Peripheral poetry

Rome’s surprisingly tranquil Mandrione suburb conceals an unusual piece of Roman history. Segmento took a walk along Rome’s most modern aqueduct through a fascinating district far from the Rome your average tourist sees.

The entrance of Via del Mandrione exudes an air of elegance and historical charm. Upon arriving, you are greeted by the beautiful Clement XII fountain. It emanates an almost royal grandeur. Also known as the Porta Furba fountain, it was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V, who served as pope from 1585-1590. It was built in conjunction with the nearby Felice Aqueduct, considered Rome’s most “modern” aqueduct.

The water from the aqueduct feeds the monumental fountain, and farmers, pilgrims, local families, and ordinary travelers often stopped here in the past for a refreshing drink or to collect water to take home. In 1733, the fountain was restored on the initiative of Pope Clement XII (1730-1740), the same pope responsible for commissioning the Trevi Fountain. The fountain’s design is thought to be by the well-known architect Luigi Vanvitelli.

Like a silent refuge

The first time I walked along Via del Mandrione, I felt an immediate sense of well-being. On my left, the nearby Via Tuscolana and its thousands of passing cars seemed strangely distant, probably because the Felice Aqueduct shields the traffic noise. Here, I had the feeling of being transported back in time. On my right, I could look across railway tracks towards Rome’s Casilina neighborhood. Via del Mandrione is like a silent refuge, like a metaphysical state of mind that almost gives you a feeling of weightlessness. The area embraces you, and you ask yourself how best to describe this place. Are we in the city or the countryside, or perhaps both? We are still in Italy’s capital and, at the same time, outside of it. It is enough to think of the neighborhood’s name, Mandrione. It derives from the word mandria, which means flock. This is where the shepherds once brought their sheep to graze. I feel pleasantly “cut off.” At the same time, I constantly feel that there are only a few hundred meters to go before I risk being sucked into the big-city rush. 

The streets of the area wind along the Felice Aqueduct and cross under it here and there

Walking along Via del Mandrione, you are witness to a small piece of Roman history, where a straight line from the city’s post-war period connects to our present. During the German occupation of Rome, a total of approximately 4,000 bombs were dropped on the city by Allied bombers. In the San Lorenzo district alone, 717 people were killed. Thousands of families who had become homeless began to look for new places to settle down. Many of them found refuge in Mandrione in the shelter of the vaults of the old aqueduct, where it was possible to build makeshift dwellings. This ramshackle settlement became a slum with hygienic conditions unfit for human habitation. From the beginning of the 1950s, the area’s reputation went from bad to worse, with gypsy camps springing up and prostitutes openly plying their trade in the district.

Pasolini’s preferred neighborhood 

Mandrione was also one of the favorite neighborhoods of author and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. He was drawn to its decay and found it to be the perfect symbol of post-war Rome from an anthropological point of view, especially when he had to find suitable backdrops for his films. Perhaps Pasolini’s best-known film, Accattone from 1961, was mainly filmed in nearby Pigneto, but certain scenes were also said to have been shot in Mandrione. Despite Pasolini’s reputation as a “slum romantic,” he was not blind to the socially reprehensible conditions in which people lived in Mandrione, which can be clearly seen in his 1958 essay, Vie Nuove, in which he writes:   

I once drove by Mandrione with two friends from Bologna. From our car, we saw young children playing in the mud. They ran around as if they were playing a game without rules. They tumbled about as if they were blind in the few square meters where they had been born and raised. When one of the two- or three-year-old boys saw us drive past in our car, he raised his dirty hand to his mouth and blew us a kiss.

The aqueduct and railway tracks

Mandrione is specifically mentioned in several literary and cinematic works by Pasolini. He was often photographed walking along Via del Mandrione, talking to residents and children from the neighborhood. While walking along Via del Mandrione, I occasionally come across the inscription “Io so i nomi” (I know the names) on the walls. This is the title of the now famous article, from 1975, in the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which Pasolini revealed that he knew the masterminds of a series of massacres through the 60s and 70s that had cost hundreds of people their lives. Perhaps this article is part of the enigma of the assassination of Pasolini himself. 

Eventually, the slum conditions, prostitution, and social decay became impossible to ignore, and the authorities took notice. Critical eyes began to regard Mandrione less indulgently. Psychologist, educator, and social reformer Angelina Linda Zammataro devoted all her attention to cleaning up the area. She worked tenaciously between 1975 and 1984 to improve conditions and get the area’s ragamuffin street children to start regular schooling. In the process, most of Mandrione’s families were moved to better housing in Spineto on the fringes of the city. 

Dining at Accattone

Today the laid-back atmosphere of the area is intact. I have been walking in the shadow of the aqueduct all this time. I have to reach out to touch it. At a certain point, I once again meet Pasolini, this time in a restaurant named after his film Accattone. I step inside and sit down at a table. It’s Saturday at lunchtime, and the restaurant’s two rooms are half full. Before I sit down, I notice several old black-and-white photos from the neighborhood’s less salubrious past.

Accattone Restaurant

A bit later, after my pleasant meal of spaghetti all'amatriciana, which was particularly tasty and creamy, cook and owner Fabrizio Santucci takes a seat at my table. He tells me:

Accattone used to be quite a simple eatery, which most of all had the task of satisfying local stomachs without too many quality delicacies. When I discovered the place, I immediately had a feeling that this was what I was looking for–an isolated location in a neighborhood with a special history. In the past, this area was almost completely deserted, with extensive fields where sheep grazed. In the past, the area was considered the middle of nowhere. Today, here in Mandrione, people live a quiet life. It is a neighborhood rich in spirit and history. People get around on foot or by bicycle. It has a calm pulse.

Fabrizio Santucci, owner of Accattone, and his family

As I walk about 1.5 km down Via del Mandrione, I reach the end of the road. Here I turn left to enter Via Casilina Vecchia. The aqueduct is now on my right side, very close to me. Despite its antiquity, many local construction companies have used the space under the vaults. As I keep walking along the aqueduct, my sense of being in the middle of a piece of historical and architectural poetry is reinforced. Once again, I have experienced how Rome’s periphery hides both poetry, distinctive history, and quirky anecdotes, which can only be experienced far from the well-trod tourist paths of the city center.

Photography by Jesper Storgaard Jensen