I moved to Tor Marancia, a district in the south of Rome, in 2015. The run-down neighborhood was undergoing something of a re-birth, shaking off the “no go” reputation that had plagued it up until a few years prior.
On my way to work one morning, a striking mural, 12 meters high and covering the entire front of a building in Tor Marancia, caught my attention. This piece of art, in such an unexpected location, had transformed part of what was previously just a dilapidated social housing project.
For me, the appearance of this artwork instantly changed the neighborhood. This was no longer a forgotten, decrepit part of the city, a place to be avoided and feared. The mural showed Tor Marancia to be a place of artistic endeavour and cultural interest.
Over the next two months, more murals appeared – 22 in total, each one between 12 meters and 15 meters in height. They were the works of some of the world’s most renowned champions of street art and part of the Big City Life exhibition, with each mural being given a title which was indicated on a plaque alongside the artist’s name, the year the mural was made, and the technique used.
Soon, Tor Marancia was its own outdoor art gallery, with the slogan of the Big City Life project being “Change perspective. The street is your new museum”.
The Big City Life initiative has grown from the Ostiense District project, where a trail of art runs through the Ostiense area, connecting the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome with that of San Paolo and transforming what was previously a run-down part of the city.
Both projects are the brainchild of 999Contemporary, a non-profit cultural group dedicated to fostering artistic expression. The organisation has been involved in the development of more than 100 murals to date.
The organisation has now grown from its grassroots origins, being run and funded on somewhat of an ad-hoc basis, to now working with city authorities, bringing street art to many other Roman neighborhoods.
Some of the world’s most respected street artists are working, or have worked in Rome, not least Italian native Blu, named by The Guardian as being in the top 10 of the world’s best street artists. Other champions of street art who’ve based themselves in Rome include France’s Seth, Borondo from Spain, SatOne from Venezuela, and Portugal’s Vhils, to name a few.
The city’s street art landscape has featured in international publications such as The Observer, The Guardian, and the New York Times and in 2016, the Big City Life Museum received an invitation to the Venice Biennale.
The street art that appeared in the Roman district of Tor Marancia has been embraced by the local community, with many getting involved in the project. It has also led to more widespread regeneration such as the planting of flowerbeds, breathing new life into the area.
Ostiense too continues to improve and is now home to a variety of important artistic and academic institutions, not least the Roman headquarters of NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti – Roma), an Italian university that works with MIT in Boston, along with the new university facility of Rome 3, which is run by the former director of the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
At the heart of it all is the Museo Centrale Montemartini, which is the second seat of the Capitoline Museums, a group of art and archaeological museums in Rome. The building sits on what was once the city’s main power plant and houses age-old works of art whose presence provides a vivid contrast to the start sight of turbines and generators.
The museum’s exhibits reflect the lives of people from thousands of years prior, with statues of aristocrats and slaves displayed at human height so that visitors can look them in the eye while observing the disparity between them and the industrial machinery in the background.
The district itself is also home to several music schools, along with recording and graphics studios, mix with new nightclubs and hip restaurants. Rome’s young and beautiful all come to party here and around the Porto Fluviale Occupato, a building once used as a squat and now boasting its own mural, created by Blu and named Rainbow of Faces, reflecting the cultural richness of the neighborhood.
In between Tor Marancia and Ostiense lies Garbatella. Developed in 1920 along similar lines of the creations of British urban developer Ebenezer Howard, this suburb is home to small villas scattered among shared public and private gardens and other spaces. Such is the name it built for itself as a “garden city” that Mahatma Gandhi visited in 1931. Surrounded by Garbatella’s beauty, it’s easy to forget that you are just outside Rome’s historic centre.
I’ve spent years trying to teach students and others how some places and things must really be experienced first-hand in order to be properly understood. However, I question what might be achieved by going to see somewhere like the Pantheon, which gets 8 million visitors a year, and standing there trying to take it in while surrounded by countless other tourists brandishing selfie-sticks and making noise.
What, if anything, can you learn from such an experience? Perhaps it’s better to truly experience Rome by exploring the less visited, less known areas, and discovering the city’s history in a quieter setting without other distractions?
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