If you've arrived fresh and raring to go with some Rome recommendations, you may want to check out the previous couple of posts that are more focused on the central historical zone.
In this post, we are venturing out of the city centre into one of the most amazing parts of inner city Rome.
I've spent ten years on and off living in the Eternal City.
In the interests of sharing a bit of what I know (and what I like), this is the second in a series of posts about my recommendations for you in Rome.
It's true that you can spend a lifetime visiting Rome, but you'll only want to if you have a good time each time you pass through.
So, for this post, I'm assuming you've made your way to the Spanish Steps and that you're ready to venture further into Centro Storico.
I've now spent a decade living in Rome and although COVID and all its mutations continue to swirl around, it's almost refreshing to see the hordes of tourists coming back to town.
When Rome is open for business, my inbox tends to get a little more busy than usual, with friends asking me for some recommendations about what to do and see and when to do it.
The following is the first in a series of insights about Rome.
They're based on my opinions and experiences, so don't come trying to sue me if you don't agree.
For this post, I'm focusing on the central areas of the historic centre, along with Termini.
Things change, good places go bad, and bad places improve, so take everything with a grain of salt.
Sara Goldschmied & Eleonora Chiari are two Milan based artists who have worked together for some time.
The Museion space in the North Eastern Italian city (some would argue that it's actually not very Italian) of Balzano commissioned the artists to produce an installation as part of the collateral events for Milan's Expo.
Their response? An eighties tribute. And you know how much I love the eighties.Pretty ingenious idea if you ask me. They imagined the Italy of the eighties and managed to tie in their observations and experience with more than just a bit of social commentary.
How? By imagining eighties Italy as a party or more precisely, as the remnants of a party. Dove andiamo a ballare questa sera? (Where shall we go dancing tonight) is the resulting work. The snapshot of what began to happen the very morning after the party had ended. You know when the guests have gone, and there's no life left at the party...just the left overs that need to be cleaned up and cleared away.
In capturing that moment, Goldschmied and Chiari have effectively acknowledged and paid tribute to the Italy of the eighties that no longer exists today (but whose consequences live on).
What they're referring to was the Italy which was experiencing something of an economic boom, and large scale (unfettered?) reevelopment. This coinciding with Italy's notoriety as being one of the centres of Europe's cultural and party scene.
It was a party that brought with it a lot of fun, but a socio, economical and political mess which is still being dealt with today.
Love the idea, love the concept, and in a way, also love what happened next...and to think I thought it was modern life and not modern art that is rubbish. Check what happens here.
I ONCE wrote a thesis on Japanese woodblock prints. It was called The Shift to Intimacy.
It was a thesis that looked at how those kooky woodblock prints were the first form of mainstream and wide scale publication, but that were also the first form of public/private art that the public really took to.
I remember doing a solid year of research on the topic, reading everything I could find, and scouring museum collections near and far to help me illustrate my point. Back then, I worked under the supervision of two really ace Japanese art experts who tutored me and helped me get a grasp of what Japanese art is all about. In doing so, I recall being struck by how the Boston Fine Arts museum was basically a treasure trove of Japanese art: the best collection of Japanese works outside of Japan (as a result of the mass sale of Japanese art to Westerners during the second world war).
For a period of time I was obsessed with ukiyo-e - the floating world - and the old, traditional pleasure quarters of historical Japanese life. Once you get into that headspace, it's very difficult to get out of it.
I lived in Kyoto for a couple of years. Loved the place. Just obsessed with it, even now. I dug Tokyo as a place to visit, but Kyoto for me at least, was always the more interesting and layered place (and a hop skip and jump to Osaka, Kobe and Nara). Kids, the Kansai is where it's at.
Kyoto is seen as the traditional home of culture in Japan. It was the country's capital for a really long time, and largely escaped the WWII bombings that otherwise flattened the cities in Japan. As a result it's a living, breathing city that is teeming with thousands of years of its history: from wooden palaces to ugly, brass decorated glass buildings from the seventies. It's a living map of culture.
One of the things you can do in Kyoto is visit the Nishi-ji Textile Centre. Kyoto, being home to the traditions and culture of the country, is also seen as the home of the kimono. At Nishi-ji you can try on amazing kimono, like the one I snapped my dear friend in in the above photo. But it's the real deal there: you have to put on like seven or eight layers of the fabric and it weighs a tonne.
Dressing up in kimono or as a samurai, or even going the full scale and dressing as a geisha are among the kitschy things you can do in Kyoto and other parts of Japan.
People have a fascination with that kind of stuff, and you can argue that playing dress ups in that context and that environment, regardless of your race or heritage, is a way of supporting the local economy and educating visitors by strengthening their ties to a foreign culture. Walk a mile in another man's shoes and all that.
But there's been a big commotion in Boston in recent days at the Fine Art Museum. Among the objects in their collection is Monet's La Japonaise, which was a portrait of his wife Camille wearing a blonde wig and a kimono, surrounded by those other ubiquitous trademark items: paper fans.
Let's just call it a period piece. It was a time when the European obsession with all things East was the norm and one of many contributions that made Japan, despite its distance, an enigmatic place on the map which seemed to scream culture and sophistication.
Times have changed, and even on this blog I've noted how cultural appropriation is a huge controversy these days. While dressing up in traditional costumes or paying homage to cultural looks was still the norm even in the nineties, these days we are much more careful about things. Partly because we've revised the way East met West and because a lot of the way that we look at our differences is shaped by Western colonialism. That traditionally had a flow on effect with the exoticising or objectification of Asians (and of indigenous Australians, Africans, South Americans, Islanders etc. etc.).
So what does that have to do with anything you ask my dears? Well, the Fine Art Museum attempted to tap into the current private/public fascination with art. You know, the one that finds its portal via social networks. Where people add a hashtag and tag themselves as being at blah blah blah place. The Boston Fine Art Museum attempted to take advantage of this by promoting Monet's piece and offering visitors the chance to dress up in a kimono (from their collections) and snap a photo of themselves (damn selfies!) alongside the work to be shared online.
But not everyone is pleased, and in fact, the huge social outrage about this has led to the Fine Art Museum changing its approach. In the face of protests and people fuming online about yet more colonialism and objectification of cultures, the Museum has suspended the offer of dressing up but has instead ramped up the educational platform and its approach to getting visitors to engage with the kimonos in its collections.
Is it an incorrect, imperialist context? Are we blowing things out of proportion, or is putting a kimono on in this way equal to black face?
More at the NYT on this one, but I'd be curious to know your thoughts on the matter...let me know via the comments section.
Are you heading to Rome?
Moving around a city like Rome can be tough.
Traffic, an unreliable and slow public transport system and the city's proneness to flash flooding makes Rome quite a b*tch city at times. Yes, I love it, don't worry, but I loved it the most when I had my piece on the side: Cholo.
Cholo, despite his Latino name, was not a Mediterranean lover, but rather my Japanese made scooter with whom I zipped around the city. Before he was stolen from me (twice) and stripped like a chicken wing for the illegal parts market, we were a kind of Bonnie and Clyde, Han Solo and Chewbacca situation. Unhealthy, but good for each other, and zipping around the city and surrounds with him made me feel molto local. And it was so practical: Cholo made it possible to transform an already busy schedule into an even more hectic one.
In addition to everything else I was doing in Rome (teaching, pretending to be boss like at a language school, writing a novel, having a social life etc.) during my five years there I also did a stint as columnist for kunstpedia (now artwis). Kunstpedia is a fascinating, not for profit organisation whose aim is to stimulate appreciation of fine and applied arts (but not contemporary arts).
Due to the lack of time in the face of all my other commitments, unfortunately I had to let it go, but a few of my reviews are still up online, and although some of the exhibits I reviewed are no longer, the spaces I visited are still there, and routinely put on some quality offerings in Rome.
So, I'll spare you the full run down of what to see in Rome. It's all but been written before. But if you're looking for something different and memorable, consider these..
The Andersen museum is barely known even to locals. It's a hop, step and a jump from Piazza del Popolo and the Villa Borghese, but it's another world. A utopia in fact. If you're in Rome I absolutely insist you visit (and then come back and tell me about how crazy the place was). My review here.
One of Rome's unsung gems in my opinion is its museum of Asian art. It's near S. Maria Maggiore and Termini. It's an old palace that's been transformed into a museum with a collection that is quite heavy on Middle Eastern and Central Asian pieces. Lovely, quiet place that will give repeat visitors to Rome an alternate angle.
The Palazzo delle Esposizioni is Rome's biggest exhibiting space, and holds blockbuster exhibits each year. This summer, David LaChapelle's exhibit is the talk of the town. It's in the city centre and worth a visit (with a gorgeous little cafe and courtyard to give you some respite from Rome's smoggy traffic. Here's an old review I wrote for Soviet Socialist Realism.
And, although the Orientalist show is no longer on, il Chiostro del Bramante is a must visit in Rome. It's in the historical centre, and in addition to seeing whatever show they have on, you can also visit the bar and have a glass of wine in the cloister. It's gorgeous. Here's my old review for Italian Orientalism.
Have fun if you're heading to Rome, and let me know if you pop into any of these places.
To learn more about artwis or access their amazing, online resources go here.
I AM not a huge fan of MAXXI in Rome. Aside from being a means through which the Northern parts of the city can be better utilized to capitalize on the Art Academy quarter of the city, and playing its part in re-asserting the presence of contemporary art in a classical city like Rome, MAXXI leaves me cold.
When the Zaha Hadid designed building finally opened in 2010, it already felt stale to me. No coincidence that years of delays and other issues saw to the project taking almost ten years to be realised, by which stage the revolutionary building design seemed to scream; you've seen me before in a million other capital cities.
The art at MAXXI feels more modern than contemporary, and this is an important thing to understand in Italy, because modern art in Italy envelopes the last few hundred years, whereas contemporary art is that which is produced in the now.
Invariably, when you visit MAXXI, you get a mixed idea of what modernity means. You're as likely to encounter artwork from the seminal 1960s and 1970s, when Italian artists were at the forefront of the contemporary and avantguard scenes, as artwork from more recent years, in which the collections place emphasis on international artists, partly because Italian artists haven't connected with their public in recent years to the same scale as international artists, because they haven't been able to maintain the urgency, that cutting edge ability that seemed to come so naturally in the mid twentieth century. This is a direct result of the destruction of arts education and training in this country, a brain drain which has weakened innovation in the arts here in the same way that it has weakened Italy in technology, science and pretty much any other smart industry.
MAXXI was envisaged as being the centre of Italy's contemporary arts scene, and as such, was part of a huge push to rebrand Rome as a pivotal European centre for contemporary art, a huge undertaking, given the identity clash between old and new that is constantly played out in Rome.
But MAXXI, in just its second year, is already facing other big challenges. Recently spotlighted in the news due to funding issues, the museum finds itself in the unenviable position of being a big new player that already has an uncertain future. Coupled with the appointment of an administrator, talk currently suggests that the government, in its current austerity drive, has drawn the line and plans to cut funding, emphasizing the point that its initial funding was provided under the condition that MAXXI sought out private partners to sustain it on an ongoing basis.
This brief Italian article suggests that MAXXI has so far failed to do so, and that in not doing so, risks not being able to pay staff wages beyond another few months, let alone continue to stage exhibitions and events that it so desperately needs to in its attempt to define its place in the contemporary European scene.
MAXXI of course is not alone in this dire situation. In recent weeks, by museology standards, events have turned almost apocalyptic.
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IF YOU'RE in Rome between April 14 and April 21, you are in luck.
Rome's state museums and historical sites are opening their doors to the public with free entry during Culture Week. With the exception of some major sites such as the Colosseum and special exhibits, a lot of Rome's collections are pretty much free for the taking.
For those who have visited Rome before, this is a good opportunity to explore some of the more left field spaces that the city operates in addition to the bigger national museum centers whose collections are worth at least one visit to. Yes, the focus is often on classical art, but not always. For a different way to see something classical, two of my recommendations would be the Museo Andersen and Centrale Montemartini. Located outside of the historical center, these sites are invitations to explore a Rome that few visitors venture out to, and that often hide the more modern side of its identity. Traveling smarter, doing a bit of research, and picking up a bit of free press can go a long way in helping you get a better feel of a place.
There has been talk that Woody Allen's latest film To Rome With Love has caused a spike in visits to the city. I am not so sure of that, particularly because the film has not yet even been released. It could well happen later in the year when it gets its cinematic release in the States and other territories, but whether or not it will simply feed the obsession with the historical center or not remains to be seen.
Rome already commands about 10 million visitors per year, and for a city of its size, sits comfortably near, if behind its bigger neighbors London and Paris. Although it has less than half the population of its northern neighbors, it has some of the best flight connections in Europe, a heavily developed tourism industry and show stopping heritage that screams "Look at me! Look at me!" I can't think of any other European city, perhaps with the exception of Istanbul, that has such a multi-layered history that is readily accessible to visitors.
ROME is considered part of the cluster 6 cities of Europe, along with Berlin, Paris and London (Madrid and Istanbul are also in this group) in its status as a metropolis with heritage, arts and cultural industries. Because it is a cultural hub, it does pretty well at a local level in sustaining a growing amount of events, even if it is still paradoxically a city that is still finding its modern feet.
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THE Vatican museum clocked up over five million visits last year, making it one of the most visited museums in Europe, and with a total figure that puts it into the big league. This for the Vatican museums is a record breaking number.
I myself have visited a couple of times. I remember my first visit back in 1996 when on my first visit to Rome I popped in to see the Sistine Chapel and walked out with a passive smoking habit.
At the time, I couldn't believe that people were smoking cigars under that amazing ceiling. In subsequent visits I recall being horrified by the restoration that had taken place, mostly because I was so accustomed to seeing the washed out colors through the haze of tar and smoke that clung to its surface. Seeing it restored on my next visit (in 2001) left me without my bearings. It would be like seeing Rome clean and without the taint of smog that covers a lot of the city.
Anyway, back to the museum visits. The Vatican Museums offer free entry once a month if you are willing to queue for a few hours and join the throngs of others who are trying to save €15 or whatever it is they charge to get in these days. There is also a huge private industry of organised tours that sustains a lot of employment in Rome, particularly for art history graduates who can speak multiple languages.
I haven't been for two years now, mostly because I have HUGE issues with the place.
Not because its the Vatican, because, well, normally I don't give a damn about the church. Perhaps I am part of the naive but mostly I like to pretend that they don't even exist. I am so used to living in a secular nation that the only time they rile me is when they cross that line and mix into politics. The endemic corruption, closeted nature of so many of the clergy (who you can spot a mile away here in Rome) and the ridiculously out of touch nature of the organisation mostly just make me roll my eyes. My expectations of organised religion are so low that nothing really surprises me.
What I do have a huge issue with is the Vatican Museums, their general existence, their approach and the fact that they have a collection which produces eye wincing envy in others.
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I'm being trialled out for a new gig here in Rome, acting as a sort of Rome correspondent for a European website.
It's a good opportunity for me to seek out and explore some of Rome's more under rated and lesser known art spaces.
Last week, I met with one of the curators of the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale who is charged with the management and promotion of one of Rome's little gems.
It's a small collection, a boutique kind of space, but one of the very few in all of Italy to focus on international art. There are a handful of boutique spaces that grew out of private collections in Genova, Milan and the North East of Italy, but this space is the only one that I know of in Central or Southern Italy which is completely comprised of Asian Art (it too began as a private collection which was later bequeathed to the state).
It's a little bit of an underdog, competing with other Roman spaces; oriental art is not something you probably have in mind during a visit to Rome, but its well worth a visit, especially as a respite to the endless array of Roman art and archeological sites that are already on offer in the city.
Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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