Arriving in Rome on the red eye around midnight is always for me like returning late to an old family house. I recognize the smell, the form, the noise, and even a certain light despite the night. Each time, I find the Eternal City in a kind of nostalgia and tranquil joy. There is no excitement anymore in my mind, just a natural and necessary return. I am not Italian, but Rome seems a part of me.
However, despite my numerous stays in Rome during these last thirty years I have to say that this city continues to surprise me. Like tonight, a few meters from the Baths of Caracalla that impose their magnificent shade even in the middle of night. The daylight may be gone, but the gigantic shadow of the ruins remains present and alive, perhaps even more than under the brightest sun. It's my pleasure to think that the phantom of Caracalla might be flying around tonight, between those sleeping umbrella pine trees, under those shy shining stars, and through those walls and arches of Roman bricks.
With the ruins of the Palatine Mount nearby, along the Circo Massimo and the rest of the Aurélian walls, the Baths of Caracalla are the biggest example of Roman brick architecture. So big and so dense that the French writer Guy de Maupassant, in Rome, asked himself if this enormous excavation was the result of a natural process or of human engineering. And indeed, there is something of a Nevadan desert rock in those ruins, red and dark at the same time, imposing its mass in the night.
Far away from the iconic capital
But wake up! Wake up man, you're not in the desert! You're in Rome. And a few meters from here, San Saba is waiting for you. Who is San Saba? A very old church of course, we are in Rome. But a church with its monastery and its detailed brick facades covering the rear exterior. A church in the middle of a neighbourhood of bricks, far far away from the style of the iconic Italian capital.
Rome is the the city of white, immaculate, and indestructible marble. The Colosseo, Tranjan's Column, the Forum, Saint-Peter, and the fountain of Trévi dominate images and spirits. But let's think pink and ochre for a while. Let's be touched by the unbelievable solidity and resilience of the Roman brick, made only with fire, water and earth. Let's pay tribute to this material!
San Saba was built in the early 1920's by Quadrio Pirani (1878-1970). Pirani was famous in Rome as the architect of via Bernardo Celentano, well known as “picola Londra” (little London) in a borough called Flaminio on the other bank of the river Tiber.
As the style of streets of Belgravia and Notting Hill clearly inspired the work of Purani in Flaminio, the brick work surfaces of Caracalla and the Aurélian walls near San Saba provided the architectural inspiration for the brick-faced buildings of this tiny neighbour.
Between 1907 and 1923, Pirani, adept of the “Instituto Case Popolari” (Popular Houses Institute), created in San Saba the first real new blue-collar borough of Rome twenty years before Testaccio or Garbatella, two examples of the new standards of urbanisation and construction in the Italian capital before the Second World War.
On the “picollo Aventino”, one of this Roman hill's two peaks, near an 8th century church which gave its name to the area, Pirani designed unusual and colourful two-storey houses with small gates and gardens. Those few streets organised around a public square were the first example of the “garden city” movement in Italy. This new building movement was commissioned by a socialist Jewish mayor, Ernesto Nathan, in the beginning of the century and was copied a couple of decades later by, among others, the fascist dictator Bénito Mussolini in the borough of Garbatella. The idea was already to build a “picollo paese” (a little nation) with its own style and particularity.
Like in London
The plan of San Saba designed by Pirani is very simple. Like in London, a few straight streets are arranged around a rectangular public square. Around the square, most of the houses resemble quiet “chalets” divided in two and aligned two by two. Same proportion, same style, same design and same colours, same doors and of course the same brick along almost the same streets...
The brick facade is a kind of “fil-rouge” and Pirani, despite his process of repetition, used it with imagination and fantasy. Like huge ruins from the Baths of Caracalla, mosaics from the church of San Saba help him to play with the bricks, creating friezes and patterns under doors and balconies. He also plays with light, creating shadows and shade according to the course of the sun and the moon.
At first glance, this way of building could be terribly boring, of course. But as always, uniformity brings originality and eccentricity. Boredom is our worst enemy—everybody knows that—in London as in Rome. This is why, like magic, no two houses are the same. Flowers, plants, outdoor furniture, and spaces, cats, dogs and children make the difference. Door after door. Family after family.
Near the square, some rare kiosks shelter a daily market with its butcher, grocer, fruit and vegetables sellers. It is almost a family market because everybody knows each other in San Saba. There are also two bars, one pizzeria, a newsstand and tabac and a florist. But no bank!
And last but not the least, just in front of the church, there is a small and beautiful theatre with about one hundred red seats and a magnificent, classical hall and bar. Since 1965, Teatro Anfitrione has been the heart of cultural life in the area. Managed by a cooperative association, this iconic theatre attracts a regular and faithful public. Maybe this is why San Saba is known to have been the retreat of many artists like the director Vittoria de Sica and the actors Vjaceslav Ivanov and Vittorio Gassman.
San Saba has been a blue-collar area since its construction and stands in bold opposition to its brother Aventino on the higher hill nearby, which has for a long time been one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in town. For years, the people of San Saba worked in the rich villas of Aventino. They just needed to cross the Viale Aventino like others cross the Tiber to go to work as a domestic or a labourer.
However, thanks to its very old church and monastery and to its well-known parish, this neighbourhood has a special place in the hearts of many true Romans. They come from every part of the city to preserve a welcome tradition in a parish influenced by Christians from the Middle East. The blueprints of the church itself comprise a triple-apsed termination, one at the end of each nave like great Early Christian churches, to suit an architectural layout influenced by Middle-Eastern styles.
Framed by antique ruins (Caracala, Circo Massimo, Aurelian walls), near a sea of umbrella pine trees and far away from the traffic and the noise of the city centre despite the proximity of a subway station, San Saba resurfaces, year after year, from a kind of forgetfulness.
Today, a process of gentrification is clearly taking place around San Saba. Restaurants and bars climb slowly up the hill of San Saba from the city side, the side of bright lights and money. From the other side, the side of the Baths of Caracalla, the dark side, things remain the same for the moment. In a night of headlights, silhouettes of prostitution continue to appear and disappear under the pines and along the old brick walls – as they always do in this eternal city.