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Looking for modern art in the Eternal City

Inside Maxxi museum of contemporary art and architecture in Rome. The museum was designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid.


My purse was laden with receipts. Cappuccinos, cornettos, gelatos, pizza al taglio and more pizza al taglio. And hanging in front of me on the wall of Rome's contemporary art gallery MACRO Testaccio was another one. This bill was consumer ephemera rendered beautiful in a corn and red-coloured tapestry. Woven by Mexican-born Gabriel Kuri, it was an oversized version of a receipt from the boulangerie Le Pain Quotidien.

I stood admiring it for a long time. What better place to see the ordinary become eternal than in Rome? A wander down the city's streets is an immersion in 2,000 years of history and architecture, each generation competing with its predecessor to leave its mark on history.

The latest gambit comes from the high-profile opening of the MAXXI modern art museum last spring. Rome is seizing its momentum to attract locals and tourists who would rather seek out the contemporary city than wait in the Colosseum lineup.

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But as I meandered around this other Rome, the one better known to locals who last saw the Sistine Chapel on a high-school trip, I discovered that the success of the modern-art venture is uncertain.

We travelled to Via dei Trei Orologi, a street with major status in Rome's social and real-estate markets, to visit the Brancolini Grimaldi photography gallery. But it was closing, and only a lone Georgie Hopton picture stood propped up against a wall. The gallery was packing up and moving to London. The locals were too traditional to bite, an assistant said, and the tourists never came.

More often, though, the modern-art pilgrimage uncovers not only the preoccupations of today's Italians, but also ordinary neighbourhoods where office workers have lunch and parents take their kids to the park.

The MACRO Testaccio is a perfect example. The ratio of tourists to locals in the city's historical centre has been estimated at 30 to 1. Testaccio, on the other hand, is located in an area where a majority of residents were born in Rome. The gallery is housed in a former slaughterhouse and menacing, shiny meat hooks still hang from its ceiling. This week, young Romans flock to its arts festival, an event that mixes art with dance, theatre and interactive performances that last well into the morning.

Across from MACRO, the Nuevo Mercato Testaccio, a major city building project, will soon be finished. The "new market" - which takes up several city blocks with open-concept, glass and metal buildings - will include modern artists' work spaces, eateries and designer shops.

For now, the action is still enviably old-fashioned. The Testaccio market caters to locals and self-catering tourists, while the renowned Volpetti deli vacuum packs and ships your prosciutto di Parma home. Unfortunately, its tavola calda, the hot buffet,cannot be exported. A half-chicken with potatoes, green beans from the mercato, and sole baked with artichokes all tasted as though, yes, an Italian mama with a liberal hand on the olive oil was in the kitchen.

Foodie delights were harder to find on a rainy (pouring, miserable) visit to the brutalist MAXXI modern art museum by Zaha Hadid in the Flaminio district. A vision in white concrete on the outside, the MAXXI is divided by an undulating staircase that separates its gallery rooms.

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The exhibitions match the building's daring design. In Stanze, wartime Italy is remixed with the current immigration debate in an art film shot in an army barracks in Turin. Now used as housing for refugee claimants, it was the fascist police headquarters during the Second World War. In the film, the asylum-seekers read testimony from resistance members who had been jailed in the building.

The plan had been to see the MAXXI and then, before dinner, cross the Tiber at Ponte Milvio, an area that is becoming known as a smaller and much less crowded version of Trastevere. But the rain put a damper on those plans.

So, to really feel like local art hounds, we headed to Pigneto, a half-hour bus ride south of the central Termini bus station. The neighbourhood's treasures don't lie on its main via del Pigneto, but on its back streets. Formerly a working-class district, Pigneto is now one of the last refuges of artists who want to live and work in Rome, and it's rich in unusual art spots like empty auto mechanic shops. It was in one such space that the exhibition Reload Pigneto had set up its temporary wares. Running for two months, the show gave one curator a week to organize an exhibit in a 33,000-square-foot former factory. The property's owner had been unable to rent it and, hoping for some good art vibes, called Gian Maria Tosatti.

Mr. Tosatti, a young Italian artist and curator, used vacant buildings to house exhibitions when he worked in Harlem three years ago. When we found him in Pigneto's pop-up gallery, he was just blowing up transparent balloons for the next week's instalment. He talked passionately about the work while our five-year-old son ran up and down the building's long hallways.

The collaboration between the artists and the factory owner, Mr. Tosatti said, showed that art could produce value with "zero money," a requirement at a time when Italian artists can no longer count on once-generous public funding. The European debt crisis hurt private foundations, which have become skittish about funding smaller projects with uncertain returns. But the value of independent art was visible all around.

Aside from the Reload festival, Pigneto was alive with more contemporary art. White Cube Pigneto, a tribute rather than an offshoot of the famed London institution in Shoreditch, was showing work arguing against social exclusion in Europe, a video collective was operating out of a storefront and two men were painting a hyper-pigmented portrait of Italian screen legend Anna Magnani on a garage door that was home to Pizzeria Ciak (a pizzeria where not just the food was art).

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We followed the heaviest stream of traffic. As it turned out, the scooters were heading to the restaurant Necci dal 1924 on a street called Fanfulla da Lodi. Behind the tall wrought-iron gates, the tables in its two-tier garden were almost spilling onto the sidewalk. Inside, Necci is the prettiest London-style bistro in Rome, with white tiles, chandeliers and pots of its own apricot jam and marmalade beckoning on shelves. The restaurant is owned by Brit chef Benjamin Hirst and Umbrian Massimo Innocenti, who have had the place since 2007.

What I didn't know until weeks later was that Necci is truly " dal 1924." It started out life as an ice cream shop and bar and was at the centre of the neighbourhood. By the time legendary Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini discovered Pigneto, Necci had become more tavern than gelateria: It was in Necci that Pasolini shot the café scenes in 1961's Accattone, his first film and a good intro to the "street life" of the time.

By trying to run away from history and discover the here and now, I stumbled onto a place that had married the two. In Rome, the contemporary is only a moment in the flow of time, and perhaps because of that, all the more fascinating.

Roma - The Road to Contemporary Art will take place from May 5 to 8 at MACRO Testaccio,

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More

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