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Plaques in Historical Rome
(plaque in Via Margutta celebrating Giulietta Masina * and Federico Fellini *)
Note: * = link to wikipedia entries.
Roman emperors and popes had a fancy for celebrating their achievements by placing lengthy inscriptions on the monuments of Rome. The longest one was dictated by Emperor Augustus to detail with the preciseness of an accountant his many achievements.
The Italian government which took control of Rome in 1870 introduced the first plaques; they were placed on the walls of buildings where eminent citizens were born or had lived.
The format of these first plaques was very similar: the inscription was engraved on a white marble tablet surrounded by a darker marble frame.
Some of the first plaques commemorated poets whose fame at the time was undisputed: today few Italians can quote verses by Metastasio * and even less have heard of Pietro Cossa who wrote historical plays (Beethoven, Nero).
To the contrary the fame of Giacomo Leopardi * is today by far greater than it was in 1879 when a plaque was placed on the walls of the small palace in Via dei Condotti where he lived for five months. All Italian teenagers know by heart his poems.
While Giacomo Leopardi found Rome squalid and modest and preferred to live in Naples, writer Alessandro Verri * from Milan enjoyed living in Rome where he spent 49 years: he eventually died in elegant Palazzo Gentili - Del Drago.
Giuseppe Valadier * was one of the most important architects of his time: he designed new Piazza del Popolo and he lived in a house in nearby Via del Babuino.
Foreign Artists and Writers
Many foreign artists and writers found inspiration for their works in Rome: some of them were celebrated with statues (in Villa Borghese there are monuments to Lord Byron *, Victor Hugo *, Goethe * and Alexander Pushkin *). The house where Goethe lived opposite Palazzo Rondanini was bought by Germany and turned into a small museum and Britain did the same with that in Piazza di Spagna where John Keats * died.
While many poets celebrated Rome in their verses, some novelists found in Rome the right atmosphere to write books which had nothing to do with the Eternal City.
Nicolai Gogol * spent many years in Rome and notwithstanding the city's mild winters he wrote The Overcoat *, a short novel which is regarded as his masterpiece.
Henrik Ibsen * gained worldwide fame by his dramas which were marked by a scathing criticism of the morality of his time. Brand *, the first tragedy which brought him success, was written in Rome, although it was set in a Norwegian village close to a glacier.
Stendhal * wrote a guide to Rome (Promenades dans Rome) by which he became one of the best known literary companions to the educated visitor of the Eternal City. He lived in Palazzo Fonseca from 1834 and 1836: during this period he wrote Lucien Leuwen and The Life of Henry Brulard, his autobiography.
Björnstjerne Björnson * was a Norwegian writer who lived in Rome almost at the same time as Ibsen. He won the 1903 Nobel Prize, but his 1860-62 Roman sojourn in Piazza Barberini was remembered with a plaque only a hundred years later. Like many other writers and artists from northern countries he early heard the seductive voice of Italy and for forty years he was a frequent visitor to Rome.
(Albert) Bertel Thorwaldsen * was the undisputed successor to Antonio Canova as the leading sculptor in early XIXth century Europe. Thorwaldsen was of such a poor lineage that he did not even know exactly the day of his birth. For this reason he celebrated March 8, 1797, the day he arrived in Rome, as his birthday for the rest of his life. He lived in Rome for almost forty years and he had the privilege (notwithstanding the fact he was a Lutheran) to design and execute the monument to Pope Pius VII in S. Pietro.
The plaque also commemorates engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi * and archaeologist Luigi Canina *.
German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius *, who is also known for his Wanderings in the Roman Countryside, at first settled in Albergo Cesari; he then found accommodation in a room under the roof in the house of a sculptor in Via Felice (now Via Sistina) and he noted in his diary that the name of the street (felice=happy) was a good omen. In 1854 he moved to Via della Purificazione, off Piazza Barberini, where many foreign painters and sculptors had their studios; it was a very ill-famed street, but at least he had two rooms for himself. In 1860 he moved to a better location in Via Gregoriana, near Palazzo Zuccari, where he enjoyed a great view over Rome.
Via Gregoriana also suited the needs and the taste of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres *, the French painter who studied at the French Academy in Villa Medici and returned as director of the institution for the period 1835-40.
Irish-born American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens * was among the many young foreign artists who lived in the streets near Piazza Barberini (one of which is called Via degli Artisti). Upon his return to New York he was to become a leading artist of the American Renaissance *.
A less brilliant future awaited Margaret Fuller *, one of the first female correspondents. She came to Rome to report on Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic. She had to hastily leave Rome when the French troops arrived, as she had married an Italian who fought with Garibaldi. They returned to New York, but they never arrived there as their ship sank near Fire Island.
Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen * is widely known for his fairy tales. In Rome he wrote his first novel The Improvisatore, which gave him immediate success and preceded the first instalment of his tales. He lived near Piazza Barberini, which he described at the beginning of the novel (which is set in Rome):Whoever has been in Rome is well acquainted with the Piazza Barberini, in the great square, with the beautiful fountain, where the Triton empties the spouting conch-shell, from which the water springs upwards many feet.
The plaque remembering an 1891 short stay by 1904 Nobel winner Frederic Mistral * has more to do with politics than literature. It was placed in 1930 at a time when the Fascist government was emphasizing all aspects of Italian national identity. Mistral promoted a revival of the Occitan language and culture (Langue d'Oc - Southern France) which had fallen into neglect when the French (Langue d'Oil) prevailed. Although Italy did not allow the use of Occitan in its own territory, yet the cultural campaign promoted by Mistral was regarded as being anti-French and thus its leader was celebrated by the Italian government.
Irish writer James Joyce * is known for having disliked his short stay in Rome. This probably because he preferred teaching English in Trieste rather than working in a bank in Rome.
At the age of twenty German writer Thomas Mann * spent nearly three years in Italy with his elder brother Heinrich. They stayed mainly at Palestrina, but they also spent some time in Rome. He set one of his first stories (The Will to Happiness) in Rome with a dramatic scene that takes place at Fontana di Trevi the night before Paolo (the main character) leaves Rome for his wedding. The narrator offers Paolo a glass of water from the Trevi fountain, because superstition holds that if you drink the water before leaving the city, you will return. Before Paolo can drink, the glass is shattered by a sudden bolt of lightning. He dies the morning after the wedding night.
Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott * came to Rome for his health, but to no advantage. He died shortly after having returned to Scotland. He visited the tomb of the Stuarts in S. Pietro. The visit was described by his biographer and was a motif of inspiration for Richard Monckton Milnes *:
Thus, face to face, the dying and the dead,
Bound in one solemn ever-living bond
Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote in Rome Pan Tadeusz, his longest poem, which is considered his masterpiece. In 1848 he gave his name to a military unit formed by Poles who took part in the fight for Italian Unity.
Austrian poetess Ingeborg Bachmann * spent almost twenty years in Rome; the plaque shown above is placed near Via Condotti, but her last Roman home was in Via Giulia; she died of the consequences of a fire in her bedroom.
English playwright Robert Browning * and his wife poetess Elizabeth Barrett * lived many years in Italy, mainly in Florence. They were keen supporters of the Italian cause. Robert Browning described a holiday mass in S. Pietro in his poem Christmas Eve:
And I view inside, and all there, all,
As the swarming hollow of a hive,
The whole Basilica alive!
Men in the chancel, body and nave,
Men on the pillars' architrave,
Men on the statues, men on the tombs
With popes and kings in their porphyry wombs,
All famishing in expectation
Of the main-altar's consummation.
Music and Theatre
Many plaques remember musicians and singers who lived in Rome: there are however some remarkable omissions: George Frideric Haendel * lived in Rome where he composed many cantatas for Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who at the time lived in today's Palazzo Valentini; Franz Liszt * spent many years in Rome in a small apartment at S. Maria del Rosario. Both are not commemorated by plaques.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart * travelled three times between 1769 and 1773 in Italy. In Rome he stayed at a (lost) palace near Collegio Clementino; the plaque mentions that having heard Gregorio Allegri's Miserere * young Mozart transcribed it faithfully from memory. For this he was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur.
German composer Richard Wagner * and his family travelled through Italy in 1876, shortly after the Bayreuth Opera House opened with the premiere of the Ring cycle. While in Rome he posed for a bust executed by Ettore Ferrari, who later on became famous for his monument to Giordano Bruno. Quite obviously Wagner chose to stay at the Hotel d'Allemagne.
The first performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioacchino Rossini * at Teatro Costanzi (now Argentina) was a fiasco. This detail was omitted in the plaque remembering the composer.
In February 1890 Pietro Mascagni *, another Italian composer, waited with anxiety for the reaction of the audience at the premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana at Teatro Costanzi. It was a tremendous success; at age 26 Mascagni had written his masterpiece; for the rest of his long life he vainly tried to duplicate that success. He stayed in one of the oldest inns of Rome, Albergo del Sole, where another plaque remembers Ludovico Ariosto *.
Pietro Raimondi * was an Italian composer who acquired fame for having composed a triple oratorio which lasted six hours and required 430 performers. This explains why it was never staged again.
Antonio Cotogni * was an Italian baritone who was greatly admired by Giuseppe Verdi. He was born in Trastevere, in a modest house near S. Giovanni Battista dei Genovesi.
Adelaide Ristori * was a great XIXth century Italian actress who performed in many European countries and in the United States. In 1845, in the early stages of her career, she met at a Roman theatre Marquis Giuliano Capranica del Grillo, a member of the Roman aristocracy, who married her in 1848; thus she was known as la Marchesa, the Marquise.
Aldo Palazzeschi * an Italian XXth century writer lived in the same building at a later time.
Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli and Trilussa were two Roman poets who have been honoured with statues. Plaques remember two other poets who wrote in Roman dialect. Giggi Zanazzo transcribed many popular sayings. His plaque can be seen on the house where he was born, next to S. Caterina dei Funari.
Very few remember Giulio Cesare Santini (1880-1957) to whom is dedicated a plaque near S. Salvatore in Lauro with a short poem describing the site.
After 1870 the Italian government built monuments to those who contributed to the Risorgimento, the process which led to Italian unity.
Minor contributors were remembered with plaques on the walls of their former homes.
One of the first plaques was dedicated in 1871 to Angelo Brunetti, known as Ciceruacchio (meaning slightly fat in Roman dialect). He had a well known inn in Piazza del Popolo and in 1846 he took the lead in asking the newly elected pope (Pope Pius IX) for political reforms. He took part into the defence of the Roman Republic and when the city fell he tried to reach Venice, to which the Austrians had laid siege. He was arrested by them and he was executed with his two sons, one of whom was just thirteen. In 1872 a small bust was added to the plaque.
In Italian borbonico is an adjective which, in addition to making reference to the Bourbons, who were Kings of Naples and Sicily from 1735 to 1860, means bigot reaction to reforms. This is partly due to the way in 1799 the Bourbons recaptured Naples putting an end to a French-backed republic. The king was particularly anxious that no mercy should be shown to the rebels. Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel *, a poetess who had supported the republic with her writings was executed by the royal tribunal. She was born in Rome in Via di Ripetta.
The events of WWI and WWII are remembered by many plaques and small monuments. The lengthy inscription celebrating Umberto Cerboni reports the background leading to his award of a Military Gold Medal in 1916. He was one of the 600,000 Italian soldiers who fell in WWI.
The plaque celebrating Giuseppe Celani makes reference to a dramatic episode of WWII: the killing in March 1944 of 335 Italians, either detained for political and racial reasons, or picked at random, at Fosse Ardeatine. Celani was detained for having provided false documents to members of la Resistenza, the underground movement fighting the German occupying forces.
Four plaques on the walls next to Porta S. Paolo remember the beginning (September 1943) and the end (June 1944) of the German occupation of Rome. The aftermath of the armistice with the Allies signed on September 8, 1943 by the Italian Government, saw the collapse of the Army: a few officers and soldiers tried to prevent the Germans from occupying Rome and vainly fought at Porta S. Paolo. A few months later Allied troops entered Rome by the same gate. Every year on September 8 both events are celebrated.
The 1970s were a dramatic period for Italy: social and political conflicts led to acts of terrorism with the killings of politicians, journalists, judges, policemen and many other people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On May 12 1977, the Italian Radical Party, a non-violent movement, decided to celebrate in Piazza Navona the third anniversary of a referendum which confirmed a law introducing divorce in Italy. The rally was not allowed due to the tense political climate. The area around Piazza Navona was full of plain clothes policemen and members of various extreme left groups who wanted to cause disruption. Giorgiana Masi, a nineteen-year-old student, was on her way to the rally when at Ponte Garibaldi she was shot dead. The circumstances of that killing were never ascertained, but were blamed on the poor handling of the situation by the police. This explains why after so many years unknown hands associate to the event the name of Francesco Cossiga, at the time in charge of the Italian Home Office (boia = executioner).
The peak of that period was reached a year later: on March 16, 1978 Aldo Moro *, a leading Italian politician, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, a terrorist group. On May 9, his body was found in a small car parked near Palazzo Mattei. In a way it was the beginning of the end for the terrorists; that killing was not regarded by Italians as the starting moment of a revolution, but as a senseless and wicked act.
The image used as background for this page shows a plaque commemorating Torquato Tasso * near Collegio Clementino.