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Rome: Pasolini’s “Stupendous and Miserable City”

“What is Rome?”

“It’s a mirror”

Although it is terribly cheesy to say, there is indeed no other place in the world like Rome. Every corner of the city centre is blessed by the union of history and beauty. Palaces, villas, parks and temples reveal a glorious past, graced by breathtaking sunlight and deep blue skies. As if all this weren’t enough, at the very centre of Rome lies the Vatican, another impressive memory of the Eternal City’s past. The majestic building reigns over the lives of Romans, who spend their time between mild winters and fresh aperitivi. The city, however, has known (to put it mildly) interesting times throughout its many millennia. Rome has found itself victim to raids and fires, barbarians invasions and Fascism. We can easily say, “Ne è passata di acqua sotto i ponti di Roma” (Much water has flowed under the bridges of Rome). 

During the 20th century, the economic growth of post-WWII Italy accelerated and the evolution of the Eternal City slowed: Italy changed its gear, but Rome couldn’t keep up. The rapid demographic growth that Italy went through after the war transformed Rome into one of the biggest cities in Europe, but the city didn’t have the infrastructure to support this new population, leading to social tensions and tangible discrepancies. However, this sensual mix of beauty, decadence, nobility, the working class and violence attracted many intellectuals and Rome became the cultural hub of 1950s Italy. La Dolce Vita thrived in the bars and restaurants, Cinecittà became the biggest cinematographic industry in Europe, and many writers tried their fortunes in the Italian capital. People like Alberto Moravia, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Dacia Maraini, Natalia Ginzburg, Paolo Volponi, and Giorgio Bassani are just some of the brilliant minds that succeeded in Rome, writing and publishing beautiful stories set in the Eternal City. 

Among these many artists, though, one managed to understand, eviscerate, and dissect the idiosyncrasies of post-WWII Rome more than any other. His name was Pier Paolo Pasolini. Although he was born in Bologna in 1922 and lived in the Friuli Venezia Giulia until the age of 28, Pasolini arrived in Rome in 1950 when he was almost 30 years old. He found a city that was at the same time devout and pagan, ancient and new, rich and poor–a melting pot of contradictions, diplomacy, religion, but also spontaneity and vigour. These oxymorons bewitched Pasolini, who quickly decided to immerse himself in the soul of the city, learning the Roman dialect and walking relentlessly around the streets of the Italian capital for 25 years. 

During those 25 years, not only did Pier Paolo Pasolini brilliantly portray Rome, but he ultimately became Rome himself, so much that when we think of Rome, we think of Pasolini and vice-versa. Since his arrival on the morning of the 28th of January 1950, he tirelessly wandered the capital city to discover its corners and secrets, finding himself intrigued by the impudent mixture of beauty and profanity, elegance and grime. One such place is the infamous borgate Romane slums, a sort of Italian banlieue (suburban areas filled with vitality and poverty), in which Pasolini himself lived. Soon after his arrival, after a brief stay in the Jewish quarter, he moved to the rapidly growing Monteverde neighbourhood, where he lived from 1954 to 1963. 

Suburban Rome, his first home in the city, is the main character in his works Ragazzi di Vita (1965) and Una Vita Violenta (1959), which portray life on the edge of poverty, misfortune, disenchantment and brutality. Similarly, Rome and its suburbia are the central themes of Pasolini’s cinema in the early 60s. In Accattone (1961), Pasolini wrote and directed the story of a beggar in the Pigneto area. Mamma Roma (1962), is mostly set in the Borgata of Quadraro, while the short movie La Ricotta (1963) is set between Nuova Appia and Appia Antica. His 1966 work Uccellacci e Uccellini (“The Hawks and the Sparrows”) is set around the countryside of Rome; it’s an ironic portrayal of the tension between the city centre and its suburban areas. (If you want to understand more about Pasolini’s art, I curated this playlist of his scores.)

From the eyes of Pasolini, Rome was a home for outsiders, the poor, and the neglected proletariat; these groups were the object of Pasolini’s witty analysis of society and Western civilisation. His books talked about it, his movies showed it, his articles analysed it, and his poems portrayed it. Obsessed with the duality of Rome, Pasolini challenged his readers to ponder the question: “What is Rome?” But he also gave them an answer: it’s a mirror. There are two cities within the one: the bright, celestial capital of Italy and its darker twin, full of lust, sensuality, and brutality. In his words: “Stupenda e misera città / che m’hai insegnato ciò che allegri e feroci / gli uomini imparano bambini, […]  a difendermi, a offendere, ad avere / il mondo davanti agli occhi e non / soltanto in cuore, a capire /  che pochi conoscono le passioni / in cui io sono vissuto.” (1956)

The literary boom of the 50s and early 60s walked hand-in-hand with the poet’s discovery of the city: the more Pasolini explored the Eternal City, the more he met filmmakers from Cinecittà, fellow writers, and promising pupils (he was teaching Italian at the Scuole Medie in Ciampino Borgata). His love for Rome grew with every new interaction and conversation. Pasolini was clearly not one of those stereotypical, reclusive intellectuals whose grumpy personalities keep them away from society. Instead, he was everywhere: living in Monteverde, eating in Trastevere, writing in Cinecittà, walking in Ostia, teaching the new generation of artists in the Borgata of Ciampini, playing football in the Quarticciolo Borgata. He was a quintessentially Roman intellectual, someone who writes what he knows and experiences daily. Cafés and bars were daily meeting spots for friends and writers. Some of these spots have become iconic: the trattoria “Da Meo Patacca” in Trastevere, in which Mamma Roma is set; the now famous Cafè Canova (beautifully portrayed by Fellini in La Dolce Vita), where he met fellow writers and friends; and Cafe Rosati, where he had drinks with opera singers and musicians. In the summer, he would visit the café I Trenini near the train station of Castelli Romani. In winter, he would stroll in the centre, eating at Dal Bolognese, near Piazza del Popolo, or at La Carbonara, in Campo de’ Fiori, or at La Campana, a famous restaurant mentioned by Goethe in his Roman Elegies.

When I travel to Rome, I visit these places and I find myself wondering if Pasolini would like contemporary Rome. Perhaps he would like the new peripheric areas, where the modern proletariat lives. For sure, he would enjoy the polarised, extreme times we are living in, as he was a man full of contradictions: openly homosexual, Christian, and also communist. He would probably hate the cheap tourism of the contemporary world, in which people visit Rome to take a selfie and do not take the time Rome required to understand the true nature of the Italian capital. The city he portrayed through his poems, books and movies was a transitory Rome, a liquid city. What attracted Pasolini to Rome was the transformation Italy was facing in the 1950s. Rome, after all, was a metaphor for a country that was shifting from a peasant nation to an industrialized society. The poetic works of Pasolini narrate the loss of innocence of a country whose peasant values were traded for capitalist values, in which its soul was exchanged for goods. I wonder how different his works would be if he was writing today.