“Rome is a very loony city in every respect. One needs but spend an hour or two there to realize that Fellini makes documentaries.” - Fran Lebowitz
Does Fellini's Rome exist anymore? Are there shadowy piazzas and winding stradas one can get lost in, far out of range of the odious selfie stick? Not having been to Rome in over ten years, I was on a quest to find out if there was a little ‘la dolce vita' left in the city, if it had ever existed outside of Fellini's imagination at all. So, on a frigid Friday evening in February, the Baron and I set off to find....Fellini's Roma.
ROME: THE QUEST FOR 'LA DOLCE VITA'
1. CINECITTÀ STUDIOS
I first learned about visiting Cinecittà at a lecture at the Museum of Moving Image following a screening of one of my favorite movies, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, given by the film's production designer Mark Friedberg and cinematographer Robert Yeoman. In it, they described a critical error they made when filming at Cinecittà, in which they realized far too late after building the entire replica of Zissou's boat, The Belafonte, that the sound stage wasn't deep enough to get their "money shot”; even with the camera positioned halfway out the door, they couldn't get the full width of the boat and all her painstakingly made compartments in one frame.
Wes Anderson's team was on Fellini's famed sound stage and weighed their options: could they really, REALLY cut the side out of the maestro's beloved favorite studio in order to get their shot? In short, the answer was 'no', they couldn't, the grounds were too sacred, too Felliniesque to violate in this way. Instead, they developed a complicated winching system that moved the boat backward inches a day - a Herculean effort in itself - using up the 12 feet they had reserved for lighting behind the boat, borrowed a wide angle lens from NASA, and with the camera in the doorway, finally got their shot. I had to see it.
Seeing deconstructed/half constructed film sets overtaken by weeds is at once eerie and beautiful, but I still felt inspired picturing the hundreds of thousands of creatives who have commuted or shuffled or chauffeured their way over to the studio since it was built by Mussolini in 1937.
Fellini’s favorite sound stage was Teatro Number 5 and he kept a room for himself at Cinecittà so he could wake up there when he wanted to. He never wanted his movies to say "FINE" at the end, he thought films went on forever. Perhaps it is for this that the eerie sadness of Cinecittà didn't bother me. There were forgotten remnants of the past, but the promise of future movie magic was equally present.
2. THE VATICAN MUSEUM: LOW-FI VERSION
The Baron does not share this view (and would probably like me to state as much for the record), but I don't ever need to go to the Vatican Museum again. If I found out I was dying, sure, I might make one last trip to see a few things, but after the visit we made on our honeymoon and the one we just made, I consider my Vatican Museum dance card complete. Even with a timed, pre-paid ticket, the crowds in the galleries made me want to end it all.
Nevertheless, I can attest that you can experience la dolce vita in at least two places: The Pinacoteca for some wonderful paintings, especially Caravaggio's Deposition of the Body of Christ and the Collezione Arte Religiosa Moderna for the exquisite works by the Sicillian artist Salvatore Fiume with other fabulous items thrown in along the way such as Bernini's half-completed angels and some gloriously weird mummy artifacts. Of course there is the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Athens School, but let's be honest.....there is no la dolce vita happening there, now or ever.
I know what you're thinking, 'Fools! There is no la dolce vita in touristy Trastevere!' but you're wrong. The Baron and I rented an apartment on the quaintest street in Trastevere which gave us the perfect launching pad for scoping out Fellini's Trastavere. We discovered that the touristy action is mostly confined to west of Viale di Trastevere (the neighborhood's main artery) and is centered around Santa Maria in Trastevere. We found plenty of winding cobblestone streets, pin-drop quiet piazzas, local trattorias, and a 100-year old bakery east of the main drag.
In our first four hours in Trastevere, we:
- Saw many feral cats
- Attended a gallery exhibition where immediately upon entering, the curator offered us chocolate
- Crashed a vernissage which exhibited the photographs of a man's entire life from birth to what appeared to be his 80s. We (uninvited) joined the artist, his friends and family with a glass of wine in his honor
- Passed a literary reading at a book store that was so packed, it spilled into the streets
- Heard nuns singing vespers at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere; the convent was so cold, the nuns processed and sang with weathered winter coats buttoned over their habits, a sartorial choice I thought Fellini would like
- Admired medieval architectural details, most of which have been nonchalantly incorporated into the exterior of modern buildings
- Tasted pasta e fagioli soup to end all pasta e fagioli soups served by a matron and her husband who poured us limoncello out of what looked like a jerry can.
Right around the corner from our apartment was the wonderful Biscottificio Artigiano Innocenti, open since the 1920s. It is a magical bakery that gives you a glimpse of what the neighborhood must have once been like.
That vintage workhorse oven churns out dozens of varieties of cookies and pastries daily.
The original owners' daughter, Stefania still runs the bakery with passion, skill and the patience to deal with our nonsensical grunting and pointing, so bad was our Italian eclipsed only by our desire to sample everything she had. One of the best things we tried on the trip were Stefania's beignets filled with custard.
4. CIMITERO ACATTOLICO / THE NON- CATHOLIC CEMETERY
Famous for housing the remains of notable non-catholics who met their end in Roma like John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Antonio Gramsci, and Gregory Corso, the Protestant Cemetery is a wonderfully weird and quiet place to spend a few hours. There is much to ponder here, including a heartbreaking epitaph written by the mother of16 year-old Rosa Bathurst who drowned in the Tiber after being thrown by her horse. Part of the inscription reads,
"Reader Whoever Thou Art, Who May Pause To Peruse This Tale Of Sorrows, Let This Awful Lesson Of The Instability Of Human Happiness Sink Deep In Thy Mind.- If Thou Art Young And Lovely Build Not Thereon, For She Who Sleeps In Death Under Thy Feet, Was The Loveliest Flower, Ever Cropt In Its Bloom."
On a more comforting note, the cemetery also houses a cat hospice so if you’re wondering how all those feral Roman cats survive, trust that they are well cared for in the cemetery. The lovely hospice volunteers/cat butlers believe the cats serve a vital function in keeping the dead company, a sentiment I rather appreciated.
5. ROME AT TWILIGHT
Rome is at her best from dusk to twilight and if you happen to find yourself exploring her many dark corners during these hours, you will be rewarded by solitude, a sense of mystery and of something much bigger than yourself - molto Fellinioso. One night we enjoyed a glass of prosecco on the Piazza di Pietra overlooking magnificent columns left from the Temple of Hadrian with hardly a tourist in sight. Another night we wandered up a steep path outside the Foro Romano, which was lined with illuminated stations of the cross. At the top we found a quiet basilica with a view of the entire eternal city, a sight that felt very Felliniesque indeed.
CONCLUSION: Fellini’s Rome is alive and well, but you have to be willing to kiss the tourist attractions goodbye, spend some time with the dead, and lurk around dark alleys at night. For me, this is a small price to pay to get at the heart of a place.
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