In the 1960s, when I first began to live in Rome, all the avant-garde galleries were clustered around Piazza del Popolo. It was where the younger artists had their studios, it was where they hung out, at the cafs Rosati, Notegen and various wine bars. But the geography gradually shifted over the years and now almost all that is interesting in art is being shown in the heart of old renaissance and baroque Rome, around the Rione Ponte and Parione, the haunt of Raphael, Caravaggio, El Greco, the Caracci, Bernini and so on, who lived or worked there among the book binders, artisans and their noble patrons.
Because of its immense history it is doubtful that any other city is as rich and inexhaustible in forgotten architectural spaces. Building upon building has been broken and rebuilt through wars, carnage, pillage and all-devouring weather. Just as with the eternal citys archaeology, there seems to be no end to fresh discoveries and new astounding uses for its ancient spaces.
Whether it is a Roman Domus now below street level, a Roman defence bulwark, a mediaeval kitchen, the cells of a convent, the cellars, storerooms, wine shops, the stables and carriage houses of renaissance and baroque palaces, in recent decades all sorts of spaces, once built for the use of Church princes and profane aristocrats, have been overhauled and marshalled into the service of contemporary art.
Solid brickwork built by Roman slaves, graceful airy renaissance vaults and columns, together with New York-style whitewash combine to provide an enhancing backdrop to contemporary artwork, unequalled anywhere.
What is on display may be painted with conventional oils, or with the artists own lifeblood, made of bronze or rags, sprayed with industrial paint or chemicals; it ranges from the conceptual to photographs in series and film sequences on computers. Since Italians are always hip to the fashionable moment, there is always a vivid, if not always felicitous, reference to the now. Though the quality of everything is not easy to judge without the passage of time, the fare is amusingly various. A totally undisciplined funky little showing of wily local artists may be two steps away from an ambitious multi-roomed place, as squeaky-clean as an operating theatre, filled with sculptures from Turin which look like automobile or airplane parts; you will have a clutch of young women with computers and films and dirty drawings here, latter-day realists and painterly painters there. The range is from the haphazardly assembled to museum-quality installation; from shy young co-operatives and valiant perspicacious dealers to people who unashamedly cater to the chic young collector, avid for the latest by international stars, even if it is only leftovers.
Each gallery has its own following, more fellow artists than buyers. At one opening everyone is raw and young, at another, everyone is grizzled at the muzzle. In one, you can listen to exchanges of serious insight and wit, in another chic young Romans from fancy families exchange greetings; you will have international stars in person or perceive sudden explosions of one-day events which will wither over the days like a ring of mushrooms.
One of the older galleries is A.A.M. It has been standing on the ramparts for years on the lookout for all thats genuine; its director, an architect, writes flyers famous for being as hermetic as a Jesuit dissertation, and though never sending out invitations, he fills the gallery to breaking-point at openings.
Arco DAlibert is dedicated to the pure abstraction after world war two, and to the artists who used to gather around Piazza del Popolo in the 1960s: Turcato, Novelli, Pascali and so on. With its mediaeval oak rafters and its modern mosaic floor, it is a jewel of a space.
Ferranti, Miscetti, Alessandra Bonomo, Valentina Bonomo, Lorcan ONeill and Trisorio are mostly involved with international beauties.
Smaller places in Via Vetrina, Via Monserrato and Vicolo del Governo Vecchio are stimulating on a more local, homely basis, and of course there would be many more to mention were it not for our limited space.
Watch out! Half-baked, fly-by-night or kitschy places are often trying to muscle in and catch the limelight. But even those viewers with a moderately trained eye will be able to cull the wheat from the chaff. Despite the chaotic traffic and the tourist hordes in the old alleys, nooks and splendid squares, the discovery of noble Roman architecture suddenly filled with bright new avant-garde contrasts is well worth your wanderings in the heart of Rome.
For information about what is on at museums and galleries, see the following:
Every Thursday critic Mario de Candia offers an exhaustive list in the Trovaroma section of the Italian daily La Repubblica.
Art Guide, a bi-monthly with map and listings of openings, distributed in galleries and tourist newsstands.
Arte e Roma, a quarterly, distributed in galleries.
And of course theres Wanted in Romes Whats on and where to go section of the magazine and website www.wantedinrome.com.
Piazza Navona area
Via della Pace Chiostro del Bramante, tel. 0668809035.
Vicolo delle Vacche 12 Studio Trisorio, tel. 0668136189.
Via della Vetrina 9 Vetrina Contemporanea, tel. 0668192277.
Via della Vetrina 21 Galleria VM21, tel. 0668891365.
Piazza S. Salvatore in Lauro 15 Pio Sodalizio dei Piceni, tel. 066878737.
Via M. Giordano 36, Palazzo Taverna Galleria Paolo Bonzano, tel. 0697613630.
Campo de Fiori and surroundings
Vicolo del Governo Vecchio 7 Altri Lavori in Corso, tel. 066861719.
Vicolo del Governo Vecchio 8 sogospatty, tel. 06681719.
Via del Pellegrino 98 Mondello Ottica, tel. 066861955.
Via dei Cappelari 86 Studio Giancarlino, tel. 3392347686.
Via Monserrato 14 Monserrato Arte, 900 tel. 066861761.
Via Monserrato 23 Galleria Il Ponte, tel. 0668801351.
Via Monserrato 30 Nuova Galleria Campo de Fiori, tel. 066880462.
Via del Paradiso 41 Galleria Fabio Sargentini, tel. 066869846.
Via Capo di Ferro 4 Arco dAlibert, tel. 066879482.
Via dei Banchi Vecchi 61 A.A.M., tel. 0668307537.
Vicolo dei Soldati 25 Galleria Ugo Ferranti, tel. 0668802146.
Via del Ges 62 Galleria Alessandra Bonomo, tel. 0669925858.
Portico dOttavia 13 Galleria Valentina Bonomo, tel. 066832766.
Trastevere side of the river
Via Orti dAlibert 1E Lorcan ONeill Gallery, tel. 0668892980.
Via delle Mantellate 14 Galleria Stefania Miscetti, tel. 0668805880.
Via S. Francesco di Sales 86/88 Volume!, tel. 066892431.
Via S. Francesco di Sales 16/a Extra Spazio, tel. 0668210655.