Thanks to a stash of historical photographs and a Facebook group, Roma Sparita, an ancient street in Rome, is seen in a whole new light.

By Justin Davidson
February 27, 2012
Credit: Brogi

In the photograph, a tiny church of perfect Renaissance proportions sits on a slope by the Tiber River, watched over by a stand of conical pines. An ancient Roman highway, the Via Flaminia, furrows the muddy embankment in a straight line. This tidily geometric landscape just outside the walls of central Rome seems hardly to have changed between 1522, when Jacopo Vignola erected the church of Sant’Andrea del Vignola, and 1871, when the picture was taken. But it sure has since. When I came across the bucolic scene on a Facebook page called Roma Sparita (Vanished Rome), it took me a moment to recognize it as the neighborhood where I grew up. I spent a significant portion of my childhood inching down that stretch of road on a sluggish, pale-green public bus (a route now plied by much fleeter trams laminated in multicolored advertisements), and Sant’Andrea was, and is, a solitary relic, webbed in telephone wires, encircled by traffic, and so easy to overlook that not even cab drivers know it’s there. The pine trees still keep it company, though.

Repeat visitors to Rome often have the sense that the city is called Eternal because it hardly ever changes. You can return to a beloved piazza after 25 years and fool yourself into seeing the same teenagers perched on the same motor scooters in front of the same coffee bar. Roma Sparita corrects the illusion of timelessness with a rapidly growing trove of photos that chronicles the city’s constant evolution with ruthless precision.

In 2009, a 33-year-old civil servant named Daniele Chiù posted some of his old snapshots of Rome on Facebook. His pastime soon attracted a little corps of enthusiasts who didn’t know each other but who shared a passion for their city. Today, the collection has reached 14,000 photographs and is growing so quickly that managing it could easily be a full-time job. In fact, five busy professionals—a surgeon, two archaeologists, and a computer technician—spend evenings and weekends organizing the contributions of more than 120,000 fans, who comb through online archives, scan books that have been out of print for decades, raid family albums, and provide a steady supply of memories and expertise, turning the page into a visual wiki-history of the city’s transformations.

Like all cities, Rome is a carousel of change whirling around a few fixed, familiar points. Photography has been around long enough to document several cycles of sacking and renovation, some of which can still make tempers boil. One image that prompted especially heated commentary shows Mussolini taking a pick to the cornice of an apartment building in the historic heart, clearing the way for a straight, proud street that in this city of contorted lanes is a sure sign of a potentate’s grandiose dreams and demolitions.

I grew up along such a street. The Via Flaminia, one of the ancient highways linking Rome to its empire, shoots north from the city center on its way over the Apennines to the Adriatic coast. It first crosses the snaking Tiber at Ponte Milvio, the bridge where, in A.D. 313, the Emperor Constantine supposedly had the vision that led to his conversion to Christianity. Until the middle of the last century, much of this area at the foot of the elevated Parioli neighborhood was a muddy floodplain, inhabited mostly by rural migrants who arrived in search of jobs. A photograph from the 1950’s shows the sort of panorama that shamed a modernizing nation: a sprawling shantytown (baraccopoli, in Italian) wedged among the bleachers of the old stadium. “Shacks were scattered around a great meadow full of tanks, armored cars, and military trucks,” one commenter recalls on the Facebook page. “We used to play there all day.”

The 1960 Olympics forced the area out of its dereliction. The baraccopoli was razed, and in its place arose a district shaped by idealism and sport. The brilliant architect and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi built the Palazzetto dello Sport, a basketball arena beneath a rippling concrete dome. The noted Modernist Luigi Moretti helped design an Olympic Village of 1,500 low-rise garden apartments supported on concrete columns that housed athletes during the games and were later turned over to low-income families. Suddenly, a once embarrassing neighborhood encapsulated Italy’s gleaming postwar ambitions.

For some reason, Roma Sparita skips over the period I remember, when the stretches of open space between outposts of genteel development acquired a slightly seedy fairground quality. Most of the time, the neighborhood remained sedate, but once a year, a traveling circus would colonize the vast lot outside my bedroom window and the occasional unnerving roar of the savanna would mingle with tinny band music. Michele, a concierge who cultivated the roses in front of our building with single-minded ferocity, would trot over to the elephant cages and collect dung to use as fertilizer. When the circus moved out, a gypsy encampment moved in, and I hurried nervously past the circled trailers festooned with brilliant laundry. After the gypsies came the Brazilian transvestites, who guided their clients’ cars into the plentiful darkness and left the lot sowed with unwholesome debris.

These days, the lot is a private park above an underground garage. The circus, the gypsies, and the drag queens are gone. The arts have taken the place of sport as the district’s engine of gentility and adventurous architecture. The orchestra Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia now makes its home in the Auditorium Parco della Musica, next to the Olympic Village. Three halls of different sizes, all designed by Renzo Piano, cluster around an open-air theater, the curved carapaces of their roofs making the complex look like a family of mutant bugs. A few hundred yards away, the new contemporary art museum, MAXXI, quivers in a tangle of ramps and staircases designed by Zaha Hadid. The Flaminio district has greeted all this culture the way it did the colorful transients of the 1970’s: by ignoring it. The auditorium has transformed Rome’s musical life, but it hasn’t yielded a crop of new restaurants and hotels, and the neighborhood retains its muted atmosphere. A new Tiber footbridge designed by Powell-Williams Architects has quietly begun construction, but it seems unlikely to raise the bustle quotient much, since it links MAXXI to an unpeopled expanse of roadways and a stadium complex—but no residences, businesses, or pedestrians.

In any case, the neighborhood already has a footbridge, made of stone and so rich in romance that you can practically trace the last century and a half of Italian history through its appearances in Roma Sparita. Here it is in 1849, the ancient Roman arches still standing but its span crippled by shells during an abortive revolution against papal rule. A few years later, it reappears, restored and paved in cobblestones, plied by trams and donkeys bearing produce and firewood. In the comment thread, one contributor recalls a bit of family lore: “In the 1920’s, my grandmother would get up at 5 a.m. to go to Ponte Milvio and get a ride on one of the peasant carts headed for market. That’s how she got to work.”

The commentariat is a wistful bunch. The city of memory (or fantasy) is a bucolic, traffic-free town, nothing like today’s clogged megalopolis. But a trail of startlingly specific memories, arguments, and research that accompanies each photo cuts through that fond haze. Each image stimulates a burst of claims and recollections: the date a coffee bar went out of business or Fiat started manufacturing a particular car, the memory of a wedding reception from 1964, the shocking reminder that after World War II, children scavenged cigarette butts in the street in order to rinse and reroll the slightly charred tobacco, then sell the nicotine-tinged water to farmers for use as pesticide.

Roma Sparita has altered the way I look at Rome. As a taxi sped me down the Via del Muro Torto, which runs beneath an ancient retaining wall, I recalled a shot from the 1940’s in which passengers get off a bus there, seemingly with nowhere to go. The photo prompted fans to reminisce about a public elevator that, between the 1920’s and the 50’s, wafted people to the Pincio hill above. The machinery must have died of neglect, but as I whizzed by, I noticed a derelict wooden doorway embedded in massive buttresses, the entrance to a phantom elevator.

The fact that Roma Sparita uses Facebook as a platform has its drawbacks: the collection can’t easily be searched, the picture quality is limited (which keeps it from running afoul of copyright laws), some images lack information, and albums are organized by numbered municipal zones, which even lifelong Romans don’t know. Professional online archives display their wares more rigorously; the Museum of the City of New York, for instance, is gradually feeding high-resolution images from its stupendous archives into a searchable database with carefully edited captions. But Roma Sparita has done what a museum can’t: gather a vigorous community of kibitzers. Online commentary can get vitriolic, obscene, or stupid, and the page administrators police the threads as best they can. But at least here most contributors use their real names, which helps keep discourse civil and even useful, and they are united by their love of Rome.

“This page offers a cross-section of society,” says Sabrina di Sante, an archaeologist who runs the page along with four other volunteers. “Everyone chimes in, from university professors and intellectuals to kids. The well-informed make their knowledge available to others, and the discussion ranges from the highest to the lowest levels. Or it stabilizes somewhere in the middle, so that everyone can understand.”

Only a social network could have fostered this new tool for documenting a city’s evolution, but the page’s creators may need to think beyond Facebook now. Occasionally, a fan remarking on a vintage photograph will provide a link to Google Street View. Digital photographs can be geo-tagged—electronically linked to precise geographical coordinates—and while tagging tens of thousands of photographs would be a massive task, the effort would allow the archive to develop naturally into a dense historical map. New technologies could make marvelous use of this material. Microsoft’s Photosynth software weaves geo-tagged photographs into a three-dimensional, panoramic portrait of a place. Soon, we should be able to zoom in to any spot on the planet and scroll through its high-res history. We can watch our hometowns change and revert, build and unbuild. At that point, everyone can possess the historian’s superpower: a vision that allows us to walk around a city and see not just its present face but all its previous incarnations.

In recent years, Ponte Milvio has acquired a new encrustation of mythology as the spot where couples pledge their faithfulness by padlocking a chain to a lamppost. The author Federico Moccia popularized this ersatz folk tradition in his novel Ho Voglia di Te (I Want You) in 2006, and it has become so popular that vendors peddle locks and Sharpies for writing messages on the stainless steel, and authorities have installed special posts for lovers to festoon. The Roma Sparita crowd gnashes its collective teeth over the constant clutter of hardware, but their project proves a truth it would like to resist: that all cities, even Rome, evolve in a relentless, necessary churn of nostalgia and invention. Roma Sparita may have begun as an exercise in looking back, but it has found itself, Janus-like, staring into the future of urban history—a fantastical merger of photography, cartography, and collective memory.

Auditorium Parco della Musica

In a city full of classical architecture, Renzo Piano's über-modern classical music hall, shaped a bit like three computer mouses, has become wildly popular with Romans.

National Museum of XXI Century Arts (MAXXI)

If the Palazzo Esposizioni is lots of things to a wide audience, the Museum for the Art of the Twenty-First Century, which opened in the summer of 2010, proposes a more resolutely contemporary agenda: solo shows from first-rate artists such as South African William Kentridge and arte povera movement founder Michelangelo Pistoletto share gallery space in the soaring, vibrantly elastic Zaha Hadid-designed building. The lovely alfresco cafe and an excellent bookshop are housed in the facing building – one Hadid preserved from the original plan of the square.