he aging hippy has had enough. “This,” he shouts, “is the real fascism!” Having lingered too long over a bottle of castelli romani in the ragged courtyard café of Angelo Mai Occupato, a commune that in Italy is known as a “social center,” he can no longer make it into it back in to see the play the occupants are staging.
“Please keep your voice down,” someone much younger tells him, though it does no good.
Maybe that’s because the loud-mouthed is none other than Toni Negri, hunted as a revolutionary apologist in the late 1970s and now a celebrity West Coast academic, a “Rococo Marxist,” as Tom Wolfe might say. He hears only himself.
Suddenly, a wraithy blonde in silk pants and Rastafarian braids hurtles down the theater’s shaky and packed spiral staircase and out into Monti’s dusk. “I’m not some kind of snake!” She wails in Italian. “I’m a human being!” Behind her, a pursuer dressed in a Superman shirt just smiles.
All this and the play has yet to start.
Rome is groovy again.
The city’s twenty-something culture — unpredictable, goofy, sexy, often too dramatic for its own good — extends across the city from old inner rioni such as Monti to more distant quartieri once reserved for blue collar tedium. Meanwhile, the packed historic center boasts elegant new (turn-of-the-20th-century) hangouts and a wilder drinking scene than ever before, particularly around Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, the world’s largest 16-to-22-year-old singles bar (now monitored by police cameras).
Go tell Rome revelers about the global recession, particularly as the weather warms up. Youth culture comes (mostly) cheap. No one stays indoors.
“THIS IS NOT A FESTIVAL!” proclaims a poster for Enzimi (“Enzymes”), and self-styled block party and city-funded talent show that every year kicks in with indie film, theater, art, and an array of dj sets. Enzimi has been a staple of Rome alt-life since 1996 (it’s expected to have permanent Testaccio digs beginning in 2009). When I stumbled on to it, Piazza Vittorio was playing host. The piazza, a few blocks from Termini train station (an amazing building if given the chance, by the way), is Rome’s ethnic melting pot.
Enzimi was a mixed bag: I saw a digitally restored print of director Domenico Gaido’s 1921 “Bridge of Sighs” and a Venetian historical romance set to dub rhythms and experimental trombone jazz. But it was the people that stood out. I found myself standing between a young couple wrapped in colorful wool blankets and their three friends who were busy filming the film event. There was also a central African man who snaked to the melodies, grinning not with a frozen druggy grin but a genuine one that didn’t go away for two hours.
Piazza Vittorio has a patina of seediness that’s probably been around since before Augustus ruled. Within the park’s mysterious ruins — called Porta Magica (a “magic gate” associated with medieval alchemy) — I found free music and Internet access, not to mention a falafel sandwich and a beer, all for €7.50. I was pulled and pushed by throngs of young romani, girls in that lightly Arabized look with bellies showing. The guys wore untucked shirts and jeans.
Tables overflowed with guides to volunteering and manifestos from some of Rome’s two dozen distinctive social centers, centri sociali, city-owned structures commandeered by left-wing activists that turn them into communes. Angelo Mai Occupato, an historic former school, played theater and dance floor for three years until its “cultural revolutionaries” were ousted and forced to move on. That’s an old story for the centri, with members scouting out the next abandoned spot while they’re busy moving into the one they just found. The Italian left may be dead — it was decimated in recent elections — but leftist behavior isn’t.
I stayed at Piazza Vittorio long past Rome’s midnight bus deadline, entering the unpredictable world of the notturne, the spotty night buses that often follow abbreviated routes and run every hour, or year. A motley crowd we were in the wee hours along Termini’s bus stops, amid festive debris and smells unfit for families.
The notturne make concentric swoops around Rome, bumping their late night passengers around even more than daytime transport. It’s just that few passengers need lurching at 2 a.m. Exhausted American revelers sought their convent hotel up in northwest Trionfale, begging pathetically for information. I helped them as much as I could, but the other young Roman passengers betrayed ignorance of their own city, an aloofness for which they’re justly famous. The driver refused to even acknowledge them.
In addition to the Americans were Indian, African and Slavic restaurant workers headed southwest to dreary Portuense. I got off near my hotel off Piazza Bologna, northeast of the Aurelian Walls, past the University of Rome, a good sedate place from which to probe the lively student neighborhood San Lorenzo (actually in the quartiere Tiburtina) before retreating to bed.
TUCKED INTO a nook formed by the University of Rome campus (“La Sapienza”) and Termini’s long tail, San Lorenzo‘s little web of early 20th century streets were Rome’s only ones bombed by American B-17s in World War II. Later, they drew organizations of 1970s revolutionaries. Now, weekend throngs stroll past galleries and enoteche, wine bars, though sometimes wearing gear that mirrors revolutions past, like the Sergeant Pepper’s girl I saw posing in Largo dei Volsci.
The enoteca Arco degli Aurunci debuted here off Piazza dell’Immacolata five years ago. On a Tuesday evening I joined a mellow crowd trying one of eight wines on a list that changes biweekly.
Aperitifs, included with the €6.50 glass, were exceptional: Monti Aurunci capocollo, Padovan sopressa, seasonal pecorino cheeses with honey and spices, little goat-cheese-and-orange lasagna squares. The young waiter gently told me that if I intended to continue re-filling my plate he’d have to charge me for a second glass of wine, which they’d be happy to bring me.
That Saturday night San Lorenzo was wall-to-wall people, many with birra grande dangling, not a single enoteca with a free table, the pizzerie thronged. On tiny Via degli Ernici I came upon an “event” in which artists’ apartments, where they kept their work, were opened to the public for a fee. The young romana taking tickets beamed when I mentioned twenty-something Rome. Behind her sat a man with long black hair wearing a scary white mask.
“I’m 20, and I feel I’m at the beginning of this journey they call the ’20s,” he began.
“Who is the artist?” I interrupted him, wanting to know what to expect inside the flat.
“Life is the artist,” replied Fatih Boamoud. He was the artist: a Tunisian-Japanese-Italian “eternally wandering through the Roman night,” according to his promotional bio, “friend of VIPs and common mortals.” We talked at length — “everyone is a virgin inside of himself,” he told me, and “it’s beautiful to face obstacles” — and finally I left without even viewing his work, but he seemed oddly comfortable with that.
I resumed my outdoor scouting and finally settled for the bar at Enoteca Ferrazza (Via dei Volsci, 59; tel. 06.490.506). I ordered a high-alcohol primitivo, a Negramaro del Salento for €5. I skipped aperitivi, which are extra here. Business boomed outside, even at these prices.
“They spend, they spend,” beamed owner Vincenzo Saccucci, who not content with the wine scene gave me his daytime business card — he’s a freelance trucker (in tough times you never know). Back on the street two young romane eyed the ragazzi in their sweaty half-buttoned shirts.
“Belli, eh?” murmured one.
“Bellisimi,” growled the other.
CAMPO DE’ FIORI remains supremely picturesque as a morning food market, but in the 1990s it its nights were transformed from the edgy to wild (and sometimes drunken) over-population. Americanized wine bars took over half of the piazza and international rowdies commandeered the statue of Fra Giordano Bruno, the monk-scientist burned at the stake here in 1600. It’s a throbbing scene.
Rome’s police are content just to watch the fashion parade, young women often freshly outfitted from nearby Via dei Giubbonari’s boutiques, all leggings and miniskirts or skinny jeans and pointy pumps and plunging frilly blouses.
Some new clubs favored by locals hide off Campo dei Fiori and its slightly older but equally overcrowded cousin, Piazza Navona. Femme (French pronunciation) at Via dei Pellegrini, 1 near Campo starts evenings as a gastroboutique, serving wine and aperitivi (tel. 06.686.4862). By midnight one recent Saturday its antique pink and gold middle room pulsed with wall-to-wall non-American dancers and nobody else could get in, but we did — my friend is a Roman therapist.
We danced our butts off, a young African woman in a gauzy body suit towering beside me. The back room, all white with a sinuous wall divan one reviewer called “as beautiful as it is uncomfortable,” was lightly spiced with couples, some making out.
Trastevere, just across the Tiber from here, remains a prime midnight stroll, its young masses crossing Ponte Garibaldi by foot and tram onto Viale Trastevere and Via della Lungaretta, where bead-sellers resemble Scottsdale hippies. Want to be more authentically cooler? Join the Italians hanging out upriver in Piazza Trilussa, off Ponte Sisto.
The historic center (centro storico) can still be daunting, with some alleys remaining near pitch black even on the busiest nights. But the real problem is the clubs themselves. Twice in 2006 young American women were sexually assaulted, the latest inside ultra-chic The Supper Club (no mention of the Rome venue on the website) near Piazza Navona (Via De Nari, 15; tel. 6880.7207).
The U.S. embassy, to Rome’s considerable embarrassment, uploaded special warnings aimed at American women hanging out in the centro storico. The local campuses of some U.S. universities also make it a point to warn young women about drinking and promiscuity — Rome isn’t Chicago, they say, and men don’t always hear the word “no.” (They’re also less accustomed to drunken women.)
BUT THE disco culture is alive and very well, thank you. Most discos sprouted up in 1980s Testaccio, the former Tiber-side warehouse and wholesaling district. Some historic Testaccio discos — Jungle Club, ZooBar (Via di Monte Testaccio, 95 and 22, respectively) — have survived obsolescence and are now busy doing newly popular ’80s retro shows. Another Via di Monte Testaccio joint, Akab, has become a major electronic music space. Not all these spots have websites. It’s a case of either you know them or you don’t.
Labyrinthine Villaggio Globale, folded into the former slaughterhouse itself, has evolved into a popular music and dance venue since its beginnings as another commune-occupied center in the late 80s.
I showed up at Villaggio Globale’s cafe late one afternoon for a riveting tour of what has to be Rome’s strangest archaeology project: a first-ever dredging of southern (i.e., working class) Rome’s stretch of the Tiber, employing local homeless people. They have found everything from fascist-era shaving cream and toothpaste to bits of fourth century B.C. wall.
Below Testaccio is Ostiense, a big riverside district that includes the cathedral of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and the Magazzini Generali, a former wholesale food market slated for commercial development. Pulitzer-winning architect Rem Koolhaas is creating a Covent garden-style complex here, though the recession has slowed construction.
Down a weedy riverside alley in Ostiense, where the city has battled both rats and clandestine immigrant camps, the ex-Cinodromo — the greyhound race track, with faded 1960s signs — houses Rome’s most radical squatters. Acrobax is “against work,” says its posters. Its members demand an €11,000 guaranteed minimum annual wage for all citizens to promote creativity.
“Now we’re completely legal,” said thirty-something Lorenzo, a group founder who would not give his last name and advised against photographing members’ faces. Acrobax has stalled city plans to make this a tram and streetcar warehouse, and now it hosts occasional performance and disco nights.
“The important thing is that it doesn’t become a shopping center,” Lorenzo said.
ROME’S CONTEMPORARY music and art scene has rocketed in stature over the last decade. In northern Rome near upscale, hilly Parioli quarter, architect Renzo Piano’s three-halled Auditorium sets a European standard. One Friday night I could choose between a flamenco tribute to Frida Kahlo in Sala Petrassi or the penultimate Mozart “K Festival” concert in Sala Sinopoli. I chose the latter, conducted by energetic, rising Roman conductor Mario Brunello and his Orchestra d’Archi Italiani, a big string group that started with Mozart but ended with Astor Piazzolla.
Tickets were just €10 (Flamenco tickets were free after 5 p.m.), but I came mid-afternoon Friday and foolishly told the man to give me what he thought best. I got what seemed initially the house’s worst seat — highest section, highest row, inside corner — but indeed it was the best seat! I saw Brunello’s expressiveness up close and I had a marvelous orchestra view, with crystalline acoustics to boot.
In the glittering Santa Cecilia room the next night Italo-Brazilian singer-guitarist Marisa Monte performed, sold out. Latin music — the New World kind — is enchanting young Romans right now, as it did in the 1950s.
In leafy northeast Salario quarter, five-year-old MACRO (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma) inhabits the old Peroni beer factory. Upstairs, British artist Marc Quinn’s works, which use blood, placenta and DNA samples, were on display. A gymnastically pretzeled sculpture of Kate Moss, made from rustproof steel, portrayals of bacteria colonies and “cloned human DNA” was the centerpiece. Cy Twombley’s work is on display through May.
Macro al Mattattoio is the museum’s even edgier Testaccio outpost, its big sheds with ceiling hooks revealing slaughterhouse memories (Villaggio Globale was the enclosed part). I show I saw there a few years ago, “Mediterraneans,” was later excerpted in the main museum uptown.
That first time a woman’s voice whispered, overdubbed, through the former killing sheds. I sought the whisper and found an on-screen couple, jet plane in the background, he standing, she pouring fuel or water around him in a circle — I turned from it quickly to the clothesline installation with its photo of a woman’s head trapped in a laundry basket. A Palestinian artist’s rendition titled “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” consisted of dead trees and a wall, “commonly referred to as THE APARTHEID WALL, THE SEPARATION WALL, THE WEST BANK WALL…”
ROME IS CRAZIEST during La Notte Bianca, the annual “white night” inspired in 2003 by Paris, but not a copy. I arrived too late for this Notte Bianca, usually the second Saturday in September; but I survived a later version. (Caveat emptor: Some say spendthrift Mayor Gianni Alemanno will dump the festival in 2009; he’s a rightist and the festival was a creation of the left…)
I started my night with another elderly friend — well, she was 44 — at a cerebral piano concert and artist interview at 1920s Teatro Palladium in Garbatella, another newly popular southern Rome working class quarter. We braved Trastevere at midnight, flowing with the crowds to a show-and-tell in the little synagogue on Isola Tiberina, then making a stab at an unreachable concert in the gleaming Galleria Alberto Sordi on Via del Corso, before she succumbed to her advanced age around 2 a.m.
I actually offered to hail her a cab, though the Corso toward Piazza del Popolo was a thick goo of bodies, engulfing a lone cab going nowhere. She demurred, trudging slowly away. I soldiered on and never saw her again.
Around 3 a.m. I entered Piazza Farnese alongside leaping dancers and frantic drummers in shiny blue and gold clothes. I ate porchetta, Rome’s signature roast pork sandwich, at 4 a.m. at the Largo Argentina tram stop and it was so good and hot, the fatty meat warming my insides. It fortified me for the long cold wait for a bus up the Janiculum, a bus more packed than any I have yet taken in this city of packed buses, for a dawn concert.
A dawn concert on the Janiculum, where generations of travel writers have prescribed sunrises to the romantic — well, you can imagine all the additional making out amid stale cigarette smoke and wine. But I descended chastely alone, damn it, stinky under the armpits, to St. Peter’s in time for 8 a.m. Mass.