Nothing To See Here

Homage to Caravaggio by C215, via

Homage to Caravaggio by C215, via

Rome, August 15

Dear people,

While our Muslim brothers are being savagely massacred in Egypt, I have re-emerged in Rome. Here, all is quiet. I move around and there is art whirling through my head. In particular the works of Magritte. I see the images of tanks, bulldozers, snipers, machine-guns, and these awesome Armoured Personnel Carriers donated by Uncle Sam. I see images of dead bodies, some of them charred, and doctors and nurses covered in blood. I see images of weeping women, and of courageous protesters at the barricades continuing their resistance all through the day with stones and petrol bombs. Then I see a text in light projected on a building, saying “this is not a coup.”

The images dissolve. Around me is Rome in the dead of August. Nothing to see here. Please move along.

Numerous wise people have affirmed that the purpose of travelling is not so much to go some place new, but to return to some place you know. And at a day like this, I adhere to that. Suddenly,without expecting it, I see the city from her most beautiful side. Not the centre, where tired old stones are patiently prostituted to generation after generation of pilgrims, but the city’s soul. The popular quarter of Pigneto, outside of Porta Maggiore. The neighbourhood of the students, the artists, the anarchists, the immigrants. A neighbourhood at the frontier of gentrification, trying hard to resist.

I’m here with people I met in Istanbul a few weeks earlier. They show me around. On this hot summer day, when cars for once have abandoned the streets of the city, we go by bike. It’s a truly cinematographic experience. I can feel the phantoms of De Sica, Monicelli and Fellini lurking behind the corners with their camera crews as we come whizzing by on our hand-crafted bicycles. Not so long ago, it would have been hip to tour Rome in Vespa, but those days are gone. The bike has the future.

My contacts take me to the ex-SNIA, one of Rome’s many occupied social centres. Also here, there is not much to see. It’s dark, and the resistance is on holiday. One of the people left behind in the scorching city has opened up the factory to water the plants of the vegetable garden. Life will resume here in September. There will be music. There will be art. There will solidarity. The park next to the factory is one of the few green spaces of Pigneto. It was mainly used by drug-addicts, and now it has been cleaned of needles by the social centre’s volunteers. Now the park is being maintained not by the municipality, but by the committee of neighbours. Le mamme mostly, the parents of the youngsters who are active in the social centre.

From the old factory we cycle on to an ancient Roman tower, a community gathering place just outside the city walls. On the meadows around, there are people eating local produce at gentrified prices, there is a small concert, a stand with books and one with clothes. No-one here believes that Italians will ever rise up. They will simply go on to complain to each other over a cappuccino and a cornetto at the bar. As always they will find a way to get by, by being shrewd and by avoiding the rules. Only if some day for some reason there is a shortage of food, the Italians are likely to take the streets. In Italy, you can take away a man’s freedom, you can take away his honour, his dignity, his mental and physical health, his ideas, his dreams, his pension and his ambitions. But if you try to take away the polpette di carne, he will definitely fight back.

To counter the general apathy there is also a small minority of Italians which is very politically active, and has been so for centuries. Usually, these activists suffer from the syndrome of Guelfi e Ghibellini. This is a typically Italian predisposition to divide oneself in different factions, and then to fight each other. Reasons are not really important. At a certain point, the rivalry regenerates itself.

Aside from local and football rivalries, the most important social clash of the last century was about fascism. There is a persistent share of people in Italy who continues to lean towards fascism. And the explanation for this is pretty simple. Italy has always been a mess, and still is. Only during the twenty years of fascism, things seemed to work relatively well. The economy provided for the basic necessities, there was little social unrest and not too much corruption, public works projects were executed without any hassle, the mafia had been temporarily neutralized, the trains departed on time, etc. The downside of the whole thing was the absence of political participation, the repression of dissent, the exaltation of the state and the race, the glorification of violence and so forth. But many people don’t even consider these to be downsides, and still think that Italy can be saved by the iron fist of a strong leader.

Ever since fascism fell apart, many activists from the far left have seen it as their primary duty to fight the spectre of fascism, wherever it may appear. And in doing so, they have started to resemble them. As anti-fascists they use fascism to define themselves, they are intolerant as fascists, they use violent methods like the fascists, they often even dress like them. You can imagine the outrage among left wing activists, when the fascists occupied a social centre of their own in 2003: ‘Casa Pound’. Now imagine their outrage when the fascists of Casa Pound started to engage in community projects for the neighbourhood, and when they began to address political issues, first in Rome, later all through Italy. It resulted in heavy clashes between the two factions. The same rivalry that has been going under various guises, forever.

There is also a more positive development going on in the social centres. Some people from the latest generation are tired of defining themselves in opposition to something, and prefer to spend their energy on the creation of an alternative. Hence, there are little barter markets sprouting up, and consumer groups for organic produce, and victory gardens, and bicycle workshops.

The bike is becoming a symbol of sustainability and resistance, at least here in Pigneto. Almost every social centre in Rome has its own workshop. There are a handful of artisans in all big cities who make bikes by themselves. They are serving a growing market worldwide. Especially in the States. If you want to be hip, really hip, then you can’t do without your own bike designed and manufactured by an Italian craftsman.

At the Roman tower I spoke to a mechanic who had constructed his own two-story bicycle. A bike like a giraffe, with which he had toured all through Europe, collecting smiles wherever he went. A most extraordinary point of view. And I realize that if the aeroplane was invented by two bicycle constructors, it must have been for a reason.

We cycle on, to San Lorenzo, the university quarter, with particular focus on street art. There are a few dozen artists active in the streets of Rome, working on everything from elaborate graphic novels covering entire blocks, to small scenes sprayed on public mail boxes using different layers of stencils, to pure repeated symbols.

You can find the little phantom from Pacman with his mouth zipped up, you can also find mosaics of the monsters from Space Invaders, which has become a street art classic in cities throughout the world. Some things last for a while, most things don’t. But all of it can be repeated, and it often is.

It’s an ongoing battle. On the one hand the state tries rigidly to conserve the acknowledged masterpieces of mankind in the mausoleums of art, and on the other hand it persecutes contemporary art by covering it up. There’s nothing wrong with that. There will always be another artist ready to leave a mark. It stimulates evolution. And at this particular time of year, when the daily assault of noise and pollution and of hurrying people comes to a halt, it makes it well worth the effort to check out the state of the art, especially with a bike.

On our tour through the alleys around Piazza del Popolo we found many funny, critical and beautiful pieces. We were even lucky enough to find some of the last traces of homage to the great Caravaggio.

Invader, via

Invader, via


2 Comments on “Nothing To See Here”

  1. Óscar E. says:

    Has anybody translated this into Spanish? My father`d love it, but I`m far too overwhelmed to sit and make the job myself.

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