temptation to cheapen your brand to sell to tourists who don’t appreciate your product and will probably never come back. Forget that other shops seem to have gone this way and are selling more. Let your competition cater to the trash tourists. Focus on those clients with discerning taste and they will spread the word. Don’t worry about copy-cats. If this catches on, all the better; a more attractive city, by definition, will attract more discerning people who will stay longer and return frequently.