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Via Giulia: a Renaissance jewel in need of a rebirth

March 15, 2010

Some years ago I had my office on Piazza Farnese and would often walk or bike along Via Giulia on my way to work, fueling my frustration with the invasion of cars along what was designed as a grand but quiet pedestrian boulevard.  Today my frustration returns as my son’s high school fights to resist further automotive incursions in the guise of a new private parking garage on property currently used by the school.  In fairness, the outdoor space in question is only partly used by the school, as it should be, for recreation but is otherwise a parking lot for teachers’ cars and students’ scooters. It should be redesigned as pedestrian space.  It should not be given over to the car mafia.

Via Giulia was laid out by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century, his intention being to create a straight route to the Vatican, and to clear a location that had evolved over the centuries as haphazardly built hovels for grand noble palaces and an even grander papal courthouse. The aspirations were not the most respectable and the enormous scale of Bramante’s very “Roman” project resulted in only the travertine foundation and a few first blocks of the building’s base being erected, blocks which have earned the nickname “the sofas of Via Giulia”.  Walking past the hundreds of cars illegally parked along the Renaissance street, I’ve always thought that the scale and presumption of these blocks resembled more their automotive companions. The courthouse, when finally built after the unification of Italy but on a different site across the river, was in the end even more preposterous. Via Giulia didn’t entirely lose out on its quest for justice. The city’s old prison, installed just across the river in a monastery built in the 17th century, proves that cities are places of strange adjacencies. And just down the street from the Virgilio high school in a similarly fascist-era building is the headquarters of the Anti-Mafia, a building where men in dark sunglasses descend from polished Alfa-Romeo’s day and night.  I don’t know exactly what goes on there, but the estimated value the Italian government must spend on these cars is in the millions.  This is Via Giulia.

The street is within the ZTL, the limited traffic zone, off limits to all but residents and those who have earned or bought the access sticker. Parking is forbidden along the entire street, with tow-away zone signs clearly visible amongst the parked cars. I used to call the police to request action; the usual response was feigned surprise “oh really, well we’ll send someone over right away”.  Then I gave up.  But now that there are actually plans for constructing a multi-level parking garage its developers and their apologists imply that the problem will be solved, that now the cars can get off the streets.  These are the same lobbyists that point to the graffiti, not the cars, as the real evidence of barbarism (although as far as I know no one has ever been run down and killed by graffiti). I would like to think that if the plans for this garage (passed in secrecy and not available for public viewing) do reach completion, the millions in profit do go to the school and the community, including to pay the traffic police well enough that they dare to actually ticket the cars blatantly scoffing the no parking signs. But after 17 years in Rome, my expectations are less optimistic.  I would rather see the cars left to fend for themselves and every square meter of open space preserved for people and green.

Monday, March 15, 2010

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