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A nearly invisible city: Rome in Alberto Moravia's 1950s fiction.

What does it mean to be the author of a city? Particularly in the case of Rome, a city that is the emblem of historical and mythical stratification, it is a difficult distinction to earn. Italo Calvino identifies Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana as "il romanzo di Roma scritto da un non-romano" ("the novel of Rome written by a non-Roman," Pinotti 270), whereas Alain Elkann and Dacia Maraini recognize the author of Rome in Alberto Moravia--their close friend and lover, respectively. Elkann, who co-wrote an interview-biography with Moravia himself, declares: "Tu [...] sei lo scrittore di Roma per antonomasia" ("You [...] are the writer of Rome par excellence," 11); Maraini wrote a generous homage to Moravia for the catalogue of a recent exhibit entitled "Moravia e Roma": "La mostra [...] non poteva non avere Roma come tema. Una citta legata alla vita e agli affetti di Moravia, al rapporto--di curiosita amorevole, e nel contempo di critica e insofferenza--di cui testimoniano la sua scrittura e le sue narrazioni" ("The exhibit [...] had to have Rome as its theme, for the city is connected to Moravia's life and his affections. It is a relationship--of loving curiosity and at the same time of criticism and intolerance--to which his writings and narratives testify," 8). Rome is certainly a common denominator in most of Moravia's fiction: he penned more than two hundred literary texts set in that city. The sheer quantity of Moravia's "Roman" production suggests and even encourages his identification as Rome's twentieth-century author; however, the reality of the Rome present in his short stories and novels paints an undeniably more complicated picture. As a city, Rome--a palpable, visual, urban, and architectural entity--seldom appears in Moravia's works.

One cannot deny that Rome is present in these texts, nor that Moravia names it; nevertheless, the author only rarely depicts it. As the writer himself states: "Roma e solo un fondale di teatro" ("Rome is simply a backdrop," Moravia and Elkann 30), a convenient and familiar setting where his psychological, rather than physical, dramas unfold. Moravia constructs Rome through a compilation of topical references, without those detailed or specific descriptions that could potentially detract from the characters' existential struggles with conformity, boredom, and indifference. It is as though Moravia could have replaced Rome with any other city, for he does not express an intimate, emotional connection with the locations he selects for his narratives. The reader constantly encounters a tangible distance between the author and his native city, a sort of manifestation of the themes of alienation or indifference that permeate his works. This feeling, perhaps, relates to the particular circumstances of Moravia's youth. Moravia described the isolation he suffered as a child and the limits of his adolescent experiences as they later marked his literary relationship with Rome:

A nove anni mi ammalai di tubercolosi ossea e stavo quasi sempre in casa [...]. Leggevo molto, sia a Roma che nei sanatori di Cortina d'Ampezzo o di Bressanone, dove i miei genitori mi mandarono per le cure di cui avevo bisogno [...]. Io non potevo andare molto in giro perche ero costretto a far uso di un apparecchio ortopedico.

(Costantini 20)

(When I was nine-years-old, I fell ill with bone tuberculosis and I was almost always at home [...]. I read a lot, both in Rome and in the clinics in Cortina d'Ampezzo and Bressanone, where my parents sent me to be treated [...]. I couldn't walk around much, because I had to use an orthopedic device.)

Moravia's health condition relegated him to a secluded lifestyle, which often prevented him from venturing into Rome's historical center and constrained him to dwell mostly outside the city's walls. This geographical limitation greatly influenced the way he projected, or perhaps failed to project, Rome into his literature.

Simone Casini takes a different perspective when he claims that Moravia could not reproduce Rome in his literature because he was too much a part of it. In "Moravia e Roma: la citta invisibile," Casini observes:

Ma rispetto a Roma, Moravia e troppo "dentro", per poterla distinguere dalla stessa esperienza della vita e del mondo, per avere quella distanza critica e biografica, quel punto di vista esterno, quell'interesse documentario o figurativo che ebbero invece alcuni grandi romani d'adozione come D'Annunzio, Gadda, Pasolini, Fellini.


(In reference to Rome, Moravia is too much "inside" the city to be able to distinguish it from his own experience of life and the world, to have that critical and biographical distance, that external perspective, that documentary or figurative interest that some of the great Romans by adoption instead had--such as D'Annunzio, Gadda, Pasolini, and Fellini.)

Casini persuasively argues that the author's spatial relationship to the city blinded him to its form: Moravia had become so much a part of Rome that he could no longer see beyond his own relationship to it, much less objectively perceive it.

Following his recovery from his childhood illness, Moravia spent most of his adult life in Rome, moving primarily among the bourgeois and literary circles of the city. Roman middle-class culture profoundly influenced his perception of the city: according to Joseph Venturini, for example, Moravia's texts focus primarily on the insides of homes, rather than on exterior spaces, leaving the city's public areas--associated with the lower classes--largely unexplored. Enzo Siciliano confirms this observation, adding that Moravia represents Rome, but he does not describe it (156). Jannottoni and Accrocca likewise state: "Un paesaggio romano, quello di Moravia, ricavato piu dalle azioni dei personaggi, dal loro comportamento, dalla loro noncuranza o indifferenza o cinismo, che dal profilarsi di ambienti e luoghi" ("Moravia's Roman landscapes are derived more from his characters' actions, behavior, carelessness, indifference, or cynicism, than from his outlines of environments and places," 41). Moravia's narrative literature, that is, concentrates less on the places where Romans live than on their lifestyles and actions--or better yet, in the case of Moravia's characters, their inactions.

In order to comprehend Moravia's indifference or inattention to Rome's constructed as well as natural landscapes, one need only look at his so-called Roman literature from the 1950s, a period during which he published three novels--Il conformista (The Conformist, 1951), Il disprezzo (Contempt, 1954), and La ciociara (Two Women, 1957)--along with two sizeable collections of short stories: Racconti romani (Roman Tales, 1954) and Nuovi racconti romani (More Roman Tales, 1959). Scholars often identify these texts as pivotal in the long line of Moravia's representations of existential crises. Silvana Palmieri, for example, links the characters' lack of connection with the world and reality to objects dispersed throughout Moravia's texts (10), whereas Memy Piccinonno views Moravia's existentialism as a literary means of unmasking modern humankind's psychology. Moravia's protagonists, according to Piccinonno, engage in an exercise of self-discovery during which they embark upon a type of "odissea dello spirito" ("odyssey of the spirit," 21). Emilio Cecchi, instead, identifies Moravia's existentialism as an expression of his realism and moralization, which this critic sees as a product of decadent bourgeois society and of modern man (755). Cecchi divides Moravia's literary production into three distinct phases, a division that perhaps worked in 1965; however, Cecchi fails to recognize the definite Gramscian mark that Moravia intentionally left on his 1950s production. Casini recognizes it, claiming to see it first in Moravia's works from the late 1940s, and then declaring its presence and that of "il mito nazionalpopolare che ne informa la narrativa ancora nel decennio seguente fino a La ciociara e ai Racconti romani" ("the national popular myth that informed his narratives still in the following decade, up to Two Women and his Roman Tales," "Introduzione" xliii).

Moravia's postwar literary phase, then, did not simply reflect an evolution of the psychological and ideological issues of his day. It also coincided with important political events, including the city's highly polemical and rapid urban development initiated by The Fanfani Law of February 28, 1949. This piece of legislation initiated dramatic changes in Rome's zoning politics, allowing local members of the Christian Democratic party to open the city's periphery to private as well as public builders; these quickly expanded Rome into a massive, sprawling metropolis. While the legislature enacted this law with the intention of providing economic opportunity for the swarms of unemployed migrant workers who moved to the city after the Second World War, it also hoped to relieve the perpetual housing crisis that had plagued Rome since 1870. Local authorities, however, only loosely enforced the regulations of this law, doing very little to prevent an explosion in illegal building speculation, or abusivismo, which led to the construction of enormous, characterless, and quasi-identical apartment complexes outside the city walls. Moravia's relative abstention from engaging with the issues arising from Rome's irregular development during the 1950s, particularly in comparison to his literary contemporaries such as Carlo Levi or, perhaps most famously, Pier Paolo Pasolini, calls into questions his actual interest in the physical city.

Moravia does make mention of these new areas in his contemporary fiction, but his descriptions lack the vibrancy that might transport the reader into any particular area of Rome. For example, when the protagonist of Il conformista, Marcello Clerici, walks towards the home of his future wife, Giulia, who embodies all the petit-bourgeois values that Moravia's antihero seeks to adopt, the author describes the environment in generic rather than specifically Roman terms. The area where Giulia lives reflects the values of her class and seems to be one of the modern apartment complexes that emerged after the introduction of the Fanfani Law; however, the generality of Moravia's description fails to direct the reader to any particular part of the city:

Tra questi pensieri scese dall'autobus e si avvio per la strada del quartiere impiegatizio, sul marciapiede piantato di oleandri bianchi e rosa. I palazzi degli impiegati di stato, massicci, scalcinati, spalancavano su questo marciapiede i grandi portoni in fondo ai quali si intravvedevano vasti e squallidi cortili. Alternate ai portoni si susseguivano le botteghe modeste che Marcello ormai conosceva bene: il tabaccaio, il panettiere, l'erbivendolo, il macellaio, il droghiere. Era il mezzodi, e, perfino tra quelle fabbriche anonime, si rivelava, per molti segni, la tenue, effimera letizia propria [...].


(With these thoughts in his mind he got off the bus and walked along the street of this quarter where minor officials lived, on a pavement bordered with white and pink oleanders. The great doorways of massive, shabby blocks of flats occupied by government officials opened on to this pavement, and through them one could see vast, dreary courtyards. Alternating with the doorways was a series of modest shops that Marcello knew well--the tobacconist, the baker, the grocer, the butcher, the druggist. It was midday and there were many revealing signs, even in these humble concerns, of the mild and transitory gaiety that comes with the breaking-off of work and the family gatherings [...].)

(Davidson, The Conformist 102-03)

What the reader encounters is a characterless, generic piece of modern Rome, namely, the already decrepit apartment complexes, entered through a large front door, lined at the street-level with typical Italian shops. One could argue that the lack of specificity aids the ideological underpinnings of Moravia's aesthetics in this particular novel: the nonspecific qualities of the environment, that is, contribute to the underlying notion of conformity to which the main character aspires, reminiscent of the fears of "sameness" expressed by Horkheimer and Adorno in "The Culture Industry." In this essay, they offer a bleak and terrifying picture of a Brave New World future for Western civilization. The authors react very strongly against totalitarian ideologies, not just simply within the political sphere, but more specifically in the cultural sphere. In their descriptions of the presence and reach of the culture industry, they describe urban, architectural uniformity as a negative sign of modern humankind's lack of individuality:

The huge gleaming towers that shoot up everywhere are outward signs of the ingenious planning of international concerns [...]. Even now the older houses just outside the concrete city centers look like slums [...]. Yet the city housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary--the absolute power of capitalism [...]. The striking unity [... ] presents men with a model of their culture: the false identity of the general and the particular. Under monopoly all mass culture is identical.


Horkheimer and Adorno recognize the aesthetic and social similarities between political opposites, namely totalitarian regimes and democracies, which they claim advocate wholeness, unity, or conformity. This crisis of conformity, seen in Moravia's fictional Marcello, likewise applies to the spaces and places surrounding the novelistic character. Nevertheless, in this book even Rome's city center--a space traditionally imbued with historical and/or mythical qualities--is vested in toponyms. The urbs, in Il conformista, is stripped of any sort of palpable architectural or physical presence:

Una volta sul Corso, passando per strade traverse e meno frequentate, raggiunse Piazza del Popolo. Di qui si diresse, su per le rampe il Pincio, verso Villa Borghese. Attraversarono il Pincio, buio e popolato di busti di marmo, girarono intorno il cavalcatolo in direzione di Via Veneto.


(Marcello drove the car back through side streets toward the Corso. Once there, he continued to follow the less frequented streets and at last reached the Piazza del Popolo, and from there continued his way up the steep slope of the Pincio towards Villa Borghese. Crossing the Pincio, dark and peopled only by marble busts, they followed the riding-track in the direction of Via Veneto.)

(The Conformist 359)

Marcello and Giulia, now married, cross the city in figurative leaps and bounds, to such an extent that their movements mark disconnected points rather than draw lines across a map. Moravia identifies particular places of historical interest, including the via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo, and the Pincio Hill, as his characters move towards the park, Villa Borghese, and he does so without providing any visual descriptions of any of the places. Readers unfamiliar with Rome do not gain any useful information that could either help them to piece together the city mentally or understand one location's cultural or spatial relationship to another. Each toponym, rather, appears as a function of Moravia's weak attempt to create physical movement, or action, in what he really intended to be a psychological drama.

Il disprezzo, Moravia's second novel to appear during the 1950s, offers the reader little more than Il conformista in terms of interpreting or depicting Rome. The novel traces the crumbling marriage of Riccardo Molteni and his wife Emilia, who resents her husband for placing his professional goals as a screenwriter over herself. The narrative clearly reflects the author's own marital difficulties, because he and his wife Elsa Morante were well known for their frequent and vicious public arguments. Even many of the novel's locations reflect places where Moravia and Morante spent time together, such as Capri--where the two wrote for many months of the year--and a restaurant on the via Appia Antica, where the couple was often witnessed dining. Apart from serving as a literary projection of his personal life, the novel's presentation of the capital's spaces lacks emotional charge and is imbued instead with that alienation typical of Moravia's bourgeois characters, such as is found in Il conformista. Moravia's disinterested descriptions of modern Rome, in fact, reappear in Il disprezzo; in this later novel, however, Moravia dedicates a little more narrative space to the city's new neighborhoods, the presence of which gave rise to major social and cultural debate during the time of the book's composition:

L'appartamento si trovava all'ultimo piano di una casa di costruzione recente, liscia e bianca come se fosse fatta di gesso, situata in una viuzza in leggera discesa. Tutto un lato della strada era occupato da una fila di case simili alla nostra, lungo l'altro correva il muro di cinta del parco di una villa privata, dal quale sporgevano i rami di grandi alberi fronzuti. Era una vista bellissima, come feci osservare ad Emilia, e ci si poteva quasi illudere che quel parco di cui, qua e la, dove gli alberi si diradavano, potevamo intravedere i viali serpeggianti, le fontane e gli spiazzi, non fosse diviso da noi da una strada e da un muro, e noi potessimo scendere a passeggiarci tutte le volte che l'avessimo desiderato.


(The flat was on the top floor of a newly built block, as smooth and white as if it had been all made of plaster, in a narrow, slightly sloping street. The whole of one side of the street was occupied by a row of buildings similar to ours, while along the other side ran the boundary wall of the garden of a private villa, with branches of great leafy trees hanging over it. It was a beautiful view, as I pointed out to Emilia, and we could almost delude ourselves into thinking that this garden, in which we could catch glimpses of winding paths and fountains and open spaces, was not cut off from us by a street and a wall, and that we could go down and walk about in it as often as we liked.)

(Contempt 25-26)

The narrator presents Riccardo and Emilia's new residential neighborhood with its surrounding greenery as beautiful, an area that fits nicely with Riccardo's typical middle-class aspirations of owning a home, having a family, and obtaining a good job; yet, just as in Il conformista, there are no identifying markers to pinpoint the apartment's precise location or to differentiate this neighborhood from any other section of Rome. With this depiction, however, Moravia seems to have accepted, at least temporarily, modern Rome's architectural aesthetics; conversely, many of his politically engaged contemporaries did not.

In fact, most authors, intellectuals, and journalists of Moravia's time systematically rejected the appearance of massive, rationalist structures along Rome's periphery during the 1950s. What they deemed as the negative visual effects that the periphery's expansion was having on Rome's urban fabric became a major source of sociopolitical as well as cultural debate. By 1956, journalists adopted the issue as a major theme of their polemical investigations and editorials almost on a daily basis. One piece printed in Il Messaggero decried the disruptive aesthetics of Rome's new periphery, expressing Roman residents' "Voglia di verde" ("Desire for Green"):

La speculazione ha travolto quanto di verde esisteva ancora nella nostra citta [...]. I villini si trasformano in quelle costruzioni che gli urbanisti moderni chiamano palazzine. E cosi Monte Sacro [...] e cosi altre zone di quiete [...] si stanno trasformando anch'essi in zone intensive, in giungle di cemento armato.

(Lambiase 146)

(Housing speculation has swept away the green that was still left in our city [...]. Single-family homes are turning into those constructions that modern urbanists call low-rises. In this manner, Monte Sacro [...] and other such tranquil areas [...] are also turning into overcrowded areas, into jungles of reinforced concrete.)

The "garden city" type of urbanism, attempted during the early Fascist era and exemplified by neighborhoods such as Monte Sacro and Garbatella, was by the mid-1950s giving way to the chaos of the housing boom characterized by six- to ten-story-high apartment complexes, erected without much concern for their relationship to other extant structures or for the natural environment. (1) This sudden and unchecked change in construction politics overpowered any serious attempt at organized planning and led to unbridled urban development, which contemporaries proclaimed as a modern "Sack of Rome." Italy's capital was becoming an entanglement of concrete and brick structures even as parks and the Agro Romano (geographically speaking, the vast countryside surrounding Rome) were quickly disappearing.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, a political journalist as well as a novelist and poet, had already expressed concern for the situation in a 1950 article titled, "Scompare la selvaggina nella campagna romana" ("The Disappearing Wild Game of Rome"). In it, the writer laments the dying migratory species that once populated Rome's surrounding countryside due to "le bonifiche, il progresso agricolo e civile, e il deprecato disboscamento" ("land reclamation, agricultural development, deforestation, and the advancement of populated areas" 93; Harss 130). Paul Ginsborg later contextualizes the notion of "sack"--a semantically charged historical expression for Rome's demythification and destruction, by noting: "Throughout the great building boom of 1953-63, there was often open collusion between the municipal authorities and the building speculators. The 'sack' of Rome, as it came to be called, was dramatic testimony to this" (247). The historian subsequently cites the title of a 1956 article in L'Espresso, "Capitale corrotta: nazione infetta" ("Corrupt Capital: Infected Nation"), which had became the rallying cry for a journalistic inquest into the governmental corruption underpinning the capital city's development. (2) It is thus clear that by the mid-1950s, a period in which Alberto Moravia published his Racconti romani and avidly composed his Nuovi racconti romani, as well as his novel La ciociara, the rapid evolution of Rome's periphery was exerting a heavy influence on those writers personally invested in Rome.

We see this interest emerge most vividly in Moravia's short stories, for the most part printed in the Corriere della sera and later collected and republished in Racconti romani and Nuovi racconti romani. These stories take place in various corners of Rome, from the borgate to the Lungotevere, and focus primarily on the capital's working-class citizens. Jonathan Boardman, in Rome: A Cultural History, notes:

In Alberto Moravia's short stories, characters have the ability to change their lives by changing the district in which they live, usually from one right across town, say from Prima Porta to Re di Roma (far north to southeast). This sort of shift implies a complete change in fortune, from miserable penury to comfortable employment, or vice versa, and from free and easy youth to responsible middle age.


It is unclear whether Boardman believes that Moravia's characters experience social mobility--which they do not--or whether he refers to the limited array of social classes portrayed in these texts, in which neighborhoods reflect social standing. Whatever the case, the toponyms that Moravia provides help the reader familiar with Rome to develop expectations regarding the economic well-being and social stature of his characters. To address every area of Rome and every type of person that appear in the Racconti would require a book-length study; however, an in-depth analysis of one of his most illustrative stories shows that Moravia reserved his best 1950s descriptions of Rome for his shorter fiction.

Several critics, including Casini and Onofri, associate these works with Moravia's brief romance with Marxism, during which time he attempted to generate a Gramscian national popular literature. (3) Evidence for this underlying interest emerges as one examines the industrial sections of Rome represented in several of his stories. "Scherzi del caldo" ("Hot Weather Jokes"), for example, contains a lengthy passage on the capital's major industrial area, Ostiense, which likewise appears in other major postwar productions with Marxist leanings, including Vittorio De Sica's Sciuscia (Shoe-Shine, 1948), Luchino Visconti's Bellissima (1951), and Pier Paolo Pasolini's novels Ragazzi di vita (The Ragazzi, 1955) and Una vita violenta (A Violent Life, 1959). In "Scherzi del caldo," Moravia writes from the perspective of his working-class protagonist, Ernesto Rapelli, who notes the built structures that give Rome some of the features typical of a Northern Italian manufacturing town:

Abitiamo sulla via Ostiense [...]. Me ne andai al ponte di ferro [...]. Giunto al ponte, mi appoggiai alla spalletta di ferro imbullonato: scottava [...]. Il gasometro che sembra uno scheletro rimasto da un incendio, gli altiforni delle officine del gas, le torri dei silos, le tubature dei serbatoi di petrolio, i tetti aguzzi della centrale termoelettrica chiudevano l'orizzonte cosi da far pensare di non essere a Roma ma in qualche citta industriale del Nord.


(We live in the Via Ostiense. I crossed the street and walked along, automatically, to the iron bridge [...]. When I reached the bridge, I leant against the nail-studded iron parapet; it was scorching [...]. The gasometer, looking like the skeleton of a building after a fire, the furnaces of the gasworks, the silo towers, the pipes of the petrol tanks, and the pointed roofs of the electric power station blocked the horizon, in such a way as to make you think you were not in Rome but in some industrial town in the North.)

(Roman Tales 33-34)

The protagonist's fixation is on the city's gas and electric generator, the Gazometro, otherwise known as the Permolio. It stands alongside the Tiber River and became the symbol of working-class Rome during the postwar period. Its presence in Moravia's story underscores the author's effort to place his writings into the highly ideological literature of his day. In fact, several of his other Racconti romani, and even Nuovi racconti romani, depict the structures composing various sections of the city's minor industrial zones. None of these other short stories, however, provides as rounded a portrayal of Ostiense--Rome's major industrial center, in terms of the neighborhood's material and architectural makeup--as much as "Scherzi del caldo."

Taking into account the exemplarity of the selected excerpt, it should be clear how limited Moravia's abilities were when it came to recreating Rome on the written page. The author, in this same story, explores the most decrepit urbanistic forms: the hovels dotting the capital's periphery, which multiplied during Rome's great expansion. The reader follows the protagonist, Ernesto, as he wanders between his home on the via Ostiense and the surrounding countryside, on a day so hot that he hallucinates. Despite Moravia's shift between reality and the fantastic (when Ernesto discovers a shack, he sees it as an "urban mirage"), the tale provides one of the most detailed descriptions of Rome's physical environment in Moravia's entire 1950s oeuvre. The author accentuates the periphery's ambiguously urban and rural nature, while calling attention to its secondary function as a dumping ground: (4)

Camminai [...] tra campi brulli sparsi di mondezze; poi la strada divento un viottolo terroso e le mondezze diventarono mucchi alti, quasi collinette [...] non si vedeva un filo d'erba, ma soltanto cartacce, scatolame rugginoso, torsoli, detriti, in una luce che accecava.


(At first I walked along a road [.] then this road turned into an earthy lane and the rubbish grew into high heaps like little hills [...]: there was not a blade of grass to be seen, nothing but dirty bits of paper, rusty tins, cabbage-stalks and other debris, in a blinding light and with an acid stink of decayed matter.)

(Roman Tales 34)

Ernesto continues his walk, whereupon he finds a tiny tilting hovel, which he had never before noticed. A young girl approaches him, asking if he is the doctor her mother needs, and he follows her into the shack, unable to explain that he cannot help. He enters the structure, observing its squalor:

Dapprima mi sembro di essere entrato in un negozio di rigattiere, a Campo di Fiori. Tutto pendeva dal soffitto: vestiti, calze, utensili, stoviglie, stracci. Poi capii che era la roba loro, appesa a chiodi in mancanza di mobili.


(At first I felt I must have come into a second-hand clothes dealer's shop in Campo di Fiori. Everything was hanging from the ceiling--clothes, stockings, shoes, household utensils and pots and pans and rags. Then I realized that it was their own stuff, hung up on nails.)

(Roman Tales 35)

Moravia uses a simile likening the inside of the shack to a store in the Campo de' Fiori market, before Ernesto returns to his own modest, yet considerably more civilized home in Ostiense.

The fact that Moravia composed few extensive depictions of Rome does not mean that he had no opinion of his hometown. On many occasions, the author passes judgments on Rome that reflect the disenchanted views more famously expressed by his highly polemical close friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini. (5) In an interview with Costanzo Costantini, Moravia declares:

Io ho sempre sostenuto, e continuo a sostenere, che Roma e una citta parassitaria perche prende e non da, perche non e una citta spirituale. Roma e la citta meno spirituale del mondo. Roma e come l'Olympia di Manet: una grande cortigiana pigra, inerte, impassibile.


(I have always argued, and I will continue to argue, that Rome is a parasite city, because it takes and it does not give, because it's not a spiritual city. Rome is the least spiritual city in the world. Rome is like Manet's Olympia: a large, lazy, inert and impassive courtesan.)

Despite his fervent ideological opposition to Fascism, the author's words strangely resonate with Benito Mussolini's own youthful disdain for Rome. The Duce proclaimed in 1910:

Roma, citta parassitaria di affittacamere, di lustrascarpe, di prostitute, di preti e burocrati, Roma [.] non e il centro della vita politica nazionale, ma [.] il centro e il focolare d'infezione della vita politica nazionale [...]. Basta, dunque, con lo stupido pregiudizio unitario per cui tutto, tutto, dev'essere concentrato a Roma--in questa enorme citta vampiro che succhia il miglior sangue della nazione.


(Rome, a parasite city of landlords, shoe shiners, prostitutes, priests, and bureaucrats, Rome [...] is not the center of our national political life, but [.] rather the infected center and hearth of our national political life [...]. Enough with the stupid supposition, based on a desire for unification, that everything, everything must be concentrated in Rome--in this enormous vampire city that sucks out the best blood of our nation.)

The future dictator had published his thoughts in an article entitled, "Contro Roma"--the same designation given by Moravia to his own 1970s book project in which he and several other prominent authors of that time denigrate Rome. The correlation between the two texts, given that Moravia always insisted that he was anti-Fascist, is startling and puts into question the degree to which Moravia's ideas about Rome actually countered those long held by Italian conservatives.

Moravia's and Mussolini's individual oppositions to Rome both seem to stem from similar, fundamental ideas about Rome's past and its present, most importantly, the clash of the city's mythical identity with its reality, and the emerging modernity that was challenging the city's myth. Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has addressed the tension underlying Mussolini's vision for Fascism, which by extension applied to his ambition to create a Third Rome. In Fascist Modernities, Ben-Ghiat persuasively argues that Mussolini viewed modernity as a conflict between "the push toward progress and the fear of degeneration, the demand for emancipation and the impulse to preserve order, the frisson of impermanence and the desire for stable identities" (8). These tensions, furthermore, informed Mussolini's goal to generate a sense of Italian identity, based on the conviction--shared with the Futurists and other intellectuals writing for La Voce--that Italy was supposed to assume a leading role in contemporary world affairs and become the center of a new modern civilization. As a political leader, Mussolini took a strong position in order to incite the renewal of Italy's capital city. Moravia, as a politically engaged writer, developed an increasingly complicated relationship with Rome, as the city underwent major architectural and urbanistic changes during the postwar period.

In his 1956 introduction to an Italian edition of Stendhal's Promenades dans Rome, Moravia notes the disappearance of Stendhal's city and its replacement with the multi-story structures characteristic of the modern Italian capital (250). He attributes the changes first to the Fascists and, then to the Christian Democrats, whom he blames for irreparably altering the city's urban landscape. Moravia's Contro Roma, conversely, composed sixty-five years after Mussolini's piece by the same title, presents the author's personal albeit mild diatribe against the condition of the city. Moravia, like the young Mussolini, refused to extend to Rome an offer to sit in the pantheon of modern European cities:

Roma non era, insomma, una capitale moderna nel senso che si da alla parola in Europa. Era, senza dubbio, una citta unica nel suo genere; ma ripeto, non una capitale. Nel dopoguerra si ebbe l'illusione che potesse diventarlo, se non altro perche le capitali si formano intorno al nucleo di un'esperienza di fondo e quest'esperienza, per la prima volta dopo l'Unita d'Italia, c'era stata ed era stata l'esperienza del fascismo e della guerra. Ora tutto il problema di Roma non esiste se non teniamo conto del fatto che gli Italiani pensano che Roma dovrebbe essere una capitale e che Roma invece non lo e ne sembra avviata a diventarlo nel futuro.


(Rome was not really a modern capital in the European sense of the word. It was, without a doubt, the only city of its kind; but I repeat, it was not a capital. During the postwar period it was believed that it could become one, if for no other reason than that capitals are formed around the nucleus of a common experience and this experience, for the first time since Italy's unification, was created by Fascism and the war. Now the whole problem of Rome rests in the fact that Italians believe that Rome should be a capital; but it isn't, nor does it seem on its way to become one in the future.)

Moravia seems to have hoped that Rome, by the mid-1970s, would have relented in its modernizing processes and accepted its distinctiveness among world cities, as one that ironically lives better in its past that in its present. He, in fact, blames the monarch--along with the Fascists and the postwar Christian Democratic Party--for complicating and confusing Rome's identity. Moravia furthermore expresses nostalgia for Rome's former mythical image, recognizing the periods of unbridled building expansion as the culprit of Rome's aesthetic undoing. (6)

When asked by Costantini, "Come'era la Roma degli anni di guerra e del dopoguerra" ("How was Rome during and immediately after the war")? Moravia responded: "Posso tuttavia dire che, nonostante il fascismo, Roma era ancora una citta bellissima. Non c'erano ancora quartieri costruiti dalle giunte democristiane. L'orrore e cominciato con le giunte democristiane e con le speculazioni edilizie" ("I can say that, despite Fascism, Rome was still a beautiful city. The neighborhoods built under the Christian Democratic city councils did not yet exist. The horror began with those city councils and with the building speculation," 21). Once the unbridled city expansion began along and within Rome's outskirts during the postwar period, propagating the already massive Fascist-era conglomerations known as the borgate, Moravia's sentiments started to echo those of his literary and cinematic contemporaries, including Luigi Zampa in L'onorevole Angelina (Angelina: Member of Parliament, 1947), Carlo Levi in L'orologio (The Watch, 1950), Federico Fellini in Il bidone (The Swindle, 1956), Vittorio De Sica in Il tetto (The Roof, 1956), and, perhaps most famously, Pier Paolo Pasolini in his numerous 1950s and early 1960s production. As Moravia opines, "Roma e andata sempre in rovina, e la citta per eccellenza delle rovine. Alle rovine antiche si sono aggiunte quelle moderne, in specie quelle democristiane, ma e rimasta tuttavia una citta molto viva" ("Rome has always gone into ruin. It is the city of ruins par excellence. To the ancient ruins we have added the modern ones, especially the Christian Democratic ones, but it has always been a very lively city," qtd. in Costantini 21). Moravia recognizes the debasing elements of the capital's modernization, grouping all of Rome's ruins, both ancient and modern, into a single cultural construct.

Clearly, then, Moravia's disillusionment with Rome's ruinous modern progress largely stems from his belief in the existence of the Eternal City's mythical past. He unequivocally states that Rome is a unique city, a point which one cannot discount given the extent to which its structures are steeped in history, legend, and myth; however, in Moravia's opinion, Italy's capital lacks the fundamental elements needed to place it on par with other major European centers:

Ma cos'e una capitale, insomma? Questo e il punto che vorrei chiarire se non altro per spiegarmi perche oggi mi sento cosi profondamente deluso di fronte alla Roma attuale. Una capitale, dunque, tra le tante cose, e o dovrebbe essere un modello per l'intera nazione. Cioe il centro di trasformazione in cui le energie grezze ma vitali della provincia vengono, appunto, trasformate da una potente e sofisticata macchina sociale in modi di comportamento esemplari. In una capitale tutto cio che e particolare diventa universale, tutto cio che e inconscio consapevole, tutto cio che e rozzo, raffinato.

(Contro Roma 9)

(What really constitutes a capital? This is the point that I would like to clarify, if only to explain to myself why I feel so deeply disappointed with today's Rome. A capital, then, among many things, is or should be a model for an entire nation, meaning a center for transformation in which raw but vital energy from the countryside is transformed by a powerful and sophisticated social machine into exemplary behaviors. In a capital, everything that is particular becomes universal; everything that is unconscious, conscious; everything that is rough, refined.)

By 1975, the Rome Moravia increasingly encountered on a daily basis no longer had what he believed to be the moral as well as the ideological strength to serve as a model for the rest of the country. The author asserts that the "particular should become universal" in a capital city. Such an entity should serve as an example, an urban archetype, or perhaps nothing short of a modern myth, because every other place culturally connects to it.

This idea correlates with Friedrich Nietzsche's contention, in The Uses and Abuses of History, that, "if we really wish to learn something from an example [...], if it is to give us strength, many of the differences must be neglected, the individuality of the past forced into a general formula and all the sharp angles broken off for the sake of correspondence" (22). Moravia desired modern Rome to be greater than it actually was, a paradigm rather than a parasite; nevertheless, he could not ignore the city's defects, nor did modern Rome fortify him. If one reads the novelist's above-cited assertion through a Nietzschian lens, it becomes clear that Moravia was too aware of the real Rome to expect the actualization of his fictionalized vision. His was a false hope, one that he had harbored two decades earlier while he composed his third 1950s novel, La ciociara--a book in which Rome appears as an existential construct rather than a reality.

La ciociara, a story that begins and ends in Rome but that mostly unfolds in the mountains to the south of the city, is typical of Moravia's self-described existential style. The author concentrates primarily on the psychology constraining or inciting the decisions and behavior of his female protagonist, Cesira, as they relate to the novel's historical moment and atmosphere, while generally ignoring the spaces and places surrounding her. The Rome that does reach La ciociara's pages is both limited and largely debased. The city is an idea that materializes and then dematerializes as the myth of Rome. Cesira, the novel's heroine, continually inquires about or refers to Rome throughout her wartime exile from the city. Like many other Romans in 1943-44, she believed that no one, including the Nazis and Allies, would dare to invade or bomb their city, because Mussolini held it so dear and "a Roma c'e il Papa" ("because the pope's here," 1132; Two Women 8). This belief, so integral to Roman identity throughout the Second World War, and in particular during the German occupation, evokes the ironic title of Roberto Rossellini's cinematic masterpiece, Roma citta aperta (1945). Neither the Pope nor Mussolini managed to protect Rome's citizens from Nazi martial rule, which led to the deportation of over two thousand Jews (7) and thousands of borgatari (the residents of Rome's borgate), (8) as well as to the massacre of hundreds of Resistance fighters at the Ardeatine Caves. (9) Roma citta aperta closes with an optimistic image of children, marching towards St. Peter's Basilica. This famous scene encapsulates the hope present in postwar Italian cinema, which Moravia adopts and slightly reinterprets in his novel La ciociara.

Moravia integrates Rome's tallest architectural structure as a way of reflecting on past hopes as well as on present devastation. Cesira contemplates the dome of St. Peter's significance as she and her daughter Rosetta re-enter the city at the novel's end as changed women, after having lived nearly a year as refugees:

Quella cupola, per me, non era soltanto Roma ma la mia vita di Roma, la serenita dei giorni che si vivono in pace con se stessi e con gli altri. LaggiU in fondo all'orizzonte, quella cupola mi diceva che io potevo ormai tornare fiduciosa a casa e la vecchia vita avrebbe ripreso il suo corso, pur dopo tanti cambiamenti e tante tragedie.


(That dome, for me, was not merely Rome, it was my life in Rome, the serenity of days lived at peace with oneself and with others. Far away on the horizon, that dome was saying to me that I could now return home confidently and that, even after so many changes and tragedies, the old life would take up its course again.)

(Two Women 331)

Rome, Cesira's home and thus her place of return and comfort, represents the solution to the months she and her daughter spent hiding in exile. She yearns for a literal return to normalcy that will mollify the ruinous psychological effects of her once-virginal daughter's rape by a gang of Moroccan soldiers. Rosetta's rape almost immediately alters the formerly angelic teenager's state of mind, as she transforms from an obedient child into a stubborn prostitute who rejects her mother's consolation and protection. Cesira cannot fathom the mental trauma afflicting her daughter and desperately seeks to intervene in her daughter's precipitation into a life of easy and meaningless sexual encounters. Once a saint, Rosetta becomes the sinner, and Moravia manipulates her transformation as a social metaphor for two acts of violence: rape and war.

La ciociara, like Moravia's two preceding novels Il disprezzo and Il conformista, divides its narrative structure not only between events (or actions) and a metaphorical psychosocial commentary, but also between Rome and one other major location. It is curious, and certainly noteworthy, that an author deemed to be intimately connected to twentieth-century Rome actually extended large portions of each text beyond the geographical confines of his preferred literary city. In Il conformista, the Fascist government sends Marcello on an expedition to Paris to assassinate his former mentor, Professor Quadri, whom it has deemed a dangerous subversive. Marcello travels to the French capital to infiltrate Quadri's circle while working with another Fascist agent, Gabrio, who has twice visited Paris. According to this colleague, "una volta che si e stati a Parigi anche Roma sembra una borgata" ("Once you've been in Paris even Rome seems like a village," 184; The Conformist 207)--perhaps an accurate description given the rapid, contemporary growth of those neighborhoods along Rome's periphery, the borgate. In Il disprezzo, Molteni, at his producer's urging, takes his wife on vacation to Capri while he works on his cinematic adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. The island has the feel of "un luogo dove un uomo [...] si sente diventare un poco poeta" ("a place where [...] a man [...] feels himself becoming a bit of a poet," 900; Contempt 81), yet it is also the place where Molteni's marriage ultimately unravels. La ciociara, likewise, shifts from Rome to the Ciociaria region south of Rome, where Cesira and her daughter Rosetta spend nine months in exile during the war. The majority of the novel unfolds in the Ciociaria's mountainside, and ultimately calls into question how much one can call the book Roman.

Those who assert that Rome is an undeniable presence in Moravia's oeuvre fail to recognize that the capital, as a physical and architectural embodiment of space, is in reality practically invisible. Moravia inserts Rome into his literature primarily as a referential toponym, and as he admits in an interview with Enzo Siciliano, "avrei potuto parlare ugualmente di New York, di Londra, di Parigi, se mi fossi limitato al paesaggio" ("I could have just as easily spoken about New York, London, or Paris, if I were limiting myself to landscape," 157). Moravia never adopted the Eternal City as one of his protagonists, preferring to relegate the tensions of action and inaction to his human characters. Particularly in his 1950s literature, the Italian capital functions as a leit-motif, serving as a solid point of reference from which this author could explore modern humankind's battles with alienation and malaise. Moravia's Rome, in its blandness and sameness, reflects the accompanying feelings of indifference and boredom often suffered by his protagonists. The author intended their existential crises, often associated with the decadence of the middle class, to extend beyond the confines of his birth city, and as a result, his vision of Rome projects very little local color. Even his brief 1950s flirtation with Rome's working-class in his Racconti and La ciociara lacks the linguistic and imagistic mimesis needed to transport his readers into the lives and places he names. Moravia's texts, instead, resonate on a more national, and arguably, universal level as he shapes his plots to express psychological or internal, rather than material or external, dramas. Although readers like Casini, Siciliano, Maraini, and Elkann are right in acknowledging Moravia's extensive and complicated relationship with Rome, it is perhaps wise to recognize him simply as one of the city's major literary protagonists of the last century, rather than nominate him as the city's author.

Elon University

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(1) Insolera delineates the initial plans for Monte Sacro and Garbatella, noting, "Il quartiere di Monte Sacro fu costruito a partire dal 1920 dal 'Consorzio citta giardino' [...] cui si deve il carattere romantico della rete viaria e delle architetture [...]. Doveva essere una 'garden city' destinata al ceto medio, disposta su una duplice altura al di la dell'Aniene" ("Construction on the Monte Sacro neighborhood began in 1920 under the auspices of the Garden-City Consortium [...] to which the Romantic character of the network of streets and architecture is owed [...]. It was supposed to be a 'garden city' designated for the middle class, established on high ground beyond the Aniene River" 108). But, he continues, "oggi i villini sono quasi tutti scomparsi, sostituiti da palazzine che hanno riempito anche l'area dei giardini originali cambiando completamente l'aspetto di Monte Sacro: la struttura viaria. I servizi sono rimasti invece quelli dimensionati quarant'anni fa per cinquecento villini, cioe all'incirca tremila appartamenti. Oggi ci sono almeno altrettante palazzine con piu di seimila appartamenti" ("Today the single-family homes are almost complete gone, replaced by low-rises, which have even filled the area of the original gardens, completely changing Monte Sacro's appearance: even the road structure. The utilities have remained the same as those from forty years ago, sufficient for only five hundred houses, or the equivalent of three thousand apartments. Today there are roughly as many apartment buildings with more than six thousand units" 109). These historical accounts substantiate both the journalist claims and the literary representations, such as Moravia's, that appeared during the 1950s. The staggering increase in population stretched the planned infrastructure for Monte Sacro, debasing it to the level of the borgate surrounding it. Garbatella, on the other hand, which the architects Giovannoni and Piacentini initially projected as the southern counterpart of Monte Sacro, quickly succumbed to housing speculation in the early 1920s. The garden city, thus, never managed to grab a foothold in Rome's modern urban development.

(2) Several sources quote the impact of this 1956 article, attesting to its importance in city politics (Ginsborg 247, Insolera 207, Lambiase et al. 148). Cederna, an active journalist during the 1950s, likewise composed a pamphlet for the Radical Party entitled I Vandali a Roma, which decried environmental destruction in the city.

(3) Onofri writes in his analysis of Moravia's Il conformista and other 1950s texts: "Che c'era poi [...] il suo tentativo--forse obbligato per un intellettuale di sinistra--di rispondere ad una delle principali questioni all'ordine del giorno, almeno dopo la pubblicazione dei Quaderni del carcere (1948-50) di Antonio Gramsci: quella del nazionalpopolare" ("That there was then [...] his attempt--perhaps obligatory for a leftwing intellectual--to respond to one of the primary issues of his day, at least after the publication of Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks (1948-50): that of National Popular Culture," 72). For additional information, consult Siciliano's or Ceccatty's biographies of Moravia.

(4) Insolera likewise notes the debasement of residential areas in Rome's early borgate as trash dumps, for the former city dwellers unaccustomed to country life, would immediately transform their gardens into "mucchi di immondizie e sambuchi" ("trash heaps and elderberry bushes," 137).

(5) For a detailed investigation of Pasolini's intense and changing feelings about Rome, one would have to read a large portion of his literary production from 1950 until his death in 1975. One newspaper article, "Il fronte della citta" ("The City's True Face"), however, perhaps best approximates his contradictory impressions of Rome: "Cos'e Roma? Qual e Roma? Dove finisce e dove comincia Roma? Roma sicuramente e la piU bella citta d'Italia--se non del mondo. Ma e anche la piU brutta, la piU accogliente, la piU drammatica, la piU ricca, la piU miserabile [...]. Le contraddizioni di Roma sono difficili da superarsi perche sono contraddizioni di genere esistenziale: piU che termini di una contraddizione, la ricchezza e la miseria, la felicita e l'orrore di Roma, son parti di un magma, di un caos" ("What is Rome? Where is the real Rome? Where does it begin and where does it end? Rome is surely the most beautiful city in Italy, if not the world. But it is also the ugliest, the most welcoming, the most dramatic, the richest, the most wretched [...]. The contradictions of Rome are difficult to transcend because they are contradictions of an existential order. Rather than traditional contradictions, between wealth and misery, happiness and horror, they are part of a magma, a chaos," 119; Stories from the City of God 165).

(6) Moravia rarely sympathized with the Christian Democratic government, which he considered to be as much of a totalitarian regime as Fascism was. The actions that the party took on Rome's development throughout the postwar period symbolize, in his opinion, the same initiative ideologized under Mussolini. In Vita di Moravia, he states: "Invece con il regime democristiano al potere nessuno poteva prendere il suo posto e oltretutto la democrazia cristiana mostrava chiaramente che non voleva che nessuno ci riuscisse. Cosi ebbe inizio, come ho detto, un regime che in fondo non era molto diverso, secondo me, dal regime fascista. Il fascismo era stato un regime totalitario, adesso c'era un regime parlamentare, pero l'inamovibilita dei democristiani trasformava questo governo in regime" ("When the Christian Democrats came to power, on the other hand, no one could push them out. Moreover, the Christian Democrats made it clear that they did not want anyone to succeed. It was in this way, as I've said, that a new regime was born. In my opinion, it was really no different from the Fascist regime. Fascism was a totalitarian regime; then there was a parliamentary regime; however, it was the Christian Democrats' irremovability that transformed this government into a regime," 169).

(7) For a full description of Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews in Rome, see De Felice and Picciotto Fargion.

(8) Within the last five years, two monographs have emerged that recount the partisan struggle against the Nazis on April 17, 1944 in the borgata Quadraro, including De Cesaris and Sirleto.

(9) As Ginsborg describes: "After the protracted German resistance at Monte Cassino, the Allied armies finally entered Rome on 4 June 1944. Rome, unlike every other major Italian city, did not attempt an insurrection before the Allied arrival. A major reason for this was the terrible massacre which the Germans had carried out at the Ardeatine caves on 24 March 1944. After a brigade of the Roman urban partisans had blown up 32 German military police, the Germans shot 335 prisoners in reprisal. The Roman Resistance was not to recover from this blow" (53). For additional information, consult Chabod.
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Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
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Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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