La GRAnde Bellezza

The great, less-known beauty surrounding Rome. Join us on a tour of the capital’s secluded periphery through art from the bottom up. By Angela Viora & Mia Catalano

Brimming with a history spanning 28 centuries, from the Colosseum to Fontana di Trevi to the divine Sistine Chapel, it’s no wonder Rome still goes by the name of the “Eternal City.” Cinema, fashion, and contemporary art have also fed the myth of Rome as a unique exemplar of beauty, creativity, and lifestyle. Think of the Spanish Steps staging fashion shows by luxury brands like Valentino, or MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (National Museum of 21st Century Art), the first Italian public museum devoted to contemporary art and architecture, and of course, la dolce vita

But is that all? What is Rome like beyond the glamorous inner city we all know?

Many areas around the world deal with divided cities, and Rome is no exception. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, Rome is not only Italy’s capital and most populous comune (municipality), but also ranks third in the European Union in terms of its population. 

Camilla Falsini. Photo by Giorgio Silvestrelli

While the urban centers are usually popular and well-served touristic destinations, the outskirts of big cities are often neglected, problematic, and not considered worth visiting.  Infamous among the Romans yet unknown to tourists is the GRA (Grande Raccordo Anulare), the ring road highway encircling Rome for nearly 70 kilometers, separating the inner city from the outskirts. With a notable absence of “iconic” Roman monuments, the GRA offers a nondescript scenario that some artists have employed as a blank canvas on which to inscribe a new kind of beauty. These are works springing from “the street,” made by (extra)ordinary people for improving the life of their communities. The works present problems and solutions at once, offering a deeper understanding of Rome (and modern society) as opposed to just a touristic glance. 

Camilla Falsini (Italia) for GRAArt, La Vita e la Morte, 2016

La Grande Bellezza
(The Great Beauty), by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013. The film is a portrait of the world-known, breathtaking beauty of the Roman landscape that, nonetheless, reveals a decadent humanity characterized by vice, corruption, and extreme loneliness despite wealth and popularity. In the same year, another Italian director, Gianfranco Rosi, won the Golden Lion at the 70th Venice International Film Festival for Sacro GRA, the first documentary ever to achieve this. Almost in counterpoint with Sorrentino’s, Rosi’s work focuses on the anonymous lives of the marginalized people who call the GRA home, among concrete, dirt, and lack of services: prostitutes living in a campervan, an eel farmer, construction workers reburying bodies ... Rosi offers an unflattering depiction of the difficulties of peripheral urban life where, in spite of hardship, a warm, welcoming, and colorful humanity emerges. A pun on the Holy Grail, sacro meaning holy, Sacro GRA is an unclichéd celebration of the beguiling beauty of ordinary life.

A local response to this urban alienation is GRAArt by artist and curator Diavù. This is a street art project using parts of the ring road as a canvas to “heal the cultural rift that exists between the capital’s monumental historical center and its outskirts.” As in Sacro GRA, the audience here discovers a hidden Italian reality that is unknown in popularized perceptions of Rome. Working closely with local councils, the inhabitants, museums, and historians, renowned international street artists have drawn Rome’s myths and characters such as La Lupa (she-wolf) and the Emperor Nero on the walls of the GRA, giving identity to desolate areas neglected until then. The murals also portray forgotten myths and legends linked to the memories of specific areas of the city, becoming contemporary symbols of past eras. Visitors embark upon a cultural and artistic journey through impressive large-scale works of art, powerfully communicating the message “Welcome to Rome … as you’ve never seen it!” 

Chekos Ventrem Feri Imperium (Italia) for GRAArt, 2016

An exemplary model of the bottom-up power of culture, creativity, and teamwork, GRAArt was commissioned by ANAS, the Italian motorways and highways corporation, sponsored by the Italian Ministry for Art, Culture, and Tourism, and is now presented in international embassies and art academies. Unconventional and authentic, Sacro GRA and GRAArt make us wonder, “Do I really know Rome?” – and what about the city we live in? Revealing a kind of beauty far from commonplaces and closer to the people, these artworks show that Italian creativity and allure aren’t just stereotypes, and our excellence shines through, well beyond glamorous images on a postcard.

Images provided by Diavù - Davide Vecchiato