All roads lead to Rome
Artisan Sandro Fiorentini works in his stone carving workshop, Bottega del Marmoraro. (Lottie Davies)
Peel back the layers to discover four extraordinary streets in Rome, each with a very different tale to tell.
Via Margutta: The artists’ street
Via Margutta feels like it’s in a quiet village, yet this ivy-draped, cobbled street lies in one of Rome’s busiest districts. The men have well-coiffed silver hair and the women dress immaculately in clothes that whisper old money. They saunter along, stopping to greet each other, popping in and out of the gracious terracotta buildings backed on one side by the tangled gardens of Villa Borghese park.
It might look like a village, but the shops here are definitely not small town: fine-art restorers work outside in the sunlight alongside shops selling Pratesi’s ultraluxurious linens and Bulgari jewellery. And then there’s the Bottega del Marmoraro.
At this workshop, every inch of the walls is covered in ancient stonemasons’ tools and words of wisdom – aphorisms – carved in marble. Master stonecarver Sandro Fiorentini is dressed in brown overalls, working with a technique that dates back to the days of the Romans. He will carve you any phrase you like on a marble plaque for 15 euros, but he is only interested in words: ‘I don’t do numbers,’ he says firmly, but with a twinkle in his eye.
These marble engravings can be seen up and down the street. Iconic film director Federico Fellini lived at number 110 and a Fiorentini carving of him and his wife is still on display, with a poem: ‘Via Margutta, now it’s clear/ It strikes everyone just the same/Because it’s unique and special/ In the world there is no equal!’
A few doors along from the Bottega, at number 54, Valentina Moncada cuts an elegant figure in her influential contemporary art gallery. Her ancestor helped build Via Margutta in the 17th century, working to construct artists’ studios on this very spot. By 1610 many artists, coming to Rome to study antiquities, had begun to settle in Via Margutta because not only was it a quiet tree-lined street, but also Pope Paul III gave artists living here a tax break. ‘If you were an artist and a resident, you paid no taxes, so artists came from all over Europe,’ Valentina says.
Via Margutta became the artists’ street, a legacy that’s reflected in the pretty Fontana delle Arti (Artists’ Fountain) that bubbles just nearby, decorated with carved easels and palettes, and topped by a bucket of stone paintbrushes.
Valentina is currently hard at work writing a history of Via Margutta, and has discovered that the first meeting of the revolutionary Italian art movement, the Futurists, took place here in 1906. She says: ‘Then, when the Russian Revolution began in 1917, artists all fled to Paris from Russia. When war broke out they came to Rome, and to the Via Margutta.’
The street’s creative life extended beyond the visual arts. As Rome became an essential stop on every 19th-century Grand Tour, thanks to its wealth of ancient wonders, musicians and composers came too. Debussy, Liszt and Wagner all worked in studios in the Via Margutta.
Stravinsky came with Picasso, as they were both working with the Russian Ballet. Valentina indicates the courtyard outside her gallery. ‘Right here, Picasso met the only woman he ever actually married: Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina.’
As Rome’s creative scene became dominated by film, Via Margutta became the focus of the 1950s zeitgeist. Not only was it the home of film master Fellini, but the street was also the location of the apartment where Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) took Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann at the start of their whirlwind Roman Holiday. Valentina recalls: ‘My father was a fashion photographer, and my mother was a model – Givenchy used her to try out all the Roman Holiday costumes that Audrey Hepburn wore.’
The literary arts were not left behind: best known for his 1966 opus In Cold Blood, maverick writer Truman Capote lived at number 33. He immortalised the Via Margutta in a 1963 short story, Lola, about living on the street with his pet raven – the eponymous Lola.