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Returning to Rome

February 23, 2019

After a long period of silence on this blog I have been coaxed back into writing.

Honestly, there are so many problems to address that I risk releasing a stream of laments that would be depressing to any reader. My usual optimism is being tested. Rome has become ungovernable and yet it continues to be administered as if things were normal.

I get press releases from Roma Capitale announcing new buses, progress on the Metro C, new hires in the police force, and many other positive notes which to someone reading from afar may sound encouraging. But the day to day reality of living in Rome has never been so dire. (Well, it was worse, perhaps, under the Borgia or during the Sack of Rome of 1527).

Since November I have watched work proceed slowly on Piazza Cinque Scole where I teach. Bids had gone out for the repaving of the square. Repaving, not the design of urban space, to the improvement of pedestrian experience, not the construction of structured, underground parking, but simply repaving the square. Cobblestones were removed and are now being repositioned. It is wonderful to watch the skilled workers doing the job that has been done for centuries. But there is one major difference; rather than laying them in a bed of sand with permeable space between the stones, the joints are being sealed with asphalt. And this isn’t a mistake on the part of the building crew: it was actually requested in the brief. Thus a principal benefit of this traditional paving, that it allows rain water to be absorbed rather than rushing to the storm sewers, has been discarded.  Eventually when they complete the work the fencing will come down, cars and trucks and scooters will move back into the piazza with all their weight  defeating these months of work and thousands of euros of investment.

Elsewhere, a new building has appeared in the archaeological site of Circus Maximus, exactly on axis of the Via Terme di Caracalla at the point of arrival of the Appian Way in central Rome. Where one used to be greeted with the iconic view of the stadium stretching between the Palatine and the Aventine, there is now a banal brick wall. This was not built illegally, nor was it simply allowed by the authorities; it must have actually been commissioned by the cultural heritage authorities since they oversee this historic and listed site.

PH: Paolo Gelsomini

Transit is at a breaking point with several metro stations shut due to needed repairs, no sign of the electric buses which traversed the center years ago ahead of their time, and the fact that transit can be tracked by apps has done little more than give us the frustration of noting that at rush hour on a heavily frequented route there are “no buses” whatsoever.

Rome is now second only to Bogota’ for the amount of time wasted in traffic. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Codice della Strada, the traffic regulations, are now regularly ignored by many. Stopping at red lights, not to mention stop signs, has become an optional. While the Mayor talks about creating new pedestrian zones those already in existence, like Piazza Borghese or Piazza Farnese,  have become open air parking lots.

Several of the new eating places I had grown to love, such as DON in Trastevere which makes great fried pizza, have been forced by confusing local ordinances to remove tables and stools that had allowed clients to eat inside, and instead been reduced to squalid take-out joints. It’s not clear why they are not allowed to provided this useful public service in their own property when outside on Viale Trastevere the sidewalks are blocked everyday with cheap markets of imported junk where little diesel generators spew fumes to provide lighting and big diesel vans stay double-parked in the street all day.

This is the Rome I would love to see improved, the Rome it is easy to dismiss as hopeless, but what’s the use in that? This is the world’s most resilient city with the world’s most resilient citizens.

Last Days of Sketching Tiber exhibit

January 11, 2019

I’ve decided to keep the exhibit of urban sketches and sketchbooks up at my studio on Via Banchi Vecchi for another couple of weeks so if you are in the neighborhood drop by.  Opening hours are not guaranteed because my teaching schedule keeps me away some days, but if the lights are on just come on in.

Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 39 Roma

American tragedy, Roman tragedy

October 7, 2018

Today I can’t stop thinking about two men in the news yesterday, both about my age, as white and privileged as myself. 

Yesterday I read that Brett Kavanaugh had been appointed to the highest position of my country’s justice system despite having demonstrated to an audience of millions his inappropriateness for this job.  

Like many of my fellow Americans I had been glued to the hearings, moved by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account of her attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh, and shocked by his creepy, immature and dishonest defense. It seemed implausible that a democratic government could ignore the many problems that such an appointment would bring: conflict of interest, political partisanship and implicit threats to his political opponents, clear evidence of the judge lying under oath and a well-documented history as a sexual predator. He is now a Supreme Court judge, with an absurd amount of power to abuse. 

Any faith I harbored in the idea of justice has been whittled away. 

Later, descending the staircase from San Pietro in Vincoli where I teach at Sapienza University, I encountered emergency vehicles where I normally risk my life crossing at the crosswalk on Via Cavour. The body of Giorgio De Francesco, 54, lay covered by a reflective mylar blanket like the ones marathon runners are given at the finish line. He had just been killed by a motor vehicle, a tour bus speeding down Via Cavour. It could have been one of my students, or a tourist, or me, or anyone. 

Living in Rome I have become as accustomed to this scene as I might be to gun violence were I still living in the States. In Rome we all witness motorists’ reckless disregard for human life constantly: excess velocity, running red lights, cell-phone use while driving, and all manners of parking to impair visibility.  Within the hour as I walked home I saw hundreds of examples of reckless driving, including vehicles speeding through the red light at Via della Greca, beneath the windows of the municipal police. Already this week two pedestrians had been killed and four seriously injured in what the newspapers inexplicably continue to call “accidents.”  Many Romans drive with criminal negligence but are rarely treated like criminals. 

What links these two seemingly unrelated tragedies other than their echoing in my mind as signs of the injustice of our times?

Two men in their mid-fifties, like myself. One who seemed to do everything possible to disqualify him for the position for which he was being interviewed, gets the job and goes on to prosper. Another, a civil servant in the Italian national government, has his life cut short while he is exercising his civic right to cross a street with his wife.

In both cases, the facts are evident. We know there is injustice and corruption in the Trump administration. We know that illegality and reckless driving reign in Rome. We can name the people responsible for fighting these afflictions. Our taxes pay their salaries. How can it be so hard to hold them accountable? 

Rome’s Tiber “Beach”

September 2, 2018

Rivers are amazing resources for cities, but they need ideas, projects and above all maintenance and regulation. With the localized exception of Piazza Tevere with site-specific art projects such as William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments,  Rome has had none of these for years.  So I was happy to hear word of the city’s plans to make a riverfront beach resort, Tiberus, in the abandoned Marconi area.

It opened late this summer (the delays already a sign that it wasn’t the best planned project) and the reviews were less than stellar.  A recent New York Times article sums them up well, including my own take on the idea ( I had yet to visit the beach itself).

My own scouting trip in mid August confirmed my suspicions that it is better than nothing, but pretty pathetic for a European capital city, especially after seeing the riverfronts of Paris, Madrid, Berlin, etc.

It is sad because the river has such potential and there are so many smart, creative people committed to bringing it back to life. If only they would be invited to the table to come up with innovative solutions and put them into effect!

Beaches need water. Ideally (and realistically given some time and money) the river should be clean enough for swimming. It was until at least the 1960s after all (as testified by Pasolini’s Accattone and other films). But if not, a swimming pool like the one that used to be installed near Ponte Sant’Angelo would be nice. Instead, Tiberus has only ugly plastic port-a-potties converted to showers.

The river is urban, and a key part of any design should be the point of arrival from urban neighborhoods  At Tiberus the walk from residential neighborhoods is still through a no-man’s land of traffic, dangerous cross-walks, shadeless and trash-filled space. And when you finally think you have arrived there is a parking lot(!) and a confusing, poorly-marked entry.

It’s all about the river, but the river’s edge is barely visible. Visitors to Tiberus are blocked from even approaching the river’s edge, as if it were a toxic site to be avoided and not Rome’s most important natural, green infrastructure.

On a positive note, a few people were using it when I visited and seemed happy to have beach chairs and umbrellas to call their own at no cost (and Rome’s real beach, Ostia Lido, you have to pay handsomely to private companies for the privilege).

As with any discussion of Rome’s Tiber river it quickly becomes clear that big issues are at stake. The river is polluted; cleaning it should be high-priority. In 2016 engineer Antonio Tamburrino presented the Mayor with a proposal which would achieve this at no cost to the city but to date there has been no response. Let’s look at cities like London and Berlin and try to do even better.

Public spaces in the city are dominated by automobiles and inhospitable to pedestrians (as the approach to Tiberis reminds us). A real program of public space design competitions would address this.

Tiberus gets us talking about the Tiber, which is a good thing. Now that we are talking, rather than just complaining about how lame it is it would be great to actually work on fulfilling the river’s potential.

New Underground Rome

May 14, 2018

I got a chance to check out the new metro station just before it opened to the public on Saturday. Absolutely spectacular! The finds on display tell the story of Rome through stratigraphy (graphically marked with a clear indication of level below modern ground), chronology (with key dates popping up as you descend) and themes (color coding of themes dear to Sustainable Rome readers: water, reuse, etc.). The lighting is good, the signage is graphically excellent.

Sure, in the name of simplicity not much information is provided (a display case filled with marble fragments has one little placard saying essentially “old stuff”) and labels are only in Italian(well, it’s not like foreign tourists come to Rome or anything!). But the well-produced informative videos are subtitled in English and much of the display is self-explanatory.

It will be years before this station connects to anything but the outlying eastern periphery so I am curious to know how travelers will experience the station. People coming to see San Giovanni may arrive on the A line, then take a walk through the new station (which requires going out the turnstyle and then in again at Metro C but the ticket should still be valid I was told). Or perhaps this station will bring greater attention to the up and coming outer neighborhoods like Centocelle where my foodie friends keep unearthing new gastronomic treasures, including Santo Palato a short walk from the new station itself.

My principal fear is that lack of maintenance and security issues will result in a rapid decline in the station. I saw it during the press opening but had to leave before the crowds arrived. Knowing what other new stations look like –Conca D’Oro on the B line is already covered in graffiti a couple of years after its inauguration –I can only imagine what this now immaculate museum station may become if we are not all vigilant.

A version of this article is now also published (in italian) at


Very Roman scene at the turnstyle.

press conference rush hour

descending into the station


displays include interesting metalwork and jewelry

irrigation pipes from an ancient orchard

organic finds such as peach pits encased in resin.

the use of glass for finds, photos and data is very successful

glass cases with finds and supergraphic titles

stratigraphic legend

chronological graphic display

the approach to street level

a view of the “museum” upon entry





























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.