(click on pictures to enlarge)
Summer has arrived. In the last few days, daytime temperatures have been close to 30C. The Romans have shed their coats and boots and donned their sandals. There is also a fashion for funky sneakers with glittery and decorated tops and some with a built-up heel for extra height. No marathons will be run with these shoes I don’t think!
Anyhow, last Sunday, I decided to take a walk along the Tevere. Interestingly, the river does not dominate the city as do the rivers in other cities like Paris, London or Dublin. One of the reasons for this might be because it is about 20 – 30 metres below street level with sturdy embankments on either side such that the only points of access are flights of steps at the bridges. The embankments were built in 1876 to prevent flooding in adjacent areas which until that time was a regular occurrence. Part of the reason being that the mouth of the river at Ostia would get silted up and the flow would be impeded. In fact the mouth of the river was originally at Ostia Antica which was a major port for the city of Rome in Roman times but because of silting, it is now 3 km inland.
Although one has to make a bit of an effort to get down to the river bank, once down there, it is quiet and peaceful. A complete contrast to the two roads called the Lungotevere (along the Tevere) which run along either side of it and which are major traffic arteries for the city. The river is not obvious from the road as the Lungotevere is lined with plane trees and if you’re driving, the only sign that there is a river below are the bridges. Down by the river, it’s a different world. Apart from a few cyclists, joggers and occasional kayakers, it is pretty much deserted especially on weekdays. I once saw somebody fishing but I can’t imagine that there are fish in the Tevere and he didn’t seem to have caught anything so maybe he was practising casting. Nevertheless, it was surprising to come upon this sight in the middle of the city.
It hasn’t always been a pleasant space and was once apparently filled with junk. However, in the past few years, an international organization called Tevereterno Onlus have put money into trying to revive, protect and encourage maintenance of the river. Consequently, every summer, there are temporary marquees put up along a small stretch of it sporting cafes, shops and restaurants. Two years ago, the South African contemporary artist William Kentridge was commissioned to create a mural along the section near Trastevere between the Ponte Sisto and the Ponte Mazzinni, a half km distance. He entitled the work ‘Triumphs and Laments’ and it alludes to Rome’s history and mythology. Completed about a year ago, the piece was created by reverse stencils and are about 9 metres tall. I did not see them close up last year as my leg was in a cast last spring and there was no way I could make it down to the river. However, they were clearly visible from the bridge above. Sadly, now they seem more faded but are fascinating to see close up. Reverse stencilling involves cleaning the area behind the stencil which obviously gets dirty over time and the artist predicts a life of 4 to 5 years. You get a sense of the scale of the mural if you compare the size of the people alongside. You can just about see the red shirt of the cyclist in the picture on the right. The entire length of the work was surprisingly free of graffiti but I was just lucky as I found out later that the artist had complained about the graffiti and it had been cleaned up by the city just a week before I saw it. I had read a little about the piece before I went and even though I couldn’t always decipher what aspect of Rome’s history or mythology the images represented, I knew what it was about. I felt pleased with myself being able to explain what the work was in Italian to two passers by who didn’t know what it was.