Rome may be all about the old, but it’s also populated by an energised, politicised, often pierced and tattooed youth. Which is why I chose a neighbourhood this week that surely must have more than its fair share of bright young things – San Lorenzo.
Not far from Pigneto, San Lorenzo is literally a stone’s throw from Rome proper – if you can throw a stone high enough to get it over the Aurelian Walls that separates it from the city centre that is.
Some facts: First buildings shot up in 1884, only to have some of them shot down in WWII, making San Lorenzo the only area in Rome to be badly bombed (they were aiming for the nearby Termini Railway Station and freight yard but missed). Originally working class, it’s now youth central because it’s next door to Rome’s largest university. Name comes from the basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura which is right alongside the sprawling Verano Cemetery.
Part 1: Living on the edge
San Lorenzo hasn’t had an easy life. First, the bombing in 1943 that demolished some of its buildings and killed 1,500. Then in the 60s it was angst ridden with student activists and left-wingers agitating for change. And today, if you’re jobless, pissed off or have any sort of cause whatsoever, this is still the place to vent your fury. Except now you can do it while knocking back a boutique beer for much less than you’d pay anywhere else in Roma.
Part 2: Footie
Last week Italy faced off Croatia in Euro 2012 and the pubs and bars around Rome were filled with footie fans. We happened to walk past a bar in San Lorenzo just minutes before Italy kicked a goal. The only goal as it turned out but still a goal.
Before leaving San Lorenzo that evening we met another university student, Debora, walking home with a friend. I’m not sure if she’d just seen the goal being kicked but she had the most beautiful smile.
Part 3: Dancing girls
Breaking my rule never to venture out in the heat of the day, we visited San Lorenzo last Saturday at around 10am. I’m so glad we did because if we hadn’t, we would never have met Marcella Ruffini.
Walking slowly along a street near the main piazza, I noticed an older lady with her head out her window on the first floor of her apartment block, enjoying a morning cigarette. She was beautiful despite her years so I stopped to ask if I could take her photo. I really thought she’d decline but this is a woman who is used to having her photo taken. Or at least was, when she was a famous dancer, singer and actress.
Until her son Angelo appeared, we couldn’t really communicate but she kept passing down old photos for Coco and I to look at. When Angelo popped his head out the window, I learned that his 81 year old mum had had a long and successful career, kicked off by working with one of Italy’s legendary stars, Alberto Sordi in Un Americano a Roma. She danced alongside him and never looked back.
She later married Mario Molino, who also became a famous musician, and together they had a son, Anglelo, a lovely man who also happens to be a mover and shaker in the music world, spending much of his time in the US.
I would have known nothing of all this had Marcella not happened to stick her head out at the precise moment we were walking past.
I was keen to photograph Marcella again so we met at 7pm that night at the bar on the piazza. While Angelo ducked away to do something, I quizzed Marcella all about her interesting life, aided by the fabulous Lisa, an Australian blog follower who lives in Rome and speaks fluent Italian. So there we sat, Coco sipping a succo d’arancia while her mother fired questions at an 81 year old Italian star who was more concerned that Coco didn’t have a straw for her juice than she was with talking about her famous career.
And did Marcella think she was still bella? No way. She told us that five years ago she had beautiful skin and hair; major illness and a botched heart operation since then had robbed her of her looks. I can understand – growing old ain’t fun for anyone but perhaps especially so when you’ve been a real beauty all your life – but I think she’s wrong.
In between our two meetings with Marcella and Angelo, Coco and I met another dancer, Giuditta Sin. Aside from being a third of Marcella’s age, Giuditta Sin dances to a very different beat – burlesque. We noticed her while she was being interviewed by half American, half Italian Anna, who’s doing a project on burlesque dance.
Giuditta Sin travels all around Europe with her act. And guess where she’s going next? Berlin, when we’ll be there. Coco has been promised a backstage pass and Giuditta Sin assures us she’ll be fine to get in despite her tender years. “Berlin is cool like that.” Hold on to your feather boa, Coco!
Before we left them, Anna hopped in front of the camera for a few poses too. All the world’s a stage in San Lorenzo.
Part 4: Colourful San Lorenzo
Everything has a little more edge to it in this neighbourhood, including colour.
Part 5: Ending on a sweet note
San Lorenzo has the usual sugary fare – gelato, Italian biscuits etc. But it also has bocca di dama, a ridiculously pretty cake/biscuit shop that appears to be channeling Martha Stewart, filled as it is with artfully designed dolci per comunicare – ‘sweets to communicate’.
Most surprising in gritty, edgy, angst-ridden San Lorenzo.
Like Pigneto, San Lorenzo is most well known among locals for its exciting night life. Apparently the place explodes with small bars and music venues hidden during the day behind unassuming garage doors. As interesting as that sounds, I found more than enough to keep me entertained during the daytime thanks to two dancers, a soccer game and a colourful community.
On the ‘home front’
One more week in Rome and then we’re off to Berlin. Well, we’re actually going to spend five days in Madrid before we hit Berlin to meet up with one of Coco’s best school friends and her family. I really thought Coco deserved some ‘time off’ and she is so excited to be seeing her great buddy. It’ll also be Coco’s birthday on July 2 so we’ll celebrate a few days early with our friends rather than on our lonesome.
I will probably take the time off too despite the fact I really don’t want to get any more behind. Every week I miss extends the project timeline – and we need to be back at the latest by the end of January 2013 for Coco’s school. Mmm, school.
This suburb has been brought to you by John Swainston
See you next Monday for the fourth and final Rome installment.