The watercolour paintings of Roesler Franz tell the story of a nineteenth-century Rome, ancient, romantic and certainly disappeared, “memories of a passing era”, evidence of what it “was” and that preceded the great radical changes imposed by a new urban structure, rational, social and modern.
In 1870, in addition to Raffaele Cadorna’s Bersaglieri and Second Lieutenant Edmondo De Amicis, the winds of freedom and revolution reached in from Porta Pia. And so the Rome of a shepherd and executioner Pope disappeared, asleep over its thousands years of history and lying on ancient ruins spread everywhere, crossed by the slight yet penetrating ideas of the popular and mocking voice of Gioacchino Belli or that of the merciless Pasquino. Like the pleasant “ponentino” [a light west wind – Ed] those ideas would return years later with Trilussa and Petrolini to rekindle the always turbulent moods of “der popolo incazzato” [pissed off people – Ed]. In the “ventennio” years [twenty years of Fascism – Ed] specifically, those of the great reclamations, of the farming plans, of the new urban and architectural works, Rome would become the self-sufficient capital of a new and industrious Italy illuminated by an ephemeral “free and joyful” sun but above all by the reflectors of a modern, sensational and disruptive communication means: the cinema.
The cinema created the new legends, the news stars, the new fashion trends, the dreams and the illusions to the point that by 1935 Rome had its Hollywood in Cinecittà, crowded by directors who were very different from the American ones in terms of culture and skills such as Blasetti, Camerini, Soldati, De Sica, Antonioni, Visconti and extraordinary actors from De Sica himself to Totò, from Ferida to Calamai.
With the cinema came entertainment and a care-free attitude. In addition to the Piano Marshall, it was also the cinema that, years later helped to forget the mourning, the pain and the disasters of a terrible and world war. The Americans made movies continuously, from the westerns to Via col Vento, whose beautiful, smiling actors animated the international jet set, inspiring very glamorous fashion and attitudes, while in our country neo-realism told the story of post-war Italy, of the desire to leave the past behind, of the despair and redemption and, in any case, of hope.
But the ancient vestiges and past splendours were those that rekindled in Rome the lights of a “colossal” and vibrant limelight. Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn (1953) and the award-winning Ben Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston, both directed by William Wyler, will relaunch the image and history of an imperial and eternal Rome, once again joyful, enlightened and pleasant to live in.
In 1963, the grand Cleopatra movie took over the cinema scene with the stormy loves, not only on set, between Caesar and Cleopatra, but also in life between Richard Burton and Liz Taylor with great excitement of the world’s tabloids and nightclubs in Via Veneto.
It was the sixties, the years of the economic boom, where everything was easy, the future was bright, impromptu and impetuous love affairs popped up everywhere and along the sidewalks of Via Veneto, like flying alcoves, brand-new American cars, baroque and full of chromium-plated parts were waiting near the most beautiful but streamlined Italian sports cars, those that are now the queens of major international auctions, those of Porfirio Rubirosa and Baby Pignatari, those of Sandro Pallavicini and Roberto Rossellini. With dozens of paparazzi trying to pursue scandals, veiled nudity, disputes and smiles. Legendary Rino Barillari’s quote, the true king of the paparazzi, is still famous: when he addressed Rock Hudson to make him smile, rather than greet him with the usual “cheese!” he came up with this, in genuine Roman dialect: ” ‘a Rocco dicce formaggio !” [Hey, Rocco, say cheese!].
But the best moment, for car enthusiasts like me, was when I saw Baron Franchetti parking his 1392 Alfa Romeo 6C in front of the Café de Paris, now closed … for mafia reasons. With him was his beautiful cousin Afdera (future wife of Henry Fonda) and Silvana Mangano. They were the true movie directors not so much of the noisy and carefree “Dolce Vita”, but of real life, that of the most exclusive palaces and lounges, not only in Rome but in every corner of the world where it was possible to meet the most famous politicians and the most elegant prelates.
From the elegance and charm – now disappeared – of the fashionable Via Veneto to the hunting area of Ponte Milvio. Yes, because a few hundred metres from the historical bridge there were the Titanus buildings and studios owned by Gustavo Lombardo. In via della Farnesina, at the foot of Monte Mario (Rocco and His Brothers; the Leopard; Bread, Love and Dreams; Poor But Beautiful). And right on the square, on the side where today one can find a news-stand and a fresh fruit stand (dar Pistola, er cocommeraro), stood until a decade ago the legendary Trattoria Biagini. In front of it, one could see always beautiful cars and especially a couple of old Alfa Romeo cars driven by rich and brilliant gentlemen. The owner of the venue was a charming woman who was said to have love affairs and friendships of every kind of which no one could say a word, while and her brother was a friendly and loud guy. Their tagliolini with cheese and pepper were amazing and famous, but even more famous were the many movie extras and actresses who visited the square, hungry not just for glory but also for a nice dish of pasta and maybe more, all nicely offered by our courting gentlemen hunting no longer in Africa and Dankalia with Ernest Hemingway, but right here at home!
Among them stood out Giorgio Franchetti and Francesco Santovetti who in 1962 had already founded the Italian Alfa Romeo Register in Rome, another legend born out of the passion, culture and enthusiasm of the “bel paese”, passion also destined, almost sixty years later, to fade in the everyday dullness and to blend into the multinational decadence of the times. A life that today is no longer sweet, but just noisy, among waste of all kinds abandoned everywhere, young people with dull eyes and torn trousers, faces illuminated by the glow of their mobile phones, friends on the Internet and unaware of the history and culture that crossed that square and that bridge …. since the time of the Emperor Constantine.
It was Baron Franchetti who made it clear to the many people who came before us that the “old” cars, all of them, not just the most famous ones, had the right to be preserved and respected as witnesses and ambassadors of a bygone age, of industrious creativity and human talent. I remember one of his strong reprimand to the young sons of his Rome friends who “fooled around” with other students on a 1920s Fiat 501. This is also the reason why many cars were saved from abandonment, from the negligence and the numerous scrap dealers that thrived on the suburbs of the city. Actually, he was able, by tipping generously, to turn them into his informants when an interesting car wreck was found. And in those years, even the desire to meet and get to know other Italian and foreign fans was born. The first Rome-based gatherings took place under the shade of the centuries-old trees of Villa Glori, below the Parioli district, in the open space with the stele that still remembers the sacrifice of the Cairoli brothers for the liberation of Rome in 1867. Then came the trips to the Castles with unforgettable lunches at the legendary Vecchio Fico, located just before Grottaferrata, to gradually reach ….. England. In 1962, in the midst of the economic boom and changing the idea and name from our English friends, the Riar (Registro Italiano Alfa Romeo) was founded with its headquarters in Villino delle Fate, a romantic and extravagant building designed by Gino Coppedè, in Via Brenta 7, the former home of tenor Beniamino Gigli. The playful and convivial headquarters could only be the Circolo Canottieri Aniene sul Tevere [Aniene Rowing Club on the Tiber], where major motor-sport and social decisions were made… with the amateur art always being an element that accompanied the journey of many passions, first of all that of automobiles. Here, there would be room for a full book all about useless, spicy, sentimental, adventurous and even comic memories with the quiet rumbling of old engines in the background ….
But this is a Rome that has vanished: the Rome of our days is dirty and decadent, with its vulgar noisiness and the indifferent traffic, with shabby and hurried tourists along streets full of potholes where the memories of a past not far but very different fall and disappear….
The images used in this article are for illustrative purposes and belong to their respective owners.