Rome

What likely began as an uncovered sewer for the villas and palaces on the hill above it 2,000 years ago is now the most charming little street in Rome. Maybe that’s why filmmakers love it so much.

Words and Photography by Francesco Lastrucci

In the heart of the Eternal City, Via Margutta never ceases to fascinate. It’s an oasis of quiet set between the famous Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, right in the tourist centre of Rome, below the parks and gardens of Villa Borghese.

Lined with ivy and ochre stucco, art galleries and artists’ studios, it is only a few blocks from end to narrow end.

In the Campo Marzio district, a place of art and trendy restaurants, Via Margutta runs parallel to Via del Babuino: starting from Piazza del Popolo, going down from the Pincio Hill and a few minutes’ walk from the famous Spanish Steps. It is a street outside time where the clock seems to have stopped. The most beautiful aspect is the total serenity, despite being just a few metres from the most chaotic Via del Babuino and Via del Corso. A refuge from the chaos of the city, a place of lanterns and climbing ivy on historic buildings. Without cars and large shops, you can hear the sound of steps on the cobblestones and the conversations of people walking or browsing.

Originally Via Margutta was a simple street made up of stables and shacks, considered the ‘back’ of the buildings of Via del Babuino. The etymology is uncertain; perhaps it comes from Marisgutta (Goccia di Mare), a euphemism for a stream that descended from the villa of the Pincio, used as a natural sewer.

It housed stables and warehouses, parked carts and carriages, and was mostly frequented by masons, marble workers and coachmen. However, in the Middle Ages, an unknown artist established a shop here, where portraits and fountains were made, attracting mostly foreign but also Italian artists, who began to build houses, gardens and shops.

Via Margutta only became a real residential street when a fixer of the Vatican State, during the period of Pope Pius IX, obtained permission to delineate it and build a sewage system. The splendid buildings along the street were initially the headquarters of the academies of painters or sculptors that had chosen Via Margutta for its charm.

“Rooms, stairways, corridors that opened between the vegetable gardens, then other staircases and ladders, a vertical landscape submerged in greenery, right under the avenue of Trinità dei Monti.”

So Federico Fellini, the iconic and greatest of the Italian directors, and among the historic inhabitants of the street, described Via Margutta.

It is precisely this ‘vertical landscape’ submerged in greenery that uniquely characterises the thoroughfare, where curtain walls have always been covered with ivy that once created an uninterrupted plant ‘gallery’.

Chosen as a location for a seemingly endless series of films and screenplays, including scenes from William Wyler’s 1953 film Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn, Via Margutta still maintains the characteristics, colours and smells that epitomised glamorous Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of the time.

Just three blocks from the Piazza del Popolo, where Fellini ate his breakfast every morning at the Canova coffeehouse, and from the twin cathedrals of Santa Maria to the shops and restaurants of the Via del Babuino, Via Margutta links the history of the old and the passions of the new with all the serendipity of human nature.

The street has always been popular with artists of all kinds. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, poets, writers and musicians such as Puccini and Wagner met with philosophers such as Sartre and De Beauvoir, and the great painters Picasso and Chirico frequented the shops and lived nearby.

In an address as small as it is magical, art, cinema and fashion meet. Walking today in Via Margutta, among historic shops such as the famous Marmoraro (marble carver) workshop, art galleries that have become real institutions, high-fashion boutiques and picturesque restaurants, means breathing an air of tranquillity.

Ivy and creepers decorate the façades of the old buildings; the clothing stores that fill the historic centre give way to art and antiques galleries, craft workshops, restoration or processing of raw materials such as wood or marble, and unique, historic restaurants.

Via Margutta is discreet and silent, almost deliberately hidden, contrasting markedly with the exuberant streets that flank it. Its ‘out of town’ appearance makes it quite special, with a charm that comes from the colours, from the constant aroma of flowers, from the architecture. It can be defined as an outdoor art museum, although many studios have now become private apartments and artists’ workshops, antique exhibitions or fashion studios. Peek into the shops, talk to the artists, look up at the wooden ceilings of the buildings, browse the gardens if you find an open gate, and enjoy the quiet in the heart of the city.

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From Colours June 2019

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5 Senses –Scent
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