All Roads Lead From Rome - Part II

I owe all of ya’ll a belated Merry Christmas and very best wishes for a Happy New Year. This week, part two of my very scattered, and random thoughts from a recent trip to Rome. It became immediately apparent that I was not capable of crafting a comprehensive review of Roman streets in a thousands words. I know I'm missing some major points and observations, but the weekly deadline waits for no man. Time's up, pencils down...

Via del Corso on a Saturday night.
Time is a funny thing. I’ve been back for less than two weeks, but with Christmas festivities sandwiched in between, it feels like months since we were in the Eternal City. This week’s post is about roads, but it’s also about time. Their incremental development over millennia has created a street system that stands in stark contrast to what we experience. This portion of their public realm is clearly a societal institution. People love the streets and piazzas, and they are integral parts of how life is lived. At first glance, their street system seems disorganized, haphazard and substandard by our measure.  Closer investigation, however, reveals that their system is more sophisticated and urbane than anything we have to offer.

Via Frattina
The obvious remark is that Roman streets are shared spaces. Yes, there are places that shade either more car or pedestrian, but there is a broad gradient in betwixt. Even along the same street, the character changes and fluctuates (Via del Corso being an excellent example). Over here when we talk streets, we talk cars- then everything else. Over there, cars abound, but they are only part of the larger conversation (if not an afterthought).

Nova Via. A rather old street.
Rome was founded around 750 BC- that’s about three thousand years ago in round numbers. As a place that eventually became the greatest city in human history, tremendous development pressure was put on every square inch of space in the urban area. This led to a naturally integrated system of streets of and piazzas that was human in scale, and that addressed transportation needs while deferring to the greater activities of life in the city. When the car made its appearance, it was subjugated to the weigh of civic form. The intersection of history and new technology created a distinctive set of circumstances.

Via dei Condotti from Piazza di Spagna
For 97% of their existence, the primary mode of transportation has been the shoe. Obviously, the streets and piazzas of antiquity weren’t dimensioned with automobiles in mind. To utilize new technologies they had find ways to shoehorn them in to the existing fabric. An example of that is the proliferation of one-way streets. In the states, one-way streets are (thankfully) coming under scrutiny, but they work in Rome because that is their only option (and ain’t nobody speeding down a crooked eight-foot wide cobblestone path anyway).

Over here, we love spatial segregation. Streets are streets, plazas are plazas, parks are parks, and parking lots are parking lots. People in one place, trees in one place, bikes in one place, and cars in another. None shall mingle. Over there, streets and piazzas are funky combinations of people, bikes, cars, architecture, food and open space. Often, a piazza is simply a slightly widened portion of a street in front of a building. This is as it should be. The life of the city, of the buildings, and of the open spaces where people live, work and play is given precedence over how people move from activity to activity. This system can best be described as civilized.

The guy with the baby stroller would be arrested in America.
The contrast in systems goes beyond physical form, it extends to operation as well. The American system is like an official game of basketball, while the Roman system is more like a pick-up game. Over here, there are explicit rules for everything. “The game” is closely officiated, score, stats and fouls are kept, and the players all abide within that framework. Over there, rules definitely exist, but there is informality in how they are applied, and the players often take liberties with their interpretation of the rules.

Take, for instance, that act of street crossing. If you want to cross Market Street, you find an intersection and wait for a light. From there, simple rules apply to both pedestrian and driver. In Rome, on several streets with a similar sections (it’s tough to say as individual lanes aren’t generally marked, only the centerlines), signalized intersections don’t always exist, and crossings are made at crosswalks. To cross, you take your life in your hands decide when to cross, and essentially walk into oncoming traffic. As if by magic, the oncoming cars stop, slow or swerve to allow pedestrians to pass. This is (literally) a foreign concept to an American, but one that seems to work fine. In fact, it works better than fine. Their system is respectful of pedestrians and puts people and cars on more or less equal footing.  Our system treats pedestrians as nuisances to be grudgingly dealt with during the task of moving cars.

The Roman public realm is driven by civic agreement. In fact, they fulfill the promise of the concept- it is truly shared space. We, on the other hand, are selfish, no matter which mode we choose. Our transportation system is designed for a group of spoiled young children who can’t play together without having a referee (police) or chaperone (lawyer) supervising the action. They drive like maniacs, yet are patient and respectful of pedestrians. Their pedestrians are bold and entitled, yet make concessions for cars, trucks and transit. While at first glance their system is chaotic and disorderly, it is at its core sophisticated and civilized. Our system is segregated, and therefore adversarial. So, while we have a long way to go, the good news is that we have another 2,800 years to work on it.


All Roads Lead From Rome

Buongiorno amici, It’s good to be back with you after taking a couple of weeks off. As you may recall, in a previous post I pledged to leave the country if the unthinkable happened. It did and I did. To rub salt in the wound, on the following Monday I received a form letter from the Auburn Fund asking for a donation. Unfortunately, the levels of giving did not include “Kiss my Ass”. I have, however, recovered from my bitterness and have managed to do so without resigning my post on the Alumni Advisory Council. We'll get 'em next year.

As “All roads lead to Rome”*, I could think of no better place to gain a bit of perspective than the Eternal City. It’s probably too early to say, but Rome may have replaced NYC as my favorite city. I lack the vocabulary to describe just how remarkable the place is, but will share with you my impressions of the city. I’ve tried over the past couple of days to craft a cohesive narrative, but find that the task is beyond my capacity. The best I can do is offer my thoughts loosely grouped into the categories of public space, roads and architecture. This week, my take on public space.

The morning view from the hotel did not suck.

I suppose we should start outside the hotel door at the Piazza della Rotonda. I chose our spot because of its central location in the city and  of the hotel, but I was primarily seduced by the fact that it was mere feet from the Pantheon (more on that in a few weeks). While I was excited about the architecture, I did not expect that the piazza would become a favorite place. The space is a little more than half the size of a football field, is fronted on the south by the aforementioned Pantheon and on the other three sides by five and six story buildings. Each of the buildings has ground floor café/restaurants that spill into the space. The fountain, in the middle of the piazza, was designed by Della Porta and is topped with an Egyptian obelisk (dating from Ramses II). There were always people in the piazza- wandering, lingering, or having a drink in a café. The space is welcoming, comfortable, impressive and inspiring all at the same time. Dodgy guitar players notwithstanding, I loved that space. It fit like a well-worn, favorite shirt.

Robert Plant Memorial Sqaure Piazza della Rotonda

A young man who set up camp in the Piazza each day provided the soundtrack for our trip. He was an electric guitar player who knows only two songs: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. He played those songs back to back… to back to back from 9am until 11pm every day. All day. Every. Day. I used to love those songs. 

Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti. Hey...is that an obelisk?

The Spanish Steps were pretty cool. We made it past a few times and there were always hordes of folks loitering and milling about. I will admit however, that with everything else to see, I couldn’t be bothered to take too much time to linger. That said, I could definitely see the attraction. Although I thought I knew the site pretty well, I did experience it in a unexpected way- but I’ll save that for next week. The thing about the steps is that they are a sterling example of using a site constraint (in this case topography), to advantage in creating something that has civic value. Considering the current state of affairs in Chattanooga, do you think we would be more likely to build a “Spanish Steps”, or to build a big ass wall because it would be cheaper?

Fontana di Trevi. I forgot to throw coins in, damnit.

The Trevi Fountain was fine. We stopped by once for about 10 minutes. The sculpture of the fountain was impressive as was the spatial character of the piazza. My memory of the place is that the mob of people who were there to see the fountain was overwhelmed by the mob of those trying to sell things to the people who were there to see the fountain. Speaking of people hawking cheap wares…

Borromini v. Bernini
Borromini v. Bernini v. Gatlinburg
They also have (a Roman copy of) an obelisk.

Our experiences are greatly colored by our expectations, and I had very high hopes for Piazza Navona. I was disappointed. This public space has been around for millennia, dating back to its life as the Stadium of Domitian. This has been a gathering place for Romans and a center of civic life for two thousand years. The piazza boasts one of the most famous fountains in the world- Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain- topped with the de rigueur obelisk. The piazza is also home to one of Borromini’s masterworks, Sant'Agnese in Agone (more on Borromini v. Bernini in a few weeks). I prepared myself to be blown away by baroque and historic forces, and was somewhat let down. The fountains and buildings were as good as advertised; the space however, was jacked. The best description I can muster is that if Panama City, Gatlinburg and a state fair had a ménage a trois, the resulting lovechild would look like this. Perhaps, that's a bit harsh, but everything within the space was pure schlock. The fact that it happens in such a grand setting makes it feel worse. That said, for the couple of precious moments that I could manage to dodge the gypsies, shut my ears, and keep and my eyes above the ground floor, it was a beautiful experience in a well-proportioned space. The heartening thing is that all the crap could easily be swept out of the piazza at any time, thereby restoring the dignity of the place. It’s not as if their community constructed a bunch of one-story, casual dining and hot wing restaurants- who would ever do that…oops.

Piazza del Popolo: Better than anything you've got.
A three thousand year old obelisk...whatev.

Piazza Del Popolo is one of the most impressive public spaces I’ve ever been in. If this space were in any other city in the world, it would be that city’s greatest public space. In Rome, however, it’s arguably the sixth most significant place (behind Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Campidoglio, and St. Peter’s Square). The piazza, once the major northern gateway into the city is a large oval. Three main roads radiate from the piazza into the city. The “twin” churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto occupy the two spaces between the roads. In the center of the piazza is (yawn) obelisco Flaminio, an Egyptian obelisk dating from Sety I. Popolo is larger than Rotonda, and the fact the edges are sculptural instead of active building make the piazza feel more expansive and formal. I really liked it here, and not just because of the Cuban cigar and Nastro Azzurro.

The world's greatest public space.
Child please, my obelisk is 4,400 years old.

As arguably the greatest public space ever created by the hand of man, I had high expectations for Piazza San Pietro. I was let down, but only slighty. The space is grand and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, for yours truly, a potion of Bernini’s portico was behind scaffolding, and the piazza itself was full of chairs, barricades and T.V. screens in preparation for Christmas events. While it was bad luck for me, it was not quite the kind of let down that Piazza Navona was. The formality of the space is a direct result of rigid symmetry and axiality, and is reinforced by Bernini’s arcade and Maderno’s façade. Did you think it would not include an Egyptian obelisk? This one dates from the Fifth Dynasty (that’s 2400BC to you and me). There are no cafes or active ground floors around the piazza- it doesn’t need them. The space is undeniably about people, but whereas the other spaces I’ve highlighted are about community and the social nature of the individual, this space is about the relationship of the individual to God. It is about people, and society, but it is imbued with greater meaning. This is a truly great space, in every sense of the word. Sadly (wink), because of the visual clutter during my recent visit, I have no choice but to return and see it again.

To try contrast Chattanooga and Rome would be silly and unfair. However, the clear takeaway from a public space standpoint is that we suffer from an appalling lack of obelisks. I could have written more (most notably the Campidoglio), but space here is limited and I know you're dying to read the latest about Duck Dynasty. So, arrivederci for now. Next week, the roads of Rome!

*A little trivia: I was informed by an archaeologist that the old saying was actually “All roads lead from Rome”.