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Its artery is Via del Pigneto, a partially pedestrianised street bisected by the gritty cityscape of the railway tracks. It’s packed out in the day by a local food and clothes market, and by an eclectic collection of Rome’s bohemians in the evenings.

It’s in the last few years that Pigneto has become the Roman answer to London’s Shoreditch, with arty bookshop-cafés and nightlife that sees the whole street turn into a nightly drinks party. In a neighbourhood pizzeria, hard-as-nails pizza makers banter with the late-night crowd. Students talk earnestly at spindly tables, groups of friends share beers on doorsteps. Everyone’s wearing black. They’re artists, intellectuals, communists and poseurs, and sometimes all the above.

Until recently, most of these people would not have dreamed of coming to this part of town. However, Pigneto was already famous for its cinematic past. It was the neighbourhood muse and preferred location of poet and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Other directors also saw the area’s potential, and its shabby, sunbleached streets appeared in Rossellini’s 1945 war drama Roma Città Aperta and Visconti’s 1951 film Bellissima, a satirical take on the movie industry.

Pasolini’s favourite hangout, Necci, is still hugely popular – a breezy caférestaurant that opened in 1924, with tree-shaded outside tables. He filmed parts of his film Accattone here, a neorealist take on street life featuring locals from the area instead of professional actors. He called the suburbs ‘the crown of thorns that encircles the city of God’.

Contemporary Pigneto’s edge is underpinned by a suspicion that today’s urban characters, strumming guitars outside the vino e olio (wine and oil) shops, are bourgeoisie in borrowed clothes. That’s the opinion of artist Alberto di Fabio, surrounded by his incandescent canvasses in his warehouse studio. He’s intense and funnily dismissive: ‘Until two years ago, no one came. Across from here,’ he gestures at the overhang of the neighbouring building, ‘there used to be around 20 men who would come out and wash in the rain.’ He grins conspiratorially. ‘All the local women used to watch… secretly. But now Pigneto’s changed. It’s become busier, more expensive. People are moving elsewhere.’

 His assistant, Fabrizio Cicero, is a younger artist, less successful, and less cynical: ‘People moved here from San Lorenzo (the student district),’ he says, ‘and then life here began to be attractive. The scene is quieter, less aggressive, and more cultured and constructive. Everything is slow and calm. Especially in the late afternoon. It’s still, compared with the rhythms elsewhere. Here life is like going back in time, but with an eye to the future.’

Via Di San Giovanni in Laterano: The Street of secrets
Via di San Giovanni in Laterano is a narrow street that harbours extraordinary underground treasure.

At one end lies the cathedral of Rome, San Giovanni, and, at the other, the Colosseum. The former is a vision of 18th-century Catholic might, topped by wildly gesturing stone apostles. It’s impossible not to feel small here, with the church towering over its gaping piazza. Opposite, almost hidden in a small building, is one of Rome’s most mystical Catholic sites, the Scala Santa (sacred staircase), which Christ is thought to have climbed before meeting Pontius Pilate.

Walking downhill to the Colosseum, it’s easy to miss a church that few Romans even know of: San Clemente. The church is 12th century, with an altar surmounted by exquisite mosaics. But another basilica lies beneath this one. Downstairs there are fourth-century vaulted rooms that would resemble storage cellars, were it not for their faded frescoes.

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