Walk into Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and it feels like a theme park. But it wasn't so long ago the picturesque area was considered one of Europe's most interesting, especially with its fiery, and violent, history.
“Trastevere” is short for “attraverso il Tevere” (across the Tiber). It is across the river from Centro Storico which was the nerve center of Ancient Rome and the Roman Empire. This boat-shaped Tiberina Island, the longest continually inhabited island in the world is only 900 feet long and 220 feet wide. In the middle of the Tiber between Trastevere and Centro Storico, it dates back to the 3rd century BC when a plague hit Rome and the city built the Temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Today, symbolizing the island’s history of caring for the sick, is the grandiose Ospedale Fatebenefratelli.
It wasn’t so long ago when Trastevere was one of the most charming, interesting neighbourhoods in Europe. I was lucky to wander through in 1978 just after graduating from college. In the 1970s, Italy was plagued by social unrest. The communist Red Brigades clashed with fascists and the government. After being warned by my Italian relatives not to travel to Rome (why not I’m young, strong and immortal?) I boarded a train and arrived in Rome shortly after they kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, twice a prime minister who wanted to include the communists in the government for the first time. The Red Brigades wanted nothing to do with Moro or compromise. Well, when I arrived I walked out onto the top stairs of Roma Termini took a panoramic look around thinking ‘what’s the problem, bright sunny May day, an ancient bustling city, this is great’ just as a small Fiat parked across the street blew up in a huge ball of flames as I hit the ground thinking, ‘maybe I should have listened to my relatives!?' (Never told my mother this story!) In less than an hour the Red Brigades was claiming responsibility for the explosion.
Well, things got better, no more explosions and when I made my way to Trastevere I was enchanted
by its Bohemian character prompting me to learn more about this section of Rome that travelers seldom ventured into, perhaps due to its tumultuous past. You see, in Ancient Rome, the city had 300,000 slaves. After 10 years cleaning vomitoriums (not what you think, a vomitorium is a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance) and alleys, the slaves became freemen. They all moved to Trastevere which was inhabited mainly by sailors and fishermen. It soon became home to Rome’s first community of Jews who came to Rome with Pompeii the Great after he conquered Judea and Syria. In the 1st century BC, the Jews moved across the river just south of Centro Storico. To this day, the Jewish Ghetto is the oldest Jewish community in Europe.
During Ancient Rome one of the street gangs’ favourite crimes was arson. Street fires were frequent and easy. The wood tenement housing went up like campfires. It was also a bit risky. The penalty for arson in Ancient Rome was to cover the arson in oil and light him on fire like human torches. Emperors would hold the executions in the Colosseum or Circus Maximus during gladiator battles and chariot races. Fighting fires back then, the city had 7,000 firefighters, many of them freed slaves. Their method of stopping fires was smashing the building to smother the flames. In the 1st century B.C., a wealthy, corrupt politician and general named Marcus Crassus invented the world’s first fire brigade. They’d race to a fire but before going to work he’d tell the owner, distraught with his building turning into kindling behind him, he’ll charge the equivalent of €5,000 to put it out. When the owner tried to negotiate down, Crassus raised it to €6,000. When the building finally became rubble, Crassus paid the owner €1,000 and built an apartment house with 100 apartments where he fleeced tenets for outrageous rent. He soon became the richest man in Rome. It is said, “He invented the fire brigade with 100 employees, ninety were firemen — and 10 were the best arsonists in town.”
(A side note to Crassus’ fate: He built an army of 60,000 to invade the Persians who saw him as no more than a greedy slumlord. When they killed 30,000 Romans and captured him, they told him, “So you like our gold, huh?” and filled his mouth with molten gold. That would hurt. The Persians cut off his head, put it on a spear and paraded it through Lebanon, Syria and Persia.)
Piazza Navona in Centro Storico is famous for being the site of staged naval battles during Ancient Rome. Under Trastevere’s Piazza San Cosimato are the remains of a stadium that in the 1st century A.D. held 20,000 spectators. An aqueduct brought tainted water from a lake near Bracciano outside Rome into the stadium. One time Caligula, Rome’s worldwide gift to sexual perversion, held a battle during the winter when a storm hit. About 25 spectators drowned. After that little PR disaster, they held battles only in the summer. To keep the overflowing Tiber from flooding Trastevere, they opened a channel to the stadium. Emperor Claudius held the greatest naval battle, using 19,000 convicts, on Lake Fucino in neighborhood Abruzzo. He told them they’d earn their freedom if they survived. He just never told them how long the battle lasted. After 10 hours, only 50 of 19,000 were still alive. You see back then the vast majority of Romans could not swim.
Trastevere was also the birthplace of Franco Giuseppucci, one of the founders of the Banda della Magliana (Magliana Gang), a ruthless fascist gang tied to the murder of Aldo Moro. Giuseppucci worked in his father’s Trastevere bakery and grew up clinging to the barrel of Italy’s fascist guns. He even had a bust of Mussolini in his home. He transformed the Banda della Magliana from a group of petty thieves into a major criminal organization that monopolized Rome’s crime scene in the 1970s. He was eventually killed in 1980, at age 33, when a man on a motorbike shot him, launching a gang war that covered all of Rome.
Today, naval battles, arson and kidnappings have given way to parties, souvenir shops and street performers. Trastevere is a short 20-minute walk from the Pantheon across Ponte Garibaldi and worth a visit. The back alleys are dotted with romantic eateries and cozy wine bars known only to the residents in the surrounding alleys. Stop off for a glass of wine and cheese plate at one such place. Take your time, good wine, quiet streets. warm nights . . . but keep your eyes open for anybody lighting a match (just kidding).
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.